They Share This Planet, They Are Wonderful, And They Are Not a Bit Like Us – Learning to Respect the Others that Populate our World.

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Are Other Species Aware?

A group of us were at dinner in a local Chinese restaurant, celebrating (if that is the correct word) the departure of a valued colleague, off to build her career. We were scientists, educators, environmental managers, planners, and just real folks with real jobs in the community. The conversation ranged widely, but at one point I heard one of the scientists speculating about whether octopuses were aware. This idea got batted around a bit, we enumerated species for which there is some evidence of awareness, even self-awareness, and we wondered about creatures for which there is so far, no such evidence.
revit-octopus van aqua

The octopuses (there are many species) are other-worldly, not likely to be thought of as ‘little people’. Their cognitive skills are impressive, and just possibly they are aware.
Photo © Vancouver Aquarium

(Establishing whether an animal is aware is difficult. Asking them does not work. Asking other people does not work either, because they might lie, telling you what you want to believe. At one level I only know that I am aware, and other people might doubt that, especially if they see me sleeping in front of the TV.)

The whole question of complex neural processing in other species is fascinating to me, because I began my research career studying fish behavior and one tenet of that field of study was to be strictly objective, to rely solely on what you could see, or otherwise measure directly, and to avoid any tendency to think of the animal as a ‘little human’. Intention, planning ahead, and thinking about things might be going on, but we should not start with the assumption that they were. That is still sound advice for the behavioral biologist, and yet, the possibility that at least some other creatures are aware is not only impossible to resist, it is almost certainly correct. And I suspect the number of aware species will eventually turn out to be far larger than we mere humans suspect. They will not be little humans, aware like we are aware, but they will have their own forms of awareness, and I for one believe the octopus will be on that list of species.

What fascinated me, as I reflected back on our conversation that evening, was the reaction of the non-biologists in the group. They were quite surprised that we biologists seemed to think awareness in an octopus was a real possibility. They were surprised when evidence of awareness in other species was mentioned; presumably they did not know any such evidence existed. They were a bit confused by the idea that other species could be aware, but aware in different ways to the way we are aware. But overall, as they got used to what we were saying, they warmed to the idea of animal awareness, and they welcomed it. Many of them no doubt would like to believe animals like dogs and cats and horses are aware, perhaps do believe this, but have come to learn that scientifically this may not be correct. That scientists were taking the idea seriously restored their confidence in their own hunches about other species. Of course, once we come to accept that many other species are aware, and even self-aware, how we treat other species becomes more problematic. Does an aware creature have certain inalienable rights? We did not go there – the sweet and sour chicken was too good to delay our meal.

Charity to others

snapping turtles walk & swim

Snapping turtles, Chelydra serpentina, are often seen on our roads, and rarely in our waterways (they are there, but tend to keep away from us). The turtle on the left, a female who has completed laying eggs and is heading back to the water (hence the dirt on her shell) has a purposeful air about her, while the one on the right just seems to be hanging out. Neither seems particularly belligerent or evil. Photos © Heather Perry and Steven Pinker respectively.

The next day, I chanced to flip through the pages of the local newspaper. When you live in the country, the local paper becomes an important source of gossip, and of the minor goings-on around town that are important in how the local community functions, but of absolutely no import on the wider stage. You learn quickly that reading the local paper can be a valuable ritual. On page three there was a charming story about how traffic came to a complete halt on one of our rural roads, because two cars stopped (one going in each direction). Why did they stop? Because the drivers were helping a snapping turtle across the road. A page further on, there was the tale of another snapper, this one for some reason named Sheldon (although I doubt the turtle was aware of that name), which had been discovered in some distress with a fishing lure through his foot and further hooks down his gullet. This turtle received emergency medical care from an EMS professional on his way home from work, and was then taken to a wildlife trauma center some distance away, where he underwent emergency surgery to remove three hooks from his digestive tract. Sheldon is reported to be recuperating with a plan to return to his lake within a week.

Bear in mind that around here, snapping turtles are reviled almost as much as the badly misunderstood beaver. They will bite through broomsticks. They remove your toes if you dangle your legs in the lake. They are vicious, evil, mendacious creatures that lurk menacingly waiting to grab unwatched toddlers wading in the shallows. And they eat beautiful baby ducklings (that last one is true). Yet, here were two articles about people taking time out of their busy days to care for snapping turtles. I’m beginning to think that there might be hope for the human species after all. It seems we are starting to show some respect for other species.

