Coral reefs, fossil fuels and climate change: Why Australia might be a luckier country than Canada.

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The G20 and the IUCN World Parks Congress

g20-20141115183938591021-620x349 Andrew MearesPrime Minister Tony Abbott poses with the G20 leaders for the family photo in Brisbane. Stephen Harper, second row left, looks uncomfortable already. Barack Obama is not looking at his host. Photo: Andrew Meares

Talk about a perfect storm. Australia’s right-of-center Abbott government has been hit by a G20 meeting in Brisbane in which climate did get onto the agenda, despite a firm wish by Australia to keep it off, and the 2014 IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney which directed plenty of attention to the plight of the Great Barrier Reef. These two major events trundled in more or less simultaneously, while UNESCO’s stated concerns about the Great Barrier Reef, and whether it was being effectively managed, droned quietly in the background like some distant didgeridoo. All the while, the government was trying to talk up the economy, the need to export coal to China, faster and faster, and in ever increasing quantities, while minimizing the possible impacts on said reef of all the dredging being proposed to expand or build new coal export terminals along the Queensland coast. Along the way there was much confusion generated by government spokesmen who kept misquoting the advice about the Great Barrier Reef, delivered to them by various learned, and often government-funded, bodies.

Gladstone coal terminal Brisbane TimesThe coal terminal at the Port of Gladstone, one of the sites where expansion plans involve major dredging operations that could impact the nearby
Great Barrier Reef.  Photo – Brisbane Times

Canada’s PM Stephen Harper, who was at the G20, but avoided the World Parks Congress as if it were a place where he might catch Ebola, was probably smiling inwardly and thanking his lucky stars that Canada’s iconic scenic places, notably the Rockies and the Arctic, are either unlikely to be finished off by climate change (the Rockies), or so little appreciated by the average Canadian that their iconic status is not recognized (the Arctic). Aussie PM Tony Abbott, who from Day One has been taking lessons from Stephen Harper in how best to push a fossil fuel-based economy against the snarkiness of conservationists and thinking environmental scientists, is burdened by contrast with the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is both highly valued as a vital piece of Australia’s patrimony and a treasured member of the global A-list of biosphere bits; one for which Australia has nurturing responsibility. It is also being progressively degraded by the same suite of human impacts that are impacting coral reefs around the world. These impacts make it increasingly likely that we will not have any coral reefs later in this century, despite the efforts that are being made in many ways in many places (including in Australia, which has overall been doing a particularly good job until recently) to sustain these incredible ecosystems. The GBR, because of its iconic but fragile nature, makes life difficult for politicians who would avoid dealing with climate change. This may turn out to be a blessing for Australia in the long run, but there is clearly some pain for politicians at present.

History of Great Barrier Reef Management

By way of history, the management of the GBR since 1980 has been exemplary. Prior to that, the GBR was seen as yet another place to pillage and rape in keeping with the Aussie motto of the day, “If it moves shoot it; if it doesn’t, chop it down”. In Our Dying Planet, I tell the tale of the revolution in the general Australian attitude to environment that was brought about by a tiny Brisbane-based NGO named the Queensland Littoral Society, and its “Save the Barrier Reef” campaign. The Queensland Littoral Society has long ago morphed into the Australian Marine Conservation Society, and it continues to fight to protect the GBR and other marine environments. I believe the current, relatively good status of the GBR, and the high regard in which it is held by average Australians, can be directly linked to that long ago bumper-sticker campaign. The result was the declaration, in 1975, of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, at that time the largest marine protected area in the world.

Original_AMCS_Great_Barrier_Reef_sticker_smallA bumper sticker that saved a coral reef. The original Queensland Littoral Society slogan.

Declaration was the start. The process of planning and implementing management for such a large area took time. The Capricornia Section at the extreme southern end was the first to be zoned. It was proclaimed in 1979, and management was fully in place there by July 1981. Then followed the Cairns and Cormorant Pass sections in 1981, and all other parts by 1983. The zoning plans are subject to regular review and this has now occurred twice, with strengthened zoning introduced on each occasion. The current management plan was put in place in April 2004. The Great Barrier Reef also gained World Heritage status in 1981.

Management of the marine park has been as a multi-use marine management area, with most management focus addressed to fisheries, tourism, repeated outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfishes, and water quality. Water quality was initially seen as a lesser concern, but evidence of degradation of coastal reefs, and of the extent of dispersal of nutrient rich waters following flood events led to recognition that agricultural run-off was a significant issue that needed to be addressed. When high nutrients were also shown to be associated with enhanced survival by starfish larvae, the importance of managing water quality was seen to be even greater. The managing agency, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), was having some success working with the agricultural sector in Queensland to modify land, water and pesticide/fertilizer management practices, one of the rare examples world-wide of a marine management agency being able to influence human activities beyond the boundaries of the managed area.

GBR Map GBRMPAThe Great Barrier Reef Marine Park stretches about 1000 km along the Queensland coast, and encompasses an area about half the size of Texas. When first declared it was the largest marine managed area in the world.
Map courtesy GBRMPA.


Problems for the Great Barrier Reef

Things took a turn for the worse at the 35th Session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Paris in June 2011. At that meeting it was decided to conduct a mission to assess the status of the GBR to determine whether it should be included among World Heritage Sites listed as in danger. This decision was based on concerns that developments approved for Gladstone Harbor and nearby Curtis Island would cause significant deleterious impacts to the quality of the World Heritage Area, coupled with concerns that a recent, major cyclone, Yasi, had damaged about 15% of the coral reefs within the GBR. The mission took place in March 2012, and while it was agreed that the GBR did not need to be listed as ‘in danger’ at that time, there were a number of planned developments along the Queensland coast that appeared likely to cause unacceptable harm due to dredging activity and dumping of spoil. In addition to port development the mission report identified climate change, coastal run-off and water quality, and general increase in coastal development along the southern two thirds of the GBR as factors that were all trending in a direction that could lead to loss of World Heritage value. Some 14 specific recommendations were made to Australia, with the requirement that it act, and report back to the world Heritage Committee at its 2015 session.

Action by UNESCO led to, or encouraged, action by GBRMPA and other associated parties during 2012 to 2014 to undertake a strategic assessment, including a 25 year management plan for the GBR, and to develop the Reef 2050 Plan, a longer-term plan for sustainability of the GBR. The Strategic Assessment Report was published earlier this year, and the draft Reef 2050 Plan was opened for public consultation late in 2014 and is now being revised to final form. Meanwhile there has been continued pressure from within Australia and from overseas to curtail plans for port expansion in the GBR region, and particularly to be more stringent in requirements for dredging and dumping of spoil. There is little doubt that the change of government in Australia on 7th September 2013 has had significant impacts on how Australia has dealt with the pressures from UNESCO, and how it has approached the thorny question of port development. To begin with, one cannot help but assume that GBRMPA’s willingness to provide permits for the various dredge and dump operations was a consequence of governmental pressure to look after the economy.

I have written previously about the struggle between conserving the GBR and the desire to expand coal export capacity along the Queensland coast. The situation is evolving rapidly, and late in October the decision to dump 3 million tonnes of dredge spoil from the Abbot Point coal port expansion within the GBR was changed. Now the intention is to use a convenient, but world-class wetland, dump the spoil there, and create ‘new’ land for development. Further, the Minister of Environment, in announcing this change also announced that the new dumping proposal will be fast-tracked, reducing the chance that careful environmental oversight might occur. Pressure is forcing the government to backtrack, but the backtracking is being done grudgingly. Meanwhile, the Queensland government, which over many years has tended to favor development over environment, is urging the federal authorities to move more quickly and act in favor of the coal industry.

