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  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Posts Tagged ‘Climate change’

Bill McKibben: Green Mountain Man

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 14, 2018

Bill McKibben (Photo: Mark Teiwes / Lesley University)

by Richard Conniff/Yankee Magazine

It’s a mid-September afternoon, and Bill McKibben—author, climate change activist, nemesis of the fossil fuel industry, cross-country skiing addict, devotee of small-town New England life, and drinker of local beers, in more or less that order—is at the wheel of his electric-blue plug-in hybrid, heading north out of Providence.

He and his wife, writer Sue Halpern, have been away from their home in the Green Mountains outside Middlebury overnight, on a trip to promote his first novel, Radio Free Vermont. It’s a funny book, and McKibben is not known for funny books. Well, it’s funny unless you happen to be a Walmart manager: McKibben starts his fable with small-town renegades flooding a new Walmart store knee-deep with the contents of the local sewer system. (Oh, come on, that’s funny.) And it’s funny unless you think there is something deeply alarming about Vermont seceding from the bigness and manifold badness of the United States at large. McKibben says the independent Republic of Vermont is just a plot device, not a movement. But his passion for his home state is genuine. As he hits the on-ramp out of Providence, he is almost quavering in anticipation of getting back.

McKibben is, of course, better known for books that are genuinely alarming. Climate change is his subject, both as an author and an activist. Fellow climate journalist Andrew Revkin describes him as “the ultimate endurance athlete of climate campaigning.” In a series of books and articles beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, McKibben has meticulously laid out the evidence that the rapid accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, from our massive burning of fossil fuels, is destroying the world as we once knew it. “The basic issue of the planet right now,” he told Revkin in a recent interview, “is that it’s disintegrating.” He refers to “my last grim book,” as if grim books were a genre, and has described his life after The End of Nature as 25 years of “sadness” and of “looking for ways out, for places that work.”

For McKibben, Vermont is one such place. Even in his grim books, he writes yearningly, sentimentally, about the maple cream cookies that a neighbor brings to the annual town meeting, about stopping to visit “the farm of the six Dutch brothers,” about “the sun shining through the winter-bare ridge at dusk,” and about the consoling mantra of local names—Camel’s Hump, Bread Loaf Mountain, Otter Creek—with which he lulls himself to sleep while on the road. The mountainous country around Lake Champlain, he writes, is “the landscape that fits with jigsaw precision into the hole in my heart.”

Vermont is also, however, what transformed him from author to activist and led him reluctantly to spend much of his life away from home. The turning point, he says as he heads north on 95 across Massachusetts, was a five-day protest march for climate action, from his hometown of Ripton to Burlington, in 2006. “We slept in fields,” he recalls, and had potluck suppers at Methodist churches along the way, “potluck suppers being their sacrament.”

He meant the protest to be a one-time thing, “but when I got to Burlington, 1,000 people were marching with us, and in Vermont, 1,000 people is a lot of people,” he says. “But what was amazing was to read the story in the paper the next day.” It was 17 years after The End of Nature, and nine years after passage of the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement on climate change. An overwhelming abundance of scientific evidence had demonstrated the reality of climate change and the human role in causing it. And yet a newspaper story was describing 1,000 people walking across Vermont as the largest U.S. demonstration ever against climate change. It dawned on McKibben that writing books and making meticulous arguments wasn’t enough. Read the rest of this entry »

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As Climate Change Bears Down, Do We Relocate Threatened Species?

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 26, 2017

(Photo: Frans Lanting)

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

On a knob of rock in New Zealand’s Cook Strait known as North Brother Island, a population of the lizard-like creature called the tuatara is quickly becoming all male. When scientists first noticed the imbalance in the late 1990s, the sex-ratio was already 62.4 percent male, and it has rapidly worsened since then, to more than 70 percent. Researchers say climate change is the cause: ground temperature determines the sex of tuatara embryos, with cooler temperatures favoring females and warmer ones favoring males.  When climate pushes the sex ratio to 85 percent male, the North Brother Island tuataras will slip inescapably into what biologists call the extinction vortex.

So what should conservationists do? For the tuatara and many other species threatened by climate change, relocating them to places they have never lived before–a practice known as assisted colonization—is beginning to seem like the only option. “We’d prefer to do something a little more natural,” says Jessica Hellman, a lepidopterist at Notre Dame, who was among the first researchers to put the assisted colonization idea up for discussion. That is, it would be better for species to shift their ranges on their own, using natural corridors to find new homes as their old ones become less habitable. But for many island and mountain species, long distance moves were never an option in the first place, says Hellman. In other cases, old corridors no longer exist, because human development has fragmented them.

The idea of assisted colonization as a conservation tactic has elicited fierce criticism, however, because of its potential Read the rest of this entry »

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Got Drinking Water? Watch Climate Change Turn It Toxic.