Given that a large snapping turtle could be 50 to 75 years old, they deserve some respect. And so do those octopuses with their molluscan awareness of their watery worlds. If we can foster a sense of respect for the other creatures on this planet we call ours, maybe, just maybe, we can develop the will to get busy correcting some of the egregious damage we have been doing. And none too soon.

Understanding the Octopus

So what do we know about octopuses? Along with their cousins the squids, cuttlefishes and nautilus, they are the most complex of the molluscs, and intellectually they leave the oyster (also a mollusk) in the mud, along with a wide range of other molluscs. They are not at all like us, which makes understanding them a bit more difficult. With their eight tentacles arrayed around a central mouth, underneath a large head with two well-developed eyes, and with other bits and pieces curled about (molluscs seem to love to curl, although the snails take this to an extreme) somewhere hidden deep within the head/body, they do not even present in the usual bilateral, right side/left side, top/bottom, front/back way that most other animals do. They are the original shape-shifters, a trait which makes them difficult to keep in an aquarium because they can squeeze out through the tiniest gaps.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Wow. Spectacular creature. See the slit-like, horizontal pupil, and the siphon emerging below and behind the eye. How can we learn to relate to such different species? Photo © theora.com

They have excellent vision, and their eyes are architecturally superior to those of vertebrates like us, simply because they have the retina the right way around. If you remember, our retina has a blind spot right in the center of the field of view, because the nerve axons emerging from the light receptors come forward into the eye, then group together and plunge through the middle of the retina to get out the back of the eye. The octopus, by contrast has its light receptor cells facing into the eye, and the axons come out on the outside of the retina before grouping together to go off to the brain. The vertebrate eye is one of the nicest proofs of why the concept of Intelligent Design is false – it was not designed intelligently, it evolved. But I digress.

Despite their wonderful eyes, octopuses do not see like we do. Their behavior, particularly their social signaling using color variations rippling across their surfaces, or their accurate and rapid modification of color to match the ground over which they are travelling suggest they can see color, but their eyes contain only a single type of photoreceptor cell. Scientists are still struggling to understand how they can see color without the usual three types of photoreceptors sensitive to different colors of light. There is some evidence that they can sense color of surroundings with receptors in their skin, and quite new evidence suggesting that their slit-like pupils assist in color vision based on chromatic aberration (the slight variation in focal length of a lens depending on the color of the light). In very early learning experiments it was shown that an octopus could quickly learn the difference between a vertical dark bar and a horizontal dark bar, but treated a bar slanted at 45 degrees to the left as not different to one slanted at 45 degrees to the right – they could never learn the difference. For us, tilting your head converts one of these pairs into the other, and octopuses can tilt their heads. Don’t ever expect an octopus to be a little human. They definitely are not.

But what about awareness? Well, how about tool use and forward planning? A paper in Current Biology in 2009, by Julian Finn and colleagues from the Victoria Museum in Melbourne, Australia reports just that for the Veined Octopus, Amphioctopus marginatus, observed over sandy/silty substrata in depths up to 55 meters, off Sulawesi and Bali, Indonesia. They repeatedly observed octopuses carrying two coconut half-shells, by holding them under their bodies and more or less walking across the bottom using their remaining tentacles. When they reached a place where they ‘wanted’ to stop, the octopuses would set down their half-shells and then maneuver to sit inside one and close the other over their heads. Moving about meant they could forage more widely for prey (octopus are sit-and-wait predators feeding on many different types of prey), while still having protection in the event something came along that wanted to eat them. There is a video here of this incredible behavior.

Octopuses like these ones are other animals that have talents that at least rival our own. The big snapping turtle in my lake has lived there for many decades before I was here, and surely ‘owns’ the lake as much as I do (I don’t, legally, but each of my neighbors on the lake think they do). Maybe if we recognize such facts, we can begin to recapture that sense of being a part of, of belonging to, and of sharing the world with the other creatures that live here. Once we see ourselves as a part of the natural world, we are more likely to recognize our responsibility to care for that natural world. Nature is not there to be dug up, cut down, killed and skinned, and shipped out, converted finally into so many dollars.