The two assessment reports on the GBR from GBRMPA have not been well received by the science community or from conservationists. At the end of October, the Australian National Academy of Sciences delivered a scathing commentary on Reef 2050 Plan, stating that “the plan failed to acknowledge the reef had already suffered greatly from the pressures of climate change, poor water quality from land run-off, fishing and coastal development”, and concluding that “the Reef 2050 plan had insufficient targets or resources to reverse the reef’s downward spiral, documented by countless scientific studies and several government reports”. It also claimed that the “plan was overly concerned with short-term measures to appease UNESCO, rather than addressing the long-term challenge of restoring the reef”. What is really riling up the science community is the inability or unwillingness of GBRMPA to come out and state clearly and explicitly that unless climate change is brought under control, the GBR will continue to degrade – a message that the Abbott government certainly does not want to hear.

Lest there be any doubt about this message, a new paper just out in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series has confirmed what everyone suspected all along – that lowered pH does not just impact the capacity of corals to build their calcium carbonate skeletons. It increases the rate at which dead coral rock (limestone) slowly dissolves away. Nyssa Silbiger, and three colleagues, at the University of Hawai’i used 5 x 5 x 2 cm blocks of limestone, cut from dead skeletons of the massive coral, Porites lobata, and free of all living material. These were placed out in depths from 0 to 5 m on a portion of the Kane’ohe reef where pH naturally varies spatially from 7.83 to 8.03. They found that mean pH at a block, during a year-long deployment explained 64% of variation in the accretion/erosion ratio, with blocks in lower pH showing greater erosion. Limestone slowly dissolves, and bioeroders chew it up more rapidly, in water of lower pH.

Mr. Obama arrived at the Brisbane G20 meeting, fresh from his success in reaching a bilateral climate deal with China, and one of the people responsible for getting climate back onto the G20 agenda. While in town, Mr. Obama gave a speech at the University of Queensland. He said that the science showed that the GRB was being degraded, at least partly due to climate change, and that he wanted the GBR to still be there when his grandchildren (hypothetical grandchildren at this point) are old enough to visit it. There was a certain amount of understandable huffing and puffing by Australian government representatives. After all, it is considered undiplomatic to visit a country and lecture on its failings.

Julie Bishop cartoon re reef Canberra TimesForeign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop as a clown fish on a dead coral reef.
Cartoon by David Pope.

Then the huffing and puffing went a bit too far. The Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, was in New York on 21st November, and has the transcript of an interview she gave posted on her website. It’s rambling and repetitive as she tries to explain why she felt it necessary to send a briefing note to Mr. Obama after his speech. She claims she was only trying to ensure that the White House had the same information she had provided, before Obama’s visit, to the US Secretary of the Interior. She believed that the President had not been well briefed before his speech. The problem? She does not think the GBR is in danger. To quote from the interview transcript:

“I was talking about the work that we had done to preserve and conserve the Great Barrier Reef. Of course the Great Barrier Reef will be conserved for generations to come and we do not believe that it is in danger. In fact the Australian Government is making every effort to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef is preserved for generations to come and that was the point that I had made to the Secretary of the Interior and the point that we made to the White House after President Obama’s speech to reassure him that he can most certainly visit the reef, he can most certainly bring his family and that the Australian Government takes most seriously our responsibility as the custodian of this magnificent environmental and tourism attraction”.

Beautiful isn’t it? Apart from the run-on sentence.
The real problem, of course, is that Minister Bishop is living in a fluffy bubble of unreality. Her own government scientists and managers have said that the GBR is under threat. Earlier this year, GBRMPA released its quintennial GBR Outlook Report, in which it said,

“Climate change remains the most serious threat to the Great Barrier Reef. It is already affecting the Reef and is likely to have far-reaching consequences in the decades to come. Sea temperatures are on the rise and this trend is expected to continue, leading to an increased risk of mass coral bleaching; gradual ocean acidification will increasingly restrict coral growth and survival; and there are likely to be more intense weather events. The extent and persistence of these impacts depends to a large degree on how effectively the issue of rising levels of greenhouse gases is addressed worldwide. The impacts of increasing ocean temperatures and ocean acidification will be amplified by the accumulation of other impacts such as those caused by excess nutrient run-off”.

You cannot get much clearer than that! In the Guardian, Graham Readfearn gives additional examples of government agencies saying quite clearly that the GBR is threatened. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s recent performance shows remarkable similarities in its utter disregard for fact to the many statements on climate that Canada’s Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq has made.

Julie Bishop commenting on Nauru claims 2 news com auForeign Affairs Minister Bishop seems to have a new hand signal – I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Photo from

COP20 at Lima

Now the climate conference is getting under way in Lima. Australia and Canada will be there, unwillingly, but there nonetheless. Ever since Abbott and Harper first met in Ottawa back in June, they seem to have been ensuring that their governments will perform on the climate stage with remarkable synchrony. Not quite synchronized swimming, but synchrony nonetheless. I feel prescient that I detected their bromance so quickly, even pointing to a photo showing Tony Abbott practicing the Stephen Harper ‘how-big-a-lie-am-I-telling’ gesture. In any event, they both made it clear then that they were not going to let climate change get in the way of either of their economies and would work together on this issue on the world stage.

Since then, the Abbott government has made a series of decisions that are ominously reminiscent of Harper government practice – chipping away at support for science, denigrating people who speak out against environmentally unsound decisions, and putting the rapid export of some of the dirtier fossil fuels far ahead of environmental sustainability or reduction of CO2 emissions. The New Republic seems to agree with my assessment that there is a pattern here. One asymmetry – Canada withdrew from Kyoto and is making no effort to keep its Copenhagen pledge; Australia gained a relatively easy target from Kyoto and has met it (albeit primarily through ‘accidents’ like the global economic collapse rather than through careful emissions reducing plans). And Australia introduced a carbon tax. However, the Abbott government has now cancelled its carbon tax, and seems bent on resisting further action on climate.

Despite the apparent similarities between policies of the Harper and Abbott governments, however, there is one big difference between Canada and Australia. Australia has an enormous, globally recognized, iconic natural system called the Great Barrier Reef. Like all coral reefs its ecological health is sensitive to a broad range of environmental conditions including temperature, pH, nutrient levels, turbidity, and siltation. Despite strong and responsible management over 30 years, the GBR has degraded, and will continue to degrade unless climate change is brought under control with average global temperature held at less than 2oC above preindustrial levels. The GBR is inconveniently located close to the important agricultural region of coastal Queensland, and various industrial ports along the Queensland coast that provide the exit gates for Australia’s coal exports. Canada does not have a GBR. Canada’s efforts to mine and export fossil fuels, particularly tar sands bitumen, create environmental damage far and wide – at present there are plans being developed or in place for bitumen pipelines from Alberta to the Pacific coast of British Columbia (Northern Gateway and Kinder-Morgan pipeline projects), to the Gulf of Mexico (Keystone XL), to the Atlantic (Energy East), and to the Arctic Ocean (Arctic Gateway). The environments compromised are, on the surface, less critical, less at risk of substantial damage, than is the GBR, although the mountains and the British Columbia coast that will be impacted by Northern Gateway have to come close. And that is why Harper may have a better chance of getting his way than will Abbott. The irony in this is that Australia has always thought of itself as ‘the lucky country’. Prime Minister Abbott may not be feeling ‘lucky’ these days, but the shape of the environment vs energy battle there is certainly lucky for the long-term.

Arctic GBR RockiesThe Canadian Arctic, the Great Barrier Reef, the Canadian Rockies – only one of these landscapes is existentially threatened by climate change and an internationally recognized environmental icon. Photos: Ellesmere Island, Pat Morrow; GBR, Stephanie Sykora, Rockies, Condenast, stock photo.

So, my prediction for today, for what it’s worth? Australia will ultimately recover from its bout of climatological misbehavior, and become a reformed, environmentally responsible country, well before Canada does, because the forces opposed to current policy in Australia have an easier battle to wage. They have an icon of enormous importance that is directly threatened both by climate change, and by the demands for new, larger export gateways for Australia’s coal. Canada lacks such an icon. Therefore, Canada will retain its claim to supreme climate Grinch-hood.

