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Global Environmental Impacts Keep Growing; Canada Manages Not to Notice that Times are Changing


PM Harper Celebrates Science!

It was good to see Prime Minister Harper, smiling, excited, obviously enjoying himself as he shook hands, slapped backs and simply mingled with a group of scientist sharing the excitement of discovery. They had found the wreck of one of the two ships of the Franklin Expedition that left England for the Arctic in May, 1845, only to become inextricably bound in the ice by September, 1846. What was left of the crew eventually abandoned the ships and began walking south, and like the ships, were never to be seen again. But one of those ships has now been found. On Saturday 8th September, side scan sonar being operated by scientists on board the small research vessel, Investigator, revealed the wreck in remarkably good condition lying 11 meters down, and the next day an ROV obtained images and video confirming the find. Which ship it is, HMS Erebus or HMS Terror, is still not known and plans for further research next season are being made now. The joy of discovery is a special pleasure that keeps scientists going. It was evident in the faces of the members of the team as the announcement was being made, and Stephen Harper was getting his small taste of it.

Harper announcing Franklin discovery

Stephen Harper, having elbowed the scientists out of the way so he can claim ‘we’ found the Franklin ship. Photo from National Post video.

Marine archeologists are not environmental scientists even if they do work for Parks Canada. PM Harper, trying over-hard to become ‘one of the team’ as he congratulated the discoverers of the Franklin vessel, has not suddenly changed his stripes and recognized the talent and dedication of other government scientists. He is happy to hunt for ships lost in the Arctic, but not to hunt for clues to how the Arctic is changing as climate warms. That Ottawa has not had much of a summer this year perhaps reinforces his view that he has been correct to ignore climate change, putting it so far down his priority list that it simply never comes up even in casual conversation. Yet, warming of the planet continues apace even as we get the first tinges of an unseasonably early Autumn in my part of the country.

A Strange Year for Weather

It has become more and more difficult to convince some of the people I meet around Muskoka that the planet is warming. Last winter was definitely cold and snowy, a throw-back to the winters of the 1950s and 1960s, and this summer has continued the distinctly cool conditions. Now, here it is only the last days of summer and we are already getting frost warnings (although no frost yet). Some of my friends now look at me with that expression that suggests they pity the poor scientist who has been talking up climate change over the past few years, and may have to eat his words. Others just relax into the knowledge that they never really believed the stories I was telling, and, after all, why should anyone assume an academic knows much about what he is saying. Throughout the winter, I tried to draw attention to the polar vortex, and the fact that melting of Arctic sea ice leading to warmer Arctic temperatures is contributing to the instability of the vortex. Ho hum, they all said. In April, I wrote about the so-called global warming hiatus, and the recent papers attributing this to the negative status of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (meaning that strong trade winds across the Pacific produce strong upwellings of cold deep water off the west coast of the Americas, and lots of heat being absorbed by this cool water instead of warming the atmosphere). That same month, I also talked about the possible slowing of the ocean conveyor due to reduced salinity of surface waters in the Arctic and therefore slowed downwelling which in turn slows transport of warm southern water northwards where it loses heat to the atmosphere. Both mechanisms increase the amount of heat trapped in the deep ocean, and both seem to be operating over the last few years. Of course, the hiatus is not a cessation of warming of the planet. It’s just a change in where the planet stores the extra heat. The warming hiatus is well discussed in this series of articles from Nature Climate Change and Nature Geoscience, all open access so accessible to all readers. The Guardian has also produced an informative summary of the hiatus discussion.

The regular monthly analyses of global climate, by NOAA’s National Climate Data Center, are also useful to show what is really happening. The global map of temperature anomalies (departures from average temperatures over the 1981-2010 period), for the January to August period this year has virtually all land surfaces colored pink (meaning warmer than average). There is a swath of pale blue across central Siberia, Tibet and Pakistan, and a more intensely blue blob centered on my home town and encompassing eastern North America – these were almost the only places that were colder than average over those 8 months. Ottawa, and a host of big important US cities where influential people live are all in this colder than average patch.
Jan Aug 2014 temp 201401-201408

