Underwater conversations: Why I wish we could have them.

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We are not at one with the oceans

The majority of humans now live in cities. Some are the great cities, rich in history, filled with modern delights; others are less great cities, cities that never were much to talk about or cities that long ago lost their vitality. But all cities provide a layer of insulation between the individual and the natural world that sustains his/her life. When your food comes from the supermarket, your water from a tap, and your shelter from the efforts of specialists called construction workers, it is easy to forget that ultimately food, water and shelter are provided by nature. Separated from nature it is also easy to become detached from nature, to fail to recognize the damage we do, day by day, to the natural systems that underlie our own lives. How else to explain the relative lack of urgency about an environmental crisis that grows steadily worse? Oh, we know about the environmental crisis, but we do not see it as the life-threatening monster it is. We do not fear it; we have lots of other concerns that are more important. Finding ways to break through to urban populations is a major task for those who would change our perceptions of the environmental damage we are creating.
Toronto Aron Brand dreamstimemaximum_1242772

Photo of downtown Toronto © Aron Brand

Our impacts on the planet are not uniform. There are still places lightly touched as well as places made virtually uninhabitable by our past activities. True, there are ever fewer lightly touched places, but the fact that some still exist gives hope that it is not yet too late for us to recover a world that we need if our lives are to continue to prosper. Our appreciation of places varies, and our understanding of how they are being changed also varies – we are simply more aware of certain types of ecosystem and can see more easily how our actions are disturbing them.
Cristina Saenz de Santamaria Freedive-apnea-total3--644x362

Cristina and Eusebio Sáenz de Santamaría know the ocean in a special way.
Photo © Cristina Sáenz de Santamaria

When it comes to the oceans, our ability to understand and appreciate is particularly weak. We simply do not know the oceans in the way in which we know the land. Reports appear regularly documenting the extent of our ocean impacts. We are changing ocean pH more rapidly and to a greater extent than it has been changed for 55 million years. We have initiated a process of sea level rise which is unprecedented during the last 8000 years, essentially all of human history, and it is going to disrupt all our coastal cities as well as our smaller coastal villages. It’s a process that will not stop for several hundred years no matter what steps we take to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Our warming of the oceans risks substantial changes to the pattern of global ocean circulation and a reordering of the planetary heat budget. The accumulation of plastic waste in the open ocean, never mind all the other forms of oceanic pollution, appears to be having substantive consequences for trophic structures of plankton communities as well as for unfortunate turtles, dolphins and other larger creatures which become inextricably tangled up or constipated and die unnecessary deaths. We have created some 400 coastal dead zones, regions of the ocean where nutrient enrichment, due to mismanaged agriculture and land use and to releases of inadequately treated sewage, both lowers fisheries production and leads to the massive toxic algal blooms that are red tides. And our overfishing, nearly everywhere, has reduced the total biomass of fish in the world’s oceans by 90%. Yet, mostly, we assume the oceans will endure.

The special case of coral reefs

Many of us can understand, and express concern for, the widespread clear cutting of tropical rainforests; not so loss of coral reefs. We know trees far better than we know corals. We recognize how rainforest loss can have serious consequences for weather, climate, biological productivity, global biodiversity and carbon sequestration, not to mention economic well-being of nations that have rainforests to harvest, but we are far less able to appreciate the consequences of coral reef loss. Coral reefs cover about 100 times less area than do rainforests, they are being lost at a far greater rate than are rainforests, and the suggestion that none will remain viable by mid-century is a dispassionate deduction from the available evidence by knowledgeable scientists rather than over-the-top hysteria by anxious greenies. Coral reefs are the most productive marine ecosystem by far and a vital storehouse of biodiversity, while playing a critical role in protecting nearby shores from the ravages of oceanic storms, and serving both as the larder and the employment bureau for many coastal communities. Many people have heard that climate change, overfishing, pollution and other factors are having serious consequences on coral reefs, and the notion that they are disappearing from the planet has been widely reported. Yet for most people this is just another unfortunate statistic, one of many to be tut-tutted about, but not something of real concern.

