So Much Bad Environmental News – How to Remain Optimistic

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In my final post for 2014, I confessed that I was optimistic about our struggle to combat climate change. I began 2015 with a report on the continuing problems faced by coral reefs, and some despair that we were not conveying the coral reef message effectively enough. Now, over the past week or so, I’ve found myself inundated by bad news on several fronts. Time to talk up optimism again!

While I call it bad news, the news I am referring to is mostly expected, and some of it refers to events that are very slow-acting even in comparison to climate change. Some of the news simply confirms what we all knew was going to be true. Still, one does not have to look very far these days, in the media or in the technical journals, to find bad news of many types. And good news stories are few, far between, and frequently quite modest.

On January 14th, I had the experience of a 90 minute interview in front of a live audience on the issue of climate change and the environmental crisis more generally. Peter Jennings has been hosting a monthly interview program on local television for about a year now, and I have been in his audience a number of times. He has interviewed a selection of interesting people on a wide diversity of topics. Our community benefits from such events, and I only hope my interview stacked up against the rest of them. (There is a short teaser clip here – I look suitably uncomfortable, and I am wearing boots because it is winter in Muskoka!) While you cannot really prepare for an interview, I did take a quick look in the latest issue of Nature when it hit my in-box the morning of our get-together. I found three relevant articles that led me to four other recent articles in other journals – seven articles in one scan of a ‘contents’ page!

Resettlement need – another aspect of climate change

The first of these was an Op-Ed style ‘Comment’ by David Lopez-Carr and Jessica Marter-Kenyon on the need for guidelines for governments on how to plan and execute the resettlement of people being impacted by effects of climate change. Their thesis is that the planned relocation of entire communities is NOT a usual practice with which governments are familiar; that, indeed, such relocation is fraught with difficulties to do with ensuring the retention of livelihoods, community networks and societal traditions, while battling complexities to do with land ownership, cost of relocation, and the will to move. Their article includes numerous stories of communities that need to relocate, but have not succeeded in doing so, and they make the point that such cases are going to become more numerous as climate change affects more and more of the planet’s surface. Most of their examples relate to coastal communities that need to move to higher ground, but drought, and mudslides due to altered patterns of precipitation are also included.

Kivalina artic-warming-villages

Kivalina, a 400 person community on a small barrier island on the Alaska coast, needs to relocate because climate change is making its location untenable. Photo © Millie Hawley/AP

Their opening example, the 400 resident Alaskan village of Kivalina, is being ravaged by heightened storm surge, and flooding and erosion due to melting of sea ice and permafrost. The people of Kivalina voted in 1998 and 2000 to move together to a site on higher ground. More than a decade and a half later, Kivalina remains in limbo, its move stymied by institutional, financial and physical barriers. No US federal or state agency has a mandate to undertake such mass resettlement, even though the government spent more than US$15 million on erosion control there between 2006 and 2009. Kivalina has failed to raise funds through climate lawsuits against oil and gas companies, and it has yet to identify suitable relocation sites. Meanwhile, the village’s water-supply and waste-storage systems have been damaged, and it could become uninhabitable within a decade. How many far northern Canadian communities face similar problems?

The authors’ choice of an Alaskan village helps bring home the fact that this issue is not a problem for ‘the other’; these are citizens (albeit marginalized) of the strongest nation on the planet. The difficulties faced by Kivalina are likely exceeded in Bangladesh, the Maldives or Kiribati. That Miami is investing $400 million to renovate its drainage system to combat coastal flooding and storms suggests to me that we will be spending a lot of money on flood control infrastructure over the next few years because the will to move, and the facilitating mechanisms, are simply not there yet. (Stockmarket tip: Buy flood control equipment and expertise!) This article put the issue of sea level rise into a more human frame for me – it’s all very well to say the Bangladeshis will have to move, but accomplishing that task in a way that is cost effective, and preserving of societal connections is not going to be an easy task. It’s one we have to add to our growing to-do list.

Human impacts on the oceans

A second article in that issue of Nature was an editorial concerning the many human impacts on the oceans. It nicely supplemented the discussion of resettlement, because it reported results of a new analysis of sea level rise from a paper just published on Nature’s website (many articles are published on-line before appearing in the pages of the journal). The new data, by Carling C. Hay and colleagues at Harvard and Rutgers, show that sea level rise during the 20th century has been very slightly overestimated – the new estimate is 1.2 mm per year, not 1.6 to 1.9. But the new data show that the rate since about 1993, 3 mm per year, has accelerated far faster than previously believed – about 2.5 times the rate during last century. And just in case anyone is wondering, the sea level rise we have put in motion by warming the planet will not stop the moment we bring our CO2 emissions under control. Time lags in the system ensure it will continue for several hundred years. (Investment tip: Florida swampland is even less valuable than it used to be.)


Sea level rise – just one part of climate change. Cartoon © Jim Morin, Miami Herald and CartoonArts International.

This editorial was mainly focused on an article published in Bioscience on 31st December by Carlos Duarte of University of Western Australia and Instituto Mediterráneo de Estudios Avanzados in Spain, together with seven colleagues from Australia, the US, Chile and Argentina. In their view the proliferation of a number of pressures affecting the ocean is leading to a growing concern that the state of the ocean is compromised, which is driving society into pessimism. Their article explores how environmental damage to the ocean is being reported (both by scientists and the media), and argues for retention by scientists of a more skeptical view of the data. This is a perspective I have heard before – often crudely as “we must emphasize the good news in order to keep people engaged” – and it is one that can encourage Pollyannaism instead of accurate science reporting. To the credit of Duarte and his team this is not the approach taken in their article. Instead they look at a number of “calamities”, examining the underlying science, and show that some are truly serious, others may be serious but the data available are not yet sufficient to know, and some seem to be wildly exaggerated. I was vaguely reassured to learn that there is not yet any sound evidence showing that jellyfish numbers are exploding in the world’s oceans. On the other hand, I am concerned that the denialist community will take sections of this paper out of context to argue a) that the scientists cannot agree, and b) that the evidence for all sorts of claims is simply not there. Whether Duarte and company would agree or not, I maintain that there are many substantial, well-documented examples of serious ocean impacts caused by our activities. We scientists have a responsibility to be critical evaluators of data before drawing conclusions, but we also still need to state explicitly that the real calamities are indeed calamitous. Sugar-coating does not help.

