Signs of a changing world
It was early afternoon of Monday 29th August, in Cape Town, South Africa, when Colin Waters gave his report to the 35th annual International Geological Congress. As secretary of the Anthropocene Working Group he presented the findings of many years of effort, and the nearly unanimous recommendation that the Anthropocene be formally recognized as the most recent Epoch in the Geological Record. It would follow the Holocene, which would now be ended. Thirty-four of 35 members (one abstained) agreed that the Anthropocene was real, and 30 (3 against, 2 abstaining) agreed it should be formally recognized. The global geological community proceeds cautiously and there will be a couple more years before things become official, but it looks as if the scientists are zeroing in on formal recognition with 1950 or thereabouts as the start date, and a global plutonium spike as the primary geological marker of its start. Of course, the Anthropocene is here, and human influences are radically altering the planetary system (the Anthropocene’s defining feature), whether or not the geological community decides to recognize it. But formal recognition by the International Commission on Stratigraphy will bring precision to the term Anthropocene, and will confirm that it is not just a few leftist environmentalists who use this word. The Guardian reported Waters’ presentation in an informative piece about this strange new world. For the record, the Holocene was also marked in several ways by the growing might of the human population, and has been a particularly brief Epoch. Who knows if the Anthropocene will be similarly brief, or what it will lead to.
The Anthropocene – that time in the history of planet Earth when major environmental changes are being caused by the actions of one species. Image © Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Meanwhile the Anthropocene marches on, and while I have not been posting on this blog since 5th September, the evidence that we are in a very different and rapidly changing world continues to mount. In mid-October, Canada experienced major storms on both east and west coasts. On October 11th, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland both received record amounts of rainfall, and strong winds due to moisture left in the atmosphere by Hurricane Matthew. Matthew itself did not reach the Maritimes. Single day rainfall records occurred in several locations, including Sydney, Nova Scotia, where the 215mm recorded swamped the previous all-time record of 128mm. The 215mm equals half the usual amount for Fall. Flood damage including washed out roads and collapsed buildings was widespread across Cape Breton and on Newfoundland. On the west coast, three storms in quick succession came ashore between the 13th and 15th October. The third, and potentially largest was the remnant of Super Typhoon Songda. In the event, damage was not quite so extensive as feared, partly because the storms spread out from Oregon to southern British Columbia. Each was characterized by heavy rain and strong winds, and there was a tornado warning issued for western Washington during the Saturday storm. While not as bad as some forecasters had feared, these storms still inflicted considerable damage and at least one fatality. Taken together the eastern and western events typify what is becoming increasingly common – more frequent, larger than usual storms. The 100-year event is becoming much more frequent than it used to be, and each such storm taxes our infrastructure, generates huge clean-up bills, and considerable hardship, if not injury or death, for people caught in the middle of it.
Three successive satellite images showing the destruction due to two ice avalanches in Tibet. Note the 2 km scale in the left-hand panel. Images courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.
On the other side of the world, high in the Aru Mountains of Tibet, there have been two large ice avalanches. Not snow avalanches, ones made of large chunks of ice moving rapidly downhill. The first, occurring on July 17th, moved 65 m3 of ice 6 km, and piled it up as much as 30 m deep, killing nine herders and hundreds of their animals. The second, which occurred on September 21st, was a couple of kilometers south and slightly smaller than the first. It apparently caused no loss of life. In both cases it appears that particularly rapid melting led to water accumulating under the ice, permitting its run-away trip downhill. Such ice avalanches are extremely rare events, and glaciologists report that seeing two so close to each other in time and space is unprecedented.
In his disturbing book, Storms of my Grandchildren, James Hansen talked plausibly about large, run-away glaciers on Greenland or Antarctica suddenly letting go and sliding into the sea to cause a near-instantaneous jump in sea level. The events in Tibet suggest he was not embroidering fanciful nightmares.
