Geology for Global Development

Geoethics

Private solutions, public science: how to bridge the gap?

Private solutions, public science: how to bridge the gap?

The urgency around many sustainability issues leads some billionaire investors to throw caution in the wind, frustrated with the pace of academic research. Robert Emberson sympathises with private projects like the Ocean Cleanup, even when things go wrong. ‘How’, he asks, ‘might we build a constructive bridge between ambitious entrepreneurs and scientific sceptics? ‘

Reading and writing about sustainable development in 2019 can be tough going, with a seemingly unending series of headlines suggesting that we as a society are lagging behind in the race to achieve our goals and that the deleterious effects of climate change are looming closer and closer, if not already upon us.

So when good news of any kind comes along, it can often be something to cling to – and perhaps even more devastating if that news is not what it seems. This up and down emotional trajectory describes my response to the clean-up operation launched last year to remove the plastic waste from the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, which ran into difficulties early this year.

The story is not yet over, though, and there are lessons to be learned for scientists working on issues related to sustainability more generally – so perhaps a positive outcome is still to come.

For those unaware, plastic pollution, both small and large, often ends up in the ocean, where gyres – or ocean currents – preferentially carry the waste products to certain areas, where it accumulates. These patches are hard to delineate, since unlike the images of islands of plastic bottles and grocery bags sometimes portrayed in the media, the plastic concentration is relatively low (4 particles per cubic metre), but the patch – which may be as large as 15,000,000 square kilometres – likely represents the largest waste accumulation in the ocean.

The open ocean, while home to diverse ecosystems and vitally important to many food networks, is a challenging thing to govern. Since it is not owned by any given country, the responsibility to clean up waste accumulating within the seas is nigh on impossible to assign. It’s a classic problem of ‘the commons’ – shared resources, like the ocean or the atmosphere, that many users need but none own, can be overexploited and depleted. Resolving those issues can be challenging at best.

For some scientists, problems with the system had been evident from the start

So, in 2012, enter the Ocean Cleanup Project. At a TED talk, the 18-year-old inventor Boyan Slat laid out a plan to use floating booms to gradually gather up the waste in an efficient manner. Investors were intrigued, and the project took off quickly; billionaires funding it allowed for it to be deployed in mid-2018, rapid progress by any standard. The clean-up attempt had begun in earnest.

Quickly, though, problems arose; the system of floating booms couldn’t withstand the storms in the open ocean, and by January 2019 the first clean-up system had been towed to Hawaii for repairs after teething problems.

For some scientists, problems with the system had been evident from the start. Kim Martini and Miriam Goldstein, research oceanographers unaffiliated with the project, analysed the project and found major issues. While there was communication between the scientists and the engineers involved with the project, and some of the issues raised were addressed, the two oceanographers still maintained that while the aim was laudable, the design was not as accomplished. Despite this, the project went ahead, and the concerns of the scientists proved to be well founded.

Clearly, this is a well-intentioned project. But perhaps just as clear is that a communications gulf existed between the scientists and the project developers. And therein lies the key question: how can scientists involved in sustainability issues best communicate their thoughts to private sector projects aiming to solve those issues? It certainly seems unlikely that the Ocean Cleanup will be the last case where such communication matters.

Indeed, it’s not surprising that in some cases private investors and entrepreneurs have stepped in with big ideas to solve problems of the commons. It’s clear that in many cases billionaires have lofty ambitions beyond the business that made them rich – both Jeff Bezos at Amazon at Tesla’s Elon Musk have moved into space exploration, and for individuals with such a mindset the idea of ‘saving the world’ might well appeal. They may also consider themselves less limited by regulation and national borders than scientists and government.

In fact, there’s more than just regulation and borders that hold back some ideas. The precautionary principle, both in unwritten and legal contexts, prevents some action where it is unclear if that action could result in harm to the public. This is often applied to geoengineering ideas, since the long-term implications may not be well known. A private project to dump iron sulphate into the ocean to encourage plankton growth and thus a draw-down of Carbon Dioxide in 2012 was cited as falling foul of these principles, having not established the long-term risk of seeding the ocean in this way.