Still, at a time when scientists seem to be getting as much information from Twitter, Google, and Facebook as they are getting from a careful (critical) reading of papers published in the peer-reviewed literature, and a time when papers in the literature have trouble getting noticed unless there has been a staged media frenzy timed to coincide with their publication, Duarte and colleagues make some excellent points about failures to cite appropriately, willingness to repeat hypotheses that have been accepted uncritically by others, and the tendency to dig in and defend theories that would have been supplanted if the growing body of data had been critically assessed. It’s a paper all marine scientists should read.

jellyfish + diver

Good to learn that jellyfish outbreaks may not be a crisis for the oceans! Photo © AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Recovery, or not, of bleached coral reefs in the Seychelles

That same editorial in Nature also drew my attention to a new report just published on the Nature website on the recovery from bleaching of Seychelles reefs. In it, Nick Graham, of Australia’s James Cook University, and colleagues in Australia, the UK and France, report on the results of a study of 21 sites across the Seychelles reefs, sampled in 1994 and again in 2005, 2008 and 2011.

The Seychelles are one of several archipelagos in the western Indian Ocean, and were particularly hard hit by the massive bleaching episode that hit during 1998. Fortunately, detailed sampling of the 21 sites four years earlier provided a precise baseline of coral cover, abundance of algae, and abundances of a broad range of fish and other mobile inhabitants. By resampling each site, using the same monitoring methods, in 2005, 2008 and 2011, Graham and colleagues were able to assess the impact of the bleaching, and the subsequent changes in the reef system at each site over the next 13 years. While they chose to present their results in complex ways using concepts such as Euclidian distances to measure departure from prior ecological state, they provide some photographs in the on-line extended data that tell the story clearly.

Graham et al Seychelles nature14140-sf1 small

Reef sites in the Seychelles in 1994 (a, b), in 2005 showing the lingering effects of the 1998 bleaching (c, d), and in 2011 when some had largely recovered (e) while others had become dominated by fleshy algae (f). Photos © N. Graham and Nature

Prior to 1998, sites were well covered in coral, with little evident large algae. By 2005, the effects of the 1998 events were still clearly apparent with little if any live coral present, but some sites still retained the complex structure typical of coral reefs while others had been further eroded and were topographically far simpler. By 2011, 12 of the 21 sites had shown considerable regrowth of coral and were approaching the state they had been in in 1994. However, 9 other sites were still largely without coral and heavily dominated by large algae. Graham and colleagues suggest that whether or not a bleached site retains its complex topography, and the depth at which it is situated may help predict whether it is likely to recover from severe bleaching.

This Seychelles story is very good news in that it shows that some, a majority, of very severely bleached reef sites can recover after a decade or so. However, it also confirms that a sizeable minority of sites, 9 of 21, became transformed into algae-dominated rocky structures of much lesser ecological or economic value. The phase shift from coral- to algae-dominated is a pattern seen in other instances of severe reef damage, most notably with severe over-fishing in Jamaica and other Caribbean locations. It is not a shift that gets reversed very easily if at all. The future that is currently coming towards us is one in which bleaching likely will be a more frequent event – these Seychelles data increase our wiggle room to get things right, but they don’t make the problem of reef loss go away.

Oh no! We are running out of lots of things all at once!

My final discovery on that Nature contents page was a brief news item directing me to a report published late in 2014 in Ecology and Society. The article, by Rolf Seppelt of the Helmholz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany, and four colleagues in German and US institutions, examines the global pattern of use of some 27 major resources by humanity over time spans that were typically 20 to 50 years long, but in one case (phosphate) 112 years in length.

In their introduction, the authors point out that the typical pattern of use of a resource, such as eggs, or fish, or rice, or oil, is that it is first discovered and uses developed; its use then expands over time; then increasing scarcity or the arrival of a superior replacement causes its use to diminish and eventually cease. This is true for renewable resources such as timber, foods, and furs which can be expected to be replenished as they are consumed, and for non-renewable resources such as coal, oil or acres of farmland which will be regenerated only on much longer time scales. Their interest was on when the increase in the rate of use of a particular resource peaked. The timing of this peak appropriation rate signals the time when scarcity or other factors begin to intervene in use of that resource.

Using time-series of global quantities used, they worked to determine the year at which the rate of increase in consumption peaked for each resource. They discovered, surprisingly, that of the 27 resources considered, 21 had already passed their peak appropriation year, and these peak years clustered between 1960 and 2010 with a median year of 2006 – a surprisingly narrow range within human history. Of the 20 renewable resources, only farmed fish and renewable energy (solar, wind, etc) had yet to peak. Of the 7 non-renewable resource, coal, gas, oil, and phosphates had yet to peak.

So, what is the significance of all this? Seppelt and colleagues suggest that the fact that most of the resources used have already reached their peaks means we could be running short of resources we need in the near future. Secondly, they suggest that the concentration of peak years around 2006, and the surprisingly narrow range among them suggests that we are running out of lots of resources at the same time. The reasons for this are probably tied to the fact that the rate of increase of the global population peaked in 1989, and that of the global GDP peaked in 2010. More people and a larger economy drive a greater use of resources. In addition, our lives demand a suite of resources satisfying different needs, and the use of one resource, such as any of our basic foods, requires use of other resources to obtain it. So the congruence in peak appropriation rates, and their clustering in recent years is expected. But confirming these facts should still give us pause. The passing of a peak assimilation rate is a signal of possible shortages to come, but it does not predict the timing of that shortage. The passing of many such peaks during a short span of years suggests that we can anticipate many shortages simultaneously. Not a pretty situation to contemplate, and a much larger challenge than if we had to deal with one resource shortage at a time. Seppelt and colleagues suggest we need a paradigm shift in resource use toward a sustainable path for the Anthropocene.

Tokyo_fish_market Daniel S Walsh

Tuna for sale on the floor of the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo; note the fog of CO2 arising from the flash frozen fish. The largest fish market in the world, Tsukiji sees about $28 M worth, or 2200 tonnes of fishery products from around the world sold every day. That’s just one of the resources we use. Photo © Daniel S Walsh

2014 – warmest year on record

So, that’s what I learned from scanning the contents page of one issue of Nature. It was a fairly typical week. Later in the week, NOAA published its annual analysis of the global climate for 2014, confirming what we all knew was inevitable, and what other agencies had already proclaimed – that globally, 2014 was the warmest year since we began to collect weather records (about 1880). This proclamation was followed by a twitterstorm (yep, I joined in) repeating this news, and a counterstorm of doubt suggesting it does not actually prove anything at all.

Let me summarize the main point in this twittertempest: that the 14 warmest years globally, since about 1880 have all occurred since 2000 (the other warm year was 1998), and that this is a highly unlikely event if the world is not warming up. Seems pretty obvious to me! But it’s amazing how many people were willing to proclaim proudly “I am not a scientist” before casting doubt of the strangest type: Climate change is not a hoax but it has nothing to do with us98 of the 100 US Senators in a meaningless vote. I can quote from the Bible that climate is not changing – US Senator James Inhofe. By calling Greenland “green land” we know that the climate has been changing pretty regularly within recorded memory – US Senator Mark Kirk. (I picked idiocy from US Senators on purpose; I know they are not the only denialists with such impeccable logic.)