I do have one proviso… If some one of our national political leaders finds a way to articulate a vision for Canada that does not rest solely on ‘dig it up, ship it out’ resource extraction, we might get a new, more environmentally responsible government next year. And then Canada might also come in from the cold and join those responsible nations that are trying to do something about CO2 emissions.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Lima this week. Early press reports clearly identify Canada and Australia as laggards. Neither Harper or Abbott will attend. Instead their missions will be led by, wait for it,… Leona Aglukkaq and Julie Bishop. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these two could manage to say something accurate about their countries’ plans and performance?

Peru glacier wikimedia commonsMuch of the water powering Peru’s hydroelectricity plants is provided by rivers flowing from rapidly melting tropical glaciers in the Andes. These melting glaciers may help focus attention at COP20, now in progress in Lima.
Photo: Edubucher/Wikimedia Commons

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Coal, coral reef science, Politics | Leave a comment

Stories from a Coral Reef – Cleaner Fishes and Early Days at Heron Island

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This is another in my series of stories from a coral reef – stories in which I seek to tell about the wonders of this marvelous world, and what it has been like as a scientist trying to uncover just a small part.

Daily Life on a Coral Reef

The sun was coming up and the dappled light was getting brighter across the sandy floor outside his shelter. It was time to start a new day with a visit to his Number One Wife. He stretched, flicked his fins a couple of times, swam out of his shelter across the sandy patch and began to move along the reef edge as he always did. Neighbors of various types were out and about; he noted each in passing, but he was on a mission.

Number One Wife held court just round the next bend, and he readied himself. It was necessary to be maximally assertive on first meeting her; she had to be kept in her place. Rounding the corner, he saw her, and rushed forward, fins erect, head slightly down. She lowered her fins and turned away. Again he rushed her, again she demurred. Once more should be enough for now.

Labroides-dimidiatus Keoki Stender
Labroides dimidiatus, the bluestreak cleaner wrasse. Photo © Keoki Stender

A client was hanging about nearby, so the two of them stopped their friendly aggressivity, and went into action, performing the sultry vertical rolling ‘dance’ as they approached. The client, a large coral trout, Plectropomus leopardus, rolled almost onto his side, raised all his fins and waited motionless for the coming caresses. Swimming rapidly along the flank of the larger fish they made sure to make frequent, delicate, physical contact, while periodically nipping at parasites and loose bits of skin. Leaving Number One Wife to investigate the rich opportunities along the base of the dorsal fin, he moved to the mouth, which the coral trout obligingly opened. Cleaning around the larger fish’s teeth, he swam in, and through the gills, out the operculum. Such intimacies continued for a minute or so, when the coral trout flicked its dorsal, righted itself, and moved away. They attended to a couple more clients, before it was time to move on. He needed to visit each of his other wives. And then repeat the whole exercise several more times during the day. He headed off along the familiar path to Number Two Wife.
Labroides dimidiatus & Plectropomus image_full J Fatherree

Cleaner fish getting ready to enter the mouth of a coral trout.
Photo © J.W. Fatherree

I do not, for one moment, believe that the cleaner wrasse, Labroides dimidiatus, verbalizes its thoughts, even internally, in this degree of detail. But nor do I believe that fishes are colorful automatons that carry out sequences of complex behavior as simple responses to external stimuli. These fishes, at least, have some vague fishy awareness of their environment and the other living creatures in it. They may, like me, treat the corals as simply the architecture of their world, but they recognize the fish, crustaceans, molluscs, and other mobile creatures as living entities, and often as neighbors.

I cannot know that the cleaner wrasse is quite that aware, but I find it hard, having watched cleaner wrasses many times, to believe that they are not. From the first time I put a mask and snorkel on and stuck my head into the world of a coral reef, I have always been aware that we are mere visitors to neighborhoods filled with creatures of many species, who have busy lives, and who know many of their neighbors as individuals, even if they do not sit down to coffee at the local Tim Hortons or Starbucks. The cleaner wrasse, of all reef species, deals intimately with numerous individuals of other fish species during the course of its day, and while it may not recognize its succession of clients as individuals, I’ll bet it recognizes some of them that way. And they, him. Or her, since the great majority of cleaners are females.

Two Hawaiian cleaners, Labroides phthirophagus, attending to the needs of a Novaculichthys taeniourus wrasse. Photo by Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons.

I had seen the Hawaiian endemic cleaner, Labroides phthirophagus, during my graduate studies, but I first met Labroides dimidiatus and learned just how complex its life was, during my first years in Australia, when, as a young faculty member with limited research funds, I was struggling to build a research career doing field work at Heron Island.

Heron Island, Low Isles, and early Australian reef research

The Heron Island Research Station was the first ‘permanent’ research facility established on the Great Barrier Reef, having been cobbled together by the Great Barrier Reef Committee with minimal finances in 1951. The Great Barrier Reef is mostly a long way from shore, and there are remarkably few islands out on the reef itself. The southern end of the reef is well north of Brisbane, in 1951 the only significant city in Queensland and home to the most northerly Australian university. True, there had been limited research on the Great Barrier Reef prior to 1951, but it had been done by expedition, and with difficulty.

The greatest expedition, of course, had been the 1928-1929, year-long expedition to Low Isles, just north of Cairns and close inshore. That expedition is variously known as ‘the Great Barrier Reef Expedition’, or ‘the University of Cambridge – Royal Society Great Barrier Reef Expedition’. It was funded mostly with UK money, although the Great Barrier Reef Committee had raised some money for it, and half a dozen Australian scientists were allowed to participate as ‘junior partners’ to the Cambridge team – such were the ways of Commonwealth science collaboration in the colonial past.


GBR expedition team nla.pic-vn4274584-s1-v
Members of the Great Barrier Reef Expedition at Low Isles. C.M. Yonge is the man seated front, center, in long pants. His wife is to his left. Photo is part of Yonge, C. M. (Charles Maurice), 1899-1986. Album of the Great Barrier Reef Expedition in the Low Islands region, Queensland, 1928-1929, National Library of Australia.

The Low Isles expedition brought the young Yorkshire-born, Scottish-educated C.M. Yonge (later to become Sir C. Maurice Yonge) to Australia at the age of 27 as expedition-leader. He was an invertebrate physiologist and experimentalist rather than a taxonomist, the more typical biological expedition leader of those times. The UK team had limited tropical experience so they certainly brought fresh eyes to a largely unknown ecosystem. The results of the year at Low Isles were published in seven volumes between 1930 and 1968 and contributed significantly to our understanding of coral reef ecosystems. Quite significantly, despite the fact that SCUBA had not been invented and these scientists worked by wading at low tide, by peering through glass-bottomed boxes, by using downright dangerous-looking helmet diving, and by dragging, hooking and trawling for things down below.

net and diver GBR expedition
Collecting at Low Isles: Dr. F.S. Russell with large, coarse-mesh tow net used to capture small fish and larger invertebrates, and an unknown, but intrepid diver, modeling the surface-supplied helmet. Both photos part of Yonge, C. M. (Charles Maurice), 1899-1986. Album of the Great Barrier Reef Expedition in the Low Islands region, Queensland, 1928-1929, National Library of Australia.

They provided a benchmark for our understanding of how reef ecosystems functioned ecologically that was only really extended when the Odum brothers, Howard and Eugene, did their pioneering work at Enewetak Atoll, in the Marshall Islands in the early 1950s. After 1929, Australian reef science remained very quiet until well after the establishment of the Heron Island Research Station, apart from some continued interest by geologists in drilling to see if Darwin had been right about how reefs grow. How times have changed!

