Our Human Condition – Trapped by the Familiar. It’s why Governmental or Economic Decisions are So Often Wrong when Environment is Involved.


The current kerfuffle over the expansion of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline that ships tar sands crude from Alberta to an export terminal on the coast of British Columbia is a sorry story.  It demonstrates that most leaders seem incapable of looking outside the box, never mind acting outside it.  Anthropocene times require out of the box thinking and action.  Canada, like the rest of the world, sits within the Anthropocene yet carries on as if we still inhabit the tranquil world of the Holocene.

Lots of Kinder-Morgan pipe waiting to go into the ground.  Photo © Chris Helgren/Reuters

The Anthropocene – Not your Grandfather’s Holocene

As anyone who has read this blog regularly knows, I believe humanity is in the midst of a potentially existential environmental crisis – like many things environmental, it is a slowly moving crisis by human time scales, but also an inexorable one.  And it is a crisis almost entirely of our own doing.  Climate change holds center stage just now, but this crisis includes a number of aspects beyond climate change.  All of them need addressing, and the need for speed in this addressing gets steadily greater.  It’s a lot to demand of a naked ape whose entire history of civilized progress, from the earliest agriculture to our first tentative ventures out into space, has taken place in the benign paradise we named the Holocene.

Ah, the Holocene.  Those were the days, when one could deliberate, and re-deliberate, year after year, confident that the problem being deliberated about, while still present, was not going to get substantially worse.  Hell, sometimes, if one deliberated long enough, the problem went away all on its own.  Sea level has been essentially static for the last 8000 years.  Alpine glaciers reliably stored water for slow release into the headwaters of most of the major rivers of the planet.  Monsoons came predictably enough that a monsoon failure was a super big deal unlikely to happen several years in a row.  Local fisheries collapsed from being overfished, but there were always new fisheries around the next headland waiting to be used, and collapsed fisheries sometimes recovered.  There were good years and bad ones, sometimes times of real hardship, but the world was a dependable place that provided, by and large, dependable weather, adequate food, the other resources we needed, opportunities to prosper.

Over time we have removed much of the forests, striped most of the fishes out of the oceans, caused the extinction of large numbers of organisms, turned major tracts of land into monocultures of fertilizer-dependent crops, and scoured vast areas of seabed clean by dragging and re-dragging fishing gear across them.  We have redistributed organisms across the planet, sometimes to our own considerable inconvenience, and through imperfect health policies, have encouraged the evolution of pathogens immune to most of the remedies we can throw at them.

As well, we have made a mess from time to time, littering the world with left-over and waste items, some organic, many not.  For many years, the problem of littering was simply to move away, or move the litter away – ‘the solution to pollution is dilution’ was a mantra that came into use 4000 years ago when people in India and Crete independently discovered how to use water to flush human wastes through drain systems and away.  It proved efficacious in most circumstances until our cities became so large that we needed mechanical and microbial ways of hastening decomposition before diluting in a river or the ocean.  Now with a population exceeding 7 billion, and with an out of control chemical industry inventing novel compounds at a pace that defied efforts to screen them for safety before release into the environment, this mantra frequently seems insufficient.

Today, our tendency to pollute is poisoning the soil, deoxygenating the coastal ocean, and altering the composition of the atmosphere in ways that are modifying our climate.  Some places are worse off than others, but there is now nowhere on this planet where evidence of us, in the form of our messes, does not exist.

We are Trapped in a Box

In the Anthropocene, all these problems become progressively worse as our population grows and our mean standards of living increase.  And our pollution of the atmosphere is causing climate to change at a pace that has seldom if ever been seen before, and certainly not in the couple of million years since our species first appeared on the planet.  Now that we have photographs of our planet from space that tell us, wordlessly, that it is finite and alone – the only place in the reachable universe that can support our species –, and now that we have a reasonably good understanding of the more obvious environmental and ecological consequences of most of the bad things we are doing, one might expect the ‘wise man’ (Homo sapiens), or at least the leaders of groups of such wise men, might recognize this environmental crisis as important, a problem to solve, even an existential problem requiring urgent solution.

Except Homo sapiens is clearly mis-named.  Because we do not readily think outside the box.  Our societies, whether relying on democratic, feudal, socialist or other governance, have histories rooted in the Holocene, when the planet provided a dependable environment in which to plan and execute our noble enterprises.  Most of us, once we become powerful enough in our own eyes to presume we can control nature, have treated nature as the set of places, creatures and things available for us to use.  Sort of like a giant supermarket, full of items to pick up and carry out, with no cash registers in sight.  (This supermarket even has places where we can dump our left-over, unwanted, or otherwise useless things, free of charge.  Quite a wonderful place really!)

Because the natural world has been dependable in providing us with goods and services, and because we have built economic systems which ignore the costs of using nature as we do, governance (both political and business) has evolved, under all political systems, to maximize short-term, and personal gains, minimize short-term and personal costs, and assume the environment will somehow take care of itself no matter what we do.  This approach to governance leads to a political process that seeks to find consensus (also known as reaching a compromise) among competing entities within society in which the short-term and personal interests of all sides are met to some degree – the so-called win-win solution.  Possible wins or losses by nature are irrelevant to the process.  Governance has also developed procedures which can be guaranteed to take a long time, simply because the longer you spend deliberating the more likely one side will walk away, making the solution politically painless for those who remain.  In societies in which the governance is achieved by a government built through a process of election of individuals to office of limited tenure, the tendency to think short-term is amplified.  Few leaders think long-term, well beyond the end of their own mandate in office, especially if the long-term benefit will become apparent only at the end, while costs will be more immediate.  In other words, because of the ways in which we have traditionally treated the natural world, and because of the nature of decision making in our societies, we have learned to ignore environmental damage whenever preventing that damage cuts into the personal and short-term benefits of leading actors in the society.

In the Anthropocene, the risks to our societies of continuing to make decisions in this way are likely to rise to the point when they can no longer be tolerated.  Unfortunately, with our gift for short-term thinking, and the slow pace at which environmental problems usually develop, we are slow to learn, and will likely have to experience a number of ‘intolerable’ environmental crises before we mend our ways.

Kinder-Morgan Trans-Mountain Pipeline Twinning Project

All of which brings me back to Kinder-Morgan.  It was only a few years ago, that the twinning of the existing Trans-Mountain pipeline owned by the giant US company, Kinder-Morgan, was one of about four new pipeline proposals for shipping tar sands bitumen off to refineries or ports.  All were deemed ‘essential’ to the future well-being of the Alberta economy, and to prosperity across Canada, because projections were for tar sands production to grow substantially.  In a 2008 report on production, CAPP projected 2020 tar sands production to be 3.5 million barrels per day (MMBD), up from 1.2 MMBD in 2007.  Earlier predictions had been for 3 MMBD by 2015.  The rosy predictions created images in the mind of the Alberta landscape becoming covered by row upon row of barrels waiting to be shipped out; clearly, we needed lots of new pipelines to keep up with production.

CAPP forecast for tar sands production to 2030 as of June 2017.  Image © CBC News.

As things have turned out, future production estimates have been scaled back.  2015 came in under 2.4 MMBD, and CAPP is now predicting 3.1 MMBD by 2020 (and 3.67 MMBD by 2030).  The talk about three-fold increases seems to have dried up, although CAPP is still talking growth.  (Interestingly, the National Energy Board is more optimistic than CAPP, the industry spokesman!)

As well, industry spokespeople argued for the need for pipelines to ‘tidewater’, meaning anywhere except the US Gulf Coast, as a way of combating the differential value of Alberta crude compared to other North American or World sources.  By getting product to the east or west coast of Canada, the argument went, Alberta suppliers would be able to get their oil to market at a price nearly on par with the Brent crude benchmark.  In addition, following the 2013 rail accident, explosion and fire in downtown Lac Mégantic which claimed 47 lives, a new argument for more pipelines appeared; pipelines are safer than trains.  (Most people forget the Lac Mégantic accident had nothing to do with tar sands oil.)

