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Prof leads forest conservation effort

Stuart Pimm has always considered himself remarkably adept at getting in trouble-so it is not surprising that the Duke professor's most recent journey into the Amazon Rainforest was no exception.

There was the nagging back pain--thanks to a five-hour trip down a bumpy road on the hard wooden benches of a bus without shock absorbers.

Then there was the harrowing task of negotiating with one of the indigenous tour guides-a formidable looking Hourani in military garb who reportedly killed 20 people with a spear and held a shotgun to the head of the last trip leader until he was "given" hundreds of dollars.

Pimm-one of the world's foremost experts on conservation and biodiversity and a professor at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences-faced all of these perils, however, because he was fighting what he believes is one of the greatest dangers of all: the fact that increased oil drilling in areas such as the Amazon could lead to the destruction of the forest and the loss of hundreds of cultures, thousands of languages and half of the world's biodiversity.

Pimm may be one of the few individuals who has toiled in the Amazon, where the effects of the energy crisis are the most evident, but many other Duke scientists are hard at work in Durham and in Washington, D.C., on an issue that has gained increased national attention in recent months.

Gabriele Hegerl, associate research professor at the Nicholas School, was a lead author for one of the chapters of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report, released Feb. 2.

NIEPS' office in Washington-which opened in November 2006-has been crucial in taking research completed at Duke and translating it into relevant information for policymakers, said Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute of Environmental Policy Solutions.

Oil companies, however, are an even harder group to convince than the policymakers.

The billions of barrels of oil underneath the floor of the Amazon are a tempting prize for oil companies, so instead of trying to convince them not to drill there, Pimm said most of his efforts are spent convincing them that they can appease both their own interests and those of the indigenous people.

"You can treat the oil reserves as if they are off-shore.. You can helicopter your drilling equipment into the forest, you can build pipelines with no associated roads and if you do that, the footprint is tiny," Pimm said.

Back at home, Duke's Climate Change Policy Partnership has recently released a comprehensive primer detailing the pros and cons of the most popular energy policies, Project Director Eric Williams said.

The first policy discussed was "cap and trade," a method that allows energy-conservative companies to sell credits of unused energy to businesses that need them. Researchers found that cap and trade, while environmentally certain, was not as simple a policy as carbon tax.

Problems also plague carbon tax legislation, however.

"Tax is a four-letter word in Washington," Profeta said. "The current political environment in Washington might be so that they are [unreceptive to carbon tax proposals]."

CCPP is also working on a project to research the economic effects of policies such as cap and trade and carbon tax, Profeta added.

"It's not just important that we cap carbon dioxide. We have to do it right because greenhouse gas emissions are intertwined with every little aspect of our economy," he said. "If we do it right, it'll allow us to shift to a cleaner, more sustainable, smarter way of [supporting] our economy. But if we do it wrong, it could have terrible effects."

One way the Nicholas School is trying to combat those effects is through a partnership with the law school to research ways environmentally sound legislation can be compliant with World Trade Organization regulations, Profeta said.

This would ensure that countries that do not abide by carbon limits-such as India and China-do not gain an unfair advantage in the global market, he added.

Duke researchers are also looking toward the future.

Brian Murray, director of economic analysis at the Nicholas Institute, said that because of its ubiquity, long-run coal use will continue.

A process called "carbon capture and storage" may prevent CO2 emissions from entering the atmosphere while still allowing use of the fuel source, he said, adding that the technique is still at least a decade down the road.

Whether they are making their way through the Amazon Rainforest or through piles of research papers, Duke scientists agree-global warming and the energy crisis are issues that cannot wait that long.

"Global temperatures have increased by about one degree Celsius, sea level has risen, mountain glaciers and the Greenland ice cap are receding very rapidly, the ocean has increased in acidity," Paul Baker, professor of geochemistry at the Nicholas School wrote in an e-mail.

And if serious changes do not occur, some models forecast the Amazon basin turning into a desert, U.S. temperatures surpassing the global average and hurricanes increasing in severity and frequency, Baker said.


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