Yet think about this fact for a minute. Many coral reef scientists are convinced that there is only a remote chance that the world of mid-century will have any coral reefs resembling the reefs that were abundant as recently as the 1960s. Not fewer than now. None at all. In another 35 years. Yes, there will be living corals. Yes, there will be limestone reefs, slowly eroding away, with occasional colonies of coral growing on their surfaces. But there will not be any vigorously growing coral reefs, adding new limestone at rates that equal or exceed the rates at which reefs are eroded by storms, wave-action, and the rasping, crunching, drilling out, and dissolving away that takes place continuously on healthy reefs due to the actions of a diverse array of bio-eroders including fishes, worms, snails, sea urchins, and sponges.

We have nothing to compare this to. In human history we have caused the extinction of a great many species, but we have never yet achieved the elimination from the planet of an entire ecosystem. That is what we are doing to coral reefs. It is really too bad, isn’t it? Quite sad, really. Unfortunate. But not nearly as important as what Kim Kardashian did this morning!

Why we need to be able to talk underwater

And this is why I wish we could have underwater conversations. There is a big difference between knowing about the ocean, and knowing the ocean. You can learn about any natural environment from books, videos, Wikipedia, Google, and even by listening to other people who know about that environment when they reminisce. Rather than knowing about, you get to know a natural environment by becoming immersed in it. And you get to know it best, by being immersed in it in the company of other people who know more about it than you do. It’s a left brain, right brain thing. You learn about the natural world using your analytical mind; getting to know or even to love the natural world requires a different approach. Unfortunately, the ocean is hard to love, because we cannot have conversations beneath the waves.
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Maybe a few more restaurants like Ithaa, in the Maldives, would help us get to know the ocean?
Photo © Ithaa Undersea.

Yes, I know there is technology that permits oral communication under water. Technology is available ranging from submarines and underwater telephone booths (called ‘talk bubbles’) to throat microphones, microphones built into the regulator mouthpiece, and bone conducting audio receivers. The technology has improved greatly over the years, but remains pricy, demands use of cumbersome full- or lower-face masks, and produces sound rich with the gurgles, bubbling, clicks and clanks that seem to happen when someone tries to speak under water. Darth Vader would find the sounds familiar; the rest of us, not so much. The prices of the technology are high enough that the average sport diver never has the experience of talking under water. Instead, we use hand signals, short messages scrawled illegibly onto underwater slates, odd grunts and squeaks, and the rat-tat-tat of a convenient rock or other object against the scuba tank when it is really important to get someone’s attention. As a consequence, most dives are a solitary affair, even when one dives as part of a group.
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Divers using a talk bubble, a rigid plastic hemisphere big enough for two, to have a short conversation. Photo courtesy NOAA Photo Library

Throughout the tropics there are dive shops affiliated with hotels that provide an opportunity for sport divers to explore the nearby reefs. The typical dive (there are brilliantly organized exceptions) begins with paying your money and checking out any rental gear you need. Then you assemble at the dive vessel, and take the short ride out to the destination. The dive master and any associated staff introduce themselves, provide a one- or two-sentence description of where you are going and perhaps what you will see there. More time is (rightly) spent on safety aspects, including how long the dive will be and how deep, and where to aggregate at its conclusion. Then it is time to gear up and jump in. The group assembles at depth, OK signals are exchanged, and the dive leader sets off on his or her chosen path, followed by everyone else. Typically there will be a few stops at particular points of interest – perhaps the hang-out of a friendly moray, or a particularly fine coral formation or seascape. Sometimes these stops are really just an opportunity for the dive leader to do a count, ensure nobody has wandered off, check on the stragglers, and especially query each participant on the state of his or her air supply. Eventually, after a time that should be manageable by the most air-hungry member of the group, the dive leader brings you back to the rendezvous point, usually with a safety stop hanging off the anchor line, and back on board. The post mortem period is spent in taking off and stowing the gear, getting dry and warm if conditions have been chilly, and sharing some soft drinks or something more elaborate. Only rarely will the dive leader talk about what has been seen, although with prodding many are quite knowledgeable. Back on shore, you have enjoyed yourself, you are ready for the next item on your to-do list for that day, but you really have not added to your understanding of what you saw down below the surface. And if your background does not include the preliminaries of the natural sciences, you may not even know how to begin finding out about what you have seen.

