On the Wondrousness of the Natural World, and How It Might Help Us Live Sustainably


(With apologies to those US friends who just got through one of the worst snowstorms ever.) Last week, we had one of those wonderful snowstorms. There was enough snow to spread a white blanket across the ground, yet not too much to swamp our capacity to keep our roads passable. The snow itself was fluffy, light, and a bit sticky so that it highlighted every branch and twig on the trees with a frosting of sparkling white. And the weather has remained cold and crisp, with plenty of sunshine since. The trees are still frosted, and, this not being the city, the snow is still white almost to the edges of the now clear and dry roadways. Today, my tree-lined road was an avenue of sparkling white in the sunlight that would far and away surpass the beauty of any avenue of lighted trees in Paris or New York around Christmas time. And as I drove into town, I passed one stretch of trees where the sun was shining through from behind, lighting up every snow-traced branch in a wonderful warm glow.

snow scene Jan 2016

winter road scene Jan 2016

That got me thinking. If snow was a grayish green in color, sort of like phlegm when you have a really bad cold, and if that snow also coated the branches of trees in a glurpy slime that glistened metallic green in the sunlight, would I find it equally beautiful? Or, to get to the real point I want to make, what is it about the natural world that makes it so often beautiful, and why is our appreciation of the beauty of natural landscapes almost universal? In asking these questions, I am asking what it is about us that causes so much of nature to be seen as attractive, and why there is so much agreement among us about the beauty that we see? Our appreciation of nature seems to fly in the face of the old adage that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

Now I know that people who have grown up in the prairies may feel a bit hemmed in in a more forested landscape, while people used to forested topography may feel vaguely exposed and vulnerable on a prairie. But I also know that most of us can appreciate the beauty of a wide prairie sky as well as the glorious exhilaration of a tall, forest grove. What we do not seem to see as beautiful is the damaged landscape, whether ravaged by a storm or by strip mining. I am not denying that there can be beautiful cityscapes (and what makes them beautiful is worth analysis), but I also suggest that there are many cityscapes that are far from beautiful. To me, beauty seems far more widely present in natural environments, including in rural, extensively managed and altered farming environments.

forest and prairie
This Japanese old-growth forest glade, and this prairie sunset are very different landscapes, yet each is strangely beautiful. Photos © R. Iida and © sassaputzin/Deviantart.com respectively.

Not limited to landscapes

Our appreciation of beauty in the natural world is not limited to landscapes. The plants, animals and other creatures that populate this planet also offer lots of beauty. Something about form and color wedded to function seems to underlie our esthetic appreciation, although there are certainly some quite ugly creatures out there. Again, we mostly agree on what are the ugly ones. The camera and later the microscope (light, transmission electron, scanning electron and even newer ones) have progressively opened our eyes to the beauty in form and function at various spatial scales in nature. Again, we seem largely to agree on which photos are the most beautiful, and those images seem usually to be of organisms, or their parts, in functional form and condition.

leptocephalus & nudibranchTwo outstanding underwater portraits, leptocephalus eel larva on left and nudibranch on right reveal beauty in form and color. Photos © L Ruda and S Scortegagna respectively featured in the 2015 Ocean Art Underwater Photography competition.

I’m of the opinion that our appreciation of the beauty in nature may be tied to the fact of our own origins in nature, and may be related to the fact that we recognize the life in other creatures. We may even feel an affinity for those other examples of life on this planet. Surely the passion, over-exuberant though it may be, of the avid member of PETA is driven by more than a left-brain, strictly rational, code of morality. Surely it is at least partly driven by a right-brain, subjective sense of one-ness with other living species.

Beauty in the organization of a coral reef

As one learns more about the natural world, one comes to appreciate the beauty in design, the functionality, the incredible appropriateness that mark natural systems. I do not know if this appreciation of nature is driven by the same forces that guide our appreciation of its visual beauty, but, even if not, this appreciation seems to be widespread also. Take the incredible complexity of the coral reef. As any diver quickly appreciates once he or she has dived the same location several times, the individual creatures that live there are at home, and likely to be present at virtually the same locations on each dive. Just how at home they are can be astonishing.

I first saw her in August of 1977. She was quite distinctive and attractive, with a blue diamond on her forehead. Otherwise, she was a pale yellow fish, about 6 cm long, with the official name of Pomacentrus amboinensis. She did not have a less formal name although a number of years later some wise ichthyologist decided she had always been the Ambon damselfish. Quite ridiculous really – nobody except a few ichthyologists had ever called her that; but then, few people called her Pomacentrus amboinensis either. And I doubt very much that she used either name. Anyway, this lady was unusual because of that blue diamond. It was actually an aberration, a deformity, a patch of pigment-free skin that allowed the dark color of the dura mater covering her brain to shine through her transluscent skull. I’ve never seen another fish, of any species, like her.


pomacentrus-amboinensisNot my lady Ambon with the blue diamond, but another Pomacentrus amboinensis.
Photo © John Sear.

In 1977 I was beginning a research project that required me to visit a number of small patch reefs distributed in a shallow lagoon and carefully search out, identify and record all the fishes present. I would do this three times, over about two weeks for all of a set of 20 patch reefs ranging in size from barely a meter across to four meters across, and typically supporting about 130 fish belonging to about 20 different species. The project then required that I return every 2-5 months, so that I visited each patch reef three times, on each of three occasions per year, for a decade. (There was a real scientific question to be asked – this was not simply a time-wasting device used to justify diving on a coral reef every few months!) My lady Ambon damsel was living on one of the smaller patch reefs, scarcely 1.2 meters in length, about 0.8 meters wide and perhaps 0.6 meters high. It was a few meters away from any other corals on the sandy lagoon floor in water about 4 meters deep at low tide.

I am telling you all this because that little fish was present on every one of my visits to that patch reef over 10 years! She was a young adult when I first saw her and an old, but not an ancient adult the last time we met. Knowing whether individual fish were present on multiple visits was not one of the questions I was asking, however, it was often the case that fish of particular species were usually present on particular patch reefs over many visits, and there were a few other distinctive individuals that were definitely seen repeatedly. A trio of Dascyllus trimaculatus, all fully grown adults 15 cm in length, and occupying an impossibly small patch of coral, comes to mind. They were the only members of this species across all 20 patch reefs and all visits, and they were present on that pin cushion of a coral head right through my study.

The fact that these fish were present repeatedly did not surprise me. I had been working on coral reefs long enough to know that the great majority of reef fishes are homebodies. However, that some individuals of rather small species were living on the same small patch reef for 10 years did come as a bit of a surprise. However, I now believe that being homebodies, and being potentially quite long-lived is quite common across reef fish species. Just think what this means about the organization of a coral reef. My little lady Ambon damsel must have known her coral patch like the back of her fin. She would have known every nook and cranny, every sheltered space, every tunnel through to the other side. She would also have known every other creature living there. In most cases as an individual neighbor. Now, I have no idea how fuzzy her awareness was, but I am certain awareness was there. I also do not doubt that she learned to recognize me as a rather large occasional visitor, mostly dark in color but with some sparkly bits, and noisy beyond belief – all those air bubbles. I’d appear, nose about for 10 minutes or so and swim away.