Heron & One Tree 2008 048 small
Heron Island in 2008. The research station is the cluster of buildings to the right of center. Buildings to the left are the resort, a much more sophisticated place than it was in 1969. Photo © P. Sale

But back to Heron Island, which, come to think of it, I first visited when I, too, was 27 years old (only I came alone, and not for a full year’s stay). At the end of the 1960s, Heron Island remained the only site set up to support research on a part of the reef well out from shore (it is situated about 100 km north-east of Gladstone, Queensland). It was a decidedly primitive place: modest houses for the Director and the Maintenance Officer, Kitchen-Dining Room, toilet-shower complex, about 10 two-bed sleeping huts, the laboratory building, a sea water tank and aquarium facility, and one research vessel. Sounds not too bad. Except that the laboratory was devoid of equipment, the aquarium facility had only two functional aquaria, the sea water system only operated at high tide, and the research vessel, called the ‘dory’, lived up to its name.

The dory was an in-board powered, high-sided, heavy, wooden tender about 4.5 m long, with a 1-cylinder, gasoline motor that was started by rotating the flywheel as fast as possible with your bare hand before disengaging the clutch. It would then putt-putt along at a stately 1 knot. Getting into it with dive gear on involved first having to have remembered before you got in the water to leave a line hanging over the gunnel on which to tie the dive tank (I learned this lesson the hard way). Then, having completed your dive, you took off your tank and tied it to the line, threw your fins high over the gunnel, and clambered up onto the rudder, in order to be able to climb over the stern and fall into the boat. Hopefully, you then remembered to reach over and haul in the dive tank.

Fresh from the University of Hawaii, which included the Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB), a well-equipped modern laboratory with several Boston Whaler work boats, on a small island in Kaneohe Bay, I at first missed those things that Heron Island did not have. But by the end of my second visit, and once I got my own boat so I no longer had to deal with the dory, I knew that Heron Island had one immeasurably important advantage – easy access to a very rich coral reef where it was possible to do field experiments that told far more about how reefs functioned than any aquarium experiment ever could. And I found myself thinking all those scientists who worked at HIMB, and tended to go out to the bay simply to collect organisms to bring back to the lab, were missing out on one of HIMB’s great secrets – its own easy access to a large, coral-rich bay that they could learn about by doing field experiments too. (Kaneohe subsequently degraded somewhat, as stormwater run-off from the mainland over many years built up nutrient levels in the water leading to dense growths of nuisance algae, but when I was there it was a place of numerous, moderately rich Hawaiian patch reefs.)

Despite the primitive lab facilities when I first visited, Heron Island offered easy access to an incredible natural laboratory – a living reef where one could do field experiements to find out how the system worked. Photo courtesy of Tourism Queensland.

The Heron Island Research Station did have a small library, a vital resource in those pre-internet days, with useful books that gave you long out-of-date names for the fishes, and even less useful names for the corals (an out of date name is better than no name at all). It also held an eclectic collection of curious volumes that helped fill a rough and windy day with tales of expeditions in the south seas or, one of my favorites, a slim volume written as advice to a young acquaintance about to depart from England for ‘the colonies’. It was written in the 1920s or perhaps slightly earlier by an author who had been posted to British India as a medical officer, and who boasted more letters after his name than were in the name itself. It contained useful information about avoiding chills, which apparently caused everything from diarrhea to malaria, by wearing a cummerbund of ‘stout muslin’ at all times. It had a chapter on the importance of always dressing for dinner, even in the most primitive field conditions, because it was important to maintain standards. And it provided stern admonitions to avoid interactions that might lead to fraternization with the native women because of risks to one’s reputation as a gentleman, and undescribed but hinted at medical issues most dire.

It was at Heron Island that I first saw the amazing photographs of the Great Barrier Reef, taken by William Saville-Kent in the 1890s and printed in a large-format, glorious volume that now speaks of a long-ago time when the Great Barrier Reef really was great. The Heron Island library also led me to become interested in James Cook’s journals. The library did not include the journals, but sparked by something I read there, I searched the three thick volumes out in the library of University of Sydney, and read them voraciously. (Those really were the good old days, when a faculty member had time to do irrelevant things like reading James Cook’s account of his journeys.)

It was also at Heron Island that I first encountered a kerosene refrigerator. I marvel to this day that you make a kerosene fridge colder by turning up the flame underneath it. Or that you deal with a kerosene fridge that appears not to be working by emptying the contents, and turning the whole thing upside down for 24 hours. Chances are that once you right it, and re-light it, it will work again. Don’t ask me why. These are facts that come from a parallel universe in which kerosene can help keep your food fresh.

Getting to Heron Island, in my early days, was a lengthy, often times tedious process. With insufficient research funds to fly, I used the train. This meant overnight to Brisbane, cool ones heels in a convenient pub for the whole day, and overnight to Gladstone. There were/are no through trains because Australian states have used their freedom from any national mandate to select different track gauges for their railroads. The train from Sydney terminates in Brisbane because all tracks north from there are narrower. Once I got to Gladstone – now a far, far larger coal, LPG and alumina export terminal than it was then, and site of some of the dredging and expansion that now threatens the Great Barrier Reef – there was more heel cooling before boarding the launch to Heron Island.

Gladstone ca 1975 PC1229
The main street of Gladstone about 1975. Walking up and down this street for a Saturday morning whiled the time away, and left one better able to face the launch journey to Heron Island than did spending the morning in the cool dimness of one of the many pubs. Photo © Centre for the Government of Queensland, University of Queensland.

The launch service was provided by the Heron Island Resort, in those days a decidedly down-market affair with salt-water showers, grub rather than cuisine, and a clientele including lots or repeat visitors from around Australia, mostly going for the fishing. ‘Launch’ was a kind description. One of my favorites of the succession of launches I experienced over the years, was the ‘Saramoa’, a ship which moved pretty well the way her name sounded – a gentle, forward roll, shifting towards the starboard with a noticeable corkscrew motion, and then abruptly finishing with a rapid, rightward swash of the stern, all repeated, once every five seconds, for the seven hour crossing (on a good day). I learned to stand rather than sit, to position myself forward of the funnel and its nauseous diesel fumes, and to keep my eyes firmly on the horizon, while ignoring the mayhem behind me aft to the stern. At Heron Island, the tourists would be helped across the shallows, looking much the worse for wear, and up the beach, to collapse in their cabins, while we scientists were left to find our way across the island to the research station.

Our food, ordered in advance from the Gladstone supermarket, would get delivered from the launch by tractor, in cardboard boxes variously soaked with seawater and falling apart, and would have to be sorted out, and packed into the limited fridge space. With experience I learned how to order a week’s food at one time, and to order items that would last through the journey and the vagaries of kerosene refrigeration. Giant Queensland cabbages and pumpkins would last forever. Lettuce, not so well. Eggs were a gamble, but usually worth it. Canned food which had lost its labels during a rough crossing could provide unexpected delights. UHT milk tasted far better than canned milk or powdered milk, although powdered whole milk had a special taste that could become mildly addictive on a tropical island. A large leg of lamb that started out frozen could endure all sorts of misadventure en route and arrive in pretty good condition ready to be roasted, and ordering same marked you as ‘not a tourist’. It also led to interesting communal meals with other researchers, some of whom were from far away, just passing through, getting an inexpensive look at the reef while in Australia. Many people who became long-term friends, colleagues and collaborators were first met on Heron Island.

The Great Barrier Reef Committee was a decidedly strange organization. I know because I was a member over several years, and with Hal Heatwole and some others, metamorphosed it into the Australian Coral Reef Society, which holds annual scientific conferences and supports reef science and conservation in other ways. (Its first scientific conference was convened at University of Sydney in 1987.) When I first encountered it, the Great Barrier Reef Committee was made up of scientists who genuinely believed that Australia had a responsibility to advance reef science, but who had trouble agreeing with each other about how to do that.  They convened the second International Coral Reef Symposium (now a major, quadrennial conference) as a week-long conference on an aged cruise ship that sailed from Brisbane up to Lizard Island and back with field trips along the way – a bizarre experience fondly remembered by those of us who participated.  And they struggled to keep the Heron Island station alive, with never enough funding, and with a misguided policy of hiring directors who were supposed to do research, but were left marooned on a tiny island, remote from academic stimulation, through long hot summers when mosquitoes, mutton birds and noddy terns helped make life difficult each in their own way.

