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So Much Bad Environmental News – How to Remain Optimistic

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In my final post for 2014, I confessed that I was optimistic about our struggle to combat climate change. I began 2015 with a report on the continuing problems faced by coral reefs, and some despair that we were not conveying the coral reef message effectively enough. Now, over the past week or so, I’ve found myself inundated by bad news on several fronts. Time to talk up optimism again!

While I call it bad news, the news I am referring to is mostly expected, and some of it refers to events that are very slow-acting even in comparison to climate change. Some of the news simply confirms what we all knew was going to be true. Still, one does not have to look very far these days, in the media or in the technical journals, to find bad news of many types. And good news stories are few, far between, and frequently quite modest.

On January 14th, I had the experience of a 90 minute interview in front of a live audience on the issue of climate change and the environmental crisis more generally. Peter Jennings has been hosting a monthly interview program on local television for about a year now, and I have been in his audience a number of times. He has interviewed a selection of interesting people on a wide diversity of topics. Our community benefits from such events, and I only hope my interview stacked up against the rest of them. (There is a short teaser clip here – I look suitably uncomfortable, and I am wearing boots because it is winter in Muskoka!) While you cannot really prepare for an interview, I did take a quick look in the latest issue of Nature when it hit my in-box the morning of our get-together. I found three relevant articles that led me to four other recent articles in other journals – seven articles in one scan of a ‘contents’ page!

Resettlement need – another aspect of climate change

The first of these was an Op-Ed style ‘Comment’ by David Lopez-Carr and Jessica Marter-Kenyon on the need for guidelines for governments on how to plan and execute the resettlement of people being impacted by effects of climate change. Their thesis is that the planned relocation of entire communities is NOT a usual practice with which governments are familiar; that, indeed, such relocation is fraught with difficulties to do with ensuring the retention of livelihoods, community networks and societal traditions, while battling complexities to do with land ownership, cost of relocation, and the will to move. Their article includes numerous stories of communities that need to relocate, but have not succeeded in doing so, and they make the point that such cases are going to become more numerous as climate change affects more and more of the planet’s surface. Most of their examples relate to coastal communities that need to move to higher ground, but drought, and mudslides due to altered patterns of precipitation are also included.

Kivalina artic-warming-villages

Kivalina, a 400 person community on a small barrier island on the Alaska coast, needs to relocate because climate change is making its location untenable. Photo © Millie Hawley/AP

Their opening example, the 400 resident Alaskan village of Kivalina, is being ravaged by heightened storm surge, and flooding and erosion due to melting of sea ice and permafrost. The people of Kivalina voted in 1998 and 2000 to move together to a site on higher ground. More than a decade and a half later, Kivalina remains in limbo, its move stymied by institutional, financial and physical barriers. No US federal or state agency has a mandate to undertake such mass resettlement, even though the government spent more than US$15 million on erosion control there between 2006 and 2009. Kivalina has failed to raise funds through climate lawsuits against oil and gas companies, and it has yet to identify suitable relocation sites. Meanwhile, the village’s water-supply and waste-storage systems have been damaged, and it could become uninhabitable within a decade. How many far northern Canadian communities face similar problems?

The authors’ choice of an Alaskan village helps bring home the fact that this issue is not a problem for ‘the other’; these are citizens (albeit marginalized) of the strongest nation on the planet. The difficulties faced by Kivalina are likely exceeded in Bangladesh, the Maldives or Kiribati. That Miami is investing $400 million to renovate its drainage system to combat coastal flooding and storms suggests to me that we will be spending a lot of money on flood control infrastructure over the next few years because the will to move, and the facilitating mechanisms, are simply not there yet. (Stockmarket tip: Buy flood control equipment and expertise!) This article put the issue of sea level rise into a more human frame for me – it’s all very well to say the Bangladeshis will have to move, but accomplishing that task in a way that is cost effective, and preserving of societal connections is not going to be an easy task. It’s one we have to add to our growing to-do list.

Human impacts on the oceans

A second article in that issue of Nature was an editorial concerning the many human impacts on the oceans. It nicely supplemented the discussion of resettlement, because it reported results of a new analysis of sea level rise from a paper just published on Nature’s website (many articles are published on-line before appearing in the pages of the journal). The new data, by Carling C. Hay and colleagues at Harvard and Rutgers, show that sea level rise during the 20th century has been very slightly overestimated – the new estimate is 1.2 mm per year, not 1.6 to 1.9. But the new data show that the rate since about 1993, 3 mm per year, has accelerated far faster than previously believed – about 2.5 times the rate during last century. And just in case anyone is wondering, the sea level rise we have put in motion by warming the planet will not stop the moment we bring our CO2 emissions under control. Time lags in the system ensure it will continue for several hundred years. (Investment tip: Florida swampland is even less valuable than it used to be.)