Indeed, lest we assume the unusual behavior by ice is limited to Tibet, on October 11th the Washington Post included an article about the melting of Greenland glaciers that included the telling detail that as large glaciers melt during summer, they often generate supraglacial lakes. Those in Greenland these days can be several square kilometers in area. These lakes arise quickly, and they can vanish even more quickly when water escapes down enlarging fissures to create a vast subglacial lubricant pool. Anyone who thinks the continuing melting of the world’s glaciers is likely to be a slow and gentle process should contemplate what happens when a large, lubricated glacier starts to slide.
Scientists are learning that glacier melt is not always a gradual process as this photo from Greenland shows. Photo © Scilogs.be.
Our latest el Niño, one of the two strongest on record, is now officially over. It started to form in 2014, but was delayed by relatively strong easterly winds in the tropical Pacific, only to come into existence, bigger and better, in 2015. It lasted through this past spring, leading to the longest continuous episode of coral bleaching ever seen. Sea surface temperatures have fallen steadily, but slowly, and moved toward territory considered the threshold for la Niña conditions in August. At present, NOAA is predicting that neutral or very weak la Niña conditions will persist with sea surface temperatures at or slightly below average through the winter and on into the 2017 summer. According to Mark Eakin, coordinator of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch, “We are currently experiencing the longest global coral bleaching event ever observed. We may be looking at a 2- to 2½-year-long event. Some areas have already seen bleaching two years in a row.”
I could go on a tirade about what such conditions are doing to the capacity of coral reefs to sustain themselves, but I’ve said it many times before and so have lots of other reef scientists. Even if summer of 2017 brings some more cooling with a strengthening la Niña (by no means likely), we are still witnessing the very thing that scientists like University of Queensland’s Ove Hoegh-Guldberg were warning about 15 years or more ago – an essentially continuous program of bleaching events around the world, with reefs having no time between events to regrow much of what gets lost.
And that is the nature of the Anthropocene. It is a time very different to what has come before. Forget cyclic patterns. Global patterns of change in the Anthropocene are one-way and sometimes sudden. Recovery, the Balance of Nature, the old reliable planet that gave us predictable weather and seasons so that we could plant our crops and reap their harvest – these are all gone. Now we really are clinging onto that large lump of rock hurtling through the cosmos on a journey to who knows where. If we fail to put on the brakes, our future is going to be very different indeed.
So, are we beginning to act on climate change (and all the other insults we keep delivering to the biosphere)? Well… yes, but nowhere near quickly enough yet, and every week that goes by is precious time lost if we hope to keep things not too terrible into the future. Canada, along with a lot of other countries, ratified the Paris Accord which reached the threshold for coming into force less than a year after Paris (Much better than the 7 years taken by Kyoto!). The European Union ratified on Tuesday October 4th, and Canada did so on Wednesday October 5th – bringing the total to well over 55% of signatory countries responsible for at least 55% of emissions ratifying. It officially came into force one month later, on November 4th just four days before the US election. Canada has also begun to flesh out the details of how it will do its part to reduce emissions.
Canada’s evolving climate strategy
Early in October, PM Trudeau announced some details of the new federal carbon tax which will be imposed on those provinces or territories that do not have a comparable pricing plan in place by 2018. On 9th October, Environment Minister McKenna announced further details of Canada’s developing national plan, but indicated the full details will be announced when legislation is brought forward later this Fall. And on 21st November, McKenna announced the intention to accelerate Canada’s move away from coal, pledging to phase out all coal-fired power plants by 2030, a decade ahead of the previous plan. Coal currently supplies 10% of Canada’s energy needs, and the coal industry employs some 42000 people, directly or indirectly, in the mining of 69 million tonnes of the fuel each year. (Half of that coal is exported.) The impact will be particularly strong in Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – provinces relying primarily on coal for electricity.
PM Justin Trudeau announcing details of the carbon tax plan in Parliament, 3rd October 2016. Image © Global News.
To ease the shift away from coal, McKenna advised that an agreement has already been reached with Nova Scotia for that province to introduce carbon pricing in the form of a cap-and-trade scheme to be phased in while use of coal is phased out. The agreement provides the province some extra time to complete its transition away from coal. Brad Wall, premier of Saskatchewan, who appears not to have negotiated such a deal, is not so fortunate, and remains a fierce opponent of the federal carbon plans.