Mutton birds resting quietly a few meters from their burrow on Laysan Island, leeward Hawaiian Islands. I don’t remember the Heron Island birds ever resting quietly! Photo © Ian Thomas

Mosquitoes do what mosquitoes the world over do and none of the buildings were screened. Noddy terns, which seem quite attractive at first glance, nest in the trees, gluing leaves together with excreta to make some of the worst engineered nests in avian history. In wet weather the trees drip excreta and hatchlings slide out of the nests to their death on the ground below. Mutton birds, or wedge-tailed shearwaters (Puffinus pacificus) are something else entirely. They breed on Heron Island in the summer months, digging burrows in the sandy soil instead of building nests. They are pelagic feeders and one member of each pair spends the day out at sea foraging while the other sits on the eggs in a burrow that can be used over many years by the same pair. Once the eggs hatch both parents spend the day feeding, returning at dusk to regurgitate delicious, partly digested squid for the young. (I know this because one summer I was living in a new hut that was on one bird’s flight path to its burrow. Every evening at dinnertime it slammed into the wall of my hut, staggered in and deposited its squid on my floor, shook its head a couple of times, then staggered out and wandered off on foot to its burrow.)

Mutton birds sing. All night. Caterwauling does not begin to describe the music. They wail and moan and sigh. Sometimes it sounds vaguely orgasmic; other times more like torture. Think cats in heat, only all around you, and loud. The volume rises and falls as different birds join in. Sleep is best achieved with copious quantities of beer, wine, or rum just prior, available at a price at the resort if your own stash runs out. The trick is to fall asleep quickly, and stay asleep, because once woken it is difficult to go back to slumberland.

Of course, mutton birds are beautifully acrobatic in flight, and they summer in the far northern hemisphere. In fact the parents leave Heron to migrate north about two weeks before the young have fledged. Fat, roly-poly nestlings emerge, bewildered, from their burrows and amble about the island, getting thinner and better able to fly. And then, one day, they take off, heading north to the summer range. How they know where to go, I do not know. But these features almost make me want to marvel at mutton birds, instead of hate them for their singing.

Anyhow, back to the plight of research station directors. Abandoning a research scientist on a tiny tropical island, and assuming he (they have all been male) will remain productive was not a sensible plan. The first one I met was Peter Woodhead, a British fisheries biologist with significant past achievements, who had converted to investigating coral biology, and helped me a lot in my early struggles to sort out the myriad species of corals on the reef. When he finally left the island, however, Peter had clearly been driven ‘tropo’ by his experiences; he proceeded to throw most of his possessions overboard on the long slow launch journey back to Gladstone. I never saw him again.

In 1970, the University of Queensland became a co-owner of the research station; in 1980 it became sole owner and began to make significant investments. Today the station is a maze of new buildings and complex equipment where real science, sometimes important science, gets done, and the current Director, a former undergraduate of mine, spends much of his time on campus in Brisbane. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because I was talking about cleaner wrasses, and that is a story from 1969.

Ross Robertson and the Cleaner Wrasse

In my early days in Australia, I was spending about three months a year at Heron Island, typically as three, month-long visits. Among the other ‘regular’ visitors there were several that stand out, and one of these was D.R. (Ross) Robertson. In 1969, Ross was a PhD student at University of Queensland. He was studying the social behavior of the cleaner wrasse, and spent far more time than I did at Heron Island. Consequently we frequently overlapped, talked about what we were doing, and learned from each other.

It’s my belief that Ross had taken on a major burden that he did not have to carry; he had decided that he had to build a bigger reputation in Queensland reef science lore than had Howard Choat, who had preceded him as a UQ graduate student working on fish at Heron Island. I do not necessarily mean become a better scientist, I mean build a bigger persona, and Ross had his task cut out for him, because Howard is still talked about — admiringly, incredulously, enviously, derisively, sometimes affectionately — by many scientists he has come into contact with over the years. (I count both Ross and Howard as friends.) Howard was arguably the first reef scientist to use SCUBA to do field research on the Great Barrier Reef. Howard was also given to bouts of unusual behavior usually involving chemical substances and/or nudity when he was not doing serious, hard work. Howard did foundational work on reef fish feeding ecology, and had a career, post-PhD, that took him ultimately to a Professorship and the Chair of marine biology at James Cook University, where he built a department second to none in Australia. He still gets into the field, chasing big fish to spear, so he can look at their mouths and their stomachs. As a graduate student, Howard carved out a niche that Ross sought to fill.

So Ross, who was all short back and sides when I first met him, grew his hair long and unruly, explored chemical substances (it was the 60’s after all), mostly refrained from public nudity, and dived into his research with a passion I have seldom seen since. At one point, he was spending so much time in the water watching his fish that his hair and beard began to take on a greenish tinge – he fixed that with a bit more liberal use of shampoo. And as happens when someone is deeply immersed in his science, he became silent, uncommunicative, reflective for days at a time, only to become maniacally cheerful and ready to party a day later. In short he became a lot like any scientist trapped on a tropical island with noddy terns, mosquitoes and mutton birds for months at a time, except more so. And in the midst of all of this, he discovered some amazing things about the cleaner wrasse and proved his talent as a scientist.

Ross approached the cleaner wrasse in much the same way Jane Goodall approached chimpanzees, except under water. He got in the water, for hours at a time, getting to know individual fish by tiny differences in their color patterns, and following them around recording what they did. He made crude maps of the reef on plastic slates and traced the paths fishes followed over the topography while scribbling notes about what they seemed to be doing. He taught me how to sharpen a broken pencil using your thumb nail (when the pencil wood has become softened by several hours in salt water, thumb nails can work well, and you don’t have to go back to the boat for a replacement pencil). The cleaner wrasses really did have paths – trails that they followed repeatedly, day after day, as they moved about the reef. He discovered that larger fish moved about over larger areas, and that the largest fish in any area was always a male. He found that males moved over their large territories seemingly looking out for neighboring males, and displayed aggressively when they saw one. They were advertising their presence and defending their territories.

Ross discovered that smaller fish had smaller territories nested within the male’s, and were all female. But they defended their own territories from other females of similar size, while tolerating smaller females who set up their own smaller territories within. The social group consisted of a large male with a large territory defended from neighboring males. Within that territory were a series of smaller sites defended by smaller females from other females, with still smaller territories of still smaller females within. This is a classic haremic social system, a novel discovery at that time, but now known in a number of other fish species.

Ross also found that within the male’s large territory there would be two or more sites at which cleaning behavior was most likely to occur. These cleaning stations were attended by whichever members of the social group had territories that happened to coincide at them. The fish would cooperate in cleaning client species, and client fishes would come to the cleaning station, sometimes many times a day, to be serviced. Sometimes client species would line up, patiently waiting to be cleaned. The amount of communication going on to permit this high level of spatial and social organization within the group of cleaner fishes and among them and the client fishes of many species has to be impressive. It’s all done with subtle flicks of the fins, arching of the back, changes in orientation, and it functions as smoothly as any social activity among a group of humans. Only the mix of species makes it more like that bar in Star Wars.

Star Wars Cantina
Chalmun’s Spaceport Cantina, or Moe Eisley’s Cantina, was a popular spot on Tatooine for a wide range of species. Photo ©

The major discovery of Ross Robertson’s PhD research concerned those visits from the male to each of his females, and the aggressive displays that occurred. There is a reason why the largest fish in a group is always a male, and why all the smaller animals are female. Like a number of other reef fishes, the cleaner wrasse is a sequential hermaphrodite, or, to be more precise, a protogynous hermaphrodite, which simply means an animal that is first female and then male. At the time Ross was working there was limited understanding of how sex reversal occurred, and what triggered or postponed it. Ross wondered if the regular visits were part of the explanation, and being an experimentalist at heart, he set out to poke the system to find out what would happen. He killed a series of male cleaner fishes using a very small spear propelled using a rubber band between his fingers. Being Ross, he practiced until he became devilishly accurate. After removing a fish he then watched, waited, observed and recorded.