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 7, 2017

The algae bloom that ate Lake St. Clair. (Photo: NASA/NOAA)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

It is a painful lesson of our time that the things we depend on to make our lives more comfortable can also kill us. Our addiction to fossils fuels is the obvious example, as we come to terms with the slow motion catastrophe of climate change. But we are addicted to nitrogen, too, in the fertilizers that feed us, and it now appears that the combination of climate change and nitrogen pollution is multiplying the possibilities for wrecking the world around us.

A new study in Science projects that climate change will increase the amount of nitrogen ending up in U.S. rivers and other waterways by 19 percent on average over the remainder of the century — and much more in Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Apocalypse Then … Then & Then. One More for the Road?

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 10, 2017

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Artist’s conception of a major steroid impact

by Richard Conniff/Wall Street Journal

For everyone who loves disaster movies, and the sound of Wile E. Coyote going splat, here’s a book about Planet Earth’s multiple suicide attempts—sorry, mass-extinction events. The Earth “has nearly died five times over the past 500 million years,” notes science writer Peter Brannen in “The Ends of the World.” One of these events, the End-Permian Extinction 252 million years ago, killed more than 95% of all living things, earning it a reputation as “the Great Dying.” The other four, muddling along at a somewhat more modest rate, were nonetheless apocalyptic enough to make biblical floods and famines seem like Monday at the office.

Mr. Brannen sets out to learn “just how bad” it could get, with a view to understanding our own future as climate change advances across the planet. Brace yourself. It’s not just about “a rock larger than Mount Everest” slamming into the planet at a speed “twenty times faster than a bullet.”

That is of course the leading theory about what happened to Tyrannosaurus rex and friends in the best-known mass extinction, at the end of the Cretaceous Period 66 million years ago. Debate about this theory in the 1980s began in ridicule and progressed to widespread acceptance, with the fatal asteroid ultimately linked to an impact crater 110 miles wide on the coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. An alternative—or possibly complementary—theory puts the blame on massive volcanic eruptions occurring almost simultaneously on the opposite side of the planet, in the Deccan Traps of India.

As a result of the debate over what killed the dinosaurs, the study of mass extinctions, “long pushed aside as a disreputable fringe of paleontology,” became cutting edge, Mr. Brannen writes, and it has opened up a whole new world of potential Armageddons. Thus he gleefully introduces readers to Read the rest of this entry »

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Climate Change Complicates the Whole Dam Debate

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 14, 2017

Oroville Dam in California. (Photo: California National Guard)

by Richard Conniff/ScientificAmerican.com

With California now on track to have the rainiest year in its history—on the heels of its worst drought in 500 years—the state has become a daily reminder that extreme weather events are on the rise. The recent near-collapse of the spillway at California’s massive Oroville Dam has put an exclamation point on the potentially catastrophic risks.

More than 4,000 dams in the U.S. are now rated unsafe because of structural or other deficiencies. Bringing the entire system of 90,000 dams up to current standards would cost about $79 billion, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. Hence, it has become increasingly common to demolish problematic dams, mainly for economic and public safety reasons, and less often to open up old habitats to native fish. About 700 dams have come down across the U.S. over the past decade, with overwhelmingly beneficial results for river species and ecosystems.

Now, though, a new study in Biological Conservation takes the science of dam removal in an unexpected direction. While acknowledging that reopening rivers usually leads to “increased species richness, abundance and biomass,” a team of South African and Australian authors argues

Read the rest of this entry »

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The Deadly Myth of Clean Coal

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 27, 2017

coal_pile_npsWith Donald Trump promising to promote “clean coal,” this piece from 2008 is timely again. Profitable lies, like cats, seem to have multiple lives. Not coincidentally, much of China and Europe are both now struggling with heavy pollution due in large part to coal burning.

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

You have to hand it to the folks at R&R Partners. They’re the clever advertising agency that made its name luring legions of suckers to Las Vegas with an ad campaign built on the slogan “What happens here, stays here.” But R&R has now topped itself with its current ad campaign pairing two of the least compatible words in the English language: “Clean Coal.”

mountaintop-removal“Clean” is not a word that normally leaps to mind for a commodity some spoilsports associate with unsafe mines, mountaintop removal, acid rain, black lung, lung cancer, asthma, mercury contamination, and, of course, global warming. And yet the phrase “clean coal” now routinely turns up in political discourse, almost as if it were a reality.

The ads created by R&R tout coal as “an American resource.” In one Vegas-inflected version, Kool and the Gang sing “Ya-HOO!” as an electric wire gets plugged into a lump of coal and the narrator intones: “It’s the fuel that powers our way of life.” (“Celebrate good times, come on!”) A second ad predicts a future in which coal will generate power “with even lower emissions, including the capture and storage of CO2. It’s a big challenge, but we’ve made a commitment, a commitment to clean.”

Well, they’ve made a commitment to advertising, anyway.  Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Climate Change Killed This Little Guy. Can Relocation Save Other Species?

