More on Economics, Politics and the Mitigation of Climate Change

Digg This

It’s that time of year. We switched our clocks back just as the weather turned cold and rainy, and afternoons became dark and dreary. We’ve had one or two sunny days over the past week, but I know winter is coming and I long for sunshine already. Most of my snow-bird neighbors have flown south and our towns have quieted down after the summer frenzy. My kayaks are put away for winter and the snowblower has new oil and a new sparkplug. I’ve stuck my neck out predicting a milder, less snowy winter than last year and I pray nightly to the el Niño god to please behave as anticipated. I’ve finished reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, and I’ve more or less absorbed the US mid-term election results. I am more worried than I was a month ago about the outcome of the climate negotiations that will be conducted through the following 12 months, but the news just received out of China is good.
The concept of the 1% — that group of people that owns nearly everything – has gained popularity with the success of Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century. The increasing concentration of wealth now taking place across the world plays an important role in our negotiations over climate. The Economist has just published an updated graph contrasting the wealth of the bottom 90% of families and that held by the top 0.1% of families in the USA.

2012 inequality1108k_0

Percent of total wealth held by the bottom 90% and by the top 0.1% of families in the US for years from 1917 to 2012. Graph based on data from NBER Working Paper 20625, by E Saez and G Zucman, issued October 2014, and © The Economist (the graph is animated at the site, with captions detailing conditions at each of a number of times between 1917 and 2012).

This graph reveals that the situation in the USA is even more extreme than Piketty reported using his less extensive data. There has been a continuous increase in the proportion of wealth held by the top 0.1% of families since the mid-1980s, and a continuous decline in wealth held by the bottom 90% over that same time period. At present each group controls about 22% of total wealth, an amount, in the case of the 0.1% that is just shy of its peak proportional ownership in 1929. To put things in context, the top 0.1% in the US are 160,000 families each worth, on average, $73 million. That is a relatively small number of people used to having lots of power and influence. Other countries also have their 0.1% group.
Then there are the larger multinationals. If we strip out the 10 banks and investment funds among the top 20 public companies on Forbes’s 2014 list, you are left with 10 corporations with a total of about $3.6 trillion in assets, and a combined market value of about $2.5 trillion. Five of these are energy companies, two are automotive companies, and General Electric, Apple, and Walmart round out the list. With the possible exception of Apple and Walmart, these are companies that are strongly invested in the energy sector, as are the major banks and investment funds. Provision and delivery of energy is a major component of the global economy, and all of these super-sized multinational corporations are used to wielding considerable power and influence as they strive to maximize returns for their investors who, of course, include most of the 0.1%.

trickle down

The concentration of wealth (and power), particularly in North America, has been continually increasing since the late 1940’s and now is at a historic peak level.

Next come the governments, large and small. I’m just a simple scientist, so I start with a belief that, in a democracy, governments are formed of representatives elected by the community to serve their collective needs. Members of government and the staff they appoint all work tirelessly and selflessly to secure the best possible outcomes for their community in terms of defense, education, health care, other social services, infrastructure, necessary structure of laws to facilitate the effective interactions of individuals and groups, and environmental protection to ensure environmental goods and services will remain available to future generations. At least, that is what I believe democratic governments should do. Unfortunately, governments are composed of people with individual capacities for knowledge, effectiveness, creativity, and integrity, who also wish to carve out careers for themselves, frequently by getting re-elected or by finding appropriate positions with people they meet or within organizations with which they interact. Government becomes a lot more like sausage-making than my idealized view suggests, and the concentration of power and influence from wealthy individuals and large corporations that swirls about any seat of government makes for a heady atmosphere helping many elected members and many staff develop a sense of entitlement over time, second only to that of the truly wealthy and powerful.
Finally, there is the nature of fossil fuel extraction and refining. This is a complex, capital-intensive set of industrial processes that require lengthy periods of time from initial discovery to production and sale – money invested is tied up for decades before yielding its profits. This phenomenon is not unique to the fossil fuel industry, but it is an impediment to changing priorities. People engaged in such activities are not able to change course overnight without suffering losses, so they have a natural tendency to want to continue to operate as they have been operating in the past.
Under these circumstances, it’s no surprise that wealthy individuals and large corporations tend to respond negatively to suggestions that their activities must be changed, and governments tend to look out for the needs or wishes of big business and the rich and famous, even if individual members try their best to remember they are there for the little guy too. As for the environment, well sometimes they remember environment is important too. But environment does not even vote, and I doubt that very many people elected to a government – local, regional or national – have read Garrett Hardin’s classic The Tragedy of the Commons, which was published in Science in 1968, and cited 24,815 times since.

