Just exactly what did Donald Trump do on 1st June 2017?


These days, maintaining a blog is a challenge.  It’s spring around here; a wonderful time of year, and a time with plenty of things to do other than prepare a post.  The environmental crisis, my primary focus, is an unravelling which proceeds slowly compared to human timelines (although at breathtaking speed if viewed from a geological perspective).  There simply is not breaking news every week or so, and, apart from an expected and grossly stupid announcement in the White House Rose Garden on June 1st, things have been relatively quiet lately on the environmental front, if one judges by the media.  Because.  This year, the Trump circus is sucking all the air out of the room, dominating the media at the expense of every other topic including the environment.

I don’t want to contribute my own rant to the anti-Trump chorus, and yet the possibilities for outrage, for flailing at the machine, and perhaps for humor are very enticing.  On Twitter, I tried referring to him as Unpresident Trump (riffing off his own tweet in which he referred to ‘unpresidented’ attacks by the media, while also noting his lack of qualifications for his job).  But that term did not catch on with others.  I’ve also thought of calling him Emperor Trump, assuming readers would make the connection to the emperor who had no clothes.

Unqualified, ill-informed, brash, outspoken, but apparently very comfortable in his own skin

He recently returned from his first overseas trip, with all the opportunities it provided for revealing his shallow absence of understanding or nuance, and his petulant, bullying, narcissism.  My congratulations to Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected President of France, who masterfully managed to out-manipulate him in the hand-shake and greeting department, and to Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, who responded to Trump’s misleading call for greater defense spending by NATO countries with “Decisions on Canadian military spending are made in Canada by Canadians”.  But back in Washington, desperate to remain the center of attention, he has now signed yet another Executive Order instructing his government to remove the USA from the Paris Agreement at the earliest possible date.  Nothing like moving fast.  But then Trump is only about the show, the event, the entertainment.  Definitely a petulant Unpresident.

It is increasingly difficult to take Donald Trump seriously.  His decision on the Paris Agreement reveals his total lack of understanding of that accord, or of how diplomacy works.  Far from restoring the stature of the USA in the world, he has eroded it severely.  Cartoons often tell real truths.  Image © Robert Ariail/The State.

Trump’s withdrawal from Paris may be a good thing

From an environmental perspective, the Trump presidency is likely to significantly roll back protections for US natural environments, much as the decade of rule by former PM Stephen Harper did in Canada.  Canadians are seeing how long it takes to rebuild environmental management, and the US will have that task once Trump is bundled off to wherever he ends up next – King of the World, perhaps.  On the international stage, Trump has chilled discussion of climate change, but has not yet had significant impact on actions being taken (even by States within the US).  In this regard, an interesting commentary appeared May 23rd in the Globe & Mail, written by political scientist Matthew Hoffman of University of Toronto.  He argued that it would be best for the world for Trump to announce a formal withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as soon as possible.  In Hoffman’s view, there is sufficient commitment to the idea of the necessity of global climate action for the world to move forward, whether or not Trump keeps the US near the front of the parade.  Better to have him make his illogical decision and fade away, then to have him continue engaged, while actively working against real progress.  Looks like Hoffman has got his wish.

Given my concern with the need for a much more robust effort at emissions reduction than is presently in place, I was not sure I agreed with Hoffman when I read his piece, although I do believe the irrelevance of a denialist agenda is being recognized by an ever-widening majority of people.  I feared that until he does fade from view, we would just have to put up with the strange reporting on Trump’s body language and his mental health that fill the pages of the reputable press, while Trump does what he can to strip away environmental regulations.  Trump is clearly unlike any prior US President.

But that was BEFORE 1st June.  The outrage that greeted his announcement was substantially stronger, and far more widespread than I had expected.  Progressive voices within the USA were quick to pounce, both on the decision itself and on the arguments Trump used to justify it.  The news media around the world (the serious news media like the New York Times and the Washington Post) not only reported the decision, but wrote editorials critical of it.  The Economist referred to the decision as “unconscionable and fatuous” and reported it was a decision rejected by most of his advisors, most large US companies, and 2/3 of Americans.  The New Yorker dug deeper and described how the decision (and its support by most Republican members of congress) was a clear demonstation of the effectiveness of the dark money campaign by the Koch brothers and others on behalf of the fossil fuel industry.  David Rank, chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Beijing and a career diplomat with 27 years’ service, resigned from the State Department because he could not deliver the formal announcement of Trump’s decision to the Chinese in good conscience. Foreign leaders of every political stripe joined in with comments ranging from deeply disappointed to outright anger.   The Economist felt the decision had dealt a severe blow to America’s interests and international standing.  Even my friend, Randy Olson, who pleads constantly for environmental scientists to learn how to tell their stories effectively, jumped in, claiming Trump was the B in the ABT rule for story-telling (his blog post on this is worth a read).  And Twitter was alive with outrage.  Meanwhile a large number of other actors pledged to move forward on climate no matter what the Trump administration decided.  Here are my thoughts on the substance of the decision.

This image accompanied the New York Times editorial on June 1st.  Not only has the flag fallen out of the tree of countries in the Paris agreement, the flag is being flown upside down, and we all know what that symbolizes!  Image © New York Times

National Public Radio has provided a full annotated transcript of the event including the opening remarks by Vice President Mike Pence, and closing remarks by EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt.  The comments of those two gentlemen reveal the enormous gulf that presently exists in American political life.  Here is one quote from Pence:

“Since the first day of this administration, President Donald Trump has been working tirelessly to keep the promises that he made to the American people. President Trump has been reforming health care, enforcing our laws, ending illegal immigration, rebuilding our military, and this president has been rolling back excessive regulations and unfair trade practices that were stifling American jobs. Thanks to President Trump’s leadership, American business are growing again, investing in America again, and they’re creating jobs in this country instead of shipping jobs overseas. Thanks to President Donald Trump, America is back.”

Apart from the obvious (and acceptable) boosterish tone, this quote is full of aspirations expressed as achievements, plus claims of causation for events, such as job growth, that may or may not be justified.  Reading it, I struggle to understand the nature of the rose-colored spectacles that Pence and colleagues are wearing, because the Trump presidency does not look remotely like that to me.  CORRECTION – not rose-colored spectacles, Pence is not wearing any.  Must be the nature of the cool-aid I do not understand.