Why do I think she was aware, even if more dimly than we are? There is a lot of evidence. Release a fish, previously caught somewhere nearby and held in a plastic bag, and it will make a beeline for the nearest shelter, and lots of resident fish of its own and of other species will chase it, nip at it, drive it away. Release it carefully, close to shelter, so it does not have to make a mad but conspicuous dash to safety; the residents still realize quickly that a fish that does not belong in the neighborhood is present, and it gets chased. Or simply watch the behavior of smaller fish around larger predator fishes. All is calm until the predator starts to hunt. Then the behavior of the potential prey changes quickly. Better yet, get into the water with a small microspear, intent on capturing one of these small fish. Even though they may have never seen a diver with a microspear before, they behave totally differently to when you drift by with a clipboard. (At least, that was always my excuse for my relatively poor performance in the fish harvesting stakes.)

cleaner & batfish hm-mb-ocean-art-2015-lynn-wu-1200_0Another amazing photo from the Ocean Art photography competition showing the cleaner, Labroides dimidiatus entering the gill chamber of a batfish cleanee at an Indonesian cleaning station.
Photo © Lynn Wu

Perhaps the best evidence that reef fish are aware of the other fish, of many species, around them, and respond to them appropriately comes by observing the behavior of fishes at a cleaning station. The cleaner fish, Labroides dimidiatus, is bite-sized, colorful, and dancing conspicuously. The potential cleanees assemble nearby, behaving quite passively toward each other despite including larger fish predators and smaller juicy potential prey. They move forward in an orderly way, quite unlike a crowd crashing through the doors of the electronics super store at 12:01 am Black Friday. As each fish gets its turn to be serviced, it moves toward the cleaner, spreading fins and opercula, opening its mouth, ready to be cleaned. And then many of these fish come back later that day, or the next, for more cleaning. Cleaners are so ‘respected’ by the cleanee species that there are several species of blenny that mimic cleaner fish in color, form and behavior, in order to get close enough to take a nip of flesh from a fin or shoulder before darting away. Never mind how this orderly cleaning station behavior evolved (although that is also a fascinating question); how is it maintained, day by day. To say it is simply instinctive is a cop-out although I do not doubt there is a sizeable inbuilt component to the behavior of all the players (including those pesky mimics). But there is also learning about place, about players, about the correct behavior to display when waiting there. Every one of those fish started life either as an egg adrift on the ocean, or as a newly hatched larva which swam rapidly toward the surface and out to see. Most of them did not really experience a coral reef until they were a month old. Yet they queue patiently at cleaning stations.  (For an earlier comment about cleaners go here.)

If we turn to the other animals on the reef, I become a bit more uncomfortable giving them awareness. The octopus is obviously pretty bright and definitely aware. The lobster or crab, continuously wiggling all those little mouth parts (that all have official names I have long since forgotten)….. possibly. I’m sure the fish recognize them as living members of the community, but while I can more or less imagine what it might be like to be a fish, that is a lot harder for these more distantly related species. Remember the lobster is wearing its skeleton on the outside, has eyes on little stalks, has several pairs of antennae bearing receptors I can only dream about and far too many legs to keep track of, and occasionally exits through a slit in the top of its skeleton, pulling every tiny leg out of its sheath, and then sits all deliciously soft and vulnerable waiting for the new skeleton to harden. What on earth does that feel like? With all that going on, does it have much time left to be aware of its surroundings? Actually, I suspect it does but I’m less comfortable making that claim. Clams and snails are more difficult still, and starfishes or their relatives the sea cucumbers, forget it. And yet, I’m pretty sure my fish recognizes each of these as living beings, and likely knows that particular individuals live nearby.

lobster twagnerskier1 flickr 7677878584_cb9a49e9f5_bThis Caribean spiny lobster looks alert. How aware is it? I suspect it knows what is going on.
Photo © twagnerskier1 via Flickr

The real point of this discussion is just that the way the many different species of animal are assembled on a coral reef includes a considerable amount of interspecific, even cross-phylum, social interaction among individuals that are known to each other. I can remember, back in the 1970s, when ecologists and behavioral biologists studying elephants finally recognized that they lived in matrilineal family groups, and that when poachers had killed older members of an elephant group the remaining animals were traumatized and suffering grief. Sometimes the social group collapsed, unable to go on without its leaders. We discovered much the same thing about social groups of chimpanzees, gorillas, and other primates in the 1960s. Now I find it strange that it took us so long to realize this, or that we should still be resisting the idea that lots of species are capable of the dimmer awareness I am suggesting for reef fishes. How else is it that reef fishes learn what a cleaner looks like (their oceanic larval lives ensure that they do not learn this from mimicking their parents), or that groupers can learn to co-opt the help of a moray eel whilst hunting? Does not this fact that animal social systems, including ones that include many different species, are substantially organized by social interactions among aware neighbors, make the natural world more amazing, more wonderful, than it might have been?

And the more general point is that we can look at the physiological, the developmental, the behavioral, the cellular, or the genetic aspects of how the natural world is put together and see amazingly complex, beautiful patterns of organization as well. For example, if the DNA double helix that forms a chromosome was untangled and straightened out, but allowed to retain its double helix form, and if the 46 chromosomes in a single human cell were laid end to end, the DNA strand for that single cell would be about two meters long. Somehow that 2 m of impossibly thin double helix gets folded up and packed into the cell nucleus, typically only 0.001 mm in diameter, without getting broken or tied in a knot, and, as we know, once in the nucleus it does not just rest silently but has to play its metabolic role, and be ready to replicate at every cell division. As we learn more details about the natural world, its wondrousness only grows. At least, it grows for me, and for people I know from many different backgrounds – I hope our ability to be inspired by the natural world is indeed universal.

We’ve done a lot to our world

Humans have done substantial damage to the natural world in recent years. While it has been said many times, we need to keep reminding ourselves that it is not only climate change that we need to attend to. Our numbers and our power are now so immense that there are many ways in which, going about our human business, we are impacting our planet in seriously harmful ways. Changing climate, acidifying oceans, contamination of every environment with novel chemicals with unexplored consequences once dumped out there, over-use and mismanagement of fresh water, both surface and aquifer, deforestation, topsoil destruction, desertification, overfishing, destruction of continental shelf topography via trawling and other means, redistribution of species intentionally or accidentally, decimation and extinction of species, paving of land surfaces, damming of rivers, it’s a very long list. I have talked about planetary limits before, and am in the middle of reading the latest book by Johan Rockström, the Swedish environmental scientist who has played a major role in developing the concept of the nine planetary boundaries that we should operate within, if we are to avoid sudden and unpleasant changes in the future. If we transgress these boundaries we run the real risk of moving the earth system towards one or another tipping point, a threshold beyond which positive feedback mechanisms kick in to accelerate the changes that the planet had been resisting up until then. One example is the possibility that if we cause too much more warming, the glaciers of Greenland and the smaller, western part of Antarctica may melt sufficiently to bring into play natural processes (i.e. outside our control) that will accelerate the melting, until all the ice is gone and the seas are many meters higher than today.

In his new book, Big World, Small Planet, Rockström has teamed with the nature photographer Mattias Klum to produce an account that is scientifically up-to-date and supported by numerous evocative images of our fast-disappearing natural world. I’ve not yet got to the concluding section, but advertising claims that they set out a convincing and hopeful thesis:

“By embracing a deep mind-shift, humanity can reconnect to Earth, discover universal values, and take on the essential role of planetary steward. With eloquence and profound optimism, Rockström and Klum envision a future of abundance within planetary boundaries—a revolutionary future that is at once necessary, possible, and sustainable for coming generations.”

In Rockström’s view, the nine planetary boundaries are guard rails that can keep us from moving into bad ‘places’ while leaving us plenty of ‘space’ in which to use our ingenuity and creativity to create a positive future on this planet. I hope he is right in his conviction that we can remain within the safe zone. And this brings me to my final point.

Considering just climate and ignoring all the other problems for a moment, we have an immense task ahead of us if we are to succeed in keeping the warming to under 2oC. It is a task that people are only now beginning to comprehend. I do not think we will achieve it without a radical realignment of our attitudes to the natural world. Putting it bluntly, the national commitments on emissions that were accepted at the Paris climate conference, as revolutionary as they were, are only a small beginning – the first baby step. How are we going to walk further?

The need for emissions reductions beyond Paris

The think tank, Climate Interactive, analyzed the INDCs (Independent, Nationally Determined Contributions – i.e. totally voluntary) submitted by countries participating in the Paris meeting, back in November, and showed that, if fully enacted, they would reduce our likely warming at 2100 to about 3.5oC, compared to about 4.5oC if we continued present policies. They subsequently looked at what would be required to get from Paris to a 2oC increase at 2100.

