The Politics of Pipelines – Yet Again.


It is two minutes and thirty seconds to midnight.  The people in charge of the Doomsday Clock just moved the minute hand 30 seconds closer to catastrophe – the closest it has been since 1953.  The clock, which is adjusted annually, retreated to its most recent high point of 17 minutes to midnight back in 1991, with the Cold War officially over and progress being made on nuclear arms reduction.  Since then it has advanced step by step closer to midnight again, reaching three minutes to midnight in 2015.  There it remained until 26th January, 2017.

Lawrence Krauss (L), chairman of the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” Board of Sponsors, and board member Thomas Pickering (R), a former U.S. Under Secretary of State as well as US Ambassador to the United Nations, Russia and other countries, unveil that the board has moved the minute hand of their “Doomsday Clock” by 30 seconds to a more ominous 2-1/2 minutes from midnight during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, U.S. January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

The Doomsday Clock suggests the world is closer to disaster than it has been since 1953, and the US election has a lot to do with the recent adjustment.  Photo © Jim Bourg/Reuters

In the view of the committee of scientists who manage the clock, the global security landscape darkened over the course of 2016 as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s two most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change.  In particular, they point to how an already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a US presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons, and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.  The full statement is worth a read.  In it, they report that they always take “a broad and international view of existential threats to humanity, focusing on long-term trends.  Because of that perspective, the statements of a single person—particularly one not yet in office—have not historically influenced the board’s decision on the setting of the Doomsday Clock.  But wavering public confidence in the democratic institutions required to deal with major world threats do affect the board’s decisions.  And this year, events surrounding the US presidential campaign—including cyber offensives and deception campaigns apparently directed by the Russian government and aimed at disrupting the US election—have brought American democracy and Russian intentions into question and thereby made the world more dangerous than was the case a year ago.”  The report also notes that the only reason the clock was moved less than a full minute (for the first time in the clock’s 70-year history) was that Donald J. Trump had only been in office a few days.

Words matter, and Trump has offered plenty of these (despite his curiously limited vocabulary of mostly single-syllable words), but actions matter more.  In his first week in office, Trump has signed a flurry of executive orders, many designed to begin the process of rolling back Obama’s agenda in health, foreign affairs, and environment.  I’m concerned about his words and actions re the environment.

UnPresident Trump proves once again that he can sign his name, while staff look anxiously on.  Photo © Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty.

In their Doomsday Clock report, the authors devote two of their seven recommendations to climate change.  In the first, they ask that all countries “sharply reduce” their emissions of greenhouse gases and fulfill the Paris Accord promise of keeping global warming below 2oC, stating that this goal is consistent with the science, eminently achievable, and economically viable.  In the second, they speak directly to the USA, asking that the “Trump administration acknowledge climate change as a science-backed reality and redouble US efforts to limit carbon dioxide emissions and support carbon-free energy sources, including, when economically reasonable and safe over the long term, nuclear energy.”  They add that “it is well past time to move beyond arguments over the reality of climate change and on to solutions, including fiscal measures—such as carbon markets and carbon taxes or fees—that encourage efficiency and put a price on carbon emissions”.

Needless to say, Trump’s words and actions so far have not been in this direction.  In fact, he is signaling very clearly that his administration will strip away environmental safeguards covering resource exploitation (he refers to ‘excessive regulations”).  In keeping with this, he has cancelled President Obama’s denial of the Keystone XL pipeline while inviting TransCanada to reapply and promising a swift (60 days) approval process, and has also removed Obama’s suspension of the Dakota Access pipeline application.  It seems Donald Trump wants to expand the USA’s extraction and use of oil, gas, and coal as quickly as possible – the exact opposite of what is really required.

Nothing like a rationally designed network for transporting liquid products.  Or is it just a whole lot of boondoggles?  Map produced by CAPP about 2010.

North of the border, Justin Trudeau’s impressive effort to get Canada finally moving on climate change is in danger of collapsing under a wave of exuberant enthusiasm for the rebirth of the Alberta tar sands, bolstered daily by news out of Washington.  Government policy was already becoming schizophrenic with significant positive moves on climate followed closely by approval of two pipelines despite the fact that ramping up production from Alberta’s tar sands will seriously impede Canada’s progress towards meeting its climate change commitments.  At a time when policies being put into place (with opposition from some Provinces and many individuals) do not come close to being sufficient to meet even the modest emissions goals so far committed to in Paris, the government only creates obstacles for itself by taking steps to encourage expansion in the tar sands.  Now, with Trump signaling that Keystone XL is virtually assured a rapid approval in the US, we have a third pipeline in play, and the oil sector in Alberta is frothing at the mouth.  Let’s take a step back and think a little.

Trump’s bluster may not result in Keystone XL getting built

I’m beginning to understand why Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey has closed down.  Their circus simply cannot compete with the Trump reality show in Washington.  Unpresident Trump has spent his first week in a frenetic display of activity signing ‘Executive Orders’, ‘Memoranda’ and other documents.  Some of these have immediate affect on the ground.  We saw this on Saturday with travelers being detained or rejected at airports, even when they were already residents with green cards and jobs to return to within the USA!  Others are just Trump’s usual show biz flim flam, worth little more than the paper they are written on.  Repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, or funding the construction of a wall along the southern border, for example, will require some action from Congress.

Don’t need a caption here – send in the clowns; meaning is clear.

The order re Keystone XL is simply a sign to Trans Canada to renew its application because, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, approval will be quick (<60 days) and easy.  There are some interesting stipulations – hire Americans and use American steel.  These stipulations appear to violate World Trade Organization rules and could lead to challenges.  Plus give the US government 25% of the revenue once the pipeline is operational.

Trans Canada has already stockpiled considerable pipe, and has planned since at least 2012 to source 24 per cent of its large-diameter pipe from Canada-based Evraz Regina; 26 per cent from offshore sources, and 50 per cent from a company in Arkansas.  On top of these problems, the world has changed in the past seven years, and Trans Canada might decide Keystone is no longer viable commercially (more on that below) even apart from Trump’s wish to take a 25% share of profits.  The executive order makes Trump look good to his base, but it does not guarantee a pipeline will be built.

As for Trump looking good… Watch his hair.  The poor man is starting to come undone.

Donald Trump’s hair farm near Tromsø, Norway.  Thanks to the boredpanda blog for a bit of hairy humor.  Photo © Daniel Kordan

Canada’s renewed love affair with pipelines

On November 29th, 2016, it was not too surprising to hear PM Trudeau announce that his government was approving the expansion of the Kinder-Morgan trans-mountain pipeline and the replacement and expansion of Enbridge’s line 3 from Alberta to the northern US.  In the same announcement, he rejected Enbridge’s bitterly contested Northern Gateway from Alberta to the northern BC coast.  He had already taken actions that will eventually establish a price for carbon across the country, and politically it was time to do something for the fossil fuel industry.

Still pending is a decision on Trans Canada’s Energy East line through to Quebec and New Brunswick.  On Friday 27th January, the National Energy Board announced that all its past decisions on energy east are now cancelled and the approval process should restart.  (The tainted membership of the NEB has been totally renewed and other changes are anticipated.)  Energy East was facing stiff opposition in Quebec and some other jurisdictions, but some see Energy East as now doomed because of Trump’s action on Keystone XL.  The added capacity could not be justified economically.  Others see Energy East as vital for diversifying the markets available to Alberta, and particularly important given Trump’s evident protectionism.  The Alberta fossil fuel sector is simply overjoyed that there now seems to be movement, and federal support, for building more pipeline capacity.

