Climate Change and the Canadian Federal Election – One ecologist’s perspective


It’s been ages since I added to this blog, but Canada is embarking on a Federal election and climate change is high on the list of topics being discussed.  Lots of Canadians think acting on climate change is important, but many are unsure just how important it should be, compared to other issues.  Some Canadians think climate change is relatively unimportant.  How to decide?

Canada currently contributes less than 2% of the greenhouse gases humanity currently releases into the atmosphere.  Canada has an economy that is substantially dependent on the extraction of natural resources, especially oil and gas.  Curtailing our production of these fuels, especially the still mostly untapped bitumen reserves in the Athabasca Tar Sands, will dampen our economy and cost jobs.  In fact, what Canada desperately needs is a further investment in pipelines to coastal ports because the overwhelming majority of Canada’s gas, oil and bitumen is exported, and those exports are being limited by lack to ability to transport product to the coast.  There is more than enough global demand over the next several decades to provide lucrative markets for Canada, and we have a moral obligation to make use of the bounty Nature has provided for us in Athabasca.

Apart from referring to the Athabasca Tar Sands (their correct name) instead of the politically correct oil sands, which they definitely are not, that paragraph pretty well sums up one side of the argument that would suggest Canada has little need to do anything special about climate change – because we are such a tiny player in greenhouse gas pollution – but a great need to strengthen our economy by continuing to invest in a growing energy sector based largely on the mining of bitumen for export.

The other side of the argument is more nuanced, a little more sophisticated, and, I believe, the side that will be proved right in hindsight from somewhere a few years ahead.  This argument hinges on 1) the science of climate change, 2) the art of diplomacy for middle tier countries, and 3) the economic opportunities inherent in acting aggressively on climate change.

Climate Science

The science is pretty clear.  Climate scientists have known since the 1960s that the global economy was pumping sufficient CO2, CH4, and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, that concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere were measurably changing, and that these changes were causing a warming of the planet.  There is no disputing the data and the physics of greenhouse gases is quite clear – science understands what is happening to the atmosphere, how that affects the radiation of heat away from the planet, and the consequences in terms of planetary warming.

The data on atmospheric concentration of CO2 atop Mauna Loa are inexorably clear, and freely available on the web.  Unless one believes in government conspiracies (in this case involving both a major government agency and a major university who have collaborated in this charade for 51 years), the simple fact that CO2 concentration has been going up at an ever increasing rate since 1958 when the instruments were first installed to measure it, is about as self-evident as reproductive organs on a canine.  Similar graphs show similar changes in atmospheric concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide – all due to us.

Once we get it through our collective thick head that our global economy really is altering the composition of the atmosphere, the rest falls into place.  Increases in concentrations of greenhouse gases (such as these three) progressively impede the radiation of heat away from the planet without impeding the arrival of solar energy as light.  Ergo, the planet warms up.

We then must turn to another sphere of climate science, that to do with weather, to comprehend what is likely to happen to our climate as our planet warms up.  If there is any uncertainty in the science underlying climate change, it lies in our incomplete understanding of the ways in which warming the planet lead to altered weather.  Some of the multiple causal pathways involved are quite well understood – for example the way warming of the planet translates into higher average temperatures from place to place.  Other pathways, such as the one that begins with warming’s effects on the melting of ice, and ends up dealing with the contributions of massive loss of glaciers on climate, fresh water supply, and sea level rise, are still processes about which we have a lot to learn.  Understanding the details of how warming alters availability of fresh water which in turn alters agricultural production still has a fair way to go.  But anyone who claims the science of climate change is so poorly understood that we should hesitate to make any policy decisions until the science is better defined is really only looking for an excuse to do nothing.  If we all continue doing nothing, but continue our economic business as usual, it does not require great forecasting skill to project an increasingly alarming future for the planet.  And all the signs suggest that future is already upon us and getting worse daily.  To sum up, the science is very clear that climate change is upon is, is huge, and must be curtailed if we want to preserve any semblance of a stable world order with thriving economies and high quality of life.

Art of diplomacy

Canada is a mid-tier nation.  We are wealthy, have a relatively high standard of living for most of us, based on a relatively advanced economy.  We also have a relatively tiny population spread over an enormous country.  We have a miniscule capability in conventional warfare, no capability in nuclear war, and a lack of experience in terrorism as a way of getting our wishes fulfilled.  We know there are plenty of countries quite capable of rolling over us without pausing for breath.  We live next door to one such country and across the Arctic Ocean from two others.

Canadians are remarkably intelligent people, or we’ve been blessed to have remarkably intelligent leaders over the years.  We’ve not had to learn our relative weakness by having our faces ground into the dirt; we’ve somehow sized up the situation and decided that discretion, or, more aptly, effective diplomacy is the better part of valor.  We are collectively the skinny kid in the schoolyard who knows that massively armed bullies are best dealt with diplomatically.  Over the years, we have actively supported international agencies that seem the best places in which to allow hotheads to cool their ardor, and we have forged strong partnerships with likeminded nations.  We understand that not only is the glass half full, but several can drink from the same glass to mutual benefit.

At the present time, the world seems to be becoming a place where the advantages of such diplomatic, cooperative, win-win behavior by nations seem to be being discounted.  In too many nations at present, people have found their way into leadership positions who doubt there is such a thing as a treaty worth upholding or a problem which can be resolved in a win-win way.  Maybe Canada should wise up and start planning on going it alone?

Think about that for a moment.  We could arm ourselves to the teeth, build a wall along our southern border, develop much less lenient policies on immigration in order to keep undesirables at bay, and try to refocus our economy so that we minimize the importance of international trade.  Does that sound like a reasonable plan?  Or maybe we could go along as at present, relatively weakly capable of our own defense, but convinced that so long as we remain nice people – Canadians are so very nice – the rest of the world will leave us to our own devices even as the planet changes and quality of life degenerates for many people in many places.  The USA would never dream of taking Canadian water from the Great Lakes would it?  Even when vast areas of the US Midwest and Southwest become veritable deserts?  No, of course our American neighbors would never dream of taking our water.  As for Russia and China, on the other side of a rather small sea that will soon be navigable for much of the year, they’ll play nice so long as we do.  Right?

I think it should be very clear that, at this particular time, when the usefulness of international diplomacy is being so widely questioned, Canada is one of those nations that cannot avoid doing its best to keep the world order on track.  But, in order to continue to be recognized by others as one of the nations that contributes positively to international good governance and cooperation, Canada has to be seen to be acting in ways that are appropriate to the situation the world faces at the present time.  Given the science of climate change, given the future that is upon us, can Canada afford not to be pursuing international efforts to limit the extent of climate change, by deeds rather than by words?  Far better Canada be seen to be a nation doing its best to support the global effort to mitigate climate change, than to be seen as yet another rich country that does not give a damn, and worse yet, that is actively expanding its production and export of the fuels that are contributing so much to climate change at present.

