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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.