Also in the news

Also in the news, and catching my eye, over the past couple of weeks (a small sample): Margaret Munro wrote in the Financial Post on 8th January that Canada could be a big loser if the world gets serious about climate change. She referred specifically to the 8th January article in Nature, by Christofe McGlade and Paul Eakins of University College London, which stated that 75% of Canada’s oil reserves and 85% of its tar sands bitumen must stay in the ground if a 2oC limit is to be met. The Guardian carried a story on 14th January concerning our growing understanding of the melting of ice sheets in Antarctica, and how the western Antarctic ice sheet appears now to have reached a point of no return. It quoted Ted Scambos, of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, as saying:
Antarctica’s ice sheet has been called the ‘sleeping giant’ of sea level, but it’s beginning to stir. Everything we’ve seen about this change points to human influences on climate – and now we’re at the point where human actions will be needed to stop it.

On 15th January, in the Guardian, leading UK environmentalist Jonathon Porritt called his years working on green energy projects with Shell and BP a ‘painful journey’ that had led him to believe no major fossil fuel company will commit to renewables in the near future. They are simply too trapped by a short-term mandate that leaves little room for maneuver. Shareholder expectations still dominate, and are still largely untouched by any kind of ‘unburnable carbon’ analysis of the staggering amount of economic value now at risk. Also on 15th January, Carl Zimmer reported in the New York Times on a study just published in Science by Douglas McCauley from UC Santa Barbara, with five colleagues from Rutgers, Stanford, UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara. Their argument is that while human-caused defaunation commenced 50,000 years ago on land, but only in the past few hundred years in the oceans, and while we have yet to cause many global extinctions in the oceans, we have already profoundly affected marine wildlife, altering the functioning and provisioning of services in every ocean. They argue that marine defaunation rates will rapidly intensify as human use of the oceans industrializes, and that it is necessary to put in place more effective ocean management. Tying marine defaunation to climate change, one of the study authors, Steve Palumbi of Stanford said,
If by the end of the century we’re not off the business-as-usual curve we are now, I honestly feel there’s not much hope for normal ecosystems in the ocean. But in the meantime, we do have a chance to do what we can. We have a couple decades more than we thought we had, so let’s please not waste it.

Climate scientist Michael Mann wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times on 17th January that dealt with the need for scientists to speak out on policy issues rather than restrict their comments only to their particular scientific expertise – a thoughtful piece that scientists need to read. As he said, scientists are citizens too. And finally, on 22nd January, John Abraham reported on the Guardian website that the increase in heat held in the oceans has been growing so quickly that it has “broken the chart”. He referred to the chart which has been on a NOAA NODC website for some time now, and the fact that total ocean heat content had now reached its upper border, and the graph has had to be redrawn with a longer y-axis measuring heat content. He was alluding to the need, a year ago, for the Australian weather service to redraw its temperature graph when prolonged summer heat broke through an upper boundary. While breaking the upper border of a graph is hardly a monumental event, 20 x 1022 Joules of heat is an enormous quantity of warmth, and the graph shows zero evidence of any slowdown in global warming during recent years. Our home really is getting warmer.

NOAA NODC ocean heat_content2000m

Graph showing change in global ocean heat content for the upper 2000 meters of depth, from 1957 to 2014. The 20 x 1022 Joules now present in the upper ocean represents about 90% of all heat in the Earth planetary system. Graph courtesy NOAA National Oceanographic Data Center.

What does it all really mean?

So, that is a synopsis of the things that caught my eye during a couple of busy weeks in January. What does it all mean, and how do I maintain my optimism? First of all, there was nothing in the items I saw that really surprised me. I know the world is getting warmer, that we are over-using our resources and damaging our oceans, that substantial biodiversity loss remains a big problem, and that there are plenty of people ready to deny each of these. But I did learn added details. The quantity of information coming out, and the extensive coverage of the science in the media are both encouraging signs. The science community is really attending closely to climate change and the other aspects of our environmental crisis. There is a continuous stream of solid information, each item of which deepens our understanding, or extends our knowledge in small ways. If you believe, as I do, that we will do a better job of rectifying some of the problems we are causing if we understand the problems and their causes more fully, then this enormous tide of scientific study is a very good thing. If you believe, as I do, that by communicating the science to the community, we have a greater chance of moving communities to action, and to effective action, then the interest in the science evidenced by the coverage in the media is also a very good thing. And if you find frequent references to the idiocy spouted by denialist politicians increasingly funny, even if slightly alarming, then you too can enjoy the coverage in the social media.

Of course I am naively confident that rational voices will ultimately win the political battles, and quite capable of refusing to notice that voices of illogic are very much in charge in the Harper government and in the corridors of power at the US Capital. Every now and then I am reminded of this, and then I become a bit dispirited. But most of the time, I happily go forward, convinced of the ultimate correctness of the views of those who see a need for real change in our ways of acting in our only home. And marveling in the way a scrawny, naked ape has been able to exert so much power that he is in danger of substantially altering that only home. I guess I must be a human stupidity denialist!

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, Changing Oceans, Climate change, coral reef science, Economics, In the News | Leave a comment

Coral Bleaching On Again – How do we tell the story more effectively this time

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Coral bleaching seems to be on again, global, and just as bad as 1998.

2014 has been the warmest year ever recorded on this planet, surpassing 2010, 2005 and 1998 in global mean temperature. NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center will make this official on or about January 8th, although the likelihood has been evident for several months now. This should not be a surprise; our emissions of GHGs continue to grow, and that extra insulation has to result in the planet warming up.

Also apparent is that the long-awaited el Niño has continued to develop, although it looks to be a weak one. On 4th December the NOAA Climate Prediction Center stated there was a 65% chance of a weak el Niño beginning in December/January and continuing into the northern Spring.
NOAA SST Anomaly 5 Jan 15

There are signs that sea surface temperature (SST) is becoming anomalously warm in the Indian, west Pacific and south Atlantic oceans. Colors code for differences from average climate in degrees C. Plot is dated 5th January 2015. Map courtesy NOAA.