Contrast this with a walk through a rainforest with someone who knows it well. Or a ramble along a rocky shore. Or, indeed, a hike in any natural environment on land. You’d be talking more or less continuously, and you would be learning. You’d discover that the creatures you might initially have been at a loss to describe have names, relationships, and patterns of life that are quite their own. You’d discover that creatures that look similar may or may not be closely related; that certain activities only occur in certain seasons or certain places, that some objects you did not even realize were alive are animals of particular kinds. And you’d learn about the relationships among all these creatures that occupy that particular landscape, about the ways in which the seasons affect their lives, and about how they affect each other. Gaining all this knowledge will not force you to know and love that particular ecosystem, but without gaining all this knowledge it will be much more difficult, perhaps impossible to come to know it. It will remain the other. That is the problem for marine systems – they remain the other.

Over the years, I have come to understand that I have accumulated a lot of knowledge about my chosen undersea world, the reef, and my chosen creatures, the fishes. I know many people who have a far deeper well of such knowledge, but I also know I am more knowledgeable than most. When I put on my facemask, grab the regulator between my teeth and descend to a reef, I am entering a neighborhood I know quite well. I recognize the inhabitants I expect to see there, and I know that they have complicated, busy lives; lives which, if I am careful, I will not interrupt too much. I marvel at the complexity of their lives, the richness of their interactions both within and across species, the apparent orderliness of their day. I wonder how it is that prey species seem to be fully aware of whether a predator is hunting or just hanging out. I’ve learned to spot this same awareness when I am in the water with a microspear intent on ‘harvesting’ certain individuals for research! I wonder how the myriad species of reef fish recognize each other as fish, though clearly not their own species, and how they recognize the various crabs, snails and starfishes as alive. How do predatory groupers know that they should open their mouths and flare their operculae to allow a bite-sized cleaner wrasse to swim in and nibble away? How do they know to return regularly to a cleaner station to be ‘serviced’? Why do they not try feeding on other fishes aggregating at the cleaner station awaiting their turn to be cleaned? I confess to even wondering sometimes what a goby is thinking while it rests on the bottom, winnowing a mouthful of sand to extract the micro crustaceans while letting the sand grains fall out through its gills? Are gobies particularly contemplative fishes? Never mind what it is thinking about, how does it even manage to take a mouthful of sand and swirl it about in its mouth retrieving and swallowing the micro crustaceans while discarding the sand? These are perhaps not the thoughts a scientist should have while collecting field data, but they are my thoughts, and wondering about these things is what makes a reef real to me. If only I could convey just a few of these crazy thoughts to other divers while on a dive.

The fact is that we are having profound impacts on the ocean, and these impacts are affecting the lives of the various species that live there in diverse, often rather bad ways. We care relatively little for the damage we are doing because we do not know the creatures that are being impacted. If we did, maybe we would rate our damage to the ocean as the globally serious problem it is. If we loved the ocean more, maybe we would take much better care of it.

An apt slogan! The title banner in an article by Rick MacPherson of the Coral Reef Alliance.
Image © Terrain.org

Categories: Changing lifestyles, Changing Oceans, coral reef science, Stories from a Coral Reef | Leave a comment

Chickens, bees and agribusiness – the need to put the chemical genie back in the bottle.

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Let’s start with the chickens

I’ve been reading a collection of essays by George Monbiot – Bring on the Apocalypse. Mostly from the early 2000s. His essays paint a brutal world in which the rich and powerful get their way with government as their hand servant. They make me angry, depressed, and unable to believe we can solve environmental problems. I should read Monbiot only in small doses. When I heard last week that Tyson Foods was going to eliminate use of human antibiotics by 2017, I was immediately suspicious. Why not till 2017? What is meant by the reference to ‘human’ antibiotics?

Tyson got lots of press following its announcement, and overwhelmingly the press reports were glowingly positive. Of ones I read, only an article in the Washington Post raised these same concerns. Turns out that in North America about 70% of all antibiotics sold are for use in agriculture. Chickens (and other animals) are given antibiotics to make them well when they are sick; to protect them when animals nearby may be sick; and simply to help healthy animals grow quickly and extra big. These uses of antibiotics on healthy animals, as well as the over-prescription of antibiotics for people, are the primary reason for the development of antibiotic resistant strains of many bacteria, including the development of so-called super-bugs that are resistant to virtually all antibiotics and make stays in North American hospitals risky for anyone who is seriously sick.