Pollution of the Commons

Garrett Hardin’s thesis was quite simple. Whenever a community shares the use of a resource that does not belong to anyone in particular (such as the ‘commons’ of an English village that was available to any farmer to graze his cattle), rational self-interest will ensure that the resource will become over-used and damaged. Every individual benefits more by making more use of the resource, and even if every individual understands, and can see that the combined use is too intensive, there is no net individual benefit to holding back, refraining from making more use of it. Holding back, foregoing use, is a net cost, and somebody else will simply increase their own use of it.

Sheep grazing at Wool, Dorset. Photo ©

When an industry (or an individual household) releases unwanted wastes of any type into the environment, it is using the environment’s capacity to absorb that waste as a commons. Without any rules or regulations, all individuals or enterprises will use the environment this way because it is the most expedient way to dispose of wastes. Pollution is the result – an environmental problem caused because too many have assumed the environment will be able to absorb, break down and recycle their wastes for free. Humanity has used the environment’s capacity to absorb, break down and recycle wastes of all types from the very beginning, and all works well until the quantities of wastes exceed the capacity to the environment to handle them. These days, with our larger and larger, more and more intensive economies and denser and denser populations, we regularly encounter pollution problems. Our pollution of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases released through our changes in land use and our economic activities is simply the latest, and perhaps most difficult pollution problem we have caused.
To solve the tragedy of the commons, all the individuals and groups making use of the commons must agree to set up and then abide by rules governing the extent of use by each individual or group. There are several ways to do this, and the history of fisheries management has explored most of them (because open-access fisheries are one of the most obvious commons out there). When the issue is environmental pollution, the solution can be as simple as regulating the maximum rate at which pollutants can be released, or requiring a release method that results in good dispersal (so a larger piece of environment takes on the task of managing the waste). Solutions that introduce a way of reclaiming the pollutants, perhaps converting them into a useful by-product, are also beneficial. Sometimes, as in the case of CFCs, the only solution is simply not to release those particular pollutants into the environment at all. (Chlorofluorocarbons were widely used as refrigerants and household aerosol propellants, but they do not break down easily in the atmosphere, and are highly reactive molecules that acted to break down ozone, diminishing the thickness of the protective ozone layer in our atmosphere. They are no longer manufactured and are banned from use.)
Solving the tragedy of the commons requires cooperation among independent individuals or businesses. It is a problem requiring governance. It is also a problem whose solution invariably increases costs for all parties, and perhaps not equally. Now, imagine for a moment an ancient English village with a number of farmers of varying wealth (and sizes of herd). They are overgrazing the commons. What can they do about it? If this is a tranquil village, with a couple of nice pubs, and lots of church-going, friendly people they might reach a reasonable consensus on how to limit use. It might even be one that is fair to the less wealthy. It might even be one that once agreed to lasts some years before some crisis leads to overuse once more. If it’s a village in which people do not always see eye to eye, a place of strong passions spiced by a bit too much booze, they may well come to blows, and the less strong will likely lose. In both villages, those with wealth and influence likely always win – a good outcome is one where most other farmers also win. Even the simple process of agreeing on how best to use the commons to graze the cattle is a difficult one when there are large differences in relative wealth and power.

two ancient pubs
Discussions in some pubs are more cordial than in others. Music seems to help.

