Muddled Messages: The need for clarity in discussing the environmental crisis.


Those of us who express concern about sustaining the natural world see some urgency in the need to change our behavior.  We see value in natural ecosystems and danger if we do not sustain them.  Many other people do not share this concern.  Will more clarity bridge the gap?

On March 1st 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, establishing Yellowstone as the first National Park in the USA.  It was also the first in the world.  This action is taken by many people to mark the first flowering of ideas on conservation.  But conservation is more than the setting aside of tracts of land, or ocean, to be preserved in perpetuity.  And thinking about conservation started long before Grant signed that law.  In one sense, conservation began with a sense that all was not right with the world, and that humanity had a responsibility to conserve as much as possible of what was right.  But where did this notion of correctness in the state of the planet come from, and how do we justify it?

Old Faithful, perhaps the best-known feature of Yellowstone National Park, the oldest National Park on the planet.  Photo © Yellowstone National Park, USNPS.

Over the last many years, a lot of people have expressed concern regarding the state of our environment.  Some have been professional environmental scientists while others are simply people who care.  Some have directed their concern to specific ecosystems or particular places while others have taken a global view.  Some have used logic and data to support their claims while others have argued on the basis of ethics, morality, or the teachings of particular religions.

It’s undeniable that the environment of 2018 is not the environment of 2000, or 1950, 1872, 1776, 1492 or any of numerous other dates in the past.  Our world has changed in small and big ways, and continues to do so.  The concerns being expressed all derive from the notion that our present environment, or our anticipated future environment, is a less desirable one than the environment of some time in the past.  What is often not clear, however, is the basis on which this judgement has been made, and the authority with which it is made.  My goal here is to try and sort this muddle out, and explain where the concern comes from.

Who really cares?

Our planet doesn’t give a damn.  Nor does the universe.  They do not care one whit about the state of the biosphere on Earth.  For billions of years in the early existence of planet Earth, it was devoid of life and therefore possessed no biosphere.  Scientists have yet to find convincing proof of the existence of life on any other planets in our solar system; those planets likely lack biospheres today.  But for the past 3 billion or so years, there has been life on Earth and over this time the biosphere has tended to become more complex in a number of different ways – sheer extent of biological activity, richness and variety of life forms, tonnes of biomass present.  The trends toward greater complexity have neither been constant nor linear, and there have been episodes of substantial reduction in complexity (notably the five global mass extinction events), but the overall, long-term trends have been positive.  Throughout all but a tiny fraction of these 3 billion years, these trends towards an increasingly complex biosphere proceeded unnoticed.  The biosphere itself does not care about its state, or even its continued existence, and so far as we know the overwhelming majority of living organisms do not give a damn about the state of the environment, other than in how changes in that state might directly impact their own individual lives.

But many people care, and in discussing their concerns they usually start with the implicit assumption that caring about the state of the environment is a natural and normal concern to have.  Given that there are many other people, perhaps the majority of the world population, who do not care, perhaps it’s worth exploring this shared concern.  Where does it come from?  What are we really caring about?  After all, it may be possible to explain why we care, helping other people understand the issue?  Or it may turn out that on careful reflection there is no reason why we should care, in which case we can all get on with our lives.

The biosphere, which one can almost imagine as visible in this 2015 NASA photo centered on Vancouver Island, doesn’t care about its state of health.  Nor does Earth care.  Nor the universe.  Nor, so far as we know, does any animal other than Homo sapiens, and then only some of us care.  Photo courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.

Developing ideas about environment

Our species of human, Homo sapiens, has existed on this planet for at least 200,000, perhaps 300,000 or more years.  Until recently, anthropologists agreed we had originated in sub-Saharan Africa, however a recent find in Morocco suggests archaic members of our species were present in North Africa 300,000 years ago.  A pan-African origin for our species is now seen as most likely, with populations mingling as they moved back and forth across the extensive savannahs that included what is now the Sahara.  Our species, and several other Homo species had culture 300,000 or more years ago, revealed by tools, use of fire, cooking of food, and ritual treatment of the dead.  They may have had a clear, and well expressed, understanding of environmental matters.  Or they may not.

We lack any direct evidence of what our distant ancestors thought about environmental change, and it would be dangerous to infer that they thought much about it at all.  (We also have absolutely no evidence that any species other than our own has ever thought much about environment.  But we also do not know for sure that elephants do not spend many hours thinking about the changing climate, or that humpbacked whales do not sing to each other about falling ocean pH.  And snapping turtles just might keep diaries concerning wetland degradation.)

With the dawn of agriculture, we can surmise that people must have become aware of environmental changes, especially seasonal ones, and environmental catastrophes such as forest fires and floods.  They had to be timing their management of crops and livestock in accord with seasonal cycles, and they recognized when unusual years ‘failed’ to produce needed warmth or rainfall, leading to crop failure and famine.  Given the widespread myths of great floods or other catastrophes in the folklore of present-day hunter gatherers, as well as in that of agricultural or other groups, it is reasonable to assume that awareness of typical seasonal cycles, and fluctuations in, or disturbances of these cycles, also existed in pre-agricultural populations.  (In that distant past, people undoubtedly thought of time as circular, operating on daily, monthly and annual – and perhaps longer – cycles.  Thinking of time as linear, as an arrow into the future, came much later.)

With the advent of a written record, we have more assurance of how people thought about environment (it’s even possible that the development of linear writing led to the change in thinking about time).  Certainly, Europeans in the Middle Ages recognized environmental changes, but their recognition was confined to changes in their local experience.  The idea that the environments of the planet as a whole might change through time resided only in the origin myths of peoples, as ways of accounting for how the world had come into being in a remote past; after its creation the Earth was thought to provide a more or less constant environment.  Departures from seasonal norms, whether cases of a year of extreme weather, a prolonged period of aberrant environmental condition such as a decade-long drought or the Little Ice Age which chilled Europe over some 400 years, or a short-term catastrophe such as a forest fire, an outbreak of insect pests or other pathogens, or an earthquake or volcanic eruption, were all recognized, talked about, recorded.  They were departures from normalcy.  Much thought was given to why such environmental changes had occurred, and supernatural causes were usually invoked.  Such short- or long-term aberrations in environmental conditions were recognized as ‘unnatural’, and often thought to arise as punishment for wrong behavior by humans.  In some other cultures they were just seen as the earthly consequences of actions by capricious gods; something that humanity and other organisms just had to put up with.

