Hypocrisy, thy name is Harper. Does Canada’s Prime Minister have no shame when it comes to climate policy?

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It is rare that I post more frequently than once every 10 to 14 days, but recent news out of Ottawa raised my blood to boiling. So here goes.

Some background

Ever since he came to power far too long ago, Steven Harper has sought to minimize any action by Canada towards the effort to limit GHG emissions. For most of that time, he refused to discuss climate change, sought to dismantle government labs that might provide data on the topic, kept a heavy controlling hand on the shoulders of successive environment ministers, and pushed consistently for any actions that might favor the tar sands operations in Alberta. Those who argued against the degradation of water and land in the Athabasca River basin, or against new pipelines from Alberta to every ocean, by any route, on environmental grounds were labeled terrorists, foreign-inspired or supported betrayers of Canada and its economy. He spent some $75 million of our tax dollars to tell us that he was leading the only government Canada has ever had that could keep its economy humming along – and we have hummed along faintly during his tenure.
Harper in tar sands bath ygreck journal de montreal 64f1739422aad5b20895edfbdf6dd74f

Stephen Harper has always been overly fond of tar sands bitumen. Its impacts on the climate have not been a concern to him. Cartoon © Ygreck, Journal de Montréal

Early in his tenure, he abrogated the Kyoto treaty, instead of undertaking to try and comply with its requirements (something his Liberal predecessors had been pretty ineffective at). Apparently, international treaties are only pieces of paper, easily torn up when life gets inconvenient. At the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, under pressure to do something positive, he undertook to bring Canadian GHG emissions to 17 percent below their 2005 level by 2020. That undertaking using a voluntary target chosen by Canada forms part of another international treaty, the Copenhagen Accord. The world, for the most part, politely ignored the fact that 17% below 2005 levels was going to be a substantially weaker achievement than if we had stuck with Kyoto. (The Copenhagen target of 17% below 2005 levels translates into 3% above 1990 levels; the Kyoto target was 6% below 1990 levels by 2012.)

Since Copenhagen, a succession of environment ministers has been required to stand up and lie about Canada’s performance relative to its Copenhagen goal. The phrase “Canada is halfway towards meeting its 2020 goal” sounds reassuring, and has been often repeated, including by Mr. Harper himself. It is very, very far from the truth, and Canada’s emissions have continued to climb, and Harper’s much-promised regulations on the oil and gas industry have been postponed, postponed, and almost forgotten. The current environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, has stopped making this palpably false claim, and instead resorts to “Canada is working hard to bring emissions down” or words to that effect – words not backed by any deeds other than those done by individual provinces acting independently, or done by the Federal government only because of the necessity of remaining in sync with the US. New regulations now being phased in on efficiency of automobiles were announced a year after the US made such changes and were effectively meaningless, since the auto industry is so closely integrated.

Harper in the Arctic

Every year, Stephen Harper has taken a summer trip to the Arctic. He seems to genuinely enjoy being in the far north, and he has seen much more of it than any former prime minister. Yet, on all his visits, he has managed to not see, or at least to not comment on, the immense changes taking place in the northern climate. You’d think he’d at least notice that the ice is melting. Especially, since he constantly talks about how the arctic is opening up for development. Hint to residents of Nunavut – go visit Fort McMurray to see what Harper means when he says “opening up”. Every year at climate conferences, Canada wins awards. Fossil of the Day, Fossil of the Year, a Fossil Trifecta, and Lifetime Unachievement awards have been accumulated. Late in 2014, the think-tank, Germanwatch, announced than on the basis of an objective ranking of performance using a number of criteria to create a Climate Change Performance Index, Canada comes in dead last among developed countries. Canada ranks lowest in the OECD, lowest in the G8, and 4th from the bottom among the 61 countries ranked. Below Canada were Iran, Kazakhstan, and Saudi Arabia, while Australia ranked just ahead.
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Even when the ice is melting all around him… Stephen Harper in the Arctic.
Photo © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

A tidal change in his views on climate

Still, the tide is turning in favor of responsible policy for GHG emissions. Even Stephen Harper feels the pressure of the shifting currents. In an interview with CBC’s Peter Mansbridge a couple of months ago, he actually uttered the words ‘climate change’, and admitted it was ‘one of’ the world’s pressing problems. He has tended to justify his relative inaction, not by denying climate change exists, but by stressing the need to act ‘in consort with’ the USA, and to act in ways that ‘do not impact our economy’. His discomfit as Obama has moved aggressively on climate has been noticeable. And so to the events that have my blood boiling today.

On 3rd March 2015, the Globe and Mail advised us that Environment Canada was quietly canvassing the provinces and territories to find out what policies they have in place and what reductions in GHG emissions they are achieving. The article quotes a spokesman for Leona Aglukkaq as saying in an e-mail, “Canada is actively preparing its intended nationally determined contribution [to global emissions reductions]. … As this is a national contribution, the provinces and territories hold many levers for taking action on emissions, so the minister is seeking feedback from her counterparts on how initiatives in their jurisdictions will factor into Canada’s overall commitment.” That sounds to me like an admission that the Federal government is going to stitch together a patchwork quilt of provincial policies, and call it a federal plan. Minister Aglukkaq refused requests from the Globe for an interview throughout February, so if the national plan has more in it than this, she is keeping it very hush hush.
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Stephen Harper and Leona Aglukkaq discussing how big a quilt of climate policies they can stitch together from provincial efforts. Photo © Postmedia

I was quietly digesting this news when three things happened. First, two groups of citizens stepped forward with coherent, national plans for GHG emissions that would go a long way to improve Canada’s indefensible position internationally. First came the contribution from Sustainable Canada Dialogues, a group of 71 academics from various disciplines at universities across Canada. Their report, which even made the pages of Science, offers a detailed policy road map for Canada to achieve 100% reliance on low-carbon electricity by 2035. It calls for Canada to reduce greenhouse emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and eliminate at least 80% of emissions by midcentury. It also calls for elimination of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, and introduction across Canada, of a price for carbon, either as a tax or as a cap-and-trade scheme. Their plan is pragmatic and feasible.