So far the policies on carbon being announced are meeting a favorable reception in most quarters. Writing in the Globe & Mail on 16th October, members of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission generally applauded the initial announcements re carbon pricing, while noting that there was no firm commitment to ensure the price rises as high as is needed to ramp down CO2 pollution, and no policies in place to avoid markedly different carbon prices in different Provinces. Nor at that time were there the complimentary policies to ensure that the pricing leads to a sustained shift towards alternative energy sources. The subsequent announcements have provided some of the further information that is needed. Policies announced to date do not go far enough to adequately address our CO2 emissions, or even to meet the commitment made to the UN in ratifying Paris, but they are a substantial first step and a welcome change from years of denial.
At the same time as it is putting a price on carbon, the Trudeau government continues to promote Canada’s fossil fuel industries with such steps as the recent approval (with lots of environmental conditions) of a major LNG project on the British Columbia coast, and continued hinting that the government is looking favorably at approval for new oil pipelines. Canada was explicitly criticized on 16th November by environmental groups attending the COP22 climate conference in Marrakesh for its continued subsidies to fossil fuel producers and other support for that industry. Led by Environmental Defense Canada, the brief document claimed that subsidies in Canada amount to $3.3 billion per year, or $19 per tonne of CO2 greatly reducing the cost of pollution when the new carbon prices come into full effect in 2020 (national floor carbon price will be $30 per tonne CO2 that year). This support for a major industry, on the one hand, and action to correct environmental problems, on the other, is typical governmental action. But in this instance, the Canadian government is looking distinctly schizophrenic. It will be interesting to see how government plans for ‘supporting’ the resources sector will evolve, and whether they will come to mesh better with the new and very positive environmental policies. In my view, the resources sector has benefitted over long from various governmental assistance. It is time to live in the world that other people live in, or better still, to recognize that fossil fuels are going extinct, so winding down operations would be a smart business move.
And then there was an election
After a savage election campaign, can American political life return to normal? Mike Keefe cartoon.
The US Presidential election on 8th November brought a long overdue end to an awful campaign – awful in so many ways I won’t even bother to enumerate them. And it brought a great surprise, to nearly everyone including, I suspect, one Donald J Trump. I and large numbers of other people are still trying to get our heads around what happened and why, while Mr. Trump busily proceeds with his ‘transition’. Frankly, the transition from Obama to Trump is more like a ‘fade to black’ than an evolution from one state of grace to a slightly different state of grace. Only this morning, as I listened to the BBC (over NPR, via the web), I heard that last night Trump had tweeted out that it would be a good idea for the UK to appoint Nigel Farage as Ambassador to the USA. The Star has a report of this event and video of the emphatic rejection by Boris Johnson, UK Foreign Minister, when he rose to speak in the House of Commons on the topic. Trump had tweeted, “Many people would like to see @Nigel_Farage represent Great Britain as their Ambassador to the United States. He would do a great job!” Apart from anything else – like the impropriety of DJT advising the UK on who to appoint to its diplomatic posts – Johnson stated that “We have no vacancy to fill [in the position of Ambassador to the USA].”
While the “Farage farrago” as the Star names it is merely another instance of titillating Twitter trivia from Mr. Trump, it does further reveal his utter disregard for, or perhaps ignorance of, the usual ways in which international affairs among mature countries are handled. There is much for the world to be concerned about as Trump moves forward to put his stamp on the American presidency.
What did America do on 8th November? Wasserman cartoon, Boston Globe.
At the same time, there is as yet little clarity regarding his policies or his likely actions once in office. There are two ‘official’ websites to my knowledge: donaldjtrump.com which served the campaign, and greatagain.gov which serves the transition. Each has pages on policy, but few details. Both include policy under the heading ‘Energy’ and under ‘Regulations’, but ‘Environment’ is completely missing. Reading from the more recent site (because the text is different in many ways on the two sites), his perspective on energy is like a look back into a dark past. It begins with the goal of energy independence, goes on to claim that an energy revolution (meaning wiping away virtually all restrictions on where, when and how fossil fuels can be extracted) will unleash great wealth and enormous numbers of high paying jobs, and then states,
“America is sitting on a treasure trove of untapped energy. In fact, America possesses more combined coal, oil, and natural gas resources than any other nation on Earth. These resources represent trillions of dollars in economic output and countless American jobs, particularly for the poorest Americans.”