Thinking began to change, at least in Europe, with the renaissance and the scientific revolution.  Over the period from about 1500 to 1800, our view of the natural world changed in many ways.  We began to believe that the planet was much older, and to have changed considerably during its lifetime.  Lyell’s concept of uniformitarianism informed a new geology in which the form of the landscape had been created over time by slow, readily observable processes such as erosion by wind and water.  Darwin took such ideas into biology, and natural historians developed ideas about changes to natural living systems caused as responses by organisms to physical environmental change.  Fossils were transformed from lithic curiosities, or misleading cues planted by the devil to divert humans towards evil, into evidence of that lengthy, changing past.  There developed an appreciation that environmental changes occurred due to ‘natural’ rather than ‘supernatural’ causes, although these new ideas coexisted with a persistent belief in the superiority, and often the uniqueness, of humanity compared to other organisms, and a belief that the planet was provided for our use.  (By this time, western humans thought of time as an arrow, one that moved upwards, towards a teleological perfection.)  In addition, the holistic view of the natural world, long held over from Greek and Roman philosophy, was slowly supplanted by a more scientific, but also more reductionist and mechanistic one.  This objectified and particularized the natural world, set humanity outside of nature, and likely helped foster the idea that the natural order was to have humans somehow in charge.  With these ideas came thoughts about the goodness, the appropriateness, and the usefulness to humans of nature.  We could talk about a good environment and one that was less good.  Coincidentally, this willingness to think about the value of the environmental state developed at about the same time that the industrial revolution was offering abundant evidence of our ability to reduce that value.  No longer were humans innocent bystanders to the changes occurring around them; sometimes we had a major part in causing those changes.

Our profound impacts on the biosphere

It is now clear that Homo sapiens has had profound impacts on the planet from at least as far back as the last Pleistocene glaciation (~110ka – 11ka) or even into the Eemian interglacial (~135ka – 110ka) which preceded it.  The widespread extinctions of terrestrial megafauna during the last glacial period, on all continents except Africa, arriving so suspiciously soon after the arrival of our species, are now attributed substantially to over-exploitation by Homo sapiens.  We were (are) a highly effective hunter, although (non-anthropogenic) climate change and other ecological changes may have modified the pace of some of these extinction events.  Only in Africa had megafauna experienced our species during our earlier evolution and our development of hunting skills. That African megafauna had been able to evolve defenses against us, and it still persists (although many members are now perilously close to extinction).

This Late Quaternary Extinction (LQE) eliminated 34 genera of large mammal in North America (72% of mammals >44kg in weight), 50 genera (83%) of such animals in South America, and 14 genera (88%) of such large mammals in Australasia.  The 2006 review by Paul Koch, UC Santa Cruz, and Anthony Barnosky, UC Berkeley, published in Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics documents how removal of these creatures had profound effects upon the ecology of those continents.  In addition, our inferred early use of fire to manipulate landscapes to favor certain desired species, had its own impacts.  Imagine how different the world would be if the megafaunas of other continents had been spared until today.

Graphs showing the percentage of animals (by body size) that became extinct during the late Quaternary extinctions on each continent.  Note that the largest 2-3 size classes all became extinct at this time on all continents except Africa.  Image © Annual Reviews


Modeled history of deforestation due to agricultural expansion between 1000BC and 1000AD in Europe.  Land unmanipulated by humans no longer exists on that continent.
Image © Elsevier Ltd.

With the advent of agriculture, our environmental impacts grew.  It is very likely that parts of Europe saw multiple episodes of deforestation, abandonment and afforestation during the Holocene, but one recent modeling study (by Jed Kaplan, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and colleagues and published in Quaternary Science Reviews in 2009), which looked only at the effects of land clearing for agriculture, reveals a dramatic deforestation of Europe between 1000BC and 1000AD, and continuing to the present.  Only northern Scandinavia and Scotland escaped having their forests converted largely to grasslands.  By 1000AD a ‘natural’ environment scarcely existed anywhere in Europe, although there were, and remain, extensive rural regions.

With population growth, and with the advent of the industrial revolution, our impacts on environment grew.  But our awareness of these impacts grew more slowly.  We saw, and commented on, local deforestation, local pollution, even a general local lack of game, but we did not see the broad scale at which our impacts were being felt.  While we recognized that it was our own over-exploitation that had removed those trees or game, and our careless discarding of wastes that led to the pollution, we also knew that just over the next hill, or across the bay, there were untouched environments waiting for us to use them.  Our destructive tendencies were cause for alarm, but it was local and modest alarm.  It took Christmas Eve of 1968, and a photograph of Earth in the sky of the moon, to move us to an understanding of the planet-wide scope of our destructiveness, and to an awareness that over-exploitation was occurring on a planetary scale and could not continue – if ethics would not stop us, simple physics would.  At least that is how thinking evolved for those of us who thought about such matters; many others remained immune to what we were doing to the planet, focusing their attention on the amazing, even inspiring, growth of the human enterprise.

Earthrise, Earth floating in the sky of the moon, photographed 24th December 1968 by Bill Anders, from Apollo 8, is a photograph, widely reprinted, that changed how people thought of this planet.  Photo courtesy NASA.

It’s worth noting also that our understanding of our impacts in the marine realm remain trapped largely in the ‘pre-Earthrise’ world in which we see and understand local calamities, but do not appreciate the global extent of these.  Overfishing has globally reduced the biomass of fishery species alive in our oceans by 90%, and yet most of us still see the oceans as large, remote, wild, and untouched by us.  If the global demise of coral reefs, driven by repeated bleaching due to the rising sea surface temperatures caused by climate change, can teach us one thing, it will be that we are having disastrous, planetary-scale impacts on the oceans, just as we are doing on land.

History of ideas on conservation: a European beginning

There is a prevalent history of the conservation movement that implies our evolving thinking on this topic was a North American phenomenon.  This history begins with President Grant’s creation of Yellowstone National Park.  It honors Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold among others for conjuring up, during the period from 1870 to 1940, the idea of conservation of wild lands as the right thing to do, and I will visit their shrine shortly.  A more accurate history recognizes the important, 17th – 18th century, European development of ideas about the value of the natural world, and the need for humans to reign in the capacity of their capitalist economies to destroy that world.