Next came a report from Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission. Titled “The Way Forward: A Practical Approach to Reducing Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions”, this report also provides a coherent plan to make a significant reduction to GHG emissions. It also is predicated on a national price on carbon as a fundamental requirement, and it stresses the need for stringent pricing policies to ensure effective compliance.
Wynne and

Congratulations to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, seen here with Québec Premier Phillippe Couillard, as they sign deal on 13th April 2015, to cooperate in a carbon cap-and-trade program. Photo © Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press.

Almost immediately, on 10th April, came news that Ontario was going to sign a cap-and-trade deal with Quebec, bringing Ontario into the same pool of jurisdictions as Quebec and California. This is a very good step to take, although my personal preference would be for a carbon tax comparable to the one in place in British Columbia. Of course, the media this morning are all over the fact that some large, but unspecifiable amount of revenue will be generated by a cap-and-trade plan, and used by the government for climate adaptation, and that therefore this is a tax. I hope people can get past that bogus anti-tax argument and recognize that at last there is going to be in Ontario a mechanism that will require that we pay for the carbon pollution we are causing, and that reducing those emissions will save money.

Hypocrisy Rampant – Welcome to the blame game

But, those three events are all good news, aren’t they? So why is my blood boiling? Because Stephen Harper has found it necessary to have Leona Aglukkaq send a letter to provinces stating that Ontario and other provinces have failed to provide detailed climate plans that Ottawa says it needs to submit Canada’s emission-reduction commitment to the United Nations. According to the Globe and Mail, a spokesman for Ms. Aglukkaq said Ottawa is taking a co-ordinating approach with the provinces but will be pursuing additional regulatory action of its own. He accused federal Liberals and New Democrats of advocating “top down” policies that would interfere with provincial jurisdiction.

Just think about that for a moment. Maybe go for a quiet walk, or listen to some calming music. Stephen Harper, the man who has resisted doing anything about climate change throughout his time in office is now, at a rather late date, letting it be known that the fault belongs everywhere except within his government.
Stephen Harper Sean Kilpatrick, Canadian Press

Stephen Harper – It’s not my fault that Canada does not have a climate plan.
Photo © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

Something I missed at the time, but discovered while preparing this rant: the ‘Let’s blame everybody else’ argument was trotted out to the Globe and Mail reporters at the end of March. An article on March 30th provides extensive quotes that say Canada’s lack of progress is all the fault of Mexico and the USA (who had just signed a bilateral climate accord) as well as the provinces. Witness the following quotes from that article:

First, the provinces:
Canada wants to ensure we have a complete picture of what the provinces and territories plan before we submit,” a spokesman for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said in an email Sunday. Ted Laking said the government will submit its nationally determined contribution “well in advance” of the December summit, as organizers have asked. “Because this is a national contribution and the provinces have targets of their own, we are collecting information on how they intend to meet their targets.

Then, the US and Mexico:
We’ve said for some time, it’s very public, we’re seeking a continental response on this particular question, not just with the United States. We’d like to see Mexico as well in it,” Harper told the CBC. However government statements in recent years have not reflected any substantive talks, let alone agreement, between Canada and the U.S. on common regulation of their oil and gas sectors.

Anyone who has taught at the university or high school level has heard such arguments before, “I was waiting for my lab partners to complete their parts of the report first”, or “My dog ate my homework”, or even, “I’ve been unable to complete the assignment on time because my kid brother spilled chocolate milk all over my laptop”. I just do not expect such blaming and prevarication from the leadership of a country. As people are becoming fond of saying, “Oh! Canada. Indeed!

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is now apparently developing an emissions plan for Canada. If only everyone else would stop slowing his progress. Cartoon © Gareth Lind

Categories: Arctic, Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | Leave a comment

The Continuing Need to Conserve Coral Reefs – How do we build traction?

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Coral Bleaching

Every now and then I cast my eye around to see what is happening to coral reefs, hoping to find some good news. For several months now, NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch program has been predicting a worsening bleaching season as 2015 rolls out. The on-again, off-again el Niño that was being forecast through much of 2014 has finally arrived, although it is a pretty weak one. Still, it is the first bona-fide el Niño since 2010, and that four-year gap is the longest between el Niños since the 1970’s. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Service formally confirmed the arrival of el Niño conditions in March, and in April reported a 50-60% likelihood that el Niño conditions would persist through the northern summer.
el Nino prediction 2015 NOAA CPC Picture1

Graph of eastern Pacific sea surface temperature anomaly from early 2014 to end of 2015. Black solid line is observed (as running 3 month mean), while the multitude of colored lines are future projections from different models. All models are projecting a continuation of positive anomalies, and associated el Niño conditions, until end of 2015. Graph courtesy NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

For March to June 2015, NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch is predicting conditions that favor coral bleaching in much of the southwest Pacific and northwest of Australia. There was significant bleaching on Hawaiian reefs, and in the Marshall Islands, Marianas, and Kiribati late in 2014, and reefs off the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Fiji and the Samoas have been hit hard by warm waters in the first months of 2015. Conditions leading to bleaching are likely to appear in more northerly locations as the northern summer progresses. As most of us know by now, bleaching is simply a stress response by corals to warmer than usual water, in which the symbiotic algal cells within the coral’s tissues are expelled, leaving the translucent coral polyp through which the white skeleton is clearly visible. Corals can recover from bleaching if the stressful conditions do not last too long, but if conditions persist for a couple of weeks, a substantial proportion of the coral will die.

Map showing the level of risk for a bleaching event during the March to June, 2015, period.
Map courtesy NOAA CRW.

The bleaching in the Marshalls and Marianas began in mid-September, and has been unprecedented according to reports. Fortunately, the el Niño has remained relatively weak so far, and the bleaching events in other regions as the season progresses are not expected to be as extreme as those in 2010 or in 1998. The next region in which to watch as the season develops will be the Indian Ocean.

Every time reefs bleach sufficiently to cause widespread mortality, reefs are being degraded. Enhanced coral mortality, over time, progressively reduces abundance of living corals, thereby reducing the capacity of the reef to grow sufficiently to counteract the continuous erosion due to wave action and the activities of numerous bioeroder species of worms, molluscs, sponges and fish. Over time, reefs become less extensive than they were. This is a tale of slow destruction; one that is still being written.