It’s the same old ‘if it’s in the ground we must dig it up’ refrain that makes anyone cautioning against using these dirty fuels appear to be denying the rights of Americans to have profitable and satisfying lives. The statement goes on to detail actions to encourage fossil fuel production by opening up Federal lands and waters to exploration, removing regulatory restraints such as the EPA regulations governing CO2 pollution, and conveniently failing to note that the US Supreme Court has already ruled as valid the recognition by EPA that CO2 is a pollutant. The mandate of EPA requires it to manage pollutants.
Finally, this policy statement comes to,
“The Trump Administration is firmly committed to conserving our wonderful natural resources and beautiful natural habitats. America’s environmental agenda will be guided by true specialists in conservation, not those with radical political agendas. We will refocus the EPA on its core mission of ensuring clean air, and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans. It will be a future of conservation, of prosperity, and of great success.“
At which point I rub my eyes and wonder if this is all just a bad dream.
The policies around regulations are predicated on the assumption that any government regulations that put demands, or brakes, on business are, by definition, regulations that need to be rescinded. While imprecise, the statement is clearly directed at environmental regulations that must be removed to allow America to be great. Hidden in the middle of this hymn to absolutely free markets is one sentence acknowledging that a few environmental regulations are necessary: “While reasonable regulations are needed to address issues ranging from ensuring public safety to ensuring proper stewardship of our National Parks’ crown jewels, this can be accomplished without the profound damage to our economy and our freedoms that is currently inflicted by the regulatory bureaucracy.” I could not find the word ‘climate’ mentioned anywhere, although Trump is on record, repeatedly, as planning to ‘cancel’ the Paris climate agreement.
There is no doubt that the election of Donald J Trump is bad news for the environment, and for global progress on climate change.
What will Donald do?
We all hope he is a fast learner! Cartoon by Signe Wilkinson.
It is wise to acknowledge that until Trump assumes power and begins to act, the world cannot know the consequences of his election. His campaign has been uniquely bereft of policy detail, and his lack of experience in government suggests he may be poorly equipped to get much of his agenda into effect because there are always competing interests, and lacking in experience, he may just not be able to get much done. On the other hand, there seem to be far too many people on both the left and right of US politics who have been bending over backwards to normalize Trump as just another Republican. He is not that at all, and normalizing him serves to have the rest of the world let down its guard. Suddenly it is acceptable to have extreme right-wing, white-supremacists being seriously considered for sensitive government appointments at the highest levels. Putting climate denialists in charge of environmental management in the USA and of international climate negotiations on behalf of the USA is not likely to be good for the world battle to slow climate change, but so far, Trump shows every likelihood of doing just that.
And what does any of this have to do with the Anthropocene or my beloved coral reefs?
This is not the time to give up on the battle against climate change, or the battle for coral reefs. Nor is it the time to dismiss the Trump election as just another instance of US politics. Donald Trump has claimed climate change is merely a Chinese-perpetrated hoax designed to weaken the US economy. His policies, to the extent they are clear, suggest he will favor the fossil fuel industry and curtail or reverse progress on CO2 that was being made. It is naïve to suggest that global momentum on climate mitigation is now so great that his election cannot stop that progress from continuing. The US remains one of the two largest emitters of CO2, and a country with very considerable international influence; its president does not have total power, but he does have very considerable power, and Trump, so far, is behaving as a person who acts before thinking. He could do real damage to the cause of environmental sustainability, because he will embolden those who seek to slow progress on environmental issues. As evidence of this, look at the arguments being made in Canada against the Trudeau climate initiatives. Rona Ambrose, interim leader of the Conservative party, stated in Parliament re Trump’s election that “a carbon tax makes no sense anymore; it’s complete insanity.” Saskatchewan leader Brad Wall made the argument more clearly, “The election result means we will not be seeing a carbon tax in the U.S. any time soon. It makes no sense for our federal government to push ahead with imposing a national carbon tax, when our biggest trading partner — and our biggest competitor for investment and jobs — is not going to have one.” Wall and Ambrose are not the only Canadians who will seize on Trump’s victory as an excuse to go slow on CO2; nor are Canadians the only ones who will use this argument for continuing business as usual. Think Australia and coal mining.