Despite the warming hiatus, NOAA reports that “the first eight months of 2014 (January–August) were the third warmest such period on record across the world’s land and ocean surfaces, with an average temperature that was 0.68°C (1.22°F) above the 20th century average of 57.3°F (14.0°C)”. NOAA also reports that, over this same period, if one looks only at ocean surface temperature, 2014 ties with 2010 as the second warmest period, exceeded only by those same 8 months in 1998. The reason for these warm temperatures is the CO2 we release into the atmosphere as we burn fossil fuels. Total CO2 emissions for 2013 were 36.1 billion tonnes, a new record and 60% higher than the amount released in 1990 when the IPCC issued its first report on the global climate. Needless to say, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has continued its giddy rise. It registered 397.01 ppm over August, and was above 400 ppm in April, May and June. Our march towards 450 ppm and beyond progresses, and at an ever accelerating pace. The year-to-year rate of increase in CO2 concentration has also been trending upwards – in other words, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is now increasing more rapidly than it was a few years ago. Far from reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases, we are emitting more of them than we used to.


Recent trend in CO2 concentration in the air above Mauna Loa. The red line is the monthly mean, which fluctuates seasonally due to changes in amount of photosynthesis taking place. The black line is the trend with the seasonal variation subtracted. Figure from NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory.

Growing Evidence of Growing Environmental Impacts

Beyond evidence that the global climate continues to change, there is a steady stream of evidence that our impacts on the biosphere are going to be severe. Two months ago I wrote about the Science article by Rodolfo Dirzo and colleagues concerning the extent of defaunation during the Anthropocene (that geological period in which humanity is the major driver of biosphere change). Now, timed to coincide with the death in the Cincinnati Zoo of Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon, on 1st September 1914, the Audubon Society and the North American Bird Conservation Initiative have each brought out reports on the status of birds in the USA. The Audubon report claims that 314 species are at risk of losing more than half their available habitat by 2080 if nothing is done to stem our releases of CO2.

2014 SotB_Cover

The new State of the Birds, USA, report provides compelling evidence of the damage we are doing to our natural ecosystems. Image © US Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative

The State of the Birds report, to which Audubon contributed as one of 22 partner organizations, took a more comprehensive approach and examines other factors likely to impact birds. It deals with all 720 or so species that breed within the USA, in a habitat by habitat approach revealing a number of positive examples in which conservation efforts have paid off over the last decades, but also documenting too many instances of species that are declining fast. Numbers of arid land birds in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico have declined 46% over the last 45 years, and in Hawaii where 71 bird species have become extinct since human settlement, all 33 remaining native forest species are in serious trouble.  The State of the Birds report includes a ‘watch list’ of 230 bird species, including all species formally classified by the government as threatened or endangered as well as a number of others showing signs of decline. This list, one third of all species, includes some species in every habitat. A second list of 33 species includes abundant species that have shown rapid losses in abundance in recent years. While birds are environmentally sensitive species they are also particularly well known because of the popularity of bird-watching as a hobby. What about all those other, less ‘interesting’ species that few people think about? And what about animals in many other countries where the extent of habitat destruction is arguably much greater than in the USA? Defaunation is already a major component of the environmental crisis.

In a provocative article in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, Charles Sheppard of Warwick University, UK, uses the fact of coral reef decline as an opportunity to discuss the issue of food security and starvation across the developing world. He begins with a simple statement: “It has become fashionable to claim that Malthus’ predictions of mass famine have been wrong”, and then sets out abundant evidence that we have famine all around us. He argues that since malnutrition the underlying cause of about 54% of the 10 million or so deaths of children under 5 in developing countries, it is fully appropriate to state that famine is a significant problem today. He then turns to seafood, the global decline in yields, and the particular problems for reef fisheries around the world.

declining status of global fish stocks Sheppard MPB 2014 1-s2.0-S0025326X14002744-gr2

Global history of fishery stocks since 1950, using FAO data. Almost 60% of stocks are collapsed over over-exploited at present. Figure from Sheppard 2014, modified from Pitcher and Cheung 2013.

Globally over the past 60 years, there has been a progressive increase in the number of fishery stocks exploited until now there are essentially no stocks yet to be fished. In addition, there has been a growing extent of exploitation so that more and more stocks are fully, or over-exploited. About a quarter of all fishery stocks are now considered collapsed, yielding far less than they used to.

For coral reefs, Sheppard describes the ways in which fishing pressure grows as fishermen acquire larger boats and motors (although he fails to mention the way in which global markets and tourism create an inexhaustible demand for reef fishery products). It’s an informative article, well worth reading, and is open access so accessible. The impacts of humanity of the natural world of coral reefs have ramifying effects on our own well-being.