Sea level rise – just one part of climate change. Cartoon © Jim Morin, Miami Herald and CartoonArts International.

This editorial was mainly focused on an article published in Bioscience on 31st December by Carlos Duarte of University of Western Australia and Instituto Mediterráneo de Estudios Avanzados in Spain, together with seven colleagues from Australia, the US, Chile and Argentina. In their view the proliferation of a number of pressures affecting the ocean is leading to a growing concern that the state of the ocean is compromised, which is driving society into pessimism. Their article explores how environmental damage to the ocean is being reported (both by scientists and the media), and argues for retention by scientists of a more skeptical view of the data. This is a perspective I have heard before – often crudely as “we must emphasize the good news in order to keep people engaged” – and it is one that can encourage Pollyannaism instead of accurate science reporting. To the credit of Duarte and his team this is not the approach taken in their article. Instead they look at a number of “calamities”, examining the underlying science, and show that some are truly serious, others may be serious but the data available are not yet sufficient to know, and some seem to be wildly exaggerated. I was vaguely reassured to learn that there is not yet any sound evidence showing that jellyfish numbers are exploding in the world’s oceans. On the other hand, I am concerned that the denialist community will take sections of this paper out of context to argue a) that the scientists cannot agree, and b) that the evidence for all sorts of claims is simply not there. Whether Duarte and company would agree or not, I maintain that there are many substantial, well-documented examples of serious ocean impacts caused by our activities. We scientists have a responsibility to be critical evaluators of data before drawing conclusions, but we also still need to state explicitly that the real calamities are indeed calamitous. Sugar-coating does not help.

Still, at a time when scientists seem to be getting as much information from Twitter, Google, and Facebook as they are getting from a careful (critical) reading of papers published in the peer-reviewed literature, and a time when papers in the literature have trouble getting noticed unless there has been a staged media frenzy timed to coincide with their publication, Duarte and colleagues make some excellent points about failures to cite appropriately, willingness to repeat hypotheses that have been accepted uncritically by others, and the tendency to dig in and defend theories that would have been supplanted if the growing body of data had been critically assessed. It’s a paper all marine scientists should read.

jellyfish + diver

Good to learn that jellyfish outbreaks may not be a crisis for the oceans! Photo © AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Recovery, or not, of bleached coral reefs in the Seychelles

That same editorial in Nature also drew my attention to a new report just published on the Nature website on the recovery from bleaching of Seychelles reefs. In it, Nick Graham, of Australia’s James Cook University, and colleagues in Australia, the UK and France, report on the results of a study of 21 sites across the Seychelles reefs, sampled in 1994 and again in 2005, 2008 and 2011.

The Seychelles are one of several archipelagos in the western Indian Ocean, and were particularly hard hit by the massive bleaching episode that hit during 1998. Fortunately, detailed sampling of the 21 sites four years earlier provided a precise baseline of coral cover, abundance of algae, and abundances of a broad range of fish and other mobile inhabitants. By resampling each site, using the same monitoring methods, in 2005, 2008 and 2011, Graham and colleagues were able to assess the impact of the bleaching, and the subsequent changes in the reef system at each site over the next 13 years. While they chose to present their results in complex ways using concepts such as Euclidian distances to measure departure from prior ecological state, they provide some photographs in the on-line extended data that tell the story clearly.

Graham et al Seychelles nature14140-sf1 small

Reef sites in the Seychelles in 1994 (a, b), in 2005 showing the lingering effects of the 1998 bleaching (c, d), and in 2011 when some had largely recovered (e) while others had become dominated by fleshy algae (f). Photos © N. Graham and Nature

Prior to 1998, sites were well covered in coral, with little evident large algae. By 2005, the effects of the 1998 events were still clearly apparent with little if any live coral present, but some sites still retained the complex structure typical of coral reefs while others had been further eroded and were topographically far simpler. By 2011, 12 of the 21 sites had shown considerable regrowth of coral and were approaching the state they had been in in 1994. However, 9 other sites were still largely without coral and heavily dominated by large algae. Graham and colleagues suggest that whether or not a bleached site retains its complex topography, and the depth at which it is situated may help predict whether it is likely to recover from severe bleaching.

This Seychelles story is very good news in that it shows that some, a majority, of very severely bleached reef sites can recover after a decade or so. However, it also confirms that a sizeable minority of sites, 9 of 21, became transformed into algae-dominated rocky structures of much lesser ecological or economic value. The phase shift from coral- to algae-dominated is a pattern seen in other instances of severe reef damage, most notably with severe over-fishing in Jamaica and other Caribbean locations. It is not a shift that gets reversed very easily if at all. The future that is currently coming towards us is one in which bleaching likely will be a more frequent event – these Seychelles data increase our wiggle room to get things right, but they don’t make the problem of reef loss go away.