Scott Pruitt’s closing comments are not quite so egregious.  In fact, he even seems to consider reducing CO2 emissions to be a good thing – a strange perspective from one who denies the existence of anthropogenic climate change.   But there are two sentences in the middle that typify the problem some American leaders have with being a part of the world:

“This is an historic restoration of American economic independence, one that will benefit the working class, the working poor, and working people of all stripes. With this action, you have declared that the people are rulers of this country once again.”

Apparently, for Pruitt, and perhaps Trump, international agreements erode sovereignty, while restoring that sovereignty will somehow help the poor.  Renouncing Paris somehow restores American democracy?  But, hey, I’m not a political scientist.  I’m just a lowly environmental scientist who cannot be expected to understand.

Trump’s 1st June announcement revealed either total unconcern about details, or total lack of understanding of the Paris Agreement.  He refers to it, throughout as the Paris Accord, when its correct name is Paris Agreement (lots of people make this error).  But in one telling sentence he reveals how little he knows about its content:

“Thus, as of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.”

Does Donald Trump not know what the word ‘non-binding’ means?  How can a non-binding agreement impose severe financial or economic burdens on a country?  Later he claims that “Compliance with the terms of the Paris Accord and the onerous energy restrictions it has placed on the United States could cost America as much as $2.7 million lost jobs by 2025, according to the National Economic Research Associates.”  Setting aside his reference to a widely disputed cost estimate, which, among other things, took no notice of new jobs likely to be created in the developing renewables economy, this sentence reinforces the view that the Paris Agreement sets mandatory costs on the USA.  It doesn’t.  That is what non-binding means.

Much of Trump’s announcement was a mish-mash of statistics about jobs, the economy, and growth or retreat of specific sectors, plus praise for the high environmental standards of the USA.  He is meanwhile doing all he can to erode those environmental standards.  Nowhere in his announcement does he mention climate change except for the spurious claim that “if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a [0.2oC change in temperature].”  That is one low-ball estimate of the incremental improvement due to Paris that has been widely disputed; a more realistic estimate is 0.8oC, but all people recognize that the commitments already on the table because of Paris are just a first step, and that there will be further commitments in the future.  (This fact about the Paris Agreement is seen by some as one of its greatest strokes of genius – it builds a community within which there will be peer pressure to do ever better – while others claim it is one of its great weaknesses.)  Instead of denying that climate change is a problem to solve (something I’d have expected from Trump), he avoids all mention of potential climate change impacts and their costs, and converts the Paris Agreement into some nefarious plot by those other nations to unfairly constrain the vibrant economy of the USA.

Bizarrely – well, OK, the whole announcement is bizarre, but, even more bizarrely — he announces that on withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the US will immediately begin to renegotiate it.  I guess this kind of brinksmanship is the type of business negotiation he is used to, but does he realize how long was spent in negotiating Paris?  Does he realize that to formally withdraw, the USA must wait 3 years from its date of coming into force (4th November, 2016) to send the letter, and an additional year before the withdrawal takes place (that’s in 2020, just after the next Presidential election)?  When is he expecting to commence renegotiations?  If there is one thing that Trump’s announcement made abundantly clear, it is that he simply does not understand the details of the agreement that he is determined to withdraw from.  But then, we are all beginning to learn that Trump does not bother about details.  Ever.  Just the spectacle.  Just the pomp.  Truly an Emperor without any clothes on.

This image is a year old, but is as relevant today as back then.
© Steve Sack, Star Tribune.

Yet the environmental crisis goes on

Despite the Trump circus, the media continue to provide coverage of the environmental crisis.  Bloomberg has now put up two of three articles on changes in the Arctic on its website.  The third will appear in June.  Apart from stunning photography (such as this image showing what can happen when melting permafrost burps methane), the articles provide an update on how rapidly the Arctic is warming, and on the impacts of this on the weather, the natural environment, and international politics and economics.  Countries like Canada should recognize there is a huge downside to continued warming up there.

A crater formed by the explosion of a “pingo”, a pocket of methane gas, on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula, northern Siberia.  Those are people standing on the edge.  Warming is leading to more frequent occurrences and greater methane emissions.  Photo © Vasily Bogoyavlensky/AFP

On 18th May, a report in The Guardian detailed a paper published in Scientific Reports by Sean Vitousek of University of Illinois at Chicago, with five colleagues from the US Geological Survey and University of Hawaii.  They evaluated the consequences for flooding risk of continued sea level rise.  While sea level rise of ~4mm per year will not cause significantly increased flooding risk directly for many years, it does facilitate flooding during storm events when seas can be noticeably elevated above usual levels.  Flood risk management is always about these extreme events and how frequently they can be expected to occur.

Putting aside the disturbing fact that estimates of sea level rise expected during this century continue to rise as scientific understanding of the behavior of glaciers grows. The Vitousek article, by analyzing the effects of elevated sea level on impacts of large waves and storm surges, showed first that these effects are somewhat more important at low latitudes because tidal ranges are generally lower there.  They calculated that the risk of extreme water-level events is doubled by an increase in sea level of 5-10 cm.  This will likely occur by 2030.  Obviously, with still greater sea level rise the risk increases further.  In the authors’ view, the maps they developed of flooding risk suggest a dire future for many places including major cities like San Francisco, Mumbai, Ho Chi Min City and Abidjan.  As with other aspects of climate change, the picture keeps getting more bleak as we learn more details of how the planetary systems will respond to the changing climate.

On 9th May, Takamatsu Ito of Georgia Tech, and three colleagues from US and Japanese labs, published an article in Geophysical Research Letters.  The article is, as usual, behind a paywall, but there is a good summary of it on the website, Phys.Org.  Using a global database of ocean physics and chemistry, Ito and colleagues reviewed dissolved oxygen content in the upper 1000 meters of the global ocean for the period from 1958 to 2015.  They found a measurable reduction in oxygen content beginning in the 1980s, and continuing today.  The total reduction over that time is greater than the natural year to year variability in oxygen content, and its extent varies geographically.

The trend in oxygen content at three depths over the period 1958 to 2015.  Black areas are places missing data.  The reduction, measured as micromoles per year, is substantial in some parts of the ocean, and is partly caused by alterations in solubility of oxygen due to rising temperatures.  Image © M Ito and Geophysical Research Letters.