The NOAA Satellite and Information Service’s Coral Reef Watch is now anticipating a global coral bleaching event over 2014-2015 to rival that of 1997-1998. Reports of bleaching have already been received from a number of North Pacific locations including the Northern Marianas Islands, Guam, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Hawaii, and Kiribati, and the very warm sea surface temperatures, coupled with the likelihood of el Niño conditions over the next several months suggest that bleaching is likely at many other locations. Coral Reef Watch has provided weekly maps of ‘thermal stress’ through May 2015 that show gradually intensifying threat in the south-west Pacific and the Indian Ocean through to about April, and a gradual shift to more northerly regions.
coral reef watch 4 Jan 15 cur_img_ss_outlook_cfs_rank12_lw01_45ns

This plot shows the risk of coral bleaching for week of 4 January 2015. Bleaching and mortality expected in areas shown as Alert level 1 or 2. Map courtesy NOAA Coral Reef Watch

The 1997-1998 event was the most extensive series of mass bleachings ever recorded and had a major impact on coral reef scientists and conservationists around the world. If we had not really ‘got it’ before, we realized then just what climate change was going to mean to our coral reefs. As I wrote in Our Dying Planet, the bleaching began with bleaching on central and east Pacific reefs during the northern summer of 1997. Bleaching intensified in the west and south Pacific and the Great Barrier Reef during February to April 1998, and in the Indian Ocean by March to June 1998. Bleaching occurred in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean during July to October 1998. All told, about 15% of living coral cover, worldwide was killed during the ~18 month period, and reefs have not materially recovered their coral abundances in the years since (partly because there have been further episodes of bleaching as well as many other causes of coral loss). There is reasonably solid monitoring data showing that overall, both the Great Barrier Reef and the Caribbean now have less than 50% of the coral cover they had a quarter-century ago, although frequent bouts of bleaching is just one of many causes of coral loss.
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Bleaching is the expulsion of symbiotic algae from coral tissues, leaving the corals translucent and their skeletons clearly visible within. Conditions causing bleaching that persist for several weeks lead to extensive coral mortality. Photo © Ove Hoegh-Guldberg


The coral reef story – not effectively told

The losses of coral over the past 25 years have occurred in countries with poor environmental management, and in countries with effective local management of their reefs. They have occurred within marine protected areas and outside them. The losses have been due to many different human causes acting differentially at different sites, but bleaching due to warming is becoming more important as our climate warms (mass bleaching due to warm water was unknown prior to the strong el Niño of 1982-1983 which led to loss of coral in the Galapagos, Panama and other nearby locations).

Bleaching and other factors, together, have been chipping away at what ecologists refer to as the global ‘standing stock’ of coral, much as over-harvest, insect-borne pathogens, and mismanagement of forested land have together been chipping away at the global standing stock of trees. In both cases, the causes of mortality are predominantly due to something we humans are doing, or not doing. And, for corals, 2015 looks likely to see another downward lurch on this dismal path towards extinction.

Imagine, if you will, that we woke up one day to learn that 15% of all trees in all of the world’s forests – all of them – had died in one 18 month period because of some sensitivity to climate change. Would the world take notice? Imagine that forest scientists had accumulated sound monitoring data for two large areas of the world’s forests – say the Amazon basin, and the boreal forests of Scandinavia – and those data showed that both these regions had lost 50% of their trees in the last quarter century. Would the world take notice? That is the current situation for coral reefs – globally they lost 15% of coral in 1997-8 due to bleaching, and overall, the Great Barrier Reef and the Caribbean have each lost over 50% of their coral during the last quarter century. You’d sure think the world might take notice!

One sign of just how bad the situation has become for coral reefs was the news report in the Sun Sentinel on 29th December that ’38 acres’ of rare staghorn coral had been discovered in patches off the Florida coast stretching from Golden Beach to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) is a rapidly growing, formerly common Caribbean coral. But it is now on the endangered species list, and being eliminated by diseases and bleaching throughout its range. The video in the report showed low diversity (monotypic?) stands of low relief coral on a sandy substratum – the kind of staghorn thicket that can grow quickly, or disappear in a single modest storm. Don’t get me wrong. It’s good news that these staghorn thickets have been found, but thirty years ago it would hardly have been front page news, let alone something to trumpet here and there on whatever qualified as social media of that day.

Scientists have been calling attention to the plight of coral reefs for decades, and particularly since 1998. We thought, naively, that just as we were shocked at how rapidly our reefs were being degraded, other people would be alarmed too. That the clear message corals were sending – that something is not right in the way we are caring for our planet – would be clearly received. And acted upon! That did not happen, and now we face the very real danger that in announcing, once again, that our reefs are at risk, we will be dismissed out of hand as old news, not important, boring, repetitive, so last century, so very Chicken Little.
sky-is-falling-carton-cropped-flattened Mark MacMillan

We’ve been talking about coral reef decline for so long, people are starting to treat it as old news. Cartoon from

crisis reports

Just some of the reporting. Montage thanks to

Why does the coral reef story not resonate more than it does? It’s not just that it is bad news that people do not want to hear – it can be, and has been, told in a way that emphasizes the very good news that there are lots of things that people can do to prevent the sorry slide continuing, to buy time while we bring climate change under control. I think there are four other reasons why it has been largely ignored beyond the environmental community: The story is impersonal. It does not take place in my neighborhood. Disney has yet to get hold of it and tell it properly. And perhaps most important of all, the real story is a complicated one about humans upsetting the universe – not one that readily comes to mind when images of degraded coral reefs are shown. Let’s talk about each of these, and then see if there is something that could be done to tell this story more effectively.

The coral reef story is impersonal.

Corals are not like polar bears. Or pandas. Or even monarch butterflies. They do not have round faces with big brown eyes, or even pinched little faces with a rolled up tongue. They don’t have faces at all. Even scientists could not decide at first whether they were animals, plants, or mossy rocks. (Full disclosure… as a reef fish ecologist, I have secretly delighted from time to time in causing mild anguish among my Cnidariophilic brethren, by referring to their precious corals as just so much environmental structure! All the time, deep down inside, knowing my fish needed their corals living and healthy.)

Dendrogyra cylindridrus, a Caribbean coral with particularly large polyps that are usually out, waving about during daylight. Photo © Paul Humann

Nearly all corals exist as colonies rather than discrete individuals, and the individual polyps of which they are composed are not that much to write home about – a simple, tubular body with a single opening (mouth, anus, genital pore, ugh) surrounded by stubby tentacles, no bold color patterns or extra frilly bits, nothing that shouts out ‘I am an individual polyp and proud of it’. Only together, as a colony, do they build the myriad structural forms that make a coral reef so wonderfully topologically complex a place for other creatures to inhabit.

The diversity of colony forms makes every patch of coral reef topologically unique, an architectural complexity unrivaled in the ocean. Photo © Stephanie Sykora

Yet even as colonies they lack that obvious life story of birth, growth, adolescence, adulthood and eventual death that we can relate to. Colonies can die partially, or totally, but either way, the deaths do not result in what most people would recognize as lots of corpses lying about. In fact, if the death is partial, even if 90% of the colony has died, an improvement in conditions can lead to the colony becoming large once more as new polyps are budded. Under ideal conditions, there is no reason why a single coral colony could not live forever. Of course, there have been cases when very large, and therefore very old, colonies of coral have succumbed and died, or when known, monitored, coral colonies have died completely. And in these cases it is possible to talk about the loss of that individual colony as if it really mattered. Charlie Veron has done this effectively in talking about the loss of massive, 700 year old colonies of Porites species on the Great Barrier Reef. Gene Shinn has talked about loss of individual colonies in specific coral patches he has visited in the Florida Keys over 30 years or so.
Gene Shinn Montastrea Grecian Rocks FL 1971 2001

A colony of Montastrea sp at Grecian Rocks, Florida Keys, photographed in 1971, 1988, and 2001. The colony did not change much, but its surroundings changed enormously as extensive Acropora thickets were lost and replaced by various gorgonians. Photos © Gene Shinn/USGS

Overall, however, this lack of unique individuality makes it difficult to sense loss emotionally when hearing about the death of some coral, and we make that difficulty even harder by talking about reef degradation, or loss of percent cover. We should be talking about polypcide, but before we can do that, we have to teach people what a polyp is, and try to make the life of every polyp important. I’ll address that challenge in a moment.