Inappropriate coastal development

Coral bleaching is just one of the many ways in which humans are degrading reefs. In February, reports in the Los Angeles Times and on a website maintained by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) revealed very extensive island building by China on the contested Spratly Reefs in the South China Sea. The Spratlys, which lie far closer to the coast of the Philippines than to China, are valued fishing grounds, and possible sites for oil exploration. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia have all, from time to time, maintained territorial claims, often by stationing a few troops at temporary camps on one or other of the many islands. China’s current activities go far beyond that however – the development taking place is massive, involves construction of extensive new land, including aircraft runways and wharfs for large vessels, as well as military structures. The construction is using all the methods pioneered so badly off the coast of Dubai, especially use of large cutter dredges with no silt curtains visible. There is no information available on the impacts on reefs, but it is impossible to believe it is not substantial. (A post on the AMTI website yesterday up-dates information on Mischief Reef; a place that had no land a decade ago when smaller-scale construction activities first happened.)
fiery_cross2 Spratly Islands CSIS

Fiery Cross Reef, Spratly Islands, where China has increased the area of the land mass from 0.08 km2 to 0.96 km2 commencing in August 2014. A garrison of 200 troops is stationed there and an airstrip may be under construction. Vessels visible in the harbor are dredges. Photo © CSIS AMTI.

Of course, what is happening in the Spratlys is nothing new. While China has not been talking about what it is doing in the Spratly Islands, and certainly not claiming that it is doing it in an environmentally sustainable way, many others are ‘developing’ around reefs in inappropriate ways while claiming all is well. The Australian government is currently pretending that it is possible to develop enormous new coal terminals up and down the Queensland coast, with all the dredging that will entail, without causing any damage to the Great Barrier Reef. The reef management authority’s own data on water quality show that quality has declined particularly on near-shore parts of the GBR region, simply due to the expanded agriculture along the Queensland coast, and suggestions that dumping of dredge spoil within the reef area will not cause significant damage are made with much waving of arms, while the economic necessity of exporting as much coal as possible as quickly as possible to Asian markets is trumpeted as if that fact is beyond question. Why is it suddenly necessary to export coal much more rapidly than before? Because the window for cashing in on immense coal reserves is closing rapidly, and cashing in is apparently far more important to the current Australian (and Queensland) governments than caring for the world’s largest, most iconic, reef system. Funny how economic necessity is so often seen as far more necessary than ecological necessity (but then, I don’t own shares in any of Australia’s coal producers).

In August 2013, Norwegian Cruise Line announced a $50 million plan to build a new cruise terminal in Belize. Based at Harvest Caye, a 30ha speck of land about 1km off shore and 6km south of the town of Placencia, the new development was going to be an “eco-friendly” destination with a floating pier, island village with raised-platform structures, a marina, a lagoon for water sports and a beach. In its contract with the Belize government, Norwegian agreed to adhere to the country’s environmental standards, employ locals during construction and create a hiring program for Belizeans who want to work on its ships. Once Harvest Caye opens, those people are to have preference for staff positions. In a news report at the time, Norwegian CEO Kevin Sheehan stated “in our quest to continuously look for new and exciting destinations for our guests, we plan to develop a cruise destination focused on sustainable design and eco-friendly principles that will retain the natural beauty and local culture of this tropical paradise.” He added that they also plan to bring four times as many tourists to Belize as they were doing before.

In the nearly two years since, it has become apparent that this is yet another example of big tourism running a steamroller through a developing country. Apart from the fact that this ‘eco-friendly’ development is going to result in the delivery of 2500 tourists a day to this tiny speck of land, and is going to set up the usual inter-connected structure of shore transport and land-based tourism opportunities all controlled by the cruise line (with profits racing out of the country to Norwegian’s offices in Miami), thereby cutting most of Belize out of the economic benefits, the agreement with the government (which is exuberantly in favor of the development) is financially very favorable to the cruise line. And then there are the environmental aspects.
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Aerial view showing the extent of modification to Harvest Caye for Norwegian Cruise Line’s “eco-friendly” complex. Photo © Annelise Hagan

The Environmental Impact Assessment was made public in an information meeting in a nearby town in January 2014, and appeared to have a number of deficiencies. For one thing, it was an EIA done in 2009 for a subsequently abandoned project at that site that would have included an airstrip in place of a floating cruise ship terminal! Despite protests, and an effort by the Belize Tourism Industry Association to block the project in the courts, work on the development proceeded. (The appeal to the courts was successful, but that seems not sufficient to stop a development project wanted by leading members of government.) Extensive modifications on the island, including removal of large areas of mangroves, and dredging and filling around its edges commenced by mid-2014, and, predictably, by February 2015, the first reports of direct damage to coral formations began to surface. Time will tell how well this project is executed, but it seems to be moving along a well-worn path of mediocre respect for the environment. Eco-friendly, indeed.


An important new paper appeared on the Nature website this week. Aaron MacNeil of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, together with 10 colleagues from Australia, the UK and the US, has evaluated the status of reef fish communities on 832 coral reefs around the world. Overfishing on coral reefs is very widespread, and probably the most common way in which we degrade coral reef systems. Overfishing not only removes fish biomass and leads to changes in the structure of fish communities, it also reduces major ecosystem services – the continuous grazing on filamentous and larger algae, and the scraping away of reef rock by certain of the herbivores that free up patches of newly exposed, fresh carbonate rock surfaces ripe for coral colonization. Loss of this herbivory leads to substantial change in the dynamic between corals and algae, and can lead to massive phase shifts tipping a reef from coral- to algae-dominated.

By examining 22 remote reefs (>200km from human communities), both fished and protected, they were able to describe the range of biomass likely for unfished reefs. This varied from about 500 to 4,400 kg per hectare depending on differences among reefs such as level of productivity, extent of coral cover, and whether the location was an atoll or a more coastal reef. By arraying the less remote, protected locations relative to age of reserve, they revealed an asymptotic relationship between biomass in kg per hectare and duration of protection. Their results show that the average biomass of fish on a reef is about 1000 kg per hectare, and that the vast majority of fished reefs have biomass less than half this amount.