The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the American Public Health Association have all urged a ban on use of antibiotics to promote growth. The US Food and Drug Administration called on pharmaceutical manufacturers to voluntarily eliminate production of antibiotics for use in animal growth promotion back in 2013, but little action has been seen. Foot-dragging is everywhere.
Pressure from a concerned public is having an effect, but governments are avoiding taking the tough decisions, and industry is volunteering on a very slow timetable. In fact, Tyson, far from being an industry leader, is a laggard, bringing up the rear as far as antibiotics in poultry are concerned. And the announcement by McDonalds a few weeks ago that they would cease to use antibiotic-laced meat is no doubt one of the spurs that has led Tyson finally to act. So, what is really going on?
Tyson chickens

Nice life for a chicken. Modern agriculture, in striving to maximize economic profits, has cut some important environmental corners. When you cut corners, you go off the road. We need to operate more responsibly even while producing less chicken for market.
Image © privatelandownernetwork.org

The science tells us that feeding healthy animals antibiotics is not a good thing to do. The pharmaceutical industry and the food producers are not interested in stopping a lucrative business. Government, responding to the agricultural lobbies, is not about to force them to act. So everybody delays. Tyson’s 28th April announcement said it was “striving to eliminate the use of human antibiotics from its U.S. broiler* chicken flocks by the end of September 2017. The company will report annually on its progress.” (The * led to a footnote defining ‘broiler’ as all chicken raised for meat.) Given the very strong, top-down regulation of chicken farmers by the big corporations like Tyson, I have no doubt that Tyson could stop shipping antibiotic-fed chicken within 6 months if it wanted to. Indeed, it began playing at reducing antibiotic use in 2011. My bet is it is delaying as long as possible, while waiting for its friends in big pharma to come up with new antibiotics to feed to its chickens – that is the only reason for the wiggle words around ‘human antibiotics’. It is not actually going to stop a financially beneficial but medically and environmentally dangerous practice. So much for Tyson Foods doing the right thing. And while I don’t think George Monbiot has written about this story, I’ll bet he would agree with me.

Such a clever ape

We humans are curious and inventive. Our curiosity and creativity have enabled us to develop tools that go well beyond those first stone axes that helped our ancestors make a better life. Unfortunately, as our knowledge, our inventions, and our economy have all grown, we have developed some tools that become problematic because their use has unforeseen consequences. Many of these consequences appear when the tools, or items manufactured using them, are set free in the environment, either because that is where we planned to use them, or because that is where we discarded them when they were no longer needed. Our chemical cleverness, in particular, has created numerous environmental problems because the many chemicals we have created in the lab include some that turn out to have profound effects once they are liberated in our environment.

Being clever enough to invent new chemicals, we are also capable of discovering their negative environmental impacts, and often also capable of devising solutions to those impacts that do not require ceasing use of those chemicals. But here is where our cleverness is not clever enough. We have built an economy based on innovation and products, but it is an economy that does not take adequate account of the environmental costs of those products. Environmental costs are externalized, not part of the economic decision-making process, and environmental costs that are only discovered after the fact are particularly difficult to deal with. Powerful industries do not wish to lose their investment in products that turn out to have problems. Governments are quicker to think about the needs of powerful industry, and perhaps also the needs of their employees, than they are to think about the needs of the environment. Decisions that should be made do not get made, or get made only slowly. And paradoxically, nobody seems to think it is strange that the onus always falls on those claiming an environmental hazard to prove that hazard exists beyond any reasonable doubt, and is directly due to a particular product, rather than on the producers of said product needing to prove the product is environmentally safe. So we have meat laced with antibiotics while government and industry sit around discussing voluntary changes in practices. And we have agriculture based upon over-use of insecticides and herbicides, while government and industry discuss whether or not the pesticides in question are causing damage. And the discussions go on year, after year, after year.