The slower pace of academic research, …, makes it ever more appealing for private individuals to skip those steps and spend a fortune to fix something now, rather than wait until it’s too late

At the same time, however, there is an increasing sense of urgency around many sustainability questions. The slower pace of academic research, the painstaking process of ensuring reproducibility in findings, and the need to establish long term effects of potential solutions to climate or sustainability issues makes it ever more appealing for private individuals to skip those steps and spend a fortune to fix something now, rather than wait until it’s too late.

I can sympathise with that view. It’s well-meaning, and solving a problem is better than sitting on the sidelines, or worse profiting from it. Moreover, hindsight is 20:20, so if a solution only becomes problematic after it is deployed, then those behind it can always argue that they did what they could in advance. That must be balanced though with an abundance of caution, and perhaps this is where scientists can help.

I would argue that we should be realistic – solutions will come from all sectors of society, and private individuals and entrepreneurs may well be the ones leading the charge. While it shouldn’t be incumbent upon research scientists alone to ensure their voices are heard by private projects, we shouldn’t shy away; building bridges, especially in the form of communication channels, would be of great benefit. Goldstein and Martini did a great service to science by reaching out and making their voices heard, even if they might have been perceived as naysayers.

We might not be able to change the minds of those leading private initiatives, but we can at least provide them with the most information possible to make their decisions.

Robert Emberson is a Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and a science writer when possible. He can be contacted either on Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website robertemberson.com

Heather Britton: Can Animals be Used to Predict Earthquakes?

One of the most common questions faced by the disaster risk reduction community relates to earthquake prediction (see this Geological Society briefing on prediction vs. forecasting). The disaster risk reduction community, however, would perhaps argue that improved buildings, reduction in poverty, and improved governance are a greater priority than predicting earthquakes. Even so, there are still many members of the international community focused on trying to identify ways to predict earthquakes, including through the study of animal behaviours.

Our understanding of where earthquakes are most likely to occur is improving, but our ability to predict when an earthquake will strike is lacking, often limited to the decadal scale at best. We also lack information on what the magnitude or size of an earthquake would be at that given point in time. If such a feat were possible, and an orderly evacuation could take place, lives could be saved. Many seismologists are of the opinion that the vast majority of earthquakes do not display early warning signals prior to the first p-waves reaching the surface, therefore earthquakes are likely to always remain stubbornly unpredictable. This does not mean that we will be unable to improve earthquake forecast, through probabilistic hazard assessment. It also does not mean that the disasters arising from earthquake are inevitable. We can still take significant steps to reduce exposure and vulnerability and reduce the impacts of earthquakes.

Other scientists disagree,  on the point of earthquake prediction, pointing to the anecdotal evidence which stretches back through historical archives around the world of animals predicting earthquakes far before modern technology would have us believe any indication of an earthquake existed. Is there any substance to these tales, and if so can it be used to support earthquake prediction?

Although devoid of substantial scientific evidence, the claim that early warning signs don’t exist fails to acknowledge the stories of animals abandoning their homes up to a month before an earthquake strikes. For centuries there have been reports of unusual animal activity prior to earthquakes: In 373 BC Greece it is documented that rats, weasels, snakes and centipedes abandoned their homes a month before a destructive earthquake struck, and in Italy toads disappeared from a pond where scientists were analysing their breeding patterns just days before a magnitude 5.9 earthquake killed over 300 people in 2009. Perhaps these animal behaviours can be used to predict the occurrence of earthquakes, but without knowing the nature of the signals which trigger their response it has limited applications in disaster risk reduction.