Andrew Jones and three colleagues described what they call the Ratchet Success Pathway for getting from Paris to +2oC. The difference between the ratchet path and the one we will be on if Paris commitments are all kept, but nothing further is done, is quite stark.


temp trends after Paris
The likely trends in mean global temperature to 2100 assuming Paris promises are not kept (blue), are kept (red), or are substantially improved upon in subsequent recommitments (green).
Graph © Climate Interactive.


emissions trends after Paris
The likely trend in global greenhouse gas emissions per year with no effort to reduce them (blue), with the promises made in Paris (red) and with additional future commitments (green).
Figure © Climate Interactive

For Canadians, the trend graphs are eerily similar to those graphs that the Harper government used to use to claim Canada was ‘half-way to our goal’ when we were moving in the wrong direction! The world has a very great deal more to do after Paris. What is going to be required in those future commitments is set out in the next table. (One very positive aspect of the Paris accord is that it provides explicitly for reporting progress and modifying commitments every five years beginning in 2018.)

Table from Climate Interactive
Table showing the current INDCs for selected countries or groups, the improvement needed in those initial commitments, and the further improvement needed between 2030 and 2050.
Table © Climate Interactive

While the task for the EU is initially relatively modest, those for other regions are substantial. The US has pledged to reduce emissions to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, but needs to increase this to a 45% reduction by 2030 – a level matched more or less by all developed countries. China and other developing countries will need to peak their emissions 3-5 years earlier than committed to in Paris and then reduce them at 2% per year to 2040 and then at 4% per year thereafter. The downloadable report provides more detail on what is needed. For Canada, the INDC promise of a reduction of 2.1% per year between 2015 and 2030, needs to become 3.7% per year, rising to 5.1% per year every year from 2030 to 2100. For Australia, the promised 3.2% per year needs to be bumped to 5.2% per year 2015 to 2030, and kept at 5.1% per year thereafter. China’s INDC pledge is effectively to slow growth in emissions to the equivalent of 1.3% per year between 2015 and 2030. China will need to limit that to just 0.1% per year to 2030 and then convert to a reduction averaging 3.2% per year between 2030 and 2050, and a further reduction to 4.0% per year for the rest of the century. (Those readers familiar with the workings of compound interest, will recognize that these are substantial overall reductions in emissions.) To make clear how substantial these changes are, the report provides the following figure:


trends for diff countries after Paris
Total greenhouse gas emissions in gigatonnes per year CO2 for six countries or groups through to 2100 under three scenarios – no action on Paris commitments, implementing those commitments but going no further, and adopting a path that leads to a global temperature increase less than 2oC by 2100. Image © Climate Interactive.

One very important point to notice in this figure – and one we all need to keep in mind – no country is going to be emitting much if any greenhouse gases by 2100 if we are going to be successful in keeping climate warming to a maximum of 2oC. There will be plenty of people out there urging us to continue to exploit fossil fuels, go slow, delay reductions. For success, there will have to be some very strong reasons for bringing emissions down.

We need to deepen our individual connections to the natural world

Very strong reasons are needed. That is why I have been thinking about the inherent beauty in nature, the architectural, chemical, behavioral, organizational beauty in nature. We are never going to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and profligate lifestyles unless we rebuild a deep respect for nature. We need to love nature so much that it will be inconceivable that we would wittingly harm it.

Some of us may find spiritual reasons for building a new respect for nature, and Pope Francis has already provided some strong arguments that bolster that perspective. Some of us may rediscover deep cultural reasons for respecting, even revering nature. Many cultures had such views and some retain them to today. But still others of us may find reason to treasure nature by recognizing the uniqueness and the utter unexpectedness of its complex multifaceted beauty. The 2nd law of thermodynamics tells us that the universe is steadily moving towards a state of total entropy. I believe time is supposed to end once total entropy is achieved, although the idea of time ending is a bit beyond my primate brain. Given the existence of the 2nd law, the fact that Earth exists as a life-filled planet, and has done so for several billion years, is wonderful enough by itself. But it has not just kept entropy at bay, it has provided a richly baroque, if ultimately futile, denial of the need to march steadily towards entropy. Regardless of the frame from which we approach it, the more we learn about this amazing place and its amazing life-forms, the more intricately complex, and absolutely improbable it seems to be. I think, frankly, that it is wonderful to be permitted to be one small part of this defiant little struggle to keep entropy at bay for a time. And perhaps, just perhaps, that perspective can help some others of us embrace the idea that our only home, our tiny blue marble with its living, enveloping biosphere, has to be respected and cared for, and that such respect and care should be a prime mover of our lives. I hope so.


sardine run 3rd-mlb-ocean-art-2015-greg-lecoeur-1200
One more photo from the 2015 Ocean Art competition – a wonderful record of how one species, such as the Cape Gannets, can learn to take advantage of the hunting by a quite different species, the dolphins, and also how well organized the school of sardine prey remains as it tries to avoid capture. Photo off South Africa © Greg LeCoeur.

Categories: animal behavior, Climate change, coral reef science, In the News, Stories from a Coral Reef | Leave a comment

A New Year; Time to Talk about Catastrophes


Catastrophe – an event causing great and often sudden damage or suffering, a disaster. The word gets over-used, but we all know pretty much what it means. We also know that true catastrophes do happen. On Tuesday evening, 29th December, at 11:39 p.m. Earthquakes Canada recorded a magnitude 4.7 quake just east of Vancouver Island, near Sidney. It woke people up, but it was not a catastrophe. At magnitude 4.7 it caused essentially no damage and no real suffering; it was just a reminder that earthquakes do happen from time to time, and can be a lot more serious than this one. I remember experiencing a similar-sized quake in Sydney, Australia many years ago. It woke me, I wondered briefly what had happened and promptly went back to sleep. Only that morning did I learn on the news that it was the largest quake to have hit Sydney in many years! Vancouver (and Sidney) sit in a seismically much more active region than Sydney, and Tuesday’s quake is a reminder that the really big one will come eventually. Tectonic plates do not slide over each other without causing a certain amount of calamity from time to time.


earthquake & mobEarthquakes and out of control mobs can both bring catastrophe

Earthquakes can be catastrophic. So can volcanic eruptions, massive floods, ferocious forest fires, and the impacts of sizeable meteorites, and those are just the main types of natural causes of catastrophe. Frightened or rampaging mobs, structural failure of major buildings or other infrastructure, and mid-air failure of an aircraft can also have catastrophic results although usually on smaller scales. But why do we need to talk about catastrophes?

We need to talk about catastrophes because otherwise our feeble minds forget that they can and do occur. I’m told the most frightening thing about experiencing an earthquake of any size much above magnitude 4 is that you become instantly aware that the environment in which you spend your days is impermanent. When the ground itself is bouncing about, that is foundationally unnerving because we all construct a reality that begins with the assumption that gravity works, that down is down, and that the ground stays still. (That is also one of the reasons why we used to think the Earth was flat.) Earthquakes remind us that we are frail sentient beings clinging more or less tenuously to a rocky sphere with its own internal tensions – hence the earthquakes — hurtling along a path through the cosmos at a speed and direction totally beyond our control. This is an ego-deflating reminder for all except the Donald Trumps of the world, and a reminder we probably need to receive from time to time.


Sir Charles LyellSir Charles Lyell, viewed by many as the ‘father’ of modern geology, was born in Kinnordy, Scotland in 1797, although by the age of two he was living near Southampton and the New Forest in the south of England. A son of wealth, he was able to spend his life dabbling in natural history, but he earned a B.A. from Oxford in 1819, and went on to study law before ending up practicing geology. Coupling his inquisitive mind with attention to detail during a long series of field excursions throughout Europe, plus several trips to North America, he radically altered thinking in his field. Contrary to the prevailing fashion, he sought to explain geological features through the prolonged action of processes such as erosion by wind or water that we can see today, rather than through the agency of supernatural forces – giant (biblical) floods, paroxysms of mountain building, or disappearances of land bridges beneath the waves. This led to an affinity for evolutionary ideas, and the conclusion that the Earth was immensely old. His monumental, 3-volume treatise, Principles of Geology, was a landmark that set the basis for a whole new way of looking at geological forms and the processes that built them. His approach came to be called uniformitarianism because of its stress on the actions of small forces causing slight changes that accumulate over long periods of time. Charles Darwin, an early fan, applied Lyell’s thinking to the radiation of animal species set out in the fossil record, and developed his idea of ‘descent with modification’ the cornerstone of his theory of biotic evolution.