Appreciating the Oceans

One final note. We understand and appreciate the oceans far less well than we do the land, partly at least because the oceans are the other. We can live beside, but not really within the oceans, and most of us have scant knowledge of what goes on under the waves. I blogged recently about how we were damaging the oceans. On 3rd July, Science published an article on our impacts on the world’s oceans. Under the ponderous title, “Contrasting futures for ocean and society from different anthropogenic CO2 emissions scenarios”, Jean-Paul Gattuso from the CNRS Institut in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France, and a collection of colleagues from around the world, drew attention to the consequences for the oceans under a high emissions or a low emissions future. Their two main points were first that the oceans are damaged twice by CO2 emissions – they are warmed and they are acidified – and in that sense get worse treatment than the land, and second, that the changes we are causing to the oceans will continue well past the end of this century, even if we embark soon on aggressive reductions in emissions, that this is the case even for the most aggressive emissions reduction path under consideration, and that we are only beginning to see the impacts on marine systems around the world. Their article has a relatively accessible front page synopsis, and a main text which is sometimes technical but reasonably accessible with a bit of effort by the reader. And it is one of the rare Science articles on open access – do read it. We need to understand better what we are doing to the oceans, because when we do, we will likely be more motivated to do what we can to bring our pollution under control. If we respect our oceans, that will help too.

Categories: animal behavior, Changing Oceans, Climate change, Stories from a Coral Reef | Leave a comment

Bonfires and Vanities. How changing attitudes to climate and privilege signal the revolution has started.

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I’ve been distracted the past couple of weeks, but even distracted it is hard to miss the major news events as they unfold. I find some interesting links among four media frenzies that at first sight may seem quite unrelated. Let me see if I can convince you they are related, and that their relationships bode well for the planet – we the people are starting to stir.

First we have a public interest story, public disgust really. The dentist shoots the lion. Next we have President Obama’s announcement on Monday, August 3rd, of his Clean Power Plan to reduce power plant emissions across the USA by 32% by 2030. Providing a background of some breathtaking images to these and other stories has been the long string of stories of the plague of wildfire that is wreaking havoc down the west coast (and sometimes far inland) of North America from Alaska, through British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and on to Washington, Oregon and California. This one ties in, in one peculiar sense, to the slowly developing scientific understanding of what the hell the current el Niño is doing. And finally, we have Stephen Harper, Right Honorable Prime Minister of Canada, taking time on a Sunday morning in the middle of a national long-weekend in mid-summer, to do the necessary rituals to shut down Parliament and commence the longest election campaign in modern Canadian history. Yes, I really see some linkages here.

The Mediaeval Chase

Many great people have hunted big game. US President Theodore Roosevelt was famously a big game hunter, and nobody thought the worse of him. I am not a hunter, but I have always held in high regard those other Canadians (and other nationalities) who have the skill to enter the bush, track down and cleanly kill (with gun or bow) a deer or some other animal, dress it appropriately, butcher it skillfully (or get it to someone who knows how to do this), and put it in the freezer to feed themselves and share with friends. I have little time for those who hunt as a way of asserting their manliness, don’t care if they wound, and leave the meat, or most of it, on the forest floor.

1909 --- Former President Theodore Roosevelt stands over a rhino he has shot while on safari in Africa. Roosevelt went on safari and an extended tour of Africa and Europe immediately after leaving the presidency in 1909. Most of his trophies went to the Smithsonian Institution. --- Image by © CORBIS

Teddy Roosevelt, with a recently ‘acquired’ rhino in 1909. Photo © Edward Van Altena/Corbis

Still, times are changing, and have been for some time, as larger and larger proportions of westerners grow up in cities, believing meat comes from the supermarket. Hunting is increasingly an atavistic recreation rather than a noble pastime, and lots of people have little interest in preserving quaint customs.

In 1974 when President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that the USA EPA was placing three Australian kangaroos on the endangered species list, it led to a sense of bafflement and outrage in Australia. The three species – the Red, the Eastern Gray, and the Western Gray Kangaroos – were enormously abundant, and there was an active management program in place that culled 1-3 million per year for their hides and meat. Professional hunters were employed. These kangaroos were well-managed wildlife.