Oh no! We are running out of lots of things all at once!

My final discovery on that Nature contents page was a brief news item directing me to a report published late in 2014 in Ecology and Society. The article, by Rolf Seppelt of the Helmholz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany, and four colleagues in German and US institutions, examines the global pattern of use of some 27 major resources by humanity over time spans that were typically 20 to 50 years long, but in one case (phosphate) 112 years in length.

In their introduction, the authors point out that the typical pattern of use of a resource, such as eggs, or fish, or rice, or oil, is that it is first discovered and uses developed; its use then expands over time; then increasing scarcity or the arrival of a superior replacement causes its use to diminish and eventually cease. This is true for renewable resources such as timber, foods, and furs which can be expected to be replenished as they are consumed, and for non-renewable resources such as coal, oil or acres of farmland which will be regenerated only on much longer time scales. Their interest was on when the increase in the rate of use of a particular resource peaked. The timing of this peak appropriation rate signals the time when scarcity or other factors begin to intervene in use of that resource.

Using time-series of global quantities used, they worked to determine the year at which the rate of increase in consumption peaked for each resource. They discovered, surprisingly, that of the 27 resources considered, 21 had already passed their peak appropriation year, and these peak years clustered between 1960 and 2010 with a median year of 2006 – a surprisingly narrow range within human history. Of the 20 renewable resources, only farmed fish and renewable energy (solar, wind, etc) had yet to peak. Of the 7 non-renewable resource, coal, gas, oil, and phosphates had yet to peak.

So, what is the significance of all this? Seppelt and colleagues suggest that the fact that most of the resources used have already reached their peaks means we could be running short of resources we need in the near future. Secondly, they suggest that the concentration of peak years around 2006, and the surprisingly narrow range among them suggests that we are running out of lots of resources at the same time. The reasons for this are probably tied to the fact that the rate of increase of the global population peaked in 1989, and that of the global GDP peaked in 2010. More people and a larger economy drive a greater use of resources. In addition, our lives demand a suite of resources satisfying different needs, and the use of one resource, such as any of our basic foods, requires use of other resources to obtain it. So the congruence in peak appropriation rates, and their clustering in recent years is expected. But confirming these facts should still give us pause. The passing of a peak assimilation rate is a signal of possible shortages to come, but it does not predict the timing of that shortage. The passing of many such peaks during a short span of years suggests that we can anticipate many shortages simultaneously. Not a pretty situation to contemplate, and a much larger challenge than if we had to deal with one resource shortage at a time. Seppelt and colleagues suggest we need a paradigm shift in resource use toward a sustainable path for the Anthropocene.

Tokyo_fish_market Daniel S Walsh

Tuna for sale on the floor of the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo; note the fog of CO2 arising from the flash frozen fish. The largest fish market in the world, Tsukiji sees about $28 M worth, or 2200 tonnes of fishery products from around the world sold every day. That’s just one of the resources we use. Photo © Daniel S Walsh

2014 – warmest year on record

So, that’s what I learned from scanning the contents page of one issue of Nature. It was a fairly typical week. Later in the week, NOAA published its annual analysis of the global climate for 2014, confirming what we all knew was inevitable, and what other agencies had already proclaimed – that globally, 2014 was the warmest year since we began to collect weather records (about 1880). This proclamation was followed by a twitterstorm (yep, I joined in) repeating this news, and a counterstorm of doubt suggesting it does not actually prove anything at all.

Let me summarize the main point in this twittertempest: that the 14 warmest years globally, since about 1880 have all occurred since 2000 (the other warm year was 1998), and that this is a highly unlikely event if the world is not warming up. Seems pretty obvious to me! But it’s amazing how many people were willing to proclaim proudly “I am not a scientist” before casting doubt of the strangest type: Climate change is not a hoax but it has nothing to do with us98 of the 100 US Senators in a meaningless vote. I can quote from the Bible that climate is not changing – US Senator James Inhofe. By calling Greenland “green land” we know that the climate has been changing pretty regularly within recorded memory – US Senator Mark Kirk. (I picked idiocy from US Senators on purpose; I know they are not the only denialists with such impeccable logic.)

Also in the news

Also in the news, and catching my eye, over the past couple of weeks (a small sample): Margaret Munro wrote in the Financial Post on 8th January that Canada could be a big loser if the world gets serious about climate change. She referred specifically to the 8th January article in Nature, by Christofe McGlade and Paul Eakins of University College London, which stated that 75% of Canada’s oil reserves and 85% of its tar sands bitumen must stay in the ground if a 2oC limit is to be met. The Guardian carried a story on 14th January concerning our growing understanding of the melting of ice sheets in Antarctica, and how the western Antarctic ice sheet appears now to have reached a point of no return. It quoted Ted Scambos, of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, as saying:
Antarctica’s ice sheet has been called the ‘sleeping giant’ of sea level, but it’s beginning to stir. Everything we’ve seen about this change points to human influences on climate – and now we’re at the point where human actions will be needed to stop it.

On 15th January, in the Guardian, leading UK environmentalist Jonathon Porritt called his years working on green energy projects with Shell and BP a ‘painful journey’ that had led him to believe no major fossil fuel company will commit to renewables in the near future. They are simply too trapped by a short-term mandate that leaves little room for maneuver. Shareholder expectations still dominate, and are still largely untouched by any kind of ‘unburnable carbon’ analysis of the staggering amount of economic value now at risk. Also on 15th January, Carl Zimmer reported in the New York Times on a study just published in Science by Douglas McCauley from UC Santa Barbara, with five colleagues from Rutgers, Stanford, UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara. Their argument is that while human-caused defaunation commenced 50,000 years ago on land, but only in the past few hundred years in the oceans, and while we have yet to cause many global extinctions in the oceans, we have already profoundly affected marine wildlife, altering the functioning and provisioning of services in every ocean. They argue that marine defaunation rates will rapidly intensify as human use of the oceans industrializes, and that it is necessary to put in place more effective ocean management. Tying marine defaunation to climate change, one of the study authors, Steve Palumbi of Stanford said,
If by the end of the century we’re not off the business-as-usual curve we are now, I honestly feel there’s not much hope for normal ecosystems in the ocean. But in the meantime, we do have a chance to do what we can. We have a couple decades more than we thought we had, so let’s please not waste it.

Climate scientist Michael Mann wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times on 17th January that dealt with the need for scientists to speak out on policy issues rather than restrict their comments only to their particular scientific expertise – a thoughtful piece that scientists need to read. As he said, scientists are citizens too. And finally, on 22nd January, John Abraham reported on the Guardian website that the increase in heat held in the oceans has been growing so quickly that it has “broken the chart”. He referred to the chart which has been on a NOAA NODC website for some time now, and the fact that total ocean heat content had now reached its upper border, and the graph has had to be redrawn with a longer y-axis measuring heat content. He was alluding to the need, a year ago, for the Australian weather service to redraw its temperature graph when prolonged summer heat broke through an upper boundary. While breaking the upper border of a graph is hardly a monumental event, 20 x 1022 Joules of heat is an enormous quantity of warmth, and the graph shows zero evidence of any slowdown in global warming during recent years. Our home really is getting warmer.

NOAA NODC ocean heat_content2000m

Graph showing change in global ocean heat content for the upper 2000 meters of depth, from 1957 to 2014. The 20 x 1022 Joules now present in the upper ocean represents about 90% of all heat in the Earth planetary system. Graph courtesy NOAA National Oceanographic Data Center.

What does it all really mean?

So, that is a synopsis of the things that caught my eye during a couple of busy weeks in January. What does it all mean, and how do I maintain my optimism? First of all, there was nothing in the items I saw that really surprised me. I know the world is getting warmer, that we are over-using our resources and damaging our oceans, that substantial biodiversity loss remains a big problem, and that there are plenty of people ready to deny each of these. But I did learn added details. The quantity of information coming out, and the extensive coverage of the science in the media are both encouraging signs. The science community is really attending closely to climate change and the other aspects of our environmental crisis. There is a continuous stream of solid information, each item of which deepens our understanding, or extends our knowledge in small ways. If you believe, as I do, that we will do a better job of rectifying some of the problems we are causing if we understand the problems and their causes more fully, then this enormous tide of scientific study is a very good thing. If you believe, as I do, that by communicating the science to the community, we have a greater chance of moving communities to action, and to effective action, then the interest in the science evidenced by the coverage in the media is also a very good thing. And if you find frequent references to the idiocy spouted by denialist politicians increasingly funny, even if slightly alarming, then you too can enjoy the coverage in the social media.

Of course I am naively confident that rational voices will ultimately win the political battles, and quite capable of refusing to notice that voices of illogic are very much in charge in the Harper government and in the corridors of power at the US Capital. Every now and then I am reminded of this, and then I become a bit dispirited. But most of the time, I happily go forward, convinced of the ultimate correctness of the views of those who see a need for real change in our ways of acting in our only home. And marveling in the way a scrawny, naked ape has been able to exert so much power that he is in danger of substantially altering that only home. I guess I must be a human stupidity denialist!