Uniformitarianism fits with the idea that the planet does not do unusual things. It makes sense to us, because it has been around almost 200 years. But as with all good ideas, it can be taken too far. We need to remember that, occasionally, the Earth does do unusual things, unusual things that can lead to catastrophic outcomes.

Tipping points

Reading the many words being written about climate change, it is common to come across the phrase, tipping point. A tipping point occurs when the planetary system enters a state where an unusual event, usually with catastrophic consequences, is very likely to occur. Tipping points are sort of the mirror image of equilibria. When the planetary system is in an equilibrium state, steady-as-you-go is the rule and there may be very little change in conditions, and certainly no catastrophes. The reason the writing on climate change is so full of tipping points is because scientists recognize that while equilibrium and uniformitarianism are the rule, sometimes the planet does do unexpected and unusual things.

rollercoasterYou don’t know a tipping point is coming until you are there.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC is that UN invention that seeks to produce a consensus view on the science of climate change every 5 years or so. To do so, IPCC engaged the participation of very large numbers of climate and other environmental scientists in a rigorous process of evaluation of published, peer-reviewed science, to prepare detailed reports on the state of the science and the likely future climates under specific assumptions regarding our economic activity and energy use. IPCC has come in for way more than its share of criticism from various sources, particularly in the denialist community, but it has also been criticized by scientists who accept that climate is indeed changing because of human activities. One of the more interesting criticisms of the IPCC process is that the way in which the IPCC process works eliminates any suggestions that dangerous tipping points may be on the horizon. By seeking a broad consensus, the IPCC process eliminates rational scientific conjecture, the tiny eureka moments that occur when a scientist has a brilliant insight, the creative sparks that make science live. And tipping points are, by nature, subjects of conjecture until after they are passed.


To think a bit about tipping points and catastrophes, let’s first think about equilibria and uniformitarianism. The simplest definition of an equilibrium state is that it is a state in which a complex system (the planet) is likely to remain, because forces acting to keep it there are stronger than forces causing it to move away. The usual metaphor is a frictionless pool table that has one or more flaws, low patches in its surface.

large-view-of-billiards-ballA billiard ball placed on this surface and given a push will bounce around for a bit, but will almost invariably end up stationary in one of the depressions. We can also imagine a pool table, still frictionless, that is perfectly flat, and a set of tables with more or less deep depressions in the surface. The ball set in motion on the flat table will bounce around indefinitely, and will be no more likely to be located at one point on the table than at another. The balls set in motion on the dimpled tables will tend to occur more often than you’d expect at the low points, and will come to rest in one of them, but this process of coming to rest will happen more quickly in the more deeply contoured tables. On a really strongly deformed table, it will take a significant push to get a ball at rest in a depression out of that low point and moving over the table. We, and the rest of the biosphere, live on a non-level pool table, and environmental scientists argue about the depth of the depressions, the metaphorical analog for the strength of the forces keeping the system at the equilibrium points. Some of us think that the world exists in a universe of only weak forces acting to maintain equilibria, while others believe those forces are quite strong. The concept of the balance of nature, a concept which I believe is overstated and wildly improbable, describes a universe of strongly maintained equilibria. And the tipping points? Those are the places on the table from which the ball is very likely to move quickly towards a nearby equilibrium state, the high points on this very imperfect pool table.

How glaciers melt

If frictionless, warped pool tables are not your thing, let’s turn to some real equilibria in nature. One of the best climate-related examples concerns the status of a glacier. A continental ice sheet begins to grow when the snow that falls during a winter does not all melt away during the coming summer. Over a succession of such years, the residual snow layers accumulate one on top of another and get compressed to form ice. Obviously, ice formation is critically dependent on snowfall and temperature.

glacier_largeA glacier is an equilibrium tied up with some impressive time lags. Snowfall on top is balanced by melt on the surface and at the front. The glacier grows or shrinks to keep these in balance.

As the ice pack builds up, it begins to spread laterally under its own weight, and since conditions forming ice are likely to exist at higher elevations, this lateral spread usually moves the ice towards lower elevations. This mass of ice will grow year by year, and spread even further, until its outer, lower edges are in places where the temperature encourages melting. When the rate of melting exactly matches the rate of spreading of the ice layer, growth of the ice sheet ceases. Snow continues to be added to the higher elevation portions, ice continues to flow out to lower elevations, and melting from the surface and at the outer edge removes ice at a rate matching the rate of flow. Such glaciers exist on mountain ranges at all latitudes and across Greenland and Antarctica, as apparently permanent features of the landscape. Yet they are simply an enormous equilibrium with ice being added on high, and removed down below. Change the temperature, or change the rate of snowfall, and the glacier responds by ‘growing’ or by ‘shrinking’ as the case may be. At the present time, virtually all glaciers on the planet are shrinking or receding as their equilibria get reset.

What I have just described is a uniformitarian description of how glaciers exist and how they behave. It is generally, over the long run, correct. There are enormous time lags in this particular system, such that once snowfall increases, or once temperatures cool, the process of growth to establish the new equilibrium state will take many years. And once temperatures warm, or precipitation decreases, it will take a similarly long time for the new smaller glacier to result. At present, most glaciers on the planet are getting smaller year by year as they race slowly to the new equilibria caused by warmed temperature. The uniformitarian view may include time lags, as well as processes that take eons to have any measurable effect on the environment – imagine wind sculpting sandstone cliffs into their smooth, aerodynamic shapes.

Glaciers do not always behave themselves

Glaciologists have learned in recent years that when glaciers melt extensively (as they have been doing in recent decades), that melting does not just take place on the surface and at the front edge. Some of the melt-water that pools on the surface finds its way down cracks and crevices into the interior to the glacier, enlarging these cracks and crevices as it goes. Water pools deep within and at the base of the glacier providing a lubricating layer between the ice and the underlying rock. Similarly, where glaciers extend far enough to reach the ocean, as they do in parts of Greenland and Antarctica, the melting at the front of the glacier is enhanced by wave action and by tides that stress the (floating) front of the glacier. These effects, plus all the melting lead to sudden ruptures in the ice as icebergs are calved. Putting the sudden production of new icebergs together with the tunneling out that goes on due to melt water moving about within the glacier and suddenly that uniformitarian vision of the glacier at equilibrium becomes a whole lot more chaotic. The possibility of a well-lubricated glacier ‘suddenly’ sliding downhill, perhaps into the ocean, is very real. Sudden enough and big enough and that event would produce a tsunami of impressive proportions as well as a ‘jump’ in sea level. A little bit of slippage will likely not be noticed, but if one of Greenland’s or Antarctica’s larger glaciers ‘suddenly’ gave way, it would be a catastrophe of global consequence. That is one scenario discussed by James Hansen in his book, Storms of My Grandchildren. More recently, Hansen has been more concerned by another aspect of glacial melting – the fact that scientists are only now beginning to understand how glaciers melt when conditions are becoming rapidly warmer.


Franco Banti Caters article-2024304-0D603DA200000578-608_964x642This is the underside of a glacier in a Swiss lake, showing the extent to which it is dissolved by the surrounding water. Photo © Franco Banfi

While it is possible to see the melt-water carving out great under-ice river systems, we do not yet know how rapidly these form, how extensive they become and what the links are between pattern of warming and pattern of melting. And there are other issues for glaciers that extend into a lake or the ocean as they do in Greenland and Antarctica. In a controversial article made public last July – controversial simply because Hansen chose to make it public in advance of peer-review, by using a process set up ironically to make the peer-review process itself more public and egalitarian – Hansen and co-authors report on the extent of sea level rise during interglacial periods within the Pleistocene when temperature was similar to today and CO2 concentrations were lower. The article is expected to eventually be published in the journal, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, and is currently available on that journal’s ‘discussion’ website where anyone can comment, hopefully constructively, and participate in the peer-review process.

What does the Eemian have to do with today?

