Room for a little #OceanOptimism on Earth Day?


Earth Day is upon us once more and with it the international March for Science.  I wasn’t sure whether to blog or march, but figure I will leave the marching to the scientists still in harness.  I’ll be there in spirit, because the failure of vast numbers of the public to even understand what science is has become a substantial problem for the planet.  Our slow realization of the seriousness of what is happening to coral reefs is in part due to lack of attention to what science tells us.  It’s also because not enough of us have embraced reefs and both respect and care for them.

What was I doing a year ago?  On 25th April 2016, shortly after Earth Day, I was celebrating the ceremonial signing of the Paris Accord by 175 of the 195 participating countries at the United Nations on Earth Day 2016.  It has now been signed by all 195, and 143 have formally ratified it.  However, I was clearly coming down from the high induced by Paris 2015, because the bulk of my post was a review of the status of such things as atmospheric CO2, coral reef bleaching, Arctic ice melt and so on, and consideration of the possibility that we might already be at a tipping point from which we could not recover.  Not a cheerful thought, nor an optimistic tone.

Today, my assessment is that the world has been treading water for the past year as political events swirled about and we tried to figure out where major nations might be headed.  That swirling continues, and that thought is not an optimistic one either.  While it is true that Trump, as an individual, even though he is President of the USA, is not powerful enough to stop all progress on climate around the world, it is also clear that his presence has slowed any momentum that may have been building, and diverted attention to other matters.

Where are we on reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

So where do we stand in our fight with climate change?  Despite all the announcements by governments and corporations working to lower greenhouse gas emissions, the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere continues to rise, and the rate of increase is also still increasing.  On April 18th, CO2 atop Mauna Kea was measured at 410.28 ppm, the first time it had ever risen above 410 ppm in the 59 years that continuous records have been made, and the first time it has been that high in millions of years (based on the various proxies for direct measurement).  Furthermore, 2015 and 2016 were the first years in which the cumulative annual growth in concentration of CO2, its rate of growth, was more than 3 ppm.  (In fact, 2016 came in 0.03 ppm lower than 2015, but it’s way too soon to interpret that as the beginning of a slow-down.)

Not only are we unlikely to have a month when CO2 concentrations fall back below 400 ppm any time soon, the annual rate at which concentrations are increasing has now exceeded 3 ppm two years in a row. Graph © Climate Central.

Not surprisingly, the warming of the planet also continues, as does the bleaching of reefs, melting of glaciers, and all the other environmental impacts of this savage pollution of our atmosphere.  If we take the mean global temperature each month during the period 1881 to 1910 as our ‘pre-industrial’ baseline temperature, it turns out that nobody born after 1964 has ever experienced a month of below-average temperatures.  Global mean temperature for every month since then has been warmer than average.  March 2017 was 1.3oC above this pre-industrial average.  That is very close to the 1.5oC increase the Paris Accord set as the aspirational goal for the world, and 65% of the way towards the 2oC increase countries have pledged not to exceed.

The rates of increase in global mean temperature and in CO2concentration above Mauna Kea both continue to increase, at what appears to be still increasing rates.  We have not yet succeeded in putting on the brakes.  Graph © Climate Central.

In a 2017 joint report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), there is a stark description of the enormity of the task before us if we want to achieve the 2oC objective, let alone the 1.5oC one.  The report was produced at the request of Germany for use in the G20.  In it, IEA and IRENA independently assessed the current state of energy use and outline an energy sector transition that would be consistent with limiting the rise in global temperature to below 2oC.  In their report IEA and IRENA assumed that complying with Paris was equivalent to keeping temperatures below 2oC throughout this century and into the future, with no initial overshoot, and they accepted a criterion of achieving this with a 66% probability of success as satisfactory (that is, they accepted a 33% risk of exceeding 2oC – I point this out to emphasize that the agencies have operated conservatively: how much needs to be done to have a reasonable chance of staying below 2oC, rather than, let’s put forward a scenario that guarantees staying well below 2oC).

The report is principally focused on the technical challenges of progressively integrating different forms of renewable energy into a multi-source energy grid at regional or national scale, and doing so while ensuring continued reliability of supply in a real-life fluctuating-demand situation.  It is also quite technical in style.  Here I am focusing only on the overall magnitude of the challenge.

IEA and IRENA used the concept of the global CO2 budget that is available to be released to the atmosphere within this century without exceeding the “2o with 66% likelihood” goal.  By their calculation that is 790 Gt CO2 (790 Billion tonnes CO2, a broadly accepted estimate) for the energy sector and a further 90 Gt for other industrial sectors and land use changes.  Now, 790 Gt CO2 is a large amount, but if the global economy performs as expected, and if all the NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) that countries have proposed under Paris are put into effect as planned, the energy sector will emit 1260 Gt CO2 between now and 2100 – 60% more than the budget available!  IEA and IRENA looked independently on what needed to be done to keep within that budget.  Here I am reporting IEA findings:

To achieve the 2oC goal will require a transition off fossil fuels of “exceptional scope, depth and speed”.  Emissions would need to peak by 2020, and fall by 70% from today’s rates by 2050, and the share of energy derived from fossil fuels would have to halve by 2050.  To do this would require an

“unparalleled ramp-up of all low-carbon technologies in all countries.  An ambitious set of policy measures, including the rapid phase out of fossil fuel subsidies, CO2 prices rising to unprecedented levels, extensive energy market reforms, and stringent low-carbon and energy efficiency mandates would be needed to achieve this transition.  Such policies would need to be introduced immediately and comprehensively across all countries in order to achieve the [goal], with CO2 prices reaching up to US$190 per tonne of CO2.”

Needless to say, countries have not yet bought in to this aggressive decarbonization.  In the following chart, note that with only the already declared NDCs, our emissions per year of CO2 continues to rise – the commitments are insufficient to counter the growth in energy demand as our population and economy grow!