So, what happened? Ross discovered that when he removed a male cleaner wrasse the social system reorganized very swiftly. In the article he published in Science in 1972, he wrote

“For approximately half an hour after the death of the male the dominant female continues to behave aggressively as a normal female. This simple female aggression then wanes to more neutral reactions to nearby subordinate females. Approximately 1½ to 2 hours after male death, maleness appears ln the form of the special male aggressive display that the new “male” starts performing to the females of its group. The assumption of the male aggressive role can be virtually completed within several hours, when the “male” starts visiting its females and territory borders. The switchover to male courtship and spawning behavior takes somewhat longer but can be partly accomplished within 1 day and completed within 2 to 4 days. Other individuals also respond within a couple of hours to the altered social situation created by male death; low-status females take over vacant female territories, and neighboring males invade and attempt to take over the territory and harem.”

The sudden lack of visits by her male, with his special male aggressive displays, triggers hormonal changes that allow the largest female to begin to change sex. Within 2 hours, she has taken over his role and is performing the male aggressive displays to the other females of the group. Within as little as a day she can be performing as a male in courtship and spawning (although it takes 2-3 weeks for viable sperm to be released). Ross also found that the loss of a male did not always lead to sex reversal and a smooth reassignment of roles. Sometimes a neighboring male, noticing that the neighbor is no more, is able to take over the harem, adding those females and the new territory to his existing social group, and preventing the largest female from changing sex. He even described one case where a dominant female began showing the male aggressive display, was then forced back into a female role by the neighboring male who attempted to take over, but then resumed male behavior and forced the neighbor male to back off. She ultimately became a fully functional male at that site.

Epinephelus_tukula_is_cleaned_by_two_Labroides_dimidiatus Wikimedia commons
Two Labroides dimidiatus cleaning a larger potato cod, the grouper, Epinephelus tukula, at Osprey Reef, in the Coral Sea. Photo © Richard Ling via Wikimedia Commons

Ross Robertson’s work was the first discovery of the way in which the playing out of a social behavior – the male aggressive display – can suppress sex reversal in a female otherwise primed to change sex. Not all protogynous hermaphrodites have sex reversal controlled by behavior, but we now know a number of other protogynous fish species do.

Ross Robertson moved on from cleaner wrasses after completing his Ph.D.  He went to a post-doc and ultimately a long and successful career as a tropical fish ecologist, biogeographer and systematist based at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama where he is busy today seeking to unravel more mysteries of the fishes of coral reefs. Work on the cleaner wrasse by other people has revealed many more amazing facts: Their feeding activities substantially reduce the external parasite load on other reef fishes. Preventing access to cleaners can raise parasite loads on a client fish five-fold in a day. Cleaner fish use gentle tactile stimulation with their pelvic fins to calm client fishes and make them receptive. And cleaner stations are places where clients waiting to be serviced experience less aggression from larger piscivorous clients that are also aggregating to be cleaned.

If there were no cleaner fishes, we probably would not be able to imagine their existence. If Ross Robertson had not taken the time to get to know and understand his cleaners we might never have known how intricately the social system – including the social connections to all those client species – of this species is, and other scientists might never have wondered about the role these fishes play on a reef. (Indeed, I despair that far too many young reef scientists never take the time to immerse themselves in this amazing ecological system. They focus instead on the specific steps that they need to take to get the measurements to test the hypothesis that funded their field trip, and fail to look around to discover something really new.)

The world is full of amazing creatures, and equally amazing ecological and behavioral interactions that knit them all together. Coral reefs are particularly rich but other systems have their surprises waiting to be discovered as well. Unfortunately, we seem to be doing our best to reduce diversity and simplify ecological systems. If we continue, we will create a planet which is far less wonderful than the world we have grown up in. I don’t think that is a good world to pass to our grandchildren. I want them to be able to watch cleaner wrasses and wonder about what those little fishes are thinking.

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, coral reef science, Stories from a Coral Reef | Leave a comment

More on Economics, Politics and the Mitigation of Climate Change

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It’s that time of year. We switched our clocks back just as the weather turned cold and rainy, and afternoons became dark and dreary. We’ve had one or two sunny days over the past week, but I know winter is coming and I long for sunshine already. Most of my snow-bird neighbors have flown south and our towns have quieted down after the summer frenzy. My kayaks are put away for winter and the snowblower has new oil and a new sparkplug. I’ve stuck my neck out predicting a milder, less snowy winter than last year and I pray nightly to the el Niño god to please behave as anticipated. I’ve finished reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, and I’ve more or less absorbed the US mid-term election results. I am more worried than I was a month ago about the outcome of the climate negotiations that will be conducted through the following 12 months, but the news just received out of China is good.
The concept of the 1% — that group of people that owns nearly everything – has gained popularity with the success of Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century. The increasing concentration of wealth now taking place across the world plays an important role in our negotiations over climate. The Economist has just published an updated graph contrasting the wealth of the bottom 90% of families and that held by the top 0.1% of families in the USA.

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Percent of total wealth held by the bottom 90% and by the top 0.1% of families in the US for years from 1917 to 2012. Graph based on data from NBER Working Paper 20625, by E Saez and G Zucman, issued October 2014, and © The Economist (the graph is animated at the site, with captions detailing conditions at each of a number of times between 1917 and 2012).

This graph reveals that the situation in the USA is even more extreme than Piketty reported using his less extensive data. There has been a continuous increase in the proportion of wealth held by the top 0.1% of families since the mid-1980s, and a continuous decline in wealth held by the bottom 90% over that same time period. At present each group controls about 22% of total wealth, an amount, in the case of the 0.1% that is just shy of its peak proportional ownership in 1929. To put things in context, the top 0.1% in the US are 160,000 families each worth, on average, $73 million. That is a relatively small number of people used to having lots of power and influence. Other countries also have their 0.1% group.
Then there are the larger multinationals. If we strip out the 10 banks and investment funds among the top 20 public companies on Forbes’s 2014 list, you are left with 10 corporations with a total of about $3.6 trillion in assets, and a combined market value of about $2.5 trillion. Five of these are energy companies, two are automotive companies, and General Electric, Apple, and Walmart round out the list. With the possible exception of Apple and Walmart, these are companies that are strongly invested in the energy sector, as are the major banks and investment funds. Provision and delivery of energy is a major component of the global economy, and all of these super-sized multinational corporations are used to wielding considerable power and influence as they strive to maximize returns for their investors who, of course, include most of the 0.1%.

trickle down

The concentration of wealth (and power), particularly in North America, has been continually increasing since the late 1940’s and now is at a historic peak level.

Next come the governments, large and small. I’m just a simple scientist, so I start with a belief that, in a democracy, governments are formed of representatives elected by the community to serve their collective needs. Members of government and the staff they appoint all work tirelessly and selflessly to secure the best possible outcomes for their community in terms of defense, education, health care, other social services, infrastructure, necessary structure of laws to facilitate the effective interactions of individuals and groups, and environmental protection to ensure environmental goods and services will remain available to future generations. At least, that is what I believe democratic governments should do. Unfortunately, governments are composed of people with individual capacities for knowledge, effectiveness, creativity, and integrity, who also wish to carve out careers for themselves, frequently by getting re-elected or by finding appropriate positions with people they meet or within organizations with which they interact. Government becomes a lot more like sausage-making than my idealized view suggests, and the concentration of power and influence from wealthy individuals and large corporations that swirls about any seat of government makes for a heady atmosphere helping many elected members and many staff develop a sense of entitlement over time, second only to that of the truly wealthy and powerful.
Finally, there is the nature of fossil fuel extraction and refining. This is a complex, capital-intensive set of industrial processes that require lengthy periods of time from initial discovery to production and sale – money invested is tied up for decades before yielding its profits. This phenomenon is not unique to the fossil fuel industry, but it is an impediment to changing priorities. People engaged in such activities are not able to change course overnight without suffering losses, so they have a natural tendency to want to continue to operate as they have been operating in the past.
Under these circumstances, it’s no surprise that wealthy individuals and large corporations tend to respond negatively to suggestions that their activities must be changed, and governments tend to look out for the needs or wishes of big business and the rich and famous, even if individual members try their best to remember they are there for the little guy too. As for the environment, well sometimes they remember environment is important too. But environment does not even vote, and I doubt that very many people elected to a government – local, regional or national – have read Garrett Hardin’s classic The Tragedy of the Commons, which was published in Science in 1968, and cited 24,815 times since.