I remember my own outrage at the USA having the hubristic gall to announce it would manage Australia’s wildlife. Despite the facts, these three animals were “protected” by the USA until 1995, when they were quietly delisted and recorded as having recovered. It was apparent in 1974 that the EPA was responding to “animal-rights” pressures, and subsequently it became apparent also that it was politically easier for EPA to list three kangaroos and a number of other foreign species than to upset the lives of Americans still getting used to the Endangered Species Act by listing a creature on their own land. The irony, of course, was that there were a number of other ‘kangaroos’ – various wallabies and tree-kangaroos – that were at risk of extinction, yet were not included in the 1974 list.

Also in the early 1970s, international protests over the Canadian seal hunt were heating up, reaching the first of many peaks in 1977, when Brigitte Bardot was photographed with a baby seal. For 4000 years, people have harvested Harp Seals for their furs on the ice floes off Canada’s eastern shore. Along with the cod fishery, the annual seal hunt was a foundation of the Newfoundland economy. But the seals were hunted with guns and clubs, when they were defenseless on the ice, and the main targets were young, newly-born cubs. Pure white, with big brown eyes in their round faces. Clubbed to death.

As an ecologist, I knew the hunt was reasonably well-managed, and that if the Harp Seal population was not managed, the cod fishery would likely decline. In the 1970s and 1980s, I believed firmly that the protestors were wrong, and that their motivations were driven by those big brown eyes in white round faces no matter what they said about conservation.

And so we come to Cecil, a lion unfortunate to become world-famous and get his 15 minutes of fame only by being lured out of a reserve, shot by bow, tracked for 40 hours before being properly dispatched by gunfire, then beheaded, skinned and left for the vultures and hyenas. It all happened early in July. Cecil lived at Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, and was not only a favorite attraction with the tourists, but was collared and being tracked as part of a wildlife study out of Oxford University. Indeed, it was the cessation of pings from his collar that alerted people to the possibility he was dead.

Cecil the lion is seen at Hwange National Parks in this undated handout picture received July 31, 2015. The American dentist who killed Cecil the lion was a "foreign poacher" who paid for an illegal hunt and he should be extradited to Zimbabwe to face justice, environment minister Oppah Muchinguri said on Friday. In Harare's first official comments since Cecil's killing grabbed world headlines this week, Muchinguri said the Prosecutor General had already started the process to have 55-year-old Walter Palmer extradited from the United States. REUTERS/A.J. Loveridge/Handout via ReutersATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO ARCHIVES. NO SALES.      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

This nose-in-the-air aristocrat appears to be Cecil, before he was ‘harvested’

Big game is an important resource for a number of African countries, and both photographic and hunting safaris are legal. The funds generated by permits to hunt, or simply to visit the various parks are an important part of the budget for managing and conserving these species. It takes big bucks, relatively speaking, to go big game hunting (as it always has), but there are numerous hunters sufficiently well-heeled to be able to engage in and support this aspect of the African economy. But something different happened this time.

That Cecil was lured out of the park, and then shot can partly account for the outrage. That the crossbow shot was not lethal and it took 40 hours to find and dispatch him may have added to it. But the outrage on social media was spectacularly huge. So much so that now there are reports in the media of Zimbabweans lamenting the fact that the world doesn’t seem to notice when people in that country are living in abject poverty, or dying from starvation or simple-to-cure diseases, but the world certainly notices when a photogenic lion gets killed.

McDonald Lewanika, Director of Crisis Zimbabwe Coalition, told CNN that while it was heartening to see the international concern over Cecil, it was “disquieting” that people seemed to care more about a lion than other “pressing issues including a failing economy, a repressive regime that has been abducting its opponents, stifling the press and arresting activists.” Indeed, as of 2012, 72.3% of Zimbabweans lived under the poverty line, according to the CIA World Factbook. As of 2014, GDP per capita was $2,000 — 25 times less than the $50,000 dentist Walter Palmer paid for his permit to kill Cecil the lion. Hyperinflation and alleged human rights violations by President Robert Mugabe’s government have plagued the country for years. So why the outrage over a lion? A lion that was not particularly known to Zimbabweans before his death.