Neonics and pollinators

Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are neurotoxins that target the insect central nervous system, binding to postsynaptic nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and causing overstimulation, paralysis, and death. They were invented in chemistry labs, tested in controlled lab trials, and brought into production to add to the arsenal of chemicals with which modern monoculture agriculture does its thing. Agrichemical companies love such chemicals. They particularly love chemicals that can be sold to farmers with the seed for the crop, to be used in an integrated way to ensure good yields. Neonics are typically supplied as a coating on seed for crops like canola. The insecticide gets into the seed, and is present within the tissues of the seedling ready to kill any insect that happens to chew on that plant in the first weeks of life. Such a process reduces the overall quantities of insecticides used, and avoids spraying which can result in the insecticide being dispersed well beyond the crop itself. Sounds like a great deal. (Not to mention the fact that the agrichemical corporation can patent the insecticide and the treated seed, earning royalties while at the same time placing restrictions on how farmers use the product (or don’t use it), locking everything up nice and tightly to ensure lots of profits for them.

There is mounting evidence that neonics are having deleterious impacts on pollinator insects like bees. Bees are good. They are not the intended target. But they are also insects and they are killed just as surely as an insect that munches away on the canola seedlings because neonics are now widely distributed in agricultural environment. Not surprisingly, just as with the battle re antibiotics, agribusiness and governments are doing lots of talking and moving very slowly, demanding that everyone be certain that neonics are killing off pollinators before any action is taken to get the neonics out of the landscape. (Actually, truth is that action is taking place much more quickly in Europe than in North America and some other regions – perhaps money has a larger role in government in North America than elsewhere.)

But the science is becoming ever more clear. Not that neonics are the sole cause of loss of pollinators, but that it is one of a number of interacting causes. In Science of 27th March, Dave Goulson and three colleagues from the University of Sussex provide a timely review of the situation concerning neonics and the decline in bee populations around the world. They begin by stressing the importance of bees and other pollinators.
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Insect pollinators are necessary for the success of 75% of our crop plants. Yet, we are killing them off! Such are the ways of modern monoculture agriculture. Figure © Wikipedia

Some 75% of our crop plants depend on insect pollinators which together provide pollination services worth $215 billion to global food production. Species richness and abundance of pollinators have declined over the past 50 years. The extent of loss varies regionally and among species with some suffering substantial declines and a few going extinct. Data can be patchy, but the best data for wild pollinators are for bumblebees of several species which have shown substantial declines and a few extinctions in Europe and in North America. Data are more certain for managed domestic bee hives. In Europe there has been a 25% fall in number of hives since 1985, and in North America a 59% fall since 1947, although the industry has greatly expanded the number of hives in some other regions, notably China and Argentina. (The European and North American declines have been due to colony failure – so-called colony collapse disorder, not to a decision by bee keepers to manage fewer hives.)

Studies of pollination effectiveness have revealed that many wild species are more effective, and more important pollinators than is the domestic honey bee. Thus expanding bee husbandry will not easily replace native species, and there is the possibility that we are approaching a threshold beyond which pollination by insects will be significantly impaired. Some time ago, I wrote about a study in Illinois revealing the substantial changes in insect abundance and in plant diversity over the last century. That was one of many such studies, and anyone who remembers driving on North American highways in the 1960s, when getting the windshield cleaned was as important a reason as filling up for stopping at a gas station, can attest to the fact that there are now far fewer insects about.
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Goulson’s Figure 3 showing the various factors implicated in the global loss of bees and the interactions among them. In a multi-causal problem such as this, it is particularly difficult for our system of governance to reduce or remove causes – no one cause is clearly responsible for any one effect. Corporations are quick to hide behind such legal devices, prevaricating while continuing to make money. Figure © Science

Goulson and colleagues discuss the various factors that are implicated in the growing loss of pollinator insects. These are habitat loss, parasites and disease, pesticides, and climate change; competition between native and domestic bees may play a very minor role in some instances.

Our increasingly mechanized monoculture agriculture is eliminating the communities of native plants that persisted until recently along hedgerows and in otherwise uncultivated land. In the UK, 97% of such habitat was lost during the 20th century. This removes not only shelter sites and nesting sites, but important sources of pollen and nectar that are available when the farmer’s crop is not producing.

Bees suffer from their share of parasites, parasitoids, and pathogens, the latter including protozoans, fungi, bacteria, and viruses. It is the spread of parasites and pathogens that is the problem here, because this introduces novel disease agents to populations unable to cope with them. This spread has been greatly accelerated by our moving of honey bee hives over large distances as commercial bee keepers move their hives to follow the crops. There is good evidence that the mite, Varroa destructor, originally associated with the Asian honey bee Apis cerana, has infected several other bee species and is now widely distributed in Europe, North America, and most recently New Zealand due to the transport we have provided. Varroa is a host for several pathogens of bees. In addition to Varroa, there are a number of other fellow travelers that either directly impact, or carry other organisms that impact bee health. All have been spread as we move hives of bees to pollinate field crops, to work in greenhouse complexes, or simply to make honey.