Pollution of the Commons

Garrett Hardin’s thesis was quite simple. Whenever a community shares the use of a resource that does not belong to anyone in particular (such as the ‘commons’ of an English village that was available to any farmer to graze his cattle), rational self-interest will ensure that the resource will become over-used and damaged. Every individual benefits more by making more use of the resource, and even if every individual understands, and can see that the combined use is too intensive, there is no net individual benefit to holding back, refraining from making more use of it. Holding back, foregoing use, is a net cost, and somebody else will simply increase their own use of it.

Sheep grazing at Wool, Dorset. Photo ©

When an industry (or an individual household) releases unwanted wastes of any type into the environment, it is using the environment’s capacity to absorb that waste as a commons. Without any rules or regulations, all individuals or enterprises will use the environment this way because it is the most expedient way to dispose of wastes. Pollution is the result – an environmental problem caused because too many have assumed the environment will be able to absorb, break down and recycle their wastes for free. Humanity has used the environment’s capacity to absorb, break down and recycle wastes of all types from the very beginning, and all works well until the quantities of wastes exceed the capacity to the environment to handle them. These days, with our larger and larger, more and more intensive economies and denser and denser populations, we regularly encounter pollution problems. Our pollution of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases released through our changes in land use and our economic activities is simply the latest, and perhaps most difficult pollution problem we have caused.
To solve the tragedy of the commons, all the individuals and groups making use of the commons must agree to set up and then abide by rules governing the extent of use by each individual or group. There are several ways to do this, and the history of fisheries management has explored most of them (because open-access fisheries are one of the most obvious commons out there). When the issue is environmental pollution, the solution can be as simple as regulating the maximum rate at which pollutants can be released, or requiring a release method that results in good dispersal (so a larger piece of environment takes on the task of managing the waste). Solutions that introduce a way of reclaiming the pollutants, perhaps converting them into a useful by-product, are also beneficial. Sometimes, as in the case of CFCs, the only solution is simply not to release those particular pollutants into the environment at all. (Chlorofluorocarbons were widely used as refrigerants and household aerosol propellants, but they do not break down easily in the atmosphere, and are highly reactive molecules that acted to break down ozone, diminishing the thickness of the protective ozone layer in our atmosphere. They are no longer manufactured and are banned from use.)
Solving the tragedy of the commons requires cooperation among independent individuals or businesses. It is a problem requiring governance. It is also a problem whose solution invariably increases costs for all parties, and perhaps not equally. Now, imagine for a moment an ancient English village with a number of farmers of varying wealth (and sizes of herd). They are overgrazing the commons. What can they do about it? If this is a tranquil village, with a couple of nice pubs, and lots of church-going, friendly people they might reach a reasonable consensus on how to limit use. It might even be one that is fair to the less wealthy. It might even be one that once agreed to lasts some years before some crisis leads to overuse once more. If it’s a village in which people do not always see eye to eye, a place of strong passions spiced by a bit too much booze, they may well come to blows, and the less strong will likely lose. In both villages, those with wealth and influence likely always win – a good outcome is one where most other farmers also win. Even the simple process of agreeing on how best to use the commons to graze the cattle is a difficult one when there are large differences in relative wealth and power.

two ancient pubs
Discussions in some pubs are more cordial than in others. Music seems to help.

Causing climate change is not really much like grazing cattle on the commons. First, the climate commons includes the entire planet. Second, those who are overusing can be far away, out of sight and out of mind, perhaps somewhere far away like northern Alberta, central China, Western Australia, or south-central Texas. Or they might be the rest of us, in our big cities, using electricity that is delivered to us from power plants that are hidden away in remote valleys, off on the horizon, not thought about. Our emissions of greenhouse gases come primarily from the fossil fuel cycle (from discovery through extraction, refining and use), as well as from deforestation, other changes in land use, and manufacture of cement. The gases disperse in the atmosphere, better insulating the entire planet, and the time lags between emissions and impacts on our climate can be decades long. Reaching agreement on what to do to protect this commons is vastly more difficult than it was in that quaint olde English village.
The individuals most engaged in reaching that agreement include the very ones who have most to lose from any reduction in current emissions-generating activities – the large multinationals, the wealthy, and the leaders of government. The rest of us get to listen in, but rarely have seats at the negotiation table. Sometimes our votes replace one set of negotiators with another, but getting negotiators with differing perspectives seems increasingly rare.
The most obvious way to cut GHG emissions is to switch from use of fossil fuels to use of renewables. The present cost of electricity generated by solar, wind, hydro, tidal or geothermal energy is not materially different from the cost of electricity derived from burning coal, oil or gas. What stops a quick transition is the amount of capital invested in fossil fuel infrastructure and in proven but not yet extracted fossil fuel resources. This capital mostly belongs to the large multinationals and their wealthy investors, all of whom wield considerable influence over the politicians and political staff. Looked at this way, it’s not too surprising that while the IPCC is now 26 years old, and the UNFCCC will hold its 20th annual negotiating conference in Lima, Peru, commencing 1st December 2014, the world has made surprisingly modest progress towards agreement on limiting GHG emissions. The process rolls forward with one expensive conference after another, and with frequent slightly smaller conferences between the annual events. But every session is a sad spectacle of nations that consume fossil fuels, and nations that produce them, finding ways to delay, weaken, or simply strike out wording that might require them to cut back on their production or consumption. Most people who get to speak during the conferences say appropriate things about the urgent need to curtail GHG emissions, but in the rooms where the wording of proposed agreements is being finalized, those same people, or more usually the people who work for them, are busily ensuring that no significant positive steps will get taken. An agreement to reach an agreement next year on how to proceed in order to reach an agreement that will actually cut GHG emissions the following year, to come into effect several years later (this more or less summarizes what happened in Warsaw in November 2013) is not an agreement to do anything much at all, in my humble scientist’s opinion.

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Canada has consistently underperformed on climate. Here we receive a lifetime achievement award from the Fossil of the Day program at COP 19, Warsaw, November 2013.

So, will we ever solve the problem of how to limit our GHG emissions? Naomi Klein argues that there has got to be a substantial grass roots uprising to demand that the powerful make the right choices. I cling to the belief that if people will only learn about what is happening, they will come to the realization that restricting emissions is the only logical way forward. But there is lots of evidence that individuals do not always act rationally, and that other individuals are engaged in a well-funded obstructionist campaign to muddy the evidence of climate change, making reaching rational decisions more difficult. And, something that approaches at the speed of a melting glacier does not exactly compete with the sex, drugs and rock n roll that bombard us from myriad screens every day. My faith in individuals’ ability to make decisions based on rational argument gets weaker by the day.

Good news out of China

The really good news this week emerged quite unexpectedly from China. On Wednesday 12th November, President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping jointly announced from Beijing that their countries had reached agreement on a joint effort to reduce GHG emissions. According to the New York Times, Obama has committed the US to reduce emissions in 2025 by 26 to 28% of their level in 2005, a substantially increased commitment over the 17% by 2020 contained in the commitment made in Copenhagen in 2009. According to a New York Times op-ed by John Kerry published the same day (actually on Nov 11, because he was in the US, while Obama was on the other side of the date line in Beijing), the new pledge puts the US on a path to achieve an 80% reduction by 2050.