Causing climate change is not really much like grazing cattle on the commons. First, the climate commons includes the entire planet. Second, those who are overusing can be far away, out of sight and out of mind, perhaps somewhere far away like northern Alberta, central China, Western Australia, or south-central Texas. Or they might be the rest of us, in our big cities, using electricity that is delivered to us from power plants that are hidden away in remote valleys, off on the horizon, not thought about. Our emissions of greenhouse gases come primarily from the fossil fuel cycle (from discovery through extraction, refining and use), as well as from deforestation, other changes in land use, and manufacture of cement. The gases disperse in the atmosphere, better insulating the entire planet, and the time lags between emissions and impacts on our climate can be decades long. Reaching agreement on what to do to protect this commons is vastly more difficult than it was in that quaint olde English village.
The individuals most engaged in reaching that agreement include the very ones who have most to lose from any reduction in current emissions-generating activities – the large multinationals, the wealthy, and the leaders of government. The rest of us get to listen in, but rarely have seats at the negotiation table. Sometimes our votes replace one set of negotiators with another, but getting negotiators with differing perspectives seems increasingly rare.
The most obvious way to cut GHG emissions is to switch from use of fossil fuels to use of renewables. The present cost of electricity generated by solar, wind, hydro, tidal or geothermal energy is not materially different from the cost of electricity derived from burning coal, oil or gas. What stops a quick transition is the amount of capital invested in fossil fuel infrastructure and in proven but not yet extracted fossil fuel resources. This capital mostly belongs to the large multinationals and their wealthy investors, all of whom wield considerable influence over the politicians and political staff. Looked at this way, it’s not too surprising that while the IPCC is now 26 years old, and the UNFCCC will hold its 20th annual negotiating conference in Lima, Peru, commencing 1st December 2014, the world has made surprisingly modest progress towards agreement on limiting GHG emissions. The process rolls forward with one expensive conference after another, and with frequent slightly smaller conferences between the annual events. But every session is a sad spectacle of nations that consume fossil fuels, and nations that produce them, finding ways to delay, weaken, or simply strike out wording that might require them to cut back on their production or consumption. Most people who get to speak during the conferences say appropriate things about the urgent need to curtail GHG emissions, but in the rooms where the wording of proposed agreements is being finalized, those same people, or more usually the people who work for them, are busily ensuring that no significant positive steps will get taken. An agreement to reach an agreement next year on how to proceed in order to reach an agreement that will actually cut GHG emissions the following year, to come into effect several years later (this more or less summarizes what happened in Warsaw in November 2013) is not an agreement to do anything much at all, in my humble scientist’s opinion.

canada_lifetime_achievement_fossil_of_the_day_ceremonies_at_cop19 small
Canada has consistently underperformed on climate. Here we receive a lifetime achievement award from the Fossil of the Day program at COP 19, Warsaw, November 2013.

So, will we ever solve the problem of how to limit our GHG emissions? Naomi Klein argues that there has got to be a substantial grass roots uprising to demand that the powerful make the right choices. I cling to the belief that if people will only learn about what is happening, they will come to the realization that restricting emissions is the only logical way forward. But there is lots of evidence that individuals do not always act rationally, and that other individuals are engaged in a well-funded obstructionist campaign to muddy the evidence of climate change, making reaching rational decisions more difficult. And, something that approaches at the speed of a melting glacier does not exactly compete with the sex, drugs and rock n roll that bombard us from myriad screens every day. My faith in individuals’ ability to make decisions based on rational argument gets weaker by the day.

Good news out of China

The really good news this week emerged quite unexpectedly from China. On Wednesday 12th November, President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping jointly announced from Beijing that their countries had reached agreement on a joint effort to reduce GHG emissions. According to the New York Times, Obama has committed the US to reduce emissions in 2025 by 26 to 28% of their level in 2005, a substantially increased commitment over the 17% by 2020 contained in the commitment made in Copenhagen in 2009. According to a New York Times op-ed by John Kerry published the same day (actually on Nov 11, because he was in the US, while Obama was on the other side of the date line in Beijing), the new pledge puts the US on a path to achieve an 80% reduction by 2050.

us-china-climate-deal Obama XI by Feng li - Getty
Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping at announcement of their deal on climate.
Photo © Feng Li/Getty

For his part, Xi has committed China to stop the growth of its emissions by about 2030, and begin to rachet them down after that, and pledged to ensure that renewables and nuclear energy would together account for 20% of Chinese energy production by 2030. To meet its goal, China will need to deploy an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other renewable generation capacity by 2030 – an enormous amount, about the same as all the coal-fired power plants in China today, and nearly as much as the total electricity generation capacity of the United States. This fact alone should put the lie to the statement by Senator McConnell that “it requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years, while these carbon emission regulations are creating havoc in my state and other states across the country.” Yes, his home state of Kentucky mines coal. Who’d have guessed he’d not be enthusiastic. There were other important agreements finalized during Obama’s visit to Beijing, but I think, with time, the climate accord may be the biggest by far.

