Skip to content

Finding Climate Stars to Steer By.


Bleaching as a sign we are off course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada and Australia share much; Canada may be steering better

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

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

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

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

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

Helping Canada steer to the right path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t be seduced by dollars

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

We must embrace the need to steer our planet

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

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

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

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