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.


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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!

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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 | 2 Comments

On the Economics of Climate Change Mitigation

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2014 is Setting a Global Temperature Record

NOAA’s National Climate Data Center has now published its global analysis for September 2014. Globally, the first nine months of 2014 tie with 1998 and 2010 as the warmest such period on record. If the world continues to post temperatures that come in as much above average as has happened over the first nine months, 2014 will be the warmest year on record; as it is, the 12 months from October 2013 to September 2014 is the warmest 12 month period ever recorded. Yes, Virginia, climate is still changing, no matter what the weather in central Ontario has been like.


And, while weather is not climate, NOAA has just published weather maps showing a generally milder winter in North America. Of course, the maps, being American, show weather patterns that magically cease at the Canadian and Mexican borders. We Canucks are used to having to interpolate.

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Maps for temperature (left) and precipitation (right) during December through January 2015, showing the probability of being warmer or cooler, wetter or dryer than average. If correct, my winter should be back to normal or a bit warmer, and dryer than average. I hope so.  Images courtesy NOAA.

The Changing Pattern of Climate Change Discussions

It used to be that discussion of climate change began with the physics of greenhouse gas effects on temperature, and then moved on to likely impacts on environment. The goal was to explain the processes and likely ramifications, before moving on to suggest that the coming changes would have major impacts on the quality of human life. That was largely the approach I took in writing Our Dying Planet. Discussion of this type continues here, in the media, in countless books, films and other formats. Our knowledge concerning the processes warming the planet is growing. So too, our understanding of the environmental and human impacts, and it is important that this new knowledge be disseminated widely.

In the early days, there was a perhaps naïve expectation that once people appreciated what was happening, self-interest would ensure that plans would be made and action taken to stem the worst of the changes likely to be coming. That logical application of common interest has been far slower and far less effective than many may have originally expected. The long and sorry parade of expensive UN climate change conferences that seem to yield only tiny increments of progress attest to that.

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When national leaders show that they do not take climate conferences seriously, it adds to the inevitability of failure. It also reveals the pure self-interest that drives most international negotiations. Cartoon © Graeme MacKay, Hamilton Spectator

Governance, particularly on a global scale, is not a rational, science-based process of decision-making for the common good. As a consequence of the lack of real progress, there has been growing discussion of how to get the message out more effectively, how to reach that sizeable group of humanity that seems unconcerned or simply denies the messages being delivered from the scientists, and how to bring about the global-scale actions that are needed. Countering these efforts, there has been a growing push-back in the form of climate change denial – a more-or-less coordinated effort, but probably not a tightly integrated conspiracy, to argue that the science is in error, being deliberately misused, or is beholden (for some obscure reasons) to nefarious hidden agendas designed to destroy our economy and civilization; and to conclude that under these circumstances it would be wisest to seek more confirmation before taking any actions that might prove ultimately unnecessary or counterproductive.


As an ecologist, I began to look at climate change once I recognized the impacts it was having on my own favorite ecosystems, and because I understood the ramifications likely from increased warming to changed climate, to changed ecology, and to changed quality of life for humanity. I now find myself wondering about why so many people have not responded to the message of climate change, about how to change perceptions in a community, and about how political and business decisions are made in this messy, complicated world we all live in. Because, over the years, the underlying message of climate change has only grown worse – we are bringing about substantial changes to the world’s climate, changes that will persist well into the future and have immense consequences for our lives.


Just imagine what would unfold if humanity, and our economic activities were magically to be removed from the planet tomorrow morning. The changes we have caused through our GHG emissions would cause global temperature to continue to rise for most of this century, cause sea level to continue to rise for at least two centuries, and cause ocean pH to continue to alter in substantive ways for perhaps a thousand years! Such are the time lags in the planetary system. If we remain on the planet, as I am sure we will, we will have to live with these, and additional changes due to our continued releases of GHGs. If we are wise, we will be working to reduce our impacts as quickly as possible because our civilization is best suited to a planet with a climate, and an ecology like the one it developed in over the past 5000 years. We have enough difficulties bringing a reasonable quality of life to the billion poorest people on the planet without having to battle with the disruptive effects of a changing climate.

So Let’s Talk about the Economics of Climate Change

On Thursday 2nd October, Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall formally opened the Boundary Dam coal-fired power plant fitted with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). The plant had commenced operation late on September 30th. With significant ($250 million) Federal government support, SaskPower, the provincially-owned power generation company spent in the vicinity of $1.3 billion to renovate one of four generation units at the 45 year old coal-fired power plant, extending its lifespan another 30 years, and upgrading it with CCS capability. CO2 is separated from other gases (chiefly nitrogen and water vapor) in the plant’s exhaust steam, pressurized and then either stored underground, or shipped by pipeline to Cenovus Energy Inc which is using it for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) at nearby fields. SaskPower expects to capture 90% of CO2 released, or about 1 million tonnes CO2 per year.