Where does reality lie?  It’s not just Keystone that may not get built.  Government approval for any of the four Canadian pipelines in play is no guarantee that they will get built either.  There remains significant opposition to Kinder-Morgan and Energy East on environmental grounds.  Indeed, the environmental sector generally opposes all pipelines these days for the arguably good reason that ‘if you build it, oil will flow’.  In what follows, I am going to try and tease out the arguments and draw some conclusions.

The arguments for new pipelines

Setting aside environmental concerns for a moment, the tar sands of northern Alberta are a major petrochemical resource, giving Canada the third largest proven oil reserves in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.  The NEB reported total crude oil and bitumen resources in 2014 as 52.4 billion m3 or 330 billion barrels.  Proven reserves are currently 27.1 billion m3 or 171 billion barrels, and 97% of these reserves are in the tar sands.  Production is currently 682 thousand m3 per day, just under 5% of the global total.

While Canadians per capita have one of the highest rates of energy use, most of our oil/bitumen production is for export, and nearly all the anticipated growth in production is for export.  One argument specifically supporting the need for Energy East is that this pipeline would ensure safe transport capacity for western oil to eastern refineries to satisfy all of eastern Canadian requirements.  (At present, Canada imports 101 thousand m3 of oil per day into eastern ports.)  Energy East also becomes important if protectionism reduces access to US markets.

Because of the failure of the industry to build refining capacity in or near Alberta, and the failure of national and provincial governments to insist on this, expansion of tar sands extraction is limited by capacity to transport the product to markets south, west or east of Alberta.  One argument used to justify every pipeline seems to be that it is vital to the continued growth of the tar sands.  Two related arguments are that certain pipelines are needed to broaden the markets available to Alberta, shipping tar sands product to Asia from the west coast, or to Europe from the east., and that pipelines are needed to avoid the necessity of shipping by rail – a more expensive method and one deemed less safe.

Underlying all these arguments in favor of pipelines is the argument that it is in Canada’s national (read economic) interest to expand production in the tar sands as rapidly as possible.  I’ve argued against this stance in several earlier posts, but that does not mean that a majority of important people within the petrochemical sector of Canada, and many of our politicians, do not continue to use it.  For them, it is Canada’s destiny to exploit all available, economically viable natural resources.  Also seldom mentioned is the fact that corporations like TransCanada, Enbridge and Kinder-Morgan are in the business of building and operating pipelines.  And judging by photos in the media, they have a huge amount of shiny new pipe stored beside roads all over North America just waiting for an opportunity.

The arguments against

In June 2016, the Parkland Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published a report titled, “Can Canada Expand Oil and Gas Production, Build Pipelines and Keep Its Climate Change Commitments?”.  Its author, J. David Hughes, is a geoscientist with 32 years of experience at the Geological Survey of Canada, and an authority on energy resources of North America.  I discussed this report soon after it appeared.

In his report, Hughes produces data challenging the argument that additional pipeline capacity is needed to permit any realistic expansion of production in Alberta.  Using NEB data, he demonstrates that there is already sufficient pipeline capacity to export all current production from Alberta, and shows that the existing capacity will be sufficient for the maximum amount of expansion that is likely to be permitted under Alberta’s new cap on GHG emissions introduced in November 2016 as part of the Notley government’s climate change action plan.  (He makes a tacit assumption that further reductions in the emissions per barrel of oil are unlikely.)

Current and projected oil transport capacity out of Alberta, and the maximum amount of production under Alberta’s emissions cap out to 2040.  With the cap in place, and assuming no breakthroughs that reduce per barrel emissions significantly, there is a healthy 16% surplus of capacity over need.  Figure © Hughes/Parkland/CCPA

Alberta’s cap on emissions is generous and would permit a 47% increase in oil production at current levels of emissions efficiency.  This is less than the rosy projections of tar sands enthusiasts a few years ago, but still a sizeable ramp-up.  Hughes’ point is that this cap removes the argument that new pipelines are needed to permit production to expand.  It is not going to expand more than 47% and there is sufficient pipeline and rail capacity to handle that, with about a 15% buffer to handle fluctuations in supply or transport.  What is particularly interesting to me is that I have been unable to find any rebuttal of his argument in the months since its release.  In fact, there have been additional reports that confirm his findings.

The argument that new pipelines are needed to avoid the use of risky rail transport was also rejected by Hughes, who claimed rail was used to a very small extent, and would only be needed to provide the surplus capacity in the future (see figure above).  Others have agreed with him, as recently as last week, although industry insiders continue to argue new pipelines are needed so they can phase out rail.

One argument that Hughes ignores is that by building new pipelines to west or east coast, Alberta is more easily able to diversify its clients.  The present pipeline map generally ships the stuff south.  A related argument, that we need pipelines to get the product from Alberta to tidewater, because of a substantial cost disadvantage when the oil is stuck in Alberta, is dealt with, and demolished in the Hughes report.  His words convince me that in a global market the differential that exists (and it fluctuates with market fluctuations) does so because of the relatively low quality of the tar sands product.  This is not the ‘light, sweet crude’ that flows out of Saudi Arabia or West Texas.  It is an almost solid, tarry stuff that has to be extensively modified and diluted with LNG simply to get it to flow through a pipeline.  Its subsequent refining is a complex and difficult process.  (All of which causes me to say, would it not have been far wiser to build refining capacity in Alberta, and sell a better product – but then, what do I know?  I am just an environmental scientist.)

Another ignored argument is the one about having to exploit the tar sands because they are there.  Hughes dismisses it on economic grounds (for the foreseeable future oil prices will be inadequate to justify expansion of production).  I think it is more about philosophy and how we view our place in the world.  I won’t repeat what I have said about it previously, except to note that when governments make this argument, it reveals they are thinking short term and only about revenues.

The biggest argument of all

The biggest argument of all against the construction of additional pipelines is the one that says Canada cannot afford the emissions cost of ramping up production of tar sands oil, because that will make it virtually impossible to meet the Paris goal of keeping warming to under 2oC.  While Canada has immense reserves in the tar sands, Canada pays a huge environmental price when they are dug up.  Setting aside the cost in despoiled environments, permanently contaminated water locked up in tailings lakes, and nasty chemicals strewn around the landscape, the GHG emissions are enormous.

Canadian production of oil is up 83% since 1999, and at an all-time high.  Tar sands production has increased 400% since 1999, and now comprises 61% of all oil produced.  The future growth projected by the industry and by NEB relies entirely on further increases in the tar sands.  The NEB states that anticipated changes between 2015 and 2040 are for a 96% increase in tar sands production and a 14% decline in other Canadian regions.  According to Hughes, if tar sands production increases as the NEB projects, the added GHG emissions will require by 2030 a 52% reduction in emissions from the non-oil and gas sectors of the Canadian economy simply in order to comply with Canada’s commitments under the Paris Accord (a 30% overall reduction by 2030).  At 2030, the oil and gas sector would be responsible for over half of Canada’s emissions (it is 26% at present).  This degree of change in the non-oil and gas sector is essentially impossible without economic collapse.

When the planned expansion of LNG production in British Columbia is factored in, the situation becomes still more dire.  Under these circumstances, reduction in emissions by the rest of the economy would have to be 59% in order to fulfill Canada’s climate commitments.

If, instead, expansion of the tar sands was limited by the Alberta emissions cap, and British Columbia develops just one of the three proposed LNG ventures, the situation is marginally better – the rest of the economy would have to reduce emissions by 47%.  Even this best-case scenario represents a near impossibility.

Hughes arguments from last June have not been rebutted to my knowledge.  Nor is he alone.  A number of climate experts, environmental scientists and others have warned of the enormous difficulty Canada faces if it wants to keep mining the tar sands while still complying with Paris.  Just this week, Andrew Nikiforuk, writing in The Tyee, makes the same argument, and cites a new report just out from Oil Change International.  And then there is the matter of the inadequacy of Canada’s Paris commitment.  If Canada is going to do its fair share in keeping the world to no more than a 2oC warming, the commitment made in Paris is going to have to be raised substantially.  Canada cannot have its cake and eat it too, and it certainly cannot have a rapidly expanding tar sands industry and hope to keep the world’s climate from spiraling out of control.

