Dark Truths. Why Climate Change is a Bigger Problem than We Seem to Believe

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Difference between the future and what we expect

Do you know the difference between the real future and our best estimate of it? Estimation of a future state is a process that uses knowledge of relationships among the components of a system to infer a likely future state, given certain assumptions. It is a probabilistic process that comes up with a “best guess” and, if done carefully, some reasonably precise estimate of the degree of uncertainty in that best guess. The efforts by climate scientists to project a likely future climate, given certain assumptions about how we generate energy among other things, represent one of the most sophisticated efforts at “future-casting”. But they are still probabilistic, and provide only a (very sophisticated) best guess.

Indeed, any diagram produced by IPCC over the years, and intended to show the likely future given certain assumptions about human behavior, presents a spreading fan of possibilities as one moves further into the future. When the likely futures are compared assuming different human behavior with respect to greenhouse gas emissions, level of economic activity, population growth, there are different best guesses, each with their own fan of possibilities and these fans often overlap. For example, it’s true that the most likely future under IPCC’s RCP8.5 (which carries the nickname ‘business-as-usual’ because it assumes no great change in use of fossil fuels from the present) is a world that is likely to have warmed by more than 4oC by 2100 and to keep on warming. The most likely future under RCP4.5 is one that should get us to a 2oC increase by 2050, and a maximum increase by 2100 of about 2.4oC. And it’s also true that RCP2.6, the only scenario that leads to a cessation of warming by 2100, should keep warming under 2oC. But we could have temperatures at century end under RCP8.5 that reach as high as 5.4oC warmer than at present, or temperatures that are no warmer than possible trends under RCP4.5 – the respective fans of uncertainty just overlap.

Figure SPM 7a from IPCC’s Summary for Policymakers for WG1 report within the 5th Assessment Report, 2013, shows the anticipated mean global temperature from 1950 to 2100 under four different scenarios – RCP8.5, RCP6.0, RCP4.5 and RCP2.6. The range of likely possibilities thrown up by the various global climate models used is shown as pink or blue band for RCP8.5 and RCP2.6. At 2050, these bands of possibilities still overlap. The means and ranges for all 4 scenarios over the final 20 years, shown to right of main figure, also overlap considerably even at that end of century time.

Two dark truths

Today I am going to speak some dark truths, despite the fact that the conventional wisdom holds that we do not change hearts and minds with doom and gloom. I remain optimistic that we will succeed in getting to a reasonably good future, but I do so because I cannot imagine that we will be so stupid, or so selfish, that we will not make the changes in behavior that are required to wrestle climate to that better place. My optimism is not based on a narrow focus on the best guesses in future scenarios by climate scientists; indeed, I can frighten myself by looking at some of the possible futures these scenarios show.

The two dark truths are first, that Nature does not negotiate and does not care what we do, and second, that our climate projections contain wide variances that somehow get ignored while politicians negotiate the smallest departures from the status quo that they can achieve for their jurisdictions. A few weeks ago, I commented that now was a good time to up the ante and argue for limiting average increase in global temperature to 1oC, because 2oC, the current internationally agreed target, is too high. Just this week, climate scientist James Hansen told the press about a new paper submitted to Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, up on their website as of 23rd July, in which he and sixteen co-authors argue that we need to reduce CO2 concentration in the atmosphere to 350ppm in order to secure a safe future with an equilibrium average global temperature about 1oC above pre-industrial levels. I have not yet read Hansen’s not-yet-reviewed paper carefully, so am relying on press reports here. These are mixed. There is no doubt that Hansen’s voice has been one of the more alarmist among climate scientists over recent years, but he is also someone who clearly knows what he is talking about. His new paper (which is on open access during the review period) discusses the risk of run-away melting of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets by pointing to data from the Eemian interglacial, a period within the Pleistocene lasting from 130,000 to 115,000 years ago, in which air temperatures were less than a degree warmer than they are today, but sea levels stood 5 to 9 meters higher due to extensive melting. The paper also includes a simulation of the effects on the oceans of the resulting melt water. This cold, fresh water would reduce the rate of sinking of surface waters in the North Atlantic and in the Southern Ocean, thereby slowing the ‘great ocean conveyor’ and radically altering climate in the process. Hansen raised this concern several years ago in his book, Storms of My Grandchildren, and I found it frightening then.

NASA EARTH OBSERV 3rd week May 2015 lst_neo_2015137-2015144

Saskatchewan fires 2015 IMGUR 8B3pIL6

I’d suggest the anomalous heat documented by NASA in May 2015, has a lot to do with why Saskatchewan is currently dealing with hundreds of wildfires that have required 8864 people (total to July 10th) to evacuate their homes in sparsely populated northern regions of the province. Map courtesy NASA Earth Observatory, Photo from Imgur.com.

The fact is that in planning the steps that should be taken in order to secure a safe future, we should be erring on the side of caution rather than gambling that all will be well. Maybe it won’t. And if 16 respected and capable climate and environmental scientists says 2oC is too much, we should at least look carefully at what they are saying. Hansen and colleagues are looking at the long-term behavior of ice under the temperature regimes we have already created; such long-term processes were not included in the calculations that led to the suggestion that a CO2 concentration of 450ppm would lead to a 2oC rise in average global temperature. Risk management requires that one plans for the unexpected extreme case, not for the expected best guess, and certainly not the best guess that leaves out consideration of some important processes (such as melting of ice sheets). But this is precisely what the world has not been doing until now. As I said in March, the 2oC target was a result of typical political compromise. Draft copies of the agreement being negotiated at Copenhagen talked of 1.5oC, but those references were all removed by the time negotiations ceased. It’s the same sort of process that led to the recent G7 commitment to eliminate use of fossil fuels by 2100, instead of 2050 as originally intended. Negotiation towards a compromise is a normal and respectable political process, but Nature does not negotiate, and while political leaders may be satisfied that they reached a ‘good’ agreement in Copenhagen, it is distinctly possible that they set the bar too low (low in level of effort needed, high in terms of CO2 allowed). Many scientists said so at the time. Now, when Hansen and colleagues speak up, there is a great tendency to caution that they are being alarmist. If the freight train is coming down the tracks, and seems unlikely to stop in time, it’s OK to be alarmist.

Most climate negotiators seem to be proceeding on the assumption that the science is precise enough that something like a 2oC or a 1.5oC target can be hit accurately, by reducing emissions by a specific amount. They also seem to be operating on the assumption that reaching a good decision on climate action is much like negotiating any other kind of treaty – each country gives a little bit, nobody wins completely, but all go away happy. Only problem is, the targets are fluffy, and Nature does not negotiate.