MacNeil part of Fig 2
Current fish biomass on reefs that are fished, and those where fishing is restricted. An undepleted reef should have biomass approaching Bo. Most reefs near people are depleted to 50% or less of Bo, but reefs with some fishing protection are much less depleted than others. Figure © Nature

MacNeil part b of Fig 2

Part C of MacNeil’s Figure 2, showing the likely time to full recovery of fish biomass for each site, if protected effectively from fishing. Figure © Nature

Effective protection leads to recovery of biomass within 35 years on average, and the most depleted sites can recover in about 60 years. They also show that partially effective MPA protection, or mechanisms to restrict fishing effort such as gear restrictions both have useful effects on biomass.

Their results are important for two reasons. First is the confirmation of the pervasive impacts of overfishing on most reefs accessible to human settlement around the world. We have had a profound impact on reefs through our fishing activities. Secondly, they show the length of time required for recovery from an overfished state, and confirm that use of MPAs to reduce fishing effort is not the only effective management method available. This latter point offers managers a suite of possible approaches to choose from, some of which may be more appropriate than others in each specific locality. That overfishing can be corrected substantially within 35 years or so is also encouraging news.
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School of big-eye trevally on a reef in American Samoa. Photo © Ben Ruttenburg, NOAA NMFS

Aaron MacNeil was also co-author of an article published on-line in Current Biology last week, and due to appear in the April issue of that journal. Led by Michael Emslie of Australian Institute of Marine Science, the 14 authors from various Australian institutions report on the performance of the network of no-take marine reserves (NTMR) within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, since the area was rezoned in 2006. Their results confirm that this system of well-managed fishery reserves has performed as expected to enhance abundance and size of coral trout (Plectropomus sp.) the primary species in the Queensland commercial and sport fishery. Their study also provides evidence for some indirect benefits of NTMR networks on other members of the reef ecosystem, while making clear that NTMRs or other types of MPA can never protect a coral reef from forms of degradation such as tropical storms or climate change. Taken together, these two articles are strong evidence for our ability to manage overfishing, and managing this particular issue is definitely worth doing on coral reefs throughout the world. Now all we have to do is get out there and enforce the management rules that we already have in place in the great majority of reefs where fishing occurs.

Do we really care about coral reefs?

That we are so consistent in our mismanagement of coral reefs around the world should cause us to ask, Do we really care about these iconic ecosystems, or not? Appeals to conserve coral reefs have been being made around the world since at least the early 1960s when the impacts of crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks were first observed. Thousands of MPAs have been established around coral reefs. The global mass bleaching event of 1998 galvanized opinion, and ever stronger calls to address climate change before it became too late. And still we mismanage them. I sometimes wonder if we really are incapable for watching out for slowly moving threats, such as the gradual degradation of coral reefs, or the gradual melting of a glacier, or the gradual rise of sea level. Maybe we really are only capable of getting out of the way of sabre-toothed cats? Or maybe we just have to try a little bit harder?

Something the sport diving industry could help with?

I’ve recently been following an online discussion on whether the sport diving industry should do more to work for conservation of coral reefs. The e-mail list, coral list forum, is managed by NOAA’s Coral Health and Monitoring Program, and is a world-wide discussion of things coral reef. And discussions on topics related to climate change and reef conservation crop up from time to time. The sport dive industry is just one of many industries that makes use of coral reefs and certainly not the largest, but sport divers do get particularly close to coral reefs – more so than most other tourists to tropical coasts – so it would make sense for this industry to be particularly concerned about reef conservation. Still, while there are some exemplary exceptions providing reef experiences to sport divers around the world, the sad fact is that most operators do very little to ensure their own operations are not harmful, and next to nothing to educate the divers about the threats to reefs.

The sport diving community uses coral reefs such as these in the Red Sea. Should this community play a significant role in promoting the conservation of reefs? Photo © Kuwait Diving Team

As one participant in the discussion ruefully pointed out, the great majority of sport divers cannot tell the difference between a coral reef in good condition and one that has been extensively degraded. So long as they emerge at the end of a dive with the sense they had a fun time, all seems well. While there are some sport divers with considerable experience, knowledge and skill, most have little if any knowledge of coral reefs, and relatively few dives under their belts following training programs that each year become more compressed and more limited in terms on hands-on time in the water.

When one’s customers cannot tell the difference between an excellent and a mediocre dive location, and when nobody in authority is requiring certain performance standards, it’s not too surprising if dive operators do not put on much of an effort to conserve and to educate. Yet motivated sport divers could be powerful advocates for reef conservation – most of them come from the developed world, with some disposable income, and some time to be environmentally active. If they are not being motivated in favor of reef conservation, what hope is there that other tourists to tropical shores will be motivated – many of them do not even venture beyond the hotel swimming pools.

What should we expect of the sport diving industry? I suggest that, at minimum, we should expect them to be operating in as environmentally responsible a manner as possible. As an industry that depends upon the interest of the sport diving community in exploring natural environments, albeit with the occasional rusting wreck thrown in for good measure, dive operators should be leading by example, making their operations as environmentally sustainable as possible.

Granted, they will likely be using fossil fuel to power their vessels and the compressors that refill the tanks after each dive, but they could still ensure that their engines are operating efficiently, not dripping oil into the ocean, and, on shore they could look towards use of electrical power from non-fossil fuel sources where possible.  Regardless of the source of fuel, they can operate their vessels efficiently, and with due consideration for the damage a vessel can cause to coral reefs, or to other marine environments via prop wash, mooring, anchoring, or running aground, and should certainly not be disposing of wastes of any type at sea.

In addition, they should take more care than most of them do to ensure that the sport divers accompanying them to a reef are given instruction on how to operate in a reef environment so as to avoid inadvertent damage through bumping into, grabbing onto, kicking, or standing on delicate organisms that cannot sustain such abuse by hundreds of divers in succession, day after day. As another contributor noted, it is amazing to see just how mediocre are the buoyancy-control skills of the average sport diver.

That point about buoyancy reminds me of an occasion when I was involved in a training program for MPA management staff on how to carry out in-water monitoring of reef condition.