 In this chart the ‘new policies scenario’ (blue line) refers to the trend in CO2 emissions if all country NDCs are fulfilled, while the ‘66% 2oC Scenario’ (green line) refers to the global trend in CO2 emissions needed if the world is to meet the target 2oC agreed to at Paris.

In addition, IEA says that aggressive efficiency measures would be needed to lower the energy intensity of the global economy by at least 2.5% per year from now to 2050, a rate that is three and a half times greater than the rate achieved during the last 15 years.   IEA predicts that by 2050, success in reaching the 2oC goal would require that nearly 95% of electricity would be low-carbon, 70% of new cars would be electric, the entire existing building stock would have been retrofitted, and the CO2 intensity of the industrial sector would be 80% lower than today.  IEA calculates the 2oC goal requires a fundamental reorientation of investment in energy production coupled with a rapid escalation in the investments made by energy consumers to make use of low carbon energy sources.  By IEA estimates, “the additional net total investment, relative to the trends that emerge from current climate pledges, would be equivalent to 0.3% of global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2050.”

As I read the document, we have a period of very heavy lifting ahead of us, and should have started already.  What has been accomplished since Paris is not nearly enough.  Not nearly.  There should be more urgency apparent.  And this is just to deal with climate; what about all the other ways in which we are despoiling this planet.

Later that same day

So I finished writing the first part of this commentary, paused, and began to feel damned depressed about the whole situation.  We do not seem to be paying nearly enough attention to climate change, or indeed, to any other of the myriad ways we are damaging our only home.

Reading Bill McKibben’s recent op-ed in the Guardian in which he refers to Canada’s PM Trudeau as a “disaster for the planet” did not help my mood.  In fact, it made me angry.  At McKibben.  One telling sentence that captures his tone: “Trump is a creep and a danger and unpleasant to look at, but at least he’s not a stunning hypocrite.”  While I too am critical of Trudeau’s reluctance to dump the resources sector completely, I recognize that he is trying to walk a path which will move Canada from climate denial to climate action, and this requires not completely pissing off everybody who does not already agree.  In Ontario, we are now paying about $1.10 per litre for gasoline.  The price spiked recently about ten cents when the new carbon tax kicked in.  What does McKibben pay for gas in the USA?  What McKibben should have done while criticizing Trudeau is articulate why Canada’s efforts on climate as yet are insufficient.  Instead he wasted an op-ed to throw epithets about.  Plus, he might do something back home to ensure the dangerous, creepy, difficult to look at Unpresident has as short a reign as possible.

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau has a difficult challenge, but at least he is trying to do something about environment.  Not so his neighbor to the south.
© David Parkins/Globe & Mail.

Time for some optimism

But then I looked at the latest issues of Nature and Science.  Out just a couple of days before Earth Day, Nature had an editorial by marine scientist, Nancy Knowlton, on the need to be optimistic in presenting environmental stories.  In addition, there were two more reports concerning how Antarctic glaciers are behaving – plenty to digest there although the only optimistic note is that the glaciologists are getting a lot closer to understanding how this system works.

While Nature has a history recently of consistently reporting important environmental stories, Science, which appears to have been giving less attention to this field, surprised me with a whole special issue on environment.  In addition to an editorial, by Knowlton and Andrew Balmford, also extolling the value of a positive approach to presenting environmental issues, they had several reviews and reports on environmental topics.  There was an essay on the need to live within the planetary boundaries.  There were two reviews on how human activities and sheer abundance are affecting global biodiversity.  Another review detailed how environmental management is a wicked problem, and included information that many policy makers would do well to pay attention to – it’s way more complicated than rocket science (which suggests we must avoid procrastinating because complicated tasks take time).  And there was a review concerning psychological aspects of how to motivate people effectively to care for the natural world, something I have been wondering about for a while now.  Unfortunately, all of these articles are stuck behind pay walls, so I will be discussing them further in the future.

One could say I am just reading stuff written for the choir, but the choir needs to learn how to sing effectively and articles like these would likely not have appeared in such prestigious technical journals a decade or so ago.  There really is hope.

On the other hand, there really is so very little time to dither.  It is unconscionable, for example, that Australia can contemplate encouraging (with millions of real dollars in tax incentives) foreign corporations to develop enormous new coal mines to tap into coal deposits that Australia has no need for, other than as export commodities, so exports can be ramped up – all being transported through the Great Barrier Reef – at a time when that reef is seriously bleaching for the second year in a row.  Australia should be particularly aware of what climate change will do to its economy and quality of life, and should be leading the charge to bring climate under control.  Instead it is a laggard, while trying to increase its extraction and export of fossil fuel.  The politicians involved have demonstrated their ethical limitations multiple times as they mouth platitudes about their concern for their reef.

As for the fiasco happening in the USA, my only slim reason for optimism there is that Trump’s utter incompetence may be the best thing going for the environment, for international trade, for race relations, and perhaps even for world peace.  But that my American friends were capable of electing him?  And might do so again?  Not a good sign.  Let’s hope there are more signs encouraging optimism in the next few months.  Happy Earth Day.

Perhaps the first leader of a major nation who excels only in his incompetence.
© David Horsey/LA Times.

Categories: Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science, Politics | Comments Off on Room for a little #OceanOptimism on Earth Day?

Lament the Decline of Ethical Standards; It Hampers Our Ability to Deal with Environmental Issues


Addendum: As I was about to post this to my blog, the first authoritative press release concerning the 2017 bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef was hitting the media.  I don’t discuss it here, but the fact that the GBR has bleached severely in two successive years underscores the seriousness of the global environmental situation.  We are in a very bad place.

All that ghastly white coral – both hard and soft corals are severely bleached in this photo taken at Orpheus Island, Queensland in March, 2017.  The fourth major bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef is under way.  Photo © Greg Torda/ARC Center for Coral Reef Studies.

We Have Our Limitations But Are Also Too Powerful

We are near-sighted, we have short memories, and we are easily distracted.  We have likely always been this way.  We are, after all, simply clever monkeys wearing clothes.  We are also so numerous, and so powerful, that we are radically altering the nature of this planet on which we live.  Whether we view it as a blue marble or as the back of a turtle, we imbue this place with a degree of permanence and stability that it does not really deserve.  It is, after all, a large, rocky spheroid in orbit around a modest star, and hurtling through space towards a destination unknown and perhaps unknowable.  If our star misbehaves, or if some other large object crosses our path too closely all our problems are solved.  But assuming that is not going to happen for the foreseeable future (see, we all assume permanence), our problems are growing bigger, largely because of our own actions, and they need to be solved by us.

Our home has a climate, and a biosphere of which we are a part, even when we live in tall condominium towers in the heart of a city.  Most of us have forgotten, if we ever knew, that we are part of our biosphere, that we depend on that biosphere for a broad range of resources including our food, water, and oxygen, and that while we are now capable of protecting ourselves from most of the vagaries of weather at considerable though largely hidden cost, we remain dependent on the climate remaining within bounds that will permit continued production of our food and other fundamental needs.

Like termites deep within the mound, we have used our technology to insulate ourselves from the environment, but we have not eliminated the natural environment and we remain near-sighted, forgetful, and seldom capable of dealing logically with crises that arise.  Photo © Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve.

Because we are near-sighted, we forget that these realities apply to all seven billion of us, and those of us wealthy enough to live what might be called a decent life also tend to forget that these realities apply even to ourselves despite our being buffered from direct contact with crises by well-stacked supermarket shelves, electricity grids, and all the other insulations that our civilizations have built.  Like termites deep within the mound, we live comfortably even when it is unbearably hot, dry, cold or wet outside.  Our political and corporate leaders, being often the wealthiest and therefore the best insulated, seldom experience even the modest trials and tribulations that are the lot of the common man even within advanced civilizations.

It is no longer true that the excessive consumption of resources by the wealthiest among us alone creates our environmental problems.  Now we are numerous enough that even if every North American reduced his or her demand for resources to an average African or South Asian level, we would still be outstripping the planet’s capacity to supply the things we need.  But it is also true, that while they cannot solve our problems by some bold, if unlikely, act of self-denial, the wealthiest among us include the powerful corporate and political leaders who have the power to implement changes in human behavior that could ease, and eventually solve, our problems.  Think about that — the very people best insulated from the consequences of our environmental problems are the only people likely to be able to put solutions in place.  And they too are us – near-sighted, forgetful, easily distracted.  Thinking about this is a great way to drive oneself to drink, despondency and deep depression.

What Has Happened to Ethics?

I don’t know if selfishness and feeble ethical standards always go hand-in-hand, nor whether the extent of either is growing among leaders.  While there are plenty of people who despair the growing immorality, dishonesty and illegality they see pervading our civilization, I cling to the (unrealistic?) belief that on average we remain about as ethical as we have ever been, maybe even somewhat more ethical than in past times.  On the other hand, while it’s hard to see past the abhorrent razzle dazzle of the Trump administration to get a global perspective, I am fascinated by the way in which the election of US President Donald Trump seems to have ratcheted up the acceptability in that country of leaders who display a blatant dismissal of ethical norms and a bald-faced refusal to accept that the idea that individuals not reap great financial rewards through their actions as government leaders applies even to them.

The absence of ethics was evident from the start, and has only become more apparent.  Cartoon © Steve Sack/Minneapolis Star Tribune.

At first it was just Trump who refused to reveal his financial arrangements, or take any real steps to separate himself from management of his assets during his term as President.  With no apologies, he broke traditions of behavior that governed how Presidents served throughout the post-WWII period, and so far he has not been penalized for his flagrant flouting of ethical norms.  Indeed, members of Congress and government officials of all political persuasions have been very tolerant in their gentle disapproval, while the public is ceasing to care.  His behavior, so far, seems little different to that of a dictator in a marginally democratic republic somewhere in Africa.  His behavior is resetting standards, making it much easier for the next US President to put self-interest first.

Increasingly, it is members of his cabinet and especially members of his family, who are now following suit.  Ivanka, with a West Wing office, and a position without clear responsibilities, has put her business interests into a trust managed by her family, just as Daddy did, and considers the question of conflicts of interest solved.  While she, and her father, appear to be acting within the letter of the law, it is hypocritical to insist that this is ethical behavior.  Continuing the active pursuit of private gain while ostensibly working on behalf of the government is now becoming acceptable behavior for senior officials in these strange new United States.  The potential for corruption is enormous.  (If I picked unfairly on Ivanka, it’s because her public image is so not that of a self-centered corporate boss – she is one person in this strange assemblage of characters who might have displayed high ethical standards.)

The potential for decisions to be made that provide short-term, personal benefit for the powerful people running this government at the expense of long-term global benefits is just as big as for many other governments, including many that on the surface are less governed by the rule of law.  Global environmental management is going to suffer.  Putting it explicitly, actions to further a winding down of CO2 emissions and wrestle climate change under control are unlikely to be in the immediate personal interest of Donald Trump, or many members of his billionaire-heavy government – they are inevitably heavily invested in the old industries that caused the CO2 problem in the first place.  While this is also a problem for many or most of the leaders in governments around the world (because they are mostly drawn from wealthier sectors of society), the (lack of) reaction to Trump’s unethical retention of his ties to his private businesses has now given particular license to act for oneself without even thinking for a moment about the need to act for the common good.  It’s OK to be selfish, even in the USA.  All of which brings me back to the need for us near-sighted, forgetful, easily distracted beasts to make some long-term, carefully thought-through decisions that will shift the biosphere in the right directions even if that does lead to some damage to our own persons.

Our Planet is in Trouble.

A cursory glance across the media reveals ample evidence that the planet is in trouble.  This fact has been true for some years now, but it appears to become more true every week.  On March 16th, Nature published the long-anticipated analysis of the severe coral bleaching that occurred across the Great Barrier Reef in 2015-16.  The New York Times headlined the same day Large Sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Are Now Dead, Scientists Find, and other media accounts were similarly dire.  On March 22nd, the Globe & Mail reported that Arctic sea ice had reached its maximum extent on March 7th at a new record low level, based on reporting from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.  On 31st March, Science published a review of the global extent of geographic movements being forced on plants and animals by climate change, and the Guardian headlined how the global reshuffle of wildlife will have huge impacts on humanity.  I could add more, such as the news that Suncor’s proposed plan to clean up its tailings lakes at its base plant and Millenium site was rejected by the Alberta energy regulator.  Suncor had not provided enough information to prove its plan to use “water-capping” – which involves the placement of a layer of water over a deposit of tailings to form a new lake – will actually result in the creation of a functioning aquatic ecosystem, reported by the Globe & Mail on March 17th.  I am appalled that a plan is still not in place after years of operation and the accumulation of millions of gallons of heavily contaminated waste water.  But let’s just focus on the three environmental items.

The Slow Disappearance of Coral Reefs

Terry Hughes of James Cook University, and 45 co-authors from all over the place, published a solid report that made use of their own recent, extensive surveys (1156 reefs) of the Great Barrier Reef, and two earlier, less extensive but still reliable, surveys done to assess the 1998 and 2002 bleaching events – the only prior extensive bleachings to have occurred on the GBR.  While the basic facts about the 2016 bleaching have been known for some time (partly due to the considerable effort by Hughes and his team to make factual information available during and following the event), this report uses the opportunity to compare the consequences of the three events, and reveals some important and disturbing news.  The bleachings in 1998, 2002 and 2016 impacted different subsets of GBR reefs almost certainly because of the different spatial and temporal patterns of warming that took place each time (the report shows strong congruence of bleaching intensity and local-scale warming, a confirmation of NOAA’s predictive model that has been providing globally comprehensive, local warnings of imminent bleaching throughout this century).  Some reefs have yet to bleach, while others surveyed have bleached once, twice or three times.  Some reefs lie within protected zones of the GBR, where fishing activities are greatly reduced, and some reefs lie in regions of greater water quality compared to others (less pollution from coastal run-off.  The most important conclusions drawn derive from a quantitative comparison of these different sets of reefs.

Maps showing the extent of bleaching at different locations on the GBR in 1998, 2002, and 2016.  Red = most intense and green = least intense bleaching recorded.  Most locations on the GBR have now bleached at least once.  Figure © Nature.

Hughes and company report that they found no evidence that reefs develop an ability to withstand bleaching over time.  Whether or not a reef experienced significant bleaching in 1998 and or 2002 did not predict how it would bleach in 2016.  They also found no evidence that reefs inside protected zones, which would be subject to substantially less fishing pressure, or reefs located in waters of better water quality through time were less likely to suffer severe bleaching than others.  While negative data (the failure to reject a null hypothesis) must always be treated cautiously, all three surveys were quantitative, robust in geographic coverage, and substantial in size.  Given this, these results are compelling and very disturbing for two reasons.

First is the issue of synergistic impacts of multiple stressors on reef systems.  Earlier, less comprehensive, studies had found a correlation between water quality and extent of bleaching at GBR sites and at Florida sites.  These studies, and an expectation based on many examples of synergistic effects of different environmental stressors (i.e. two stressors acting together causing a larger effect that either independently), provided justification for the claim that actions to reduce impacts of local stressors, such as over-fishing or pollution, would likely also provide reefs with added resistance to warming by way of a general increase in resilience.  I still think that argument is worth making, but this report says there is as yet little evidence to support it.  Much as we may wish that good management of local stressors will equip reefs to cope with warming, that may not be true.  (Or putting it another way, ecological theories are not fact no matter how robust or logical they are!)

Second is the issue of selection and adaptation.  If the corals on reefs are repeatedly subjected to warming events, we might anticipate a) selection for heat tolerance among corals, and b) an increase in overall resistance to warming at future times.  However, after accounting for the geographic variation in heating stress (extent of warming) in 2016, reefs which had bleached more severely in 1998 or 2002 did not show a lower response to warming than reefs that had not bleached or bleached less severely previously.  Some reef ecologists have argued from theory that the rate at which corals are being subjected to warm conditions, and/or the rate at which average SST is increasing, is too fast for long-lived species such as corals to adapt.  Others have maintained, also on theoretical grounds, that we should expect adaptation over time to warmer water because that is how all organisms adapt to changing environments.  This report shows there is as yet no evidence of adaptation on GBR reefs — another disturbing result!  Hughes and colleagues have provided strong support for the claim, supported by many reef scientists, that the only thing that is ultimately going to prevent the total loss of shallow (< 40 m deep) coral reefs from the planet is concerted and sufficient efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in time to stop global temperatures rising further.  Their concluding sentence is “[s]ecuring a future for coral reefs, including intensively managed ones such as the Great Barrier Reef, ultimately requires urgent and rapid action to reduce global warming”.

Arctic Melting Will Hasten Warming and Alter Ocean Circulation

The fact that the annual maximum of Arctic sea ice was an all-time record low was not exactly surprising.  The behavior of the sea ice has been distinctly unusual since summer of 2016, and Arctic weather this winter has included sustained periods of exceptional warmth.  But now that we have passed a record low maximum for ice formed, and the ice is also unusually thin, the real question becomes what will happen in summer 2017 and beyond.  The data are comprehensive and beyond dispute, and every km2 of extra open water increases the capacity to the Arctic Ocean to absorb heat from sunshine.  We are witnessing a rapid alteration in a major driver of weather and of ocean circulation, an equally rapid change in the conditions for life in the Arctic, and a transformation of that cold environment into one somewhat more accessible for human activities, and I have commented several times.  It is time to recognize the need for much greater attention to the ecological, societal, and other ramifications of a changing Arctic.  There may be growing economic opportunities up there, but I fear that the changes will bring far more bad than good news.  Stay tuned.

The blue line tracing the extent of Arctic sea ice during the 2016-17 period, has been running well below mean conditions throughout the season.  Graph © NSIDC

We Are Reshuffling the Biodiversity Deck on Our Planet

The report in Science may be the most concerning of the three.  Gretta Peel of the University of Tasmania, and her 40 collaborators from around the world discuss the on-going redistribution of plants and animals around the world due to effects of climate change.  Species have always responded to changes in environmental conditions by shifting their distributional ranges.  Present evidence indicates that changes to distributional ranges are now proceeding more rapidly, and the shifts are likely to be more extensive than anything seen since the dawn of human civilization.  Terrestrial species are moving poleward, and also towards higher elevations as conditions warm.  Marine species are also shifting to greater depths.  The shifts are species-specific.  Some species are likely to move rapidly while others are capable of only far slower range extension; some of the latter may get stranded in unsuitable environments because they cannot keep up with the rate of climate change.  In many cases, human infrastructure will impede movements further complicating the situation.  Because different species move at different rates, this redistribution will reconfigure ecological communities and may disrupt predator-prey and host-symbiont relationships.

While we might treat this phenomenon as simply an interesting ecological fact, Peel and colleagues point out that there are significant consequences, mostly but not entirely negative, for human society.  Our agricultural regions will become redefined, with different crop species performing well at particular locations, and some currently productive land ceasing to be so.  The economic value of our forests will alter as tree species composition changes.  Fisheries production will become dependent on different regions as target species shift.  The expectation is that the severe disruption of established patterns of distribution will likely lead to less effective production of valued resource species.  Overall, Peel and colleagues estimate that species redistributions will have significant direct impacts on our ability to achieve 11 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals during this century.

The diverse deciduous forest near my home is comprised of tree species, most of which will have ranges well north of here by the end of the century.  The world is changing.  Photo © Algonquin Park.

The impacts of climate change are pervasive.  Redistribution of species is just one of them, and one that has been somewhat neglected until now.  This is not a case of one or two species extending their ranges.  It is comparable to what happened during the early Holocene as ice retreated and ecosystems moved poleward.  Back then humans played a smaller role, provided fewer barriers to species movement, and other species were often far more numerous than they are now.  This redistribution is unlikely to be one without some major disruptions as ecosystems collapse.  As I am writing this, I am waiting for the trees outside my window to come into leaf.  I know that every native tree species I can see in the lush forest outside my door will have a difficult time living in this location by the end of this century.  Given the slow pace at which tree species can extend their ranges, I have no idea what sort of forest will be possible, barring human intervention to assist the migration.  We really are changing the nature of the planet.

All three of these environmental stories are ‘happening’ now.  All three will continue to happen – yes, the GBR will bleach again – in coming years even if we dramatically reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, because we have altered the atmosphere sufficiently already to cause significant readjustment.  The situation will be far worse if we do nothing to address climate change.  So there is a real and urgent need for serious decisions to rein in climate change.  To do this we need leaders who are capable of understanding the need and recognizing that they must take the long-term, altruistic decision rather than the short-term, selfish one.  I fear many current world leaders may not be up to that challenge.  They need to be educated and inspired.

Categories: Arctic, Changing Oceans, Climate change, coral reef science, In the News, Politics | Comments Off on Lament the Decline of Ethical Standards; It Hampers Our Ability to Deal with Environmental Issues

Finding Climate Stars to Steer By.


Bleaching as a sign we are off course

It started last month with scattered reports from Mackay in the south to Port Douglas on the north Queensland coast.  The Great Barrier Reef has begun to bleach again.  Coral polyps by the million tossing out their minute symbiotic algae under the stress of warm water, and becoming metabolically challenged as a result.  The last mass bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef occurred during the first half of 2016 and did major damage, particularly on the northern third of the reef.  North of Cairns, the bleaching was widespread and severe — about 67% of shallow-water corals eventually died.  That is the kind of damage that will require 10-20 years for reasonably complete recovery, so the news that bleaching is starting all over again is definitely bad.  A reef cannot prosper if it is bleaching severely every year or so.

Map showing the extent of coral mortality recorded in October-November 2016, 8-9 months after the mass bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef.  Unusually cloudy weather at the time of the event appears responsible for the low mortality (and bleaching) recorded in the southern section.  Map © ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The reason for the renewed bleaching is not hard to find.  Australia has had a scorching summer with records broken here, there and everywhere.  The warmer than usual water has extended down the coast threatening corals as far south as Sydney Harbor – there are corals there, but not coral reefs– and scientists are concerned that the reefs at Lord Howe Island, about 400km offshore and slightly north of Sydney, and the most southerly coral reefs on the planet, could be up for bleaching any day now.  The renewed bleaching is alarming also because the very strong el Niño which drove the global mass bleaching event from 2014 through 2016, ended mid-2016, and the world entered a weak and brief period of ‘cooler’ la Niña conditions last September.  NOAA declared la Niña over early in February and the world may be heading back towards el Niño conditions again later this year.  That bleaching occurred during a (weak) la Niña period tells us just how much the world’s oceans are warming up.  It will not be many years before coral bleaching is a process that happens every summer.  What happens to coral reefs then?

The Great Barrier Reef and Australia are far away from Canada, but we are all experiencing unusual weather and strange events, such as the ever lower amounts of ice across the Arctic Ocean, and the crazily oscillating weather of this year’s winter in eastern North America.  We live in the Anthropocene and we continue to alter the planet in many ways.  Through the type and extent of actions that characterize our global economy, we are exceeding several of what environmental scientists term the planetary boundaries that define an acceptable space for continued functioning of the biosphere.  Our increased emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), and the resulting changes to climate are just one of the boundaries we are reckless about.  Some others are the concentration of ozone in the stratosphere (perhaps now being repaired), the rate of extinction (going up), nitrogen and phosphorus pollution (going up), and ocean acidification (pH going down).

The nine planetary boundaries as defined by Johan Rockström.  We need to steer the planet to keep within these boundaries if we want to ensure an environment commensurate with good quality of life for humanity, but we are already on the shoulders of the path.
© F. Pharand-Deschênes/Globaïa.

(I use the word ‘reckless’ because we are in uncharted territory.  Scientists do not know with any certainty the extent to which we can exceed planetary boundaries without destabilizing the complex system which is the biosphere, causing it to veer off into an alternative state that may or may not be amenable to our way of life.  If we can keep the planet within the boundaries, scientists expect that conditions typical of the Holocene will continue.  The Holocene, some 10,000 years long is that most recent time period within which human civilization developed and flourished.  Now, we are already exceeding some of the boundaries, and may well shift conditions on this planet to something quite different.  One definition of the Anthropocene likely to be provided by researchers in a distant future time: “that period of time when the planet sort of went to hell”.)

Most of us who understand our predicament want us to stop our reckless behavior.  As time goes on with only modest signs that we are changing our ways, the call to change grows more urgent, and we point to signs that dangerous times are approaching.  The melting of the Arctic sea ice is not just an observation about the Arctic Ocean.  Nor is the increasing frequency of bleaching an observation about the world’s coral reefs.  Both are signs that we are driving the planet’s climate away from what it has been for the last 10,000 years, and signs that the climate is changing rapidly.  We should be using these signs as ‘climate stars’ to steer by, just as we should be using other signs – ocean pH, stratospheric ozone concentration, availability of phosphates in coastal waters – as stars guiding our steering with respect to other boundaries.  Because, make no mistake about it, our activities make us a major force governing the state of our planetary environment, whether we like that or not, and we need a steadier hand on the wheel, the tiller, the joy-stick or whatever control device this crazy planet possesses.  Up till now, we have been in the driver’s seat but have not been paying too much attention.  It’s time to get real, and paying attention to coral reefs can help.

Steering towards a safe climate, or just fiddling with the joy-stick?

The trans-oceanic voyages of Hokule’a have reestablished Polynesian navigational prowess.  Now we must learn how to steer our planet using the special stars it provides to keep within environmentally safe boundaries.  Photo of navigator on board Hokule’a © Bryson Hoe, ʻŌiwi TV and the Polynesian Voyaging Society

When it comes to climate, we know what we have been doing wrong, and we know how, and how rapidly, we have been changing the nature of our atmosphere.  More than that, the governments of 197 countries have now agreed broadly on what we must do to track towards a safe Holocene-like climate amenable to life as we know it.  I’m not talking here about controlling the weather, or even about making the climate as perfect as it can be for human endeavors across this planet.  I’m talking simply about stabilizing the climate at an average temperature deemed not too much higher than at present.  To do this we have got to halt the increase in concentrations of greenhouse gases sufficiently quickly to keep their combined warming effect to one that maintains a mean global temperature no more than 1.5oC warmer than in preindustrial times (about 0.6oC greater than now).  And that means reducing anthropogenic emissions of CO2 sufficiently to stem the current rapid increase in concentration of this gas in the atmosphere, and ultimately to lock that concentration to the vicinity of 400 to 450 ppm, not much more than today.  Personally, I believe we should try to ratchet down the concentration to about 350 ppm, a concentration we last saw in the mid-1980s, but I also recognize that it is going to be extremely difficult just to achieve the 1.5o/430 ppm goal.  Obviously, if we cannot get back to 350 ppm, mass coral bleaching is unlikely to go away.

The Paris Accord, agreed to in December, 2015, and into effect the next year, sets a goal of no more than 450 ppm CO2 eq. for atmospheric greenhouse gases, and an aspirational goal of 350 ppm.  It is up to each of the 197 signatories to decide what changes to policies to implement to achieve a reduction in emissions commensurate with those goals.

Most countries’ currently announced plans are woefully inadequate to meet these goals, although many represent real changes in policy that move emissions rates lower.  The expectation is that countries will progressively ratchet up their commitments over time and reach the goals before the end of the century.  However, most countries are moving too slowly to put in place the policies they have promised, let alone moving to strengthen those promises, and with its recent change of government there is a real chance that the USA will move backwards.  The international community is going to require all its diplomatic skills to keep the world moving forward in this effort to cut GHG emissions, because persuasion and shaming are the only weapons that enforce the Paris Accord.  Time will tell whether we try harder to stop being reckless with the climate.

Despite the severe bleaching the Great Barrier Reef received last year, and the critical scrutiny given to Australia’s management of this UNESCO World Heritage area, the current Australian government has backed away from prior climate-focused decisions and is instead implementing policies that it claims will deliver jobs and a growing economy while ignoring environmental consequences.

Australia has long had a resource-based economy and at present both federal and state governments are hell bent on rapidly exploiting the enormous coal reserves of Queensland, for export to Asia.  The planned increase in mining and transport runs directly counter to improved management of the Great Barrier Reef, because the coal will be shipped from large new terminals along the Queensland coast, through the myriad channels of the Great Barrier Reef.  Not only will increased shipping create a greater risk of groundings; coal management at loading facilities will generate coal dust pollution, and the harbors will be kept navigable by repeated dredging, with its resultant siltation, especially if dredging spoil is dispersed offshore.  On top of this, that coal, which has sat storing carbon safely underground for millions of years, will be burned once it reaches its destinations, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere and adding to our global climate problem.

Australia’s GHG emissions since 2005, as reported by the government, with two most recent quarters provided by NDEVR Environmental.  The downward trend is, at best, anemic since 2011 and will not meet the government’s pledged commitment, a national commitment widely seen as inadequate.  Image © The Guardian

Australia has signed the Paris Accord, but even while its emissions commitment has been widely criticized as one of the weaker efforts made, it has been finding it difficult to reduce emissions at a rate commensurate with that commitment.  This appears to be partly due to an ideological resistance to carbon pricing entrenched within the current Liberal/Country government, which stripped away a carbon tax introduced by Labor as soon as it came into office.  Instead, there is considerable talk in government circles about the promise of clean coal – a promise that has yet to bear fruit anywhere and is seemingly far off in the future in Australia.  Meanwhile the government is stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the link between its fondness for coal, its own GHG emissions, global GHG emissions and the plight of the reef, a major earner of tourism and fishery revenues.  Because the voices speaking for the reef, the biosphere, and the need to stop recklessness are less loud in Canberra than the voices espousing quick wealth and job creation by digging and shipping, the country is adrift on carbon policy and would likely jump at the chance to follow suit if the USA pulls out of Paris.  The Aussie government is where Canada was a short year ago, and has the USA for company – the big voice of fossil fuels has drowned out the opposition for now.