The outrage is not limited to a twitter burst, or a bunch of media stories. Dentist Palmer is in hiding somewhere in his home state of Minnesota. His practice is shuttered while a memorial shrine of stuffed animals grows in front of the door. His Florida vacation home has been vandalized. Airlines are announcing they will no longer carry big game trophies home with passengers. Zimbabwe is seeking his extradition. That photos have leaked onto the web showing Mr. Palmer with other ‘kills’, including other lions, and that his few comments suggest little concern for how his guides went about procuring this latest ‘kill’, contribute to a view of Mr. Palmer as a member of the ‘one percent’ used to getting whatever they want, whenever they want it, regardless the cost to others. And we all know what modern dentistry costs. Dentist Palmer’s privileged life-style is being questioned, something that did not used to happen in America, home of freedom and capitalism.

walter palmer and earlier kill cecil-lion
Walter Palmer is the big strong dentist on the left. The dead lion is an earlier kill. I guess he was after a matching pair. As someone on Twitter said, “Sorry about your penis.”

Beyond the rejection of Palmer’s chosen avocation, I think what we are seeing here is the gradual evolution of human attitudes towards wildlife. It’s ameliorated no doubt (there are psychological studies confirming this) by the fact that some wild animals have big brown eyes on roundish faces – known triggers of human parental responses. And it’s ameliorated by our growing separation from nature, and our consequent lack of awareness of our need to kill animals for animal food or other products. This is not logic. It’s emotion, pure and simple. But it leads somewhere potentially good – the beginnings of a new respect for non-human life.

Coal is a Fading Fuel

President Obama chose Monday 3rd August to announce the new regulations (now in final form) from EPA on power plant emissions. The core message is that by 2030 each state must lower CO2 emissions from power generation in currently operating plants by 32% from 2005 levels. In addition, they must increase their use of renewable sources. Importantly, each state has freedom to decide how best to meet these targets. An initial plan must be presented by 2016, with the final versions due in 2018. While a report in the New York Times suggested this action was all about Obama’s legacy, and devoted about half its space to recounting the plans in many states to immediately mount legal challenges, Associated Press was more balanced, recognizing that this is an historic attempt to effect real change despite an intransigent Congress. Not mentioned in all the talk about a 32% cut in emissions was the fact that emissions have already fallen about 15% from 2005 levels due to increased energy efficiency, and the slow but on-going phase-out of coal in favor of natural gas. Although Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell is already campaigning loudly in opposition to the plan, his own state’s Energy and Environment Secretary has already stated “We can meet it”, given that already planned phase-out of five aging coal-fired plants in that coal-producing state is going to reduce emissions by 16% next year.

Obama & McConnell
President Obama announcing the new EPA regulations governing power plants, and Senator McConnell, Leader of the Senate, urging all states to mount legal challenges to this attack on coal. Photos © Jim Watson/AFP, and Carlos Barria/Reuters, respectively.

The new regulations do not permit states to use efficiency gains directly to count towards emissions reductions, but by increasing efficiency, they will be able to contain or reduce demand, giving them increased flexibility in how they juggle among energy sources. The plan definitely does not solve the problem of climate change, but by setting realistic targets for reductions in this sector, the USA is demonstrating it intends to be part of the process.

Obama’s announcement has been met by considerable support from a wide range of sources, with much credit given for its flexible, state-driven approach. The negative responses have been very loud, quite political, and using some arguments that sound, to my ears, very much past their prime. Stating, as Mitch McConnell does, that these regulations will kill jobs, kill the coal industry and hurt the economy, seems rather old-fashioned – a clear sign that the speaker cannot see the wider economy, or recognize that world-wide the coal industry has been dying for years. (Incidentally, the flexibility in the regulations ensures that if a state wants to continue using coal, and sets out to develop effective gasification, or carbon-capture technologies so that coal energy could be used without releasing CO2, it is free to do so). Step out of the political circus and the general public is increasingly aware, even in the USA, that a) the world is going to try very hard to reduce emissions because we cannot afford the consequences if we do not, b) climate change is not an anti-capitalist plot by leftist politicians to ruin the economy, and c) yes, we are probably going to have to get used to paying more for energy – something a bit closer to its real cost. The people are starting to say, let’s suck it up and get moving. A newly released Pew Research Center poll from November 2014 reveals that the majority of every racial, age, or political subdivision (except for those identifying as tea party Republicans, or as politically conservative) among US adults favors stricter limits on power plants in order to combat climate change. There is a tide moving, and some of the politicians, like Mitch McConnell, do not yet see they need to cast off and go with the flow.