A very different paper dealing with coral reefs has just appeared in Global Change Biology. Riccardo Rodolfo-Metalpa, of the Musée Océanographique, Monaco, with colleagues from Spain, the USA and Israel, reported on the capacity of the coral, Oculina patagonica, to adapt to warmer water, thereby reducing risk of bleaching. They did not explore the ability of individuals to acclimate as temperature increased, but rather the capacity of a population to acclimatize to warmer conditions experienced over a long time – these can be physiologically quite different, and the important question when it comes to climate change is ‘can a species acclimatize to permanently warmer water?’.

To do this they took advantage of the fact that O. patagonica occurs in Spanish, Italian and Israeli portions of the Mediterranean Sea, which differ by several degrees in average summer water temperature. By collecting corals from each location and maintaining them side by side under the same temperature conditions in the lab they carried out what ecologists used to term ‘common garden’ experiments (because the first such experiments were done on plants that were brought together in a common garden to see how plants from different regions performed when provided with identical environmental conditions).  Rodolfo-Metalpa and colleagues reared the corals under a set of temperatures ranging from 20 to 33oC, and measured a number of metabolic attributes. Their hypothesis was that if this species could acclimatize, the metabolic performance characteristics would be shifted towards higher temperatures in the corals collected from the Israeli site where temperatures are normally warmer. Unfortunately, they found no evidence of such a shift of metabolic characteristics, suggesting that, at least for this one species, a warming world means that the risk of bleaching will grow year by year.
Coral specialists have suspected for some time that corals had only limited capacity to adapt to warmer water. They are environmentally sensitive organisms, there has been little evidence that mass bleaching events result in the survival of hardier, better adapted individuals that resist similar warm temperatures in future years, and long-term laboratory experiments, such as those of Sophie Dove, of University of Queensland, show no evidence of an ability to adapt to warmer water. The report by Rodolfo-Metalpa and colleagues makes that disappointing suspicion somewhat more certain, and suggests that coral reefs really are at very great risk of disappearing if climate continues to warm.

A number of recent articles have also provided possible solutions to our impacts on the environment. I’ll mention just two. William Laurence of James Cook University, and 11 colleagues from the USA, UK, Malaysia, Costa Rica and Australia recently published a commentary in Nature on the impacts of roads and how to deal with them. Humans evidently enjoy building roads, because our road network has grown continuously throughout history. Their map of the roads of the world is quite daunting.

Density of roads globally Laurance et al Sept 11 2014 nature13717-f1

The global road network is yet another way of seeing where on the planet we are having  our largest impacts. Figure © Laurence et al 2014, Nature.

Each time we build a road, we add to the fragmentation of natural habitat. For many animals, even a small forest track can be a significant barrier to movement, and the mortality of animals along more travelled roads around the world is substantial. Laurence and colleagues use a series of attributes of environment – species richness, number of threatened species, habitat diversity – to characterize locations in terms of their environmental value. They used a similar approach, using several attributes to rate areas in terms of the economic (chiefly agricultural) benefits that would result from addition of new roads. They show that while places having high rankings for environmental value and those having high rankings for value of increased roads are broadly separate across the globe, there are many regions in which these overlap. These are the parts of the world where road-building should be carefully scrutinized to ensure that environmental values are retained to the extent possible.

Meanwhile, in Nature Climate Change, Sally Brown of University of Southampton and a multitude of colleagues from all over, published an examination of the way in which the five successive IPCC Assessment Reports have treated the topic of climate impacts on coastal zones. They see a progressive shift from reporting of individual impacts towards greater integration and a shift towards adaptation. In the authors’ view the changes evident across the five IPCC reports show the way in which our understanding of the environmental and economic implications of climate change has matured. I was fascinated by their figure showing the set of topics discussed and how the pattern of emphasis changed across reports.

Brown et al Sept 2014 climate impacts on coasts nclimate2344-f2

In this figure, increasing extent of discussion of each topic is shown by increasing orange color, from the first 1990 to the most recent 2014 IPCC Assessment Report.
Figure © Brown et al 2014 Nature Climate Change.