Some 161 pesticides have been detected in bee colonies. Of these, the neonics are the most recent, and the ones most clearly implicated in colony decline. Because bees collect pollen and nectar and bring these back to the hive, any pesticide in the environment that is in plant tissues or on plant surfaces, can be picked up. Once it is in the hive it will expose all members of the colony. While concentrations sufficient to kill off hives are very rare, concentrations of pesticides sufficient to impact health or behavior of bees are far more prevalent, and bees whose physiology or behavior are impaired can become more susceptible than otherwise to pathogens and parasites.

Finally, there is climate change and the alterations it is bringing to climate, to weather, to plant species presence, and to plant flowering regimes. Suddenly, pollinators that have evolved a life history that suits them well to the features of a location, find themselves without food, with food at the wrong time, in a climate they are not well adapted to.

As is often the case in the natural world, there is not just one cause of the decline we are witnessing in the abundance and diversity of pollinators. All of these causes interact, each one chipping away at the pollinator’s ability to survive and reproduce. The result is the sorry decline we see, and we are overwhelmingly the cause. It is in our self-interest to stop this decline, and it is pretty clear how we can do that. We need to stop the shipment of domestic bee hives back and forth across continents, or put in place far more effective quarantine between regions (even within larger countries). We need to teach farmers to leave some land fallow to support those native species of plant that the pollinators and other creatures rely on. We need to recognize that turning all our agricultural land into an enormous monoculture is decidedly not the right way forward (for several reasons beyond decline of pollinators), even if we have been moving down that path for over a century. We need to be far more rigorous about the health of domestic bees that are being sold or shipped for any purpose (including a critical look at the microfauna they may be carrying). And we need to recognize that putting pesticides into the environment has real, substantial costs. Reversing direction in agriculture, towards less use of additives of all kinds, and particularly pesticides, is both necessary and an urgent need.

None of those solutions offer increased profit to farmers or agribusiness. Nature does not always work in ways that help our economy prosper, and it is time that corporations that have been damaging our planet’s capacity to provide the goods and services on which we ultimately depend start paying for the damage they have been doing for many years. Tyson Foods should move to cut all use of antibiotics, except to treat disease in livestock, immediately; not some of that use in two or so years. And the agrichemical corporations should be eliminating the practice of putting pesticides like neonics out into the environment immediately. Yes, yields will fall temporarily – that is the real price of doing business.  And no, I am not holding my breath that these logical steps will be taken — I’ve read too much Monbiot.

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, Climate change, Economics, Land Use | Leave a comment

Hypocrisy, thy name is Harper. Does Canada’s Prime Minister have no shame when it comes to climate policy?

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It is rare that I post more frequently than once every 10 to 14 days, but recent news out of Ottawa raised my blood to boiling. So here goes.

Some background

Ever since he came to power far too long ago, Steven Harper has sought to minimize any action by Canada towards the effort to limit GHG emissions. For most of that time, he refused to discuss climate change, sought to dismantle government labs that might provide data on the topic, kept a heavy controlling hand on the shoulders of successive environment ministers, and pushed consistently for any actions that might favor the tar sands operations in Alberta. Those who argued against the degradation of water and land in the Athabasca River basin, or against new pipelines from Alberta to every ocean, by any route, on environmental grounds were labeled terrorists, foreign-inspired or supported betrayers of Canada and its economy. He spent some $75 million of our tax dollars to tell us that he was leading the only government Canada has ever had that could keep its economy humming along – and we have hummed along faintly during his tenure.
Harper in tar sands bath ygreck journal de montreal 64f1739422aad5b20895edfbdf6dd74f

Stephen Harper has always been overly fond of tar sands bitumen. Its impacts on the climate have not been a concern to him. Cartoon © Ygreck, Journal de Montréal

Early in his tenure, he abrogated the Kyoto treaty, instead of undertaking to try and comply with its requirements (something his Liberal predecessors had been pretty ineffective at). Apparently, international treaties are only pieces of paper, easily torn up when life gets inconvenient. At the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, under pressure to do something positive, he undertook to bring Canadian GHG emissions to 17 percent below their 2005 level by 2020. That undertaking using a voluntary target chosen by Canada forms part of another international treaty, the Copenhagen Accord. The world, for the most part, politely ignored the fact that 17% below 2005 levels was going to be a substantially weaker achievement than if we had stuck with Kyoto. (The Copenhagen target of 17% below 2005 levels translates into 3% above 1990 levels; the Kyoto target was 6% below 1990 levels by 2012.)