The Great Burning

The North American west is on fire this year. By mid-July, a total of 5.5 million acres (2.2 million hectares), an area equal in size to New Jersey, had already burned in the US, nearly 5 million acres in Alaska alone. In Canada, 2.9 million hectares had been lost by then (7.2 million acres), and in both countries the burning continues. Saskatchewan’s fires are expected to not be finally out until the first snows this Fall. Records for area burned are being set right, left and center.

LaRonge fire Saskatchewan
Fire burning outside La Ronge, northern Saskatchewan. Photo © Reuters/ Saskatchewan Govt

While the numbers are impressive, I think that the image of the Paradise fire best sums up the exceptionalism of 2015. By mid-July, the (relatively small) Paradise fire had burned nearly 1,600 acres (647 hectares) since lightning started it sometime in mid-May; it is expected to burn until late September. What makes this fire surprising is its location – smack in the middle of Olympic National Park, the wettest place in the continental US, regularly receiving 150 inches of rain per year. It’s a Sitka spruce forest of giant trees, festooned with moss and lichens, and dripping, dripping, dripping with water. Except that now the trees are smoldering slowly, and the lichens dry up, burst into flame, and flutter down to start new patches of fire on the forest floor. Paradise is the largest fire to occur since the park was established in 1938. Somehow, even smoldering slowly, forest fire seems inappropriate in this misty, miasmic, and strangely antediluvian forest; the kind of place where everything rusts if it does not rot first.

web1_ParadiseFire86web
The Paradise Fire, burning deep within Olympic National Park, a place that simply should not burn. Photo from TheDailyWorld.com

It’s hard to be surprised that these fires are occurring (well, Paradise surprises). Month after month over the past year if not longer, the NOAA climate maps have shown western North America much warmer than usual. Alaska has already seen close to 2oC of warming, and California’s prolonged drought has raised vegetable prices across North America, and led to mandatory water rationing in that State. What’s interesting is that the numerous media accounts of the fires make the link to climate change casually, and with no evident doubt. While this is hardly surprising from the website, ClimateProgress, which includes in its coverage the risk that the Alaskan fires will thaw permafrost, liberating methane and further exacerbating climate, the link was mentioned in most other stories I looked at. The CBC, discussing Saskatchewan, was referencing el Niño as well as climate change. Several Washington Post stories referenced climate change. The New York Times almost managed to avoid the topic, but the words ‘climate change’ crept in close to the end of an evocative photo essay about the California fires. I finally found Fox News, sticking to the facts, and never mentioning climate at all. My world has not changed totally!

El Niño to the Rescue

Meanwhile, far away in NOAA-land, scientists monitoring the developing el Niño are reporting that the pattern seen at the end of July bears many resemblances to the pattern during the ramp-up of the immense 1997-98 el Niño. From the start, the current el Niño has been a sluggish, slow-to-grow baby. I know I, along with others, began ‘anticipating’ its arrival in comments on this blog in April 2014. As time has gone on I began to wonder if it would ever arrive. But, according to NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist, Bill Patzert, “We have not seen a signal like this in the tropical Pacific since 1997. It’s no sure bet that we will have a strong El Niño, but the signal is getting stronger. What happens in August through October should make or break this event.” To back Bill up, the NASA Earth Observatory devoted its ‘image of the day’ for August 5th to el Niño, and NOAA produced a pretty comparison of sea surface temperatures in 1997 and 2015 which several media outlets prettied up with more intense colors and a temperature scale in Fahrenheit degrees (for their US readers, still measuring things using dimensions of royal personages’ parts (like feet)). I could not find the original, but found the doctored one here.

el Nino compared 1998 & 2015
El Niño tends to bring rain and storms to California, and California is desperate for rain – both for water and fire-suppression. The media are now discussing the possibility of a strong el Niño as perhaps a good thing for parched, burning California. People like Bill Patzert get interviewed and try to say things like, ‘it might not turn out to be that big’, or ‘remember the floods, the houses sliding down canyon walls’ or even, ‘you don’t end a multi-year drought with a couple of wet months’. From my perspective, the people, and the media are clearly beginning to accept that they are experiencing long-term alterations to their weather patterns. While they are still hoping that el Niño can come riding in from the Pacific, like some knight in shining armor, bringing a return to the easy life of old, they at least recognize that the present dry, hot situation is creating intolerable conditions if it persists. Mother Jones has a good discussion of the California situation, along with its usual, always leftist, sometimes witty asides.