Canada should be a strong, a leading, supporter of international efforts such as the Paris Agreement, and actively seeking ways to do even more to bring climate change under control, not because we are nice, cooperative people, but because it is in our own self-interest as a mid-tier nation attempting to support the existing world order. 

This image shows total GHG emissions per capita for 2016 and only includes nations with 10 million inhabitants.  If we look only at CO2 emissions, Canada’s 15.6 tonnes per person remains close to the highest.  The same is true if we consider our releases of all greenhouse gases.

If any of us Canadians need any more reason for the need to act on climate change, let’s remember the following.  Although Canada contributes under 2% of greenhouse gas emissions at the present time, we are still the tenth largest emitter nation, and our per capita emissions, at 15.6 tonnes CO2 per person, are the third highest in the world among developed nations (all data come from the Global Carbon Atlas for 2017).  Canadians waste energy and our emissions per capita show that.  We trail the USA and Australia in this, but seven small oil-producing countries, including Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, also have higher per capita emissions than Canada.  If our contribution to the problem is trivial, as some Canadians claim, why should any nation on the planet do anything to rein in emissions.  Oh, and by the way, Canada has failed to live up to every international climate treaty it has entered, withdrew in disgrace from the Kyoto Accord, and is currently failing to achieve the emissions reductions we committed to under the Paris Agreement.  If we continue this sorry performance, how long before other nations will start to see us as the phony we are proving to be – all talk, not much walk.

Carbon Action Tracker’s thermometer shows very clearly the extent of the work that needs doing globally on climate.  Canada is not the only country to have pledged to do too little and to have failed until now to live up to even its insufficient pledge.  Ponder what a 3oC warmer world might be like.  For starters, Canada would be a lot more than 3 degrees warmer – higher latitudes are warming more than equatorial latitudes.

Economic Opportunities

Many who seek to defer any action on climate argue for the need to protect Canada’s resource-based economy.  Increasingly, this argument is sounding more and more like the argument that may have been made at the turn of the 20th century to protect the industry built on making and repairing buggies, breeding and caring for horses.  Somehow the automobile took care of that issue.

The market, so often revered by those who argue against any government regulations that ‘impede’ business, is already shifting away from fossil fuels, and particularly the especially difficult and costly to produce fuels such as bitumen extracted from the Athabasca tar sands.  The global investment in oil production peaked in 2014 at about $550 Billion, but in 2018 it was down to $350 Billion.  Companies like Exxon-Mobil are narrowing their focus to the oil that is likely to be the most profitable in the midterm, such as the Permian Basin back in Texas.  Exxon-Mobil announced earlier this year that it was delaying development of its large $2.6 Billion Aspen project in the Athabasca region because of ‘uncertainty’ while simultaneously expanding its investments in the Permian Basin and off the coast of Guyana. Koch Industries sold all its tar sands leases in August, exiting Alberta completely.  And Norway’s giant sovereign wealth fund, which was built initially with revenues from oil – hint, hint, Alberta, and is now valued at about $1 Trillion, announced in June a major program of divestment from fossil fuel projects around the world.  The planned divestments will amount to about $13 Billion.  When the big players leave the game, you know something is afoot.

What’s afoot for the Alberta tar sands is collapsing profitability as the global demand for oil falls and purchasers choose the less expensive supplies with the lowest carbon footprints.  As some of the dirtiest fuel in the world, difficult to extract and refine, Alberta’s so-called ethical oil won’t stand a chance.  So far, our governments (federal and provincial) have propped things up by charging only modest royalties for the product being extracted, providing many favors on taxes for the producers, and now buying a pipeline that may eventually get expanded.  But putting large quantities of bitumen that nobody wants to buy on the BC coast seems a plan unlikely to succeed in stimulating Canada’s economy.

By contrast, there are enormous growth opportunities were Canada to embark on a major effort to decarbonize the economy – everything from installation and operation of renewable sources of energy supply, to retrofitting of buildings to lower energy costs of operation, to creating high-speed train, light rail, and other energy-efficient transportation solutions for this enormous country.  Then there are the ancillary benefits in quality of life, such as improvements in overall human health – an important issue in a nation that has most of health costs covered from government funds.

The phase-out of Ontario’s polluting coal-fired power plants completed in 2014 eliminated emissions of 28 megatonnes of CO2 and 320 kg of mercury, a known, bio-accumulating neurotoxin.  The average of 53 smog days per year in Toronto fell to zero (although air quality improvements south of the border also helped here).  Based on the growing evidence of beneficial health impacts in Ontario, the Federal government was able to claim earlier this year that its planned phase-out of coal power generation across the country would yield “260 avoided premature deaths, 40,000 fewer asthma episodes, and 190,000 fewer days of breathing difficulty and reduced activity — resulting in health benefits of $1.2 billion, from 2019 to 2055” for a cost of $2.2 Billion.  Yes, the phase-out will cost money, but half the cost is offset by health savings.  And independent auditors have judged those claims of health savings to be reasonable (and less than some advocates have suggested).

In short, a perusal of what is happening in places such as Europe where countries are further along the path towards decarbonizing, and some back of the envelope calculations on likely costs and benefits for Canada make clear to most people who bother to enquire that there are substantial pluses in a forward-looking economy that operates as Canada shifts away from use of fossil fuels.

Brian Gable’s cartoon says it well: Canada can cling to the belief that tar sands bitumen will always be an important part of our economy, or we can open our eyes, look around, and realize that the world has changed, and will continue to change, in ways that do not make that bitumen look like much of a hot commodity.  There is no economic argument to avoid the decarbonization that is needed.

Above all, Canada needs to put in place an organized phase-out of tar sands bitumen production, done by the energy sector in collaboration with Alberta and Federal government, with due recognition of the need to sustain employment opportunities for displaced workers, while minimizing investment losses.  An unplanned collapse, which is what will happen if we collectively do not tackle this problem, will do considerable damage to Canada’s economy and the quality of life of Canadians working in the energy sector.

Putting it all together

Lest there be any doubt about the seriousness of climate change, just as I was preparing to post this, I looked at this week’s issues of Science and Nature.  Nature had an editorial on how time is running out to act.  In it, they state, “Last year, the IPCC warned that limiting global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels would be a colossal undertaking, requiring greenhouse-gas emissions to be cut in half by 2030. The transition to renewable energy alone would cost US$2.4 trillion annually. And yet, without such drastic measures, the world is likely to exceed 3 °C of warming by the end of the century, and will experience more frequent and more severe catastrophic effects, including weather extremes, rising seas and drought.”  Nature backs this up with a short article by Jeff Tollefson including scary graphics to show just how little progress is being made.  He begins by quoting Argentinian 18 year old Bruno Rodriguez, “There is no middle ground.  We need radical industrial transformation.”  He then draws attention to Friday’s global climate strike, and presents graphs showing how national emissions have been growing, how inadequate the commitments made under Paris really are, and a map showing which countries have been showing least progress.  Canada is among the poor performers.