In 1990, in a short commentary in Nature, Richard Grove, Cambridge University, described this European portion of the story as a direct consequence of colonialism.  In Grove’s view, beginning in the 16th century with the flowering of expansionist voyages of discovery of foreign lands, European colonialism provided a growing awareness of the detrimental impacts of European economic activities on newly ‘discovered’ lands.  Europeans were aware that the industrial revolution had caused damage to European environments, but these were already simplified and tamed before industry arrived.  The impact of imported industry on previously less obviously altered colonial environments was impossible to miss.  Indeed, by the 18th century, the great mercantile corporations such as the British East India Company provided opportunities for scientifically-trained thinkers, employed as medical doctors or as managers of overseas commercial ventures, to observe directly the deleterious environmental consequences of deforestation, ill-though-out agrarian reforms, or other economic ‘investments’ in tropical colonies.  Coming to these tropical colonies, fresh from a Europe showing much evidence of negative environmental consequences of industrialization, these individuals were well-placed to observe and correctly interpret the environmental consequences of rapid resource exploitation, and by the late 18th century they were using such experience (plus their colonial governance power) to formulate progressive policies on forest and watershed management in the colonial regions under their control.  (Grove acknowledges that in some cases, these colonial Europeans were influenced by Eastern concepts of the relationship of humans to environment – the new thinking was not a purely European product.) What got exported back to Europe, along with raw materials, was a set of ideas concerning environmental value and ecosystem service, even if those terms were not expressly used.

The idea that natural environments contain intrinsic value beyond the economic value of their resources, and that economic ventures, when not managed (=constrained) appropriately, can perturb those environments and disrupt, reduce or eliminate that intrinsic value was a major step forward in thinking about our relationship to the natural world.  The value identified was sometimes a value of direct economic benefit to human activities – intact forests protect soils, and regulate water flows in ways that are often beneficial to nearby agriculture.  Such a value would now be termed an ecosystem service.  Other times value was seen as not obviously beneficial to human economic activity, but still important to the ecological integrity of a place, to the maintenance of its biodiversity, or (in modern parlance) to its ecological resilience.  Regardless of the type of value, the intrinsic value of nature is a value given by, and relevant to, humanity – value does not exist outside the human sphere.

The flowering of conservation in North America

This body of European thought on environment travelled to America, a new nation with extensive ‘natural’ landscapes, and it was there that the idea of environmental conservation as a societal good was refined.  I put ‘natural’ in quotes here for a reason.  We now know that native peoples had manipulated North American landscapes to a considerable degree, but the conquest of the Americas was accompanied by a major killing off of those populations and a substantial collapse of their economies – so great a collapse that the resulting regrowth of forests caused a global dip in atmospheric CO2 around 1610!  This clearing out of the past made it possible for colonists to consider vast tracts of the land as virgin country untouched by humanity – a perspective that was incorrect in North America, but also one that could never have developed in Europe or in Asia.

By the middle of the 19th century, the considerable untapped economic value of the natural resources of vacant land was being recognized.  In parallel with this growing awareness of economic value, there was a growing appreciation of the other intrinsic values of natural environments, and of the damage that could be done to environmental value during the process of resource extraction.  To these ideas of value, was added a spiritual part.

John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838.  His family emigrated to the USA in 1849, settling in Wisconsin where John grew up.  Wanderlust led him to California by 1867, where he spent the rest of his life.  The Yosemite Valley, which Muir first saw in 1868, had a profound philosophical/spiritual impact on this young man.  That impact stayed with him, helping force his development into a leading thinker and writer on the essential, spiritual value of natural landscapes, their forests and their wildlife.  In hundreds of articles, published in the Atlantic, Harpers, and other eastern magazines, and over 10 books, Muir ostensibly wrote about his travels throughout North America (especially the west).  In reality, he was defining a philosophy centered on the intrinsic value of natural ecosystems, including their spiritual value, the propensity of human activities to destroy that value, and the need for national governments to protect natural lands as a part of the shared wealth of the nation.  Muir had considerable influence on President Theodore Roosevelt, who visited Yosemite with Muir in 1903, and subsequently signed Yosemite into existence as the nation’s second national park.

John Muir had a major influence on the early conservation movement through his writings about the natural world, in particular, the Yosemite Valley.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The other major influence on Roosevelt’s thinking about conservation came from Gifford Pinchot, who he appointed head of the US Forest Service.  Pinchot, a professional forester and initially an ally of Muir’s in the struggle to protect natural lands, eventually fell out with him over the relative importance of intrinsic, spiritual value and resource-based, economic value of natural landscapes; a difference in perspective that exists still within the environmental movement.

The ideas of people like Muir and Pinchot had major influence on the initial development of a conservationist environmental philosophy which valued natural places and the resources they contained, and sought to protect them.  Muir, after all, was the co-founder of the Sierra Club, the oldest environmental organization in existence.  Their ideas were expanded, and imbedded in the new science of ecology by a later generation including Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson.  Leopold, who started out as a wildlife manager, and, like Pinchot, saw environmental value primarily as the economic value of sustainably managed natural resources, evolved into one of the great environmental philosophers.  His A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949 a year after his death, remains in print and continues to inspire people who think about environment.  In its Foreword, he wrote (using ‘land’ as we would use environment, ecosystem or biosphere),

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.  There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture.  That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, took the ‘land ethic’ of Leopold and applied it to a particular problem – the use of DDT and other novel chemicals.  A science editor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Rachel Carson had a gift for language, and three highly successful books on the sea under her belt by the time she tackled DDT.  She documented the problem, and its causes.  But she went far beyond what most investigative reporters would have done – she pointed to the ethical failure that permitted industry to create damaging products and to continue successfully to promote them long after the environmental, medical and other damage they cause was recognized and understood.  She did not operate entirely alone, but she played a major role in expanding the perspective of environmentally concerned people beyond the preservation of iconic natural places or species.  If Leopold could lament, as he did in his essay The Land Ethic, published as part of A Sand County Almanac, the lack of an ethic “dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it”, and argue that extending ethics to our relations with the natural world is “an ecological necessity”, by Carson’s time, the environmental movement fully embraced the idea of such an ethic.