Aftermath of the US election

The climate deal announced with China comes days after the mid-term elections in the US gave the Republicans a sweeping victory and ensured that Obama would have to deal with a difficult Congress for the final two years of his presidency. I could wade into the low turnout by left-of-center voters, the corrupting influence of big money, the obscene amount of money spent (does any other country approach this level of excess?), and the idiotic platforms of many who won. But I won’t. From the perspective of the environmental crisis, the only thing that matters is what this shift will do to momentum towards a significant climate treaty in 2015.

20141114_mcconnell Washington Post small
McConnell is already saying he is ‘disappointed’ in how Obama is acting since the election – any chance of bipartisan behavior from this man? Photo from Washington Post video

My initial assessment was that this election was pure bad news for the environment. And press reports supported that pessimism. The moment the results became clear, there were comments being made about the need to secure early approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. I did not think it was actually up to Congress to do this (and still don’t), but the speed at which the calls for quick approval appeared made it clear that a pro-fossil fuels, anti-environment agenda was being promoted. Without rehashing the details yet again, let me just say that delaying the Keystone XL remains as useful as it ever was. Delaying approval of pipelines keeps the paths for export of tar sands product congested and slow. This slows production and exploration. That keeps tar sands product in the ground where it belongs.
The election results ensure that Obama will only be able to move on things that he can do without Congressional approval. Senator McConnell, likely to be the new Senate Majority Leader, comes from coal-producing Kentucky. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, likely to become Chair of Environment and Public Works, believes that climate change is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”, and the IPCC a front for a global political left, and there are scores of other Republican senators and representatives who will put fossil fuel interests well ahead of environment.

Canada and Australia, the Bobbsey Twins of Fossil Fuels

At present, the low prices for oil are a second brake on Canadian tar sands development. But tar sands development needs many brakes because there is not yet any sign that either the Harper government or Alberta’s Prentice government have lost their enthusiasm for dirty oil. Harper is now in a difficult place with an intolerable record on climate, an election in the offing, and his arguments for not acting falling by the wayside. He can no longer claim to be waiting for the US to move – Obama has ensured that the US performance on curtailing emissions is far stronger than Canada’s, even without the new agreement with China. Nor can he claim to be waiting for other major emitters to move. China has been making major investments in alternative energy sources, chiefly solar, and the agreement with the US shows a real willingness to make substantive changes. On top of all this, the oil pricing downturn has cut into governmental revenues just when he needed a nice surplus to spend in frivolous pre-election gifts to the public. It will be interesting to see what Harper does now (the 6 Billion surplus for 2015 predicted in the last budget has now shrunk to 1.9 Billion).

Harper Obama in 2013 Adrian Wyld - CP
Harper to Obama “you don’t need to tell them the truth so long as you use your hands to signal how big the lies are – that’s what I instruct all my cabinet to do” Photo taken 2013 by Adrian Wyld/CP

Just so there is no doubt where Alberta stands, Premier Jim Prentice gave an interview on 9th November assuring all that Alberta remains firmly in the fossil camp. He actually said “Certainly we all want to improve environmental outcomes and want to find cleaner sources of energy, but there hasn’t really been the game changing technology developed yet that would allow us, as consumers, to not be using hydrocarbons in a way similar to what we do currently”. This suggests he is not reading of the advances in the alternative energy sector that have now achieved, or come close to achieving what is called ‘grid parity’ – equivalent cost per unit of energy regardless of the source. Indeed, if the various hidden subsidies that support the oil and gas industry were to be removed, the use of renewables instead would be a simple checkbook decision because the renewables would not be more expensive.

jim prentice Troymedia
Jim Prentice showing he knows the patented Harper gesture to show the size of your lies.