This graph, from Tollefson’s article shows how many million people worldwide will be impacted in each of several ways, and in which locations the risk is greatest, if climate is allowed to warm by 3oC (we are heading for more than this).

Science posted a new review article online today from Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and a group of scientists active within the IPCC that looked again at the consequences of particular levels of warming, 1.0oC, 1.5oC and 2.0oC.  The point out that commitments under the Paris agreement are “woefully inadequate” to achieve a 1.5oC goal, and state, “Warming of 1.0°C since the pre-industrial period has fundamentally transformed our planet and its natural systems. Multiple lines of evidence reveal that a 1.5°C world will entail larger risks to both human and natural systems. The risks of a 2°C world are much greater. This places us at a critical time in human history where proportionate action taken today will almost certainly minimize the dangerous impacts of a changing climate for hundreds of millions of people.”  I frankly do not know how much clearer the problem can be stated.  We really are in a global climate emergency and the time for half-measures is long past.

So, is climate change a major issue in the minds of Canadian voters?  And should it be?  All but one of the political parties have statements concerning actions to curb climate change in their platforms.  Most Canadians are capable of reading these statements and making informed judgements.  Some of these platforms are a lot stronger than others, and the media have been providing helpful evaluations of each.

The Green Party policies on climate change stand out from the pack in being significantly more ambitious and have been criticized because of this.  The NDP also proposes a more aggressive ramping down of emissions than is currently planned.  Neither of these parties is likely to form a majority government, and so their policies can be viewed more for what they might be able to extract from the Liberals or Conservatives in the event of a minority government.  From this perspective, the Green Party seems better positioned with a clearly enunciated set of policies and goals on climate change.  Nor, by the way, is the Green goal of reducing Canada’s emissions by 60% from 2005 levels by 2030 (double the reduction planned by the Liberals) an unrealistic response to the need to act.  It is not an impossible goal and could be achieved with a rapid but well-planned phase out of tar sands production.  That it seems so different to the policies of the other parties is more a reflection of how far the other parties need to go to fully understand the immensity of the climate problem that confronts us.  (A lot of Canadians, not just the political class, also have yet to comprehend just how severe the climate problem is.)

The Liberal and Conservative parties both have reasonable chances of forming government, though not necessarily a majority government.  Of the two, the Liberals have a set of climate policies, as well as climate actions already taken that suggest they comprehend the need to act in a meaningful way on climate.  The Conservative policies, in contrast, rely too much on business-as-usual and the effectiveness of the private sector taking steps that make sound economic sense.  Without a firm hand setting clear goals, the ‘market’ is not going to shift us out of fossil fuels at a pace remotely commensurate with the need – the market has too much interest vested in the existing fossil fuel-driven economy to change at the pace required.

I had high hopes for what the Liberals would accomplish four years ago, and I’ve not yet given up hope completely.  But the Liberals got tangled up in the political game of telling people what they wanted to hear – you cannot plan for an orderly phase-out of Canada’s exploitation of tar sands bitumen without discussing with the energy sector the need for such a planned, orderly phase-out!  Gentle suggestions, designed not to ruffle the feathers of an Albertan oil man, ain’t gonna’ get us where we need to be.  And now that the government owns a pipeline, they may find it even more difficult to walk the correct walk than they have over the past four years.

So what is a Canadian voter to do?  The science and the geopolitics say Canada needs to act aggressively on climate change.  One of the two parties most likely to form the next government seems far more likely to attempt to respond appropriately to climate change.  One of the other parties is the only one that has a set of policies on climate change that point us in the right direction with a sufficient effort; that party could play an effective role on climate in a minority or a narrowly majority government. 

As always in Canada, we are hobbled by the first-past-the-post voting system, so that in some ridings voting your conscience results in the candidate you least want to see elected winning the seat.  In such ridings, a more strategic approach to voting, if adopted by significant numbers of voters concerned about climate, could help elect more candidates with policies favorable to acting on climate.  In a few ridings the Greens have a possible path to victory and I hope they gain seats in the Parliament.  In other ridings, however, voting for anyone other than a candidate from one of the two major parties is merely a protest vote.

And finally, there is the question – how important is the need to act on climate change relative to all the other things that political parties promise?  That is something each individual voter must decide but let me provide a few estimates of impacts of climate change in a warmer world (we are currently heading towards a 3.3 degree increase in average global temperature as shown on the CAT thermometer graph above). 

In November 2017, The Guardian reported on impacts of sea level rise in a 3 degree world, using UN data and analyses by Climate Central.  They estimate 275 million people currently live in areas that will be flooded by 2100; most of these people live in Asia.  Among the most affected cities are Shanghai with 17.5 million people affected, Hong Kong with 8.5 million and Osaka with 5.2 million people, but even Miami, with 2.7 million people is essentially eliminated by 2100 in a 3 degree world.  And it’s not just Miami, even at 2 degrees projections show the southern third of Florida, from Lake Okeechobee south, home to 7 million people, essentially under water.  When sea level rise is affecting cities all over the world, its unreasonable to plan on building shoreline defenses.  Those people have to move!

An even more disturbing set of information has been compiled by the respected website, CarbonBrief.  It reports a wide range of consequences for 1.5o, 2.0o, and warmer worlds.  I am cherry-picking here but encourage you to peruse the site because it is definitely disturbing.  Just remember, while perusing that each effect, in each location is happening along with all the others, making the overall impact on our lives considerable.  For example, marine heatwaves, very destructive of coral reefs and of plankton production and hence of fishery yield, are projected to be 16 times more frequent in a 1.5o world than in the past, but 41 times more frequent in a 3.5o world and the AMOC (Atlantic meridional overturning circulation), which drives the circulation of the oceans, is destined to slow by 11% in a 1.5o world but by 34% in a 2.0o world.  Slowing of the AMOC leads to cold winters in Europe and a variety of other changes.  Similarly, at 1.5o ocean acidification will increase by 17% by 2050, but in a 2.0o world the increase in acidification will be 29%.

On land, the proportion of species losing 50% or more of their range in a 1.5o world ranges from 2% for birds to 8% for plants, but in a 4.5o world (definitely within the realm of possibilities this century) those percentages become 40% and 67%.  (If two thirds of all plants lose at least half their native range you know that many of them will go globally extinct.)  Global per capita GDP is projected to fall 8% in a 1.5o world, but 13% in a 2.0o world.  I could go on. 

Each of these projections has some uncertainty, but taken together, a 3 degree or warmer world is going to be a very different place to where we now live, and even 1.5o causes significant problems for us.  (And just because the examples I grabbed were not Canadian ones, bear in mind we have a rapidly thawing Arctic and no plans for how we will deal with the economic, sociological and environmental upheavals that are coming in our North.) Yes, the Greens are correct: climate change is a serious problem that requires urgent solutions, and yes, Canadians should be concerned and trying to ensure they elect a government capable of providing us with leadership in the struggle to achieve important climate goals.  The casual ‘let’s do a little bit and see how we fare’ approach in place up until now has got to be replaced with a much greater commitment.  Vote carefully this October, Canada!