Today, most conservationists acknowledge that natural ecosystems posses many sorts of value, including spiritual and esthetic value and the economic value accessible through the exploitation of their natural resources, and they are comfortable with the notion that ethical behavior requires that in interacting with the environment, one should do so in ways that ensure the long-term sustainability of that value.  Even on one’s own land, it is morally unacceptable to act in ways that diminish the effective operation of the ecosystem.

But individual environmentalists still differ on the relative importance they attach to these two types of human-defined value.  Within the modern conservation movement there continues a tension; some leaders, such as Peter Kareiva of the Nature Conservancy, emphasize economic value and novel ways to leverage that value to achieve protection for natural places or endangered species (see an article here), while other leaders such as Michael Soulé, at UC Santa Cruz, and founder of the Society for Conservation Biology, argue passionately for the importance of non-economic, spiritual or esthetic value as the driver of conservation, and the risk of commodification of nature if too much attention is given to the economics of resources (see a 2013 article here).  In the view of Soulé and others, if we cease arguing for the ethics of conservation, we will lose the battle against human short-sightedness and selfishness.

Where does the value of natural systems come from?

At their core, the national park movement within the USA (and as exported to many other countries) and the broader conservation/environmental movement began with the idea of preservation of undeveloped landscapes, for the long-term benefit of nations.  That core has been expanded and enriched by the integration of ecological ideas concerning the functioning of natural systems.  But ‘preservation’ remains, and it implies that there is a state of nature that is static, and can be retained so long as human activities detrimental to that state are prevented.  That static primeval nature has always been a myth, because the planet is not in stasis and because natural lands untouched by human impacts do not exist.  The myth developed largely because of the peculiar history of colonization of North America, and it has been able to endure because the processes causing change in ecosystems, especially when viewed at a landscape scale, are mostly slow-acting and almost invisible.  The pace of change is nearly always so slow relative to the lifespans of humans that it is not noticed.  While there is occasional, calamitous, often highly destructive, change due to fire, flood, earthquake, eruption and other geological events, it is now the activities undertaken by industrial economies, first to extract natural resources, and then to prepare land for agricultural or urban use that are most obviously damaging, and state-altering to ecosystems.

This brings me back to the question I started with:  Why do so many of us believe that there is value in natural ecosystems that is not present in systems extensively modified by human endeavor to provide superior agricultural, industrial, residential or cultural landscapes?  What is wrong with a vision of the future that pictures the entire planet tamed to serve human needs?  I suggest these two questions can be answered by focusing first on hubris.

Cultural evolution over the past 500 years or so has shifted our common view of time from circular to linear.  Modern culture sees history as a linear process towards a succession of goal states, and we have been remarkably clever at convincing ourselves that the new is always also the better.  Over the past 500 years or so, conventional wisdom assumes our lives have become much better.  While there are innumerable examples of progress, which can be summed to suggest betterment, I think the question of whether or not we are now absolutely better off than we were 500 years ago is a question still worth pondering.

For example, the global number of refugees and other forcibly displaced people has almost doubled from 33.9 million in 1997 to 65.6 million in 2016.  Not included in those numbers is an estimated 22.5 million displaced since 2008 by environmental disasters (many linked to climate change).  These numbers are larger, in absolute terms, than at any time in human history.  In addition, while the world has been successful in cutting the extent of extreme poverty from 30% of the global population in 1990 to 10% in 2015, there are large discrepancies among countries, and evaluations of relative wealth that use higher levels of expenditure than $1.90 per person per day (the World Bank criterion for extreme poverty) reveal increases in the numbers of poor people in many middle-income and wealthy countries.  More anecdotally, did the creation of smart phones, Facebook, Google and Twitter all usher in a clear net improvement in the quality of our lives?  Our rush to embrace the new may not be a certain way to assess changes in the quality of our lives.

While the Syrian refugee crisis is usually described in political terms, it has environmental root causes in a devastating drought that forced people into the already crowded cities causing unrest, savage crack-downs and civil war.  Are we better off when more of us than ever before undergo forced migration?  Photo of refugees arriving on Lesbos © Angelos Tzortzinis/Getty.

I also suggest that as our technological capacities have grown, we have been quite good at convincing ourselves that we know a lot more than we do.  A portion of the resistance to acting on climate change derives from a widespread belief in our collective ability to engineer our way out of any problem that arises.  Indeed, this faith in our ability to solve all the problems has been instrumental in maintaining our complacency in the face of an exploding global population, the rapidly approaching global crisis in potable water supply, and our rampant pollution of our coastal oceans.  Every issue is observed in isolation, as a problem to be fixed, with utter confidence that the new technologies needed to do that fix will be invented in time.  Our confidence is such that we routinely ignore such minor details as the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, which tells us it is very difficult to build order (such as a complex ecosystem) out of disorder (a degraded one), or the even simpler idea that a perpetually growing economy (assuming the economy uses real resources) is incompatible with a finite planet.  We glibly assume we will develop agriculture that will feed the 2.5 billion more people that the planet will hold by 2050, ignoring the fact that plants have had millions of years to perfect photosynthesis and it remains a low-efficiency process.  Is all of this not hubris?  The conceit of a naked ape who thinks he is all-powerful?

Thus, the concerns of many people about the value of natural ecosystems, and the need to ensure they survive, despite our careless deprivations.  We are only naked apes with less than perfect creative capacities, and limited ability to see into the future.  Under such circumstances, the precautionary principle should be invoked – we must do our best to minimize our impacts on the planet because past history has shown us that our impacts can often be decidedly bad.  The values we assign to nature are human ones, and hidden behind them is the knowledge that we are now quite capable of creating a world which is far less amenable to our own existence than the one that we currently occupy.  The need for conservation, the reason for valuing environmental sustainability, arises because experience tells us we are much more likely to cause critical damage to natural ecological processes than we are to build an environment that does a more effective job of providing ecosystem services than the natural one it replaces.  And, yes, less likely to provide the spiritual and cultural values we see in those natural ecosystems.