The coral reef story is not happening where I live

The great majority of people on this planet have never experienced a coral reef other than in an aquarium, on film, or during that one vacation afternoon when they left the swim-up bar at the hotel for a couple of hours snorkel tour over a nearby patch of reef. Of course that is true also for polar bears and pandas, but they are so obviously cuddly (not actually true) that their absence from our neighborhoods seems not to matter so much, at least for those who are environmentally attuned.

The conservation maxim – think globally, act locally – exists for a reason; we are more likely to respond to an environmental issue that exists where we live. And reefs being not in our neighborhood applies not only to those of us living outside the tropics, but to vast numbers of people who do live in the tropics, but do not dive, and for the most part do not even swim. Even artisanal fishermen, dependent on coral reefs for their livelihood, deal with them, for the most part, at arm’s length using traps, nets, dynamite or bleach to bring fish up from below to where they can grab them and get them into the boat. The coral is just ‘the place where the fishes live’.

For those of us who live thousands of kilometers away from coral reefs, the media have made it possible to learn about coral reefs, to see them, even to marvel at the colors, the movement, the sounds, and to learn some of the amazing stories of corals and the creatures that live with them. But it’s usually an intellectual or (less commonly) an artistic appreciation which is conveyed. The visceral experience of being in the water, within a reef environment, of feeling that one is a privileged visitor to this amazing natural neighborhood, with its own characters, rules, and seasonal cycles, cannot be gained from even the best nature program. In my view, the necessary emotional connection cannot happen without first having the knowledge of what this foreign ecosystem is, and how its species interact. Not only are coral reefs not in our neighborhoods; they do a damn good job of hiding their amazing qualities from the casual observer. To the uninformed, a coral reef is just another wet, underwater place, perhaps a bit more colorful than some other places. Why care if a distant piece of the sea-floor seems to be changing in ways that concern some nerdy scientists?

Disney has not yet told the reef story

Pixar almost told the reef story with Finding Nemo, and since Disney now owns Pixar, I guess Disney can claim to have that story all tied up. Only it isn’t. The corals play no part in this story. I’ve just checked back, reading a synopsis of the plot, and skimming the cast of characters, and I can confirm that in Finding Nemo, when corals appear, they are just part of the background. Sorry cnidariophiles, the corals are just the furniture. Their relatives, the jellyfishes, do play a part, but as non-speaking characters, an evil gang that preys on fishes. Even Nemo’s anemone home is just a home, not an individual.

Given that the destruction of coral reef ecosystems is primarily a case of the corals dying, making it impossible for the myriad other reef species to continue living around and amongst them, it seems to me that we have got to be able to develop a story in which corals are featured characters if the goal is to alert people to the fact that we are needlessly losing coral reefs. The alternative, to tell the story of reef loss as a story of an environmental blight (the loss of living coral) that has unfortunate consequences for the fishes or other creatures with faces, has less impact because the effects on the characters are less stark (especially for an audience that does not understand that reef fishes are tied to reefs). Maybe it could be done, but in any event, it has not been done yet.
Pandora 1280px-ImagesCA716WTB

James Cameron told a story about humanoid Na’vi living on the planet, Pandora, in a way that created emotional links; the coral reef story must be told this effectively. (Image CA716WTB.jpg at James Cameron’s Avatar Wiki)

Much as coral reef scientists or environmentalists may not want to admit it, most people are not going to be persuaded that they need to do something, personally, about the environmental crisis, if they are told a story about pretty fishes, far away, suffering the inconvenience of losing their living coral homes. On the other hand, James Cameron succeeded in making audiences care for at least one afternoon about the fate of the Na’vi living on the planet, Pandora – the Na’vi were clearly humanoid, which helps, but skilled story-tellers should be able to tell the tale of our impacts on coral reefs in a way that is effective. If that is, in fact, the story we are trying to tell.

The real story is complex; the coral reef is just a symbol

Why do we want people to know about the plight of coral reefs? Partly it is because we scientists and environmentalists have an emotional connection to these unique systems, and want to let the world know they are in trouble. Partly, and likely of greater importance, we who understand see their plight as a symbol of something far more serious, far more general – our growing impacts on the biosphere and the likely consequences of those for the quality of life of our own descendants, if not for our own lives.

Just as initiatives to save the panda, the polar bear, or the monarch butterfly are really devices to foster action to protect/preserve/sustain pieces of the natural world that will otherwise be damaged by our growing environmental footprint, the concern expressed about climate impacts on coral reefs is really an effort to gain attention, and stimulate a concerted effort to manage climate change, so that our own lives and those of future generations will be less stark than they are likely to be if we do not act.

Telling people that climate change is causing bleaching, and that bleaching is killing corals is just the beginning of a difficult story to tell. Fitting the whole story into a 140 character tweet or a 30 second elevator conversation is not going to be easy, and most of us have not progressed very far beyond that first statement: Climate change is causing bleaching which is killing off coral reefs worldwide (79 characters!). To be followed by “so what?”, or “why should I care?” from most who hear the message. Adding and we can change that helps improve receptivity (it’s not a hopeless case!), but at the expense of still more characters: Climate change is causing bleaching which is killing off coral reefs worldwide and we can change that (101 characters, 39 to go!). How can we tell the coral reef message in a way that will be truly effective? Maybe we need to start with people. Or maybe we need to rebuild our sense that we are part of the natural world and should be good stewards of it.

We need a longer form, carefully structured message

If we are going to tell the coral reef story effectively, we have got to recognize, and rise to, the challenge of doing this effectively. Here are two totally different stories that may resonate effectively with different audiences. I’m sure there are still others. Each is far more powerful than Climate change is causing bleaching which is killing off coral reefs worldwide.