Boundary-Dam CCS powerplant SaskPower photo

Unit #3 of SaskPower’s Boundary Dam coal-fired power plant is now renovated and fitted with CCS. It produces 110 megawatts of power using lignite coal, stripping out and compressing 90% of the CO2 emitted in the process. It’s expected to sequester 1,000,000 tonnes per year of CO2 deep underground.  Photo © SaskPower.

While it is good to see Canada leading the world, for once, in the struggle to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere, it’s important to note that this venture is barely profitable, even with the CO2 that is captured being sold to Cenovus for use in oil extraction. Apart from anything else, the energy required to capture, compress and bury the CO2 represents 20% of the output of the plant. Indeed an uncharitable climate Grinch would say that this expenditure has used lots of government funding to extend the life of a coal-fired power plant by 30 years, and facilitate the extraction of additional oil through EOR – not exactly a way to wean us off the use of fossil fuels. A more favorable perspective is that somebody needed to pilot the process at scale, and Canada has done that. Future technological innovations may make the process more economic, and Canada may even gain on patents on the technology as CCS is applied to more coal-fired plants. It’s nice to see our Harper government engaged, in even a small way, in something other than the endless advertising of our ‘ethical’ oil, and stripping away of any and all regulations that might slow the activities of our rapacious fossil fuel industry.


SaskPower may have been driven to the decision to pioneer CCS because it had a need to continue to generate electricity, coal sources nearby, no other source of energy available in the vicinity, and an oilfield nearby using EOR (in which gases injected underground force residual oil from a formation) that might be a client for the CO2 recovered. Indeed, sale of the CO2 for use in EOR appears to be the practice in other CCS plants being developed in the US, and a necessary component in keeping the economic cost of the power generated within reasonable bounds. CCS may well become an important process to minimize the negative impacts of coal, but it’s not really there yet.


Notable at the opening of the Boundary Dam project were some comments by Premier Hall. He argued for the continued use of coal because of its relatively low cost. He suggested it was time to stop talking about carbon taxes. And he argued that we should be looking for technological solutions to the climate problems posed by coal, rather than seeking to replace coal with more environmentally sustainable power sources. Sounds very much to me like a politician who has been totally captured by the fossil fuel industry, and that leads to my next topic.

Getting Ourselves off Fossil Fuels is Going to be Just as Difficult as Quitting Smoking

The cost of the Boundary Dam project was borne by the Federal government ($250 million) and SaskPower, a Saskatchewan crown corporation. Governments have also invested heavily in CCS projects (most of which are now dead in the water) in Alberta. Industry has been less active. With no regulations governing climate impacts by the oil and gas industry in Canada, and only weak regulations on coal (existing plants can continue to operate at no cost for emissions), there has been little incentive for fuel producers or power generators to invest in unproven technologies to reduce emissions.


More generally, that is the reason why knowledge about the effects of GHGs on climate has not led to a substantial effort by industry to shift towards environment-friendly solutions. So long as emitting CO2 or other GHGs carries no financial penalty, those parts of our economy that do emit GHGs will continue to do so, while paying lip-service to the idea of mitigating climate change. So long as governments are heavily committed to ensuring their economies do not collapse overnight, which usually translates as being committed to help large currently profitable portions of the economy continue to be profitable, they also will talk about mitigation, but spend only small amounts towards this goal. The Canadian governmental spending on CCS technology is more about keeping the powerful fossil fuel sector profitable than it is about climate mitigation. It’s one part of a program of support for the energy sector which includes the often promised but long-delayed “made-in-Canada” regulatory regime for our oil and gas industry.


To be fair, the early discussion around climate change avoided talk of economics, partly because many of the environmental scientists concerned about climate change feared that shifting our economy away from dependence on fossil fuels was going to be a very expensive proposition. Better to avoid talking about the costs. But the exciting news that has not been getting out very well is that as time has passed, the cost of altering our economies has actually become a lot less than was initially supposed. In its recent report, Better Growth, Better Climate, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate states that globally some $89 trillion in new investment in infrastructure – roads, rail, power, water and sewage lines, telecommunications, and so on — will be needed between now and 2030 whether or not we mitigate climate change. They estimate the additional cost of renewing our infrastructure in ways that permit moving to a 2oC warmer world will be just $4.1 trillion, or 5% of what must be spent anyway. Their analyses even show that in the electricity sector, a low-carbon shift in energy sources could net a benefit of $1.8 trillion between now and 2035, primarily because renewable technologies have lower operating costs and longer lives. This $1.8 trillion net benefit is based on a full accounting, including some loss of value in stranded fossil fuel assets (the fuel in the ground that the energy sector was planning to exploit). We’d actually be a trillion dollars better off if we transferred electricity generation away from using fossil fuels!
Given that the global economy is worth around $80 trillion a year, that extra $4.1 trillion investment over 20 years amounts to 0.25%, one quarter of one percent of economic activity per year. I think we can manage to find the savings to afford that investment!