The Anthropocene is a game-changer

If I had set these thoughts down in 1950 (unlikely thoughts for a kid more interested in exploring tidepools), I could stop here.  Now that we live in the Anthropocene, however, there is a new complication that must be taken into account.  Many of our actions over past years have combined to cause global change at a pace that is far faster than in previous times.  Whether we consider the pace of warming, of ocean acidification, of sea level rise, or even the pace at which novel chemical compounds are being released into the environment as pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, pesticides, or microplastics, the pace of change is far higher than at nearly any time in geological history.  Never mind the nature of the changes.  The pace of change is taxing the capacities of species, and the natural ecosystems they comprise, to respond, adapt and evolve.  Because of this, conservation has suddenly become far more difficult.  Setting aside a new national park in the Anthropocene is no guarantee that the ecological systems of that place will be sustainable into the future.  In fact, we can be quite sure that all that will have been done is ensure that that place will proceed to change, possibly to degrade, in ways that are different to what would happen if no protective status was put in place.

The idea of a primeval nature, with intrinsic value worth protecting from human interference was always a myth.  But setting aside places like Yellowstone and Yosemite did secure locations to continue changing along slow paths, ones to which the biota was well adapted, and ones imperceptibly slow to most humans.  That simple approach to conservation is no longer valid, because our planetary-scale disruptions of the biosphere continue to have their effects.  To truly achieve environmental sustainability in the Anthropocene, we must continue to act locally to protect selected valued places from our local deleterious impacts, while we simultaneously act globally to rein in those other actions that are pushing major changes at the planetary scale – a tough challenge indeed.

This graph shows that, as of 2017, our emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise, despite all the effort directed to climate change in recent years.  They continue to rise because the increase in our demand for energy far exceeds the rate at which we are transitioning away from use of fossil fuels to provide that energy.  The future is unknown, but most projections are gloomy – getting to <2oC increase in global mean temperature is going to be very difficult. 
© InsideClimate News.

Furthermore, in the Anthropocene, with a human population of 7.5 billion heading towards 10 billion by 2050, and with rapid industrialization under way across many countries that were, until recently, agrarian, our impacts locally and globally are bigger than ever and growing larger still.  Therefore, the much more demanding task now required if we are to maintain environmental sustainability must be undertaken at a time when our actions have a capacity to inadvertently perturb ecosystems that is far greater than it has ever been.  This is why I and many other people are so deeply concerned about the environmental crisis – the challenge we face now is way bigger, and way more complex, than ever before, and there is no certainty that we are capable of success.  It’s essential to maintain an optimistic, can-do attitude re the need for environmental conservation.  It’s hubris to think it’s going to be easy.  It would be foolhardy indeed to give up, become complacent, and assume we will somehow muddle through.  In many ways, we are like dinosaurs, peering into the sky, watching the asteroid descend.  Only this time, we are the asteroid.  What are we going to do next?

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, Climate change, Communicting science, Economics, Land Use | Comments Off on Muddled Messages: The need for clarity in discussing the environmental crisis.

Sobering News on Coral Reefs – But We Knew It Would Come to This


The journal, Science, began 2018 with an issue including an update on the status of coral reefs around the world.  Led by Terry Hughes of James Cook University, Australia, a consortium of 25 authors, from around the world though mostly from Australia, compiled data on the history since 1980 of 100 coral reef locations from 54 countries around the world.  For each year from 1980 to 2016, each location (10 to 10K km2 in area) was reported as bleached, severely bleached (more than 30% of coral bleached), or not bleached.  This data set was compiled from published records and from direct observation by individuals known to the authors.  By using only 100 well-documented sites, the authors were minimizing the errors that creep in when well-studied or easily accessible sites are over-sampled relative to others, or when new sites are continually added (almost always in the year when they are seen to bleach).  Temperature histories were also compiled for each location, and years were classified as el Niño. La Niña, or neutral years.  This article (as usual locked behind a paywall) was well covered in the mainstream media.

Hughes and colleagues report a trend to diminishing ‘return-time’ for bleaching events that will be devastating for coral reef systems.  The global mean return-time between one bleaching event at a location and the next is now ~6 years, a decrease from 25 to 30 years in the 1980s.  Since faster growing corals take a decade or more to recover from the mortality caused by a bleaching event (and slower growing corals much longer) it’s obvious that the damage now being caused by bleaching is beyond the capacity of coral reefs to repair.  This information on shortening of return-times confirms a hypothesis put forward in a 2005 paper in Global Change Biology by Simon Donner (then at Princeton, now at UBC) and colleagues that return-time will continue to diminish as the planet warms and could be less than 2 years for the great majority of reefs by 2035 or so.  One intriguing twist – Donner and colleagues based their estimate on projected tropical sea surface temperature (SST); Hughes and colleagues have found no link between annual mean SST and frequency of bleaching, and argue that it is local patches of unusually warmed water, sort of marine weather, that leads to bleaching in a location.  Looking into the future, using projected mean SST, is not likely to be an accurate way to predict bleaching frequency, although it remains true that with SST projected to continue rising, the frequency of bleaching events will surely go up until bleaching is an annual, or near annual event.  That will surely happen within the next couple of decades.

The primary results from the study of 100 reef locations, showing A) the pattern of bleaching across the 100 locations from 1980 to 2016, B) the cumulative pattern of bleaching events, and the progressive loss of unbleached locations during the same time period, C) the pattern of severe and of all bleaching events among locations showing that most locations have been bleached multiple times, and D) a comparison between return-times for successive bleachings at specific locations during the first 19 and the final 17 years of the record – return-time is clearly becoming a lot shorter.  Figure © Science.

Hughes and colleagues also report that of the 100 locations they examined, only 6 have yet to experience a severe bleaching event, and all 100 have been bleached at least once.  The severe 2016 bleaching event impacted 75% of the 100 locations monitored (remember these are places from 10 to 10k km2 in area, and ‘severe’ means more than 30% of all coral there bleached).  This is comparable to the severe 1997-98 bleaching event, which impacted 74% of these sites.  As of the end of 2016, the median number of severe bleaching events per site is now 3 since 1980, and 31% of locations have experienced 4 or more (up to 9) such severe events as well as many less severe events.