What is the best way forward?

I am an ecologist.  I am far more concerned about the capacity of the natural environment to sustain our livelihoods than I am about sustaining and growing an economy based on extraction and minimal processing of fossil fuels, until we run out of tar sands.  I do not have simple solutions for moving away from use of fossil fuels at an appropriate rate – one that does not disrupt our economy too much, but one that gets us out of that business as quickly as possible.  I do sense that there are likely to be severe dislocations in that industry as different countries around the globe recognize the need to move to a less carbon-intensive economy.

Others are thinking seriously about how Canada can move away from its over-reliance on the oil and gas sector.  Still others are looking at the winding down of the fossil fuel sector from a more global perspective.  The reading is not always pleasant, but it is available and we should all be thinking about this.

I recently came across a 15 December 2016 article by Alex Steffen, the journalist and author in 2012 of ‘Carbon Zero: Imagining cities that can save the planet’.  Titled ‘Trump, Putin, and the pipelines to nowhere’, his article is a scary read.  Central is his perspective on the ‘carbon bubble’.  The bubble exists because the damage caused by climate change is going to force us to leave large quantities of hydrocarbons in the ground.  While most people remain unaware of how serious climate change is, or of how combatting/coping with it is going to alter our lives, Steffen says the one group that surely knows is the people in the fossil fuel industry.  They know they have vast resources of high present value that are destined to become valueless when the bubble bursts.

What do clever people do when they know they are holding extremely valuable items that will at some future time become worthless?  They do not advertise this fact.  They act as if they are sure the value will always remain, and even grow.  Because the longer they can maintain the fiction, the bubble will grow, and they will make money.

Another group that recognizes the existence of the carbon bubble is the risk assessment and insurance industry, including people like Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, and Chair of the Financial Stability Board, the global body designed to prevent economic meltdowns.  Last year, in a talk to Lloyds insurance group, he said he thought the carbon bubble was one of the biggest risks the global economy faces at present, and suggested governments should be looking for ways to deflate it gently.  Successful deflation of a market bubble can be a win, win for everyone.  Except for those heavily invested in the carbon.  Back to the fossil fuel sector.

According to Steffen, owners in the fossil fuel sector need to maintain the illusion that there will be continued high profits in that industry.  How would they do this?  By disputing climate science, by eroding confidence in the ability, integrity or honesty of climate scientists, by attacking the validity or worth of global climate agreements, by disputing the capacity of alternative sources of energy to replace fossil fuels, and by using every lever available to derail or delay the expansion of competing sources of energy.  They would also support putting a price on carbon, while working behind the scenes to ensure the price is kept trivial.  They might even team up with antidemocratic forces to impede efforts by communities to move towards a low-carbon economy.  Most of all, they would invest in infrastructure, to show that they are confident that investing more in this industry is worthwhile.  New exploration, new pipelines, ramping up production; after all, the larger the corporations become and the more jobs, taxes or royalties they generate, the more difficult it is for governments to shut them down.  Sounds familiar?

Steffen argues that the Trump administration, which is top-heavy with people invested in the fossil fuel sector, is tailor-made to help prolong the carbon bubble.  The Koch Brothers did not want to see Trump as the Republican nominee, and did not put any of their dark money towards his campaign.  But with hindsight, they could not have got a better President than they have in this one.  Steffen wonders if the suggested collusion between Trump and Putin might all make sense, given that Russia is a petrostate, with ownership heavily concentrated in the hands of a few oligarchs surrounding Putin.  I reserve judgement on that, but I do think that we should all be watching what the US government does in the next few years in light of the carbon bubble.

(Aside: as I write, Time magazine has reported on the Koch brothers annual meeting with their supporters at a resort in Indian Wells CA, this weekend.  They are already planning to spend $400 billion in the 2018 midterm elections and are already disagreeing publicly with some of Trump’s actions.  The privileged are seldom satisfied; they want total control, and they are out to maximize their own profits.)

In the meantime, the rest of us should be divesting our tiny bits of investment in fossil fuels, while pushing our governments to focus on the climate, and on building robust economies capable of the actions needed to cope with pending climate change, and build a better future.  In a country like Canada, with an educated workforce, there are enormous opportunities in the new low-carbon economy.  Far better that, than stringing unnecessary pipelines all over the country, and it will help move the world towards a future with a livable climate.


As I was writing this post, the Trump Executive Order banning entry to the US for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim middle-eastern nations was generating chaos and demonstrations across the USA and around the world.  I am not going to blog about things I am poorly equipped to comment on, but Trump’s term is off to a very rocky start, and destabilization of the global order, such as it is, will disrupt the ability of nations to come together to solve difficult problems such as climate change.

The Doomsday Clock may now be set at 11.57.30 pm, but the chance for a good outcome on climate, and environmental sustainability, over the next few decades looks even dimmer then that.  At least I got to explore coral reefs when they were vibrant, exhilarating, superlative ecosystems; true jewels on this most amazing planet.

Do we humans not owe each of the many creatures in this image the opportunity to live out their lives in an environment that is not being damaged by our thoughtless actions?  Photo of reef at Palmyra Atoll in 2011 © Jim Maragos, USFWS/Wikimedia Commons.

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Changing lifestyles, Climate change, Economics, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | Comments Off on The Politics of Pipelines – Yet Again.

Save a Reef; Use a Condom


At a time when ethical behavior seems thoroughly old-fashioned and un-rewarding, when selfish greed appears to rule the day, an ethical argument could capture attention and galvanize action to save coral reefs.

It was July 2008, a long time ago now.  I and a couple thousand coral reef researchers and managers were in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for the 8th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) – a solid week of back-to-back talks, 10 or so taking place simultaneously, all coffee breaks, lunches and evenings filled with meetings, workshops and the conversations that scientists get into when they have a chance to get together.  Being quintessential nerds, scientists work harder at our conferences than do many other professions (think Medicine, Dentistry, golf courses, casinos), although we do squeeze in a remarkable amount of socializing around the edges.

I gave a paper in what was termed ‘mini-symposium 23’ on coral reef management.  Just 15 minutes, one of thousands given that week.  And being extra nerdy, I tinkered with my Powerpoint presentation right up until I gave it, adding one crucial slide at the end.  My talk was on a theme I have talked about many times before and since, and written about as well.  It’s title was “The management of coral reefs – where have we gone wrong and what can we do about it?

My theme was as follows: We are damaging reefs in many different ways, simultaneously, and the extent of our damage has expanded greatly with the size of our population and our global economy.  We need to recognize that we are the problem.  Then we need to work for a solution that begins with deciding whether we want to have reefs on this planet in the future.  BECAUSE IT REALLY IS OUR CHOICE.  I then discussed some of the impediments to effective management, including administrative/structural obstacles, and the fact that up-to-date science was not being transferred to managers efficiently.

In the printed abstract of my talk, I put it this way:

“Managers, when they have moved beyond the wishful thinking of paper parks and public awareness campaigns, have put undue faith in the effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas while ignoring both the lack of scientific underpinning of many management practices and the elephant which is rampant and growing over-exploitation of reef resources.  The result is a sad history of progressive decline.  Reefs suffer a diversity of often synergistic stresses.  There is a way forward if we first decide that we really want to have sustainable coral reef systems in our future.  This path requires that we firmly embrace the precautionary principle, that we recognize and reduce over-exploitation, and that we vigorously apply the science we have in hand to improve management now.  Along the way, we need to develop new science to provide a basis for more sophisticated management than is now possible.  There is hope for a future for coral reefs, but only if scientists and managers act now to reduce controllable stresses, freeing these ecosystems to better cope with less manageable pressures of climate change.  Achieving this future will require far more effective demonstration than yet achieved of the value of coral reefs to coastal populations.”