1. Coral reefs tell us climate change is here:
Fully one fifth of our global population now lives within 100 km of a tropical coastline, mostly in developing countries. Many of these people are directly dependent on that coastline for their employment, much of their food, their recreation, and their quality of life. The changing climate is already having severe consequences for these people as storms intensify, sea levels rise, and coral reefs lose their capacity to provide food, drive tourism, and protect coastal communities. The extent, and pace, of change can best be seen on the reefs themselves. Worldwide, since 1982, coral reefs have experienced frequent episodes of sea surface temperatures warm enough to kill the corals. These ‘bleaching’ events are widespread and becoming more frequent as climate warms.
Kivukoni fish market Dar-es-Salaam-3

The Kivukoni fish market in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, is a hub of activity for the community. Coastal cities, towns and villages throughout the tropics retain their strong connection to their coastal waters. Photo ©

A major bleaching is underway now in the north and west Pacific, and expected to become global during 2015. It could remove as much as 15% of living coral worldwide during this year. Those losses are on top of the typically 50% loss of coral, from bleaching and other causes, that has occurred on most coral reefs since the late 1970s. These rates of loss overwhelm any capacity of corals to reproduce and grow, and coral reefs without their corals become slowly eroding limestone banks far less able to sustain fisheries or tourism, and certainly not able to grow along with rising sea level and continue to provide protection for coastal communities. Coral reefs, by bleaching, are sending us a clear message: Climate change is real, and it is here. If we value the lives of the millions of people living in coastal communities throughout the tropics, we must work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curtail climate change.

2. Our planet needs our nurturing care:
As well as being a vital ecosystem producing important goods and services for coastal populations, a flourishing coral reef is a symphony to complexity, a hymn of praise to the power of evolution to produce abundant surprises, and one of those special places that make this planet exceptional. At first sight, a coral reef can bewilder by its sheer diversity – so many different, brightly colored fishes, so many other creatures, so many shapes, sounds, and movements, so much life. With time and learning, it becomes an exuberant example of how life can evolve on this planet to yield surprisingly rich complexity of form, function, mechanism, interaction and ecological process.
Wistari patch reefs

I know of no other marine system anywhere in which the combination of physical and biological processes yields a topography as varied, on any spatial scale chosen, as is found on coral reefs. That topography is crammed with life.  Reefs really are magical places. Photo of Wistari Reef, Great Barrier Reef.

Coral reefs are the most highly productive marine ecosystem despite occurring predominantly in nutrient-poor water, the most highly diverse ecosystem for great swathes of the animal kingdom, the place where animals best reveal the variety and complexity of their interactions both within and between species. If coral reefs did not exist, we would never have imagined them. And yet, reefs are at threat. Our emissions of greenhouse gases are altering the climate in ways that make it difficult for corals to survive, and reefs without their corals are just eroding limestone benches incapable of sustaining the symphony of other reef creatures. Since 1982, coral reefs have experienced frequent episodes of sea surface temperatures warm enough to kill the corals. These ‘bleaching’ events are widespread and becoming more frequent as climate warms. A major bleaching is underway now in the north and west Pacific, and expected to become global during 2015. It could remove as much as 15% of living coral worldwide during this year. Those losses are on top of the typically 50% loss of coral, from bleaching and other causes, that has occurred on most coral reefs since the late 1970s. Reefs cannot persist with rates of loss like this, and we can stop this race to extinction by reining in our emissions. The question is, do we value the biotic exuberance that our planet is capable of producing, a richness of form and function that enhances the quality of our own lives? If we do, we know what steps we need to take.


Back to reality

Jackie Jordan, Director of Color Marketing for Sherwin-Williams has announced that their hue for 2015 will be Coral Reef.  I’d call it pink.  She describes it as vibrant, vivacious, optimistic, a nice compromise between the bravado of red and the over youthfulness of orange. It will be wonderful if we are able to orchestrate, or at least witness events during 2015 that will allow us to once again become optimistic about real coral reefs. Maybe show some vivacious bravado while shouting out the good news. It could happen if we want it badly enough. In the meantime we need to tell the coral reef story as effectively as possible.

Categories: Climate change, coral reef science, In the News | 6 Comments

Reality Check: The World at December 2014; Status of the Battle to Bring Climate Change under Control.

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How are we doing on the existential struggle of our time, the one to rein in our emissions of CO2? The end of a year seems a good time to take a reality check, especially since we have just concluded yet another in that long string of climate conferences. I’ll start with the bad news, and end on a positive note.

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere continues its seemingly inexorable rise. At the Mauna Loa Observatory the CO2 concentration stood at 397.11 ppm in November, having been above 400 ppm for 3 months earlier in the year. The corrected trend (with seasonal cycle removed) sits at 399.5 ppm, and should cross 400 ppm sometime in February or March of 2015. The upward trend does not show any sign of slowing.

Atmospheric CO2 continues to rise because the global economy continues to increase the amount of energy used, and continues to use fossil fuels predominantly. According to the IEA, the global energy supply in 2012 was 13,371 Mtoe (million tonnes oil equivalent, in other words if all the energy came from oil, we’d require 13.3 billion tonnes of oil). Of this total, 81.7% was derived from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), while less than 20% came from use of other fuels. The total was up 258 Mtoe from the year before. The trend is distressingly uniform except for the dip during the 2008 recession, as shown in the following graph (using slightly lower estimates provided by BP).
Global energy trend bp1

Trend in global energy from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy for 2014. BP’s caption emphasizes that the growth rate has slowed, but energy use is still growing and over 80% of energy comes from fossil fuels. Graph © British Petroleum.

The growing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has led to a continued warming of the planet. Data for December 2014 are not yet in, but it is virtually certain at this stage that 2014 will rank as the warmest year ever recorded, surpassing the record set in 2010. The long-term trend in the following graph, taken from NOAA data, is impossible to dismiss. The IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report, released earlier this year, stated:

Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.
Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.

Climate has warmed markedly since 1880, and it has warmed because of our activities.
NOAA-graphic global temp trend 2014

In this graph, global mean annual temperature is shown as its departure from the average climate of the 20th century. It’s been a long time since global annual temperature was below average.
Graph courtesy of NOAA.

When it comes to future climate change, the IPCC 5th Assessment Report is equally explicit:

Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks.

Whether we look at CO2 concentrations, at energy use, or at global temperature trends, the data suggest that despite all the meetings and discussion, we are making little if any progress in wrestling climate change to the ground. Instead, the data shout out that we are heading for a 4o, a 5o, or even a 6o warmer planet by 2100. And yet, I am becoming more optimistic about this epic struggle. How is this possible?

Maybe it’s simply because I always get optimistic about this time of year. We have reached the longest night of the year, and the days are starting to get longer! Then again, I just traded down to a smaller car, and replaced 8 Halogen Par 50 bulbs in my kitchen ceiling with 8 LED equivalents – reducing my footprint and almost eliminating the need to ever stand on a stool in the kitchen again. But there are other reasons for my optimism that I categorize as technological, sociological, and political.