Since Copenhagen, a succession of environment ministers has been required to stand up and lie about Canada’s performance relative to its Copenhagen goal. The phrase “Canada is halfway towards meeting its 2020 goal” sounds reassuring, and has been often repeated, including by Mr. Harper himself. It is very, very far from the truth, and Canada’s emissions have continued to climb, and Harper’s much-promised regulations on the oil and gas industry have been postponed, postponed, and almost forgotten. The current environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, has stopped making this palpably false claim, and instead resorts to “Canada is working hard to bring emissions down” or words to that effect – words not backed by any deeds other than those done by individual provinces acting independently, or done by the Federal government only because of the necessity of remaining in sync with the US. New regulations now being phased in on efficiency of automobiles were announced a year after the US made such changes and were effectively meaningless, since the auto industry is so closely integrated.

Harper in the Arctic

Every year, Stephen Harper has taken a summer trip to the Arctic. He seems to genuinely enjoy being in the far north, and he has seen much more of it than any former prime minister. Yet, on all his visits, he has managed to not see, or at least to not comment on, the immense changes taking place in the northern climate. You’d think he’d at least notice that the ice is melting. Especially, since he constantly talks about how the arctic is opening up for development. Hint to residents of Nunavut – go visit Fort McMurray to see what Harper means when he says “opening up”. Every year at climate conferences, Canada wins awards. Fossil of the Day, Fossil of the Year, a Fossil Trifecta, and Lifetime Unachievement awards have been accumulated. Late in 2014, the think-tank, Germanwatch, announced than on the basis of an objective ranking of performance using a number of criteria to create a Climate Change Performance Index, Canada comes in dead last among developed countries. Canada ranks lowest in the OECD, lowest in the G8, and 4th from the bottom among the 61 countries ranked. Below Canada were Iran, Kazakhstan, and Saudi Arabia, while Australia ranked just ahead.
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Even when the ice is melting all around him… Stephen Harper in the Arctic.
Photo © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

A tidal change in his views on climate

Still, the tide is turning in favor of responsible policy for GHG emissions. Even Stephen Harper feels the pressure of the shifting currents. In an interview with CBC’s Peter Mansbridge a couple of months ago, he actually uttered the words ‘climate change’, and admitted it was ‘one of’ the world’s pressing problems. He has tended to justify his relative inaction, not by denying climate change exists, but by stressing the need to act ‘in consort with’ the USA, and to act in ways that ‘do not impact our economy’. His discomfit as Obama has moved aggressively on climate has been noticeable. And so to the events that have my blood boiling today.

On 3rd March 2015, the Globe and Mail advised us that Environment Canada was quietly canvassing the provinces and territories to find out what policies they have in place and what reductions in GHG emissions they are achieving. The article quotes a spokesman for Leona Aglukkaq as saying in an e-mail, “Canada is actively preparing its intended nationally determined contribution [to global emissions reductions]. … As this is a national contribution, the provinces and territories hold many levers for taking action on emissions, so the minister is seeking feedback from her counterparts on how initiatives in their jurisdictions will factor into Canada’s overall commitment.” That sounds to me like an admission that the Federal government is going to stitch together a patchwork quilt of provincial policies, and call it a federal plan. Minister Aglukkaq refused requests from the Globe for an interview throughout February, so if the national plan has more in it than this, she is keeping it very hush hush.
Harper and Aglukkaq - postmedia news

Stephen Harper and Leona Aglukkaq discussing how big a quilt of climate policies they can stitch together from provincial efforts. Photo © Postmedia

I was quietly digesting this news when three things happened. First, two groups of citizens stepped forward with coherent, national plans for GHG emissions that would go a long way to improve Canada’s indefensible position internationally. First came the contribution from Sustainable Canada Dialogues, a group of 71 academics from various disciplines at universities across Canada. Their report, which even made the pages of Science, offers a detailed policy road map for Canada to achieve 100% reliance on low-carbon electricity by 2035. It calls for Canada to reduce greenhouse emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and eliminate at least 80% of emissions by midcentury. It also calls for elimination of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, and introduction across Canada, of a price for carbon, either as a tax or as a cap-and-trade scheme. Their plan is pragmatic and feasible.