The amount of oxygen loss since 1980 is about three times more than anticipated based on temperature-induced changes in solubility.  Ito and colleagues believe this discrepancy can be explained by the simultaneous changes in water circulation associated with the warming.  The fact of the decline makes the long-term consequences for ocean biology an important question for ocean scientists in coming years.  Substantial loss of dissolved oxygen may contribute to the growth in coastal dead zones (chiefly caused by largescale nitrification due to land-sourced agricultural and domestic pollution) and has been a feature of several of the past mass extinction events on this planet.

Scientists continue to identify ways in which we are modifying this planet by our meddling with the atmosphere.  Politicians and the general public are increasingly aware of the urgency of the need to rein in CO2 emissions, in order to prevent extreme warming or run-away climate change.  Progress in decarbonizing the global economy is being made, although it remains far too slow.  June 1st, 2017 may well become identified as the day that climate change denial reached its ultimate level of absurdity, in the Rose Garden of the White House, and the day from which we will be able to mark the beginning of a global acceleration in actions to mitigate CO2 emissions.  The hope that sensitive ecosystems such as coral reefs can survive the next century has likely been bolstered, so long as we commit to a more active management of them than in the past.  By getting the rest of the planet to recognize, and commit publicly to the need to act on climate change now, Trump may actually have finally done something useful.

Trump?  Not my President!  No Sir!
A great photo showing parrotfish on Maldive reef
© Victor Tribunsky

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Building a Better Anthropocene – The Challenge of Our Time


Once a year, on Earth Day, many of us pause to think about matters environmental.  Then we get on with our lives.  Yet the ‘matters environmental’ get more serious year by year, and I wonder why so many of us fail to see the obvious.  Today I try to summarize the problem by looking at five articles that appeared in Science the day before Earth Day 2017.  They all centered on aspects of how humanity currently interacts with the rest of the biosphere.  Three reviews dealt directly with this interaction while the other two were more methodological.  These two were concerned with how to encourage people to care about how we interact with the natural world, and with why the problem of our interaction with the natural world is what scientists call a ‘wicked’ one.

You can almost see the Biosphere in images of Earth from space.  It is that infinitesimal layer of air, soil, water, and organisms that envelopes our planet and sustains all life.  This photo, taken from the Space Station on 28 February 2015 looks north up the western USA coast towards Canada, with Vancouver Island near center.  Photo courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.

All five reviews were clearly written and should be accessible to most readers; unfortunately, they are not on open access and this will limit their real accessibility to non-specialists.  That is a pity, because the world needs to understand the nature of our interaction with the rest of the biosphere, how it is changing rapidly during the Anthropocene, and the serious consequences that will follow if current trends in this interaction continue.  We also need to understand the complexity of our interaction with the rest of the biosphere and how that makes solutions to the growing problems difficult to devise, as well as the fact that our interaction with the rest of the biosphere is predicated on cultural norms and attitudes so that solutions must involve changes in culture.  You do not change peoples’ beliefs by providing detailed science-based explanations of what is happening and why, and certainly not by fear-mongering, so moving towards new forms of interaction with the rest of the biosphere requires sociology and psychology as well as natural sciences

The value of the Biosphere

You may have noticed my repeated use of the clumsy phrase ‘our interaction with the rest of the biosphere’ in that paragraph.  I wrote that deliberately to remind everyone, right at the start, that humanity is one species within the biosphere.  Our tendency to view ourselves as standing outside the biosphere is very strong, deeply entrenched in modern industrialized cultures of all political stripes, and imbedded in our laws and our economies.  That tendency is a major factor in why we currently have a substantial environmental crisis on our hands, yet for the most part seem unaware of it.  In reality, we, like all other species, are parts of the complex system which sustains life on this planet.  The biosphere is that thin layer of ‘stuff’ that surrounds our planet – water, soil, lower atmosphere, all forms of life, and the ecosystems these comprise.  Through the myriad chemical, physical and other interactions among its components it provides the opportunities for and sustains life.  The cycling of energy and materials through the various biosphere components provides the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat, while also providing the other natural resources, such as timber, that we use in our lives, while decontaminating wastes.  The constant stream of energy from the sun and the intricate cycling of the biosphere are ultimately what make all life on this planet possible, even the life of Homo urbanensis, that city-dwelling, supermarket-browsing, nature-ignoring human that becomes more prevalent year by year as the global human population becomes more strongly urbanized.  City-dwellers increasingly fail to see the role of the natural world in their lives because they have been separated from it by our civilization.  And the idea that humanity will ultimately be able to do away with nature completely grows in acceptance despite the fact that we have never succeeded in doing this even on a small scale and for short periods of time.

Biosphere 2, a $200 million plus, 3.14 acre space enclosed under a glass and steel dome in Arizona, was intended to replicate the biosphere at small scale.  It was constructed in the early 1990s and stocked with selected species to populate five quasi-natural biomes.  Then 8 people were shut inside with the goal of living completely independently – other than by exchange of information, and inputs of sunlight – for two years.  The experiment failed within six months when the internal atmosphere became dangerously low in oxygen and food was running out.  And Biosphere 2 did not attempt to replace the natural processes such as photosynthesis that drive our biosphere, so even if it had been successful it would not have demonstrated we do not need the real biosphere on this planet.  Biosphere 2 continues to be used as an enormous closed environment, but it provides no confidence that we could engineer a replacement for the real biosphere if something serious went wrong.

The reality is that the bulk of our agriculture depends on the hydrologic cycle for irrigation, and all of it depends on photosynthesis to build the plant and animal foods we consume.  We speed up food production by enhancing the supply of nutrients using fertilizers derived from rock or by planting legumes and relying on their intricate symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria to make atmospheric nitrogen accessible to plants and microbes in the soil.  Our fisheries depend on natural production in lakes and the ocean, and increasingly on aquaculture, an analog for feedlot rearing of cattle which depends on continuous inputs of food obtained from marine or terrestrial sources.  In every case, we have been able to increase the rate of production of selected food products, but we are still relying on the processes the biosphere provides.  Along the way, our intensive agriculture and aquaculture have generated numerous problems in waste production that have overtaxed the biosphere’s capacity to recycle wastes.  The belief that humanity can do without the natural world is unlikely to become reality anytime soon.

