Building a Better Anthropocene – The Challenge of Our Time


Once a year, on Earth Day, many of us pause to think about matters environmental.  Then we get on with our lives.  Yet the ‘matters environmental’ get more serious year by year, and I wonder why so many of us fail to see the obvious.  Today I try to summarize the problem by looking at five articles that appeared in Science the day before Earth Day 2017.  They all centered on aspects of how humanity currently interacts with the rest of the biosphere.  Three reviews dealt directly with this interaction while the other two were more methodological.  These two were concerned with how to encourage people to care about how we interact with the natural world, and with why the problem of our interaction with the natural world is what scientists call a ‘wicked’ one.

You can almost see the Biosphere in images of Earth from space.  It is that infinitesimal layer of air, soil, water, and organisms that envelopes our planet and sustains all life.  This photo, taken from the Space Station on 28 February 2015 looks north up the western USA coast towards Canada, with Vancouver Island near center.  Photo courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.

All five reviews were clearly written and should be accessible to most readers; unfortunately, they are not on open access and this will limit their real accessibility to non-specialists.  That is a pity, because the world needs to understand the nature of our interaction with the rest of the biosphere, how it is changing rapidly during the Anthropocene, and the serious consequences that will follow if current trends in this interaction continue.  We also need to understand the complexity of our interaction with the rest of the biosphere and how that makes solutions to the growing problems difficult to devise, as well as the fact that our interaction with the rest of the biosphere is predicated on cultural norms and attitudes so that solutions must involve changes in culture.  You do not change peoples’ beliefs by providing detailed science-based explanations of what is happening and why, and certainly not by fear-mongering, so moving towards new forms of interaction with the rest of the biosphere requires sociology and psychology as well as natural sciences

The value of the Biosphere

You may have noticed my repeated use of the clumsy phrase ‘our interaction with the rest of the biosphere’ in that paragraph.  I wrote that deliberately to remind everyone, right at the start, that humanity is one species within the biosphere.  Our tendency to view ourselves as standing outside the biosphere is very strong, deeply entrenched in modern industrialized cultures of all political stripes, and imbedded in our laws and our economies.  That tendency is a major factor in why we currently have a substantial environmental crisis on our hands, yet for the most part seem unaware of it.  In reality, we, like all other species, are parts of the complex system which sustains life on this planet.  The biosphere is that thin layer of ‘stuff’ that surrounds our planet – water, soil, lower atmosphere, all forms of life, and the ecosystems these comprise.  Through the myriad chemical, physical and other interactions among its components it provides the opportunities for and sustains life.  The cycling of energy and materials through the various biosphere components provides the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat, while also providing the other natural resources, such as timber, that we use in our lives, while decontaminating wastes.  The constant stream of energy from the sun and the intricate cycling of the biosphere are ultimately what make all life on this planet possible, even the life of Homo urbanensis, that city-dwelling, supermarket-browsing, nature-ignoring human that becomes more prevalent year by year as the global human population becomes more strongly urbanized.  City-dwellers increasingly fail to see the role of the natural world in their lives because they have been separated from it by our civilization.  And the idea that humanity will ultimately be able to do away with nature completely grows in acceptance despite the fact that we have never succeeded in doing this even on a small scale and for short periods of time.

Biosphere 2, a $200 million plus, 3.14 acre space enclosed under a glass and steel dome in Arizona, was intended to replicate the biosphere at small scale.  It was constructed in the early 1990s and stocked with selected species to populate five quasi-natural biomes.  Then 8 people were shut inside with the goal of living completely independently – other than by exchange of information, and inputs of sunlight – for two years.  The experiment failed within six months when the internal atmosphere became dangerously low in oxygen and food was running out.  And Biosphere 2 did not attempt to replace the natural processes such as photosynthesis that drive our biosphere, so even if it had been successful it would not have demonstrated we do not need the real biosphere on this planet.  Biosphere 2 continues to be used as an enormous closed environment, but it provides no confidence that we could engineer a replacement for the real biosphere if something serious went wrong.