Brian Gable scores with yet another cartoon!

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Changing Oceans, Climate change, Politics, Tar Sands | 1 Comment

Environmental News – Lots of Confirmation of Expectations, Some Signs of Progress

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Students marching on Ave. Parc, Montréal on 15th March, part of the worldwide student march that day, and one of the largest efforts in Canada.  The kids understand what is happening.  Image © John Mahony, Montreal Gazette.

So, what has been happening in the world of climate change and environmental decline?  School students around the world are showing up the rest of us, and there is a continuing, some would say mind-numbing, flow of environmental news in the media.  It is difficult for the casual browser to cut through the mass of information to see anything really new.  Even as a scientist, more or less in tune with what is going on, I have difficulty sorting the wheat from the chaff.  Not that there is anything wrong with chaff – we need the accumulation of detail in order to model processes and make future projections that are likely to fall even closer to reality.  The following stories caught my eye over the past couple of weeks, mainly in the pages of Science or Nature, rather than in the general media.  Mostly they confirm what we already knew but each adds needed detail.

Nicholas Gruber, an environmental physicist at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, with 17 co-authors from institutions across Europe, the USA and Japan, published an article in Science on 15th March, 2019.  It was called “The oceanic sink for anthropogenic CO2 from 1994 to 2007” and dealt with the global distribution of inorganic carbon dissolved in ocean waters.

As we add CO2 to the atmosphere through our burning of fossil fuels, cement manufacture, and changes in land use, a portion of this ‘extra’ CO2 dissolves into the oceans.  A second portion is taken up by plants and microorganisms and incorporated into soils and biomass on land.  The remainder remains in the atmosphere causing the planet to warm. 

In the ocean, CO2 combines chemically with water to form carbonic acid (H2CO3) which promptly dissociates into HCO3and H+ ions, thereby lowering pH and acidifying the ocean. CO2 concentrations in surface waters are at or near an equilibrium with the atmosphere, but dissolved carbon is only slowly distributed to the deeper ocean, meaning that most of the ocean is less saturated than are surface waters.  It is this slow redistribution of dissolved inorganic carbon to deeper waters that makes it possible for a continuing net flux of CO2 from atmosphere to ocean surface waters.  Over time, over a long period of time, the concentration of carbon in deeper waters will become closer to that in surface waters, and the oceans’ capacity to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere will decline.  One question Gruber and colleagues were exploring was whether the rate at which CO2 was dissolving from the atmosphere to the oceans was starting to slow down yet.

Oceanographers produce the neatest illustrations and I admit to being first attracted to this article by a wonderful diagram, looking a bit like a three-bladed, rather square propeller, that depicts how the rate at which carbon concentration was increasing at different latitudes and depths in the three oceans – Atlantic, Pacific and Indian – during the period 1994 to 2007.

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The rate of increase in concentration of dissolved carbon is shown on a color scale from blue (low) to yellow (high) for different depths and latitudes in a slice taken through each of the three oceans from vicinity of Antarctica to the most northerly extent of that ocean.  Figure © Science.

An amazingly effective way of compressing vast quantities of data into a single, understandable image.  Still, what does it tell us?  Over the period 1994 to 2007 the oceans of the world have continued to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  Gruber and colleagues estimate that 34 ± 4 petagrams of carbon (Pg C) moved from atmosphere to ocean during those years, an average of about 2.6 petagrams carbon per year.  That’s a lot of carbon (2.6 billion tonnes of carbon or 9.5 billion tonnes of CO2 per year).  Let that sink in for a minute: 9.5 thousand million tonnes of CO2, which is just 31% of the amount of CO2 we are putting into the atmosphere.

That those billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide did not remain in the atmosphere is just as well, because if they had remained there, that would really have boosted global temperatures.  Gruber and colleagues refer to this fact as an example of the oceans providing a service to humanity – literally cleaning up after us!

Gruber and colleagues report that, as expected, the oceans have continued to take up anthropogenic carbon dioxide at about the rate they were in the early 1990s, however, their results show marked differences from place to place in the rates at which carbon is being distributed toward deeper waters (the redness in the figure marks places where rate of addition of CO2 is greatest).  This variability is understandable given our knowledge of ocean circulation, but the extent of the differences was surprising.  Future warming-caused changes to ocean circulation, such as the anticipated slowing of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), which transports North Atlantic surface waters to deeper layers, could have serious implications for future rates of CO2 uptake by the oceans.

Take home message?  The oceans continue to play a very important moderating role as the world warms, but there is a limit in how much longer they can continue to do this, and all that CO2 taken up by the oceans has serious consequences for ocean pH, and therefore for the lives of many marine organisms.

Anna Woodward of Lancaster University, UK, and four co-authors from British and Swedish institutions, provided a perspective on the human consequences of the changes taking place on coral reefs because of climate change.  Their article, in Functional Ecology, was published on line on 28th March as Coral reef ecosystem services in the Anthropocene.

Reef ecologists are becoming aware that the reefs of yesterday are not coming back any time soon.  The extra warmth added to ocean waters since the 1950s has changed the frequency and severity of el Niño events to produce more frequent periods of warmer than usual water, warm enough to lead to profound bleaching events.  As a consequence, the rates of mortality of various coral species have been altered from what they were, with the result that reefs have less living coral present, living corals are, on average, younger, and the mix of species has also changed because some species are more susceptible to warming than others.  Its still too early to say what the reefs that exist in 2050 will be like, except to note they will be fewer, less coral-dominated, and with a different mix of dominant coral species.  But its not too early to admit they will be ecologically different to today, or to the reefs of the 1950s.

Woodward and her colleagues use this new awareness that reefs are changing in many ways to anticipate likely impacts of those changes on humanity.  Hundreds of millions of people depend on coral reefs for their livelihoods, for important protein food, for coastal protection, and for esthetic, emotional, spiritual support.  As coral reefs change, their ability to provide these services will also change, but at present there has not been sufficient effort made to understand the nature or extent of those changes.  Woodward and colleagues review some of the ways in which other components of the reef ecosystem, such as fishery species, are likely to respond to changes in abundance and both age and species distribution of corals.  The4y provide some useful suggestions for future research.  I found this article important for highlighting the need to consider how the value of coral reefs must change as the reefs are changed, because if we understand more clearly the likely changes in fishery yield, storm protection, or effectiveness for stimulating tourism, we will presumably be in a much better position to plan for adaptation to these changed circumstances.

On the other hand, I was disappointed to see just how little Woodward and colleagues were able to provide in terms of definitive projections of future state, or even in terms of ways to advance the needed understanding.  Beyond suggesting that the provision of an ecosystem service is governed by an interaction between ecological and societal processes that respectively deliver and select for the service, or advocating a trait-based approach to identifying how particular ecological actors, such as fishery species, will respond to particular changes in the reefs, they seem to suggest scientists are at the very beginning of understanding how changes to reefs will affect people. 