Globally, the annual risk of bleaching, for any reef location, has increased from 8% in the early 1980s, to 31% by 2016, while the risk of severe bleaching has increased from 4% to 17% over the same period.  The pattern of bleaching likelihood, severity, and frequency differs among the four major geographic regions considered.  The Caribbean/West Atlantic began to experience regular bleaching events earlier, and the average location there had been bleached over 4 times by 1998.  Widespread bleaching, affecting more than 50% of locations in this region has now occurred 7 times, more than twice as often as in the other three regions.  In the 1980s, bleaching risk was highest in the Caribbean/West Atlantic, and the Pacific, but bleaching risk has increased most strongly in the Indian Ocean and in Australasia, so that in 2016, risk is comparable across all four regions.

Plot showing the trend in frequency of bleaching per year for the 100 locations monitored.  The risk of bleaching (proportion of locations bleached) has increased in all regions since 1980, but the pattern of increase in risk is quite different for the Caribbean/West Atlantic than for the other three regions.  Figure © Science.

While Hughes and colleagues are appropriately objective and dispassionate in reporting their results, this paper shows that coral reefs are on a journey toward oblivion.  Quoting their own words,

“The time between recurrent events is increasingly too short to allow a full recovery of mature coral assemblages, which generally takes from 10 to 15 years for the fastest growing species and far longer for the full complement of life histories and morphologies of older assemblages. Areas that have so far escaped severe bleaching are likely to decline further in number, and the size of spatial refuges will diminish. These impacts are already underway, with an increase in average global temperature of close to 1°C. Hence, 1.5° or 2°C of warming above preindustrial conditions will inevitably contribute to further degradation of the world’s coral reefs. The future condition of reefs, and the ecosystem services they provide to people, will depend critically on the trajectory of global emissions and on our diminishing capacity to build resilience to recurrent high frequency bleaching through management of local stressors before the next bleaching event occurs.”

Using the reef story to motivate action on climate change

The imminent demise of coral reefs as we know them provides the reef science community with a powerful weapon for the battle to convince the global community that the need to deal with climate change is critical.  The empirical evidence is abundant that coral reefs have already sustained substantial damage from human impacts, and that the damage caused by climate change has reached a level that exceeds the regenerative capacity of reefs.  What we are witnessing is the progressive elimination of an important, complex, and productive ecosystem from this planet.  It is happening because the pace and extent of our warming of the planet has exceeded the capacity of the chief structural architects of this ecosystem to survive and rebuild, and it is happening over the span of one human lifetime or less.  What is happening to reefs is akin to the disappearance of ALL rainforests on the planet in the space of one human lifetime.  That our modest warming of the planet can result in so extreme a consequence for one sensitive ecosystem should be an urgent warning to us.  What other serious consequences of climate change are happening, or about to happen?  And isn’t it time to stop our foolish dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere?

Yes, it’s a powerful weapon.  But are we going to be able to use this weapon effectively to sway the minds of others?  To do that, the reef science community has to be able to project a clear and unambiguous message to the world community.  I think we have been making strides towards doing that, but our message is frequently mixed, because we are scientists first, rather than communicators.

So, in the interest of effective communication, I suggest framing a message around the following 6 points:

  • ONE Coral reefs are important ecologically, economically, culturally, wherever they occur; and they directly sustain the lives of millions of people on this planet, many of whom have played only a tiny role in releasing greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere. There is ample information on the value of coral reefs, but many people still do not appreciate how valuable they are;

To casually permit the eradication of coral reefs on this planet through our careless dumping of GHGs into the atmosphere removes vital coastal ecosystem services, while also degrading the lives of millions of people with only tiny roles in that pollution, who are directly dependent on reefs economically, culturally and spiritually.  Photo of reef at New Britain, Papua New Guinea.  Image © David Doubilet, National Geographic Creative

  • TWO Coral reefs are deteriorating globally at a rapid, and increasing rate due to several human impacts. Coral bleaching, a stress response caused by ocean warming can result in substantial mortality of corals, and is now a major factor in reef decline.  Our releases of GHGs to the atmosphere cause the warming, and the frequency of bleaching events causes damage that already exceeds the regenerative capacity of reef systems;

Bleached coral off Lizard Island, Australia, in 2016.  Photo © XL Caitlin Seaview Survey

  • THREE The pace of deterioration is such that the future condition of reefs, and the ecosystem services they provide to people, is now critically dependent on the effectiveness of global GHG emissions reduction;

Even ‘large-scale’ propagation of corals for transplant to degraded reefs is ineffective when the return-time of severe bleaching events is 6 years or less.  It’s too little, too slowly, and corals are limited in how fast they can grow.  Photo of Indonesian coral farm © SA Simbolon

  • FOUR The future that is likely even under the most optimistic IPCC scenarios (i.e. +2o or +1.5oC above preindustrial) looks marginal for coral reef systems. Current trajectories of GHG emissions, which are insufficient to restrict warming to +2oC, are also woefully inadequate if we want to have any coral reefs on this planet beyond mid-century;

Although the Paris climate agreement commits the world to reduce emissions of GHGs and keep warming below +2oC, global emissions continue to rise.  Warming well above +2oC looks very likely by the end of the century.  Image © Global Carbon Project and Inside Climate News.

  • FIVE On the other hand, with aggressive GHG emissions abatement, coupled with vigorous management of reef systems to address our other negative impacts, we could achieve a post-2050 world with viable reef ecosystems continuing to provide the important ecosystem services they now provide;

It will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to retain reefs as rich as this one on our planet later this century.  But achieving this is a goal worth striving for.  It will require aggressive containment of GHGs as well as excellent management of local stressors of coral reefs.  Photo of Red Sea reef, winner in 2015 Underwater Photographer of the Year competition, © Lynn Wu.

  • SIX Coral reefs are not alone among ecosystems in being affected by climate change. While the impacts of climate change on reefs are already both extreme and starkly clear, reefs provide an early glimpse of the danger we are causing to many other parts of this planet’s biosphere through our careless dumping of GHGs into the atmosphere.  We need to take much better care of this planet.

Poem by Joe Miller.  Text Image © The Friend

Categories: Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science, In the News | Comments Off on Sobering News on Coral Reefs – But We Knew It Would Come to This

Two Years after Paris; Where do we Stand on Climate?


The Bonn climate conference wound up in the wee hours of Saturday 18th November, and delegates headed home.  What was accomplished there?  More important: What has the global community accomplished on climate in the two years that have elapsed since the Paris Agreement was finalized in 2015?