This took place in a region with many reef MPAs and a significant sport dive industry, and no I am not going to name the location or year! In truth, it was not a well-organized training workshop, but I was still amazed at the lack of diving proficiency of MPA staff who had been hand-picked to participate in the course because they were experienced MPA biologists, the people who had been, and would in future, be leading reef monitoring activities taking place back at their home MPA. The classroom sessions went quite well, despite some minor English-Spanish-French communication issues, but when we got out in a boat and prepared to get into the water, our excellence degraded.

It rapidly became clear to me that tasking many of the participants with carrying a tape measure, and a slate with a printed data sheet on waterproof paper, while also diving, was a task too many. Divers, head down, wrapped up in loop after loop of the unreeling tape, and looking for all the world like an unwrapping mummy that had found its way into the ocean. Divers bouncing over the bottom, or absent-mindedly floating off into midwater space. Divers totally disoriented, unable to lay out the tape in a straight line and then swim along it. They were not impossibly bad. In fact they reminded me of groups of undergraduates on a field course – students who had dived before, but rarely on a reef, and never while tasked to actually do anything beyond diving.

If these are typical of MPA staff (and they are), we cannot expect any more from sport divers who have never been on a reef before. My experience of sport diving is not extensive; I got plenty of diving being a scientist. But it is probably representative, and I’ve always been struck by the lack of information provided about the dive site to be visited, about the organisms one might see there, or about special places or species to watch out for. Usually, the dive leaders are as talkative before and after the dive as they are during it, which means not very! I guess if I was trying to keep track of a bunch of divers I’ve never met before, of skill levels I am not very sure about, one or more of which will certainly wander off and have to be encouraged back to the herd, while at least one or two others will exhaust their tanks in world record time, yet look surprised when the gauge shows empty and they need to ascend… I’d probably begin to see my job as putting them in, and getting them all out and back on board still alive. But this is why I am not a divemaster.

The better dive leader will spend some time talking with each of his/her divers before the vessel even leaves the dock, and will have available on board, preferably on laminated waterproof sheets, ID guides for the more common corals and fishes, a simple list of do’s and don’t’s once in the water, and perhaps a map of the site showing bathymetry and route to be taken. A refresher lesson on buoyancy control on the way out to the site would also be useful for many sport divers, especially when they have rented gear and may not be familiar with its particular features.

Where sport diving is taking place inside a well-managed MPA, it would make sense for the MPA managers to formally lease exclusive use of specific dive sites to specific operators, or to co-ops formed by several smaller operators. This happens in very few places, partly perhaps because so few MPAs are well managed, but having ‘ownership’ of a dive site does engender more responsible behavior by the dive operator, and could go a long way to improve compliance with the simple rules for operating around reefs that all operators should know.

It has been said that people only care about taking care of those they love. Coral reefs are not loved by very many people because while they are beautiful to see, and fascinating to learn about, they are ‘the other’. They are remote for many of us, and we do not experience them except fleetingly while breathing air out of a tank, and unable to talk about them with each other until we emerge back to the surface. Sport divers could do much to advocate for coral reefs. There seems room for improvement in how they are being informed about and connected to reefs. Until they are properly connected, until they love reefs as more than places to dive, they will not be the advocates they could be.

Categories: Changing Oceans, Climate change, Coal, coral reef science, Fisheries, In the News, Stories from a Coral Reef | Leave a comment

Anthropocene Anxieties – Maybe We Should Strive for Only 1 Degree Global Temperature Increase?

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I’ve installed a new widget on this page that will allow visitors to sign up for e-mail notification when I put up a new post. I plan to continue about two posts a month. Enjoy, and tell your friends.

Some good news on the climate front

Friday 13th of March, and yet there was some good news. IEA reported that in 2014, for the first time in the 40 years for which it has been collecting data, emissions of CO2 remained unchanged while the global economy strengthened by 3%. Emissions in 2014 totaled 32.3 billion tonnes CO2. Global emissions have remained flat or fallen on three previous occasions – late 1980s, 1992, and 2009 – but in all cases these events coincided with an economic downturn. IEA attributed the 2014 decoupling of emissions from economic activity as primarily the result of actions taken to expand use of green energy in China and in the EU. The world’s efforts to reduce CO2 emissions are beginning to bear fruit.

There were other signs that the need to address climate change is being taken seriously in jurisdictions and in corporate board rooms around the world. On 12th February, the Ontario government had posted a climate change discussion paper to its website, for public comment. This is clearly a first step towards announcing further climate initiatives in coming weeks. That is new initiatives by a Province that has already made changes that have shifted its electricity sector markedly away from fossil fuels towards renewables. A quick check on Google today using the phrase ‘new climate initiatives’ brought up the following among the first 20 hits – they are not a careful selection of the most important, just a random handful of what seemed to be on web in mid-March.

On 24th February, Citi, the global banking corporation, announced plans to lend, invest and facilitate a total of $100 billion within the next 10 years to finance activities that reduce the impacts of climate change and create environmental solutions that benefit people and communities. This announcement follows a previous pledge of $50 billion investment that was completed 2 years ahead of schedule in 2013. As well as renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, Citi will be looking at projects that reduce GHG emissions in other sectors, such as transportation. As well as helping communities in the 40 largest urban regions around the world, Citi has also set itself ambitious footprint-reducing targets of 35% less emissions, 30% less water use, and 60% less waste produced by 2020, compared to 2005. Bank of America and Wells Fargo have introduced comparable (though smaller) programs.

On 18th March, Governor Jerry Brown announced a $1 billion plan (already funded and approved) to address California’s drought. A mix of short-term relief and long-term infrastructure investments, the plan uses $273 million to address water supply by desalination and measures to recycle or use more efficiently, and $600 million in infrastructure for flood control. As Brown stated, California’s water problems are a result of climate change, and while the issue today is drought, it could well be floods once the drought breaks. Tougher regulations on use are also coming.