Prentice followed his ‘lack of technology’ claim with the bizarre statement that the vast majority of emissions come from consumers not producers! “It’s when we climb in our cars or get on an airplane, or turn on the flat screen television in our house. I mean that’s really the point where the lion’s share of the emissions comes from”. Apparently the Alberta premier does not understand that the emissions released from extracting, shipping, refining, shipping again, and ultimately burning a barrel of oil all come because it is oil. And then he finished his interview with the pious claim that he wants to bridge the difference between pipeline proponents and those opposed to them by making sure the pipelines are constructed to the highest environmental standards. High environmental standards? Alberta? It’s not quite as over-the-top as some statements by US politicians who still claim climate change is a hoax, but it still shows withering ignorance, or crass distortion, by a political leader.
Unrelated entirely, I note that this week it was reported that Saskatchewan’s new Environmental Code lacks a section on climate change! A chapter had been developed during the two years it took to write the code, but it was dropped because Saskatchewan was waiting for guidance from the Harper government. Guidance on climate policy? From Harper? I’m particularly disappointed having lauded SaskPower recently for opening the world’s first coal-fired power plant with carbon capture and sequestration. And just for completeness, I should add that CBC News, in reporting on how the US – China agreement would put Canada in a difficult place, added “Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq was not available for interviews on Wednesday”. Maybe she is finally learning how embarrassing her long record of nonsense statements on environment has become.
I include Australia here because I find it fascinating how much like Canada Australia has become since Tony Abbott came to power. Yes, they mine coal, gas, and a little bit of offshore oil, while we mine tar sands, other oil and gas, but Australia and Canada have similar ‘resource-extraction and export’ economies, and with Abbott, similar political philosophies. Australia was making significantly better progress on climate prior to their election, and had a carbon tax in place. That tax is now gone and the ‘drill, baby, drill’, or better, ‘dig, baby, dig’ chant is heard loudly across the land.

Tony Abbott Dan Peled-AAP Guardian
Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott Photo © Dan Peled/AAP

PM Abbott gave an interview to the Guardian on 4th November that was all about the virtues of coal. He became quite lyrical, saying “For the foreseeable future coal is the foundation of our prosperity. Coal is the foundation of the way we live because you can’t have a modern lifestyle without energy.”
Then he added “You can’t have a modern economy without energy and for now and for the foreseeable future, the foundation of Australia’s energy needs will be coal. The foundation of the world’s energy needs will be coal.” A little repetitive, but his words have a certain flow to them. Here is another quote: ““Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world.” Little doubt where Abbott stands on fossil fuels. He even claimed that use of coal is good for developing countries. He should have a conversation with his Chinese neighbors, preferably outdoors, on a smoggy day in Beijing.
In my view, both Abbott and Harper and their allies have become trapped by the fossil fuel multinationals, convinced that rapid exploiting of their reserves would bring jobs, and tax revenues making their countries wealthy, and ensuring they got re-elected many times. The minor issues of environmental damage and climate change? Well, those are problems, but not for a little while yet, so if we ignore them, if we brand all who oppose us as radical, leftist luddites, and tell our people that we are looking after jobs and the economy all will be well. And so it has been. But will this delusional journey continue much longer? When the value finally goes out of fossil fuels, it will vanish suddenly. In an interesting Huffington blog post, Woodrow Clark quoted Sheikh Ahmed-Zaki Yamani, who said in 2000, “The Stone Age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil.” We all live in interesting times, and the news out of China this week was a sign of just how interesting these times may be becoming.

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

On the Economics of Climate Change Mitigation

Digg This

2014 is Setting a Global Temperature Record

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


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

temp and precip

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

The Changing Pattern of Climate Change Discussions

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

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

Tuesday September 23, 2014

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

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


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


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

So Let’s Talk about the Economics of Climate Change

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

Boundary-Dam CCS powerplant SaskPower photo

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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

Nicholson posnan-climate-change-conference-un

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

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

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


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


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

How Do We Motivate the Changes That are Necessary?

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

Repairing the Decline of Coral Reefs – Why we are failing; What is needed to succeed

Digg This

This post first appeared as a Comment in Reef Encounter – the News journal of the International Society for Reef Studies. It is reprinted here, with added images and slight modifications to text as a way of drawing it to attention of other people interested in the global environmental crisis and the issues underlying our relative failure to look after coral reefs. Reef Encounter is open-access, and the articles are of broad interest.


There is something mesmerizing about the lushness of life and the richness of form on a coral reef; few other environments come close to packing so much liveliness into each cubic meter of space. Photo © AJ Hooten.

Humanity faces a challenge which if not existential certainly threatens our civilization, and, as Pogo found out long ago, the enemy is us. Our varied impacts on the biosphere grow larger as our population and our standards of living grow, and now we are numerous enough and powerful enough to be causing serious damage. Coral reef scientists are generally well aware of the seriousness of our situation – our special parts of the biosphere are among the most, if not the most, impacted on the planet and suggestions that coral reefs as we knew them in the mid-20th century could be largely gone by mid-21st century are not far-fetched conjecture but reasoned assessments by scientists who look at the evidence of reef decline. So, what can be done for reefs, and for the wider biosphere and ourselves, and what role should reef scientists and managers play? Here are four steps we need to take to stem the decline of coral reefs.