Given all these arguments, anybody who questioned the necessity of all these new pipelines was dismissed as a head-in-the-clouds greenie who simply does not understand economics.  And yet, several knowledgeable people have questioned the necessity (and I have blogged about it here and here).  Among the doubters is David Hughes, an earth scientist who was for 32 years with the Canadian Geological Survey, and an authority on global and North American energy and sustainability issues (see an early comment here).  In May 2017, he authored a detailed assessment of Kinder-Morgan in a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and Parkland Institute report, Will the Trans Mountain Pipeline and Tidewater Access Boost Prices and Save Canada’s Oil Industry?  This report is well worth a read.  In it, Hughes tackles each of the arguments in favor of new pipelines and finds them wanting.

National Energy Board’s anticipated growth in tar sands production, as constrained by the Alberta GHG emissions cap.  The reference, or average expected, case (black line) becomes constrained by the cap in 2025, the ‘high price’ trend in 2023.  Capping of production necessarily reduces future need for pipeline capacity.  Figure © CCPA/Parkland, based on NEB data.

Production estimates for the tar sands have been consistently optimistic, and Kinder-Morgan used estimates even higher than those used by the National Energy Board when articulating the need for the twinned pipeline.  The NEB predictions are higher than those from CAPP.  In 2016, NEB projected tar sands production would most likely reach 4.25 MMBD in 2030 and 4.8 MMBD by 2040, with the possibility of it reaching 5.3 MMBD if prices were unexpectedly high; Kinder-Morgan projected 5 MMBD by 2038.  Furthermore, the emissions cap introduced by Alberta, if obeyed, will prevent that degree of growth (assuming present-day emissions per barrel of product), and both the reference case and the high price possibility are constrained to 3.2 MMBD.  The emissions cap is hit in 2025 for the reference case.  With almost two million fewer barrels per day to move than Kinder-Morgan was predicting, the need for additional pipeline capacity no longer exists.

Hughes also demolishes the supposed price differential caused by the ‘landlocked’ status of Canada’s bitumen.  He shows convincingly, by graphing the historical trend in prices, that the differential that existed between West Texas Intermediate and Brent crude prices in 2012 and 2013 (when the Kinder-Morgan expansion was proposed) no longer exists and had not existed in years prior to 2011.  Fact is, the tidewater price at Houston is not significantly different to that at Vancouver or Halifax.

The differential in oil price that bringing tar sands product to ‘tidewater’ is supposed to correct – except there has only been a differential for a few years around 2012-13.
© CCPA/Parkland.

As for the argument that additional pipeline capacity was needed to reduce the risk of shipping oil by train, when the math is done, as Hughes reports, taking account of the effects of the Alberta cap on emissions on tar sands growth, there is surplus pipeline capacity even now.  New pipelines are not needed for this reason either.

The interesting thing about Hughes’ argument, and he has made it a number of times, is that it makes no mention of the need to reduce emissions and other forms of environmental damage (other than including the effects of Alberta’s (very weak) cap on emissions).  His arguments are based on the same economic and business cases that are used by proponents for every new pipeline being proposed.  And similar arguments have been made by others.  The business case is without merit.

If we add in a serious desire to improve environment and reduce the risk of climate change, the need for any additional pipeline capacity evaporates completely.  Canada’s current commitment under Paris (which we are not yet meeting) is woefully inadequate if climate change is to be kept under 2oC, and the existing Alberta cap on tar sands emissions barely constrains expansion.  Canada is going to have to do substantially more to reach its weak climate goals, and very much more to meet real goals for emissions reduction.  We can choose not to do this because we cannot afford the dent to our economy that winding down the tar sands would cause.  But that ensure we would be recognized permanently as a climate slacker, and would no doubt get some negative repercussions if we stuck our heels in.

I’m not going to belabor the environmental argument here; I’ve done so several times already and there are plenty of other sources of this information.  We are not going to be able to reduce emissions sufficiently to do our share to keep climate change below 20C if we also permit tar sands production to grow to the limit set by the Alberta cap.  This is not politics or economics, it is science.  The two goals are incompatible in this universe.  But, of course, our politicians are trying to treat this incompatibility like any other political problem.  And therein lies abject failure.

PM Justin Trudeau has staked his future on living up to Canada’s climate commitments (it would be a first for this country), and on sustaining Alberta’s fossil fuel economy.  He doesn’t seem to wonder if all those talented people employed in the tar sands might be able to do something useful that does not involve massive increases to our emissions.  Maybe he should read the recent Globe & Mail op-ed by Jeffrey D. Sachs, a professor at Columbia University and director of the Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.  In his 13th April article he articulated a vision of Canada undertaking the infrastructure development to more fully integrate its electricity grid, both across Canada and between Canada and the US, so that we could export emissions-free electricity produced chiefly from our ample hydropower and other non-fossil sources, including nuclear, into the US energy supply thereby aiding their decarbonization while encouraging the continuation of our own progress in that field.  To what he wrote I would add building a massive expansion of wind and perhaps solar farms in Alberta to further this effort.

Premiers Notley of Alberta and Horgan of British Columbia are also trapped by not looking outside the box.  Notley introduced a tepid cap on tar sands production that will not likely kick in until 2025, but now faces stiff opposition on her right because she has gone too far down a climate change path.  Trudeau promised her a pipeline if she’d do the right thing on climate and now it looks like the pipeline may not happen.  In British Columbia, John Horgan leads a minority government that opposes increased oil shipments out of their ports, or pipelines across their iconic landscape; he is propped up by the Green Party who are even more belligerently opposed to pipelines.  The conventional political compromise ain’t going to happen.

Meanwhile, preventing the pols from thinking carefully and deeply (yes, they do, sometimes) is a cacophony from the business sector arguing that if Kinder-Morgan is not built the world as we know it will come to an end (a rough translation of their perspective on the hit to Canada’s reputation as a place to do business).  While I understand that countries must provide a dependable environment for investment, I seriously doubt that the failure to build a pipeline in British Columbia will stop economic sectors other than those engaged in fossil fuel digging, processing and shipping, from continuing to see Canada as a nation of laws and reliable governance.  Would Google really have second thoughts about investing in Canada if Kinder-Morgan goes down?  Really?  Might not some economic sectors take renewed interest in Canada as a land which values its environment sufficiently to leave the tar sands in the ground and build opportunity in other ways?  And Kinder-Morgan’s signs of cold feet are surely an indication that the business argument for the pipeline is not quite as wonderful for all concerned as they claimed when making the application to build.

So, what is the outcome from the meeting in Ottawa between Trudeau, Notley and Horgan last weekend?  A typically political solution.  They could not find a consensus, but Trudeau and Notley agreed they could use national and Alberta tax monies to seduce Kinder-Morgan to go ahead, even though the regulatory battles will continue.  This is not an intelligent plan.

Meanwhile Canadian government websites continue to put as shiny a lipstick as possible on Canada’s appallingly weak progress on the climate front, and Trudeau’s hard-working Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna has until now been assuring Canadians that we are ‘on track’ to achieve our climate goals, while avoiding niggling issues like the 66 Mt CO2 emissions gap that still exists between Canada’s 2030 target and the realistic 2030 projection of emissions.  It’s a gap for which Ms. McKenna has only waffle words.  Her words in a mid-March interview show that she fully understands what is happening; once more Canada will put false tar sands economics ahead of environment and fail to fulfill its UN commitments made in those heady days in Paris.  All because everyone is staying carefully inside the box – a box where big investments in dirty things you can dig up and sell are more important than an environment worth living in.

Let’s Talk about the Oceans

Just to ram that last point home, last week’s copy of Nature included two research articles, an overview, and an editorial all talking about the erratic behavior of the AMOC.  AMOC is not some wooly-coated, brown-eyed, cuddly creature that lives in the Himalayas; AMOC is the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, and while many people have never heard of it they should be paying attention.  The AMOC is slowing down.