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It seems unlikely that substantial changes on coral reefs will not have impacts on adjacent coastal habitats such as seagrass beds or mangroves.  Image © Smithsonian Institution.

I think it is also true that we have relatively limited understanding of how changes to reefs likely over the next couple of decades will ramify to impact those other ecosystems that share continental shelves with reefs.  How will a general decline of reefs impact seagrass systems or mangrove forests?  To what extent will loss of reefs lead to substantial ecological reorganization of tropical coastal seas.  While this may all sound like reef scientists have been asleep at the switch, I fear it is safe to say that scientists more generally, and humanity more broadly, are both uncomfortably naïve concerning the degree to which our direct perturbations of specific ecosystems – such as reefs, or salt marshes, or tropical forests – will ramify across the biosphere.  Hopefully, the article by Woodward and colleagues will spur reef scientists, in particular, to delve more deeply into the consequences of what we are doing.  Otherwise, the Anthropocene is likely to be far nastier than most of us expect.

In the March 22nd issue of Science, Warren Cornwall of the National Sea Simulator in Townsville, Australia, provided a Feature article (Science is becoming more like a trendy magazine and less like a dreary technical journal every month) titled, The Reef Builders.  Copiously illustrated with glorious pictures of corals spawning, it’s a pity it is hidden behind the paywall, instead of being on open access (I really do not understand why Science did this!).

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Acropora millipora spawning in a tank at the National Sea Simulator, Townsville, Australia.  Tourists to the Great Barrier Reef can book night dives to see this, assuming they can be at the reef on the right night.  Photo © Mikaela Nordborg, AIMS

The article reports on the research program of Madeleine van Oppen, now at Melbourne University, and the late Ruth Gates of University of Hawaii.  Ruth died, far too young, in October 2018, and I was gratified to this fruitful collaboration is continuing despite that setback.  Van Oppen, Gates and their collaborators and students have been pioneering efforts to manipulate the genetics of corals and their algal symbionts to see if it is possible to breed greater resistance to warmer water.  Such genetic research, using techniques ranging from straightforward selection of apparently more resistant individuals for breeding to use of genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPr-Cas9 for directly manipulating the genome, is nothing new in animal husbandry or crop science, but it is radically new in the world of coral science. 

To begin with, there is the problem that many corals breed just once a year, on a particular night.  If you don’t catch them at the right moment, you have to wait a year for the next opportunity.  Then there is the nasty fact that the algal symbionts, single-celled dinoflagellates of several species, live in intimate, intracellular association with the corals.  Using conventional approaches to collect genetic material from cells yields a mixture of coral and algal sequences.  And third, there is the daunting challenge, political as well as ecological, of putting lab-reared corals back into the ocean to see if they are indeed a tougher strain.  Australia has a long and unhappy history of introducing creatures that became unwanted pests on its landscape, and the last thing anyone wants is a plague of ‘bad’ corals on the Great Barrier Reef.

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Corals being grown under controlled conditions at Australia’s National Sea Simulator. 
Photo © Christian Miller, AIMS.

And yet, if we do not explore all possible tools to assist coral species, we are very likely to watch them disappear one by one as oceans warm.  Far better to explore possible ways to strengthen corals’ abilities to survive warming, than to engage in the harvesting of coral nubbins to be fragmented and grown up in a coral nursery and then planted back on the reef.  While reef restoration, as it is called, is being practiced in many places around the world, I fear there is little point in rearing and then out-planting tiny colonies of corals that will simply bleach the next time warm water passes by.  Such activities may be useful in small, high-value locations adjacent to tourist enterprises, but they seem unlikely to be a solution to our killing off of coral reefs.  In fact, such activities, if inaccurately portrayed as real solutions to the reef dilemma, could damage the overall effort to do something for reefs, because they divert activity and interest away from more difficult, but more effective, choices.  The research done by van Oppen and colleagues is very different to the broad sweep of reef restoration activities, few of which even have much of a scientific underpinning.  Meanwhile, the most effective way to do something to aid the world’s coral reefs?  Cut our emissions of CO2 as drastically and rapidly as possible and seek additional solutions to suck CO2 from the atmosphere.  One irony, not mentioned in Cornwall’s article, is that all the time van Oppen works to build stronger corals, the Australian government continues to promote coal mining and export, while failing, year by year, to reduce its own unconscionably high emissions of CO2.  Not the attitude one might expect from a government that carries the responsibility of caring for the largest coral reef system on the planet.

The final article I want to mention, by Guillaume Chapron, Yaffa Epstein, and José Vicente López-Bao, of the Swedish University of Agricultural Science, Uppsala University (both in Sweden), and Oviedo University, Spain, respectively, appeared in the 29th March issue of Science.  It was labeled an Insight or a Perspective, and titled A rights revolution for Nature.  This one is on open access, so accessible to all.

Chapron and colleagues have written a short 2-page article reporting the status of efforts to grant rights to Nature.  I was surprised to see it in Science; but pleased also.  Maybe there really is movement in that direction.

I’ve discovered in recent months that when I suggest that, perhaps, the Biosphere has a right to exist, and humans have a duty to sustain it, you get a mixture of puzzled and outright incredulous looks.  At least in North America.  What on earth is Sale talking about now?  And yet, I’ve also discovered that the more I suggest that the Biosphere has rights, the more sensible a proposal that sounds to me.

Perhaps I should give some background.  Climate change and the broader environmental crisis have brought home to me that humanity cannot go on treating the planet as a larder full of things to use and discard.  We currently use the goods and services we extract from Nature at rates that cannot be sustainable in any real universe, and certainly not in ours.  But getting that fact across to other people is extremely difficult.  We of a western, market-based, Judeo-Christian-influenced society simply don’t get the fact that the planet is finite, and capable of generating, or regenerating resources at rates that are also finite and limited.  And the human enterprise has far outstripped those rates.  We are literally using up the planet.  And yet, we, cocooned in our comfortable, middle-class social system, do not see the damage we are doing first-hand.  That almost all the fish in the local supermarket come from far away, and usually from fish farms, is not noticed by most shoppers, and yet it is a radical change from the situation in our supermarkets just a decade or so ago.  The same is true of produce.  Because I live in a wealthy western nation, I can be assured my supermarket will have fresh fruit and vegetables, plus plenty of meat and seafood, in copious quantities and endless variety, every day of the year despite what is happening out there beyond in the places where this food is grown or acquired.  The same is also true for all the other things I might require.  I will be one of the last people to discover there is no longer enough to go round.  And this is surely unfortunate, because I have grown up believing (or at least, I live in a society in which the great majority of people have grown up believing) that I am entitled to use as much as I want, because that is why this wonderful planet-larder is here.