Hansen et al examine the last interglacial period before the end of the Pleistocene. Termed the Eemian, it ended with a rapid return to glacial conditions about 118,000 years before the present (-118kA). Evidence suggests the Eemian climate was at most 2oC warmer than preindustrial times (about 1Co warmer than now), and most likely was only a fraction of a degree warmer than now. Yet sea levels by the end of the Eemian were 6 to 9 m above today’s level. This implies very considerable melting of glaciers during the Eemian. By contrast, IPCC is currently projecting a sea level rise of less than 1 meter by 2100 under business-as-usual (RCP8.5) conditions.

Hansen et al. reason that if glaciers melted extensively during Eemian times, as the high sea levels suggest, there is no reason why they should not melt extensively under the conditions we are now imposing on the planet. It is already known that glaciers that extend into the ocean experience more rapid melting at the front than they would otherwise because in cold climates the ocean is warmer than the air. This causes an under-cutting of the advancing front. Given that many such glaciers are grounded on rocky shelves some distance out from what would be the shore, and well below sea level, there is potentially considerable ice surface available to be acted on by warm sea water, and the real possibility that the under-cutting will ‘remove the brake’ on outward movement being caused by the shelf on which the glacier is grounded. To complicate things still further, the release of the melt-water adds a lens of essentially fresh, lower-density water on the immediate sea surface, stabilizing the water column and reducing the tendency for deeper water to rise to the surface releasing heat to the atmosphere (that rise is a part of the Ocean Conveyor global ocean circulation). Instead that heat is trapped in the upper water column and available for melting of the underside of the glacier. There is some growth of sea ice, but the rate of glacier melting increases. And, yes, there is already evidence that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica are melting at rapidly increasing rates (doubling time around 10 years).


Hansen et al 2015 Fig 22
Figure 22 from Hansen’s paper showing how the meltwater and expanding sea ice are forcing the deeper (and warmer) water (Antarctic Bottom water, AABW) to remain away from the sea surface.

The effects of the melt-water in stabilizing the water column and trapping heat near, but not at, the surface, also include a general slowing of the ocean conveyor (of which that southern ocean rise by deep water is just one part). As a consequence there is a reduced flux of heat from tropics to poles, a stronger latitudinal gradient in temperature and stormier weather.

Hansen and colleagues also discuss evidence for strong storms during the Eemian. Studies on the Bahama platform have revealed the presence of Eemian age sand ridges, several kilometers long and apparently built by long-period waves from the northeast. These ridges were formed near the end of a period of high sea level, otherwise they would have been eroded by subsequent events. Evidence that the ridges were built rapidly comes in the form of trees buried in living position within them. Other ridges, resembling wave run-up formations, occurring at heights up to 40 m above present sea level, and high above the nominally 6-9 m higher Eemian sea level, also reveal the magnitude of storm surges. Finally, on North Eluthera, Bahamas, there are enormous, 2000 tonne boulders that have been tossed up beyond these ridges by storms.

Independent studies in Bermuda reveal Eemian-age sand ridges of similar form along the northern shore of the islands – a shore that is well-protected by an extensive, reef-supporting shelf. Hansen’s conclusion is that not only was sea level 6-9 m higher than at present, but tropical storms were substantially more severe – exactly what might be expected if the overall global ocean circulation had been slowed.

Would a re-play of the Eemian, or something similar, in coming years constitute a catastrophe? In Hansen’s view it surely would, at least for the billion people living near sea level. In his words:

“We conclude that multi-meter sea level rise would become practically unavoidable. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.

“This image of our planet with accelerating meltwater includes growing climate chaos and storminess, as meltwater causes cooling around Antarctica and in the North Atlantic while the tropics and subtropics continue to warm. Rising seas and more powerful storms together are especially threatening, providing strong incentive to phase down CO2 emissions rapidly.”

I cannot help but conclude by referring to the social chaos caused by a few million displaced Syrian refugees, and the somewhat greater chaos if a billion or so were displaced by rising seas. Walls along national borders, and careful control of who is permitted entry, suffice only in a cartoon world.

Some other catastrophes waiting in the wings

The melting of glaciers is not the only aspect of climate change that might bring us surprises in coming years. One of our problems is that we are increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere very rapidly compared to at any prior time in Earth’s history, and we have been, until very recently, increasing the rate at which we change it. (If 2015 additions do turn out to be no more than those in 2014, it will be a sign that the upward spiral may have been slowed. We need to see stable or falling emissions over several years while the economy grows to be sure.) Complex systems often have the characteristic that they respond linearly to perturbation when the disturbance is slight, but show unexpected, chaotic, or catastrophic behavior when the disturbance is stronger.
Some of the other possible catastrophes? Here are three ways things could go seriously off the rails. They concern melting muskeg, over-committed oceans, and fried forests. First the melting muskeg.

Melting muskeg

Canada’s north contains 5400 km of ice roads. These are not short bush roads 15 or 20 m wide, but major roads stretching hundreds of kilometers and traveled by giant transports trucking in goods and trucking out products. They are lifelines built by pumping water onto the road bed built over the permafrost to freeze and create a solid pavement. They used to be usable for 3-4 months a year, but each year the usable season seems to get shorter. Across vast areas of North America and Asia there exists permanently frozen tundra. Typically, the frozen soils impede water flow and the surface is low, marshy, with low shrubs and extensive bogs or muskeg. Everything is frozen solid all winter; the upper layers thaw during the warmer season and any road becomes impassable. Buried in the frozen soils are enormous quantities of organic matter, protected from decomposition. Now, with climate change, not only must northern countries face the difficult task of providing roads across this marshy landscape, but we must all cope with the emissions of methane that result as the thaw progresses. It is estimated that the Arctic permafrost contains 1.7 trillion tonnes of carbon, about twice as much as is currently in the atmosphere. Most of that carbon is in the form of methane, and thawing of even an upper layer of the permafrost releases some of this methane to the atmosphere where it adds to the greenhouse effect in a vicious positive feedback causing more warming and more methane releases. (There are also substantial methane stores in subtidal Arctic sediments that could be released if water warms sufficiently.)


permafrost melt Guy Dore Laval U 24JPALCA_SPAN-articleLargeSlumping of thawed permafrost adjacent to the Alaska Highway, Yukon, Canada. Image © Guy Doré/Laval University.

One of the features of melting permafrost is sudden slumping of patches of ground. These slumps can damage buildings and other infrastructure, and ruin roads. But the methane releases could greatly accelerate climate change and we have no idea how warm the planet would become before the process stops. (A ‘sudden’ burp of methane from marine clathrate stores is believed to have triggered the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum some 55 million years ago – a sudden warming to the warmest phase of the entire Cenozoic.) The nastiest part of this methane catastrophe is that if we do not reduce CO2 emissions fast enough we could move the Arctic ever closer to wherever the tipping point lies for run-away permafrost melting. And once that point is reached we would be incapable of bringing the warming process under control.

Over-committed oceans

If the muskeg problem seems a little too real, this one may seem a little less likely. At the present time, around 30% of our CO2 emissions dissolve from the atmosphere into the oceans. There it dissociates to form carbonate, and causes the problem of ocean acidification. However, the solubility of CO2 in water is temperature dependent, and as the oceans warm the partitioning of CO2 with the atmosphere is going to shift. More of our emissions are going to remain in the atmosphere to contribute to warming of the environment. This likely would not happen suddenly; instead, year by year a smaller and smaller fraction of CO2 would move to the oceans and rate of climate warming would speed up. The effect would be to throw a spanner into any plan we might have dreamed up to emit as much CO2 as we could get away with without having the climate warm beyond 2oC. We’d have to suddenly reduce emissions, or face more warming that was wanted. This should be viewed as a sociological or political calamity rather than an existential catastrophe.