I am taking time to emphasize the essential value of the biosphere for human existence because this is one point on which the reviews in the 21st April issue of Science are largely silent.  While environmental scientists understand and accept the essential value of the biosphere, I do not believe this understanding is widespread in our societies.  It is something everybody needs to understand, and many people do not.  Our considerable technical expertise and accumulated tools and infrastructure, and our modern consumer economy do not equip us to replace the biosphere.

Loss of Biodiversity

In their review of biodiversity loss and conservation in the Anthropocene, Chris Johnson, University of Tasmania, and six colleagues from UK, Brazil, China, New Zealand and Australia, discuss the great acceleration in extinction rates that is now taking place.  They point out that our impacts on extinction rates go back 2 million years to the time when our ancestors, through their use of tools as weapons, first began to take over the role of large terrestrial predators.  The immediate result was the loss of two thirds of the other large predators of Africa, and the simultaneous loss of many large herbivores hunted by humans.  For example, the 12 species of elephant in Africa 3 million years ago was reduced to two.  Similar impacts subsequently occurred on other continents as our species expanded its range, and increased noticeably in rate over the past 60 thousand years.  They report 140 genera, more than 10% of all land mammals, went extinct in the 100,000 years prior to 500 AD.  This is a pace far exceeding background extinction rates for mammals, and similar patterns of loss occurred in reptiles and birds.  These ‘prehistoric’ extinctions tended to coincide with the arrival of humans at particular places, and are most easily understood as due to effects of highly efficient hunting.  More recently, we have caused extinctions of terrestrial species primarily through usurpation and modification of land, although hunting continues to be an important cause as does the introduction of invasive species from elsewhere that prey upon, causes disease in, or out-compete native fauna.

With the great expansion of our environmental footprint since the start of the industrial revolution, and particularly since 1950, there are many signs that the rate of extinction is rising rapidly.  We are now having demonstrable effects on marine organisms as well as terrestrial, and the bias towards extinction of larger species that was initially evident is now greatly reduced.  We now have many ways to cause extinction beyond hunting, and we are also harvesting many smaller species, at least in the oceans.

While extinction is absolute and permanent, it is also the end-point of reduction in population size.  Our impacts on the natural world have greatly reduced the standing stock of most species of animals and plants, both on land and in the ocean.  Reasonable estimates of the biomass of fishery species now swimming in the oceans suggest we have reduced abundance by 90% since the 1930s, primarily through over-harvesting.  Larger species have been hardest hit, but our direct impacts on oceanic abundance extend to anchovies and krill, both of which are harvested primarily as foods for aquaculture and livestock.  Johnson and colleagues point out that the consequences of these losses and reductions are not simply to the species impacted.  Because all species are engaged in a web of interactions with each other, the extinctions and reductions in abundance can have ramifications throughout the biosphere, often unexpected ones.  Johnson and colleagues note how the impacts on tropical trees with large fruit of the loss of mammalian seed dispersers has altered the composition of tropical forests, and how the over-harvest of larger herbivorous fishes has tilted the balance towards fleshy algae instead of corals on some tropical reefs.  Other authors have documented the impacts of reductions in abundance of bees and other pollinating insects on efficiency of seed set in agricultural crops around the world.  While Johnson and colleagues do not attempt to delineate a critical threshold for extinctions or abundance reductions, they refer to the loss of ecosystem resiliency that comes with loss of biodiversity and argue that major ecosystem collapse becomes much more likely as biodiversity falls.  At a time when climate change, another problem we have caused, is placing new stresses on ecological systems, we should be doing all we can to retain or enhance biodiversity.

Rates of extinction for various vertebrate groups over several time periods, shown as cumulative losses of: A) mammal genera over past 60,000 years, B) species of New Zealand birds since colonization, and C) bird (blue), mammal (red), and other vertebrates (green) since 1500.  Increases in the percentage of all birds, mammals and amphibians listed as threatened by IUCN since 1992 are shown in D) with estimates for a number of other taxa (open circles).
© C. Johnson and Science

Johnson and colleagues show that increases in the rates of extinction show no signs of slowing down despite considerable attention at both local and global levels.  The reasons for our failure include the fact that our accelerating impacts, characteristic of the Anthropocene, are sufficient to swamp most of the efforts being made to conserve species.  The human footprint has been expanding ever since the concept was developed in the early 1990s.  Secondly, extinctions occur from combined effects of multiple stressors, but too often efforts to conserve a species focus on one or two of these.  Thirdly, adequate funding to tackle what is an enormous problem has never been available.  Fourthly, conservation is not mainstreamed into economic and social planning in most countries, and tends to be pursued separately, by politically weak (often non-governmental) groups.  This marginalization leads to an unwillingness, or inability to tackle the core driving factors of rising consumption, unrealistic ‘growth’ economic agendas, and the growing separation of people from nature.  While Johnson and colleagues close with some examples of effective action to rescue biodiversity, it is clear that this is a serious problem and needs far more attention than it is receiving.

The conflict between environmental sustainability and human quality of life

The review by Eileen Christ of Virginia Tech, and two colleagues at other US institutions, focuses in on the growing human population as a fundamental cause of biodiversity loss.  In their view, despite our considerable technical skill, and the fact that consumption of resources varies substantially among communities, the current size of the global population, and especially the continuing growth in that population mean that our pressure on the biosphere, and resulting biodiversity loss, will continue and likely grow also.  In particular, the need for food is not easily substituted with other resources, and our production of food directly impacts natural ecosystems if only in the land used to produce it.

Human population growth is an important part of the environmental crisis.
© Joel Pett, Lexington Herald-Leader.

In their opening paragraph, they confront but do not resolve a core problem: raising human living standards sufficiently to eliminate poverty, and preserving natural ecosystems and their biodiversity are both valued goals of sustainable development.  Goals accepted, at least on paper, by all countries in the UN system.  These goals are in conflict.