The reality is that the bulk of our agriculture depends on the hydrologic cycle for irrigation, and all of it depends on photosynthesis to build the plant and animal foods we consume.  We speed up food production by enhancing the supply of nutrients using fertilizers derived from rock or by planting legumes and relying on their intricate symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria to make atmospheric nitrogen accessible to plants and microbes in the soil.  Our fisheries depend on natural production in lakes and the ocean, and increasingly on aquaculture, an analog for feedlot rearing of cattle which depends on continuous inputs of food obtained from marine or terrestrial sources.  In every case, we have been able to increase the rate of production of selected food products, but we are still relying on the processes the biosphere provides.  Along the way, our intensive agriculture and aquaculture have generated numerous problems in waste production that have overtaxed the biosphere’s capacity to recycle wastes.  The belief that humanity can do without the natural world is unlikely to become reality anytime soon.

I am taking time to emphasize the essential value of the biosphere for human existence because this is one point on which the reviews in the 21st April issue of Science are largely silent.  While environmental scientists understand and accept the essential value of the biosphere, I do not believe this understanding is widespread in our societies.  It is something everybody needs to understand, and many people do not.  Our considerable technical expertise and accumulated tools and infrastructure, and our modern consumer economy do not equip us to replace the biosphere.

Loss of Biodiversity

In their review of biodiversity loss and conservation in the Anthropocene, Chris Johnson, University of Tasmania, and six colleagues from UK, Brazil, China, New Zealand and Australia, discuss the great acceleration in extinction rates that is now taking place.  They point out that our impacts on extinction rates go back 2 million years to the time when our ancestors, through their use of tools as weapons, first began to take over the role of large terrestrial predators.  The immediate result was the loss of two thirds of the other large predators of Africa, and the simultaneous loss of many large herbivores hunted by humans.  For example, the 12 species of elephant in Africa 3 million years ago was reduced to two.  Similar impacts subsequently occurred on other continents as our species expanded its range, and increased noticeably in rate over the past 60 thousand years.  They report 140 genera, more than 10% of all land mammals, went extinct in the 100,000 years prior to 500 AD.  This is a pace far exceeding background extinction rates for mammals, and similar patterns of loss occurred in reptiles and birds.  These ‘prehistoric’ extinctions tended to coincide with the arrival of humans at particular places, and are most easily understood as due to effects of highly efficient hunting.  More recently, we have caused extinctions of terrestrial species primarily through usurpation and modification of land, although hunting continues to be an important cause as does the introduction of invasive species from elsewhere that prey upon, causes disease in, or out-compete native fauna.

With the great expansion of our environmental footprint since the start of the industrial revolution, and particularly since 1950, there are many signs that the rate of extinction is rising rapidly.  We are now having demonstrable effects on marine organisms as well as terrestrial, and the bias towards extinction of larger species that was initially evident is now greatly reduced.  We now have many ways to cause extinction beyond hunting, and we are also harvesting many smaller species, at least in the oceans.

While extinction is absolute and permanent, it is also the end-point of reduction in population size.  Our impacts on the natural world have greatly reduced the standing stock of most species of animals and plants, both on land and in the ocean.  Reasonable estimates of the biomass of fishery species now swimming in the oceans suggest we have reduced abundance by 90% since the 1930s, primarily through over-harvesting.  Larger species have been hardest hit, but our direct impacts on oceanic abundance extend to anchovies and krill, both of which are harvested primarily as foods for aquaculture and livestock.  Johnson and colleagues point out that the consequences of these losses and reductions are not simply to the species impacted.  Because all species are engaged in a web of interactions with each other, the extinctions and reductions in abundance can have ramifications throughout the biosphere, often unexpected ones.  Johnson and colleagues note how the impacts on tropical trees with large fruit of the loss of mammalian seed dispersers has altered the composition of tropical forests, and how the over-harvest of larger herbivorous fishes has tilted the balance towards fleshy algae instead of corals on some tropical reefs.  Other authors have documented the impacts of reductions in abundance of bees and other pollinating insects on efficiency of seed set in agricultural crops around the world.  While Johnson and colleagues do not attempt to delineate a critical threshold for extinctions or abundance reductions, they refer to the loss of ecosystem resiliency that comes with loss of biodiversity and argue that major ecosystem collapse becomes much more likely as biodiversity falls.  At a time when climate change, another problem we have caused, is placing new stresses on ecological systems, we should be doing all we can to retain or enhance biodiversity.