Also on the 18th March, an announcement in the journal Science drew my attention to a just-released proposal by 71 academics across Canada, with expertise in climate science, other natural science, social science, political science and policy. Acting partly out of frustration with the Harper government’s evident disinterest, they had come together to develop ten key policy orientations, illustrated by specific actions, that could be adopted to kick-start Canada’s transition toward a low-carbon society. As they state in a Foreward, “We offer it as input to Canadian decision-makers, opinion leaders, and elected representatives in preparation for our upcoming federal election followed by the 2015 Paris-Climate Conference.” Their proposal is realistic, feasible with existing technology, and could bring Canada into line with the US in terms of proportional reductions in GHG emissions. Their major push in the near term is to move towards 100% use of renewable energy in the electricity sector by 2035. It’s too soon to tell if this report will encourage the Harper government to get busy. So far, apart from the reported whispered conversations between Environment Canada and the Provinces there has been only silence. Of course Stephen Harper and Leona Aglukkaq might be busily quilting away in some back room of the Parliament building, fabricating a “Canadian” plan from what the provinces have been doing all along. Such is the leadership from behind that has dragged Canada back from near the front of the pack on global environmental issues.
Harper and Aglukkaq - postmedia news

PM Harper and Environment Minister Aglukkaq might be laughing about how small a national climate policy they can get away with. They plan to quilt a policy from the independent initiatives of the Provinces – beats developing anything real. Photo © Postmedia News.

On 19th March, Forbes has a glowing account of the work of Environmental Defense Fund over the last 10 years with major US corporations to improve their carbon footprints. It’s headed ‘Can Walmart save the planet?’ and it lists significant achievements by McDonalds (recyclable packaging), AT&T (efficient water use), and FedEx (hybrid-electric vehicles) as well as Walmart (energy efficiency changes in Chinese supplier factories). Large corporations will invest in environmental improvements when those investments save money in the long term, and in a world transitioning away from use of fossil fuels, energy efficiency and use of green energy are sound investments.

An announcement from the White House on 19th March reports plans to shift the share of electricity use by the US federal government to 30% from renewable sources, and to cut emissions by 40% from 2008 levels over the next 10 years, saving the country $18 billion in energy costs. In addition, the government is engaging with major federal contractors to encourage them to strive for similar emissions savings and efficiencies. A number of corporations, including IBM, Honeywell, GE, Humana, Hewlett Packard, Northrop Grumman, and Batelle have already announced their commitments under this plan. These steps are one part of the emissions reductions by 2025 that were announced in November in the treaty with China.

While it’s not an announced plan, my Google search did throw up an insightful piece by MP Elizabeth May, Leader of Canada’s Green Party published on March 9th. In it she used the kafuffle over the Keystone XL Pipeline to talk about the relative costs of different forms of electricity. Citing reports from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), investment bank Sanford Bernstein, and financial firm Lazard, which all reached similar conclusions, she stated that dramatic falls in the cost of solar infrastructure, and less dramatic decreases for other renewables, were such that in many places around the world, renewable energy is now competitive with fossil fuels. These analyses were all based on ‘levelized’ costs – a full-accounting procedure that takes into account all costs from initial construction of the generating plant to eventual decommissioning at end of life. I had seen previous comment to this effect. Elizabeth May drew the obvious conclusion – the time is fast approaching when Canada will not need pipelines to ship its dirty tar sands bitumen to markets around the world, because nobody will be buying it. (She was more diplomatic than that, although she did note that Canada was the only significant country not a member of IRENA, and wondered if Mr. Harper had ever seen these reports.)

Solar panels being installed on the Ikea store in Etobikoke, Ontario. Ontario has made progress in shifting energy generation away from use of fossil fuels. Image © Colin McConnell / Toronto Star

Now is the right time to up the ante – we need a target of +1oC.

Yes. It is a little bit like watching for the spring thaw on a river, but the signs are all around. Globally, there is starting to be real movement on the climate front. It makes me happy to realize that people are starting to take action. Now I worry that the progress must be sustained and it’s in this regard that I want to raise the issue of the 2oC target that the world has been told, by IPCC and nearly everyone else, is the right target to aim for as we seek to mitigate climate change.

Several months ago, I had discussed the arguments by social scientists Oliver Geden and Silke Beck that the 2oC goal should be raised even higher, because the world was not going to be able to reach it. In their view, we need a ‘realistic goal’, even if it is not environmentally sound. I still think their argument smacks of the same sort of political correctness that has no student ever failing, because it might damage his/her psyche, but that is neither here nor there. I think, for a number of reasons that it is time to up the ante and argue for a still more stringent goal. A +2oC change in global temperature is too much unless we want a radically altered future.

I’m not the first person to think this; nor is it a new idea. Coral reef scientists recognized, more or less at the time the climate community was coalescing around +2oC, that a temperature increase of that magnitude would pretty well close up shop for reef builders. And the organization 350.org owes its name to the idea that a 350ppm CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would be far better for us than the 450ppm concentration that conforms to +2oC. James Hansen had recommended 350ppm as a safe maximum CO2 concentration if we wanted to keep polar icecaps frozen. A target of 350ppm puts the clock back to about 1990 allowing coral reefs to persist, and a temperature regime (once equilibrated) about a degree higher than the average for the 20th century. I think, for several reasons, it is now time to start educating governments to recognize that +1oC is a much better goal than anything higher. Better they get to +2 while trying for +1 than that they take us to +3 and some unanticipated tipping points while hoping for +2. And best if the +1oC goal is attained.

I admit that I am arguing for +1oC because I care about coral reefs. They will be sorry shadows of their former glory at +2o (those that still survive), but they will persist at +1oC. But I am arguing for +1oC also because I fear that the changes that are now happening in the Arctic and Antarctic, the changes in the ocean, and the changes to intensity of weather are all turning out to be more severe, more quickly, than people have been saying.

Problems for Phytoplankton

On 28th February, I briefly commented on the article by Philip Boyd and colleagues in the December 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change. They had demonstrated that the changes occurring in the oceans are quite variable from one location to another, and that different combinations of change in properties mean that responses of biota will vary geographically in some cases quite substantially. The following images show the extent of variation in just four of the ocean properties they examined.
Boyd et al Fig 1 nclimate2441-f1

Extent and direction of change in temperature, pH, and concentrations of silicates and nitrates across the oceans. The colors scale as average degrees C, pH, and mmol/m3 in 2081-2100 compared to 1981-2000. Figure © Nature

In three of these cases, the pattern of change (positive or negative) is uniform, although the extent varies from place to place. For nitrates there are places in South-east Asia and the tropical Atlantic where the direction of change is reversed from the usual pattern. The next chart shows this graphically for the full range of properties examined.
Nature Climate Change 5, 1 (2015). doi:10.1038/nclimate2441

Chart from paper by Boyd and colleagues showing direction and extent of change in 15 ocean properties across 13 oceanic regions (SSO to AO), and the mean change for all ocean regions combined. Figure © Nature.