Raising standards of living, while accommodating the roughly 3-4 billion additional people anticipated to be living on this planet by 2100, cannot be done without a massive increase in the diversion of natural production towards the production of food for humans.  While increased efficiency in production and reduction in food wastage can help, the expected expansion of the population plus the need to lift millions out of poverty will require a 70% increase in production by 2050 and a doubling or tripling of production by 2100.  Changes in the human diet could help, but current changes are all in the ’wrong’ direction – as people become more affluent, they consume more meat!

Christ and colleagues provide a coherent argument for the need to reopen the discussion of human population growth.  They also show that continuing the present avoidance of this topic makes any attempt to simultaneously raise human living standards and maintain biodiversity very unlikely to be successful.  We cannot double food production over the remainder of this century without putting massive additional stresses on global biodiversity, and the current rate of extinction is already alarming.

Having painted an alarming picture, they provide a possible solution.  They point out that the long-held belief that over-consumption was a problem of the global north while over-population was a problem of the global south is no longer true and is rapidly changing.  All over the world, large numbers of people are entering the middle class and adopting lifestyles that consume more resources of all kinds, including more meat in their diets.  The result is that over-consumption is now becoming a global issue, and that should make it easier for nations to come together and find solutions.  Secondly, it has been demonstrated many times that increasing educational and lifestyle opportunities for women leads to a preference for smaller families.  This is something that happens to a degree when living standards rise (the demographic transition), but it can be actively encouraged far more than at present.  Such a preference could be encouraged if there was agreement that growth in the global population needs to be reduced.  Stabilizing and then reducing the global population makes many environmental and human rights problems easier to deal with.  Continuing the present policy of not speaking about human population growth at all if we can avoid it is a sure way to ensure continued biodiversity loss, and perhaps also continued poverty.

By picking on the evident conflict between feeding growing numbers of people and protecting biodiversity, Christ and colleagues have particularized one of the major difficulties confronting those who seek to protect biodiversity.  Given that Johnson and colleagues listed three additional issues that made biodiversity conservation difficult, the Christ review has brought that difficulty home even more clearly.

How to live in harmony with the rest of the biosphere

If Johnson and Christ have written reviews of specific aspects of our interaction with the rest of nature, Jonathan Foley of the California Academy of Sciences provides a passionate essay on the more general issue of how to live in harmony with the biosphere.  He summarizes the history of our understanding that the planet has finite limits on what it can provide by referencing the work of Malthus, then of Paul Ehrlich on the human population, and finally the publishing of Limits to Growth in 1972.  Each step, we refined our understanding of the ways in which humanity was outstripping the capacity of the planet to support us.  The most recent manifestation of this understanding has been the development of the concept of the nine planetary boundaries that together define a safe (or Holocene-like) living space for humanity on planet Earth.  In one paragraph he references the ways in which we are pushing planetary systems beyond their limits – 40% of land now converted to agriculture, freshwater resources being exhausted faster than they are replenished, natural cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus radically altered through our manufacture and use of fertilizers, ocean fisheries being depleted while we also acidify and warm the water, a 50% increase in atmospheric CO2 due to our emissions, and the profound climatic changes that change in atmosphere produces. Nothing new here, but it is a powerful recap.

Foley discusses the gaps in our knowledge and the need to better delineate the planetary boundaries, and he admits of the possibility of technological achievements which, like the Green Revolution of the mid-1970s, will adjust the planetary boundaries to permit a still greater intensification of our use of resources.  But he also points out that the ultimate rules set by physics and chemistry cannot be violated so our ever-expanding footprint has to be contained.  We may be optimists or pessimists, but ultimately all humanity must learn to live sustainably or suffer the consequences.

Foley finishes with a discussion of solutions, drawing a clear distinction between natural ecological systems and the artificial systems we use when we attempt to replace them.  He writes,

“I would suggest that natural ecological systems on Earth succeed—often where humans do not—because they adhere to the following guidelines: They do not consume resources faster than they are regenerated by the environment; do not produce wastes, especially those that disrupt the environment and the climate system, faster than they are assimilated or removed by the environment; are highly diverse, making them more robust in the face of changing conditions; and power nearly everything they do with the Sun.”

Until we are able to emulate that, we’d be wise to make the considerable effort needed to reduce our environmental impacts to something much more sustainable than we have at present.

These three articles together provide a thought-provoking discussion of our current dilemma.  We persist in calling it an environmental problem but it is a problem with how we are choosing to behave.  Change our behavior and all could be well.

Why the environmental crisis is wickedly difficult to solve

This brings me to the other two articles.  Ruth DeFries of Columbia University and Harini Nagendra of Azim Premji University, India, discuss the reasons why environmental management is a wicked problem.  They begin by stating that the ecological systems of the biosphere are self-regulating complex systems that have evolved over time to their present states.  In building our global civilization, humans disrupt these systems, and then are forced to introduce management activities to remedy the problems caused.  Far too often management introduced is too late, too feeble, or simply inadequate to rectify the issue of concern.  Over time, as our impacts grow, we are disrupting ever more of the biosphere, and failing substantially in our efforts to remedy the damage we cause.  They then suggest an explanation for why taking remedial action so often proves to be ineffective – environmental problems are wicked ones.

DeFries and Nagendra trace the development of environmental management from pre-industrial times to the present.  Indigenous local knowledge evolved to suit the local environment, and social systems were based on ecological understanding of the dynamics of the local resource base.  Such methods worked well so long as human use of resources remained low relative to the capacity of the ecosystem to regenerate targeted components.  With industrialization, the initial goal was to manage exploitation of targeted local or regional resources so that natural processes of production were sufficient to maintain the ecological system.  The purpose of management was to ensure a sustained supply of renewable resources.

With time, as our use of resources expanded, it became necessary to consider deliberate efforts to retain land in natural condition in order to sustain natural ecosystems, and to consider management of waste disposal so that this was done in ways to facilitate its incorporation back into the dynamics of the natural environment.  With further growth in our economy, use of novel chemicals in our environment, and expanded long-distance transport of resources the task of environmental management became far more complex.  Problems had to be dealt with on regional or global bases as well as locally, new chemicals introduced novel forms of waste with unexpected environmental consequences, and all problems became larger.