There will be a future with a warmer climate than at present, and it could be frighteningly warmer unless our political leaders start acting more risk-averse than they have been. Listening to the up-side risks that many climate scientists talk about (it’s not just James Hansen) should be an important part of understanding the climate problem.

While the best guesses, shown as solid lines in Figure SPM7a, are distinguishable before 2050, it is clear that adopting the policies underlying any one of these scenarios does not guarantee a clearly different future to adopting one of the others. The ability of climate scientists to project decades into the future is simply not that precise, and political leaders should think about the value of what ecologists refer to as the precautionary principle – acting aggressively to guard against the unlikely but dangerous outcome, rather than acting complacently, content that a best guess will prove to be correct.

In its 5th Assessment Report, the IPCC tackled the issue of a warming target directly. IPCC stated clearly that, because CO2 remains in the atmosphere for so long, the extent of warming that will occur due to emissions depends very directly on the cumulative amount of CO2 we will emit since the start of the industrial revolution. By 2011, human activity had released a total of 515 Gt Carbon (that is Giga Tonnes carbon = 1890 Gt CO2), and if we wish to have a 50% chance of keeping warming below 2oC, we should not emit more than 820 Gt Carbon total (= 3010 Gt CO2). In other words, we have available 1120 Gt CO2 to emit, and we could still (a 50% chance) find the world warmer than we expect.

There are variances around all these cumulative amounts as well. Emissions to 2011 might have been as high as 2150 or as low as 1630 Gt CO2, meaning that we may have as little as 860 Gt CO2 available to emit in the future. (IEA has reported we emitted 32.3 Gt CO2 in 2014 – we need very substantial cuts to keep within the 860 – 1120 Gt CO2 total budget available).

Talking glibly about a 2oC target, and how to reach it conveniently ignores the necessary uncertainty in the estimates of the amount of warming that will occur, and focusing on the average projection from a scenario ignores the risk that reality will be substantially warmer than that best guess. And yet, our politicians continually look for ways of fudging to minimize the extent of changes needed, and proceed very much as if striking a deal they can all live with is a good outcome, regardless of what Nature might have to say in a few more years’ time. Nature does not negotiate and does not compromise.

Trend in carbon intensity PwC

Trend since 2000 in the amount of energy needed to produce $1M of GDP, termed the carbon intensity of the economy. The two lines demonstrate the huge gap between the path we are on, and the one we need to be on to stay within the target. Figure © Price Waterhouse Cooper.

Yet another way of looking at the task in front of us is to consider the rate at which we are reducing the carbon intensity of the global economy. Carbon intensity is a measure of the amount of carbon emissions per unit of GDP, and increases in energy efficiency and the shift away from fossil fuels both lower carbon intensity. The global economy has got to reduce its carbon intensity by an average of 6.2% per year every year until 2100 to stay under a 2oC target. And these curves also have variance not shown in this figure taken from Two Degrees of Separation. Our present progress is clearly insufficient, however; insufficient even for a 2oC target that seems very likely to be too high.

The Trials of Jason Box

lumeschannel 391816_321656311197545_203924456304065_1198711_538148364_nClimate scientists are very aware of the complacent negotiations that have characterized the political negotiations over climate. Image from Lumes channel.

Esquire currently has an article at its website that gives a detailed and quite personal glimpse into what climate scientists are dealing with at the present time. Through interviews with several prominent climate scientists, the article explores how their research, and the political maelstrom that swirls about the climate change topic, impact their own lives and the lives of their families. These are the people who perhaps best understand how atypical this period in Earth’s history has become, and how close to catastrophe we may be getting. They understand the limits of the science, and the risks that it is revealing, and they watch with concern as their concerns are ignored, or attacked (sometimes viciously and personally) by climate deniers. The climate scientists are well aware that we are engaged in an immense political struggle, and they are frequently conflicted not knowing if they should remain dispassionate, available on the sideline with information, but otherwise outside the game, or whether they should get into the thick of it and try to ensure that the science is properly understood. As Jason Box, an American glaciologist now based in Denmark, is quoted as saying, “We need the deniers to get out of the way. They are risking everyone’s future…. The Koch Brothers are criminals…. They should be charged with criminal activity because they’re putting the profits of their business ahead of the livelihoods of millions of people, and even life on earth.

Other types of environmental scientists also struggle with what their responsibility should be as they see the results of their own research revealing the massive rates of change on this planet. Do you just buckle down and get on with your work, or do you try to inform and educate, correct the inaccuracies that are out there either because the science is complicated and not always easily understood by laypeople, or because of the massive effort by deniers of various types to distort what the scientists are finding out. As Box remarks in the Esquire article (which is well worth reading), “But let’s get real, fossil fuels are the dominant industry on earth, and you can’t expect meaningful political change with them in control. There’s a growing consensus that there must be a shock to the system.” Maybe Naomi Klein is correct in calling for revolutionary change?

Complacency everywhere while the climate worsens

At the end of June, Bloomberg New Energy Finance put out a glitzy web-based report called the New Energy Outlook 2015. Its focus was on the global electricity system. It had lots of words and some colorful, animated graphs showing how many trillions of dollars were being invested in solar and other non-fossil sources of energy, how much of a share of the total energy mix renewables were commanding, and how trends appeared to be up to 2040. Lots of rosy predictions; lots of positive news; lots of ways for investors to make money. The fifth of five bullets in the accompanying press release was “Despite investment of $8 trillion in renewables, there will be enough legacy fossil-fuel plants and enough investment in new coal-fired capacity in developing countries to ensure global CO2 emissions rise all the way to 2029, and will still be 13% above 2014 levels in 2040”. They headed that bullet, Climate Peril.

So, how much peril are they talking about, not that they spend much time at all discussing it? Their projection refers only to CO2 emissions from the electricity sector, or approximately 40% of emissions from the entire global economy. Think back to that allowable budget that the world can emit after 2011 and still keep within a 2oC target, somewhere between 860 and 1120 Gt CO2. If the electricity sector decarbonizes at the same rate as other sectors (it will probably be faster), then their statement that emissions will still be 13% above 2014 levels in 2040, leads to an estimate of total annual emissions that year of about 36.8 Gt CO2 (total emissions in 2014 = 32.3 Gt CO2). Keeping things simple and assuming a linear increase from 2014 to 2040, that represents 26 years at an average of 34.55 Gt CO2, or 898.3 Gt CO2, which must be added to the measured emissions for 2011, 2012, and 2013 – 31.3 + 31.7 + 32.3 – for a total emissions to 2040 of 993.6 Gt CO2. Great, we remain more or less within the allowable budget of 860 to 1120 Gt CO2. Right? No, very wrong, because as Bloomberg says, fossil fuels will still represent 44% of electricity generation in 2040. What do we do then? Suddenly cut our use of electricity by 44%? No, we massively overshoot the 2oC target. The way Bloomberg states this observation in their press release is, “The CO2 content of the atmosphere is on course to exceed 450 parts per million by 2035 even if emissions stay constant, so the trend we show of rising emissions to 2029 makes it very unlikely that the world will be able to limit temperature increases to less than two degrees Centigrade”. Measured, calm, no cause for alarm because lots of money is being made.