Better Growth, Better Climate is a comprehensive report that builds in many ways upon the Stern Review of 2006 (Nicholas Stern is co-chair and the lead economist). It provides a convincing argument that not only will mitigation of climate change not be a drag on the global economy, full mitigation in a move towards at most a 2oC increase in average temperature is completely compatible with a growing global economy. The environmental consequences of such a transition, in addition, confer many non-economic benefits on the lives of people across the globe. This is a far more optimistic tale than was being told back when we were first discovering the risks inherent in climate change. But there is an important caveat – this is still a major transition to a very different economy, and some individuals and corporations are going to have to be nimble to avoid being losers as valuations of such things as farmland, forests, oil or copper deposits change. Either be nimble, or fight to delay the transition.

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Climate conferences follow one after another, making tiny advances, as if there is no urgency to solve this problem. Cartoon © Nicholson, The Australian.

The Commission concludes its report with a 10-point Action Plan to bring about the transition that is required. The 10 points are all reasonable:

  1. Accelerate a low-carbon transformation by integrating climate action and risk into strategic economic decision-making.
  2. Create the confidence needed for global investment and climate action by entering into a strong, lasting and equitable international climate agreement.
  3. Phase out subsidies for fossil fuels and agricultural inputs and incentives for urban sprawl.
  4. Introduce strong, predictable carbon prices as part of good fiscal reform.
  5. Substantially reduce the capital cost of low-carbon infrastructure investment.
  6. Scale up innovation in key low-carbon and climate-resilient technologies and remove barriers to entrepreneurship and creativity.
  7. Make connected and compact cities the preferred form of urban development.
  8. Halt the deforestation of natural forests by 2030.
  9. Restore at least 500 million hectares of degraded forests and agricultural land by 2030.
  10. Accelerate the shift away from polluting coal-fired power generation.


The text amply explains what is meant by each of these, and why each is an important part of the whole. The Commission members clearly believe that by setting the situation out clearly, it should be possible for “national, sub-national and city governments, businesses, investors, financial institutions and civil society organisations” to each review the situation, identify the actions they need to take, and take them. The report notes the difficulties inherent in encouraging change of this magnitude, and talks repeatedly about the need for agreed international goals, firm national commitments (with transparent assessment of performance, and penalties for failure), and regulatory and other requirements to compel corporate action. However, the report offers relatively little in new insights on how to achieve these global agreements on targets and mechanisms.


The actions recommended in the Commission’s report are in many ways familiar already, and echoed in other reports on the climate problem. This also is encouraging. Released at the recent UN Climate Conference in New York, Tackling the Challenge of Climate Change, a report commissioned by the Republic of Nauru as Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, covers many of the same points including the need for a price on carbon, and firm goals for individual countries and business sectors. It takes a more proscriptive approach, advising nations on what they should do now, while covering much the same ground, in less detail, as the more substantive document from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

How Do We Motivate the Changes That are Necessary?

I would like to believe that reasonable leaders of nations, gathering together to consider what to do to solve an existential problem, and having read and thought about Better Growth, Better Climate, would recognize the urgency and develop appropriate goals and mechanisms which they would then put in place in their home nations. I’d also like to believe that good people always have great lives while bad people always are punished, that bad things never happen without a moral reason, and that the universe is somehow a moral place. But I learned some time ago that my world is not like this, and there are not any fairies at the bottom of my garden either. Sometimes people act out of pure self-interest, even when they have risen to positions of leadership, and the decisions they make are not necessarily the best ones that could have been made.


Western economies are powered by the energy sector, which is substantially based on use of fossil fuels. Major investors, whether the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or major pension funds usually have significant holdings in the energy sector or other large parts of our economy – rail, other transport, auto industry – and few individuals are so magnanimous that they will willingly take big financial losses in support of the common good. Managers of pension funds and corporations have a duty to the shareholders to seek the best possible returns on investment, so they do not willingly take losses either. But the changes to the global economy that are required demand a radical reduction in the use of GHG-emitting fuels and other processes, and it is difficult to see how everyone can transition across to a decarbonized economy without anyone taking big losses. The Boundary Dam power plant has just had its life extended 30 years, and even the dirtiest of non-CCS plants have similar lifetimes. Shutting any of them down early means that some investors lose money. This is precisely why every report, up to an including Better Growth, Better Climate, has recommended loophole-free carbon taxes as one of the essential tools to ‘encourage’ economic change. And this is also why carbon taxes have been difficult to establish, and, in Australia’s case, get repealed with the election of a climate change denying government.