I subsequently published a commentary in Marine Pollution Bulletin, setting out this thesis and expanding on it.  It was not a bad talk, but, in truth I was not breaking much new ground.  Many of us were recognizing the seriousness of our demands on coral reefs, and the grim future that seemed to lie ahead.  Spring forward eight years, and it is doubtful whether many of the people present at that conference remember what I said.  Except for one comment.  That final slide I added at the last minute.

I said we needed some way to galvanize attention and enthusiasm to act.  To build political will.  Because it is easy to keep on doing what you are doing, including giving talks at conferences, while watching the slow decline – that’s what most of the coral reef community had been doing prior to 2008 and continue to do.  We are rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.  I said we needed a campaign slogan, one that could be put onto tee-shirts and bumper stickers and spread across the web.  And then I put my proposed slogan up on screen.

save reef use condom

For the remainder of the conference, I kept having people I did not know come running up to me to comment on that slide.  Some told me of their own decisions regarding number of children (not really my business), but all agreed that we did need to face the fact that we were the real problem.  Too damn many of us, using too much of what the Earth provides, and using it too quickly.

In Honolulu, in 2016, at the 13th ICRS, several people came up to me to reminisce about 2008, and that slogan.  I have no idea if the behavior of coral reef scientists has changed in any significant way, but the message I wanted to convey was certainly received.  My tongue-in-cheek ‘campaign slogan’ was an effective hook to get my audience captured by my message.  And the message remained with some people for eight years.  I guess sex really sells.

Fast forward to the present

It’s now 2017.  The longest-duration el Niño since records began in 1950 (late 2014 to mid-2016) ended last summer, and weak la Niña conditions began in October.  These conditions prevailed into January 2017, but NOAA reports that situation will likely end by February, with neutral conditions through the northern summer when el Niño conditions will be again likely.  Widespread coral bleaching occurred as the ocean warmed above local thresholds in each reef location, and has continued to occur, despite the abatement of el Niño conditions, up until the present.  The ocean has just been too warm.  Bleaching on the northern Great Barrier Reef was particularly severe, and also well documented, with a major scientific survey that will provide some of the best estimates of extent of bleaching and of subsequent coral mortality.  News to date has not been good.

And as I write this, NOAA and NASA have just teamed up to report what we all expected; 2016 has been the warmest year on record, globally – the third year in a row to hold that title.  (2016 may get to keep its title longer than 2014 or 2015 did, but only if the el Niño expected to commence later in 2017 is not a big one.)  USA Today ran the news under the most catchy headline, advising that the world had not been this warm for 125000 years.  NASA provided a catchy animation revealing just how much warmer our planet has become.  And this image from the media release says it all (in a less animated way):


Nearly a full degree warmer than the 1901 – 2000 average (and 1.1oC above temperatures in 1880), 2016 was one warm year.  The el Niño pushed temperatures to a record that will probably not be met in 2017, although this year is still expected to be warm.  The likelihood of some further coral bleaching this year should not be discounted.

So, it is difficult to not be aware that coral reefs around the world are being damaged by a warming ocean.  This is not just information to be shared amongst reef scientists.  It is in the media all the time.  And if you search, there are plenty of media accounts that report it accurately, while also referencing the other things we are doing to reefs, and discussing the potential economic and other losses that eventuate as reefs decline.  Many people know about what is happening to reefs.  Mostly, they think of it as a ‘reef story’ or an ‘environmental issue’; it’s something happening on a coral reef far, far away.  Not vitally important.  So why don’t people care more than they do?

In my talk to reef scientists and managers eight years ago, I managed to get them to realize (and remember) that the real problem for reefs was us.  The wider public has not yet gotten that message.  I’ve written in previous posts about some of the reasons for our failure to connect.  Reefs may be too beautiful.  They are certainly too remote from most of our lives for people to make a real connection with them.  Maybe we have focused too much on making the science accurate, and not enough on our passion for keeping reefs with us.  In any event, the idea, so obvious to so many reef scientists, that reefs are like canaries in a mine, telling us, as loud as they can, that we are doing unimaginable harm to this world that sustains us, has simply not got through.

Getting the real message across

A tongue-in-cheek slogan is not the answer.  But I don’t think we have yet found the message that will resonate, capturing interest, engagement and commitment.  What is that message?  I can tell you a couple of possible messages that won’t work.

First, let’s be frank.  The world can survive without coral reefs, and we can survive without them as well.  To claim otherwise is ridiculous.  On the other hand, coral reefs are more than a frivolity that we should watch disappear without caring.  And, while reefs are exquisitely sensitive to environmental change, and therefore being hard hit by the stresses we are creating, no one should be naïve enough to think that reefs and only reefs are being seriously altered by our actions.

Ever since the first rugose and tabulate coral reefs of the mid-Ordovician (~460 million years ago) corals of some type have been present on this planet.  But unlike corals, coral reefs have had a more intermittent presence.  There have been several long periods of time in the past (10s of millions of years) when ocean conditions were not suitable for the formation of extensive reefs.  Low pH, high temperature, low oxygen levels, high levels of coastal siltation all have played a role in keeping the world free of reefs from time to time.  And each such interval has been followed by the development of flourishing reefs as large as any at present alive.  Sometimes the extinct reefs are near, or even under, present-day reefs; sometimes they are in what are now terrestrial deserts.  Each such ancient reef was a wonderful construction, built up over thousands of years, and supporting an abundant and diverse reef community.  During the periods without reefs, the ocean was a less diverse, less spectacular place, but it was still a functional marine ecosystem.  We cannot be truthful and argue that the biosphere has to include coral reefs.

Devonian reef at Geikie George WA 002570-786

This sheer cliff is part of an immense Devonian barrier reef, now 400 km inland at Geikie Gorge in Western Australia’s Kimberley region.  Reef were common at many times in the past, but there were also lengthy periods in Earth’s history when reefs were absent everywhere.
© WA Parks and Wildlife

Second, while reefs as we knew them in the mid-20th century are disappearing, the rocky structure will remain, so we must be clear about that.  If the degradation of coral reefs continues the current trend, shallow-water reefs up to 50m deep, or so, will cease to exist.  The rock will remain, but it will no longer have its living veneer of corals.  The rocky reef will still be occupied by numerous reef creatures, but there will be a significant loss of diversity – how much is unclear, because we do not know the full extent to which reef creatures are dependent on presence of living corals, but it won’t be 25% of all marine species.  The reef will be dominated by algae, relatively less topographically complex, and less productive of fishery species.  It will also be slowly eroding away, rather than growing.  So, the planet and the biosphere do not require reefs to be present, and the rocky structure will persist for a time.  There is also every reason to believe that some coral species will persist perhaps in deeper water, and that reefs could flourish again in the distant future.  Our argument for why we must not lose reefs cannot be based on a suggestion reefs are necessary to maintain the integrity of the biosphere (whatever that might mean).

If we do not bring climate change under control that future recovery of reefs could be very far off – far enough into the future that there is no guarantee that our species would be around to see them come back.  This points us in the right direction:  Our argument for protecting coral reefs has to be about people rather than about the reefs or the corals.  For example, in a world of continuing CO2 emissions, lack of growth of dead reefs may turn out to be the single most important change from a human perspective, because the algae-dominated reef will not keep up with rising sea level, and will provide less and less protection for nearby shorelines and our growing coastal populations as sea level rises.