Fried forests

The world’s forests are the other major sink for CO2 emissions, removing somewhere around 20% of our emissions from the atmosphere and storing the carbon in the timber and in the soils. Northern (boreal) forests and tropical forests are currently almost equivalent in the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere each year: globally, northern forests are estimated to sequester 43%, while tropical forests sequester 41% of all carbon sequestered on the land. Among the most important forests are Canada’s boreal forest, the largest contiguous forest on the planet, and the Amazon rainforest of South America, the most biodiverse region on the planet. Some environmental scientists fear that both these forests could be under increasing threat from forest fire, and that a drying Amazon basin that is predicted in the climate models could lead to a forest-free Amazon by late this century. The growing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere stimulates plant growth and therefore should be enhancing the extent to which forests sequester carbon. The tropical forests have been increasing their primary production as expected until now, but the boreal forests have not. Apparently increased dryness and heat have harmed these northern trees and despite the enhanced CO2 they are growing more slowly. Part of the ‘slower growth’ is readily apparent in the increasing incidence of fire during the hot dry summers.

257232,xcitefun-amazon-rainforest-6In the eastern Amazon, rainfall has been declining, and fire incidence has been increasing. That part of the Amazon is already beginning to change and the rest could follow. If drought becomes sufficiently extensive, it is possible that fires could grow in size and substantially alter this immense tropical forest. Regardless of whether it’s the rainforest or the boreal forest, a burning forest not only ceases sequestering carbon, it delivers much of its enormous store of carbon straight back to the atmosphere, further changing the climate. Indeed, some fear that the growing extent of fire in tropical forests – much of it deliberately caused to clear land for palm plantations and other uses – coupled with the growing incidence of fire in boreal forests — is going to lead in just a few years to the elimination of the land sink for carbon, and releases of enormous quantities of carbon to the atmosphere. Slowly, or quickly? Probably quite quickly once the trend starts, and it may have started already. Another catastrophe to deal with.

And just one more thing…

Finally, just to make sure every reader comes away a tiny bit uncomfortable, there is one more point to add. The possible speed-up in the melting of glaciers and the resultant ocean impacts, the releases of methane from thawing muskeg, the collapse of the ocean’s capacity to absorb CO2, and the failure of our forests to continue to sequester carbon could all happen together. I think they call that an absolutely perfect storm. These tipping points probably won’t coincide, but they could.

Many denialists criticize those who advocate for action to slow down climate change. The denialists laughingly denigrate the whole concept of the precautionary principle (which simply states that in a situation of uncertainty it is wise to proceed slowly and cautiously), on the grounds that this is just one more device to disrupt our economic system. I can think of no action by us that would be more likely to disrupt our economy, and a good deal more, than to soldier on, business as usual, ignoring the facts of climate change, confident that, in the end all will be well. Only the fool moves blithely forward assuming all will be well until the day the catastrophe arrives. We do not need to huddle trembling under the bedclothes waiting for the climate catastrophe to come, but it does not hurt to appreciate the dangers that may be lurking.  And to get on board with the need to cut CO2 emissions now.


Categories: Changing Oceans, Climate change, In the News | Comments Off on A New Year; Time to Talk about Catastrophes

There are good tipping points too! COP21 may have been one.


It’s over. The huge circus that is a climate conference has come to an end and the thousands of participants have made their way home. Some of them will have dutifully paid to offset the carbon they used by attending.

As climate conferences go, this was a good one. It went the anticipated day past its scheduled end, but an agreement was reached that all 196 participant nations could sign onto. And the agreement does have a few teeth. Canada performed well, although it still picked up a couple of Fossil of the Day awards. Our performance was much closer to what I would always have expected of Canada, a refreshing change from past conferences. I’ll summarize the good things that happened, but before doing that, I want to bring the hot air balloons back to earth and emphasize just how big a battle faces us all in the decades to come.

Paris proved itself to be a city where good things could happen. Photo © GreenWatch.

It was apparent long before the conference started that the proposals for emissions cuts submitted by the participant countries would not be sufficient to keep our climate to less than a 2oC rise above preindustrial times. As I wrote on 20th October, the commitments made by countries for emissions reductions to be made by 2030, even if fully achieved, will not keep the world from exceeding 2oC of warming. Carbon Action Tracker was estimating the commitments would achieve a 2.7oC increase, and Climate Interactive, using slightly different assumptions, was suggesting the warming would reach 3.5oC. Both sites have confirmed those estimates now that COP21 is finished, and 158 of the 196 participating countries (including all major emitters) have submitted their INDCs (proposals for emission reductions). Both also confirm that there are practical pathways opening that will facilitate countries strengthening their commitments, and welcome the inclusion in the Paris Agreement to have countries report progress every five years beginning in 2018. Climate Interactive went further and suggested achievable steps that could be taken post 2018 that would limit warming to 1.8oC by 2100.

Just how big is the challenge facing us? By increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere we have already raised the mean temperature of the planet by about 1oC. We are currently adding GHGs at the rate of about 36 GtCO2 emitted to the atmosphere per year. Every tonne emitted adds to the insulative properties of the atmosphere, and therefore it is possible to think in terms of a total budget of CO2 emissions that can be used in the future while still keeping the global temperature increase to less than 2oC. In a recent article in Nature Geoscience, Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at University of Manchester has spelled things out clearly. He draws on the IPCC numbers (from Section 2.1 of their AR5 Synthesis Report, 2014): no more than 1000 GtCO2 should be emitted between 2011 and 2100 if we want to keep temperature increase below 2oC. He points out that energy production and use and cement production together resulted in emission of about 140 GtCO2 during 2011-2014. This means that the 1000 Gt budget has already been reduced to 860 Gt. He then provides plausible arguments for cement production between now and 2100 emitting about 150 Gt and deforestation over the same period costing a further 60 Gt. That leaves a total of 650 GtCO2 to be emitted due to energy use over the remainder of the century. Given that our current energy policies are releasing 36 GtCO2 each year, we have very little room to move. Anderson suggests the rate of emissions reduction will have to rachet up to about 10% a year by 2025. (Bear in mind that until now the global rate of emissions has been growing every year – 2015 may have seen the first tiny reduction – so a 10% per year rate of reduction means enormous change from present practices.)

The need for far more stringent reductions in emissions that have been announced in Paris is why people in the know are both praising the outcome of that conference and warning that it is not nearly enough to get the job done. The need for really substantive reductions will begin to sink in, and really needs to sink in, among policy makers over the next few months. Because if we do not make these really substantive cuts, we really are rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Success in Paris?

So what did COP21 really achieve? Lots of people have discussed this already (see these articles in the New York Times), so I will be brief. It is the first global agreement in which there is a tacit understanding that developing countries, as well as developed countries, have got to make efforts to restrain their emissions. While the individually announced targets to 2030 are voluntary, with no enforcement mechanism (other than shaming) to ensure countries actually meet them, there is a mandatory reporting of progress by each country, every five years beginning in 2018. There is also an expectation that at each reporting interval, countries will rachet up their commitments bringing total emissions reductions into line with what is needed to keep warming controlled.

The agreement even includes language speaking of an immediate 2oC goal and a long-term 1.5oC goal, a victory for those who believe looking after the oceans might be important, and in my view an important step in the right direction. Coral reef scientists were among those who lobbied hard for this language.

International_Society_for_Reef_Studies_Portal_to_the_World_s_Coral_Reefs_-_2015-10-21_10.14.41Coral reefs have a slightly better future ahead of them if the promises from Paris bear fruit. Photo from XL Catlin Seaview Survey via International Society for Reef Studies

One major deficiency in the agreement is the lack of any significant discussion on how to put a price on carbon. If we had a global price on carbon emissions, or even a series of separate, but integrated, national prices, that would provide the financial incentive that is needed to get the problem of emissions strenuously attacked. Paris made no progress on that one.  Another gap is that aviation and ocean shipping are left out – some 5% of all energy use.  Another area where the agreement is particularly weak is in the area of finance. There are nice words stating that developed countries should be contributing funds to help developing countries struggling to adapt to climate impacts, even a nominal annual amount of such funding ($100 billion by 2025), but no mechanisms to encourage such behavior or even to examine foreign aid contributions to see if money is simply being re-labeled as climate-related. What is needed is a real influx of new foreign aid to help developing countries. Canada might help India build nuclear and/or solar instead of coal-fired plants, for example. Done right, such foreign aid often results in some economic gain for the developed country as well.