Very unlikely? No! Impossible! If we have only managed to reduce use of fossil fuels from 67% to 44% of electricity production over the next 26 years, we will be well on our way to a climate change of 5 or 6oC by the end of the century. But the politicians negotiating in Paris are likely to listen to Bloomberg rather than to scientists like me, and Bloomberg says wonderful things are happening although we do need to try a tiny bit harder to keep within our target. What utter misrepresentation of the problem the world faces.

But calm and measured is the rule within the economy. Royal Dutch Shell has announced in internal documents that it is planning for a future of 4oC increase, rising to 6oC after 2100; they have decided that the political process is not going to succeed in capping increases at 2oC, and have apparently assumed that their business can proceed in this new, exciting world.

The recent G7 agreement to eliminate use of fossil fuels by 2100 is similarly calm and measured, and we will have a disastrous outcome if we do not do a lot better than that.

Meanwhile, all around the world, reports keep showing just how rapidly climate is changing, and how severe the impacts are becoming. The American Meteorological Society published a 288 page report, State of the Climate in 2014. Its Abstract begins as follows:

Most of the dozens of essential climate variables monitored each year in this report continued to follow their long-term trends in 2014, with several setting new records. Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide—the major greenhouse gases released into Earth’s atmosphere—once again all reached record high average atmospheric concentrations for the year.

Carbon dioxide increased by 1.9 ppm to reach a globally averaged value of 397.2 ppm for 2014. Altogether, 5 major and 15 minor greenhouse gases contributed 2.94 W m–2 of direct radiative forcing, which is 36% greater than their contributions just a quarter century ago.

“Accompanying the record-high greenhouse gas concentrations was nominally the highest annual global surface temperature in at least 135 years of modern record keeping, according to four independent observational analyses. The warmth was distributed widely around the globe’s land areas, Europe observed its warmest year on record by a large margin, with close to two dozen countries breaking their previous national temperature records; many countries in Asia had annual temperatures among their 10 warmest on record; Africa reported above-average temperatures across most of the continent throughout 2014; Australia saw its third warmest year on record, following record heat there in 2013; Mexico had its warmest year on record; and Argentina and Uruguay each had their second warmest year on record. Eastern North America was the only major region to observe a below-average annual temperature.

“But it was the oceans that drove the record global surface temperature in 2014. Although 2014 was largely ENSO-neutral, the globally averaged sea surface temperature (SST) was the highest on record. The warmth was particularly notable in the North Pacific Ocean where SST anomalies signaled a transition from a negative to positive phase of the Pacific decadal oscillation. In the winter of 2013/14, unusually warm water in the northeast Pacific was associated with elevated ocean heat content anomalies and elevated sea level in the region. Globally, upper ocean heat content was record high for the year, reflecting the continued increase of thermal energy in the oceans, which absorb over 90% of Earth’s excess heat from greenhouse gas forcing. Owing to both ocean warming and land ice melt contributions, global mean sea level in 2014 was also record high and 67 mm greater than the 1993 annual mean, when satellite altimetry measurements began”. I could quote more, but this is sufficient to show that the world is really changing.
OHG photo from Guardian 35a2070f-c084-4a57-a93e-4ddf9da15173-2060x1236

NOAA has reported that 12% of reefs have suffered bleaching in the last year. Half of these corals (12000 km2) may never recover. Caused by a weak el Nino. Photo © O Hoegh-Guldberg.

I think my point is clear. We do not yet have policies in place that come close to limiting warming to 2oC, yet seem to be proceeding as if this is a clear, easily hit target which we will get to in due course. It is not. We really could be heading towards 5 or 6oC, and even 2oC may turn out to be too high. Is not Hansen correct to warn about run-away climate change? And shouldn’t responsible economic powerhouses like Bloomberg pay more attention to the risks we face by continuing to be complacent about the seriously inadequate extent of steps taken so far? The economic consequences, never mind the hardships millions of poor people will face, if climate risks continue to escalate would suggest that economic leaders should speak out more forcefully than they do. As for Royal Dutch Shell…

Nature does not negotiate and does not care. We will get the climate we create by our pollution of the atmosphere. If it gets dangerously warm, Nature will not step in to save us. If all life on earth goes extinct, Nature will not care. We have the power to decide the near-term future of this planet, and while we can use that power to get a good result, we can also use that power to really mess up. The political class does not yet seem to understand that this is not just a game. It is certainly far more existential than is the need to take care of our economy.

Categories: Changing Oceans, Climate change, Economics, Politics | 4 Comments

Lots we don’t know about coral reef fishes, but some astounding things we do. More reasons to value coral reefs.

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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.

It was a long time ago. In 1975, E.O. Wilson coined a new term and published the book, Sociobiology. Although he got into a lot of trouble over comments he made about human behavior in the final chapters, it was a wonderful summation of what we knew up till then about the social behavior of animals. With one major failing; and I can still remember my disappointment in realizing that Ed Wilson, that amazing naturalist and leading biologist, didn’t know squat about the behavioral capabilities of fishes. The four pages he devoted to fish talked about schooling, and nothing more.

As an ecologist deeply interested in, and studying the behavior of reef fishes, I knew they were capable of far more interesting social interactions than schooling, and also that there was an abundant literature he had clearly missed. And E.O. Wilson was not the only person to underestimate them – as I remember it, this gaping hole in coverage of what are clearly the most important of all the vertebrates was not mentioned by any of the book’s numerous reviewers.

Any of you who think I am overstating when I call fish the most important vertebrates….. I’m just trying to remedy the anthropocentric view of life that pervades most discourse. An objective view of the vertebrates places all of the terrestrial forms as a single Division (the Tetrapoda), within the Subclass Crossopterygii (which also includes the Coelacanth), of the Class Osteichthyes (the bony fishes). Some authors prefer to group the Tetrapoda and other Crossopterygians with the Dipnoi (lung fishes) and others into a group called the Sarcopterygii within the Osteichthyes, but this is a minor adjustment. The major point is that we and all other terrestrial vertebrates, every mammal, bird, reptile and amphibian, are fish. Period. But, I digress…..