I suggest we first need to recognize the problem. It is global. It is multifaceted. The facets differ in degree of importance from place to place. And our assessment of the problem involves value judgments – we are inadvertently forcing on the biosphere changes that we do not like, or that we suspect will be harmful to our personal quality of life or our economy. These statements are true even if we restrict attention to coral reef systems: Reefs appear to be in decline almost everywhere, with less abundant and less healthy coral, fewer fish and other reef organisms, less biodiversity, and we suspect, less ecological resilience. But the reasons for this decline vary. Loss of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef in recent decades has been due primarily to physical damage from tropical storms, outbreaks of Crown-of-Thorns starfish, and bleaching due to climate change (De’ath et al 2012).

Death et al 2012 PNAS F2.large

Graphs A to D show change in coral cover at 214 monitored reefs over 27 years on the Great Barrier Reef. Only the northern set of sites (B) fails to show a downward trend through time. Graphs E to H show the extent of annual mortality due to each of the three primary causes for each year; these three causes are outbreaks of predatory crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS), cyclonic storms, and coral bleaching. Figure © G. De’ath et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci.

Loss of coral cover in the Caribbean over the same time period has been due principally to outbreaks of diseases, overfishing, and excessive rates of coastal tourism (Jackson et al 2014). The most critical diseases have hit Caribbean corals, especially the two species of Acropora, and the sea urchin, Diadema antillarum; both acroporids are now on the US EPA endangered species list, and Diadema nearly went extinct throughout the Caribbean although its numbers are now rebuilding slowly in many locations. These pathogens may have been introduced from outside the region by humans, may have been facilitated by pollution, overfishing, or the warming and bleaching caused by climate change, and might even be spread by snorkeling tourists. Within both the Caribbean and the Great Barrier Reef there are places where reef condition has degraded substantially in recent decades and places where it has degraded less. Rates of decline vary through time, and differently among locations. Data for other parts of the world are less comprehensive but the variation in degree and putative cause is also evident in these other places.

Status & Trends Fig 4 A-C

Patterns in loss of coral cover at three types of sites across the Caribbean: A) 9 locations with sharp early decline, B) 5 locations showing a gradual downward trend, and C) 7 chiefly southern locations showing little or no loss.  Figure © J Jackson et al. and IUCN.

Every one of the causes I’ve mentioned, including Crown-of-Thorns outbreaks (Brodie et al 2005), is directly due to or exacerbated by human activities. And, as a general rule, more remote locations, such as Kingman Reef (in the Line Islands, and part of the recently expanded Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument), seem generally to be in better overall condition than those close to people, because most of the causes of decline are due to local human activity. Of course, we can anticipate that climate change and ocean acidification are going to become ever more important as causes of reef decline, meaning that in time the overall mix of causes of reef decline will be less easily remedied by local actions than they are at present.
It should be obvious that there is no one action that can be taken to ‘repair’ all coral reefs, but it may be less obvious that solving one problem at a time at a location may not lead to any improvement in reef condition until most or all problems are addressed. Solving problems of overfishing does not make much difference if a reef is also experiencing pollution; reseeding diseased coral with healthy cultivated juvenile colonies does not help if the disease organisms remain in the area. Reef decline is multifaceted and the facets likely interact in complex ways.

If the first step is to recognize the nature of the problem, the second step is to recognize that we do have feasible solutions for many of its facets. This is the good news which may not be getting through to the public. We have known for a long time what is needed to correct overfishing, how to avoid delivery of pollutants from on-shore activities and population centers, and how to manage coastal development in ways that do not impact adjacent reefs negatively. We understand what we have to do to control climate change and limit ocean acidification although these solutions are much more difficult to put in place. We understand which facets are capable of being corrected by the creation of marine protected areas, and which facets an MPA cannot affect. Mostly, the fixes needed are not even particularly challenging technically, although that does not mean they are simple to enact.