Figure 1- Frogs on logs. It has been suggested that aquatic organisms such as these may be able to predict earthquakes from changes in groundwater chemistry. (Source: https://www.pexels.com)

The problem with focusing so much on anecdotal evidence is that the stories are often augmented by the human imagination, an effect often seen in the game ‘Chinese Whispers’.  The result is that the unusual behaviour apparently displayed by the animals before earthquakes occur can become exaggerated and, in many cases, the reports only appear after the earthquake has struck. It is very well announcing a pet’s unusual behaviour after the disaster, but had the earthquake not occurred would the behaviour still have stood out as being so strikingly abnormal?

Animal behaviour is extremely complex and using this as a metric for earthquake prediction is not considered to be feasible because of the inconsistency of animal responses. This has not prevented at least one Chinese city from installing 24-hour surveillance on a snake farm with the intention of detecting unusual behaviour for the purposes of earthquake prediction. In 1975 officials successfully evacuated a city of one million people just before a 7.3 magnitude earthquake in Haicheng, China, purportedly based on abnormal animal behaviour. However, this has been rejected as substantial evidence for the power of animal foresight as this earthquake was one which was preceded by a number of low magnitude foreshocks which are thought to have given the governing body of Haicheng the confidence to evacuate the city, under the impression that a larger earthquake was on its way.

Figure 2 – Aftermath of an earthquake in 1971, San Fernando, California. Source:  USGS
Denver Library Photographic Collection.

As is almost always the case, the evidence from a number of different studies is contradictory and inconclusive, implying that the predictive signals, if present, may vary between earthquakes. Evidence for the ability of animals to predict earthquakes was found in a study in Peru – no animal movement was recorded by camera traps on the rainforest floor (an extremely unusual observation) five out of the seven days leading up to the magnitude seven Contamana earthquake that affected the area in 2011. Other studies, however, such as those performed in the 1970s by USGS, have found no correlation between earthquakes and the agitation of animals.

The evidence is patchy, but if there truly is a relationship between animal behaviour and earthquakes the identity of the signal that the animals are responding to remains a mystery. A paper released in 2011 describes a mechanism by which stressed rocks could release charged particles. These particles could then react with groundwater, producing chemical signatures which may be detected by aquatic and burrowing life. Other suggestions of potential signals include ground tilting, although this would have to be present only at miniscule levels not to be detected by current technology, or variations in the Earth’s magnetic field.

Currently research into the use of animals in earthquake detection is being led by Japan and China, two countries regularly affected by earthquakes and where a plethora of anecdotes relating to the powers of earthquake prediction by animals have originated. While earthquake prediction could help to reduce the impact of earthquakes on society, there are far more effective and immediate things that we can do. Ensuring properly constructed buildings and enforcing building codes, tackling the underlying social vulnerability (e.g., poverty, inequality) and improving governance structures and earthquake education are some examples.

Read more about disaster risk reduction in the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

New Paper: Geoscience Engagement in Global Development Frameworks

We have recently contributed to a new open access article included in a special volume coordinated by the International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG)This article, synthesises the role of geoscientists in the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and discusses ways in which we can increase our engagement in the promotion, implementation and monitoring of these key global frameworks.

Abstract: During 2015, the international community agreed three socio-environmental global development frameworks, the: (i) Sustainable Development Goals; (ii) Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and (iii) Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Each corresponds to important interactions between environmental processes and society. Here we synthesise the role of geoscientists in the delivery of each framework, and explore the meaning of and justification for increased geoscience engagement (active participation). We first demonstrate that geoscience is fundamental to successfully achieving the objectives of each framework. We characterise four types of geoscience engagement (framework design, promotion, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation), with examples within the scope of the geoscience community. In the context of this characterisation, we discuss: (i) our ethical responsibility to engage with these frameworks, noting the emphasis on societal cooperation within the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics; and (ii) the need for increased and higher quality engagement, including an improved understanding of the science-policy-practice interface. Facilitating increased engagement is necessary if we are to maximise geoscience’s positive impact on global development.