To complicate matters, the science and practice of environmental management developed during a time when the prevailing view was that ecosystems were not only self-regulating, but regulated in ways that conveyed considerable stability in condition.  As the science of ecology matured during the 1970s and 1980s, and we became aware that natural systems were dynamic, and frequently maintained by periodic disruption, the task of environmental management became even more difficult.  Now, in the Anthropocene, with many aspects of environment and climate subject to profound, continuous, one-way change, that task is more difficult still.  Truly wicked.

A wicked problem is one which is inherently resistant to clear definition and easily identifiable, predefined solutions.  DeFries and Nagendra identify several factors that make environmental problems wicked ones.  The biosphere is comprised of complex and interdependent components, which create positive and negative feedbacks and nonlinear responses to management interventions.  The risks of acting as well as those of not acting in any particular circumstance are uncertain, and there are frequently unintended consequences of actions taken.  In environmental management, it is usual for several stakeholders to be participating – almost always these have differing values and different capacity to make decisions or implement them.  The spatial and temporal scales and boundaries of ecological processes rarely coincide with administrative boundaries, so that actions taken are implemented at inappropriate scales or over regions or time periods that do not match with the ecological processes.  Added to all these factors is the fact that environmental management takes place in the real world; management actions are seldom the only environmentally significant actions taking place, and discerning the consequences of the management action is seldom a clear-cut exercise. Definitely, definitively wicked!

Having established that environmental problems are wicked, DrFries and Nagendra set out five approaches to dealing with them effectively.  In discussing these, they emphasize repeatedly that environmental problems will usually prove to be time- and location-specific; there will be no off-the-shelf solutions.  As well, every management effort will require an adaptive management approach in which a cycle of “action taken, consequences assessed, action revised” is repeated over time as a way of zeroing in on an effective solution.  I think the chief value of their review is the clear picture it paints of the difficulties facing us if we hope to manage environmental problems effectively.  The idea that sustainable environmental management is not rocket science is important here.  It is way more difficult than rocket science.  Knowing that, it behooves us to treat our current circumstances with the seriousness they deserve, and work to increase our effectiveness at managing the environmental crisis.

Building the will to act

Taking the need to manage the environmental crisis seriously enough to learn how to tackle such wicked problems requires first that we recognize that the environmental crisis really is a crisis, and a really serious one at that.  Too many of us have heard about biodiversity loss, or desertification, or loss of coral reefs, or even climate change, but continue to assume that these ‘environmental’ problems are not going to impact our lives.  They are ‘environmental’ as in ‘not really important except to nature lovers’.  Elise Amel of University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and two colleagues tackle the psychology that helps individuals develop an appreciation of the severity of the environmental crisis and a willingness to take action to build a more sustainable world.  Environmental advocates are learning that people do not become supporters of changing our way of life simply by being given the facts about the environmental crisis, and it is increasingly clear that progress on this front demands that we learn what we can of relevant human psychology.

The human brain does not sit passively sifting incoming information in order to make rational decisions.  If it did our lives would be a lot less interesting, although our politics just might be more rationally based.  Instead the brain actively selects information to receive and stores primarily information that it considers important.  In Amel’s words,

“rather than neutrally receiving information, human brains privilege that which supports their preexisting worldview. Given limited mental resources for processing the boundless information available in the world, evolution favored cognitive efficiency. New information is processed through the filters of personal beliefs, first-hand experiences, and social identities. Ideas are dismissed or assimilated on the basis of a quick but biased heuristic of whether they line up with what is already perceived to be true. It is difficult to escape bias, even when exerting conscious mental effort.”

Human behavior, our responses to the information we receive, is determined by forces both inside and outside of the individual.  Internal factors such as emotions, beliefs, attitudes, and values influence behavior, but so does the powerful context within which behavior occurs, comprising cultural worldviews, social networks, status inequalities, policies, scripts, roles, and rules.  Environmental problems are typically slow to develop, or be resolved, at least on human timescales, and our evolution has built us as creatures well tuned to respond to immediate, rapidly approaching threats, and to act in ways which bring short-term rewards.  We also crave a sense of belonging to the social group, which makes it difficult to alter our behavior from accepted norms, such as driving gas-guzzling SUVs to the supermarket, even when logic says we should be cutting our emissions of greenhouse gases by driving smaller cars or by getting to the shops using public transit or some form of active transport.  The shift may involve some change in personal convenience, but it also requires that we stand out from the crowd.

In 1968, the Senegalese forestry engineer, Baba Dioum wrote, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”  Increasingly, environmentalists recognize that appreciating nature requires some real experience of nature.

Amel and colleagues also point to the need for community and national or global responses to solve environmental problems.  Without leadership by already committed individuals, these larger social groups have little chance of changing behavior.  In talking about the environmental crisis it is essential to build the will to act, changing personal, community, national and global patterns of thought and action.  They suggest several ways in which this might be achieved.

To begin with, information about environmental problems such as climate change should be framed in ways that emphasize short-term and local impacts to make the problem more ‘real’ and ‘immediate’.  Messaging that includes incentives for appropriate sustainable action will encourage individuals to act, and if sustainable behavior can also be presented as the socially accepted norm that will further encourage action – it is more effective to encourage individuals to recycle as many of their neighbors do, than to encourage them to recycle while suggesting that most of their neighbors don’t do this, regardless of what proportion of neighbors actually recycle.

Amel and colleagues also make the important point that in the great majority of environmental issues, the actions of individuals play only a small role compared to the actions of industry and government.  Thus, it is hopelessly insufficient to work to change individual behavior without also including a significant effort to encourage individuals to push for changes to societal behavior.  Motivating individuals to act to promote sustainable action is even more difficult than motivating them to change their own behavior, but this has to be the goal.  Building a new worldview, which is what reforming our relationship with the biosphere demands, is inherently a sociological, psychological and political process, and environmental managers have been slow to take up the appropriate tools and approaches.

Psychologists do not yet know what it is that makes some individuals more willing than others to take a bold stand, resisting the pressures to conform with conventional patterns of behavior, but they do know that it takes heroism.  Environmental managers have long recognized the value of local heroes, respected individuals with leadership qualities (although not necessarily in formal leadership positions), in getting buy-in by a community to sustainable management actions, although they have not learned how to produce such heroes when they are needed.  Amel and colleagues suggest there is work to be done; in doing that work environmental managers will benefit by drawing on psychological, sociological and political expertise.