Diagram of the AMOC prepared by Levke Caesar for the press release accompanying the Nature article.  Surface currents are in red, deep currents in blue, and the color bar scale refers to ocean color.  The cool area in the North Atlantic, site of the subpolar gyre that marks the region where surface water is falling to deeper layers, and variation in sea surface temperature at this region appears to be a useful proxy for the strength of AMOC.  Image © L. Caesar/PIK.

The AMOC transfers vast quantities of surface waters, first carried to the North Atlantic on the Gulf Stream, to the ocean depths and back towards the tropics.  It happens because the warm, salty Caribbean water cools as it moves north until it becomes dense enough, despite its saltiness, to drop below the North Atlantic water.  This vast waterfall within the ocean drives the Gulf Stream and the major ocean circulation system that ensures that oxygen gets carried down to the depths, and that heat is transferred from the tropics to the temperate zones.  Back in the 1950s marine scientists began to work out the giant oceanic circulatory currents, and their role in determining climate.  Greenland ice core data suggested these current systems sometimes changed radically and suddenly triggering climate changes.  The AMOC was relatively strong and stable during the Holocene, but in 2005, a report in Nature described an apparently weakened AMOC, raising the possibility that it might be becoming unstable.  Work since then has revealed that its strength fluctuates in complex ways.  The two research articles in last week’s Nature confirm that the AMOC is now about 15% weaker, especially in winter and spring, which slows the flow of surface water to the depths.

The two articles, one by Levke Caesar, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany, and 4 colleagues from Europe and the USA, and one by David Thornalley, University College London and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and 11 colleagues from Europe and North America, use radically different approaches to confirm this marked slow-down.  The teams’ results differ in the estimated date of on-set, with Thornalley’s team suggesting this pattern began around 1850 and Caesar’s group pinning the change to the mid-20th century.  The discrepancy is as much a comment on the difficulty of doing global-scale oceanographic research as on the different approaches taken.  Thornalley used paleoclimate data over the past 1600 years, while Caesar used high-resolution global climate models and data on sea surface temperature to reveal patterns of change in surface temperatures in the North Atlantic since the late 1800s.  Both teams attribute the slow-down to human releases of greenhouse gases and resulting climate change.  The take-home message for me is that this is one more glimpse of the seriousness of the climate crisis.  The slow-down of AMOC, likely triggered by the copious new cold fresh water being introduced to the North Atlantic as Greenland’s glaciers melt, could have sudden and serious consequences for the climate of Europe or for the Northern Hemisphere.  We don’t know how serious, nor how soon, nor how rapid such climatic changes might be, but they could affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

And yet, content in our boxes, not looking out, we continue to make decisions about pipelines as if it was routine politics as usual.  Sometime in a distant future, people are going to look at the money wasted in building unnecessary infrastructure to prop up a fossil fuel industry coming to its natural end, the other vast sums of money wasted protecting cities from rising seas, from catastrophic floods, or from unending droughts, and compare them to the dollars that could have been spent productively building the new, low-emissions, decarbonized economy of the 21st century.  And they will ask, “How stupid were they?  Why could they not recognize what had to be done?  Why did they not work to prevent this difficult, dangerous world in which we now live?”  Guess I’m in my optimistic phase today – thinking there will be people in the future with time to think about such things.

If you don’t think outside the box, you’ll never figure out how to move Canadians towards effective climate policy.  Cartoon © Brian Gable/Globe & Mail.

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Changing Oceans, Climate change, Economics, Politics, Tar Sands | Leave a comment

. Catching Cod, or Not… Fisheries Management and the Anthropocene


The people of Newfoundland are a patient lot, but their patience has been further tested this month.  And that test provides me a teaching moment:  Our negative impacts on the world can be halted, but we assume too often that when they are halted, the world will recover, promptly and smoothly, to its former condition.  That is seldom the case.

Cod fishing has been the lifeblood for Newfoundland ever since Europeans began using drying racks on its shores to prepare the fish for shipment home.  Photo © JL Rotman/Corbis.

The good people of Newfoundland, when they are not busy starring in musicals about their well-recognized generosity, mostly wait patiently for the fishing to improve.  They’ve been waiting since 1992.  That’s a long time, and the wait is far from over.  The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has just released a report showing that the northern stock of Atlantic cod, Gadus morhua, listed as Vulnerable on IUCN’s Red List, has declined in numbers for the second year in a row, and remains within what DFO refers to as the critical zone – a population that is so reduced that any fishing mortality at all should be avoided.

The northern stock is the population of cod that occupies the waters off the southern third of the Labrador coast and the eastern coast of Newfoundland, extending out beyond Canada’s 200 nautical mile limit, and encompassing all of the Grand Banks.  This is an immense area that used to provide annual catches in the order of 200,000 to 400,000 tonnes of cod (nearly 800,000 tonnes in 1968 and 1969) until the stock collapsed in the early 1990s and commercial fishing was suspended in 1992.

Annual fishery landings of northern cod, 1958 to 2017 (left) and 1995 to 2017 (right).  2J, 3K, and 3L are the northern, central and southern sectors (NAFO Divisions) of the western North Atlantic occupied by this population of cod (they stretch from the central Labrador coast south to the southern boundary of the Grand Banks).  It is clear from the right-hand graph that the catch has been substantially larger in 2016 and 2017 than in recent years (although still far below the catches prior to stock collapse in 1992).  Graph © Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

DFO analyses reveal that both natural mortality rate, and mortality rate due to fishing have increased.  Natural mortality (the proportion of fish dying during the year from causes other than fishing) nearly doubled from 0.39 in 2016 to 0.74 in 2017.  That is equivalent to a change from 70% of animals alive at 1/1/2016 surviving through 31/12/2016 to just 48% of animals alive at 1/1/2017 surviving through 31/12/2017.  Fishing mortality (the proportion of fish dying due to fishing) increased from 0.014 in 2015, to 0.021 in 2016 and 0.025 in 2017.  Likely reasons for the increase in natural mortality include a falling abundance of capelin and shrimp, major food sources for cod, and temperature changes due to climate change.  (Temperature changes can directly impact the fish by altering metabolic requirements for food, and can affect them indirectly through impacts on food species.)  The increases in fishing mortality are evident in data on fish landings – these increased from 10,000 tonnes in 2016 to 13,000 tonnes in 2017, but would likely have had only a minor impact on the population compared to that of the change in natural mortality.

DFO reports that spawning stock biomass (the estimated abundance, as biomass, of spawning-age individuals) has declined from 423 kilotonnes in 2017 to 315 kilotonnes in 2018.  That is a substantial drop, and DFO expects the stock numbers to decline further in 2019, based on the lack of spawning-age individuals.  A plot of the estimated number of two-year-old fish since 1983 shows the sorry state of this population since the early 1990s.  Looks like those Newfoundlanders will be waiting a few decades more.

Graph showing decline in status of northern cod (as number of two year old fish) from 1983 to 2017.  The pronounced crash in 1989-1992 and the slow ‘recovery’ since are both clear.
© DFO Canada.

The Atlantic cod is a moderate size fish.  It can reach two meters in length, although it is now seldom seen larger than 90 cm in length.  It reaches breeding age between 5 to 7 years old at a size of about 35-50 cm length along the northern Newfoundland and Labrador coasts, but matures at the same size, at 2 to 3 years of age further south.  When they spawn, newly mature females produce 300-500,000 eggs, but a female can produce several million eggs once >75 cm in length.  The eggs are pelagic and hatch into pelagic larvae.  After two and a half months, larvae settle to the bottom and commence a juvenile life in which they are relatively sedentary in waters 10 to 150 m deep where they make use of sponges and seaweed that provide cover.  After 1 to 4 years of juvenile life they become more active and wide-ranging mid-water predators.

The Atlantic cod is not just a convenient fishery species.  It sustained the most important fishery in the Atlantic Ocean from the late 15th century until 1992 – 500 years.  That fishery began with ships journeying across from Europe for a season of fishing (or until the hold was full of fish in brine).  The fishery switched to making use of the islands and coastline of Newfoundland, as places for summer camps where fish were dried before being packed in salt for shipment back to Europe (less weight per tonne of edible product).  The colonization of Newfoundland, the Maritimes, and New England states followed; a direct consequence of the cod fishery.  This was a fishery which became a major part of a trade cycle that also moved West Indian sugar and African slaves.  The economic value of the cod fishery is hard to overestimate.  But it collapsed in 1992, and 25 years later it seems very unlikely to recover any time soon.

Why Did It Happen?

So, why did the cod stock collapse?  The first thing to recognize is that this is not an isolated occurrence.  Fisheries collapse all the time.  Well-managed fisheries (like the cod fishery) and poorly managed fisheries collapse.  Collapses can be gradual or sudden and can be devastating to the communities that depend upon them – just talk to Newfoundlanders about cod.  The collapse of the northern cod fishery is a part of a wide-spread, multi-species collapse affecting most trawl fisheries off the eastern coast of Canada and the north-eastern USA in recent decades.

It is widely thought that fisheries for long-lived, slow-growing, larger species (such as cod) are more prone to collapse.  These, the argument goes, have less capacity to rapidly recover numbers if overfished because it takes so long from hatching to reproductive maturity that the fishery is seriously depleted before anyone is aware of the problem.  However, recent studies by Malin Pinsky of Rutgers University have confirmed that short-lived, fast-growing, and smaller species are also prone to collapse.  In fact, in his first paper on this topic published in 2011 as he was completing PhD studies at Stanford University, Pinsky examined data on a globally distributed list of nearly 600 fishery stocks for which landings data or formal population assessment data existed.  Of these, about a quarter had collapsed at some point in their fishing history.  He looked at a number of species attributes: longevity, age at maturity, size, growth rate, trophic level, fecundity, egg size.  For none of these was there a significant trend in likelihood of collapse.  The only factor that did show a significant trend was fishing mortality – the proportion of the population each year that succumbs to fishing.

One interesting difference existed between the stocks for which formal assessment data were available and the stocks for which only landings data were available.  For the landings data set, there was a slight (though statistically nonsignificant) trend towards collapses being more likely in longer lived, later maturing or slower growing species.  When assessment data are available, that indicates a stock is being managed using fishery science procedures, but many fish stocks are not managed this way and those less scientifically managed stocks predominate in the landings data set (information on numbers caught each year, and perhaps on fishing effort as well).  More scientifically rigorous management should mean that catch rate is set so that fishing mortality is closely related to the capacity of that species to replenish the fish taken, and this should lessen the risk of collapse.  Less effectively managed stocks are likely to exceed appropriate levels of fishing pressure more frequently if they are slow-growing or late-maturing than if they are faster growing or earlier maturing stocks.

In a follow-up paper published in 2015, Pinsky, and his colleague, David Byler of Princeton University, reached a surprising conclusion.  They evaluated the 150+ fishery stocks worldwide for which long-term assessment data were available, using newer analytical methods that could also incorporate climate variability, along with fishery and population data.  They were able to confirm, contrary to expectations, that species with what they call ‘fast’ life cycles (shorter lived, faster growing, earlier reproducing) were more likely than others to collapse under excessive fishing pressure.  This is likely due to the greater impact on such species of changes in climate or other environmental variables – short-lived, rapidly reproducing species are more likely to track environmental change more completely than species which buffer fluctuations in environmental condition more effectively and show a dampened population response to good times or bad.  Paradoxically, good management is more effective on the ‘slow’ species than on ‘fast’ ones.  Their analysis also showed that chronic (i.e. prolonged) overfishing leads to depletion of a fishery, while higher levels of overfishing (i.e. fishing at levels well above sustainable ones) lead to collapse in the first place.

We Set Fisheries Up for Collapse

So why DID the northern cod stock crash, and why is it remaining depressed a quarter century later?  This was a ‘well-managed’ fishery, in the sense that DFO had relatively good information about the structure of the population gained through regular stock assessment and was issuing advice based on those assessments.  What stock assessments cannot evaluate, however, is the likelihood of environmental changes that may affect the capacity of the population to replenish itself (such as by altering food regimes or affecting the survivorship of larval stages, for example).  Further, there is always some slippage between fishery management advice and fishery regulations introduced and enforced.  The cod fishery was being intensively fished during the late 1980s – at, or even in slight excess of that which would be sustainable.  Changes in water temperature altered availability of food for larval and/or juvenile cod.  The cod were failing to replenish themselves, but fishing pressure remained high.  Recommendations to reduce the allowable catch were not followed at first because of the effect that would have on the industry.  Only when the pressure to do something became high enough to force a politically difficult decision, the fishing moratorium was put in place (forcing an abrupt loss of livelihood for the fishing community), but it was already too late to avoid the marked collapse.  Landings fell from 219,000 tonnes in 1990, to 154,000 tonnes in 1991 and 52,000 tonnes in 1992.  In 1995, three years after the moratorium went into effect, fewer than 1000 tonnes were landed.

Since 1992, there has been ongoing pressure from the fishing community to open up the fishery again.  Catches have been allowed to creep up, and 13,000 tonnes were landed in 2017.  While the continual, low-level fishing pressure is likely having an insignificant effect on the stock, it is still having an effect that diminishes the ability of the stock to build up numbers.  In addition, the environment in which the cod reside has continued to change; some other species have become more common and use food that otherwise would be available for cod, or prey upon cod themselves, and prey species may be less available for other environmental reasons as well.

The story of the northern cod fishery is typical of collapses.  Pinsky and Byler refer to ‘the dynamics of coupled social-ecological systems’ by which they mean the societal features that delay responses to a decline in a fishery stock.  These features include the unavoidable delays in collection of scientific data on the stock, analyses of those data and development of fishery recommendations, and eventual adjustments to fishing pressure.  When a stock is already being fished at a rate which is on the borderline of being unsustainable (and most fisheries reach this level of exploitation quite quickly), continuation of that level of fishing pressure when the population declines exacerbates the decline and can quickly lead to substantial damage to the stock.  In other words, we set fisheries up to collapse the moment we manage for maximum sustainable yield – taking the maximum amount of fish that should be sustainable given the status of that population.  And pressure by the fishing industry nearly always ensures we manage for maximum sustainable yield.  We set them up to fail, because our management systems are incapable of responding quickly enough to signs that the population has declined.  We also forget that it is normal for populations to fluctuate in size – there are good years and bad years, after all.  But when you are managing for maximum sustainable yield, it is very important to know that the population has fallen because of factors unrelated to fishing.  That is the time when catch should be reduced to compensate, yet we frequently take a different approach – well, let’s keep a watch on things, but continue fishing at the previously agreed rate.

Optimistic Views of Global Trends

The Fisheries and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports every second year on the status of fisheries and aquaculture globally; the next report will be out within the next few months.  In these reports, FAO classifies global fisheries as overfished, fully fished and underfished (implying that fish species exist only for the purpose of being caught by humans!).  Over the years, despite FAO’s tendency to always take an optimistic view, the number of underfished stocks has diminished, the number of fully fished stocks has remained more or less the same, and the number of overfished stocks has grown.  The 2016 report showed about 30% of fishery stocks were now overfished, while only 10% remained underfished.

Trend in the status of globally important marine fishery stocks from 1974 to 2013 as reported by FAO.  Figure 13 in State of World Fisheries and Agriculture, 2016 © Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Despite this long-standing trend, and flat fishery yields since the late 1980s, FAO projects a 1% increase in total capture fishery yield by 2025, due in part to the recovery of a number of overfished (=collapsed) stocks, spurred in part by the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their specific targets which might help improve management of fisheries.  I fear this is a vain hope, but perhaps we will all rise miraculously to the UN challenge and end hunger and poverty, while conserving marine resources (the three SDGs singled out by FAO as likely to lead to stock recoveries).