Privilege, Arrogance, and Too Clever by Far

And so we come to Stephen Harper. He is an accomplished political tactician, perhaps too accomplished for his own good. Canada has inherited the Westminster style of government. Among our peculiar mechanisms and procedures, we have inherited the fact that the winner of an election (the leader of the party winning the most seats) usually gets the chance to form a government (with him/herself as Prime Minister) that will run for a maximum of five years from the date of the election, and that he/she also has the right to ask the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament and call an election at any time. (Another peculiarity is the Governor-General him/herself, who represents the Queen, and has the power to ‘invite’ a particular elected representative to form a government, to dissolve the Parliament, or to issue the call for an election. Of course, this ‘power’ is traditionally only exercised at the ‘request’ of the Prime Minister.) The quaint pirouette around the issue of the power of the Crown in our constitutional monarchy usually works remarkably well!

Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds a press conference after visiting Governor General David Johnston to dissolve parliament and trigger an election campaign at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Sunday, August 2, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Stephen Harper announcing he has ‘asked’ the Governor-General to call an election for October, in order to ensure that parties rather than the taxpayers pay for their campaigning! Body language suggests he doesn’t believe it either. Photo Justin Tang/CP

I explain all this quaint Westminster inheritance for the benefit of those readers who do not know these details, because Stephen Harper has seen fit to add in some interesting complexity. For reasons that almost certainly had to do with perceived advantage for his own political party, but were disguised at the time with eloquent bafflegab, Prime Minister Harper saw fit in 2006 to pass Bill C-16 to amend the Canada Elections Act to require that each general election will take place on the third Monday in October in the fourth year following the previous general election, unless it is called sooner. This little change did two things. It reduced the maximum five year term to effectively four years, and it introduced what should be the bane of existence of our American cousins, a preordained, fixed date for the next election. Dumb. Dumber than dumb. Why did Harper do this?

Harper said at the time, “Fixed election dates prevent governments from calling snap elections for short-term political advantage. They level the playing field for all parties and the rules are clear for everybody.”

That sounds plausible, except that he called a snap election in 2008, just 2 years and 9 months into his term. He gained a more robust minority, but was forced to yet another election on a confidence vote in Spring 2011. However, on the 2nd August 2015, Prime Minister Harper did the pirouette with the Governor-General, and we are now in the campaign for our first election called on the specified third Monday in October.

In announcing the election 11 weeks before the date, Stephen Harper has created the longest campaign in recent Canadian history. In defending this action, he said, “If we’re going to begin our campaigns and run our campaigns, then those campaigns need to be conducted under the rules of the law, that the money come from the parties themselves, not from the government resources, parliamentary resources or taxpayer resources.

The facts, of course, as they usually are with Stephen Harper, are not quite what they seem. Just as the amendments to the elections act in 2006 did not “prevent governments from calling snap elections for short-term political advantage”, his very early announcement of this election does not ensure that campaign costs will be paid by “money come from the parties themselves.” Mr. Harper knows very well that half the money spent by a campaign is reimbursed to the Party from government funds. He also knows, because he snuck the changes in when he pushed through the so-called Fair Elections Act, that the total amount that a Party can spend in a campaign is no longer fixed at $25 million, but grows for every day the campaign extends beyond the 37-day minimum. (This also probably explains why he visited the Governor-General on a Sunday morning in the middle of a long weekend, instead of waiting two extra days until Tuesday.) The campaigns this time around will be able to spend up to $54 million each, 50% of it reimbursed by taxpayers. In addition, there is allowed spending specific to each riding; this adds another $74 million per party to the total in this long campaign. CBC’s The National presented an animation detailing these calculations, and included the additional taxpayer-provided benefits to those who donate to political parties in the first place. The costs for Elections Canada, which now has to sign up staff for 80 days instead of 40, will also go up substantially, if not by 100% for the longer campaign. In other words, surprise, surprise, Stephen Harper was NOT speaking exactly truthfully when he claimed that by calling the election so early he was making sure the taxpayers would not have to pay for all the campaigning that was obviously going on already. That his Party happens to have money on hand almost equal to the totals of all the other parties explains what is really going on. He has masterfully gamed the system – one designed to limit spending in elections – to greatly expand the expense (to taxpayers) of elections while easing limits that would have meant his flush party coffers might not get fully exhausted. (Maybe there is room to repair some of these changes to election law when we elect somebody new?)