Reef fishes are capable critters

I was reminded of Wilson’s omission when a flurry of tweets caught my eye late this May. The tweets drew my attention to an editorial in Nature overviewing the work of the behavioral scientist, Redouan Bshary, now of the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and to a recent paper in Current Biology, led by a Cambridge graduate students, Alex Vail, with his advisors, Andrea Manica and Bshary, as co-authors (this link is to a pdf of it). The flurry of tweets arose because everyone seemed amazed that groupers were capable of complex, interspecific social behavior. Indeed, the Nature editorial, by Allison Abbott, described how Bshary had awoken to the fact that fish were capable creatures while snorkeling in the Red Sea in 1998, and the tone of her article was on how amazing that fact about fishes really was. Turns out that Bshary’s early career was spent studying primates, and if there is any group of biologists that seeks to believe that cleverness is a trait shared by humans and few other forms of life, it is those who study the behavior of apes and monkeys. I read the Abbott article, downloaded the Current Biology one and read it, and sat there stunned. Because reef fish biologists have been talking about interspecific cooperation in feeding (which is what it was all about) since at least the 1970s. (This site has a whole page of examples of intriguing interspecific cooperative adventures among reef piscivores.)

None of this is meant to diminish the quality of what Vail and Bshary have done (I’ll get to that soon). I just have to tamp down the idea that they have discovered a radically new behavioral capability that nobody had ever suspected. Given that many of the tweets came from fish biologists, my effort to tamp down seems needed (and probably won’t be successful, because why should young scientists doing cutting edge research believe me?). So maybe I should get to the behavior in question.

Bshary’s 1998 epiphany occurred one day when he happened to see a grouper team up with a moray eel to go hunting for prey. To his credit, he remembered what he had seen, and adjusted his expectations. Marshall McLuhan said long ago, “If I had not believed it, I never would have seen it”, neatly summarizing one of humanity’s big problems – we tend not to see things that do not conform to our prior expectations. Bshary adjusted his expectations in 1998, and became a better behavioral biologist by doing so. The paper in Current Biology describes a novel set of aquarium experiments run about a decade later. In the interim, Bshary had ditched primates for reef fish, mastered SCUBA, and begun some productive work on the behavior of cleaner wrasses, Labroides dimidiatus; a fish I have talked about in an earlier post. Bshary’s interest in the cleaner wrasse concerns the way in which the interaction between cleaner and cleanee functions as a market transaction. (The cleaner provides a service – removing parasites and general ‘grooming’ – in return for a fee – the edible parasites and the occasional nibble at a fin.) I’ll leave discussion of that interesting story for another time.

A digression to talk about Lizard Island

Lizard Island
Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef. The research station is in foreground at right. The more luxurious Lizard Island Resort is in the center (they get the better beach). The outer barrier can be seen on the horizon. Photo from Forbes.com.

Alex Vail had the luck to grow up on Lizard Island where his parents were, and still are, the Co-Directors of the Lizard Island Research Station, perhaps the best-run field research facility on the Great Barrier Reef over its 40 year history. Lizard Island, offshore from Cooktown is a ‘high’ island, meaning a continental island rather than a reef-built one. In July 1770, while waiting for his ship, Endeavour, to be repaired on the beach at the mouth of the Endeavour River, Capt. James Cook sailed to Lizard Island and climbed to its highest peak. From there, he was able to discern a route our through the maze of reefs, beyond the outer barrier and into the Coral Sea, so, in one sense, Lizard Island made it possible for Cook to complete his first circumnavigation.

Cook's ship at Endeavour River 10113

Engraving of Cook’s ship under repair at the mouth of the Endeavour River, Queensland.
Image © British Library.

I climbed that hill once, and walked about on top, but the day was cloudy and I could not even see the outer barrier, yet alone a path through it. Still, my pacing about on top of the hill ensured that I had “walked in James Cook’s footsteps”, which is almost as satisfying as wearing his shoes, or riding on his shoulders. But I am digressing again…. Alex Vail undoubtedly climbed that same hill; more relevant for our story, he also got the opportunity to know Redouan Bshary over Bshary’s several visits to Lizard Island, and ended up (presumably he did an undergraduate degree along the way) becoming a student at Cambridge, doing field research back home on Lizard. And thus we come to the point of this bedraggled tale….

Using models in experiments on cooperative piscivory in the coral trout

Labroides dimidiatus & Plectropomus image_full J Fatherree
A coral trout, Plectropomus leopardus, being attended to by a cleaner wrasse, Labroides dimidiatus. Photo © J. Fatherree

The coral trout, Plectropomus leopardus, is a common grouper on Australian reefs. Alex set out to determine experimentally whether the coral trout makes ‘rational’ decisions about whether or not to solicit the help of a moray eel when foraging. To do this he used a technique as old as the study of animal behavior, the use of model animals.

The first use of models to test the behavior of a fish, to my knowledge, occurred in the late 1930s when Niko Tinbergen undertook his classic studies of social behavior in the three-spine stickleback, a tiny fish that is common in small streams and ponds in his native Holland. Building simple models fastened to wires that allowed them to be manipulated in the aquarium occupied by a male stickleback, he showed that a model could elicit courtship behavior if it had a swollen belly mimicking a female with eggs, or aggressive behavior if it had a red belly like another male. Beyond that, the model could be quite crude, scarcely resembling a stickleback at all. Since that time, simple models have proved useful in many studies of fish behavior.

Each of the crude models with a red belly elicits aggressive behavior from territorial male sticklebacks, Gasterosteus aculeatus; the realistic model without does not.

While Tinbergen used sticklebacks about 5 cm in length, housed in small aquaria, Alex Vail worked with coral trout 46 to 59 cm in length. All test animals had been collected from the nearby reefs, and housed for a few days prior to testing. For the main experiment, they were placed singly into a tank about 2 m in diameter and 50 cm deep that contained two structures – a moray hiding place to one side and a prey shelter at the other side of the tank. The prey shelter was surrounded by a clear plastic cylinder so the trout could not actually catch the prey. The prey, a dead frozen pilchard, on a wire could wiggle about in a crevice beneath its shelter, outside the crevice and at the base of the shelter, or in the water column on top of the shelter. The moray eel was a life-size, two-sided, laminated photograph cut to shape and weighted to sit upright on the bottom of the tank. This was rigged on fishing line so it could be moved backwards into, or forwards out of its shelter, and towards the prey. By moving the moray towards the prey while simultaneously moving the prey up to the top of its shelter, Alex could simulate the flushing out of the prey by the eel.

Experimental trials all began with the moray moving 20 cm out of its shelter. Then the prey was presented at the base of its shelter and wiggled until the coral trout saw it. Then, either the prey was pulled immediately to the water column above its shelter or it was pulled to the center of its shelter, within the crevice. In the first case, the trout should ignore the moray and proceed to attempt to catch the clearly visible prey. In the second, it should solicit the help of the moray to flush out the prey.