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 22, 2016

A cousin of the now-extinct Bramble Cay melomys. (Photo: Luke Leung/University of Queensland)

A cousin of the now-extinct Bramble Cay melomys. (Photo: Luke Leung/University of Queensland)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

Australian scientists were “devastated” in 2014 when they visited the tiny island home of the Bramble Cay melomys, the Great Barrier Reef’s only endemic mammal, and found no one home. They described it as probably “the first recorded mammalian extinction due to anthropogenic climate change.”

What really hurt was that they were visiting the island on a rescue mission, to find enough individuals for a captive breeding project. The ambition was to rebuild the population and reestablish it in some more hospitable habitat. They were too late: Repeated storm surges had wiped out the plant that was the major food source for the melomys, and the last few members of the species, the product of a million years of evolution, were probably swept out to sea and drowned.

That painful example has many conservationists thinking hard about what they call “assisted colonization.” That is, they are wondering whether and how to move species to places they have never lived before—because that may be their only chance

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Secret to Helping Conservatives Care About Climate Change

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 30, 2016

(Photo: George Rose/Getty Images)

(Photo: George Rose/Getty Images)

My latest for Takepart.com:

Environmentalists are, by and large, idiots when it comes to talking with the people who disagree with us. We go on (and on) about fairness, about injustice, about caring. We are outraged. We are gloomy. Everything is going extinct, and it’s because of that company you work for, that pickup truck you drive, or that hamburger you’re eating. And, sure, everything does seem to be going extinct, and there is plenty of blame to go around. But people just tune us out.

Is there a better way? A way that might persuade ranchers to think differently about wolves, for instance? Or that might persuade conservatives to acknowledge the reality of climate change? Is there a way that might intrigue our political counterparts instead of just antagonizing them?

The good news, according to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, is that conservatives might not at heart have any real issue with protecting the environment. The bad news? What they are rejecting is us, our tone and tenor, and our self-righteous way of always framing environmental questions “in ideological and moral terms that hold greater appeal for liberals and egalitarians.” That may help affirm our in-group status as environmentalists. But it almost obliges our counterparts

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

Hope for Wildlife in the New Year

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 31, 2015

This is from Dr. Cristián Samper of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). He takes a closer focus on government action than I normally do, because I am a cynic about such things.  But I’m hoping he’s right, and it’s worth a read for that reason:

Yes, wildlife across the globe faces threats from all angles, including climate change; over-hunting and over-fishing; illegal wildlife trade; and habitat destruction and degradation. But during this past year, I found a spirit of hope for wildlife.

2015-12-31-1451581033-9696592-LowlandTapirMileniuszSpanowicz_WCS.jpg
In 2015, countries across the globe took important steps on behalf of wildlife that provided hope for their future protection. (Photo: Mileniusz Spanowicz ©WCS)

As I reflect on 2015, here are a few of the events that will have a positive impact on wildlife and wild places: Some were taken by the global community and others on a national or local level. I’ve included some of the actions where WCS is leading the way. Thankfully, this list of wildlife wins in 2015 could be even longer. So, I welcome hearing about more actions you think were great for wildlife this past year. I will be sure to Tweet those additions to show them support. [Note: You can follow Samper on Twitter @CristianSamper.]

  1. Paris Climate Summit: The agreements in Paris at the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was a major step forward in 2015 for wildlife and for all life on our planet. The climate accord, agreed to by 195 countries, shows a commitment by the global community to reduce the greenhouse gases warming our planet. One aspect of the accord not given a lot of attention was recognition of the urgent need to take significant actions to reduce emissions of CO2 caused by deforestation, representing around 15% of global emissions (more than all the cars, trucks, and airplanes in the world combined). This push to save intact forests is good for all life and protects wildlife habitat and Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Is Climate the Funhouse Mirror for Animal Size & Shape?

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 8, 2015

The conch snail Gibberulus gibbosus.

The conch snail Gibberulus gibbosus.

My latest for Takepart:

There’s plenty of evidence that species are already relocating in response to climate change. Tarpon now show up in summer as far north as Maryland. Humboldt squid have recently moved up from South and Central America into California. But is climate change also affecting the size and shape of animals’ bodies, or the way they function?

I first started thinking about the idea when I ran across a 2013 study of ocean acidification. It’s a subject I had scrupulously avoided until then because the words “ocean acidification” are, let’s face it, sleep-inducing. But stay with me a moment: The oceans have soaked up about a third of all the carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere by human activity over the past three centuries, with the result that marine creatures now live in water that is 30 percent more acidic than in pre-industrial times.

Think of it this way: If you jump into a swimming pool where the pH has crept up a little above the accepted range (say, from 7.6 to 7.7), you may notice that your eyes sting and your skin starts to itch. You can of course just jump out again and run to the shower. But sea creatures can’t.

The study by Australian and European researchers looked at how increasing acidity might affect an Indo-Pacific conch snail living on coral reefs. (It’s got a pretty white shell with some brown stripes, but it goes by the unlovely name Gibberulus gibbosus.) The good news: Spending a week Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »