Category Archives: climate change

The other crisis of 2020

This is a guest post from Emma Despland.  You might remember her from “Covid-19, Mystery Novels, and How Science Works“.

Remember back in January 2020, when the bushfires in Australia seemed the biggest catastrophe of the year, harbingers of the ever-advancing climate crisis? Now, in October, my friend in California says that, where she lives, the forest fires are a bigger concern than Covid-19 and even than the upcoming presidential election. People check their phones for fire alerts and smoke dispersal modeling to know if it’s safe to go outside. Most of the time they stay indoors with windows closed to avoid the smoke and no air-conditioning because of the power outages.

These fires are not only major disasters destroying people’s homes and threatening lives, they represent phenomena totally new within human memory. Continue reading

Life Lessons From a Pandemic

Emma Despland is a friend and colleague who’s blogging here as an ecologist – but also as a citizen and and a parent.  Her thinking about our current pandemic melds these perspectives, and that in itself is an interesting and important thing to me.  That’s because scientists are, of course, just people like everyone else, who call their friends and bike with their kids when they’re not running an analysis or thinking about the Earth’s systems. And the scientist perspective and the citizen perspective and the parent perspective aren’t mutually exclusive.  Read on:


Covid-19 has imposed dramatic lifestyle changes on many of us, most of which I think we see as short term inconveniences that we hope will soon pass. However, this imposed slowing of the pace of life creates space for reflection.  Despite the obvious tragedy and fear, not all the new experiences we are living are bad.  Some, perhaps, have something to teach us about the world we’d like to live in when all this is over.  Continue reading

Science, social media, and my fear of corporate puppetry

Image: Marionette, © Thomas Quine CC BY 2.0 via

When we do science, we presumably want that science to have both impact and reach.  By “impact”, I mean more than citation counts: I mean that what we’ve done adds to human knowledge and changes how we think about, and interact with, our world.  By “reach”, I mean that the impact happens broadly: not just with the six other people in the world who do research on the same questions and systems I do, but with scientists more broadly, with journalists, with policymakers, and with the general public.

Do I want my science (and my science commentary here at Scientist Sees Squirrel) to have impact and reach?  Of course I do.  It would be rather peculiar to publish science, and write a blog, and hope that nobody ever heard about it or was influenced by it.  So yes, I want my science, and my commentary, to have impact and reach.  But I’m also afraid of that impact and reach.  And while that seems very strange, even to me, I think it’s not uncommon and it distorts our scientific message.  Let me explain. Continue reading

Why I’m giving away my carbon-tax rebate

Image: Smokestacks © Dori via CC BY-SA 3.0

Canada has a new carbon tax – far too modest, but it’s a start.  Its implementation is an awkward mosaic across the country, but in my province of New Brunswick, it’s a federal tax* that’s coupled with a rebate (or “climate action incentive”, as it’s confusing called).

The rebate, appearing as a tax credit, on my 2018 income tax return.

Here’s (roughly) how this works: Continue reading

Why on Earth are flowers beautiful?

Image: Flowers, by Alvegaspar CC BY-SA 3.0 via

If you watch science documentaries like Nova or The Nature of Things, you might get the feeling that what’s most exciting about science is all the questions scientists have answers to – all the things we’ve learned about how our universe ticks.  (It’s built right into the title of The Nature of Things.)  But what I love most about science, and especially biology, is how easy it is to ask a question that we don’t have the answer to.  Why are there so many species of beetles*, but so few of snakeflies?  Why does life use a basic set of 20 amino acids, not 18 or 26?  And one that has me completely stumped: why on Earth are flowers beautiful?

“Why are flowers beautiful” might sound like a trivial question, but I don’t think it is.  Continue reading