Alex asked the question, “Will the coral trout solicit the help of the moray only if the prey is inaccessible in its crevice?” He answered that not only would it do that, but it was just as proficient as a chimpanzee in making that decision! (An earlier study by others had examined the ability of a chimpanzee to recruit a second chimp to help solve a difficult task and obtain food.)

Vail 2014 Curr Biol coral trout foraging
The main experiment (A & B) showed that over six days of testing, the coral trout was far more likely to solicit the help of the moray when the prey was in the crevice (green bars, ‘collaborative’) than when the prey moved to the waters above its shelter (yellow bars, ‘solo’). The first day’s performance suggests some learning could be involved (although these wild-caught fish had probably learned to solicit help from morays out on the reef). The results suggest the behavior was even more consistently “correct” than in the analogous experiment with chimpanzees. Results of a second experiment, which tested whether the coral trout could learn to discriminate between an effective (pink) and an ineffective (blue) collaborator moray, are in C and D. Figure © Current Biology.

Photo of the test coral trout and the moray model in the experimental tank. Image © Alex Vail

Now, how did the trout invite the moray to help? It used sign language of a sort. Coral trout ‘interested’ in securing the help of a moray have been seen to shimmy and or flick their dorsal and anal fins at the eel, creating a conspicuous rapid movement, and likely also some vibratory stimulation to the lateral line. And these were the behaviors that they performed towards the model eel in the experiments.

I’ve gone into lots of detail about this study partly because the idea of one fish species assessing a problem and seeking help from a second species is probably very new to most people. But I have also gone into detail to emphasize how simple experiments can reveal so much about what animals do and how they do it. Let us also remember that in the real situation, there is a second species involved, the moray, which responds to the solicitation and joins the hunt.

Other examples of the complexity of reef fish behavior

While behavioral experiments on fish are frequently done in aquaria, they are even more powerful evidence if they can be done out in the field. While the scientists busily studying behavior of chimpanzees may not have been aware, there have been numerous experimental studies of reef fish behavior done out in the field. Ross Robertson’s early studies of cleaner wrasses included experiments in which he removed the male fish and then watched the behavior of the females. In this case the changes in behavior as the dominant female gradually became a male commenced within 30 min and were the first evidence that sex change was taking place. Male courtship behavior was occurring within 24 hr, but viable sperm were not produced for 10 or more days.

Territorial damselfishes, the drab brown but pugnacious ones rather than the more colorful mid-water planktivores that justify the family name, have been important in my own early work. People who first learn about territoriality in animals tend to learn about birds and assume that territorial behavior is usually restricted to other members of one’s own species. But that is not the case, and in the territorial damselfishes, it is usual to defend the territory from a broad range of species on the reef. The defense is not haphazard. Species that are most likely to browse on, or disrupt the animal’s algal turf garden (yes, they cultivate gardens as well), or, for breeding males, species that are likely to feed upon eggs in the nest, are the ones that are attacked. Other species are ignored.

Three-spot damsel by Florent Charpin
The three-spot damselfish, Stegastes planifrons, claimed by Art Myrberg to be “inch for inch, the most dangerous fish in the ocean”. Photo © F. Charpin

We know this fact because of work out of the lab of the late fish behaviorist, Arthur Myrberg, of University of Miami, and particularly the Ph.D. work in the early 1970s by Ron Thresher, now retired and angling for trout in Tasmania, so far as I know. Ron Thresher used model fish experiments in the field to measure the likelihood of a territorial Three-spot Damsel, Stegastes planifrons, to defend its territory. Results appeared in Animal Behaviour in 1976 (unfortunately still behind a paywall). Ron’s models were living fish of various species, enclosed in clear plastic containers that could be positioned at specified distances from the center of the test individual’s territory. He reasoned that the distance the territory holder would go to attack was a measure of the intensity of defense against that species. He showed a reliable pattern of differences among test species that made perfect sense if you examined their feeding or other characteristics. Subsequent work by others has shown this to be a general characteristic among territorial damselfishes – territorial defense is directed to a large number of species that might disrupt the algal food, or steal eggs from a nest, but not to numerous other species. This tells us that these damselfishes are quite capable of telling one species from another and learning which need to be attacked.

Come to think of it, the cleaner wrasse has to be recognized as a cleaner by all those larger, piscivorous species it cleans, and the cleaner wrasse has to ‘know’ that it is OK to fiddle about around the delicate gills, or enter the mouth of a fish ‘waiting’ to be cleaned. And coral trout have to ‘know’ that morays might be able to help them catch prey in difficult to access spots, while morays have to ‘know’ that teaming up to help a soliciting grouper can pay off.

None of these instances of ‘knowledge’ would be too surprising if reef fish grew up in stable family groups and could learn from their parents. But they don’t. With almost no exceptions, reef fish either begin life as eggs spawned into mid-water on an out-going tide, or as eggs in a nest that is cared for only until they hatch (which hatching usually coincides with evening or an out-going tide). They then spend from one to a dozen or more weeks as part of the open ocean plankton, before they reach the stage at which they are ready to settle down on a coral reef. Some of their knowledge about other species may be innate; other must be learned exceedingly quickly because there is not much time for trial and error, mistake-accumulating learning when you are bite-sized and nutritious.

Of course, the piece of ‘knowledge’ that fascinated me when I began working with reef fishes, was the fact that, despite the swift departure from the reef in the earliest hours of life, and the several weeks at sea, reef fishes return not just to coral reefs, but to quite particular places on reefs. The many species that occur on a coral reef are not distributed willy-nilly; they occur in precise types of places, often in a succession of different types of place as they pass from early juvenile to adult life. Having spent many hours looking for, and recording the presence of reef fishes within hours of settlement to a reef, I know personally that you hardly ever see newly arrived fishes in the ‘wrong’ habitat. Either there is a massive kill that weeds out all the unfortunate fish that chose inappropriately, or, more likely, they do indeed somehow ‘know’ where they are supposed to live.

When I was completing my PhD research, the prevailing view was that the dispersal of larval reef fish was a largely passive process – they were carried by currents and tides. Presumably, they got to reefs at an appropriate time to settle also purely by chance. One prominent hypothesis at that time was that large eddy systems that develop downstream of islands or reefs could entrap larvae, which would circulate within the eddy, only to be thrown back towards the reef when they had completed a circuit. This imaginative idea conveniently avoided noting that reef fishes were plentiful on the windward side of reefs and islands as well, and said nothing about how, on settlement, the different species of fish happened to occur in the correct reef habitats! We’ve come a long way since then, and the gradual unraveling of how reef fishes get back to reefs is an exciting example of how nature can always find ways to surprise. Perhaps I’ll write about it some time.