Problems for the future

Success in Paris reveals the kinds of problems now facing the world as we seek a successful management of climate. The first of these is simply how to measure emissions accurately and reliably. This becomes critical as the world moves to a regime in which countries report regularly on their emissions reductions, and these are compared to their voluntarily set targets.

Kyoto will have set out some baseline of accepted methodology that can be used, perhaps with modifications, such as, for example, that emissions belong to the nation in whose territory they occur. One could instead argue that the emissions due to burning fuel belong to the nation in whose territory the fuel was obtained, but governments have largely accepted that it is the act of using fuel rather than the act of providing fuel to use, which is the issue. That, of course, is good news for fuel exporters like Canada or Russia. Recently, some people have suggested that countries that import manufactured goods, should take responsibility for the emissions resulting from their manufacture – that is just as logical an argument as the one, currently accepted, that a country that chooses to manufacture and export goods is responsible for the energy used in manufacture. This figure from a presentation by the Global Carbon Project shows the massive flows of goods and services from countries that use energy to produce, to other countries that consume those products. To which country do those emissions really belong? China’s climate task would be a lot easier, and those of the US and EU vastly more difficult if that perspective were to be adopted!
GlobalCarbonProject flows from emissions to use of goods

Flows of CO2 emissions (as GtCO2) due to the export of goods and services from producing nations to consuming nations. By convention, these emissions are considered owned by the producing nation, despite the fact that the consuming nations generate the demand for the products. Only the 16 largest flows are shown by arrows. Data for 2011. Image © Global Carbon Project.

Even apart from such niceties, there is the basic problem of quantifying emissions. In an advanced economy, it should be relatively easy to gather data on quantities of fossil fuels used, and cement poured, but that may not be as easy to do in less developed nations. Zhu Liu and 23 co-authors from Chinese, US and EU universities published a detailed analysis of Chinese emissions in Nature last August. They considered energy use and cement manufacture, and reported that Chinese emissions from these sources were 14% lower in 2013 than had been previously reported. The discrepancy existed despite a 10% greater use of energy than previously reported. It turns out that, as well as there being some irregularities in figures compiled provincially and nationally, Chinese coal produces 40% less emissions than previously estimated, while Chinese gas produces 13% more. Because of the importance of coal in China’s energy mix, the result of these discrepancies alone is a major reason for Liu’s conclusion that 2013 emissions have been over-estimated by 13%. We should anticipate similar discrepancies in the estimates of emissions in many countries, even when (as here) the country was attempting to report accurately. The fact that China’s emissions (9.1GtCO2 in 2013; 25% of the annual global total) have been over-estimated is very good news, but the critical point is that estimates need to be improved if the world is to accurately assess what each country is doing.

Of course, measuring emissions from energy use and cement production is the easy part. Estimating emissions due to agriculture, forestry and other land uses is going to be even more difficult to do accurately. When we factor in the ‘creative accounting’ that at least some countries will engage in, seeking to spin their performance as positively as possible, the need for rigorous accounting methods is going to become very important, and we are simply not there yet. Lest anyone doubt that countries might use creative accounting, remember Canada’s creative reporting of being half-way to the target, when we were actually moving in the opposite direction during the Harper years. (Of course, with sunny ways in place in Canada, such ‘creativity’ will definitely not be a problem in our future! Oh yeah?)

Another area of needed improvement concerns the climate models themselves. Our estimates of how emissions are going to change in the future depend on the accuracy of our climate models, and there is still room to improve the science. One major area of active investigation at present concerns the effects of water vapor and clouds on warming.

Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, and when it condenses to form clouds those clouds shade the Earth’s surface and reflect light back into space. Warming is expected to enhance evaporation and transpiration, thereby increasing concentrations of water vapor in the atmosphere. This should lead to more warming (the greenhouse effect), but also to enhanced cloud cover and enhanced rainfall, but will these hydrological events enhance or reduce warming overall? On 10th December 2015, Anthony DeAngelis of UCLA, with three colleagues, published new results in Nature. Their article is difficult for the non-climate scientist to understand (or at least, for this one), but a short companion paper by Steven Sherwood, of the Climate Change Research Center in Sydney, Australia, explains what they have achieved. DeAngelis and colleagues have set aside the issue of clouds and focused on the interactions of water vapor, solar influx, warming and heat radiation, and how these are affected by increasing temperatures.
Sherwood Nature 2015 absorption of light by water vapor 528200a-f1

Transmission of sunlight by water vapor – most visible light passes through easily, but there are a number of wavelengths in the near infrared where transmission is almost totally blocked. Climate models differ in the degree of detail used to model this process, and these differences account for about 35% of the variation among models in simulating warming. Figure © S. Sherwood, Nature.

The visible part of sunlight passes through the atmosphere almost unimpeded, but the near infrared part is variously absorbed by water vapor. Global climate models have dealt with the complexity of water vapor impacts on sunlight in different ways, some modeling the infrared absorption relatively crudely, some dealing with it more sensitively. (In fact, in their efforts to make their models more robust with respect to effects of clouds, many modelling teams appear to have been content to retain a simple treatment with respect to water vapor while they sought to improve their modelling of clouds.) Since how water vapor in the atmosphere absorbs the infrared portion of sunlight has major impacts on how the presence, and concentration, of water vapor modifies the warming effect of sunlight at ground level, these variations among the global climate models are an important reason for differences in their projections of climate. In fact, DeAngelis and colleagues show that variations among models in the treatment of water vapor effects are responsible for about 35% of the variation among model outputs. They also show that all global climate models underestimate the effects of water vapor to some degree, leading to an over-estimation of the effects of increasing water vapor on precipitation (they project a wetter world than will likely occur). Simply identifying, as they do, which of the climate models perform best, and which worst, is an important step forward.

Clearly, if we are going to be able to assess the effects of emissions reductions by participating nations in reducing warming, we will need models that are as accurate as possible. Otherwise, when we think we have all done enough to keep within 2oC of warming, we could discover that we have not done enough. By then the damage to our environment and our societies will have been done.

Guess what? We are going to have to be innovative!

As the true extent of the task in front of us becomes apparent to more and more people, it is also becoming recognized that a few gestures in the direction of emissions cuts are not going to be sufficient. The Paris Agreement would have been first-rate if we had reached it back in the late 1990s. But we have lost 20+ years and it is no longer even close to a sufficient response. It is the first baby step on a very long, uphill road. We are going to need creativity, not just in battery technology and reliable electric cars. In one sense, Bill Gates (who has committed $2 billion), Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, and India’s industrialist Mukesh Ambani acknowledged this need (and opportunity) when they announced the formation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition during COP21. This coalition of over 20 billionaire venture capitalists will provide the funding needed to develop innovative products relevant to the energy challenges we face globally. It’s great to see some of the 1% step forward like this, although I expect they will all get wealthier by so doing.

Among the possible innovations will likely be technologies for carbon sequestration or for removing carbon from the atmosphere itself. Carbon sequestration has long been talked about by the fossil fuel industry and there is one working coal-fired power plant in Saskatchewan which uses this technology (see my brief comment here). So far it has proved to be a very expensive approach, but it would allow continued use of coal. Because there is not actually anything wrong with using fossil fuels if we can do so without harming the environment. Capturing the carbon, and storing it safely away somewhere, before it escapes into the atmosphere is a step in that direction. A likely even more challenging approach is to develop technology that will suck carbon out of the air fast enough to make a difference. A short article by Daniel Cressey in Nature on 15th October 2015 reported on two plants now in operation, one in Canada and one in Switzerland.
Carbon Engineering CO2 capture plant

The Carbon Engineering plant in Squamish. Photo © Nature.