Members of my society do not believe it is possible for the larder to become emptied out, and our eyes tell us all is well, whenever we go shopping.  Given these facts, how do we become convinced we need to change our ways?  Telling us of the damage we are doing to the planet has relatively little effect, because the state of the planet is of no concern.  A little bit of environmental damage here and there?  Oh dear, that is a pity.  But the economy has to continue to grow.

What we need is to become convinced that we have a duty to nurture the planet, and there are a few ways in which this might be done.  One of these is to use the legal system.  Most humans live in societies with laws.  In some of these societies the laws are obeyed more often than not.  We understand the concept of law, the idea that the government can enforce certain behavior by penalizing misbehavior, because there are laws stipulating same.  But mostly our legal systems do not suggest that we have a duty to sustain the natural world.  In fact, for the most part, our legal systems have grown up in a whimsical fantasyland in which there are people and property.  People own property.  They can buy and sell it.  Carve it up and even eat it.  But property itself has nothing.  And other than people, there is only property.

Now I’m exaggerating of course.  But only to make an important point.  Our legal systems have been very good and producing order in the interactions among people.  We’ve also been very creative in expanding the concept of personhood to include inanimate human constructs such as corporations.  Sometimes these non-human persons are immortal (as are corporations unless they declare bankruptcy.  But we have also been very good at leaving the natural world out of the equation.  Humans, corporations and their property exist in some kind of space, an environment, and that space can be used to dump things we don’t want, with no penalties for doing so.  Or we can take from that space things which it needs to sustain itself (to our ultimate detriment) also with no penalties.  But if we were to suggest that that space in which we all live, that environment, that Biosphere, was also some form of person, who had rights and duties, that would change things dramatically.  And that is what the global effort to grant rights to Nature is all about.

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There are many representations of the Andean Earth-Mother goddess, Pachamama.  The Ecudorean constitution of 2008 was the first to establish the right of Nature, as Pachamama, to exist, to be sustained, and to continue its natural functions.  Revealing the universality of the concept, this version is by Australian contemporary artist Jassy Watson, of Bundaberg, Queensland.

In their brief two pages, Chapron and colleagues do a good job of summarizing progress on the effort to establish rights in law for Nature, or components of nature.  They have a (rather incomplete) table listing notable examples of successful efforts to grant rights to nature, and they contrast efforts, such as that of Ecuador which granted rights to Nature writ large and that of New Zealand, which granted rights to a single river system to be a legal person.  They also point out that granting rights in law does not ensure people will embrace the duty to respect those rights – a wide range of ethnic, religious, racial, and gender groups will recognize the truth of that statement with respect to human persons.  It’s not surprising if it also applies to non-human persons.  Nevertheless, implementing law which grants rights to Nature could help us make the required transition from treating the planet as our larder of things to use to treating our planet as the complex system it is, a complex system which includes ourselves, and which sustains our lives.  I’m glad these ideas found an outlet in Science!

Categories: Changing Oceans, Climate change, coral reef science, In the News, Tar Sands | Comments Off on Environmental News – Lots of Confirmation of Expectations, Some Signs of Progress

Which way, Canada? Which way the world?


Those of you who follow this blog, as opposed to simply stumbling upon it, will have noticed that the frequency of my posts has fallen precipitously over the last year or so.  Never a frequent poster, my output has dwindled from once every ten days, to once a month, and now to once or so a quarter.  Have I run out of things to blog about?  Am I just running down in that inevitable decline towards final silence?  Fact is, I’ve been busy with other things, and the urge to blog has lessened.

Partly, my decision two years ago to not spend time talking about the President of the United States left me with many matters of environmental and political importance off limits.  Partly, the end of the Harper era in Canada left me with fewer environmental outrages close to home to rail against.  Partly, the pace of climate change, and of global environmental degradation in general, does not sustain frequent blog posts on the topic.  The news continues to appear.  The news is still bad.  But talking about it begins to sound repetitious.  Instead, I’ve been trying to put my thoughts together in a coherent way and create something more substantial than a blog post here or there.  I won’t say I am writing a book yet.  But it is either a book or a lot of unpublished words on pages.

Cartoonist Dave Whamond captures the moment when Canadians realized Justin Trudeau was not all that different from other politicians.  Image © Dave Whamond.

So why post something today?  SNC-Lavalin.  I’m worried that Canadians, alternately agonizing or celebrating over the fact that Captain Canada does not walk on water, are going to do something perilously stupid in a few months’ time when they vote.  The SNC-Lavalin affair is really just so much tempest in a teacup, and yet it has revealed, surprise, surprise, that our Prime Minister is a politician.  Did we really think that Justin Trudeau was not a politician?  Do we want our country led by someone who is not a politician?  Have we lost sight of the policies and the achievements of his government as we beat ourselves up about the fact that he appears to have thought political and economic considerations might be important when weighing up the best approach to dealing with the transgressions of a major economic player in our country?  (Incidentally, how does one do business in Libya without paying bribes to government leaders?  That’s the crime engineering firm SNC-Lavalin is accused of, and nobody is accusing Trudeau of seeking to prevent SNC being punished.)  Sure, the shining suit of armor has been tarnished.  But is that such a bad thing?  Maybe we are removing our rose-colored glasses at last and can assess Justin’s goals and methods and compare them with those of his erstwhile opponents in the coming national election.  I’ll pick this thought up again after I’ve done the responsible thing as an environmental scientist and reminded us all of where we stand in early 2019.

One of the few adults left standing in North American politics: Barack Obama speaking in Vancouver 5th March 2019.  Photo © Matt Borck.

At Last!  An Adult!

One of the few remaining adults on the planet made a brief speaking tour to western Canada this week, with stops in Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver.  Billed as “A Conversation with President Barack Obama” the talks allowed him to paint a global canvas as he mused about international relations, inequality, globalization, integrity in government, and climate change.  On climate change he was very clear.  He noted the range of environmental changes that climate change is triggering, conjuring up images of half a billion people in South Asia suddenly made climate refugees because the monsoons have collapsed, and contrasting that with the present instances of thousands of migrants fleeing environmental disasters in places round the world.  He spoke clearly and simply, saying nothing particularly new, but perhaps providing a different context – he spoke as a former political leader rather than a nerdy scientist.

 “At the current pace that we are on, the scale of tragedy that will consume humanity is something we have not seen in perhaps recorded history if we don’t do something about it.”  Or again: “This is coming, and I have two daughters who in their lifetime will see these effects. I don’t have grandchildren yet, but for those of you who do, it will make life very difficult for them even if they are wealthy and can somehow insulate themselves temporarily.” 