Rates of extinction for various vertebrate groups over several time periods, shown as cumulative losses of: A) mammal genera over past 60,000 years, B) species of New Zealand birds since colonization, and C) bird (blue), mammal (red), and other vertebrates (green) since 1500.  Increases in the percentage of all birds, mammals and amphibians listed as threatened by IUCN since 1992 are shown in D) with estimates for a number of other taxa (open circles).
© C. Johnson and Science

Johnson and colleagues show that increases in the rates of extinction show no signs of slowing down despite considerable attention at both local and global levels.  The reasons for our failure include the fact that our accelerating impacts, characteristic of the Anthropocene, are sufficient to swamp most of the efforts being made to conserve species.  The human footprint has been expanding ever since the concept was developed in the early 1990s.  Secondly, extinctions occur from combined effects of multiple stressors, but too often efforts to conserve a species focus on one or two of these.  Thirdly, adequate funding to tackle what is an enormous problem has never been available.  Fourthly, conservation is not mainstreamed into economic and social planning in most countries, and tends to be pursued separately, by politically weak (often non-governmental) groups.  This marginalization leads to an unwillingness, or inability to tackle the core driving factors of rising consumption, unrealistic ‘growth’ economic agendas, and the growing separation of people from nature.  While Johnson and colleagues close with some examples of effective action to rescue biodiversity, it is clear that this is a serious problem and needs far more attention than it is receiving.

The conflict between environmental sustainability and human quality of life

The review by Eileen Christ of Virginia Tech, and two colleagues at other US institutions, focuses in on the growing human population as a fundamental cause of biodiversity loss.  In their view, despite our considerable technical skill, and the fact that consumption of resources varies substantially among communities, the current size of the global population, and especially the continuing growth in that population mean that our pressure on the biosphere, and resulting biodiversity loss, will continue and likely grow also.  In particular, the need for food is not easily substituted with other resources, and our production of food directly impacts natural ecosystems if only in the land used to produce it.

Human population growth is an important part of the environmental crisis.
© Joel Pett, Lexington Herald-Leader.

In their opening paragraph, they confront but do not resolve a core problem: raising human living standards sufficiently to eliminate poverty, and preserving natural ecosystems and their biodiversity are both valued goals of sustainable development.  Goals accepted, at least on paper, by all countries in the UN system.  These goals are in conflict.

Raising standards of living, while accommodating the roughly 3-4 billion additional people anticipated to be living on this planet by 2100, cannot be done without a massive increase in the diversion of natural production towards the production of food for humans.  While increased efficiency in production and reduction in food wastage can help, the expected expansion of the population plus the need to lift millions out of poverty will require a 70% increase in production by 2050 and a doubling or tripling of production by 2100.  Changes in the human diet could help, but current changes are all in the ’wrong’ direction – as people become more affluent, they consume more meat!

Christ and colleagues provide a coherent argument for the need to reopen the discussion of human population growth.  They also show that continuing the present avoidance of this topic makes any attempt to simultaneously raise human living standards and maintain biodiversity very unlikely to be successful.  We cannot double food production over the remainder of this century without putting massive additional stresses on global biodiversity, and the current rate of extinction is already alarming.

Having painted an alarming picture, they provide a possible solution.  They point out that the long-held belief that over-consumption was a problem of the global north while over-population was a problem of the global south is no longer true and is rapidly changing.  All over the world, large numbers of people are entering the middle class and adopting lifestyles that consume more resources of all kinds, including more meat in their diets.  The result is that over-consumption is now becoming a global issue, and that should make it easier for nations to come together and find solutions.  Secondly, it has been demonstrated many times that increasing educational and lifestyle opportunities for women leads to a preference for smaller families.  This is something that happens to a degree when living standards rise (the demographic transition), but it can be actively encouraged far more than at present.  Such a preference could be encouraged if there was agreement that growth in the global population needs to be reduced.  Stabilizing and then reducing the global population makes many environmental and human rights problems easier to deal with.  Continuing the present policy of not speaking about human population growth at all if we can avoid it is a sure way to ensure continued biodiversity loss, and perhaps also continued poverty.