PDF (open access) here: http://www.annalsofgeophysics.eu/index.php/annals/article/view/7460/ 

GfGD endorses the ‘Cape Town Statement on Geoethics’

At the start of 2017, the GfGD Board of Trustees formally endorsed the ‘Cape Town Statement on Geoethics‘, joining organisations such as Geology in the Public Interest, the American Geophysical Union (AGU), and the Geological Society of America (GSA).

The ‘Cape Town Statement on Geoethics‘ was prepared during the 35th International Geological Congress in Cape Town, South Africa (27 August – 4 September 2016), and approved by the International Association for Promoting Geoethics Executive Council on 26th October 2016.  Since then 11 major geoscience organisations have endorsed the Cape Town Statement, and we hope many more will follow. Here we outline our perspective on what geoethics means, introduce the Cape Town Statement, and discuss why GfGD decided to endorse the statement.

What is Geoethics?

The ‘Cape Town Statement’ defines geoethics as:

“Research and reflection on the values which underpin appropriate behaviours and practices, wherever human activities interact with the Earth system. Geoethics deals with the ethical, social and cultural implications of geoscience knowledge, education, research, practice and communication, and with the social role and responsibility of geoscientists in conducting their activities.”

Definition of Geoethics, Cape Town Statement on Geoethics

Ethics is the field of knowledge that deals with the principles that govern how people behave and conduct activities. Ethics is well established as being of relevance to other scientific disciplines (e.g., medical ethics, bioethics). Given the multiple interfaces of geoscience with society, it is appropriate that we all consider our social role and responsibilities – geoethics. This is not just a niche area of research, but extends to all geoscientists irrespective of their field (e.g., volcanology, engineering geology, hydrogeology, metamorphic petrology) and employment sector (e.g., industry, academia, public sector). Geoethics provides a framework for us all to reflect on the shared values that underpin our work as geoscientists, and how these values shape our professional actions, and our interactions with colleagues, society and the natural environment.

Fuego Volcano, Guatemala (Credit: Joel Gill. 2014)

Putting geoethics into the context of a few examples: (i) Overseas Research – consider what the responsibilities of geoscientists are when engaging in research overseas, how should we behave in a different culture, how do we interact with in-country researchers and institutions, and what responsibility do we have to share data and learning with these partners? (ii) Communication – consider the role of geoscientists in communicating our knowledge of a a geological feature, such as an active volcano, who should we directly communicate our research and monitoring data to, and what form should this communication take? And (iii) Data Generation – consider our shared values (within and beyond the geoscience community) in generating data that is reliable and can be replicated, what quality control measures can we put into place to ensure our science is rigorous and of the highest quality? All three of these examples could apply to the majority of geoscientists, albeit in different contexts. And all three require geoscientists to consider both professional and social values.

There are currently two international organisations focused on geoethics that are serving the geoscience community. The International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG) and the International Association for Association for Geoethics (IAGETH). Their respective websites give further information on geoethics, including multiple resources of that may be of interest.

What is the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics (CTSG)?

“The concepts, values and views on individual responsibilities of geoscientists, expressed in the ‘Cape Town Statement on Geoethics’ reflect an international consensus. The statement aims to capture the attention of geoscientists and organisations, and to stimulate them to improve their shared policies, guidelines, strategies and tools to ensure they consciously embrace (geo)ethical professional conduct in their work.”

Preamble, Cape Town Statement on Geoethics

The CTSG includes a preamble, introduction, definition of geoethics, purpose, 10 fundamental values of geoethics, a proposed geoethical promise, and a final statement. Of most importance is the CTSG purpose, and the 10 fundamental values.

“Embracing geoethics is essential: to improve both the quality of professional work and the credibility of geoscientists, to foster excellence in geosciences, to assure sustainable benefits for communities, as well as to protect local and global environments; all with the aim of creating and maintaining the conditions for the healthy and prosperous development of future generations.”