In the past, fisheries that collapsed did oftentimes recover.  The important step that needed to be taken was to suspend fishing for long enough to permit the recovery to take place.  On the face of it, this is a reasonable expectation:  if we fish a population, we are increasing the mortality rate of that population, meaning that individuals live shorter lives and perhaps reproduce on fewer occasions.  If a population suffers an increase in mortality rate, with no increase in rate of production of young (or perhaps a reduction in this as well) that population will become smaller until a new balance between production and mortality is reached.  Therefore, if we stop fishing, we lower the mortality rate again, which should lead to another equilibration between production and mortality and a consequent increase in the population.  This is the way water level in a bathtub can be set by adjusting the inflow and outflow.  It is more or less the way things used to work for fisheries, although our success at stopping fishing was often less than needed, and the depleted population dwindled further, lingered at low levels, or took many years to slowly recover.

In a 2010 review, NOAA fisheries scientist, Steven Murawski, evaluated 25 well-managed commercial fisheries stocks that had collapsed to ascertain patterns of recovery.  He reported that all but one “exhibited signs of recovery”, but in several instances recovery was incomplete even after a decade or more of careful management.  One of his take-home messages was “Rebuilding the majority of stocks classified worldwide as ‘overfished’ will take a more effective, consistent, and politically supported stock-recovery paradigm, if society is eventually to meet its articulated sustainability goals for global fisheries”.  That’s a very polite way of saying we have to work much harder than we usually do to cut fishing pressure and keep it cut for a sufficient time for recovery to occur.  Newfoundland fishermen, whose patience has been tested, must understand that the testing will last a good bit longer.

Now Things May Be Different

Sadly, however, the present and future may not be like the past, and Murawski’s optimism may now be misplaced.  The example of the northern cod stock seems to show this.  A 2017 article in Nature Communications, by Gregory Britten and colleagues at Dalhousie University, points out that fishery management practice has presumed that the playing field was level, but it now appears to be strongly tilted.

Well, actually, they did not even mention playing fields!  What they did say is that fisheries management (and other types of environmental management) has always proceeded on the assumption that while environmental conditions often vary, they vary around a stationary ‘average’ condition.  Thus, the assumption goes, there are good years and bad years for fish production or survivorship and growth, but these average out over time; there are no long-term trends in environmental condition.  Britten and colleagues suggest that while it may have been appropriate through most of the 20th century, we can no longer assume this essential long-term stationarity in environmental conditions.  They suggest that there is now growing evidence that the environment is changing directionally, in many ways, and these changes have consequences for the production of fish; these changes must be taken account of when determining allowable catch for future years.  The most obvious of these long-term changes relate to climate, but here it gets complicated, because global warming does not translate simply into a uniform warming of the oceans, and warming does not translate simply into enhanced, or diminished, production in any particular fishery.  Much of their article concerns a method for making best estimates of future production for use in setting allowable catch.

  When Miami Beach is under water, it doesn’t really matter if climate change is our fault or not (but it is). Image © Joe Darrow/Florida Trends.

While I think of it, I’ve heard this argument for stationarity of environmental conditions more times than I care to remember from climate skeptics of various stripes.  Its usually offered immediately before the arguments based on sunspot cycles, or wobbles in Earth’s axis.  And it gets followed in turn by the claim, “Well, anyway, if the climate is changing its nothing to do with human actions” – as if that matters a damn when glaciers are melting at alarming rates and the world’s major cities are getting wetter and wetter every high tide.  But I digress…..

Britten and colleagues evaluated 276 well-managed global fishery stocks, and showed that 68% of them exhibited biologically significant non-stationarity in productivity.  They illustrated one consequence of managing such a population as if its intrinsic productivity was constant, using the Gulf of St. Lawrence cod stock and the eastern Atlantic stock of bluefin tuna as examples.

The cod stock (much like the northern cod stock off eastern Newfoundland) went through a series of good years (strong intrinsic production) in the 70’s and early 80’s, but then moved into a series of bad years from the mid 80’s to the present.  Managing them as if their productivity was stationary meant that there were fish available to catch that were likely not taken in the good years, but in the bad years the allowable catch was consistently set too high.  This stock collapsed along with the northern cod as revealed by the record of actual catch (as + symbols).

Two examples of consequences of managing assuming stationarity in intrinsic production are the Gulf of St. Lawrence stock of cod (a, c) and the eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna (b, d).  For both (a, b), the surplus production estimated (an index of the amount of fish available to harvest) using conventional methods is shown as a solid black line, and that estimated including non-stationarity as a dotted black line.  The calculated sustainable yields (c, d) are shown as the horizontal black line (conventional) and the irregular dotted line (non-stationary).  Differences between the two methods are shown as gray and pink shading – gray indicating an underestimate of production of sustainable catch using conventional procedures, and pink indicating an overestimate of these.
Image is Figure 2 in Britten’s article.

The bluefin tuna experienced an alternating series of several good followed by several bad years over the time period.  Each cycle lasted a decade or more.  This depressed fishery undoubtedly benefited during the period from 1985 to 2002, when allowable catch using conventional management methods underestimated the real potential catch.  The situation since 2002, however, suggests allowable catch needs to be substantially reduced because the conventional approach is seriously overestimating the numbers of fish available to catch.  Whether this cycling pattern of good production followed by poor production will continue into the future is unknown, but assuming that the stock has stationary intrinsic production capacity is clearly not warranted.

We No Longer Live in our Grandfather’s World

The tendency to expect fish populations to have stationary rates of production, growth, and (non-fishery) mortality, is just one aspect of our too-human expectation that the world is a dependable place.  It is a logical development of us having spent the last 11,500 years in the Holocene, a period remarkable for its stationarity once the melting back of the Pleistocene ice sheets had been accomplished.  After all, our entire development of agriculture and advanced civilization has taken place at a time when ‘severe’ climate fluctuations were as much as 0.5oC in extent.  (A 2013 analysis in Nature Geoscience has shown that the Medieval Warm Period, ~1000 to 1300 AD, was a time when parts of Europe were perhaps 0.5oC warmer than in the subsequent Little Ice Age, ~1400 to 1900 AD, but globally, temperatures declined perhaps 0.4oC over 2000 years before the warming of the 20th Century.  A new analysis in Nature this February has confirmed the long-term fluctuation in global temperature of only about 1oC during the last 10,000 years until the mid-20th Century warming commenced.)

That dependable Holocene world ended during the 20th Century.  Now we live on a planet that is changing in many ways, mostly driven by our activities.  Temperature is warming rapidly.  Rainfall patterns are changing dramatically.  Storms are becoming more violent.  Glaciers are melting and sea level is rising inexorably.  Oceans are acidifying and losing dissolved oxygen.  These changes have ramifying impacts on our environment, on the natural resource such as fish which we try to manage, and on our agriculture.  They also change the impacts of pest species, of disease pathogens, and the intricate relationships among species that govern ecosystem function and ecosystem resilience.

The global environmental crisis is complex, daunting and growing, but it is possible to dissect it and deal with each part step by step.  Failing to do so is a recipe for human disaster.
© F. Pharand-Deschênes /Globaïa

By coincidence, while I was writing this commentary, a friend lent me a short book published by the Calgary Institute for the Humanities in 1988.  By Lydia Dotto, a Canadian science journalist and photographer now at Fleming College, Thinking the Unthinkable is a 73-page summary of a three-day conference held in 1987 at the University of Calgary.  The conference, Civilization and Rapid Climate Change, brought together 45 scientists, social scientists and humanists to discuss the threat to human life posed by overpopulation, nuclear war and rapid climate change.  While the organizers mostly had nuclear winter in mind when they decided to look at climate change, the discussion in the book reveals about an even split between concern for the environmental consequences of nuclear war, and concern for the environmental impacts of anthropogenic climate change.  Back in 1987, people were starting to think about climate change, something that would become important in “the next century”.  I found the book prescient in its ability to anticipate what was happening to our planet, strange in its clear preoccupation with nuclear conflict – a conflict that has faded mostly from view until very recently – and very chilling in two things.  These are its clear-sighted discussion of the severity of the risks we face, and its explicit link of overpopulation to the environmental changes that are coming.