Recognizing that we do have solutions leads immediately to the third step — to acknowledge that, although we have solutions, we have not been applying them effectively. In fact, over many years, we in the science and management community have been woefully ineffective in solving the problems that are leading to reef decline, and it is well past time to replace the wasted efforts under way with more effective action.

Why have attempts to address reef decline been so ineffective, and why do we avoid talking about this? I suggest that the reasons for failure, while diverse, stem from a core feature of environmental management – it is not really management of environment but management of people; living, breathing people with families, societies, cultures, religious beliefs, traditions, stubbornness, dishonesty, corruption, short-term thinking, mortgages, and many things on their minds beyond improving coral reefs. Some live near reefs, feed their families from fish caught there, earn a living in reef tourism, or work in NGOs or government agencies; others work at jobs quite unrelated to reef condition and may only visit reefs occasionally. Still others are government officials, international experts, well-meaning philanthropists or dedicated conservationists directly concerned with improving reef management. Making real changes in the lives of any of these people can be very difficult. Many of them ‘know’ that the ocean is limitless, that there will always be baby fish, even if we catch all the adults, or that God or Nature will always take care of us. Others do not want to see changes that reduce their incomes, influence, or importance. Some, working hard to bring change, fall into the social worker trap – if the problem is finally fixed their jobs risk coming to an end. Over time we have spent far too much time thinking about how to manage reefs, and not enough time thinking, and learning, about how to manage people.


In reality, effective management of coral reefs and other coastal waters is management of behavior of the coastal populations that use those waters. It is very challenging to convince people who fish to feed their families that they must fish less, or fish in different locations than they always have, and often requires that their local economy be remade. The same difficulties exist when coastal populations must be convinced to modify the way in which they dispose of wastes, or inland farming communities must be convinced to modify their use of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation.
Photo © Yvonne Sadovy de Mitcheson

Reasons for failing to talk about the prevalence of failure are more simple. Nobody wants to admit to failure, or to allow the possibility that they do not know how to fix the problem of overfishing, or pollution, or whatever. And we have convinced ourselves that telling the truth about the environmental crisis simply depresses people. Better to talk about the occasional good news stories when things happened to go right. Better still to pretend that the failures are in fact successes – how else to account for the evident pride with which governments, NGOs and other bodies proudly proclaim the number of km2 protected in marine protected areas, or display the printed MPA management plans, legislation and regulations when everybody knows that in the great majority of MPAs no real protection is taking place?

Don’t get me wrong. There are well-managed MPAs, both in wealthy and in developing countries, and there are other instances of reef management which is effective. Some of us are doing it right. Still, when one can snorkel through an MPA, and then through a nearby ‘unprotected’ site and see no evident difference in fish size or abundance (as is a very common experience across the Caribbean, and in other places as well), one knows that ‘no-take’ provisions are not being enforced. When one sees mangrove forests along Mexico’s Mayan Riviera being cleared and readied for hotel development right after a hurricane, ostensibly because, stripped of leaves, they are now ‘dead’, or hears of massive plans to dredge new harbors, risking nearby ‘protected’ reefs, because the Australian coal industry absolutely must export its products more quickly, or finds a lobster dinner not on the menu but still readily available out of season, so long as the request is made quietly at a table in a far corner of the Belize City restaurant, one knows that efforts to preserve or repair reefs are not working. I’ve experienced all of these. Yet still we carry on, developing projects, raising funds, reporting numerous workshops and conferences designed to improve reef management, while consistently failing to create the real, and enduring, changes in human behavior that are essential for improvement to happen.


Mangroves, which are important nurseries for many reef species, are widely regarded as waste land. They get cleared for shrimp farms and luxury hotels, sometimes legally, sometimes bending every rule in the book. This excavator is operating just outside the boundary of a not very well managed MPA in Bimini, Bahamas. Photo © K. Stump, Story in

As a recent example of this tendency to gloss reality with a glitter of false good news, consider the latest report on the state of the Caribbean (Jackson et al 2014). A careful read of this IUCN report provides abundant data, careful analyses, and sad conclusions on what has been happening to Caribbean reefs. The science is well done. The authors do a generally responsible job of assessing competing hypotheses. They state, quite clearly that “the disparate reef histories clearly demonstrate the folly of attempting to understand the causes of coral reef decline for the entire Caribbean as a single ecosystem, an approach that ignores the enormous heterogeneity in environments and history of human and natural disturbance among different reef locations.” With a careful read, this is a solid report that assesses the data, points to the seriousness of current trends, and makes clear recommendations for action.