By picking on the evident conflict between feeding growing numbers of people and protecting biodiversity, Christ and colleagues have particularized one of the major difficulties confronting those who seek to protect biodiversity.  Given that Johnson and colleagues listed three additional issues that made biodiversity conservation difficult, the Christ review has brought that difficulty home even more clearly.

How to live in harmony with the rest of the biosphere

If Johnson and Christ have written reviews of specific aspects of our interaction with the rest of nature, Jonathan Foley of the California Academy of Sciences provides a passionate essay on the more general issue of how to live in harmony with the biosphere.  He summarizes the history of our understanding that the planet has finite limits on what it can provide by referencing the work of Malthus, then of Paul Ehrlich on the human population, and finally the publishing of Limits to Growth in 1972.  Each step, we refined our understanding of the ways in which humanity was outstripping the capacity of the planet to support us.  The most recent manifestation of this understanding has been the development of the concept of the nine planetary boundaries that together define a safe (or Holocene-like) living space for humanity on planet Earth.  In one paragraph he references the ways in which we are pushing planetary systems beyond their limits – 40% of land now converted to agriculture, freshwater resources being exhausted faster than they are replenished, natural cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus radically altered through our manufacture and use of fertilizers, ocean fisheries being depleted while we also acidify and warm the water, a 50% increase in atmospheric CO2 due to our emissions, and the profound climatic changes that change in atmosphere produces. Nothing new here, but it is a powerful recap.

Foley discusses the gaps in our knowledge and the need to better delineate the planetary boundaries, and he admits of the possibility of technological achievements which, like the Green Revolution of the mid-1970s, will adjust the planetary boundaries to permit a still greater intensification of our use of resources.  But he also points out that the ultimate rules set by physics and chemistry cannot be violated so our ever-expanding footprint has to be contained.  We may be optimists or pessimists, but ultimately all humanity must learn to live sustainably or suffer the consequences.

Foley finishes with a discussion of solutions, drawing a clear distinction between natural ecological systems and the artificial systems we use when we attempt to replace them.  He writes,

“I would suggest that natural ecological systems on Earth succeed—often where humans do not—because they adhere to the following guidelines: They do not consume resources faster than they are regenerated by the environment; do not produce wastes, especially those that disrupt the environment and the climate system, faster than they are assimilated or removed by the environment; are highly diverse, making them more robust in the face of changing conditions; and power nearly everything they do with the Sun.”

Until we are able to emulate that, we’d be wise to make the considerable effort needed to reduce our environmental impacts to something much more sustainable than we have at present.

These three articles together provide a thought-provoking discussion of our current dilemma.  We persist in calling it an environmental problem but it is a problem with how we are choosing to behave.  Change our behavior and all could be well.

Why the environmental crisis is wickedly difficult to solve

This brings me to the other two articles.  Ruth DeFries of Columbia University and Harini Nagendra of Azim Premji University, India, discuss the reasons why environmental management is a wicked problem.  They begin by stating that the ecological systems of the biosphere are self-regulating complex systems that have evolved over time to their present states.  In building our global civilization, humans disrupt these systems, and then are forced to introduce management activities to remedy the problems caused.  Far too often management introduced is too late, too feeble, or simply inadequate to rectify the issue of concern.  Over time, as our impacts grow, we are disrupting ever more of the biosphere, and failing substantially in our efforts to remedy the damage we cause.  They then suggest an explanation for why taking remedial action so often proves to be ineffective – environmental problems are wicked ones.

DeFries and Nagendra trace the development of environmental management from pre-industrial times to the present.  Indigenous local knowledge evolved to suit the local environment, and social systems were based on ecological understanding of the dynamics of the local resource base.  Such methods worked well so long as human use of resources remained low relative to the capacity of the ecosystem to regenerate targeted components.  With industrialization, the initial goal was to manage exploitation of targeted local or regional resources so that natural processes of production were sufficient to maintain the ecological system.  The purpose of management was to ensure a sustained supply of renewable resources.