The world has been talking about climate change and the environmental crisis for so long now that we have become immune to the severity of the events we are considering.  Dotto is quite clear about the likelihood of our civilization surviving the kinds of environmental changes that are on track for happening over the next half century or so – it is trivial to nil.  She is also quite clear about the importance of overpopulation, not simply population growth, and overconsumption, both of which have continued to get worse in the 30 years that have passed.  These are at the root of the environmental problems we now face, and we are not going to solve these environmental problems without also dealing with the population problems.

I feel sorry for those Newfoundland fishermen, waiting patiently for the cod to return.  Only now are they, and the managers, and the rest of us becoming aware of the fact that the northern cod stock may never recover to the levels it was at in the 1980s or earlier.  The changing environment, and the actions of other species in response during the absence of the cod, may mean that the possibility of rich cod stocks, truly overflowing abundance of a majestic fish, is something that can never be attained again.  Or then again, perhaps they will recover, and we simply have to wait patiently for far longer than we ever imagined that we would.  But I am also sorry for all of us, because we seem so slow to learn the lessons that the natural world is putting up in front of us, lessons that should be easy to learn, if only we’d pause, and think, and absorb.  We cannot continue behaving the way we do, and expect that the natural world, ever forgiving, will let us make error after error, will tolerate our overconsumption and our trashing pollution.  The planet has a certain capacity to absorb the slights we throw; we have been exceeding that capacity for some time now, and do not seem to be mending our ways nearly fast enough.  Unless we change dramatically and soon, our future will be dire indeed, and cod stocks will be the least of our worries.

Gadus morhua, the Atlantic cod, photographed at Atlanterhavsparken, Ålesund, Norway.
© H-P Fjeld.

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Changing Oceans, Climate change, Fisheries, In the News | Leave a comment

Why 12th December 2015 might have been the High Point in our Struggle to contain Climate Change.



Polar bears may be in more trouble than we had thought.  The environmental NGOs learned long ago that certain large animals were charismatic and could become valuable poster children for their conservation efforts.  That’s why the giant panda features on the corporate logo of WWF, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, formerly and still widely known as the World Wildlife Fund.  That’s also why the polar bear got chosen early on as a symbol for how climate change could speed up rates of extinction.  In early 2005, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a U.S-based NGO, formally petitioned the U.S. government to list the polar bear, Ursus maritimus, as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.  That request was made the same day the Kyoto Protocol on climate (which the U.S. had not signed) took effect.

Iconic image: polar bear on an ice floe.  This floe is larger than some, western Hudson’s Bay, 2014.  Photo © Paul Souders/Corbis

CBD argued that the polar bear was threatened with extinction because of climate change, as well as other factors including effects of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, high levels of contaminants like PCBs in polar bear tissues, and overhunting of some populations.  The poignant image of the polar bear on an impossibly small ice floe became part of a very deliberate political campaign which ultimately failed.

Listing the Polar Bear

That the innocent petition to list the polar bear was really a well-crafted, politically-informed action was obvious from its timing.  The Bush administration was refusing to act seriously on climate issues (remember how scary the Bush administration’s resistance to action on climate change seemed back then), and listing the polar bear as Threatened under the Act would obligate the government to develop a species recovery plan, and that would force action to mitigate climate change.

In the event, the plan was less effective than CBD hoped.  To list a species under the Endangered Species Act, there must be scientific evidence that the species is declining in abundance throughout its range, including regions outside the geographic boundaries of the USA.  The polar bear is a wide-ranging species in environments that make field research difficult, and scientists provided mixed results.  Across the Arctic, there were some populations that seemed to be thriving, even growing, and others that were in decline.  Where bears were in decline, it was not clear that climate change was, at that time, a primary, or even an important but secondary cause.  Projections could be used to suggest climate would become more important in future decades – the bears depend for food on seals that use sea ice for rest areas and rearing of their pups.  If sea ice melted earlier in spring, bears would be on land, unable to get out to the pack ice and the seals.  But projections are never certainty.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service collected data, deliberated for three years, and eventually did assess the polar bear as Threatened.  Developing a management plan as required under the Act, which should conserve and aid recovery of the bears, took a further 8 years.  The plan was made available to the public on January 9th, 2017.  By then, the situation for polar bears had become significantly worse, the science was getting stronger, and the public had become fatigued by photos of polar bears on ice floes.  Meanwhile, the political climate within the USA had chilled dramatically on the idea of action to stem climate change.  Now we must wait for law suits to push the US government to implement its own species recovery plan for the polar bear.  Ironically, it is a recovery plan which shares the need to reduce CO2 emissions with the recovery plans for the two Caribbean Acropora corals, A. palmata and A, cervicornis.  These plans were also produced in response to pressure to list those species as threatened.

The effort to have the polar bear listed has been a failure because of two things: public fatigue, and weakness of conservation legislation.  First, the legislation.  Bureaucracies can be remarkably effective at not taking mandated action when the political leadership is not in favor of that action being taken.  The US Endangered Species Act empowers the Secretary of Commerce (via the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service) to evaluate any species of animal or plant (other than single celled organisms and bacteria) for listing under the act, including species that do not occur within the USA, but are subject of international commerce, or concern.  In reality, some species are identified by agency staff and others are brought to the attention of the agencies by interested parties, including members of the public (otherwise, the enormous task would never get tackled).  Once identified as a candidate for listing, an evaluation using the best available science must take place to decide if the species is Endangered (in imminent danger of global extinction), Threatened (at some risk of becoming endangered in the near term), or not of concern.  Once a species is confirmed as Threatened or Endangered, certain restrictions on activities directly affecting it or its habitat come automatically into play.  And, the agencies are required to develop a science-based plan for recovery of that species to a non-threatened status.  Of course, all this good action depends on the government of the day being interested in acting.  In early 2015, NMFS published the recovery plan for the Caribbean Acropora species.  Two years later, the polar bear plan appears.  But in the meantime, the interest of the US federal government in reducing CO2 emissions has declined or disappeared.  And the Endangered Species Act lacks the kind of teeth needed to push a reluctant government forward.  Can we seriously anticipated that Scott Pruitt’s EPA is going to dedicate staff time or funds to reducing CO2 emissions in order to save the polar bear from extinction?  All the Fish and Wildlife Service can do is ‘encourage’ the EPA to act.  Hence the need for some law suits.

By public fatigue I refer to the common tendency of news to become old, and therefore no longer interesting.  We have seen evocative photos of polar bears for a long time now, many standing on far tinier ice floes than above, looking forlorn.  There is not much new here, and so, attention turns to how the naked emperor styles his hair, or whether Americans, carrying concealed weapons, are made safer if the government is rude to immigrants.  But wait.  There is now some new information about polar bears so maybe we can bring them back into focus.  Because if they were threatened in 2005, they are almost certainly more threatened in 2017.

On February 1st, The Guardian reported that a new paper in Science suggests extinction of the polar bear may occur sooner than expected.  The paper, published by Anthony Pagano, USGS and UC Santa Cruz, with 8 US and Canada-based colleagues, reports on the metabolic requirements of free-ranging polar bears on the sea ice in spring.  During Aprils of 2014 to 2016, Pagano’s team captured 9 adult female polar bears, collared them, took blood samples, laced the bears with radionuclide-labeled water, and tracked them for up to 9 days before recapturing and resampling blood.  The labeling and blood sampling enabled direct measurements of metabolic rate over the time between capture and recapture.  The collars carried video cameras and accelerometers that enabled the team to determine level of activity and whether locomotion was walking or swimming.  The cameras documented habitat and hunting success as well.  In addition, they obtained estimates of resting metabolic rate from one female captive bear.