The goal of environmental sustainability is within reach

The challenge of the Anthropocene is to wrestle humanity back into an appropriate relationship with the rest of the biosphere.  It is an urgent challenge and a difficult one to meet.  As Amel and colleagues note, more than 50% of humanity is now urban, and far too many of urban humans are growing up with little if any direct experience of nature.  Finding ways to provide our cities with more green space is not only a way to civilize or humanize them; it is an excellent way to provide opportunities to experience nature directly.  Parks, community gardens, bike paths and walking trails, together with school programs to bring youth into real contact with the outdoors need to be valued for the ways in which they bridge the gulf between urban experience and the natural world that ultimately sustains us.

If we can rebuild the connections between humanity and nature, while also reframing the environmental crisis as a human behavior crisis we have a good foundation upon which to build a reimagined worldview that keeps human activities to appropriate form and scale for the planet.  Our goals of ensuring a sustainable biosphere and raising the quality of life for all humans can be met, but we will have to redefine quality of life and control quantity of life.  If we engage psychology, sociology and political science along with the natural sciences, we stand a good chance of being able to bring about the immense transformation that solving this crisis requires.  These is considerable urgency to act, but many reasons for optimism that we will succeed in building a far better Anthropocene than the one we will surely inherit if we continue our current ways.

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, Changing lifestyles, Climate change, Communicting science, Economics, Politics | Comments Off on Building a Better Anthropocene – The Challenge of Our Time

Room for a little #OceanOptimism on Earth Day?


Earth Day is upon us once more and with it the international March for Science.  I wasn’t sure whether to blog or march, but figure I will leave the marching to the scientists still in harness.  I’ll be there in spirit, because the failure of vast numbers of the public to even understand what science is has become a substantial problem for the planet.  Our slow realization of the seriousness of what is happening to coral reefs is in part due to lack of attention to what science tells us.  It’s also because not enough of us have embraced reefs and both respect and care for them.

What was I doing a year ago?  On 25th April 2016, shortly after Earth Day, I was celebrating the ceremonial signing of the Paris Accord by 175 of the 195 participating countries at the United Nations on Earth Day 2016.  It has now been signed by all 195, and 143 have formally ratified it.  However, I was clearly coming down from the high induced by Paris 2015, because the bulk of my post was a review of the status of such things as atmospheric CO2, coral reef bleaching, Arctic ice melt and so on, and consideration of the possibility that we might already be at a tipping point from which we could not recover.  Not a cheerful thought, nor an optimistic tone.

Today, my assessment is that the world has been treading water for the past year as political events swirled about and we tried to figure out where major nations might be headed.  That swirling continues, and that thought is not an optimistic one either.  While it is true that Trump, as an individual, even though he is President of the USA, is not powerful enough to stop all progress on climate around the world, it is also clear that his presence has slowed any momentum that may have been building, and diverted attention to other matters.

Where are we on reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

So where do we stand in our fight with climate change?  Despite all the announcements by governments and corporations working to lower greenhouse gas emissions, the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere continues to rise, and the rate of increase is also still increasing.  On April 18th, CO2 atop Mauna Kea was measured at 410.28 ppm, the first time it had ever risen above 410 ppm in the 59 years that continuous records have been made, and the first time it has been that high in millions of years (based on the various proxies for direct measurement).  Furthermore, 2015 and 2016 were the first years in which the cumulative annual growth in concentration of CO2, its rate of growth, was more than 3 ppm.  (In fact, 2016 came in 0.03 ppm lower than 2015, but it’s way too soon to interpret that as the beginning of a slow-down.)

Not only are we unlikely to have a month when CO2 concentrations fall back below 400 ppm any time soon, the annual rate at which concentrations are increasing has now exceeded 3 ppm two years in a row. Graph © Climate Central.

Not surprisingly, the warming of the planet also continues, as does the bleaching of reefs, melting of glaciers, and all the other environmental impacts of this savage pollution of our atmosphere.  If we take the mean global temperature each month during the period 1881 to 1910 as our ‘pre-industrial’ baseline temperature, it turns out that nobody born after 1964 has ever experienced a month of below-average temperatures.  Global mean temperature for every month since then has been warmer than average.  March 2017 was 1.3oC above this pre-industrial average.  That is very close to the 1.5oC increase the Paris Accord set as the aspirational goal for the world, and 65% of the way towards the 2oC increase countries have pledged not to exceed.

The rates of increase in global mean temperature and in CO2concentration above Mauna Kea both continue to increase, at what appears to be still increasing rates.  We have not yet succeeded in putting on the brakes.  Graph © Climate Central.

In a 2017 joint report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), there is a stark description of the enormity of the task before us if we want to achieve the 2oC objective, let alone the 1.5oC one.  The report was produced at the request of Germany for use in the G20.  In it, IEA and IRENA independently assessed the current state of energy use and outline an energy sector transition that would be consistent with limiting the rise in global temperature to below 2oC.  In their report IEA and IRENA assumed that complying with Paris was equivalent to keeping temperatures below 2oC throughout this century and into the future, with no initial overshoot, and they accepted a criterion of achieving this with a 66% probability of success as satisfactory (that is, they accepted a 33% risk of exceeding 2oC – I point this out to emphasize that the agencies have operated conservatively: how much needs to be done to have a reasonable chance of staying below 2oC, rather than, let’s put forward a scenario that guarantees staying well below 2oC).

The report is principally focused on the technical challenges of progressively integrating different forms of renewable energy into a multi-source energy grid at regional or national scale, and doing so while ensuring continued reliability of supply in a real-life fluctuating-demand situation.  It is also quite technical in style.  Here I am focusing only on the overall magnitude of the challenge.