The importance of coral reefs

What does humanity lose if the reefs disappear?  Coastal populations will have rocky reefs that are less productive of fishery species and provide reduced shoreline protection.  Life in coastal villages will be harsher, and reef fisheries will be less valuable.  Tropical coastal tourism may take a hit, because these coasts will no longer offer the spectacular dive sites they have offered before.  But most tourists do not dive, and countries that have reefs now, will likely still have hotels, beaches, and sunsets to continue luring tourists.  Also, divers who have grown up never seeing a rich coral reef will find eroded algal reefs a fascinating seascape to explore.  In other words, to use a specific example, while the Great Barrier Reef is credited with generating over $5 billion in tourism revenues each year, an all dead Lesser Barrier Reef would still bring tourists to Australia.  It would be a different tropical coastline, but still one worth visiting (unless the more severe weather that is predicted with continuing climate change turns out to be very extreme).  Old people would lament what had been lost, but the rest would mostly get on with enjoying their lives.

In my view, however, while the loss of coral reefs will lead to measurable, even substantial, losses in biodiversity, in fishery production, in coastal protection, and in tourism revenues, these changes will not be total, and tropical coastlines will potentially remain attractive environments in which to live and play – just not quite as wonderful as today.  The reality, of course, is that reefs are not going to disappear while the rest of the natural world remains vibrant, diverse and healthy.  In addition to the economic and quality of life losses that disappearance of coral reefs would bring, there will be economic and lifestyle losses due to the degradation of other ecosystems across the globe.  This total cost could be substantial, even existential if it seriously impedes our ability to grow food.  But as an argument for saving coral reefs… no.  This is far too abstract: be concerned about coral reef degradation because we may find it difficult to grow food when other ecosystems also degrade.

If we want to make an argument that will capture people and commit them to the necessity to save reefs, “economics plus quality of life” is not a good candidate.  Because the losses are not that enormous unless focus is directed away from reefs towards overshoot of planetary boundaries.

Ethics and Risk

I suggest there are two arguments which, properly framed, could move people to action.  One is ethical; the other pleads self-interest but as risk aversion.

The more I think about it, the real loss, if we allow reefs to disappear, is not an ecological or an economic one; the real loss is a loss of the ability to hold our heads high, confident that we are a benign presence, or even a force for good on this planet.  I say this, because I believe we have an ethical responsibility to sustain the biosphere.  We can decide now to behave ethically, and work hard to reduce the human footprint on reefs directly, and on the planet generally, knowing that only by reducing our impacts can we prevent the disappearance of coral reefs, and a lot more besides.  This is an ethical path because it honors the value in the lives of other parts of the biosphere, and recognizes that we do not have the right to knowingly cause the disappearance of an entire ecosystem from this planet.  Many people may not buy into this view.  The idea that the rest of the biosphere has rights and that we should be ethical in our interactions with other creatures is codified in few legal systems, and the inverse of the broadly held view that other creatures are resources available for our use.  Still, it is a view that seems to be gaining increasing support, and it should certainly motivate those who accept it.  The alternative to acting to sustain the biosphere is to decide not to change our present behavior.  We would then watch as our footprint increases, as we damage the biosphere in many ways, and as coral reefs disappear, all the while knowing that we are causing the changes, changes that did not have to happen.  In my view, that is not behaving ethically, and if we continue down that path we will not be ethical beings.


With the rights of nature enshrined in the Law of Mother Earth (Ley Marco de la Madre Tierra), Bolivia is one of few countries to have formally recognized the right of nature to exist.  Image of Pachamama, revered by native cultures of the high Andes.

But it is not just ethics; it is also about risk

Human civilization began with the invention of agriculture 8000 years ago.  The entire history of human civilization has taken place during the Holocene, an amazingly stable time climatically.  Yes, there have been ripples – the medieval warm period, the little ice age – but none of these have seen changes as pronounced as those in the last 50 years.  Our civilizations and our economies have evolved in a time when climate was remarkably dependable, sea level was essentially constant, and monsoon rains came in the expected seasons.  Our civilizations and our economies depend upon this predictability.  Growth in the abundance of humans, and the size of our economy is now causing great changes, and there is a real risk that we will push planetary systems beyond the boundaries that have governed their behavior during the Holocene.  That’s why there is a move to call our present time a new Epoch, following the Holocene – the Anthropocene.  Our declining coral reefs are evidence of these changes.

If we can believe the many books and movies, future worlds that follow societal or environmental collapse are not nice places.  When a complex, integrated system is stressed beyond its limits, it is taken apart haphazardly; what gets left behind is an unintegrated mess of bits and pieces that don’t work the way they used to.  It becomes not nice.  Living in such a dystopian world, and remembering, or reading about, the past, can erode confidence in human abilities to build, to create, to imagine.  And this happens at a time when the environmental and societal changes taking place strip away the technical expertise, knowledge, infrastructure and wealth needed to deal with a much riskier environment.  In a case where we are the cause of the collapse, the corrosive effect of memories must be severe.  How else to explain the way in which the collapse of a culture so often leaves descendants who are dispirited and seemingly unmotivated for many generations?

The kinds of changes we are causing on this planet can lead to conditions that are inimical to our own societies’ continued well-being.  It is not difficult to imagine situations in which civilizations degrade, strife among human populations increases, and natural disasters of various types hammer us back to a technologically simpler, socially rougher way of life.  Some of this might even be happening already in some parts of the world.  Collapses of past civilizations reveal a common pattern – the trigger for collapse often turns out to be a relatively modest environmental or climatic change.  The dramatic changes taking place on coral reefs tell us that the planetary changes we are causing are becoming severe; it is both reasonable and prudent to anticipate possible global collapse in our near-term future.  Acting to reduce our impacts on the natural world then becomes sensible, prudent behavior – acting to minimize perceived risks.


If our future still holds reefs like these, it will likely be a good one for humans too.  Photo of reef at Gulf of Eilat, at Wikipedia Commons.

There we have it.  Two arguments that use the deterioration of coral reefs as sign of a more general set of environmental changes we are causing; changes that alter the ways in which ecological systems operate; changes that make our way of life more difficult to sustain.  One appeals to our ethical sense.  The other to pragmatic self-interest in protecting our individual investments (both property and progeny) in the future.

We can watch the reefs degrade, and see our lives going downhill.  Or we can use the status of coral reefs as the measuring stick for how well we are doing in struggling to bring our footprint down to a size that is sustainable on this amazing planet.  Reefs of the 1950s could become our target, our star to sail by.  If we work hard to keep reefs from degrading further, and even harder attempting to bring them back to 1950, we will have to adjust our global footprint in many ways – less CO2, less pollution, less over-harvest of many kinds, less collateral environmental damage as we build infrastructure.  And the reefs will tell us how well we are doing.  Maybe we will fail, and a reef-free dystopia will come anyway.  While I’d much prefer the future in which we succeed, and reefs prosper again, I’d prefer the failure that comes despite our best efforts, rather than the failure that arrives because, like so many cud-chewing cows, we stood there watching as our actions continue to degrade our only home, and we did nothing.

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science, Economics | Comments Off on Save a Reef; Use a Condom

Glaciers Are Melting, Coral Reefs Are Bleaching; We Are Watching the Clowns Take Over Governments Around the World


It’s mid-winter and time for a sober look at the state of our planet, and at the state of our human enterprise.  What on earth is happening to the Arctic?  Is the bleaching of coral reefs as bad as it has been reported?  Is humanity beginning the correction that most environmental scientists believe is long overdue?  And does discussing any of this really matter in a post-truth world where people believe any story which validates their preconceptions?