Supplementary figure S2 from Pagano’s study showing the track taken across the sea ice over the days tracked for two bears (A = bear #3 over 9 days; B = bear #8 over 8 days), and the mean proportion of time spent by all 9 bears in different activities (C = 24 hr data from accelerometers; D = daylight hr data from video cameras).  Bear #3 scavenged one dead seal (green +) but otherwise did not eat.  It lost 12% of body weight during the 9 days.  Bear #8 gained 7% of body weight by scavenging at eight sites, killing seal pups twice (white X), and killing one adult seal (yellow *).

The polar bear is unique among bears in being essentially completely carnivorous.  Correspondingly, it turns out to have a resting metabolic rate comparable to that of other carnivorous mammals (higher than for other bears).  It also exhibits a higher than expected field metabolic rate, despite the fact that much of a bear’s time is spent in sit-and-wait hunting for seals to emerge for a breath of air and a rest on an ice floe.  Their bears spent about 66% of their time in sit-and-wait or otherwise resting.  They were walking about 28% of their time but swimming a mere 0.3% of their time.  These are comparable levels of activity for terrestrial carnivorous mammals.  The real surprise is in the higher than expected metabolic rates.  Field metabolic rate across the 9 bears was 1.6 times higher than previous estimates for adult female polar bears.  This higher than anticipated metabolic rate has direct, immediate consequences – polar bears must be more successful at hunting than previously thought – they need to consume about 12 thousand kcal per day to simply maintain body weight.

Polar bears emerge from hibernation on land in the spring.  They depend on being able to access the sea ice from shore in the spring, because it is out on the sea ice that their seal prey live and raise their pups.  The bears need to catch lots of seals and pups in spring to recover their body mass and be ready for the tougher times in late summer, after the pupping season, and into the fall and winter.  In fact, only 4 of the 9 bears tracked by Pagano caught sufficient food to gain weight during the 8 to 11 days they were tracked.  Four others lost at least 10% of body weight.  Given that April is the time of year when polar bears must be putting on body mass to cope with the coming food shortages of late summer, and eventual winter hibernation, this is not good news.  Pagano and colleagues cite other evidence that polar bears may be experiencing hard times.   Previous researchers reported that 42% of adult female polar bears in the Beaufort Sea during the spring from 2000 to 2016 had not eaten during the week before capture. This rate of fasting was 12% greater than measurements from 1983 to 1999, suggesting that spring ice conditions are affecting prey availability for polar bears even before the summer open water period arrives.

The work of Pagano and his colleagues shows that polar bears have higher metabolic requirements than previously thought.  Given that the original argument for considering them threatened by climate change had to do with melting ice making their hunting more difficult, Pagano has just shown that the situation could be more dire than anticipated.  And this news comes as the Arctic continues to show unanticipated warm weather.

The Arctic Continues to Warm Rapidly

Latest data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center showing the extent of Arctic sea ice tracking low and very close to that for 2016.  Looks like we could get another record low minimal extent come summer.  More open water leads to more rapid ocean warming, and also makes life for polar bears more difficult.  Image © NSIDC.

NOAA’s National Climate Data Center, now cleverly renamed the National Centers for Environmental Information, reported on the 2017 global climate late in January.  Globally, 2017 was the third warmest year on record, at 0.84oC above the 20th Century average, and the warmest year that did not have an active el Niño.  It was also the 41st consecutive year in which global average temperature was above the average for the 20th Century.  As is becoming usual, the Arctic is behaving more extremely than more equatorial regions, and unseasonable warmth in Alaska made headlines in January 2018.  As of now, the extent of sea ice in the Arctic is trending low, tracking very close to the pattern seen in 2016.  The National Snow and Ice Data Center (US) reported recently that “January of 2018 began and ended with satellite-era record lows in Arctic sea ice extent, resulting in a new record low for the month. Combined with low ice extent in the Antarctic, global sea ice extent is also at a record low.”

It’s pretty clear what has been happening, and if trends continue we are going to see a much warmer Arctic in future years.  With less sea ice being formed and an earlier melt-back each spring, the situation for hungry polar bears emerging from migration in spring looks quite bleak.

To make matters worse, The Guardian reported on 31st January that the UK Met Office had released its latest five-year forecast for global temperature.  This indicated that enhanced warming over land and in northern latitudes was expected.  There is a 10% chance that in one of these five years, global mean annual temperature will exceed the +1.5oC target set by the Paris Agreement.  In other words, the world is warming as fast as, or faster than we thought.

Was 12th December 2015 the High Water Mark on Climate

So, let me get back to the point of this commentary.  Why do I think that 12th December 2015 may have been the high point in our effort to reign in CO2 emissions?  It is not just because the polar bear is having a difficult time, while the wider public forgets it is in trouble.

There are a number of different things being monitored now as part of the global effort to assess the state of the climate.  Extent of the Arctic sea ice, global average temperature, and extent of Arctic warming are just three of them.  One of the most important is the global rate of emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs); another is the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.  These tell us the current rate at which we are adding ‘insulation’, and the current level of ‘insulation’ of the planet.

The world had high hopes for our rate of emissions.  Data published by the International Energy Association (IEA) in March of 2017 had shown that the global rate of emissions from burning of fossil fuels had remained flat in 2016, for a third straight year, at 32.1 Gt CO2.  This was taken as a sign that the world had finally turned the corner in its effort to transition out of fossil fuels and lower emissions overall.

Graph released by IEA in March 2017, showing an apparent stabilization in the annual emissions due to use of fossil fuels.  Emissions were essentially unchanged during 2014-2016.
© IEA.

That optimistic sign withered in November 2017, when the Global Carbon Project reported on total annual emissions from fossil fuel use and the cement industry.  They reported that the global annual emissions of greenhouse gases, due to these sources, had increased 2% from 2016 to 36.8 Gt CO2, a new record.

The rate of increase in total global anthropogenic GHG emissions has slowed since 2010, but it has not stopped.  The estimate for 2017 is a 2Gt CO2 increase after three years without change.  The increase is largely due to the growing energy demands of a booming Chinese economy.  Figure © Global Carbon Project

It’s now clear that some of the slowdown was due to lingering effects of the recession in 2009.  The world economy showed real growth in 2017.  Despite the growing use of solar, wind, and other renewable power sources (including in China), our global economy is growing so fast that we continue to grow our use of fossil fuels.  When are we going to turn the corner and see real reductions in emissions?

Not surprisingly, with growing emissions there is a growing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere as well.  I’m showing you the full record of CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa from 1958 onwards, but I’m also including the record of weekly means for the past year.  The former shows the now-familiar graph, going ever upwards, and flexing ever more vertically – the rate of increase in CO2 concentration is getting faster, not slower!  The latter shows how different this February is to February 2017, and hints at the levels we are likely to see this coming summer

The full record of CO2 concentration as recorded at Mauna Loa from 1958 onward.  No changes are evident in the trend – the concentration keeps going up and the rate of rise is getting greater!  Image courtesy NOAA ESRL

A plot of CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa for the past year.  Daily means are in blue, weekly means are the red lines, monthly means are the blue lines.  Viewed this way, the data show very clearly just how rapidly the concentration of this insulator is changing.
Image courtesy NOAA ESRL

For the week of February 4th, 2018, the CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa averaged 408.21 ppm.  A year ago, the average was 406.10 ppm.  Ten years ago, in early February 2008, it was 386.03 ppm.  The level of 350 ppm, which many scientists believe is a ‘safe’ level that would stabilize temperatures no more than about 1oC above preindustrial levels, was first met during the week of 20th April 1986, and concentrations less than this were last seen during the week of October 10th, 1989.  Getting back to 400 ppm is likely what is needed to keep below the 1.5oC goal of the Paris Agreement.  That is a concentration last seen in November 2015.  It is time we woke up to the fact that we are not achieving the goals we agreed to in Paris.