There are signs that we are now entering a very difficult time indeed. A move of capital away from fossil fuels appears to be starting. (I say ‘appears to’ because this may just be a function of the relative uncertainty at the present time, during a globally weak post-recession economy.) The more expensive fossil fuel projects, notably Alberta’s tar sands ventures, are seeing a number of project suspensions and cancellations. There is a nascent movement to encourage divestment from fossil fuel ventures that is beginning to have effect, particularly among universities and left-leaning individuals. Even Mark Carney, now Governor of the Bank of England, has been quoted talking about a ‘carbon bubble’ that increases the risk of fossil fuel investments – all those ‘stranded assets’ that can never be burned if we want a livable planet. At such times, we can expect heightened efforts to protect the status quo, increased climate change denial, denigration of any who would speak in terms of the need to make substantive changes, all surrounded by a swill of greenwashing advertising and PR. I personally am getting increasingly sick of the stream of advertising showing ‘clean as the day they were born’ power plants, bathed in impossibly blue light (thanks, Photoshop), under impossibly blue skies brought into Canadian living rooms by a combination of CAPP (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers) and our very own Harper government. Real power plants do not look like that.


My favorite ad of this type at present is the one, from CAPP, which features David Deacon, of STT Enviro Corp. You can watch it on YouTube. STT Enviro Corp used to be called Stanco Projects, but it changed its name recently in the belief that “it’s important that our name and brand reflect our customers’ needs and our corporate direction”. It has as its logo, ‘the nuts and bolts of green’. STT Enviro Corp is a manufacturing company based in southwestern Ontario since 1977 which specializes in the fabrication of industrial scale storage tanks and silos. Their website claims that over 35 years they have installed over 1000 such tanks.


Mr. Deacon is filmed outdoors with lots of trees and occasional views of a lake, with frequent cuts to the inside of their facility, a wonderfully clean space filled with happy, well-dressed workers all busy designing and building tanks. For what? To hold the contaminated by-products of Alberta tar sands operations. Mr. Deacon identifies the tar sands (he says ‘oil sands’) as a great engine for innovation within Canada, and that is the core message of the video. The tar sands are good for us because they promote innovation by companies developing suitable storage for the mess they are making out in Alberta.


Now I wish Mr. Deacon well. But let’s try and imagine a world without the tar sands, a world in which we might still need innovative, industrial-scale containment, but a world in which we are not dumping CO2 into our atmosphere. I think that would be a better world than the one we have. Promoting a messy fossil fuel development program because it spurs innovation in containment for its toxic wastes! I’ve been told a good salesman can sell anything – this seems to push the envelope.


And so, back to the question – how do we motivate the changes that are necessary? I recently read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century, and have now moved on to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Every Thing. I am not sure that such reading is good for my health, but I am glad these books were written.


Piketty’s book does not concern climate change. He is interested in the tendency for capital to become concentrated through time so that a smaller and smaller fraction of people come to own more and more of it. He convinced me that the rich really are getting richer, and that the global economy seems likely to slow down. He also convinced me that the only way we will get back to political systems that invest in the public good – medical care, employment insurance, retirement benefits, public transport, public education – is to have a sufficient fraction of the voters demanding it. That prepared me for Ms. Klein.


Naomi Klein’s new book is about our continuing failure to act to remedy climate change. I’ve not finished it yet, but she is reawakening in me all the leftist idealism I had in the 1960s. Her thesis is that the only way the world is going to get climate change remission to the extent that is necessary is if a strong grass-roots movement develops to demanding it. A good climate is an important element of the public good, and waiting for the powerful to magnanimously provide it seems just as unlikely as waiting for them to do any of the things average people in the street would like to see. The first step in building that strong grass-roots movement may be to articulate why it is appropriate, in a civilized society, to have society provide common benefits that improve the quality of life of all. This is something that we used to believe, back when governments built public transport systems, established agencies to manage wildlife, fisheries and environment, and funded post-secondary education. It requires a major attitude shift in some communities, such as many parts of the USA, and Scandinavian countries may well be able to show the rest of us the way.


Greenpeace activist near Big Ben – we may have to change our politics to save our climate.
Photo © GreenBlog

There is a tacit assumption in Klein’s writing that it is the developed, western countries that are going to spearhead the shift towards a carbon-free economy. Certainly, if they do not go along with the shift, it will get stalled. While the need for a grass-roots movement seems especially necessary in the west, it may be easier to generate in other cultures, and ultimately the de-carbonization has to be global. And I am unclear about just how radical this grassroots movement has to become (perhaps I’ll have a clearer idea once I finish the book). Still, we are all standing around at the beginning of what could become a magnificent journey. It’s time to head out down the road.

Categories: Changing lifestyles, Climate change, Coal, Economics, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands, Uncategorized | 2 Comments