Contrary to what some readers may believe, posts to blogs do not just happen.  They take time to craft.  Or at least, on this blog they take time to craft, perhaps because writing does not just come naturally to me.  There was a bit of a hiatus in the final months of 2016 – the process of moving house and overseeing ‘minor’ renovations took more time than I had intended, and the US political scene took a turn which left me wondering whether it was now time for the big sleep.  But it is a new year, and today I feel energized.  I am committing to produce about two posts a month, to focus on environmental issues, but to occasionally comment on political issues when they pertain to our interaction with the rest of the biosphere.  I’ll continue a healthy marine and tropical bias since that may help me stay close to topics I know something about.  If readership dwindles, I’ll shut up.

Each day we hear more about the people Donald Trump is selecting for his cabinet.  Anyone who thinks this is going to be “just another Republican presidency” has not been watching closely.  We could be at the beginning of a radically changed world, and I do not mean in a good way.  Rather than spew frustration by talking about his picks, I will use this post to talk instead about Arctic sea ice, glacier melt, and coral reefs.  All have been in the news of late, and both provide disturbing evidence of how seriously humanity is altering this planet.  We definitely are in the Anthropocene.

A Radically Warmer Arctic

Something very strange is happening at the top of the world.  On 16th November, a graph posted on Twitter caught my eye.  It showed total global sea ice area (Arctic and Antarctic combined) for every day of the year, plotted for every year since 1978.  Here is that graph, and an update of it to January 3rd, 2017.


Graph as posted on Twitter by Zack Labe, a Cornell student, using data downloaded from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder CO.  It shows a trace of total sea ice extent (Arctic + Antarctic) for every year from 1978.  The trace for 2016 is consistently low, and appears to have gone onto a completely different path starting in late August.


The graph as currently available on the web, with data extended through 3rd January 2017.

In truth, the image I saw on Twitter is more alarming than the more recent one, and both exaggerate the extent to which the 2016 data diverge, because of the truncation of the Y-axis (there is also something wrong re the Y-axis of the first graph).  NSIDC has routinely published data using a Y-axis extending down to 0 km2.  Also, by combining what is happening in the Arctic with what is happening in the Antarctic, when the two regions operate on approximately opposite cycles of ice growth and retreat, is a strange analysis.  We do not know from this graph whether the Arctic is failing to freeze up in the Fall, or the Antarctic is melting more rapidly during Spring, or both.  In fact, it’s a little bit of both.

In November, when the discrepancy in global sea ice between 2016 and previous years was at its greatest, Antarctic seas contained 14.54 million km2 of ice, the lowest amount on record for that month, and more than twice as far from average coverage as was seen in the previous lowest year.  In the Arctic, sea ice extent was 9.08 million km2, nearly two million km2 below average for November, caused by what the Guardian referred to as a triple whammy of continued warm waters, a warm atmosphere, and winds which concentrated this warmth over the Arctic.  This year is not like any previous year.  It will be interesting to follow trends in 2017.

Continental Ice Sheets

While loss of sea ice may have profound impacts on the rate of global warming, and loss of Arctic sea ice may prove a bonanza for international trade and for fisheries and mineral exploitation in that ocean, the loss of continental ice causes sea level rise.  Given the human penchant for living by the sea, sea level rise may become one of the most important of all the changes we lump as climate change.  Scientists who study ice are learning a lot, but a lot remains to be learned concerning how quickly, and by what mechanisms, the major continental ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica will respond to our steadily warming climate.  During 2016 there were several significant advances in understanding the behavior of the west Antarctic ice sheet reported in the technical press.  I blogged about a couple of them in July, and talked briefly about the strange ways glaciers melt in November.  At the end of the year, we learned something more about the behavior of the much larger east Antarctic ice sheet, and got some contradictory messages about the Greenland ice sheet (showing just how much there is to learn).

In December, Stephen Rintoul, University of Tasmania, and six colleagues published a report in Science Advances dealing with the mechanisms of melting in the east Antarctic ice sheet.  They studied the Totten ice shelf which forms the terminus of the largest glacier on east Antarctica, the Totten glacier.

Antarctic glaciers extend out from shore as immense blocks of ice grounded on the sea bed hundreds of meters below sea level, and towering several meters above sea level.  As they push outwards the calving of icebergs at their seaward edges adds to the sea ice that extends the ice shelf as a floating ice mass out across the surrounding ocean.  Melting of the sea ice does not, itself, lead to sea level rise – it is floating already – but its melting permits further transport of ice from the glacier and that does raise sea level.  Glaciologists have long considered the east Antarctic ice sheet to be more stable than the smaller west Antarctic ice sheet because its geography makes it less exposed to ‘warm’ waters, however observations in recent years have revealed that the Totten glacier is thinning at a faster rate than expected if surface melting alone were responsible.  Were it to continue, this melting could result in substantial sea level rise as ice moved down from the continent behind.


Australian research vessel, Aurora Australis, at the edge of the Totten glacier.  This mass of ice is grounded on the rocky subtidal coast, with a floating ice shelf usually extending out further into the ocean.  A rare opportunity of open water at the edge permitted access to the front of the glacier.  Photo © Paul Brown, Australian Maritime College.

Rintoul and colleagues had the opportunity, because fortuitous winds opened a passage adjacent to the inner edge of the sea ice (close to the seaward edge of the grounded ice) and they were able to secure ship-based measurements of ocean conditions there.  Their investigations revealed that, as in parts of the west Antarctica ice shelf, underwater geography and movement of ocean waters were combining to transfer considerable quantities of ‘warm’ water deep beneath the otherwise grounded ice along a canyon more than a kilometer deep.  (I am using ‘warm’ to denote that this ‘Circumpolar Deep Water’ is hardly warm – it remains below 0oC – but at about -0.4oC it is significantly warmer than the prevailing ocean temperature in the region.  At the pressure typical for water a kilometer deep, this water is a couple of degrees above the freezing point and can certainly melt ice.)  Rintoul and colleagues calculated that this warm water flowed in towards the grounded ice at about 220,000 m3 per second, resulting in heat transfer sufficient to melt somewhere between 63 and 80 billion tonnes of ice from the bottom of the glacier per year.  This amount conforms to previous satellite estimates of the rate of thinning.

What Rintoul and colleagues have done is to confirm, and provide the first quantitative estimates for, significant melting from beneath the Totten glacier.  They’ve revealed that this largest glacier in east Antarctica is very dynamic, and being melted by the same mechanisms at work in the west Antarctic ice sheet.  The long-held idea that the vast masses of ice locked up in the east Antarctic ice sheet are unlikely to melt significantly unless the world becomes a lot warmer is no longer true, and as that ice melts, sea levels must rise.

Nature’s issue for 8th December contained three papers which together provide an exemplary illustration of how science really progresses, while also telling us more about glacier melting.  Those who think that science is all about proclaiming inviolate truths, and those who believe science is merely opinion and speculation illustrated with complex graphs and tables and as likely to be wrong as right, could do well to take a look.

The core papers, one by Joerg Schaefer of Columbia University and colleagues, and the other by Paul Biermann of University of Vermont and colleagues were published back to back, and preceded in Nature’s ‘news & views’ editorial section by a forum (really two short commentaries) discussing them.  The commentaries were by French scientists Pierre-Henri Blard and Paul Leduc, and by UK scientist Neil Glasser.  The reason for discussing the papers together is that they use similar methods to reveal probable events in the deep past on the Greenland ice sheet, and draw diametrically opposed conclusions.  Neither paper is obviously ‘wrong’, yet both cannot be completely ‘correct’.