In this chart it can be seen that each ocean region has a unique pattern of change over the 100 year period when all 15 properties are considered, although some pairs [such as the east equatorial Pacific (EEPO), and the north subtropical Pacific (NSPO)] exhibit the same directions while differing in extent of change for each property. Boyd and colleagues discuss the likely responses by different groups of the phytoplankton.
coccolithophores diatoms

Marine phytoplankton come in a wide array of shapes and sizes. Those on left are coccolithophores, one of the major groups in all oceans, while on the right is a mixture of various diatoms, another major group. Photos © Steve Gschmeissner/Science Photo Library (left) and phyto4life.com (right)

Perhaps at this point I should remind you of three very important facts concerning marine phytoplankton. First, they come in many shapes and sizes, belonging to many quite different taxa, and they do not all behave similarly in response to changes in oceanic conditions. Second, they are the base of all marine food webs, and the organic matter they construct, through photosynthesis, is the food which ultimately supports all marine creatures, including the fishery species that provide some 16% of animal protein in the diets of humans. Third, in doing all that photosynthesis, they put into the atmosphere almost one half of all the oxygen we breathe (the other half is put there by terrestrial plants). Put these three facts together and you see that the phytoplankton are pretty important to the way the biosphere functions.

Changes to temperature, to pH, or to concentrations of various nutrients will have physiological effects on phytoplankton, but they all won’t respond in precisely the same way. Further, the changes expected may cause adjustments in the geographic distribution of particular species or larger groups altering the local composition of the phytoplankton community. Changes in pH and in silicate concentration can be expected to alter the ease with which species of diatom or coccolithophore construct their external skeletons, and changes in several properties at once can cause synergistic effects that result in a different overall response by a species than the response that would occur to any one of the properties changing alone. As Boyd and colleagues point out, we simply do not yet have the physiological studies of the various taxa of phytoplankton to make even an approximate prediction of the overall effects on the plankton community in any oceanic region. Growth rates, and photosynthesis may be enhanced by warming, but that may be counteracted by a reduction in pH, or of silicates, or iron.

We only have one planet, and I suggest that this article should give us pause. We need to know a good deal more about how phytoplankton are likely to respond before we go merrily altering ocean properties as we are doing by altering the climate. We might find ourselves with a seriously compromised oceanic ecosystem that fails to provide all the oxygen and food that the oceans and we depend upon.

What’s happening to the oceans?

It’s not just the biology of the oceans which is complex. Efforts to understand the processes and pathways involved in the warming of the oceans as climate changes continue to uncover interesting, sometimes disturbing new insights. To put it bluntly, the oceans of the world are not just very large basins full of water, but basins full of water that differs in temperature, salinity, pH, and other attributes from place to place both vertically and horizontally. These differing types of water move relative to one another under the influence of winds, tides, and physics.

I’ve written several times about the giant ocean conveyor that circulates water slowly around the globe, and how surface warming and desalination due to melting of ice may be causing this giant pump to be slowing down. A new article in Nature Climate Change, published on-line on 23rd March, suggests that the ocean conveyor has begun to slow, and that this will lead to a slow-down of the Gulf Stream which runs up the eastern coast of North America, and a significantly larger than average rise in sea level along that coast. Stefan Rahmstorf, of Germany’s Potsdam Institute, and six colleagues scatted across Germany, Denmark, Spain and the USA, state that they now have evidence that AMOC, the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, has already slowed by about 20% since 1900. AMOC is one part of the global ocean conveyor, responsible for taking surface waters deep and generally, if slowly, stirring the oceans of the world. AMOC plays a major role in this circulation – subsidence of surface waters in the North Atlantic, as they cool and become more dense, drives the Gulf Stream which moves immense quantities of heat from the tropics towards northern latitudes.  Washington Post provides a good coverage.

In their article, Rahmstorf and colleagues present a surprising global temperature anomaly graph. This one shows the change in temperature between 1900 and now. While the globe is almost entirely pink to red as you’d expect given the climate change that has been taking place, there is a conspicuous place in the North Atlantic that has been getting colder. (The only other place doing this seems to be one in north central Africa.)
Rahmstorf Fig 1 edited

Figure 1A from Rahmstorf’s article showing the change in average annual temperature between 1900 and the present. The North Atlantic includes an obvious exception to the general rule of getting warmer. Slowing of AMOC, which moves surface water to depth in this region, has reduced the amount of warm surface water brought to this location from further south. Figure © Nature Climate Change.

The implications of this change in global ocean circulation are far-reaching. As well as including changes to climate in Europe – future warming there will be less pronounced than otherwise – impacts include the likelihood of more extreme sea level rise along the east coast of North America than would otherwise occur. This sea level change is due to the fact that a current in the northern hemisphere raises sea level on its right flank and lowers it on its left flank; Gulf Stream slowing reduces that effect and sea level to the left goes up. North Carolina and Florida, both of which seem to be trying to legislate sea level rise out of existence, have a bigger problem than we all thought they did.

Another recent paper, published on-line in mid-February in Nature Geoscience, suggests that the melting of Arctic sea ice will proceed more rapidly than previously anticipated because of complex patterns of mixing of deep waters in that basin. Tom Rippith of Bangor University, UK, and four colleagues from UK and Norway, report that, other than surface warming, the largest source of heat in the Arctic basin comes from North Atlantic water that flows in at depths between 40 and 200 meters. This North Atlantic water is saltier and about 4oC warmer than the less saline water above it. One might expect a relatively slow mixing with transfer of heat upwards across a sharp boundary layer (a thermo- or halocline). This is what is observed in regions away from continents where overall depth is in excess of 2000 m.