Somehow this image talks to me about the impacts we are having on our planet.
© DesignCurial

Bonn, chaired by Fiji, an island nation at some heightened risk compared to countries in Europe or North America, was never expected to accomplish a great deal in the battle against climate change.  Its main goal was to begin the process of negotiating the rules and procedures that would translate the Paris Agreement into actions against climate change.  This was accomplished although some difficult issues were left till 2018.

We are Lagging Behind the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement centers on the individual, but publicly announced, national goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).  These INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) are specific voluntary commitments by each national government to reduce GHG emissions by specified amounts in a specified time.  In UN-speak, countries are invited to include, when reporting their INDCs, “quantifiable information on the reference point (including, as appropriate, a base year), time frames and/or periods for implementation, scope and coverage, planning processes, assumptions and methodological approaches including those for estimating and accounting for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and, as appropriate, removals, and how [that nation] considers that its intended nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances”.  As lots of people pointed out to the Naked Emperor, when he announced that the USA would leave the agreement, INDCs are very definitely completely voluntary promises made by independent national governments!

The Paris Agreement was intended to make individual national actions transparent and explicit, and to encourage fulfilling, and strengthening, such commitments by means of that openness.  It remains to be seen whether an economic transition of the scope required to reach the “much less than 2oC” Paris goal will be possible through a multinational agreement to “all please try very hard”, with lots of gold ribbons, bronze plaques, and praiseful oratory directed to those nations doing their very best, and a few catcalls, ‘fossil of the year’ awards, and other opprobrium directed to those who underperform.  The framers either had considerable faith in the ability of nations to act morally, and for the common good, or, more likely, they were in a very tough spot with no other way to move the process forward.  Heartfelt, public encouragement seemed (and still seems) better than doing nothing at all.

As nations signed on, each was expected to provide a statement of its INDC.  The Paris Agreement formally came into force when 75% of signatory nations ratified.  This occurred in time for COP22, the UN climate meeting held in Marrakech, 15-18 November 2016.  COP23, in Bonn, advances the process a few steps further.  There will be a formal ‘taking stock’ at COP24 late in 2018, at which time the progress made as well as the goals announced by each nation will be examined.  It is expected that at least some nations will ramp up their commitments at this time.  If this does not happen, we will know we have a very serious problem on our hands.  A further ‘taking stock’ will take place in 2020, and thereafter, new commitments, performance and goals will be monitored on a 5-year schedule.

As everybody who has been following this knows, the pooled INDCs currently in place are woefully insufficient to achieve the <2oC goal, let alone the ambitious <1.5oC target.  The New York Times recently provided a simple animation to show this.  And PBL, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, provides a complete set of up-to-date, country-specific plots.

For example, here is a global plot, showing total GHG emissions (in Gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents) up to 2014, then projected to 2030 under various assumptions.  The “current policies” line (gray with green range) is scarcely below the two versions of “business as usual”, and definitely above the pledges made.  All of these are far, far away from the trajectories needed for 2oC or 1.5oC Paris goals.

Plot of total global emissions as Mt CO2equivalents, 1990 to 2030.  Shown are projections under two business-as-usual scenarios, under a scenario including implementation of all currently announced national emissions policies, and as required under scenarios that would achieve the 2oC and the 1.5oC targets.  Also shown are the expected 2020, 2025 and 2030 global emissions assuming full implementation of all nationally announced emissions policies.  Image © PBL.

Just for fun, the following are individual country plots for Canada, the USA, the European Union, and China.  While China’s emissions are still rising, its trajectory is on track with its pledged reductions in rate of increase, and it will overshoot (i.e. achieve goal earlier than planned) its 2020 pledge.  The EU is also on track for its 2020 commitment, but will not reach its 2030 goal with present policies.  The USA and Canada have both got a lot of work to do.  And remember, all of these 2020 and 2030 goals are woefully inadequate to reach the long-term <2oC goal of the Agreement.

 Plots of total national emissions, as Mt CO2 equivalents, for Canada, the USA, the European Union, and China.  Projections are for business-as-usual, and for full implementation of current INDCs.  The 2020, 2025 (USA only), and 2030 announced national targets are also shown.
© PBL.


Achievements in Bonn

So, what was achieved in Bonn?  Well, the good news is that the retreat of the USA has not led to other countries slacking off further.  If anything, Trump’s idiotic denialism and intransigently xenophobic nationalism has been good for the climate process.  Apart from a single US-mounted public event extolling the value of coal as an energy source, the members of the official US delegation worked constructively with other nations to improve the Paris Agreement, and there was an abundant presence by governmental representatives of States reporting that they were still committed to Paris, even if the White House was not.

When the US-mounted a session on the virtues of coal, including words from the CEO of Peabody Coal (a noted funder of denialism), it was drowned out by singing protestors for 10 minutes, and then continued in a half-empty room. Photo © Lucas Schultze/Getty Images.

Michael Bloomberg likened this promotion of coal at a climate event as akin to promoting cigarettes at a cancer conference.  But I guess now the loyal base can be told that the President tried to explain the alternative facts on coal, but the rest of the world would not listen because they are so unfair to the bigly great USA.  Some of them will believe him.

Closer to the agenda, there was some quiet progress made on a number of issues.  Negotiators reported they had made some real progress on refining the rules that will make it possible to verify whether nations are living up to their commitments on Paris, however the development of that rule book is not expected until (and will have to be in place for) next year’s COP24 meeting in Poland.  Some progress was made in encouraging China, India and other developing countries to become more transparent about how they are reducing emissions growth, but there was little progress in defining the amounts of international aid to be provided by developed countries.  Fiji and other island nations were disappointed that there was little willingness shown for sweeping steps to compensate weak nations already suffering the brunt of climate impacts.  (If the attitudes that have led the USA to be so very slow at supporting Puerto Rico in its time of need are widespread among nations, I fear the poor and weak among nations will get lots of nice words and a bit of charity, but not much else.)

There was wide recognition at Bonn of just how much further countries must go to achieve the Paris goals, but there were no surprise announcements.  Nations were biding their time till next year, while coming to grips with how much the global political landscape has changed since the heady days of Paris.  And Canada got mentioned from time to time, for doing constructive things, like helping lead in the push for countries to sign on to eliminate use of coal by 2030.