Biermann and Schaefer are both primarily interested in assessing the stability of the Greenland ice sheet during the Pleistocene.  Understanding its behavior back then, when a varying climate cycled the world into and out of successive glaciations, should help us gauge its likely behavior over the next few decades.  In the absence of a time machine, both teams turned to the generation by cosmic rays of 26Al and 10Be, isotopes of Aluminum and Beryllium respectively.  Cosmic rays impinging on surface bedrock generate these isotopes only within the top few meters.  Deeper rock, or rock buried under many meters of soil or ice, is not so altered.  The two isotopes decay, but at differing rates, so that changes in the ratio of 26Al to 10Be can inform how long ago a particular rock sample was at the surface and exposed to cosmic rays.  This ratio, plus the concentrations of each isotope can inform for how long that rock was being bombarded at the surface.

Biermann and colleagues examined isotopes in sediment cores retrieved from oceanic sites off the Greenland coast that were subject to a rain of sediment from melting glacial ice.  Schaefer and colleagues looked at isotopes in a core drilled through the Greenland ice sheet and into the rocky terrain near the summit.  But they got different answers.  Biermann’s group found evidence that the Greenland ice sheet began to develop about 7.5 million years ago, and was essentially a permanent structure during the last 2.7 million years surviving through several interglacial periods.  Schaefer’s group found evidence of extended, or more likely repeated, shorter periods during the last 2.5 million years when the ice sheet was not present at the core location.  Either the ice sheet has been very stable for a considerable period of time, during which climate varied from glacial to interglacial on multiple occasions, or the ice sheet has been far more dynamic in its response to climate and has melted and reformed one or several times.  Both commentaries suggest possible ways to reconcile the two sets of observations, and Glasser appears to favor an eventual conclusion that the ice sheet is more dynamic than we have suspected previously.  His commentary concludes,

“These new papers throw down three immediate challenges.  First, we must seek ways to reconcile the two seemingly contradic­tory records of the ice sheet’s past behaviour.  Second, we must try to understand the dynamical pro­cesses of the ice sheet that make possible the required huge and rapid variations in the size and volume of the [Greenland ice sheet].  And third, we need to assess whether such variations could happen again in the near future, with all the attendant social and economic consequences that would accompany a rapid rise in global sea level.”

Science is a process of throwing up hypotheses, finding data that will support or refute them, and throwing up new hypotheses to replace them when they are found wanting.  Science is also seldom easy.  The papers by the Biermann and Schaefer teams advance our understanding a little bit, but it is going to take further work, by them or others, to sort out what the real history was.  And, as Glasser states, there are potentially significant consequences for our own time if a more dynamic behavior is confirmed.  We do live in interesting times.

Sea Level Rise

Make no mistake, sea level rise is one of the more important consequences of climate change.  It is slow and inexorable, but it usually reveals itself suddenly when a storm leads to more flooding than expected or more erosion from storm surge.  Everything seems to be fine, and then the next storm causes billions of dollars losses because of unanticipated damage.  Reading back through the IPCC reports, it is clear that sea level rise is one of the consequences of warming that has been consistently underestimated.  Rates and extent by 2100 have been ratcheted up in each successive report.

Unanticipated complexities in the melting of ice are perhaps the primary reason for scientists’ relatively feeble ability to project likely rates of sea level rise.  While significant advances in understanding of ice behavior are being made (as witness the reports discussed here), there are very likely to be new surprises to be discovered in the future.  What concerns me is a nagging feeling that these surprises will generally be ones that lead to an upward revision in the likely extent and/or rate of sea level rise in the future.  Remember, the warming we have already caused will ensure sea level rises for the next two or three hundred years – the time delays built into the mechanisms that connect CO2 emissions, through atmospheric and oceanic warming, to ice melting and sea level rise take that long.  And the pattern of melting may be such that far more of it will take place for a given cumulative rise in CO2 emissions than we currently suspect.  The work of scientists interested in ice sheet behavior over the next few years will be critical in helping to define realistic levels of risk.

Venice at high tide Andrea Pattero-AFP-Getty image

Piazza San Marco, Venice, at high tide.  Photo © Andrea Pattaro/AFP/Getty

If climate change is a wicked problem, because it happens too slowly to attract the attention of a naked ape selected for skill in avoiding charging predators, sea level rise is an even more wicked consequence.  It will proceed slowly and inexorably.  Our attention will be drawn to it intermittently when infrastructure fails, at great cost, during particular storms, and we will focus on the symptoms rather than the disease.  We will spend fortunes on sea walls, pumping systems, and other infrastructure to protect built landscapes, almost certainly underestimating the full extent of local need on each occasion.  Far better to recognize the inevitability, do the science to pin down the extent and rate, and plan the retreat to higher ground.  Venice is a great city, but our world does not need multiple Venices, and the money built on new Venices could be far better spent on decarbonizing our global economy.


On the other hand, perhaps the Donald will simply fix sea level rise while he is draining the swamp and building the wall.  Time will tell.  Cartoon © Toles/Washington Post.

Meanwhile Coral Reefs

An assessment of the global impacts of the recent el Niño on coral reefs is a big enough topic to deserve space in my next post.  Instead, I want to focus here on the continued lack of traction of the coral reef story.  I’ve talked about this before, but, briefly, there are sizeable numbers of reef scientists who feel that the message concerning human impacts on coral reefs is simply failing to be received by a wider audience with the gravity it should get.

For many of us, the 1997-8 global bleaching event was the first of repeated wake-up calls that our warming of the planet was going to have major implications for the long-term sustainability of these iconic ecosystems.  Most of us recognized that substantial degradation of coral reef systems would have important direct and indirect, economic, esthetic, and cultural impacts on humanity, particularly on the 1.36 billion of us who reside within 100 km of a tropical coast.  Many of us also recognized that if global warming was having such severe impacts on coral reef systems when temperatures had not yet risen 1Co, we should anticipate serious impacts on other, less sensitive ecosystems in the future.  Global mass bleaching  was a canary in a mineshaft, falling off its perch, and the real significance of what was happening concerned long-term sustainability not just of reefs, but of the biosphere that sustains our lives.

The succession of bleaching events around the world has been widely documented and widely reported in the international media.  In Canada, in the depths of dark December, 2016, about a week before Christmas, I saw yet another update on the severe bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, complete with underwater footage of stretches of bleached and dying corals, as one of just 7 stories included in CBC’s national news program that evening.  But like the overwhelming majority of such reports, this one dealt with the story as a tragic environmental incident far away in Australia.  True, it was presented as part of a global phenomenon, but it was a coral reef phenomenon, an environmental story.  There was no hint that it might be a sign that we were exceeding one more of the planetary limits that will govern the sustainability of our own civilization.

The coral reef science community has struggled for some years now with the failure of the story to resonate.  We have criticized our tendency to focus on doom and gloom.  We have argued that we must tell this doom-laden story by focusing on points of light, hotspots, and #oceanoptimism.  One result is lots of images and video in the media showing beautiful reefscapes, and wonderful examples of the complexities of form, function and behavior that make coral reefs so wonderful.

For most people, knowing that there are some wonderful coral reefs out there becomes evidence that the concerns expressed by scientists are probably exaggerated.  Time to worry about reef demise later, when new images of wonderfulness are harder to find.  The call to focus on the positive can easily become a call to enjoy the beautiful evening with the moonlight glinting off the ice and the water, while standing on the deck of the Titanic, racing headlong towards the iceberg.  We do not need Pollyanna, although we do need to offer whatever hope we can, while describing as compellingly as possible, what appears to be happening to reefs across the tropics.

One former coral reef scientist, Randy Olson, has recently provided a relatively unhelpful diatribe on his blog criticizing the coral reef science community for its inability to tell stories simply, following his ABT (and, but, therefore) mantra, and using words of no more than one syllable.  Yes, he had a point.  An important one.  Many of us have never learned how to tell an engaging story about our science, able to capture the attention of people other than environmental geeks.  Without engaging the unconverted it is impossible to build a groundswell of understanding and engagement with what is surely an important issue for our times.  We should work hard to tell the story far more effectively.  But Olson already has the skill to tell good stories; he apparently feels that the coral reef story is no longer his to tell.