At his Calgary stop, he did not shy away from the future of the fossil fuel industry.  Acknowledging that he was an “old-fashioned guy” who still believed in using facts to draw conclusions, he talked about the need to transition from use of fossil fuels, and noted the need to build recognition, not just generally, but in places such as Alberta, that newer energy sources need to be developed and older ones have to be cleaned up.  But he also admitted that the fossil fuel sector in Alberta had long been an important part of the economy: ““It is important for our politics to take into account all the jobs and the economy that is generated from energy,” he said, dismissing the idea of a shutdown of the business for the sake of the environment. “That’s not going to happen.”  But we do need a coherent plan that gets us to a new place in 20 years or so (I think his timeline is too generous), and he suggested Canada, like many countries, has been “paying lip service” to its commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Reading about Obama’s visit, I wished it would have been possible to simply put him back in the Presidency in 2016 for a third term – the election of his successor was so clearly a flawed process that I’m sure a few legal minds and government historians could have developed a plausible rationale to justify such a thing.  Sorry, Michelle, four more years of White House duty please.  But fairy tale solutions seldom occur in real life.

The State of the Climate

And what is the state of the climate and environment in early 2019?  David Wallace-Wells, journalist and author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming, has recently pointed out that we have done more damage to the environment since the United Nations established its Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the parent of IPCC, in 1992, than we did in all the millennia that preceded that date.  Or, to put it a different way, “We have now done more damage to the environment knowingly than we ever managed in ignorance”.

Greta Thunberg is a 16-year old Swedish leader.  Last September, furious at the lack of attention to climate change from Swedish politicians, she went on strike, refusing to go back to school.  She sat down alone outside the Swedish legislature with a rucksack of books, snacks and home-made signs saying ‘School strike for Climate’.  Over subsequent days, she built a crowd.  Eventually she went back to school, but still strikes every Friday.  And tweets under #FridaysForFuture (the Canadian website is here).  Her actions have inspired a worldwide movement by youth, tens of thousands of them around the world.  A worldwide strike is planned on March 15th (Unfortunately winter break for Ontario schools falls during that week).  These signs of commitment by younger citizens are inspiring.  I hope the strike on the 15th is a crushing success.  I hope that those of us a bit older than 16 will pause to reflect – do we really have to wait for the 16-year olds to reach voting age, or enter politics themselves before we will start to act serious about climate change?

The Steady Drip of New Climate Science

When it comes to actual evidence of climate change or environmental, economic and health consequences of same, there has been a steady drip of new science, none of which makes the climate problem any less extreme than it looked a year or so ago.  Some of the articles being published in Science and Nature are clear attempts to argue for an urgency that is not yet perceived by the majority of politicians or policy wonks.  For example, a team of leading climate and environmental scientists, mostly based in the USA, led by Christa Anderson of World Wildlife Fund, published a ‘Policy Forum’ article in the March 1st issue of Science, titled ‘Natural climate solutions are not enough’.  Natural climate solutions (NCS), such as more effective forest management, reforestation, and changes in agricultural practices that collectively sequester carbon in soils at a greater rate, or reduce agricultural methane emissions, are useful weapons in the battle to slow climate change, and all the authors had previously argued for their value.  But in this article, they came together to put forth a clear statement that use of NCS alone was not going to be sufficient to bring climate change under control.

I was surprised that they needed to make this statement or put it out in such a prominent place (for scientists).  It has always been obvious to me that emissions due to use of fossil fuels were the single largest cause of anthropogenic climate change, and that we could not wrestle this change to the ground without curtailing those emissions.  It seems however, that some policy experts and politicians have been looking to use of NCS as a way of delaying action to reduce use of fossil fuels.  Because that is what we usually do – kick difficult problems down the road, leaving them for the next group of leaders to deal with (or, in the case of climate change, the next generation).  As Justin Trudeau famously said at an energy industry conference in Houston in 2017, “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.  The resource will be developed. Our job is to ensure that this is done responsibly, safely, and sustainably”.

A second technical article I was surprised to see was a detailed examination of the scientific evidence that greenhouse gas emissions were a form of air pollution, and therefore within the purview of the US EPA.  You’ll remember that during the Obama presidency, this fact was used to justify new regulations on power plants, and other measures, to combat GHG emissions, that would be enforced by EPA.  That was the only way Obama, with a solidly Republican Congress, could advance any climate change actions in that country.  The current, strangely orange occupant of the White House has, of course, had the EPA repeal the regulations that were put in place, to the considerable approval of the fossil fuel industry, especially the operators of all those inefficient coal-fired power plants.

The article, by a 15-member team of US-based climate and environmental scientists led by Philip Duffy of Woods Hole Research Center, appeared in the February 8th issue of Science, under the title “Strengthened scientific support for the Endangerment Finding for atmospheric greenhouse gases”.  The Clean Air Act (CAA) requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate air pollutants when the EPA Administrator finds that they “cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare”.  The Endangerment Finding was the finding by the EPA that greenhouse gases did pose a threat to human health and welfare that had been upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007, even if the EPA under Scott Pruitt’s backwards leadership had managed to renounce this conclusion.

The article consists of a detailed reexamination of the evidence supporting each of the eight way in which EPA had formerly concluded greenhouse gases endangered public health and well-being in the USA, plus four additional ways for the science was now sufficiently robust.  In all cases the evidence had strengthened over the intervening decade.  The illustration I found most damning was a county by county survey of where in the USA impacts of climate change were likely to be most severe.  As always seems to happen, the less wealthy counties are the ones most at risk.  Funny how wealth provides insulation for bad environmental news, isn’t it?

Map and chart from Duffy article showing the economic impact of present and future climate change across the USA, county by county.  The economic impact is greatest in those counties which are least wealthy to begin with.  Another example of how wealth seems to insulate against environmental problems.  Image © Science.

My surprise at seeing this article was that it had always been obvious that the changed decision by EPA once the AFP (alternate facts presidency) came into play had nothing to do with the science or the reality of climate change.  I was also surprised that it was published now, given the growing chance that we will have another five years of AFP before the USA can possibly return to reality.  Why did the scientists bother?

Nitrogen – Another Problem

In the same issue of Science, there was a short ‘Perspectives” article by Carly Stevens of Lancaster University, UK, called Nitrogen in the Environment.  In it, Stevens begins by pointing out that while nitrogen is one of the most abundant elements on the planet, reactive nitrogen (Nr), the nitrogen in the form of oxides and other organic molecules, and that is accessible to plants, and via them, to animals, is often in short supply.  Such Nr is naturally formed by nitrogen-fixing bacteria or by lightning, but over the past century, its supply has been greatly increased by human production of fertilizers, so that Nr availability is roughly twice what it used to be.  This now more abundant Nr is not uniformly distributed around the planet, and it is creating both problems of excess and of depletion.  In many places excess Nr pollutes aquatic systems resulting in anoxia and algal blooms, worsens low-altitude air pollution, and contributes as a greenhouse gas to climate change.  In others, deficient in Nr, crop yields are seriously reduced.  Stevens points to the need to curtail use of fertilizers, to use fertilizers more effectively, and to manage agricultural waste, particularly domestic animal waste, far more effectively than we mostly do.  At the same time, in impoverished countries in which land has been over-grazed and mis-managed, and in which farmers lack the resources to obtain needed fertilizers, there is a growing need to provide additional Nr.  Stevens argues that humanity has exceeded the planetary threshold for reactive nitrogen and reminds us that our assault on nature is not limited to climate change.  Incidentally, the number of dead zones in the coastal ocean (one clear consequence of this excess Nr), estimated to be less than 50 in 1950 and “more than 400” in 2008, was reported as more than 500 in an article in the 5th January 2018 issue of Science by a team of 22 marine scientists led by Denise Breitburg of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on Chesapeake Bay.  Most of these are due to pollution of aquatic systems by the Nr in sewage and agricultural runoff.  They are represented as red dots bordering most of the shorelines of the planet in the map accompanying Breitburg’s article.