However, what Rippith and colleagues have found is that in continental shelf regions of the Arctic, at depths from 200 to 2000 m, tidal flows interacting with the topography produce sufficient kinetic energy to generate the turbulence necessary for effective mixing across the boundary layer and the transfer of heat to shallower depths is up to 100 times greater. The effect is most pronounced in places where the topography is steepest at shelf edges. Heat flux in the central Arctic basin is about 0.05 to 0.3 Wm-2 (Watts per square meter). In shelf regions sampled, heat flux averaged 22 ± 2 Wm-2, and estimates as high as 50 Wm-2 were recorded at some sites. While these processes are uninfluenced by whether or not sea ice is present, the melting of sea ice does permit greater wind influences on surface water circulation in the basin. This will tend to enhance the transfer of heat into shallower waters.
Rippith ngeo2350-f1

Figure 1 from Rippith’s article showing the locations where they sampled, and the vertical temperature profile at three locations near Svalbard. Note that the off-shelf site (gray line in graph) shows a more step-like transition between cold shallow Arctic water and warm deeper Atlantic water, compared to the profiles from the two shelf locations where heat transfer is greater. Image © Nature Geoscience

To put this starkly, the North Atlantic water is warmer now than it used to be. The heat transfer from this to shallower Arctic waters will enhance melting of the sea ice, and a more open Arctic is one with enhanced mixing, and therefore more efficient transfer of heat. Yet another positive feedback loop is now in operation tending to make the Arctic Ocean lose its sea ice more quickly than climate scientists expected as little as a decade ago.
Rippith ngeo2350-f2

Rippith’s Figure 2 showing heat dissipation against A) depth, and B) topographic slope, with and without sea ice cover. Colors of symbols relate to sites in Figure 1. Steep shallow sites exhibit much greater heat transfer. Figure © Nature Geoscience.

Moving to the Antarctic, there is more evidence that the glaciers of Antarctica have passed that point where they will begin melting in earnest. A new article published on-line on 16th March in Nature Geoscience reports on studies of the Totten Glacier in East Antarctica. This article is almost unintelligible to the non-specialist, but the Washington Post does a good job of summarizing it. At its face, the Totten Glacier exists as an extensive, mostly floating, ice sheet (35 x 144 km in area) that appears to be melting fast. It will take a while, but with the dissolution of that ice sheet, there is enough ice upstream in that single glacier to raise global sea level 3 meters. The study revealed large, deep cavities under the ice sheet that enable relatively warm deep water to enter, and provide heat from below that hastens the melting. As lead author Jamin Greenbaum, of University of Texas, explained to the Washington Post, the results “support the idea that the behaviour of Totten Glacier is an East Antarctic analogue to ocean-driven retreat underway in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). The global sea level potential of 3.5 m flowing through Totten Glacier alone is of similar magnitude to the entire probable contribution of the WAIS”. In other words, this one East Antarctic glacier could melt to produce as much sea level rise as the melting of the entire West Antarctic ice shelf. While Antarctic melting is still estimated to take several hundred years, the point of such studies is that we now appear to have unleashed a melting process that is not going to stop any time soon – a melting that will raise sea level substantially higher than the 20 cm that the state of North Carolina legislated only two years ago. (Their action was silly then; it seems ridiculous now.)

As if to bear these stories out, NOAA’s National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) released its report for February and reported that the Arctic had likely reached its maximum sea ice extent on February 25th. Sea ice covered 14.54 km2 on that date, the lowest maximum extent ever recorded. This year’s maximum is 1.1 million km2 below the average for 1981 to 2000, and 130,000 km2 lower than the next lowest year, 2011. It also occurred just one day later than the earliest peak in 1996, and 15 days earlier than average. When we combine the area of sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, we have been losing an area of sea ice approximately equivalent to the state of Maryland every year, and the sea ice out there now is predominantly young and thin. There is still a lot of ice around our poles, but there is a good deal less than there used to be. And every indication suggests that it is disappearing ever faster.

And what about changes on the land?

In the early 1980s I took part in a memorable four or five day workshop organized by ecologists at University of South Florida. During the workshop, we were taken on a field excursion, for reasons I do not remember, and in the course of this found ourselves on top of a modest hill with an attractive view of the surrounding land somewhere east of Tampa. Although the hill was barely 20 m high, we were told that we were standing on the highest point of land from this point south in Florida. Pressed further, our hosts admitted that there was one piece of land further south that was higher. That was the landfill west of Miami. I understand that landfill may be even higher now.

Humans have made a lot of changes to the terrestrial parts of this planet, and recent interest in the advent of the Anthropocene has led to enumerations of those changes. Thus the editorial in the 12th March issue of Nature that discussed the Anthropocene begins with a story about Devil’s Mountain, or Teufelsberg, a prominent landmark near Berlin, which rises 80 m above the surrounding plain and is the dump site for the 25 million m3 of concrete rubble removed from the city at the end of WWII. The editorial goes on to mention that, since WWII, our population has increased by 180%, our use of water by 215%, and our use of energy by 375%. During that time we have skewed the composition of the atmosphere, warmed the planet, eroded the ozone layer and acidified the oceans.

In that same issue, Richard Monastersky notes that as well as doubling the amount of methane in the atmosphere, and increasing that of CO2 by 30% (an amount not exceeded in at least the last 400,000 and probably several million years), our agriculture, construction and the damming of rivers are stripping away sediment at least ten times as fast as the natural forces of erosion.
670px-los_angeles_ca_from_the_air Wikipedia

Los Angeles used to be a natural valley environment ringed by hills. Photo © Wikipedia

All in all, we have captured 40% of the land for our own fields, parking lots and cities, and have also captured about 40% of the production via photosynthesis for our own use. Our impacts on climate are just one of many things we are doing to this planet, and our erosion of the natural resilience biodiverse ecosystems possess is leaving the biosphere less capable of withstanding the climate shocks, and other shocks that are sure to come unless we change our ways. A good place to begin is to rein in our impacts on the climate and on ocean chemistry. Put these things all together and I think we need to start a conversation about limiting global warming to +1oC. If we do not, I fear the world we will create as the Anthropocene progresses.

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