With time, as our use of resources expanded, it became necessary to consider deliberate efforts to retain land in natural condition in order to sustain natural ecosystems, and to consider management of waste disposal so that this was done in ways to facilitate its incorporation back into the dynamics of the natural environment.  With further growth in our economy, use of novel chemicals in our environment, and expanded long-distance transport of resources the task of environmental management became far more complex.  Problems had to be dealt with on regional or global bases as well as locally, new chemicals introduced novel forms of waste with unexpected environmental consequences, and all problems became larger.

To complicate matters, the science and practice of environmental management developed during a time when the prevailing view was that ecosystems were not only self-regulating, but regulated in ways that conveyed considerable stability in condition.  As the science of ecology matured during the 1970s and 1980s, and we became aware that natural systems were dynamic, and frequently maintained by periodic disruption, the task of environmental management became even more difficult.  Now, in the Anthropocene, with many aspects of environment and climate subject to profound, continuous, one-way change, that task is more difficult still.  Truly wicked.

A wicked problem is one which is inherently resistant to clear definition and easily identifiable, predefined solutions.  DeFries and Nagendra identify several factors that make environmental problems wicked ones.  The biosphere is comprised of complex and interdependent components, which create positive and negative feedbacks and nonlinear responses to management interventions.  The risks of acting as well as those of not acting in any particular circumstance are uncertain, and there are frequently unintended consequences of actions taken.  In environmental management, it is usual for several stakeholders to be participating – almost always these have differing values and different capacity to make decisions or implement them.  The spatial and temporal scales and boundaries of ecological processes rarely coincide with administrative boundaries, so that actions taken are implemented at inappropriate scales or over regions or time periods that do not match with the ecological processes.  Added to all these factors is the fact that environmental management takes place in the real world; management actions are seldom the only environmentally significant actions taking place, and discerning the consequences of the management action is seldom a clear-cut exercise. Definitely, definitively wicked!

Having established that environmental problems are wicked, DrFries and Nagendra set out five approaches to dealing with them effectively.  In discussing these, they emphasize repeatedly that environmental problems will usually prove to be time- and location-specific; there will be no off-the-shelf solutions.  As well, every management effort will require an adaptive management approach in which a cycle of “action taken, consequences assessed, action revised” is repeated over time as a way of zeroing in on an effective solution.  I think the chief value of their review is the clear picture it paints of the difficulties facing us if we hope to manage environmental problems effectively.  The idea that sustainable environmental management is not rocket science is important here.  It is way more difficult than rocket science.  Knowing that, it behooves us to treat our current circumstances with the seriousness they deserve, and work to increase our effectiveness at managing the environmental crisis.

Building the will to act

Taking the need to manage the environmental crisis seriously enough to learn how to tackle such wicked problems requires first that we recognize that the environmental crisis really is a crisis, and a really serious one at that.  Too many of us have heard about biodiversity loss, or desertification, or loss of coral reefs, or even climate change, but continue to assume that these ‘environmental’ problems are not going to impact our lives.  They are ‘environmental’ as in ‘not really important except to nature lovers’.  Elise Amel of University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and two colleagues tackle the psychology that helps individuals develop an appreciation of the severity of the environmental crisis and a willingness to take action to build a more sustainable world.  Environmental advocates are learning that people do not become supporters of changing our way of life simply by being given the facts about the environmental crisis, and it is increasingly clear that progress on this front demands that we learn what we can of relevant human psychology.

The human brain does not sit passively sifting incoming information in order to make rational decisions.  If it did our lives would be a lot less interesting, although our politics just might be more rationally based.  Instead the brain actively selects information to receive and stores primarily information that it considers important.  In Amel’s words,

“rather than neutrally receiving information, human brains privilege that which supports their preexisting worldview. Given limited mental resources for processing the boundless information available in the world, evolution favored cognitive efficiency. New information is processed through the filters of personal beliefs, first-hand experiences, and social identities. Ideas are dismissed or assimilated on the basis of a quick but biased heuristic of whether they line up with what is already perceived to be true. It is difficult to escape bias, even when exerting conscious mental effort.”