Map from Breitburg’s Science article showing the 500+ dead zones in coastal waters as red dots.  Also shown, in blue, are deep-water regions of equally low oxygen content (<2mg per litre) caused primarily by ocean warming and other climate change effects.  Map © Science.

Deoxygenation of the Oceans

The main focus of Breitburg’s article, however, is on the decline in ocean oxygen content that has been going on for the past 50 years due primarily to impacts of climate change on the open ocean.  Warming reduces the solubility of oxygen in seawater, accounting for about 15% of the overall, open-ocean depletion.  Warming also enhances the stratification of the oceans, resulting in less transfer of oxygen from atmosphere to ocean.  This is believed to account for the remaining 85%, although increased rates of metabolism of marine organisms, including microbes, also deplete available oxygen.  And this brings me to one of my pet concerns (if you can have pet concerns): repeatedly, we see science demonstrating the inherent connectedness of environment, and of our destructive effects on environment.  Increased production of Nr leads to more and larger coastal marine dead zones, plus nitrous oxide air pollution leading to climate warming.  Warming reduces oceanic oxygen content directly, and through the enhanced metabolic activity of marine organisms.  We sure know how to make a mess.

By the way, given the evidence of growing ocean deoxygenation, it should come as no surprise that among the articles I’ve noticed in recent issues of Science was one by Christopher Free of Rutgers University and five colleagues which appeared in the 1st March issue: Impacts of historical warming on marine fisheries production.  They report that ocean warming is forcing redistribution of predators and prey, changes in metabolic rates and shifts in primary production, all of which impact overall fishery yield.  They calculate that over the last 80 years, global fishery production (what the populations were capable of, not what the fishery catch was) has declined by 4.1%, but that this decline varies a lot from region to region, so that some places, such as the East China Sea, have experienced losses of 15 to 35% in fishery yield.  I fear we are on the cusp of learning how our impacts on the global ocean are going to harm us directly through the influence of the ocean on our lives.

And Back to Canadian Politics

Meanwhile, average CO2 in our atmosphere above Mauna Loa reached 411.75 ppm in February, 3.43 ppm higher than in February 2018, and winter here in Muskoka and through much of central and eastern North America has been dominated by the vagaries of the polar vortex.  Which all brings me full circle, back to Justin Trudeau’s current troubles.

It appears that Trudeau and his advisors have been concerned that the giant engineering firm, SNC-Lavalin, which as a major civil engineering firm depends heavily on government contracts in Canada and outside, may be in a particularly difficult spot if found guilty in our courts of having paid out lots of bribes in order to do business in Libya.  Their concerns may stem purely from worry over the implications for the Canadian economy and employment were the country to fail or have to downsize.  They may stem from the fact that SNC-Lavalin has apparently been a significant donor to Liberal coffers over the years.  Or most likely, these concerns stem from a mixture of those economic and political reasons.  For a country the size of Canada, SNC-Lavalin does approach the ‘too big to fail’ category, which is real whether or not people like to recognize such facts of life.

Well, from the editorials, the hours of coverage in the media, and the tone of voice used by commentators and political opponents when discussing this issue, you’d think the Trudeau government and Justin Trudeau in particular, are guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors the likes of which have never been seen before in Canada.  Too horribly corrupt to govern.  Too much like the cabal of crooks that form the Cabinet of that country to the south of us.  Such attitudes are concerning, given that we have an election coming in 6 months time.

I’m not condoning the actions that may or may not have occurred within the Trudeau cabinet over the last several months.  I view them, assuming they occurred, as part of the sausage making which is politics.  I suspect that some members of Mr. Trudeau’s ‘sunny ways’ government may have been inexperienced enough to recognize that even a sunny ways government has to make sausages – it’s what governments do, usually in private spaces away from the media and the public.  And I can even be strongly disapproving of the role of money in politics, even while recognizing that it does have a role and that role is unlikely to disappear completely.  But I do think, now that most everyone has vented, it may be time to get back to thinking about the need to govern Canada, and to ask serious questions about policies and likely performance of the various possible governments being offered at the coming election.

While I still am deeply disappointed at the failure of the Liberal government to replace first-past-the-post voting with something more representative, I recognize that at the present time, and using our present electoral system, there are really only two possibilities for government following October 2019:  the Liberals and the Conservatives.  Take a look at Canada’s Conservative Party.  If anything, it has moved further to the right than it was when the Hon. Stephen Harper was our Prime Minister.  And before SNC-Lavalin reared its messy head, the Conservatives seemed to be preparing to mount an election based on moving backwards on all things environmental, helped along by the right-leaning conservative governments in several of our provinces.  Now is not the time to be electing a right-wing government in Canada, one that will cut taxes, especially on the wealthy, roll back environmental regulations, avoid doing anything serious on climate change, and in numerous other ways maximize the benefits of the fortunate few to hell with the rest of us or those who follow us in the future.

There is a corollary to this perspective, of course.  Now is the time for the Trudeau Liberals to move forward on the plans they have for dealing with climate change and our other affronts to environment, not the time to soft-peddle or reduce them.  Canada needs to lead on climate change if only because we sit next door to the USA and can provide a healthy contrast to what the AFP government down there is doing.  There is much to do to bring Canada’s achievements on the climate file in line with the sunny ways aspirations.

It is also a good time for all Canadians to recognize that, no matter how nice it might have been (to some eyes, at least), the tar sands development was never going to grow as rapidly or to the size that proponents envisioned and is now moving towards its eventual closing.  Sunny ways Trudeau also got into trouble at a town hall in Ontario in January 2017 (just a couple of months before he spoke, and got into trouble, in Houston) when he said, “You can’t make a choice between what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the economy.  We can’t shut down the oilsands tomorrow. We need to phase them out. We need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels. That is going to take time. And in the meantime, we have to manage that transition”. 

Canadians, and Albertans especially, will benefit if that transition is managed properly with a planned scaling back rather than an abrupt collapse, and a coordinated development of new industries to make use of the talents now invested in pulling bitumen out of the ground.  As for SNC-Lavalin… let’s keep that episode as the teacup tempest it really is.

A bad week or two, compared to a bad several years.  Cartoon © Tim Dolighan

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Changing Oceans, Climate change, Economics, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | Comments Off on Which way, Canada? Which way the world?