For now, I’ll summarize by noting that reef fishes are very capable creatures. The underwater neighborhoods that I somehow knew existed from the very first time I put my head underwater and looked around are very real, and are occupied by creatures (because it is not only the fish) that know ‘where’ they are, ‘who’ else is around, ‘how’ they may cooperate or not, ‘what’ the activities, postures, or gestures of other inhabitants mean, ‘whether’ it would be sensible to do A and/or B, and just perhaps ‘why’ life is unfolding the way it is. They may not be able to write it all down in English and explain it to us, but they ‘know’ far more than we tend to give them credit for. People like Redouan Bshary and Alex Vail are following in the footsteps of people like Ross Robertson, Art Myrberg, and Ron Thresher by using simple, yet subtle experiments to reveal just a bit of what these creatures are capable of. We need more of this kind of curiosity. If we need another reason to value coral reefs, and therefore to fight for their continued existence on this planet, this could be it; they are home to an amazingly rich community of organisms, living rich and wonderful lives that we are even now barely aware of, and they make our lives infinitely richer just by being there.

Categories: coral reef science, Stories from a Coral Reef | 2 Comments

We Could Have Done Much Better: Canada’s sorry record on managing CO2 emissions.

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Earlier this month in Schloss Emlau, high in the Bavarian Alps, Canada’s Stephen Harper and the other G7 leaders, agreed to the establishment of a zero-carbon economy by 2100. It could have been a stronger agreement, with a target date of 2050, but Canada and Japan fought successfully to weaken it by 50 years. It’s a largely aspirational commitment; none of these leaders, even Mr. Harper, is so egotistical as to believe that he/she will still be in power at the end of the century. I’m not even sure it is useful, even as an aspiration, but we will come to that later. For now, I thought it would be appropriate to trace Canada’s record on GHG emissions until now. Warning: it’s not a pretty record, nothing to be proud of, but perhaps we can learn from it.

Unhappy? Bored? Recently chastised by another leader? Stephen Harper at the June G7 meeting in Germany. Photo © Bundesregierung/Denzel

That we Canadians are about to enter a Federal election also makes it timely to think about this record. Perhaps one or more of our political leaders will be willing to talk about how he or she might strive to improve our performance, and restore our international reputation over the next few years.

It all started in Rio

Many people look fondly back on Rio de Janeiro’s Earth Summit, held June 3-14, 1992, as the last truly successful global summit on environment. It was the first mega summit. Some 120 Heads of State and a total of 172 countries participated. It included the NGO community and civil society (over 2000 official non-governmental delegates plus 17000 NGO representatives participating in a parallel set of meetings), and while there was some skepticism at the time, it produced several important agreements. Most important are Agenda 21 and the subsequent Millenium Development Goals, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the UN Convention on Biodiversity, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Few subsequent large UN conferences can claim as much success.

Time Rio cover 1992 1101920601_400
Time saw the Rio Earth Summit as very newsworthy. Image © Time Magazine

The UNFCCC came into existence in Rio, signed by 154 countries including Canada. It was more a statement of agreed principles than a blueprint, but it affirmed that the science of climate change was compelling, that there was a need to stabilize global GHG emissions in order to stabilize climate, and that developed countries would have to lead in emissions reductions, both because they had been responsible for the major amount of past emissions and because developing countries would be very hard-pressed to reduce emissions while struggling to raise living standards. The details of how the world would reduce GHG emissions were left to a series of COPs, or conferences of the parties, to be held in future years.

Twenty-three years later, and we are counting down to COP-21 to be held in Paris in from 30th November to 11th December. There have also been numerous smaller meetings between COPs, and the IPCC has developed its own meeting schedule to review and develop the needed science.

If I was a cynic, I’d wonder about the amount of CO2 emitted, and the dollars expended, to cover all the travel, and the time spent in all these meetings. Instead, I’ll just observe that progress would have been a heck of a lot more rapid if countries had negotiated in good faith, seeking to remedy a shared problem, instead of as too many of them have, looking always for their own self-interest, seeking to water down, delay, or in other ways defang any proposals being put on the table. And no, it is not just Canada that has behaved poorly. The USA, Australia, China, Japan, India and many more have at one or other time proved far more interested in their own short-term economic benefits than in solving the climate problem.

And then came Kyoto

In 1995, at COP-1, countries agreed that developed countries should undertake to reduce their emissions first. The following year, at COP-2, they agreed that the science was sufficiently compelling that a formal treaty with mandatory targets for reducing GHG emissions was warranted. In Kyoto in 1997 at COP-3, countries signed on to the Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol document was a comprehensive agreement that included precise GHG emission targets for each member country, the general framework of a GHG emissions-trading program, and a commitment to hold future COPs to work out important details of the new regime (such as establishing the penalties for failure to meet targets and the rules of the new emissions-trading program). In order for the Kyoto Protocol to come into full effect, at least 55 developed countries, that together were responsible for at least 55% of GHG emissions in the base year of 1990, would have to formally ratify it.

Paul Martin kyoto(history),ratification
Canadian Finance Minister, Paul Martin, speaking in support of the Kyoto Protocol at COP-3, held in Kyoto, 1-10 December, 1997.

Working out the details of Kyoto required four more COPs, the last one (COP-7) in Marakesh in 2001. Ratifications commenced, but took some time, because to ratify, each nation had to formally introduce and pass supporting legislation in its own legislature. Countries were slow to ratify; if Kyoto came into effect, they would be legally obligated by treaty to reduce emissions by a specified amount.

Although Bill Clinton had signed Kyoto in 1997, newly-elected George W Bush announced in 2001 that the USA would not be ratifying because it would no longer support the decision made back in 1995 that developing countries, including China, would not have reductions required in the first Kyoto period (to 2012). Bush also raised questions about the science, and expressed concerns for impacts on the US economy. In 2002, Australia, another developed country that had participated until then, had a change of heart and Liberal (= right of center) PM John Howard announced that they would not ratify for many of the same reasons. Canada did ratify Kyoto in 2002 when a bill was passed through the House of Commons and the Senate, but prospects for the Protocol coming into effect looked dim. Without the USA, it was going to be difficult to obtain signatories responsible together for 55% of emissions.

By early 2004, most European countries, Canada, Japan and New Zealand had ratified, but they accounted together for just 44% of emissions. Vladimir Putin, then President of Russia, rode up on his white horse with Russia’s 17% of emissions in hand, extracted a promise from European countries to back Russia’s request to join the World Trade Organization, ratified Kyoto, and brought it into effect. Thus are important environmental treaties put together; just like making sausages.