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Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping at announcement of their deal on climate.
Photo © Feng Li/Getty

For his part, Xi has committed China to stop the growth of its emissions by about 2030, and begin to rachet them down after that, and pledged to ensure that renewables and nuclear energy would together account for 20% of Chinese energy production by 2030. To meet its goal, China will need to deploy an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other renewable generation capacity by 2030 – an enormous amount, about the same as all the coal-fired power plants in China today, and nearly as much as the total electricity generation capacity of the United States. This fact alone should put the lie to the statement by Senator McConnell that “it requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years, while these carbon emission regulations are creating havoc in my state and other states across the country.” Yes, his home state of Kentucky mines coal. Who’d have guessed he’d not be enthusiastic. There were other important agreements finalized during Obama’s visit to Beijing, but I think, with time, the climate accord may be the biggest by far.

Aftermath of the US election

The climate deal announced with China comes days after the mid-term elections in the US gave the Republicans a sweeping victory and ensured that Obama would have to deal with a difficult Congress for the final two years of his presidency. I could wade into the low turnout by left-of-center voters, the corrupting influence of big money, the obscene amount of money spent (does any other country approach this level of excess?), and the idiotic platforms of many who won. But I won’t. From the perspective of the environmental crisis, the only thing that matters is what this shift will do to momentum towards a significant climate treaty in 2015.

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McConnell is already saying he is ‘disappointed’ in how Obama is acting since the election – any chance of bipartisan behavior from this man? Photo from Washington Post video

My initial assessment was that this election was pure bad news for the environment. And press reports supported that pessimism. The moment the results became clear, there were comments being made about the need to secure early approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. I did not think it was actually up to Congress to do this (and still don’t), but the speed at which the calls for quick approval appeared made it clear that a pro-fossil fuels, anti-environment agenda was being promoted. Without rehashing the details yet again, let me just say that delaying the Keystone XL remains as useful as it ever was. Delaying approval of pipelines keeps the paths for export of tar sands product congested and slow. This slows production and exploration. That keeps tar sands product in the ground where it belongs.
The election results ensure that Obama will only be able to move on things that he can do without Congressional approval. Senator McConnell, likely to be the new Senate Majority Leader, comes from coal-producing Kentucky. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, likely to become Chair of Environment and Public Works, believes that climate change is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”, and the IPCC a front for a global political left, and there are scores of other Republican senators and representatives who will put fossil fuel interests well ahead of environment.

Canada and Australia, the Bobbsey Twins of Fossil Fuels

At present, the low prices for oil are a second brake on Canadian tar sands development. But tar sands development needs many brakes because there is not yet any sign that either the Harper government or Alberta’s Prentice government have lost their enthusiasm for dirty oil. Harper is now in a difficult place with an intolerable record on climate, an election in the offing, and his arguments for not acting falling by the wayside. He can no longer claim to be waiting for the US to move – Obama has ensured that the US performance on curtailing emissions is far stronger than Canada’s, even without the new agreement with China. Nor can he claim to be waiting for other major emitters to move. China has been making major investments in alternative energy sources, chiefly solar, and the agreement with the US shows a real willingness to make substantive changes. On top of all this, the oil pricing downturn has cut into governmental revenues just when he needed a nice surplus to spend in frivolous pre-election gifts to the public. It will be interesting to see what Harper does now (the 6 Billion surplus for 2015 predicted in the last budget has now shrunk to 1.9 Billion).

Harper Obama in 2013 Adrian Wyld - CP
Harper to Obama “you don’t need to tell them the truth so long as you use your hands to signal how big the lies are – that’s what I instruct all my cabinet to do” Photo taken 2013 by Adrian Wyld/CP

Just so there is no doubt where Alberta stands, Premier Jim Prentice gave an interview on 9th November assuring all that Alberta remains firmly in the fossil camp. He actually said “Certainly we all want to improve environmental outcomes and want to find cleaner sources of energy, but there hasn’t really been the game changing technology developed yet that would allow us, as consumers, to not be using hydrocarbons in a way similar to what we do currently”. This suggests he is not reading of the advances in the alternative energy sector that have now achieved, or come close to achieving what is called ‘grid parity’ – equivalent cost per unit of energy regardless of the source. Indeed, if the various hidden subsidies that support the oil and gas industry were to be removed, the use of renewables instead would be a simple checkbook decision because the renewables would not be more expensive.

jim prentice Troymedia
Jim Prentice showing he knows the patented Harper gesture to show the size of your lies.

Prentice followed his ‘lack of technology’ claim with the bizarre statement that the vast majority of emissions come from consumers not producers! “It’s when we climb in our cars or get on an airplane, or turn on the flat screen television in our house. I mean that’s really the point where the lion’s share of the emissions comes from”. Apparently the Alberta premier does not understand that the emissions released from extracting, shipping, refining, shipping again, and ultimately burning a barrel of oil all come because it is oil. And then he finished his interview with the pious claim that he wants to bridge the difference between pipeline proponents and those opposed to them by making sure the pipelines are constructed to the highest environmental standards. High environmental standards? Alberta? It’s not quite as over-the-top as some statements by US politicians who still claim climate change is a hoax, but it still shows withering ignorance, or crass distortion, by a political leader.
Unrelated entirely, I note that this week it was reported that Saskatchewan’s new Environmental Code lacks a section on climate change! A chapter had been developed during the two years it took to write the code, but it was dropped because Saskatchewan was waiting for guidance from the Harper government. Guidance on climate policy? From Harper? I’m particularly disappointed having lauded SaskPower recently for opening the world’s first coal-fired power plant with carbon capture and sequestration. And just for completeness, I should add that CBC News, in reporting on how the US – China agreement would put Canada in a difficult place, added “Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq was not available for interviews on Wednesday”. Maybe she is finally learning how embarrassing her long record of nonsense statements on environment has become.
I include Australia here because I find it fascinating how much like Canada Australia has become since Tony Abbott came to power. Yes, they mine coal, gas, and a little bit of offshore oil, while we mine tar sands, other oil and gas, but Australia and Canada have similar ‘resource-extraction and export’ economies, and with Abbott, similar political philosophies. Australia was making significantly better progress on climate prior to their election, and had a carbon tax in place. That tax is now gone and the ‘drill, baby, drill’, or better, ‘dig, baby, dig’ chant is heard loudly across the land.

Tony Abbott Dan Peled-AAP Guardian
Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott Photo © Dan Peled/AAP

PM Abbott gave an interview to the Guardian on 4th November that was all about the virtues of coal. He became quite lyrical, saying “For the foreseeable future coal is the foundation of our prosperity. Coal is the foundation of the way we live because you can’t have a modern lifestyle without energy.”
Then he added “You can’t have a modern economy without energy and for now and for the foreseeable future, the foundation of Australia’s energy needs will be coal. The foundation of the world’s energy needs will be coal.” A little repetitive, but his words have a certain flow to them. Here is another quote: ““Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world.” Little doubt where Abbott stands on fossil fuels. He even claimed that use of coal is good for developing countries. He should have a conversation with his Chinese neighbors, preferably outdoors, on a smoggy day in Beijing.
In my view, both Abbott and Harper and their allies have become trapped by the fossil fuel multinationals, convinced that rapid exploiting of their reserves would bring jobs, and tax revenues making their countries wealthy, and ensuring they got re-elected many times. The minor issues of environmental damage and climate change? Well, those are problems, but not for a little while yet, so if we ignore them, if we brand all who oppose us as radical, leftist luddites, and tell our people that we are looking after jobs and the economy all will be well. And so it has been. But will this delusional journey continue much longer? When the value finally goes out of fossil fuels, it will vanish suddenly. In an interesting Huffington blog post, Woodrow Clark quoted Sheikh Ahmed-Zaki Yamani, who said in 2000, “The Stone Age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil.” We all live in interesting times, and the news out of China this week was a sign of just how interesting these times may be becoming.

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Coal, Economics, In the News, Land Use, Politics, Tar Sands | 4 Comments