Purpose, Cape Town Statement on Geoethics

As expressed in the CTSG, the purpose of this document is to foster excellence in the geosciences – in terms of our science, our societal interactions, and the legacy we leave for future generations. This is done by raising awareness of ‘geoethics’ as an important area of research and reflection – with the overall aim that all geoscientists will see geoethics integrated into their education and continued professional development. The ’10 fundamental values’ expressed in the CTSG help articulate what it is that we as geoscientists could (and should) be doing if our professional engagement with one another and society is to be considered ‘ethical’. For completeness of this article, we have noted these 10 values below, which should be read alongside the full CTSG.

Honesty, integrity, transparency and reliability of the geoscientist, including strict adherence to scientific methods; 
• Competence, including regular training and life-long learning;
• Sharing knowledge at all levels as a valuable activity, which implies communicating science and results, while taking into account intrinsic limitations such as probabilities and uncertainties;
• Verifying the sources of information and data, and applying objective, unbiased peer-review processes to technical and scientific publications;
• Working with a spirit of cooperation and reciprocity, which involves understanding and respect for different ideas and hypotheses;
• Respecting natural processes and phenomena, where possible, when planning and implementing interventions in the environment;
• Protecting geodiversity as an essential aspect of the development of life and biodiversity, cultural and social diversity, and the sustainable development of communities;
• Enhancing geoheritage, which brings together scientific and cultural factors that have intrinsic social and economic value, to strengthen the sense of belonging of people for their environment;
• Ensuring sustainability of economic and social activities in order to assure future generations’ supply of energy and other natural resources.
• Promoting geo-education and outreach for all, to further sustainable economic development, geohazard prevention and mitigation, environmental protection, and increased societal resilience and well-being. 

Fundamental Values of Geoethics, Cape Town Statement on Geoethics

Many of these will appear obvious to some readers, and it is to be welcomed that many of these values are already integrated and appreciated as being key to high quality, professional engagement. Others will require further reflection on what they mean in practice. For example, what does the value of ‘protecting geodiversity’  mean for geoscientists in academia and industry? The CTSG does not attempt to prescribe the precise actions that geoscientists should take to ‘protect geodiversity’, rather it brings this value to our attention and challenges us to consider how we will build it into the specific context of our work.

As noted above, the CTSG also includes a ‘geoethical promise’. This is a proposal of Hippocratic-like oath for early-career geoscientists, expressing their commitment to geoethics values in geoscience research and practice. The proposed promise is a draft of what could be developed to raise the profile of geoethics at a university level. While GfGD supports the broader CTSG (see below), and the core values within this promise, at this stage we will not be proactively encouraging early-career geoscientists to make the stated ‘geoethical promise’. We look forward to working with the IAPG to help re-draft the promise, with our preference being for a voluntary ‘statement of commitment to geoethics’ that early-career geoscientists can sign. The current language, for example, includes statements such as ‘I promise I understand my responsibilities towards society, future generations and the Earth for sustainable development‘, which we believe could be better phrased to recognise the importance of life-long learning. The IAPG are correct to strive for greater promotion of geoethics in the training of young geoscientists, and we wholeheartedly agree with this aim. We will continue to work closely with our IAPG colleagues to encourage our network of geoscientists to reflect on the relevance of the CTSG to their work.

Why did GfGD endorse the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics?

IAPG session on Geoethics at EGU 2016: Silvia Peppoloni (Secretary General, International Association for Promoting Geoethics) and Joel Gill (Director, Geology for Global Development)

GfGD supports the values which underpin the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics. We believe it is the social and professional responsibility of all geoscientists to consider geoethics. GfGD is a champion of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within the geology community, and we recognise the Cape Town Statement as a helpful articulation of the values that are necessary to embed within the geoscience community if we are to make a full and positive contribution to the delivery of the SDGs. By endorsing the CTSG, when people ask us what are the values in the DNA of GfGD, we can point people to the CTSG. We then have our own responsibility as an organisation to outline how we have and will work these out in practice.

We congratulate IAPG on their commitment to serving the geoscience community. We are very pleased to see other organisations support the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics, and hope that many other professional societies, geoscience unions, and public/private sector organisations give this the serious consideration that it deserves.