Packed venue for the Powering Past Coal event spearheaded by Canada and the UK with the Marshall Islands (somewhat more popular event than the other coal event on the agenda at COP23).  Image © UNClimateChange/Flickr


Meanwhile back in the real world?  An open letter.

So, what is happening on the climate front elsewhere in the world?  I’ll begin with the open letter published by some 15,000 scientists, including me, and timed to hit the media during the Bonn meeting.  I don’t usually sign open letters that are sent to me over the web, but this one seemed worthwhile.  A group of eight biologists, chiefly tropical forest specialists, at universities in the USA, Australia, Brazil, Bangladesh, and Nigeria conceived this project, arranged for publication as an open access article in BioScience, a respected journal, and then used the web to invite other scientists to sign on.  Publication was timed for Bonn.  The lead author is Bill Ripple of Oregon state University.  The article is titled: World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice.  It appears 25 years after the Union of Concerned Scientists mounted a similar effort to coincide with the 1992 Rio Earth Summit (the conference at which, among many other things, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, parent of the Paris Agreement) was established).

The 1992 warning identified a number of disturbing trends caused by human activities.  They expressed concern about current, impending, or potential damage on planet Earth involving ozone depletion, freshwater availability, marine life depletion, ocean dead zones, forest loss, biodiversity destruction, climate change, and continued human population growth.  In their view, if continued, the trends observed would prove more than the biosphere could bear, with grave consequences for mankind.  Their article sparked the development of thinking about what are now called the 9 planetary boundaries.  I’ve commented on them in previous entries here.

Figure 1 from the World Scientists’ Warning, depicting nine trends that refer to the eight concerns expressed 25 years previously (CO2 emissions and temperature both reference climate change).  Only the rate of emissions of ozone-depleting CFCs shows improvement.  Figure © W. Ripple et al.

What Ripple and colleagues have done is draw attention to these trends again, noting that mostly they have continued exactly the way they were trending 25 years ago.  Further, of the two which have changed direction, the catch of marine fisheries has fallen because our reduction of global marine biomass (90% since the 1940s) has reached the point that we can no longer catch the amount of fish that we used to – this is not a case of changed policy but of a trend reaching its endpoint – the emptying out of the oceans.  Of the nine trends, the only one showing improvement in the past 25 years is the rate of emissions of ozone-depleting CFCs.

Looking at these graphs, it is easy to despair, and that is probably not helpful.  It’s also possible to draw attention to the scales on the vertical axes and ask whether the downward trend in hectares of global forest, or that of freshwater resources per capita would look quite so alarming if the scale had been extended down to zero.  Still, even with these caveats, the lack of change in trends that were common knowledge and warned about a quarter century ago does cause me to wonder what it will take to get us to change our behavior in sensible ways.  The article was picked up by a number of media, so it had its 15 minutes of fame.  I just hope we do not have a third such message in 2042 with the trends still unchanged.  (Come to think of it, if they don’t change, we might not be writing such messages any more.  These are serious problems and we are not doing enough about them.)

So how are GHG emissions this year?

In the middle of all this, I came across a graph conveying a powerful message.  It is one thing to explain that one of the huge problems with our impacts on the planet is that we are causing changes that are very rapid compared to similar changes in the past, that the problem is as much one of rate as of extent of change.  It is another thing to show this effectively.

Change in CO2 concentration now and in the recent past.  Image © WMO

The graph appeared on the front page of the latest WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin.  It’s not exactly the Wall Street Journal, but it’s an 8-pager released annually by the World Meteorological Organization.  The image accompanied a report that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere had continued to grow in 2017, and had reached levels not seen in the last 800,000 years.  (Interestingly, some media reports reported the level as higher than in the last 3 million years which is also approximately correct, but WMO was concentrating on time periods for which we have direct measurements of CO2 in air rather than indirect proxies.)

The more interesting thing about the graph, however, was that the rate of growth in 2017 – 3.3ppm CO2 increase during the year – was the fastest ever recorded since direct measurements began in 1958, although this was spurred on by a very strong el Niño.  And the really clever thing about the graph is that it pairs direct, high resolution measurements of CO2 concentration in air bubbles in ice deposited in the early Holocene, when very rapid warming was taking place, and direct measurements in the atmosphere today.  The two data sets have been selected to display about an 80ppm change in CO2 concentration, and then the horizontal axes have been expanded/compressed so that the change takes place over the same width of space on the page: two lines rising sharply upward to the right.   The two lines represent a change of about 80ppm in CO2 concentration, although the early Holocene line on the left shows a change from ~190ppm to 270ppm, while that on the right shows the recent change from 320ppm to 400+ppm.

So, the same amount of change in each graph.  But look at the time involved: ignoring the time prior to 17000 years ago, the early Holocene graph spans 7000 years before the 270ppm amount is reached.  By contrast, the same absolute change in CO2 concentration took place between 1960 and 2017 – 57 years.  Now see the narrow vertical line at 11500 years ago in the left-hand graph?  The one you barely noticed at first.  That’s 57 years also!  Now do we all appreciate what scientists mean when they say the rates at which we are adding CO2 to the atmosphere are unprecedented?  You bet we do!  Hell, I can scare myself just by looking at this figure.

And so, it is time to summarize.  The Bonn climate conference went off with few hitches, made reasonable progress, but there is still a very long way to go.  The US delegates behaved reasonably well, which is about as positive as you can get from the White House (also known as #HOTNE – home of the naked emperor).  Virtually every country has got to put its shoulder to the wheel more effectively than it has done – so I guess I had better continue prodding Canada to step up and really do our part.  A relatively large subset of scientists from around the world put out some disturbing information, trying to stress the point that we seem to have made little progress on the environmental crisis in the past 25 years – although we sure have written a lot and conferenced a lot trying to achieve change.  And finally, I found a wonderfully effective graph of real CO2 data that displays in a very convincing way how much more rapidly we are adding CO2 to the atmosphere than was the case in the early Holocene when the Pleistocene ice sheet was melting at its most rapid rate.

I wonder what winter of 2017/2018 is going to bring here?  I think I need to go find a reef or two.

This seems better than snow and ice to me.  Photo © Imago/OceanPhoto

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Coal, Politics | Comments Off on Two Years after Paris; Where do we Stand on Climate?