Canada’s Kyoto obligation

Kyoto required each developed country signatory to reduce GHG emissions by a specified amount, close to 5%, compared to that country’s emissions in 1990. For Canada, the required reduction was 6% from the 1990 base rate of emissions for all GHGs combined, not including any benefits from sequestration due to land use and forestry. This was to be achieved over the 2008-2012 period. Kyoto documents refer to an initial assigned amount, the total of GHG emissions (measured as CO2 equivalents) permitted during that five year period. For Canada, that amount was 2,792 MtCO2 eq (millions of tonnes of CO2 equivalents). Countries were free to decide the best way to make the emissions adjustments including by increasing energy efficiency, by increasing carbon sequestration by forests or other land, and even by paying for emissions reductions in developing countries.

So how did Canada do? Well, to begin with, it’s quite difficult to find out! Given that, as a signatory to UNFCCC, Canada is required to report details of GHG emissions each year, one might expect the emissions tables to be neatly summarized on a government website. I’ve searched high and low. I found an Environment Canada website titled National Greenhouse Gas Emissions. That sounded promising; it provided one graph, the simple data table behind that graph, and a link to the National Inventory Report 1990-2013.

GreenhouseGasEmissions_Canada from Env Can 2015
Canada’s total GHG emissions (not including LULUCF) as displayed on Environment Canada website, based on data reported to UNFCCC in 2015.

But the National Inventory Report page provided only the Executive Summary and a dead link to the full report, and the problem was that the numbers on the graph did not conform to numbers I had in Environment Canada publications such as the 2012 and 2013 editions of Canada’s Emission Trends. Nor did they agree with numbers on a helpful timeline on the CBC website. Fact is that calculating GHG emissions is a complex process, and there have been revisions to the numbers over the years as methods have improved. Plus there is the issue of LULUCF – land use, land use changes and forestry for the uninitiated. Sometimes total emissions are quoted excluding the sequestration or emissions from lands and forests, and sometimes these are included. I’ve struggled with this problem of getting the correct numbers in the past; this time I decided to see if the UN had made the annual reports available. Lo and behold! I found the relevant site quickly and downloaded a zipped folder containing Canada’s latest National Inventory Report (and the numbers for total GHG emissions not including effects of LULUCF proved to be the same as shown on the Environment Canada site I first visited). So what follows uses the numbers that Canada reported to the UNFCCC in 2015 and posted on an Environment Canada site. These are the most up-to-date numbers available, including data for every year since 1990 as subsequently adjusted. (One minor consequence is that posts on this blog in 2012 and 2013, dealing with Canada’s peculiar way of measuring progress in emissions reduction, and based on Environment Canada data in those years, include numbers that are now viewed as incorrect – although the general story remains correct.)

Back in 1997 when Canada signed Kyoto, the accepted value for its total GHG emissions in 1990 was 590 MtCO2 eq (590.908 to be precise), and its ‘initial assigned amount’ of emissions for 2008 to 2012 was accordingly 2,791 MtCO2 eq (5 years at 94% of base amount). The revised 1990 value reported in 2015 is 613 MtCO2 eq, and it seems fair to look at trends using these most recent figures. So, from 1990 to the time of Kyoto (1997), emissions had increased 88 million tonnes to 701 MtCO2 eq. They were up 37 million more by the time of ratification (2002), and a further 20 million to 758 MtCO2 eq by the time the agreement came into effect in 2004. Clearly, Canada’s then Liberal (= left of center) government was not trying very hard to contain emissions during those years when the Kyoto Protocol was not yet a legal treaty! Still, over the next two years there was an encouraging downward trend, to 740 MtCO2 eq in 2006.

Cretien cartoon re Kyoto sep802
Truth is that the Liberals did not make a great effort to comply with the Kyoto Protocol.
Cartoon © Tim Dolighan

The change of government to the Conservatives and Stephen Harper does not seem to have made much difference in Canada’s performance, but the trend did reverse and emissions were 761 MtCO2 eq in 2007. The downward trend resumed, driven at least partly by the slowdown in the economy, but also by a slow improvement in energy intensity of the Canadian economy and the various, mostly provincial, moves to reduce emissions. They reached 699 MtCO2 eq in 2009. Since then they have increased every year.

The original target, specified under Kyoto, should have got Canada’s total GHG emissions down to an average of about 558 MtCO2 eq per year during 2008 to 2012. Actual emissions over those five years total 3,571 MtCO2 eq, 780 million tonnes, or an average of 156 MtCO2 eq per year higher than the target. That is a 28% overshoot of the target. True, Canada withdrew from Kyoto in December 2011, but there is scant evidence in the figures that Canada was attempting to meet the target it had formally agreed to when it ratified Kyoto back in 2002. PM Harper’s long promised emissions regulations for the tar sands industry were still not in place (nor are they yet), and growth in that industry had resulted in a 79% increase in emissions between 2005 and 2012, accounting for 9% of total Canadian emissions. That industry has been projected to continue its rapid expansion into the future, becoming an every larger part of the emissions problem.

No fear, onward to Copenhagen

In early December, 2009, as final preparations were under way for the Copenhagen climate conference, COP-15, there were hopes for a formal commitment to a 1.5oC maximum rise in global temperature, and some binding agreements on GHG reductions. That is not how things turned out. With some 115 world leaders present, the acrimonious debates stretched into the night. In the end all references to 1.5oC were stripped out and replaced by 2oC, and individual countries made voluntary, unenforceable commitments re GHG emissions in 2020.

Canada, initially talking about a 20% reduction from 2006 emissions levels, quickly changed that to 17% below 2005 levels, ostensibly to mirror the US pledge. (Smart move, given that as can be seen in the figure above, 17% below 749 MtCO2 eq is a larger permitted rate of emissions than 20% below 740 MtCO2 eq – Canada’s delegates were looking out for Canada!)