What about my Three Favorite Countries?

So with all this urgency to reduce CO2 emissions, what do we see around the world?  We can point to plenty of examples of good news – some countries are transitioning their energy sources successfully.  But take the three (advanced and wealthy) countries that I am most familiar with.

Australia continues its political schizophrenia.  Political leaders continue to espouse the economic benefits of increasing coal production and export, while the Great Barrier Reef, Australia’s environmental jewel, suffers one massive bleaching event after another, and Australia’s emissions continue to rise.  Australia’s record on CO2 emissions is abysmal.  The latest estimate available, emissions for the 1st quarter of FY2018 (July-Sept 2017), was the 2nd highest quarterly result in five years and confirmed a continuing upward trend.  Australia ranked 57th (3rd last) on the 2018 Climate Change Performance Index, compiled annually by Germanwatch, the New Climate Institute and the Climate Action Network and released in November 2017.  The commentary on Australia cited its very low performance with respect to emissions abatement, energy use, and climate policy, and its low performance on developing renewable energy sources.  As for climate policy… the Australian government at close of 2017 was opening up opportunities for industries to purchase international carbon credits instead of reducing emissions at home.  That was a move seen by some as merely prolonging delay in the country’s shift to a renewables-based economy.

The 57 countries ranked by the Climate Change Performance Index for 2018.  Canada, the USA and Australia all fall close to the bottom of the pack.  (Note that the chart includes three ‘unused slots) at the top because no country performed well enough to be there.)
© Germanwatch.org.

The USA, which was showing real international leadership at the time of the Paris Agreement, tried to reverse course with the election of Donald Trump.  After one year of his leadership (how does one lead a march backwards?), the US has formally announced the intention to formally declare, at the first permitted occasion, the intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.  The 2018 Climate Change Performance Index downgraded it from 43rd to 56th (one step ahead of Australia).  The CCPI commentary highlighted the Paris withdrawal and the dismantling of the Clean Power Plan as reasons for a very low policy performance but noted a strong engagement at the State and Municipal level and in the private sector for emissions, and energy-efficiency measures.  The backward march has proved a lot more difficult than statesman Donald Trump had anticipated and is being resisted in many sectors.  The Paris withdrawal cannot even be formally declared until December 2019, and will not take effect until December 2020 (after the next US election).  Despite the low CCPI ranking, the USA has continued to reduce emissions.  The US EPA has just released the draft annual inventory of emissions; it reports US 2016 total anthropogenic emissions were 6.55 Gt CO2e down 2% from the year before.  This decline, due largely to a shift from use of gas to use of renewables, continues a decade-long, but gradual, decline.

Not quite the steep decline in emissions that is needed to effectively combat climate change, but US total annual emissions again moved slightly downward in 2016, due largely to a shift from use of gas to alternative fuels.  Image © US EPA

How US emissions fare in 2018 and beyond is difficult to predict, because the Trump administration will no doubt continue to explore ways to move backwards.  The Trump 2019 budget, just released, cuts the EPA budget by a whopping 34% ($2.8 billion), and while it has zero chance of adoption, it signals priorities for the White House.

Canada also ranks low in the 2018 Climate Change Performance Index, at #51, barely ahead of the US and Australia.  The CCPI commentary notes Canada’s very low target for 2030 emissions, as well as very low performance on energy use.  Our current trajectory on cutting use of fossil fuels will not meet the weak 2030 target, let alone a target more appropriate for meeting the Paris Agreement commitment.  Canada is performing at a medium level in bringing renewables forward, and receives very high grades for its international climate policy efforts.  In other words, the people responsible for CCPI recognize the significant climate effort that has been made by the Trudeau government, following a long period of neglect of this issue.  Still, lots of us have been gently reminding Justin Trudeau, and Catherine McKenna, his Minister of Environment of the need to step up and set more realistic targets and really get started on the tough road forward.  The Trudeau government came to power in November 2015, and is now past the halfway point to our next election.  We have carbon pricing starting to be implemented, but there has been no sign yet of steps to raise the bar on where this country needs to get re Paris commitments.

In a sense, Justin, for all his virtues (and he looks very virtuous compared to his geographically closest head of state), is still playing that strange game of trying to ride two horses at once.  For understandable political reasons, he wants to court Alberta, and believes he can only do so by fighting to support growth in the tar sands sector.  So he endorses pipeline proposals.  He is also politically trying to hold on to his support in British Columbia, so he is talking up his positive climate actions there, while struggling to ensure that province will not block a particular pipeline.  It is not proving to be an easy ride.

A March 2017 Parkins cartoon that remains relevant as the fight over the Kinder-Morgan expansion continues.  Image © David Parkins.

Kinder Morgan, a US-based pipeline operator has an existing pipeline that delivers tar sands product to Vancouver for export.  The plan to ‘twin’ this pipeline, thereby tripling its capacity (funny how ‘twinning’ equals tripling), was seen by many as the easiest to approve of several pipeline proposals a few years ago.  After all, it would use an existing corridor.  But surging enthusiasm for protecting the amazing natural environment of British Columbia, plus a change of provincial government last fall, has made approval in greater doubt than it was, despite the fact that the federal government has already approved it, Alberta has labeled it essential, and Trudeau is on record saying it ‘will’ be built.

Kinder Morgan has plenty of pipe lying photogenically around western Canada, and certainly seems to want to put it in the ground and connect it up.  (I say ‘seems to’ because a recent news item hints that the economic argument for twining may be weakening.)  The Globe and Mail reported on 7th February that the President of Kinder Morgan Canada had said the pipeline could become untenable the longer it takes to obtain needed permits, but he stopped short of saying the company is close to abandoning the major expansion.  The company has already slowed spending on the pipeline and said oil shipments won’t start before December, 2020, at the earliest, one year later than planned. The expansion also faces numerous court challenges.

If we were being rational, the Canadian Federal government would be encouraging Alberta to expand refining capacity within its own borders and begin an aggressive transition towards use of tar sands bitumen as a raw material for an advanced chemicals industry.  It is long past time to think of this goop as fuel because, never mind the environmental arguments, the economics are no longer viable.  It is simply too costly to compete successfully with other fossil fuels.  As it stands, existing pipelines are sufficient for current demand, and while the price of the Alberta product (what did Harper call it… ethical oil) may one day rise back towards triple digits per barrel, I see no sign of that happening any time soon.  And, as Canada eventually comes to the realization that we really do have to lower CO2 emissions drastically, we will also realize that burning this stuff as fuel is simply not possible.  Still, given the way governments work, given what happens when pipeline companies have lots of unused pipeline pipe, and given what happens when anyone does anything that might hurt Our Most Holy Economy, I’ll bet this pipeline will ultimately get built, and perhaps even used a little bit.  And that will only further delay the struggle to bring climate change under control.

Perhaps it’s because it is now mid-winter, a time for dark and brooding thoughts.  Perhaps it’s because the evidence seems to be accumulating that most people tire of environmental arguments fairly quickly.  Perhaps it’s because the political tide, globally, seems to be turning towards a rather horrible nativist populism unlikely to make rational decisions on important questions.  Or perhaps it’s just because I am getting very tired of waiting for an environmental Godot.  But I really do fear, today, that when we look back on this time, we will see 12th December 2015 as the high point on climate action – the day the Paris Agreement was finalized.  Tomorrow, or next week, maybe I will see something to make me optimistic again.

We do live on a beautiful planet.  Sunrise thru the trees.  Image © psynovec/Shutterstock

Categories: Arctic, Biodiversity Loss, Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | Comments Off on Why 12th December 2015 might have been the High Point in our Struggle to contain Climate Change.