Canada and Australia share much; Canada may be steering better

Canada does not have a Great Barrier Reef, although the rapidly changing Arctic should be an equivalent climate-star.  However, too many Canadians see its thawing as an opportunity for more get rich quick resource exploitation schemes, rather than as a potent sign of serious biosphere risk.  Like Australia, Canada has a long history of dig and ship and its own enormous fossil fuel reserve, the Alberta tar sands, and there are many in and out of Canadian governments who argue that we must dig and ship as fast as possible because doing so is good for economy and jobs.  Also like Australia, Canada is a net energy exporter.  Neither country needs to extract increasing amounts of fossil fuel to keep its own economic engines supplied with energy and humming happily along.  The jobs in the fossil fuel sector in both countries could be replaced by jobs creating a non-polluting energy sector and a modern, knowledge-based economy.

Hay Point Coal Terminal on the Queensland coast, and Suncor’s main site in Alberta – Canada and Australia share a lot.  Photos © (left) and David Dodge/Pembina Institute (right)

Unlike Australia, Canada’s development of its tar sands has proceeded rapidly enough that its capacity to ship the product to markets has been stretched.  Not to the breaking point, although listening to people in the industry you’d not guess that.  There is great pressure to build pipelines.  Canadian environmentalists have seen expansion of pipelines as an enabler of tar sands production, and have attempted to block new pipelines as a proxy for blocking the expansion of production.  If they can choke off the path to market, production will have to slow, or so they claim.  Putting Canadian oil into the global market is the same as putting Australian coal there.  The product will get used, GHGs will be emitted, the planet will warm, and the GBR will bleach some more, while the Arctic melts further.  So impeding the delivery of that tar sands oil makes some sense.

Unlike Australia, the election in Canada a bit over a year ago brought in a government interested in strengthening Canada’s climate policy.  Canada went to Paris in December 2015 as a reformed pariah, and got deserved credit for its constructive efforts while there.  But the Canadian Liberal government also wants a strong economy and jobs, and so the public has watched a dizzying performance of to and fro in which new climate initiatives are balanced by announcements favorable to the tar sands producers and their pipeline-building partners.  Just this week, PM Justin Trudeau was a keynote speaker at the CERAWeek oil industry conference in Houston where he described his balancing act on climate and oil.  “There is no path to prosperity in Canada that does not include a thriving, vibrant energy sector, both traditional and renewable,” he said, while reiterating his view that there will be a transition off fossil fuels and that Canada must prepare for the day “far off but inevitable, at some point, when traditional energy sources will no longer be needed.”  His is a nuanced view that his predecessor did not possess.  Elsewhere at the same conference, Alberta Premier Notley was making the case for her climate policies, including that cap on tar sands emissions of greenhouse gases, as being good for the fossil fuel industry, in part because climate policy provides cover for decisions favoring pipelines.

So how should Canadians interested in changing our global recklessness on climate respond to new governmental initiatives to put a price on carbon?  Or to proposals to expand pipeline capacity?  Or to construction of new upgrading and refining capacity within Alberta?

Helping Canada steer to the right path

I think it imperative that we strongly support efforts by provincial and federal governments to price carbon.  This is the right thing to do, and Canada has been slow to take this step.  At the same time, we must continue to advocate for higher carbon prices than those already in place and for greater efforts to ensure the cost is shared equitably – meaning helping the poorer sections of the community to bear the cost that pricing carbon pollution inevitably brings.  We must also continue to hold government feet to the fire concerning the sheer inadequacy of Canada’s existing commitments on GHG emissions.  Having been slow to start down the right path, there is no reason why Canada should not pick up the pace and become one of the leaders reaching the goal.

The old environmentalist argument against pipelines needs to change.  All pipeline investments are not environmentally bad, and obstructing pipelines as a way of forcing curtailment of expanded production from the tar sands was always a clumsy way of turning off the fossil fuel tap.  Canadians should welcome pipeline construction that expands our capacity to move oil across our country, better serving our own energy needs and reducing the need for imports.  We should not automatically oppose pipelines intended to diversify potential markets, although we must demand that pipeline construction and operation is held to the highest environmental standards.  It seems unfortunately true that people whose job it is to build pipelines have never seen a project they did not want to build, but crisscrossing our most pristine natural lands with pipelines is not a worthwhile venture in itself and can significantly degrade environmental value.  Such value is hard to rebuild once the need for pipelines has gone.  Above all, we must not be seduced by claims that current pipeline capacity is inadequate to the task of shipping current or realistically expected future production from the tar sands, nor by claims that pipeline construction creates huge numbers of jobs and great wealth.  Mammoth construction of solar or wind farms or new hydro projects would do the same for jobs and wealth as any planned pipeline construction, and current pipeline capacity is fully sufficient for all expected production if Alberta’s GHG emissions cap is going to be honored, as it must be.