Technological advances

While our growth in use of energy continues, our improvement in energy efficiency (or more particularly the carbon efficiency of our activities) also continues. Year by year, humanity is emitting less CO2 per unit of GDP. The downward trend is modest, and could be a lot more, but at least the trend is downward. By making our processes more energy efficient, by using non-polluting energy sources, and by producing less energy dependent goods and services, the global economy is becoming gradually decoupled from carbon pollution.

emissions vs carbon intensity

Although emissions of CO2 continue to rise as the global economy grows (left axis, blue line), the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of global GDP is falling.
Figure © Carbon Brief, data from US EIA and World Bank.

This is certainly true in China. Since 2005, China has been ramping up the amount invested annually in developing renewable energy and now is investing substantially more than either the US or Europe. In the US-China climate accord announced in November, China indicated it will continue that process so that CO2 emissions will peak by 2030 and then begin to fall. To achieve this, China will be deploying an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States. It will then get 20% of its total energy needs from zero-emission sources. This represents a major transformation of the Chinese energy sector and a real shift in energy efficiency. It will likely facilitate similar transformations in other countries as Chinese activity alters the relative cost differentials among types of energy generation.

Renewables investment trends China US EU

Relative amounts of investment in renewable energy by US, Europe and China since 2005. China’s effort now exceeds that of both US and Europe, and is set to go even higher as China implements its energy strategy through to 2030. Graph © Quartz.

While we are talking about renewables, another technological advance concerns the relative cost of different sources of energy. Apart from the recent collapse in the oil price, there have been dramatic changes in the cost of renewables, particularly solar, so that the differential in cost of energy from different sources had been approaching parity. Solar costs have fallen about 70% in the US Southwest since 2008, and wind energy costs have also fallen dramatically. While government subsidies are partly responsible, these are being phased out and the low prices are holding, because the maturation of the industry and scaling up bring cost benefits. If we think forward to a time when carbon pollution will incur costs, it is clear that there is no longer a financial reason to avoid many alternative energy sources.

Lots of smaller technological changes provided little sparkles of good news over the past year. Plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars are increasingly available, and Nissan has indicated it sees the Leaf or a similar small, all-electric vehicle becoming a major product in the Asian market (the Chinese market for new cars will soon be larger than that of North America and Europe combined). Tesla has demonstrated that, if you have the money an all-electric car can be downright sexy as well. The IEA report, Global EV Outlook, published in 2013 reports plans in 9 countries, including the US and China, for substantial growth in numbers of electric vehicles over the next few years. While plans do not guarantee development, the fact that governments and industry both see electrification as a major way for the transport sector to decarbonize, and the growing number of electric vehicles available in the market suggests this growth will occur.

growth in zero-emission vehicles

Graph showing the planned growth in number of all-electric passenger cars (not including buses, etc) on the road in 9 countries including the major markets for such vehicles.
Graph © International Energy Agency

Finally, the concept of the energy-neutral house is beginning to be put into practice in otherwise conventional housing developments. No longer the stuff of futurist, one-off, dream home design, the net-zero home uses a combination of insulation, passive solar design, and roof-top solar panels to feed as much or more energy into the grid as it uses to maintain a comfortable indoor climate and operate major appliances. Small subdivisions of such homes are being built across North America and Europe, including as far north as Edmonton, Alberta. There seems no reason for this type of building not to grow, making a major dent in CO2 emissions in a community. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, they are experimenting with a solar road – a road which generates solar electricity to feed into the grid, or perhaps, to power vehicles.

Sociological advances

Here I include such things as the positive reception that the books by Thomas Pikkety and Naomi Klein received in North America. Pikkety’s Capital in the 21st Century details how capital becomes increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, unless societies have in place taxes, inheritance duties, or similar procedures to prevent this. Coinciding with the interest in The 1%, the very small number of extremely wealthy people in countries such as the US, who have become ever more distanced from the rest of society in recent decades, his book achieved considerable profile despite being a very think economics text. It helped alert people to the growing extent to which a tiny number of individuals hold nearly all the wealth and nearly all the power in ostensibly democratic countries. Dealing with climate change will necessarily require that interests vested in our carbon-based economy choose or are required to redirect their wealth to more environment-friendly activities, so the heightened awareness of the growing concentration of wealth is acting as a valuable wake-up call to those who want to see climate change dealt with appropriately. It’s good to know the strength of potential enemies.

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Every Thing provided a well-researched account of the strategies used by those with a vested interest in the status quo, to create confusion around the issue of climate change. In Klein’s view, these vested interests are so powerful that climate change is going to be addressed only once a significant popular movement within each country demands it. Reason and polite negotiations will not get the world to where it needs to be. Again, this book, widely read and discussed, has created much more awareness concerning how climate change denial works. It’s always better to hear such stories from a skilled, main-stream journalist who documents her sources well, although NGOs such as Greenpeace had already done a creditable job of documenting denialism in their 2013 pamphlet, Dealing in Doubt.

Here in Canada, the continued refusal of the Harper government to tackle the climate problem in any meaningful way, coupled with increasingly strident government statements that suggested Canada was doing its fair share, have been widely reported. The visit to Canada by Australian PM Tony Abbott, and the joint press conference in which Abbott and Harper both stated that they were more concerned to protect their economies and ensure jobs in their respective countries than to take any action to address climate, and the performances of both countries at successive climate conferences, also raised awareness among concerned citizens of the difficulties in bringing about real action on climate change. Not good that the two senior governmental officials were so belligerently opposed to dealing with climate, but a good lesson to their people who know more clearly than they might have before what a big hurdle they have to jump over. Once the COP20 conference in Lima came around, it was no surprise that Australia got the major fossil award. Having cancelled Australia’s progressive carbon tax, and vigorously promoted massive new port developments that would damage the Great Barrier Reef simply to export more coal more quickly to China, the Abbott government was clearly moving backwards while the Harper government was simply stuck in the tar sands.

Friday July 18, 2014

Meeting of minds, June 2014. Tony Abbott of Australia and Stephen Harper of Canada have turned out to be the Bobbsey Twins of Fossil Fuels. Cartoon © Graeme MacKay, Hamilton Spectator

While my ‘sociological advances’ may sound more like ‘retreats’ to some readers, I think awareness of the extent of the climate problem is greater now than it was a year ago. I am not surprised to learn that the phrase “climate change is a hoax” won PolitiFact’s 2014 readers’ poll for “Lie of the Year” with 31.8% of the vote. Progress is being made!