stoplight parrot steneck

Protecting parrotfishes will be a worthwhile management action in many Caribbean locations because they are effective grazers that prevent algae from becoming sufficiently abundant to shade out coral and take over available rocky surfaces. But protecting parrotfishes does nothing to correct other types of damage on coral reefs. Photo © Robert S Steneck

But with a skim of the Executive Summary (the only part also available in Spanish or French), or a look at IUCN’s press release, or at various stories in the media from local Caribbean newspapers to Time Magazine, a rather different story emerges. This one is far more about the value of protecting parrotfishes! Whether the authors intended it or not, a detailed, difficult, somewhat depressing tale, with sound recommendations (including the protection of parrotfishes), has been morphed by IUCN and the media into an upbeat story about a serious problem which can be fixed simply by taking care of parrotfishes. So much for the authors’ warning about the ‘folly’ of expecting a single, simple cause of coral decline across the Caribbean.
The fourth step; once we acknowledge our failures – we have to change our own behavior, reject failure and demand real success.  Most current and past projects designed to improve reef management can be characterized as too small, too short-term, too narrowly focused on a single facet of reef decline, with far too little attention to the socio-political components of the problem, and with far too little investment in public education and the building of a broad consensus in support of the new management actions and regulations being introduced.

REEF workshop cropFiji workshop CROP

The process of improving coastal and reef management requires that all stakeholders, including all relevant management agencies, come together and work collaboratively on common goals. This is difficult to achieve, and requires effective leadership, clear long-term objectives, and significant attention to the needs and aspirations of each stakeholder group. We have tended to give too little attention to the culturally-sensitive task of building and sustaining effective teams.
Figures © REEF.ORG (above) and the Coral Gardens Initiative of Fiji (below).

The international development community has talked for years about the need for integrated reef management, a holistic perspective, projects designed at ecologically appropriate spatial and temporal scales, and with the building of community and governmental buy-in that is essential for success. Most projects fail at all of these challenges. In a recent article in Marine Pollution Bulletin (it’s open access so easily accessible) we make one suggestion for breaking through this log-jam of failure. We argue that we need to recognize that it is now essential that we begin to zone the coastal ocean, much as we do land, in order to systematize and prioritize among competing uses as we undertake formal use planning. The ocean as wild frontier is disappearing and the coastal ocean, where nearly all reefs occur, is too crowded to be viewed that way. Marine spatial planning (MSP) is a tool for objectively dividing up an ocean region that includes varying habitats, ecological processes and traditions of use so that sufficient and appropriate space is available for each type of use or ecological process. It has been used successfully in developing networks of MPAs, but could be used more broadly to govern all our uses of a region of ocean. A greatly expanded use of MSP could provide an objective way of making the necessary zoning decisions. More importantly, if made central to a project, MSP would help jump-start the collaboration, effective cross-agency effort, setting of appropriate spatial and temporal scales, use of a holistic perspective, building of consensus and demand for real results that are so often lacking in international development projects that aim to improve coastal and reef management. The integrated, holistic, approach, at ecologically appropriate spatial scale is necessary for real success, but unlikely to appear spontaneously given the usual mix of competing agencies and competing goals of various stakeholders – MSP could be the trigger needed to tip effort in the right direction.

Success still will not come if real, committed leadership does not exist, but given leadership, success has a much greater chance of appearing than if we continue our current failed approaches. I think we scientists and managers all have a moral obligation to join forces to recognize and articulate reality, admit to our pervasive failures, improve monitoring and experimental evaluation of competing causes of reef decline, and build management to reverse the decline of coral reefs. Reefs could be in much better condition if we acted more effectively than we have been, and better reefs mean better lives for millions of people who depend on them.

global coastal population MPB 2014compressed

Twenty percent of the 7 Billion people on our planet live in the tropics and within 100 km of a coast. That tropical coastal strip represents just 7% of the global land surface, and people live there at an average density of 141 people per km2. Many of these people are directly dependent for food, income and quality of life on the coastal marine environment and its reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove forests. The map shows current population size in the coastal strip. Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn delineate the tropics. Figure © Sale et al., Marine Pollution Bulletin

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, Climate change, coral reef science, Stories from a Coral Reef | 4 Comments