While the battle for environmental sustainability must continue, Trump’s success must be seen as a signal that continuing to use the same tactics that have brought the success so far achieved is not satisfactory. As of 8th November 2016, the world entered a political universe as different from what had gone before as the Anthropocene is from the Holocene. It is different in ways that make even more difficult the battle to bring human excesses under control. Those of us who care about coral reefs, perhaps the one ecosystem on the planet closest to elimination through human impacts, have to recognize that our chance of success is even more limited than it was; that we now have a very high chance of witnessing a world bereft of flourishing reefs by mid-century no matter what we do in the interim. Think about that for a moment.
Trump’s election has to be a call for all who value environmental sustainability, all who understand the implications for humanity of a collapsing biosphere, to argue far more eloquently, and much more effectively, and to find new ways of reaching the unconverted. It is past time to articulate very clearly that the Anthropocene is a dangerous time, that we do not have a Planet B available in an emergency, and that coral reefs especially are quietly telling us to mend our ways before it is too late for us. Let me repeat: too late for us.
The plight of bleaching corals is a clear sign that we are dangerously pushing up against planetary boundaries. We must transform the reef into a symbol of the danger inherent in the Anthropocene; it is not just an exotic ecosystem under threat. Images © O. Hoegh-Guldberg (left) and J. Rockström (right).
Along the way, we also should start pushing for much wider recognition of the rights of the biosphere in law. Bolivia formally recognized such rights in law in 2010 (#710, Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra), and they are included in Ecuador’s 2008 constitution. Acceptance of this concept is common to many societies outside the western mainstream. It is we, whose ancestors grew up believing the planet existed for us, instead of that we exist as part of the planet, who have a distorted view of our relationship to the rest of the biosphere. We are the ones who fail to understand how environmental change can hurt us, and how short-term economic benefits for a few, at the expense of a little environmental degradation, can create great harm for the many, including the many of other species. We are the ones who see the economic gains that can be had by harvesting natural resources, but fail to see the possible damage to the biosphere when that harvest is excessive. We are the ones who have a weakened sense of our ethical responsibility to others, including the rest of the biosphere. Our materialistic culture values other creatures only in terms of their monetary value to us. Until more people embrace an ethical approach to nature, those of us who fight for environmental sustainability will be fighting a rearguard action.
I think that coral reefs can play a particularly important role in this reinvigorated battle to sustain the biosphere (which is what the battle for climate mitigation is really all about). They are photogenic. They supply a large number of wonderful just-so stories, the kind of stories that capture interest, and linger in the mind – stories of bizarre creatures, of biodiversity run amok, of intricate inter-relationships among species that enable enormous biological productivity in the heart of an oceanic desert, or equally intricate interrelationships that just enable species to do better than they otherwise would, stories that reveal the wondrous complexity of that thing we call a reef. They play vitally important roles in sustaining human coastal communities through provision of food and other resources, coastal protection, livelihoods, and quality of life for coastal peoples. And they are as deserving of continued existence as any panda, polar bear or monarch butterfly. If we can keep them with us, we will have brought climate change, and a number of other anthropogenic problems, under control.
I also think that we who articulate the importance of coral reefs can join forces effectively with those who articulate the value of a tree, the importance of natural landscapes, and the value of human-friendly cities. Each of these groups, in their own ways, illuminates some of the ways in which our world is a much better place when we control our power to do great harm to it. Together, we can build an understanding of just how frightening the Anthropocene might become, and just how wonderful a world we can build by using our power in the right way. If Donald Trump’s election helps move us to a more effective battle for environmental sustainability, and respect for the biosphere, then that election will have done some real good. We do live in very interesting times.
The lush reef at Pulau Wayilbatan, Raja Ampat provides the foreground to a whirling ‘blue ballet’ performed by a school of silversides under attack in this award-winning photo by Damien Mauric. Reef waters are filled with stories great and small; we must avoid losing them from this planet.