(In an e-mail exchange, Olson assured me he has not given up on reefs or reef scientists, but he wants the reef science community to provide a singular narrative about what is happening to coral reefs.  I’m sorry, Randy, the story is more nuanced than that, and if there is no room for nuance in modern story telling we really are in a strangely illiterate world, a Trumposphere perhaps.  I still think people can understand complex stories – such as what is happening to coral reefs – though I agree we scientists need to work harder at telling these stories well.)

It’s also true, as in any ‘science’ story, that there are differences of opinion among the members of the reef research community.  I don’t believe any of my colleagues looks at the evidence of coral bleaching in recent years and considers it ‘normal’, or ‘the way things have always been’.  Nor do I believe any of us thinks human CO2 emissions are not the ultimate cause.  But we do differ in our assessments of the severity of what has happened to reef ecosystems in recent years, or, even more, the severity of what is likely to come in the next few decades.

Some among us still cling to the belief that ‘it won’t be too bad, long-term’, either because they are convinced that mutation and natural selection will confer resilience to heat stress in time for corals to flourish once more in warmer future seas, or because they think that, somehow, we will manage to cool off the planet quite soon despite all the evidence pointing to a likely failure to keep warming under 2oC.  I still hope they are correct, but I don’t think the available evidence gives their beliefs much support.

Others see the demise of coral reefs bringing with it a massive reduction in ocean biodiversity.  The claim that 25% of marine species live on coral reefs is too often used to suggest that 25% are absolutely dependent on coral reefs.  They are not, although substantial loss of reefs will lead to some loss of biodiversity as reef specialists succumb.  The world’s ocean ecosystems are not going to collapse because coral reefs disappear. And exaggeration of this type is not helpful.  Still others really do focus on the tragedy that the substantial loss of coral reef ecosystems represents for the planet – but they view the story as an environmental/ecological one, and fail to make the connection to the wider story of the risks we are building for our own future.  These scientists may criticize the views expressed by other reef scientists who recognize the link to our future, and think the story is not really about corals or even about reefs at all.  In my view, reef scientists who think the demise of reefs is a ‘reef’ story are missing the real point – it really is about us.  Here is a recent interview with CCTV, Washington, in which I attempted, not fully successfully, to get the focus shifted from reefs to the wider picture.

I personally believe we need to make the reef story about us if we want the wider public to care.  We have little likelihood of convincing the wider community of the importance of acting to sustain coral reefs if we fail to connect flourishing reefs with a biosphere that sustains our own species and civilization.  Coral reefs, by themselves, are just not that important to the bulk of people who have never seen one, and whose lives, so far as they are aware, are unaffected by whether or not reefs thrive.  (I accept that among reef scientists there will be some who believe we should focus on communicating the science about coral reefs, because our role is not to comment on broad political issues such as the need to move humanity off fossil fuels.  I disagree with them.)

A recent article in Anthropology Now, by Irus Braverman, University of Buffalo, explores the various threads of this discussion within the reef science community.  While I think she has painted a far more combative dialog than is really taking place, there is some truth in her assessments.  Some of us, depressed by the continuous drip-drip-drip of bad news, do view coral reefs as ‘probably doomed’ over the next few decades, and in unguarded moments are likely to use expressions like ‘basket case’, ‘up the creek’, or just plain ‘fucked’ when describing future reefs.  Others really do refuse to face the fact that if warming episodes are wiping out vast tracts of coral, small-scale cultivation of fragments for out-plant on small patches of dead reef is just another way of rearranging chairs on the Titanic – it fills time, makes you feel useful, but has no realistic possibility of solving the problem.  Still others, with genetic interests and expertise, are exploring the possibility of selective rearing of corals to build heat resistant strains for use in reseeding efforts.  I welcome the latter efforts.  I also despair at the fact that humanity seems far less capable of local management that effectively deals with some of the ‘simpler’ stressors – overfishing, pollution, inappropriate coastal development – because we have difficulty building the will to act.  There is reason for reef scientists to be both angry and depressed by what is going on in far too many reef locations around the world.  And if we want to engage the public, we have got to use that anger and depression to communicate effectively with them.

As I was completing this post, a new article appeared in Scientific Reports.  Written by Ruben van Hooidonk from NOAA’s Atlantic Meteorological and Oceanographic Laboratory in Miami, and eight colleagues from the USA, Thailand, French Polynesia, Guam, the UK and Australia, this paper reports an attempt to provide a global projection of coral reef bleaching into the future.  Specifically, van Hooidonk and colleagues have used  projections of sea surface temperature out to 2100 to compute times when thresholds for coral bleaching were exceeded for all coral reef regions.  By combining model projections derived from the IPCC CMIP5 dataset, with higher resolution climatology derived from NOAA’s Pathfinder v 5.0 series, they were able to identify dates when bleaching would be likely, at a spatial resolution of 4km2.  They used these results to map the year when severe bleaching was likely to become an annual event for each reef location, under two scenarios:  a business-as-usual one comparable to what is likely if humanity continues to dither over whether or not to decarbonize our economy (IPCC RCP8.5), and a more optimistic one (RCP4.5) representing the successful implementation of efforts to reduce carbon emissions that are 50% more intense than currently committed to by nations under the Paris accord.


Histograms showing the global distribution of 4 km2 reef locations with reference to the year in which each is likely to start experiencing annual severe coral bleaching.  The left panel shows results assuming we follow a business-as-usual approach to CO2 pollution.  The middle panel shows some slight improvement in that onset of annual bleaching is delayed by about 11 years.  The right panel shows the improvement in number of years delay for each reef.  Figure 4 from van Hooidonk’s paper in Scientific Reports.

Under business-as-usual, they project that over 99% of coral reef locations will experience severe bleaching annually before 2100, but there is wide variation among and within reef regions.  On average, reefs will experience annual bleaching by 2043, but 5% of reefs will experience such conditions before 2033, and 11% of reefs will not experience annual bleaching until after 2053 if their projections are confirmed.  Under more aggressive greenhouse gas mitigation efforts (represented by RCP4.5), the average reef does not experience annual severe bleaching until 2054, but 32% of reefs see less than 10 years delay in onset of annual bleaching, while 7% of reefs see a reprieve of more than 25 years.

While these results are based on projections of model results out to 2100, and may depart from reality especially in later decades, they permit three important conclusions:  First, the pattern of warming we have set in train is likely to create conditions favoring annual recurrence of severe bleaching in all reef locations during this century, and for many locations within the next three decades.  Second, effort to mitigate CO2 emissions does improve the future for reefs, although what has been committed to so far, under the Paris accord, buys the average reef less than a decade.  Third, and most important, there are substantial differences among and within locations in the likelihood of severe bleaching.  This makes it possible to rank coral reefs in terms of their relative risk of severe bleaching near term, and plan conservation actions accordingly.

I fear there is also a fourth conclusion that needs to be drawn from this paper.  Those of us within the reef science community who have talked about the ‘loss’, the ‘demise’, the ‘disappearance’, or even the ‘extinction’ of coral reefs as we knew them in the 1950s or 1960s seem to be much closer to the likely reality than those who have been more optimistic, assuming that, somehow, things won’t be as bad as all that.  We really are doing a number on coral reefs, and we will discover there are other ramifications of our CO2 pollution.

Putting the coral reef and the ice melt stories together, there is a fifth conclusion to draw.  We are having profound effects on this planet – ones that will impact our lives severely in the near future.  Will our descendants look back on this time as one in which we realized our errors and made a concerted effort to correct them?  Think about that as you watch the clowns parade.

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