Also notable is how the string of extreme weather events during 2014, from California’s drought, to mega-storm Hagupit in the Philippines and disastrous floods here and there, has been reported in ways that make the link between an increasing frequency of extreme weather and climate change. Weather reports were routinely explaining the savage winter of 2013-14 in eastern North America as due to the behavior of the polar vortex, a vortex understood as being influenced by the warming Arctic; people were beginning to grasp how climate change will affect them in future years. (In my home town, I found considerable acceptance of the idea that our cold winter was part of climate change, and not incompatible with the fact that 2014 was on average the warmest year on record.) Members of the public who are open to believing that climate is changing are now far more aware than they were a year or so ago of the real consequences in altered living conditions that changes in global mean temperature of a degree or two can bring. Climate change, that mysterious, far-off change that may happen in decades, is now seen as that alarming set of savage floods, droughts, forest fires, and coastal destruction that is happening now, and everywhere. People, equipped by evolution to be much better at jumping out of the way of a charging sabre toothed cat than an advancing glacier, finally are seeing a glimpse of that cat in our day-to-day weather events. This too is progress.

Political advances

While there have been notable retreats, such as Australia’s cancelling of its carbon tax, there have been plenty of advances, mostly at the local or regional level. In countries like Canada, any advances made on the climate front have been by Provinces or communities. In Canada’s case, these have been significant. Ontario has completely phased out all use of coal for electricity generation, and its FIT and MicroFIT feed-in tariff programs, in place since 2009, have enabled the development of renewable energy projects from a few solar panels on a single house to a commercial solar- or wind-farm, or small hydro project with guaranteed rates for electricity fed into the grid over a 20 year period (40 years for small hydro). Quebec has continued its efforts to expand use of wind energy, and along with British Columbia and California is a part of the Western Climate Initiative, a joint cap and trade program for greenhouse gas emissions. Quebec is also extending its moratorium on fracking. British Columbia implemented a carbon tax in 2008 and progressively increased it to $30 per tonne CO2 in 2012. The tax, which is revenue-neutral, is expected to reduce GHG emissions by 3 million tonnes by 2020. The highest tax on carbon in North America, its introduction has had no measurable impact on the strength of the BC economy. The Suzuki Foundation has recently released a report suggesting that if Canada as a whole adopted the best practices already introduced by some of its Provinces, Canada would come close to meeting its 2020 Copenhagen target – the one we have no hope of coming close to if we continue to wander amongst the tar sands.

wind and solar entrustenergy

Renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, as well as hydropower, and geothermal power are of small but growing importance globally. Nuclear power also has an important future role. Photo © Entrust Energy

The US – China climate accord announced last month was perhaps the most important political advance this year. Each in its own way, the two largest emitters of GHG emissions on the planet have announced commitments for very substantial improvements by 2030. I noted China’s commitment at the start. The US commitment was to reduce emissions of carbon between 26 and 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025 – a promise that will require a doubling of the rate of reduction previously set to 2020. Many of the changes necessary to achieve this are already in place, including the new regulations on power plant emissions, and the new regulations on automobile fuel efficiency. President Obama has demonstrated that he will use his executive authority to implement changes under existing law, recognizing that he has little chance of legislative changes in the current Congress.

One unexpected political advance lies in the dramatic fall in oil prices in the last few months. Nobody could have predicted this because it arose from the confluence of the surge in production due to fracking, the continuing sluggishness in the world economy, and the decision by OPEC that now might be a good time to squeeze some high-cost producers out of the market. There are concerns that the low prices are going to slow the move away from fossil fuels and that may be true. I believe, however, that these low prices, provided they last for several more months, provide a wonderful opportunity for governments to take the politically difficult decision to introduce carbon pricing. When people have more money in their pockets they are more accepting of new governmental charges, and this opens the opportunity to introduce a tax which is not completely revenue neutral. Maybe half the tax could be offset by a reduction in income taxes targeted mainly to the less well off, while the revenue generated from the other half could be used to promote (subsidize) green initiatives such as a switch to renewables, or renovations to make homes more energy efficient. Maria Van der Hoeven, Head of IEA, agrees with me!  She said as much in Huffington Post on 11th December, throwing out an additional possibility – the sudden drop in prices also provides a window of opportunity to cut the government subsidies (estimated to be worth $550 billion per year globally) that support production and use of fossil fuels. These subsidies have always been wrong, but getting rid of a government perk is always difficult. Now could be the right time.

climate-6-16-11-color Horsey 2011

We may not have made a lot of progress on combating climate change yet, but we have become a lot more aware of the impediments to making needed changes. Cartoon © Horsey/Hearst

On to Lima and the COP20

And so the world assembled at the COP20 climate conference in Lima, Peru in early December. Given the results of previous climate conferences, few expected earth-shattering progress. Those who did were once again disappointed. Running many hours late, the conference eventually wrapped with the approval of a decidedly weak text. The crucial point is set out in clauses 9 and 13 of the five-page text:

9. Reiterates its invitation to each Party to communicate to the secretariat its intended nationally determined contribution towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2
13. Reiterates its invitation to all Parties to communicate their intended nationally determined contributions well in advance of the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (by the first quarter of 2015 by those Parties ready to do so) in a manner that facilitates the clarity, transparency and understanding of the intended nationally determined contributions

Sounds so impressive, doesn’t it? And delightfully vague. What this frothy UN-speak says is that each country is asked to notify the UN of what contribution it intends to make towards mitigating climate change, in terms of steps it will put in place by 2020. Each country is also asked to provide this (and some other) information by the end of March 2015, if it is ready to do so. Not exactly a firm requirement. I can picture Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq announcing Canada’s contribution now, complete with the standard, Harper-government, ‘how-big-are-my-lies’ hand signals, and with little reference to real data or real intentions.

Aglukkuq by Fred Chartrand CP Montreal Gazette

My favorite Minister for Environment, not reading the newspaper, but not speaking truth either. Photo © Fred Chartrand/CP

The unfortunate fact is that the global community is managing a commons. There is no ability to require a specific commitment from each sovereign nation, and no ability to penalize any nation that commits and then fails to deliver. Everybody has known that all along, and countries like Canada have happily played along, dragging their feet where possible, but not worrying too much when it becomes clear they are not meeting their self-selected goals. Will things be any different this time around? Possibly not, and we will have a sense of how things are progressing by mid-year, when sufficient commitments have been announced that they can be added up to see how far short they are of where they need to be. Still, in my assessment, Lima achieved a better than expected outcome because the multinational effort has not collapsed, and countries are on notice to put their cards on the table next year.

Those cards on the table, those promised contributions, become the public promises that can be judged, commented on, or rejected by the public. We don’t need revolutions in capital cities, but we are probably going to have to create significant public pressure to force our leaders to make the right decisions, and then implement them. This past year has brought modest action to mitigate emissions, but it has also further heightened our awareness of the importance of climate change, and the many vested interests opposed to doing anything about it. We the people may finally be ready to demand more of our leaders. Idle-no-more, Occupy, Anonymous, other grass-roots movements, and caring individuals everywhere have an important role to play over the next 12 months. Enjoy the holiday season. There is work to do in 2015.


Early winter 2014, North Muskoka River. Near Bracebridge. Photo © Peter Sale

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Changing lifestyles, Climate change, Economics, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | 2 Comments