IEA and IRENA used the concept of the global CO2 budget that is available to be released to the atmosphere within this century without exceeding the “2o with 66% likelihood” goal.  By their calculation that is 790 Gt CO2 (790 Billion tonnes CO2, a broadly accepted estimate) for the energy sector and a further 90 Gt for other industrial sectors and land use changes.  Now, 790 Gt CO2 is a large amount, but if the global economy performs as expected, and if all the NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) that countries have proposed under Paris are put into effect as planned, the energy sector will emit 1260 Gt CO2 between now and 2100 – 60% more than the budget available!  IEA and IRENA looked independently on what needed to be done to keep within that budget.  Here I am reporting IEA findings:

To achieve the 2oC goal will require a transition off fossil fuels of “exceptional scope, depth and speed”.  Emissions would need to peak by 2020, and fall by 70% from today’s rates by 2050, and the share of energy derived from fossil fuels would have to halve by 2050.  To do this would require an

“unparalleled ramp-up of all low-carbon technologies in all countries.  An ambitious set of policy measures, including the rapid phase out of fossil fuel subsidies, CO2 prices rising to unprecedented levels, extensive energy market reforms, and stringent low-carbon and energy efficiency mandates would be needed to achieve this transition.  Such policies would need to be introduced immediately and comprehensively across all countries in order to achieve the [goal], with CO2 prices reaching up to US$190 per tonne of CO2.”

Needless to say, countries have not yet bought in to this aggressive decarbonization.  In the following chart, note that with only the already declared NDCs, our emissions per year of CO2 continues to rise – the commitments are insufficient to counter the growth in energy demand as our population and economy grow!

 In this chart the ‘new policies scenario’ (blue line) refers to the trend in CO2 emissions if all country NDCs are fulfilled, while the ‘66% 2oC Scenario’ (green line) refers to the global trend in CO2 emissions needed if the world is to meet the target 2oC agreed to at Paris.

In addition, IEA says that aggressive efficiency measures would be needed to lower the energy intensity of the global economy by at least 2.5% per year from now to 2050, a rate that is three and a half times greater than the rate achieved during the last 15 years.   IEA predicts that by 2050, success in reaching the 2oC goal would require that nearly 95% of electricity would be low-carbon, 70% of new cars would be electric, the entire existing building stock would have been retrofitted, and the CO2 intensity of the industrial sector would be 80% lower than today.  IEA calculates the 2oC goal requires a fundamental reorientation of investment in energy production coupled with a rapid escalation in the investments made by energy consumers to make use of low carbon energy sources.  By IEA estimates, “the additional net total investment, relative to the trends that emerge from current climate pledges, would be equivalent to 0.3% of global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2050.”

As I read the document, we have a period of very heavy lifting ahead of us, and should have started already.  What has been accomplished since Paris is not nearly enough.  Not nearly.  There should be more urgency apparent.  And this is just to deal with climate; what about all the other ways in which we are despoiling this planet.

Later that same day

So I finished writing the first part of this commentary, paused, and began to feel damned depressed about the whole situation.  We do not seem to be paying nearly enough attention to climate change, or indeed, to any other of the myriad ways we are damaging our only home.

Reading Bill McKibben’s recent op-ed in the Guardian in which he refers to Canada’s PM Trudeau as a “disaster for the planet” did not help my mood.  In fact, it made me angry.  At McKibben.  One telling sentence that captures his tone: “Trump is a creep and a danger and unpleasant to look at, but at least he’s not a stunning hypocrite.”  While I too am critical of Trudeau’s reluctance to dump the resources sector completely, I recognize that he is trying to walk a path which will move Canada from climate denial to climate action, and this requires not completely pissing off everybody who does not already agree.  In Ontario, we are now paying about $1.10 per litre for gasoline.  The price spiked recently about ten cents when the new carbon tax kicked in.  What does McKibben pay for gas in the USA?  What McKibben should have done while criticizing Trudeau is articulate why Canada’s efforts on climate as yet are insufficient.  Instead he wasted an op-ed to throw epithets about.  Plus, he might do something back home to ensure the dangerous, creepy, difficult to look at Unpresident has as short a reign as possible.

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau has a difficult challenge, but at least he is trying to do something about environment.  Not so his neighbor to the south.
© David Parkins/Globe & Mail.

Time for some optimism

But then I looked at the latest issues of Nature and Science.  Out just a couple of days before Earth Day, Nature had an editorial by marine scientist, Nancy Knowlton, on the need to be optimistic in presenting environmental stories.  In addition, there were two more reports concerning how Antarctic glaciers are behaving – plenty to digest there although the only optimistic note is that the glaciologists are getting a lot closer to understanding how this system works.

While Nature has a history recently of consistently reporting important environmental stories, Science, which appears to have been giving less attention to this field, surprised me with a whole special issue on environment.  In addition to an editorial, by Knowlton and Andrew Balmford, also extolling the value of a positive approach to presenting environmental issues, they had several reviews and reports on environmental topics.  There was an essay on the need to live within the planetary boundaries.  There were two reviews on how human activities and sheer abundance are affecting global biodiversity.  Another review detailed how environmental management is a wicked problem, and included information that many policy makers would do well to pay attention to – it’s way more complicated than rocket science (which suggests we must avoid procrastinating because complicated tasks take time).  And there was a review concerning psychological aspects of how to motivate people effectively to care for the natural world, something I have been wondering about for a while now.  Unfortunately, all of these articles are stuck behind pay walls, so I will be discussing them further in the future.

One could say I am just reading stuff written for the choir, but the choir needs to learn how to sing effectively and articles like these would likely not have appeared in such prestigious technical journals a decade or so ago.  There really is hope.

On the other hand, there really is so very little time to dither.  It is unconscionable, for example, that Australia can contemplate encouraging (with millions of real dollars in tax incentives) foreign corporations to develop enormous new coal mines to tap into coal deposits that Australia has no need for, other than as export commodities, so exports can be ramped up – all being transported through the Great Barrier Reef – at a time when that reef is seriously bleaching for the second year in a row.  Australia should be particularly aware of what climate change will do to its economy and quality of life, and should be leading the charge to bring climate under control.  Instead it is a laggard, while trying to increase its extraction and export of fossil fuel.  The politicians involved have demonstrated their ethical limitations multiple times as they mouth platitudes about their concern for their reef.

As for the fiasco happening in the USA, my only slim reason for optimism there is that Trump’s utter incompetence may be the best thing going for the environment, for international trade, for race relations, and perhaps even for world peace.  But that my American friends were capable of electing him?  And might do so again?  Not a good sign.  Let’s hope there are more signs encouraging optimism in the next few months.  Happy Earth Day.

Perhaps the first leader of a major nation who excels only in his incompetence.
© David Horsey/LA Times.

Categories: Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science, Politics | Comments Off on Room for a little #OceanOptimism on Earth Day?