Mostly people were polite about this cleverness, and also by the fact that ‘17% below 2005 levels‘ was an easing of the target initially made under Kyoto. While Kyoto obligated Canada to reach 558 MtCO2 eq by 2012, the non-binding pledge made at Copenhagen was to reach 607 MtCO2 eq of emissions, or 9% more, by 2020. (Astute readers may have noticed that reducing 2005’s 749 MtCO2 eq by 17% results in an allowed 2020 amount of 622 MtCO2 eq, not 607. The 607 MtCO2 eq target derives from the fact that the 2005 emissions had initially been estimated at 731 MtCO2 eq.)
bella_center_activists1 COP15 Copenhagen

There was plenty of frustration at COP-15 in Copenhagen, and Canada was recognized as a major impediment to progress. Canada came home with Fossil of the Year, and several Fossil of the Day awards, its first of many. This has been the one way in which Canada stands out as a winner at the climate conferences. Photo © A. Libisch/TerraViva

Of course, the results since 2009 show that, despite this astute deal, Canada continued to show no evidence that it was moving towards the target. Emissions have increased, almost linearly, since that year. A strengthening economy until recently, and a failure at the federal level to institute any substantive curbs on emissions, have resulted in Canada moving backwards, while the Harper government continued until 2014 with its vapid declarations that Canada was “half-way towards meeting its Copenhagen commitment”. Tell the same lie over and over, sometimes it starts to stick. However this one was so blatantly ridiculous the government finally ceased, and now Environment Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, busies herself with the claim that “Canada is working hard on climate change”.

Believe it or not, things could have been worse

Without in any way exonerating the Harper government for their appalling record on GHG emissions, it’s important to remember that things could have been worse. Over the years, a number of moves at the Provincial level have served to reduce GHG emissions in Canada. Most notable are the introduction of carbon pricing mechanisms in Quebec, British Columbia, and most recently Ontario, and the aggressive courting by Ontario of renewable sources of electricity along with its phase out of coal powered generation capacity. Ontario ceased all coal-fired generation early in 2014, and its FIT and micro-Fit feed-in tariff programs obligate the power grid to accept power from small solar, wind, and water-power sources at guaranteed prices. Together, these actions are bringing about a significant diversification in power generation and a reduction in GHG emissions in that largest Canadian province.

At the federal level, there has been funding to assist in the development in Saskatchewan of a prototype, industrial scale coal-fired power generation plant using CCS (carbon capture and storage), and a program to phase out use of incandescent lightbulbs. Wow! There has also been some funding in the EcoEnergy program to assist Canadians in improving the energy efficiency in their homes; this program replaced an earlier (better) one which Harper cancelled on taking office. The new program ran from 2007 to 2010, was renewed in 2011 and abruptly cancelled in 2012 – it seemed to be too popular. And, of course, the Harper government eventually announced new fuel efficiency regulations for automobiles, to great fanfare, despite the fact that earlier US action guaranteed the changes were going to happen anyway.

And so to the future

Canada’s poor performance on climate has been well recognized over the years by a string of Fossil awards at climate conferences. At COP-14, held in Warsaw in 2013, Canada was awarded a Lifetime Unachievement Fossil Award on the last day of the conference. It’s the only way Canada can be said to lead at the COP events, and a sad commentary on our performance internationally. One senses that if the Federal government has a heart, its heart certainly is not in addressing GHG emissions in meaningful ways. And yet, Canada has now submitted its draft commitment for the Paris COP meeting in December of this year. Late on Friday May 15th, 2015, in Winnipeg, Leona Aglukkaq announced that Canada will reduce its GHG emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. She rambled on about the commitment being “fair and ambitious, an ambitious commitment based on our national circumstances, which includes a growing population, a diversified growing economy and Canada’s position as a world leader in clean-electricity generation” and “Canada’s ambitious new target and planned regulatory actions underscore our continued commitment to cut emissions at home and work with our international partners to establish an international agreement in Paris that includes meaningful and transparent commitments from all major emitters. We will work cooperatively with the provinces and territories on these goals while respecting their jurisdiction.
Aglukkaq question period counting on fingers commons-20140331

Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s Environment Minister. So authoritative, so little information. Does PM Harper’s attitude to environment get revealed in his choice of Ministers?
Photo © Huffington Post

Somehow I am not convinced, and neither are lots of folks around the world. Canada’s long list of failed GHG promises makes her hollow words sound even more empty. Reducing GHG emissions is not part of the Harper program, no matter what his ministers say, far away from Ottawa, late on a Friday afternoon. Her announcement, and the minimal follow-up, provide no indication that any regulations will be imposed on the tar sands (although the 30% plan does depend upon continuing weak economic growth and a less than originally hoped for rate of growth in that industry). Nor is there much evidence of any other programs that will be needed, beyond some attention to methane releases in fracking operations. Given the lack of progress since 2002, why should anyone believe Canada this time around.

Even if Canada’s word is taken at face value, the commitment is the weakest among G7 countries, committing Canada to a later, and slower rate of reduction in emissions than any other developed country. But of course, there is no need to worry, because Harper has now committed Canada to foregoing use of fossil fuels entirely by 2100. Out of the mouths of politicians….

And this leads me back, briefly, to that G7 pledge to eliminate all fossil fuels by 2100. It was a pledge coupled with a commitment to keep the global temperature increase to no more than 2oC. And there were no details on how all this was to be done! If one wants to be really negative about that G7 pledge, it is only necessary to note that if countries really wish to keep the global temperature increase to 2oC (an increase which is on the edge of being dangerous), the global economy has to decarbonize at over 6.2% per year, every year from now to 2100. That is more than five times faster than what is happening now. Bold aspirational promises for a distant time are not worth the breath used to utter them without some evidence of sleeves being rolled up, and tough new decisions being made that will rachet back GHG emissions today and tomorrow. The G7 pledge is a sham, and Canada’s Stephen Harper, as one of the least enthusiastic about it (he helped weaken it by 50 years, remember), is simply shameless.

Why does this all matter?

The Harper government has been quick to point out that Canada is a large country with a widely scattered population, that it has a resource extraction-based export economy, that it has a cold climate with concomitant high costs for building and road maintenance. All are legitimate arguments to cut the country some slack when looking at its efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. But Canada is also a wealthy country, with an educated workforce able to tackle demanding challenges, and other countries share each of Canada’s impediments.

The Harper government likes to focus on Canada’s contribution to total global GHG emissions. It’s tiny. Less than 2% of the total. Definitely not important. But, Canada ranks 11th out of 186 countries, ranks 5th among developed countries, and ranks 3rd among developed countries in rate of emissions per capita, using 15.6 tonnes CO2eq per person in 2012 just behind USA’s 16.3 and Australia’s 17.2. If Canada does not have a substantial responsibility to reduce its GHG emissions, who does? The chronic Federal failure over the past 20, and especially over the 13 years since we signed on to Kyoto should be an embarrassment to every Canadian. We have an election coming soon. My concern is that we may get through that exercise, with the same, or a replacement crew in power, and still continue the poor performance into the future. This pattern of behavior just doesn’t seem very Canadian. And it certainly does not help solve our climate problem.

Is just one of these leaders willing to really lead on climate, willing to take the kind of action Canada should take, action that goes beyond the minimum required, setting a standard that other countries could follow, restoring Canada’s international reputation, and helping to build a better world? We only need one.

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Economics, In the News, Politics | 1 Comment