Next came a report from Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission. Titled “The Way Forward: A Practical Approach to Reducing Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions”, this report also provides a coherent plan to make a significant reduction to GHG emissions. It also is predicated on a national price on carbon as a fundamental requirement, and it stresses the need for stringent pricing policies to ensure effective compliance.
Wynne and

Congratulations to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, seen here with Québec Premier Phillippe Couillard, as they sign deal on 13th April 2015, to cooperate in a carbon cap-and-trade program. Photo © Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press.

Almost immediately, on 10th April, came news that Ontario was going to sign a cap-and-trade deal with Quebec, bringing Ontario into the same pool of jurisdictions as Quebec and California. This is a very good step to take, although my personal preference would be for a carbon tax comparable to the one in place in British Columbia. Of course, the media this morning are all over the fact that some large, but unspecifiable amount of revenue will be generated by a cap-and-trade plan, and used by the government for climate adaptation, and that therefore this is a tax. I hope people can get past that bogus anti-tax argument and recognize that at last there is going to be in Ontario a mechanism that will require that we pay for the carbon pollution we are causing, and that reducing those emissions will save money.

Hypocrisy Rampant – Welcome to the blame game

But, those three events are all good news, aren’t they? So why is my blood boiling? Because Stephen Harper has found it necessary to have Leona Aglukkaq send a letter to provinces stating that Ontario and other provinces have failed to provide detailed climate plans that Ottawa says it needs to submit Canada’s emission-reduction commitment to the United Nations. According to the Globe and Mail, a spokesman for Ms. Aglukkaq said Ottawa is taking a co-ordinating approach with the provinces but will be pursuing additional regulatory action of its own. He accused federal Liberals and New Democrats of advocating “top down” policies that would interfere with provincial jurisdiction.

Just think about that for a moment. Maybe go for a quiet walk, or listen to some calming music. Stephen Harper, the man who has resisted doing anything about climate change throughout his time in office is now, at a rather late date, letting it be known that the fault belongs everywhere except within his government.
Stephen Harper Sean Kilpatrick, Canadian Press

Stephen Harper – It’s not my fault that Canada does not have a climate plan.
Photo © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

Something I missed at the time, but discovered while preparing this rant: the ‘Let’s blame everybody else’ argument was trotted out to the Globe and Mail reporters at the end of March. An article on March 30th provides extensive quotes that say Canada’s lack of progress is all the fault of Mexico and the USA (who had just signed a bilateral climate accord) as well as the provinces. Witness the following quotes from that article:

First, the provinces:
Canada wants to ensure we have a complete picture of what the provinces and territories plan before we submit,” a spokesman for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said in an email Sunday. Ted Laking said the government will submit its nationally determined contribution “well in advance” of the December summit, as organizers have asked. “Because this is a national contribution and the provinces have targets of their own, we are collecting information on how they intend to meet their targets.

Then, the US and Mexico:
We’ve said for some time, it’s very public, we’re seeking a continental response on this particular question, not just with the United States. We’d like to see Mexico as well in it,” Harper told the CBC. However government statements in recent years have not reflected any substantive talks, let alone agreement, between Canada and the U.S. on common regulation of their oil and gas sectors.

Anyone who has taught at the university or high school level has heard such arguments before, “I was waiting for my lab partners to complete their parts of the report first”, or “My dog ate my homework”, or even, “I’ve been unable to complete the assignment on time because my kid brother spilled chocolate milk all over my laptop”. I just do not expect such blaming and prevarication from the leadership of a country. As people are becoming fond of saying, “Oh! Canada. Indeed!

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is now apparently developing an emissions plan for Canada. If only everyone else would stop slowing his progress. Cartoon © Gareth Lind

Categories: Arctic, Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | 4 Comments