In the authors’ words, “The IPCC perspective has shifted from impacts to adaptation, reflecting a growing focus on integrated approaches to reducing risk that rely on flexible adaptation options and management. These aim to be effective regardless of how environments change. Coastal managers now need to implement a further shift to planning and implementation, with an emphasis placed on resilience, cost-effectiveness and working with nature. Furthermore, adaptive, sustainable planning should be undertaken in a wider socioeconomic development framework, taking into account human needs — many of which are more immediate than climate change. Rather than pointing the finger only at climate change and assuming it inevitably spells disaster, there is a need to better understand climatic and non-climatic drivers of coastal change and their interactions at different spatial and temporal scales.

Such articles and many more tell me that our understanding of climate change is growing, and our appreciation of the extent of the impacts on our economies and our lives is growing even faster. What is still lacking, however, is the political commitment to do something. This lack of political progress is particularly stark in Canada.

Building Political Will

ClimateMarchNewYork Jason DeCrow - AP

Marchers on 6th Avenue, New York, 21st September 2014.
Image © Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

This week, the United Nations is hosting another climate conference in New York City. A total of 120 heads of government are in attendance. The Prime Ministers of Australia and Canada are both conspicuous by their absence. Canada’s PM Harper is in the city. He attended a private dinner with other heads of government, and will speak at the General Assembly later in the week, but he saw fit to send his able Minister of Environment to the climate conference. There Leona Aglukkaq valiantly parroted the same tired words, “We are not waiting to act. We are taking decisive action to ensure Canada remains a leader and contributes its part to this global cause.

Aglukkaq at UN Summit Sept 2014 Sean Kilpatrick CP cda-un-20140923

Canadian Minister of Environment, Leona Aglukkaq, speaking to an empty room at the United Nations, in place of Stephen Harper who was in New York but avoiding anything to do with climate change. Leadership!
Photo © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

I wonder whether she is just super obedient to the wishes of her Prime Minister, prepared to go on parroting lies as long as that is the party line. She must know that she is being given nonsense to spew. There must be people who tell her these claims are just plain false. That she made a ‘major’ address in front of an empty room at the UN perhaps tells us most clearly the high regard in which the world holds Canada’s performance on climate issues. That she re-announced new regulations on automobile emissions that were first announced two years ago, and then only to comply with the changes being brought in by the USA, also shows how little regard the Harper government has for the process of dealing with climate change.

But enough about Canada’s pathetic performance. Other nations are starting to make real progress, and there are a number of signs elsewhere that the world is beginning to shift. First, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, chaired by Felipe Calderón and including Nicholas Stern and a flock of bank presidents, senior economists and former heads of state, released The New Climate Economy, timed to coincide with the UN Climate summit. I will talk about it more in a later post, but the thesis is that the global economy is going to change, and become less carbon-based, but is also going to grow. If they can be believed, moving towards a carbon-free economy is going to be good for business! The Globe and Mail, in reporting on the release, cautioned that the fossil fuel economy will be at risk, particularly the ‘highest-cost, highest-carbon forms of oil” such as what we have in the Alberta tar sands.

Second, there is a growing number of reports concerning the fossil fuel divestment project. Whether it is in Australia, the USA, or elsewhere, a growing number of corporations, foundations, universities, and individuals are divesting themselves of investments in the fossil fuel sector. On 15th September, The Age reported on divestment action taken by the Uniting Church in Australia. “Further investment in the extraction of fossil fuels contributes to, and makes it more difficult to address climate change,” the church states in a recent press release. “Given the harm climate change will cause, “further investment and extraction is unethical”. The Age goes on to report divestment activity at 19 Australian universities and in other bodies and compares this to action in the US and Europe. On 22nd September, Huffington Post reported on divestment action taken by the Rockefeller Foundation ($50 Billion to be divested), Stanford University ($18.7 Billion), and the actor Mark Ruffalo among others. Regrettably, similar activity here in Canada seems rather muted.

I probably should not end with a down note, but not only does Canada fail to take the positive steps that others are starting to take, we double down on making bad moves. I commented facetiously some time ago about digging up the entire tar sands region, putting it on a giant barge, and floating it off via the Arctic to China. Well, we are not going to use a barge, but a new study commissioned by the oil company Canatek and the Province of Alberta has set out a route and given a name to the Arctic Gateway Pipeline. Direct from Fort McMurray, 2400 km all the way to the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk. Way to go, Canada. Made my day.

Arctic Gateway Pipeline

The proposed route for the Arctic Gateway Pipeline to ship tar sands bitumen to the Arctic.
Map © Canatek