Carbon Engineering’s plant, in Squamish, British Columbia, can capture one tonne of CO2 per day from the atmosphere, and has signed a contract with the BC government to convert this captured CO2 into fuel for buses. One tonne of CO2 represents the emissions from a trip from Toronto to Miami and return in the average car – a trip many snowbird Canadians will be able to relate to – and is a modest amount compared to our global annual emissions. But it is a start. The Swiss company, Climeworks, uses a module that sits above an incineration plant and captures CO2 in the swirling gases emerging. Climeworks is now building a commercial-scale plant in Hinwil, Switzerland, that will begin capturing 1000 tonnes CO2 per year beginning in 2016. The CO2 will be sold to Gebrüder Meier to be used to enhance plant growth in greenhouses.

The challenge for both Carbon Engineering and Climeworks, and for future carbon capturers will be to find markets for their product. The cost of obtaining CO2 by removing it from the air is currently in the hundreds of dollars per tonne, compared to CO2 from other sources in the tens of dollars per tonne. Prices will come down as the technology is matured, and a carbon tax would make this source more attractive.

Getting to where we really need to be

There is no doubt that the world is starting to move in the right direction, and also no doubt that it is going to have to move much further, and much faster, before we can be sure the climate is under control. One encouraging sign in Paris was the performance of China. While many western commentators used to point to China as the main problem in solving climate change that is now demonstrably not the case. An article in the Telegraph on 16th December made that clear. While the Telegraph has its own reasons for praising China, these items are worth noting: A massive report just released by the Chinese Communist Party makes clear that climate change is an existential threat for China. Among other things, the sea level rise that might occur by 2100 would threaten Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou. And China is already responding. Eight of the world’s biggest solar companies are Chinese. So is the second biggest wind power group, GoldWind. China invested $90bn in renewable energy last year and is already the superpower of low-carbon industries. It installed more solar in the first quarter than currently exists in France. The Chinese plan to build six to eight nuclear plants every year, reaching 110 by 2030. China will commence a national cap and trade scheme by 2017 that will manage more CO2 than all 40 of the world’s existing schemes combined. China’s economy is rapidly changing to become more knowledge-intensive and less energy-intensive. So-called tertiary industry has moved from 42% to 51% of the economy since 2007.
Chinese solar farm Yang Shiyao—Xinhua, Zuma Press20150110_zaf_x99_113_0

A power plant in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province. Photo © Yang Shiyao—Xinhua/Zuma Press

True there are a lot of new coal-fired power plants being planned, but many doubt seriously that they will ever be build. Coal is rapidly becoming uncompetitive in China, and its other environmental and health effects dampen enthusiasm for its use. Prices of alternative energy are rapidly falling, and China looks set to lead the transition to non-fossil fuels. Overall, the irony is that the US ‘free market’ is proving far more resistant to moving away from fossil fuels, perhaps because it is not free at all, but heavily protected and massively subsidized. Just watch Mitch McConnell, leader of the US Senate, and a Senator from coal-rich Kentucky, as he leads a tooth and nails fight to block any actions taken by Obama to combat climate change.

Challenges for Canada

Canada, too, will have some major decisions to make in the next few months. Our 10-year long attempt to become an ethical petrostate is in tatters, with oil trading at a price that is perhaps half of what it costs to take bitumen out of the ground and up-grade it into something that can be squeezed through a pipe. They are still producing the stuff, because it is more expensive to shut the wells down. But put the recent OPEC decision beside the COP21 outcome and the future for the tar sands should become crystal clear. That particular path to prosperity by digging up and shipping out another Canadian resource suddenly looks rather steep, narrow and crooked. Better we should plan on making better use of our educated workforce, and start creating products and services that will be competitive on world markets. The Star yesterday discusses how the Canadian oil sector can adapt to the new post-Paris reality. I think the discussion should be about how Canada can adapt.

The decision by the Trudeau government to spend on infrastructure could not come at a better time. We currently need a boost to the economy, but we also need the kind of investment in novel infrastructure that only government is likely to provide. Rationalizing the electricity systems across Canada to maximize use of our renewable energy sources, and our nuclear capabilities, while also building out a smart grid that is more resilient in the face of violent weather might be an excellent project to tackle. We need a power grid that is adapted to decentralized energy production as well as decentralized use, a grid that is smart, so users can decide when to use and when not to because prices are too high, and a grid that does not fail every time the wind blows a tree down. A coordinated program to progressively bury the major part of our power infrastructure is something that would have made lots of sense ages ago even without climate change. I mean, it’s great to see the power sector workers out in all weather, risking life and limb, restoring power after an ice storm or a traffic accident in the midst of a snowstorm. But really, why put the lines up in the air like so many strings of Christmas lights, so they can come down yet again? Hitting one’s head against a brick wall comes to mind. Perhaps now would be an excellent time to shift our $2.7 billion subsidy of the fossil fuels sector towards other forms of energy.

Will Canada find a way towards prosperity by becoming a leader in the new technologies needed for this new carbon-free economy the world is building? Can the disparate provinces of Canada even come together to create a common, nation-wide carbon tax to replace, equalize or augment the piecemeal, province by province ventures into taxes and cap and trade schemes? I commend those provinces which acted when the Harper government was doing everything it could to forestall action, but now it might make sense to build a larger, seamless, national approach to setting a price on carbon. And will Canada take the steps it needs to take to prepare for the climate stresses that are coming, differently, and in differing degree, to the communities across this enormous land? The move by the new government to reach out to First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities has nothing to do with climate change, but some of these communities will be among those most severely hit by the warming climate. Maybe it is time to re-visit Canada’s arctic to see what we need to do to protect those fragile lands and support the people who call them home, rather than visit, pick and shovel in hand, ready to dig up and export anything that can be found there? As an environmental scientist, I do not have solutions in hand that will help Canada prosper in a new world, but at least I can pose some questions. It’s time for a real discussion on how to move this country forward.

Some places have it worse than Canada

They are strung out like pearl necklaces across the Pacific; atolls, those most amazing of all the types of coral reefs. Sheer slopes to unfathomable depths on the outside, a ring of low islands surrounding a shallow lagoon, some palm trees, maybe a stranded sailor or two (always in the cartoons). But these atolls are also parts of island nations. The Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marianas; all nations with far more territorial seas than they have land. They are homes for people, who have lived there for many generations, who are as much ‘from’ those islands as any native person is from her homeland. And climate change is irrevocably removing these islands from the world of man by submerging them below a rising ocean. There are 100,000 Kiribati nationals scattered across 33 atolls with a total of 800 km2 land area dispersed over 3.5 million km2 of tropical ocean. Kiribati is the only nation with land in all four hemispheres, it is a member of the Commonwealth, and a least developed nation with an economy built almost entirely on fisheries and copra. Its maximum elevation is 81 meters, on the 6 km2 island of Banaba, the only raised reef in the group. Elsewhere elevation in meters is measured in single digits, and usually only one or two. These are tiny places and their people are literally dwellers on the ocean.

Tarawa Atoll, Kiribati, South Tarawa in the foreground. The stuff that dreams are made of, but the dreams may be becoming nightmares for the inhabitants. Photo © Government of Kiribati.

Trip Advisor advertises four hotels in Tarawa, the capital atoll of Kiribati. Mary’s Hotel is recommended as “the best in Tarawa”. It looks quite modest. Tarawa is roughly triangular in shape and has a 500 km2 lagoon with islands lining its southern (South Tarawa) and north-eastern (North Tarawa) shores. South Tarawa is the seat of government. Half the population of Kiribati lives on Tarawa. They live in basic accommodation, just meters from the ocean, always at risk of flooding. Fresh water, always in short supply, is becoming scarcer as rising seas intrude into the shallow lens of fresh water beneath each island. The government pumps potable water for about 2 hours every second day. High tide is becoming a challenging time if the seas are up. It’s one thing to face a storm and have to retreat inland, but on Kiribati, there is no inland to retreat to. In June 2014, President Anote Tong announced he had finalized the purchase from the Church of England of 20 km2 of forested land on Vanua Levu, Fiji for $8.77 million. Fiji is 2500 km away, but the nation of Kiribati is planning for a future without its islands. As Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau has a challenging task to lead Canada at this time, but it is not quite so challenging as that faced by President Tong.

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Changing lifestyles, Changing Oceans, Climate change, Economics, Politics | Comments Off on There are good tipping points too! COP21 may have been one.