Yes, Stephen Harper is an accomplished political tactician. Too accomplished, by far. His zealous manipulations to capture every possible political advantage are becoming ever more transparent. I think a sizeable proportion of voters now see through his statements, and know that they must always be cautious before taking him at his word. Not having the trust of the electorate, is a risky position for a political leader up for re-election. Let’s see how things turn out as this long campaign lumbers forward.

smug Harper
Stephen Harper, too clever by far, perhaps? Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Signs of a Gathering Tide in our Belief Systems

I said at the beginning that I saw links between these four stories, links that made me optimistic. Where are those links? The outrage over Cecil the lion is a sign of two things, a growing intolerance of the idea that the wealthy can have anything they want, and a growing recognition that rights, even if they are not yet encoded in law, actually extend beyond the human race to other species and to Nature. These two trends fit together in acknowledging that there are communal rights (that can extend beyond the human community members) that trump any rights that wealthy individuals might claim for themselves. Mr. Palmer has a new trophy (unless it really was confiscated as evidence), but he has lost his livelihood and his freedom – I feel a little sorry for him, but somebody had to be first. Mr. Harper’s sheer cleverness over several years in making fine adjustments to Canada’s laws has made it possible for him to maximize his benefit as the leader of the richest Party in what will be a closely fought election, while also greatly increasing the cost, and the power of money, in Canadian elections. But the cards up the sleeves are showing, and large numbers of voters have seen though the white lies in his pronouncements about saving taxpayers money. It’s a matter of fairness and playing by the rules, and he clearly does not measure up. He is not the first politician to seek to use every possible advantage, but that excuse is a bit like Mr. Palmer’s assumption that he had the right to kill the lion because he was who he was. If it had a collar on it – not his problem.

The long burning summer in the North American west is bringing home to people, as happened previously in Australia, that we are experiencing a changing climate. The link to climate change and greenhouse gases has been made, and most people see the link is real and alarming. We do not like what is happening to our environment. We want climate change to stop, and we are starting to believe that we have an obligation to try to stop it. President Obama’s latest foray into achieving real change in US emissions of greenhouse gases, is being vigorously fought, but the majority of the people know he is right to try and act, and they also know that those opposing him are doing so for reasons that should be questioned. At the same time that right-of-center politicians help set up law suits to try to stop his actions, sizeable minorities of right-leaning voters know that Obama is doing the right thing. By contrast, a large majority of Canadians knows that Harper’s abject lack of policy on climate and environment has been self-serving, selfish, and wrong.

Categories: Changing lifestyles, Climate change, Coal, In the News, Politics | 5 Comments

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

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Difference between the future and what we expect

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

Indeed, any diagram produced by IPCC over the years, and intended to show the likely future given certain assumptions about human behavior, presents a spreading fan of possibilities as one moves further into the future. When the likely futures are compared assuming different human behavior with respect to greenhouse gas emissions, level of economic activity, population growth, there are different best guesses, each with their own fan of possibilities and these fans often overlap. For example, it’s true that the most likely future under IPCC’s RCP8.5 (which carries the nickname ‘business-as-usual’ because it assumes no great change in use of fossil fuels from the present) is a world that is likely to have warmed by more than 4oC by 2100 and to keep on warming. The most likely future under RCP4.5 is one that should get us to a 2oC increase by 2050, and a maximum increase by 2100 of about 2.4oC. And it’s also true that RCP2.6, the only scenario that leads to a cessation of warming by 2100, should keep warming under 2oC. But we could have temperatures at century end under RCP8.5 that reach as high as 5.4oC warmer than at present, or temperatures that are no warmer than possible trends under RCP4.5 – the respective fans of uncertainty just overlap.
Fig SPM 7a IPCC WG1 AR5

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

Two dark truths

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

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

NASA EARTH OBSERV 3rd week May 2015 lst_neo_2015137-2015144

Saskatchewan fires 2015 IMGUR 8B3pIL6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trend in carbon intensity PwC

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

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

The Trials of Jason Box

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

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

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

Complacency everywhere while the climate worsens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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