Human behavior, our responses to the information we receive, is determined by forces both inside and outside of the individual.  Internal factors such as emotions, beliefs, attitudes, and values influence behavior, but so does the powerful context within which behavior occurs, comprising cultural worldviews, social networks, status inequalities, policies, scripts, roles, and rules.  Environmental problems are typically slow to develop, or be resolved, at least on human timescales, and our evolution has built us as creatures well tuned to respond to immediate, rapidly approaching threats, and to act in ways which bring short-term rewards.  We also crave a sense of belonging to the social group, which makes it difficult to alter our behavior from accepted norms, such as driving gas-guzzling SUVs to the supermarket, even when logic says we should be cutting our emissions of greenhouse gases by driving smaller cars or by getting to the shops using public transit or some form of active transport.  The shift may involve some change in personal convenience, but it also requires that we stand out from the crowd.

In 1968, the Senegalese forestry engineer, Baba Dioum wrote, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”  Increasingly, environmentalists recognize that appreciating nature requires some real experience of nature.

Amel and colleagues also point to the need for community and national or global responses to solve environmental problems.  Without leadership by already committed individuals, these larger social groups have little chance of changing behavior.  In talking about the environmental crisis it is essential to build the will to act, changing personal, community, national and global patterns of thought and action.  They suggest several ways in which this might be achieved.

To begin with, information about environmental problems such as climate change should be framed in ways that emphasize short-term and local impacts to make the problem more ‘real’ and ‘immediate’.  Messaging that includes incentives for appropriate sustainable action will encourage individuals to act, and if sustainable behavior can also be presented as the socially accepted norm that will further encourage action – it is more effective to encourage individuals to recycle as many of their neighbors do, than to encourage them to recycle while suggesting that most of their neighbors don’t do this, regardless of what proportion of neighbors actually recycle.

Amel and colleagues also make the important point that in the great majority of environmental issues, the actions of individuals play only a small role compared to the actions of industry and government.  Thus, it is hopelessly insufficient to work to change individual behavior without also including a significant effort to encourage individuals to push for changes to societal behavior.  Motivating individuals to act to promote sustainable action is even more difficult than motivating them to change their own behavior, but this has to be the goal.  Building a new worldview, which is what reforming our relationship with the biosphere demands, is inherently a sociological, psychological and political process, and environmental managers have been slow to take up the appropriate tools and approaches.

Psychologists do not yet know what it is that makes some individuals more willing than others to take a bold stand, resisting the pressures to conform with conventional patterns of behavior, but they do know that it takes heroism.  Environmental managers have long recognized the value of local heroes, respected individuals with leadership qualities (although not necessarily in formal leadership positions), in getting buy-in by a community to sustainable management actions, although they have not learned how to produce such heroes when they are needed.  Amel and colleagues suggest there is work to be done; in doing that work environmental managers will benefit by drawing on psychological, sociological and political expertise.

The goal of environmental sustainability is within reach

The challenge of the Anthropocene is to wrestle humanity back into an appropriate relationship with the rest of the biosphere.  It is an urgent challenge and a difficult one to meet.  As Amel and colleagues note, more than 50% of humanity is now urban, and far too many of urban humans are growing up with little if any direct experience of nature.  Finding ways to provide our cities with more green space is not only a way to civilize or humanize them; it is an excellent way to provide opportunities to experience nature directly.  Parks, community gardens, bike paths and walking trails, together with school programs to bring youth into real contact with the outdoors need to be valued for the ways in which they bridge the gulf between urban experience and the natural world that ultimately sustains us.

If we can rebuild the connections between humanity and nature, while also reframing the environmental crisis as a human behavior crisis we have a good foundation upon which to build a reimagined worldview that keeps human activities to appropriate form and scale for the planet.  Our goals of ensuring a sustainable biosphere and raising the quality of life for all humans can be met, but we will have to redefine quality of life and control quantity of life.  If we engage psychology, sociology and political science along with the natural sciences, we stand a good chance of being able to bring about the immense transformation that solving this crisis requires.  These is considerable urgency to act, but many reasons for optimism that we will succeed in building a far better Anthropocene than the one we will surely inherit if we continue our current ways.

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, Changing lifestyles, Climate change, Communicting science, Economics, Politics | Comments Off on Building a Better Anthropocene – The Challenge of Our Time

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