Environmentalists must keep the pressure on Canadian governments to fulfill and strengthen commitments on GHG emissions if needed changes are to be achieved.  But the pressure must be more nuanced than simply opposing every pipeline.
© Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Those concerned about our need to reduce global GHG emissions need to watch the fossil fuel industry closely.  Industry spokesmen can be very convincing when they argue that Canadian pipeline capacity must be expanded, or that ramping up the tar sands production is good for economic growth.  Indeed, a pair of them provided a wonderful tale about how tar sands oil is becoming very clean, in part because of the emissions cap and carbon taxes.  They argue that by obstructing the tar sands industry, Canadian environmentalists are in danger of putting less clean oil from places like Venezuela into the marketplace instead (I put italics around ‘becoming’ because we are not there yet, and may never be).  Still, at the same time as industry spokespeople are making these claims, fossil fuel corporations are doing things that suggest they expect the market for oil to dwindle.  Reporting in the Globe and Mail at the end of January, Carl Mortished dissected BP’s annual World Energy Outlook which claims the current global glut in oil is going to last at least to 2050, meaning that cheaper oil will gobble up the available market, putting pressure on high-priced producers such as Canada – those frequently repeated claims of rapid growth in the tar sands are unlikely to happen.  Just this week Shell announced two major agreements that will permit it to further reduce its exposure to tar sands oil, part of a process it has had under way to progressively reduce its exposure to high-carbon sources, and to focus on natural gas, offshore oil, and downstream operations.  Shell is the latest European producer to reduce its investments in Alberta, following France’s Total and Norway’s Statoil.  In mid-February, pipeline builder Enbridge’s CEO stated that their recently approved Line 3 expansion plus just one other pipeline would suffice for foreseeable demand into the 2030s.  Enbridge is also diversifying.  All these corporations are preparing themselves for the downturn they know is coming.  So environmentalists should continue to keep the pressure on, but selectively and wisely.

To keep pressure on, environmentalists should articulate the value of progressively reducing GHG emissions in tar sands operations, and give credit when such reductions are achieved.  They should absolutely demand that the cap on GHG emissions announced by the Notley government should be progressively tightened, forcing either a substantial improvement in GHG emissions per barrel of product, or a reduction in production from present levels.  At present the cap is so high that it will not impede expansion of the industry for a couple of decades.

The Sturgeon Refinery, now under construction northeast of Edmonton, Alberta, will process tar sands bitumen into diesel fuel, and has carbon capture and storage capability.
© Shaughn Butts/Edmonton Journal.

The construction of the Sturgeon Refinery northeast of Edmonton is under way with the first of three planned phases nearing completion.  It has been heavily supported by the Alberta government, yet there remain serious doubts concerning its economic feasibility, particularly in a weak market, and stages 2 and 3 may never get built.  The first new refinery in Canada since 1984, Sturgeon includes a full carbon capture and storage system, and will refine bitumen to produce diesel fuel.  It is an interesting sign that the industry can reduce GHG/barrel, and produce a higher value, more easily shipped product than the conventional bitumen.  While the economics remain a serious question, we should squeeze the industry into doing more of this, so that the tar sands might provide the useful high value products that our economy will need in the future, long after the idea of burning oil to generate energy is forgotten.  On the other hand, future refineries should be built without the substantial government funding that Sturgeon has received.  If there is one thing Canada should have learned as the tar sands industry grew, it is that corporations rarely reduce profits in order to pay for the public good unless they are aware that the public and the government expect that public good to be served.  This is not a sign of venality; it is doing what they should do – maximize profits for their shareholders.  But we should have been demanding more from them all along.

Don’t be seduced by dollars

Just as Canadians (and Australians) should not be seduced by the dig and ship mantra, which has always been flawed, we should not put up with arguments based on spuriously inflated estimates of jobs created or dollars added to the GDP.  There are many ways to build wealth and create jobs.  (I recently saw a reference in an e-mail to the number of jobs that would be generated by the construction of the Sturgeon Refinery – 76,000 person-years of work!  Just for the construction.  That seemed a lot, so I went digging.  I found two references to jobs in the Globe & Mail article: “…more than 5000 workers are laboring round the clock…” followed a couple of paragraphs later by “Phase 1 employed 7,500 workers at peak construction…”, plus news that building all three phases could take a decade.  I guess the 76,000 person-years is derived as 7,500 for ten years, plus another 100 off-site over the same period.  Moral: take all such claims with the dose of salt they cry out for.)

We must embrace the need to steer our planet

Which brings me to my final and perhaps most difficult point.  If we are serious about our desire to halt our recklessness and steer the planet back towards a quasi-Holocene state, we need to tackle the relationship between humanity and our home.  During the 16th century, notably in the writings of Sir Francis Bacon, western civilization took biblical references to having dominion over nature and molded them into the idea that we were separate from, superior to, and entitled to use the rest of creation.  At that time this entitlement meant not too much.  That view pervades our global society today, but now is a time when seeing ourselves ass separate, special and entitled does mean something because we have become powerful enough to make real differences on this planet.  It is high time for a serious reexamination within and across all nations, but particularly the wealthier, more economically advanced ones, of the relationship between humanity and the wider biosphere.  A price on carbon pollution is an important step forward, but we need many more steps forward until we are acting as a part of the biosphere and ensuring that our actions minimize disruption of biosphere function, and adequately compensate, economically and environmentally, for those few disruptions that are deemed necessary for furthering our own societal well-being.

Hokule’a sailing into a western sea.  We need to find the right climate stars to steer our planet; accepting that we are a part of the biosphere will help find those stars and the will to steer.  Photo © Daniel Lin/National Geographic

Realigning our relationship to our planet may be a bigger challenge than many environmentalists want to accept, because accepting it requires a radical change in our thinking.  It will certainly be an enormous challenge to those among us who are not already sympathetic to the plight of the planet, who have grown up with a world view that says only humans have rights, and some humans have more rights than others.  And yet, if we do not change our perspective, how will we give adequate value to the actions that need to be taken to keep our pressures on this planet under control?  How will we be able to use those climate stars, and those stars defining other planetary boundaries, to steer a path forward towards a better Anthropocene?  How indeed?

Next time you hear that a reef has bleached, or that a glacier has retreated… next time you read that another frog, bird, or coral has gone extinct… next time you see video of a devastating storm, a pernicious drought, or of massed environmental refugees on a shore… ask what you can do to help us all see the need and urgency to steer this planet into a safe Anthropocene.  And think of the benefits we all would reap if we succeeded in this effort.  It’s not rocket science.  It’s probably harder than rocket science.  But it is doable, and it begins with a goal and a star, and a hand on the tiller.  There is no better time to start than right now.

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