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Why 12th December 2015 might have been the High Point in our Struggle to contain Climate Change.

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Polar bears may be in more trouble than we had thought.  The environmental NGOs learned long ago that certain large animals were charismatic and could become valuable poster children for their conservation efforts.  That’s why the giant panda features on the corporate logo of WWF, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, formerly and still widely known as the World Wildlife Fund.  That’s also why the polar bear got chosen early on as a symbol for how climate change could speed up rates of extinction.  In early 2005, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a U.S-based NGO, formally petitioned the U.S. government to list the polar bear, Ursus maritimus, as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.  That request was made the same day the Kyoto Protocol on climate (which the U.S. had not signed) took effect.

Iconic image: polar bear on an ice floe.  This floe is larger than some, western Hudson’s Bay, 2014.  Photo © Paul Souders/Corbis

CBD argued that the polar bear was threatened with extinction because of climate change, as well as other factors including effects of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, high levels of contaminants like PCBs in polar bear tissues, and overhunting of some populations.  The poignant image of the polar bear on an impossibly small ice floe became part of a very deliberate political campaign which ultimately failed.

Listing the Polar Bear

That the innocent petition to list the polar bear was really a well-crafted, politically-informed action was obvious from its timing.  The Bush administration was refusing to act seriously on climate issues (remember how scary the Bush administration’s resistance to action on climate change seemed back then), and listing the polar bear as Threatened under the Act would obligate the government to develop a species recovery plan, and that would force action to mitigate climate change.

In the event, the plan was less effective than CBD hoped.  To list a species under the Endangered Species Act, there must be scientific evidence that the species is declining in abundance throughout its range, including regions outside the geographic boundaries of the USA.  The polar bear is a wide-ranging species in environments that make field research difficult, and scientists provided mixed results.  Across the Arctic, there were some populations that seemed to be thriving, even growing, and others that were in decline.  Where bears were in decline, it was not clear that climate change was, at that time, a primary, or even an important but secondary cause.  Projections could be used to suggest climate would become more important in future decades – the bears depend for food on seals that use sea ice for rest areas and rearing of their pups.  If sea ice melted earlier in spring, bears would be on land, unable to get out to the pack ice and the seals.  But projections are never certainty.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service collected data, deliberated for three years, and eventually did assess the polar bear as Threatened.  Developing a management plan as required under the Act, which should conserve and aid recovery of the bears, took a further 8 years.  The plan was made available to the public on January 9th, 2017.  By then, the situation for polar bears had become significantly worse, the science was getting stronger, and the public had become fatigued by photos of polar bears on ice floes.  Meanwhile, the political climate within the USA had chilled dramatically on the idea of action to stem climate change.  Now we must wait for law suits to push the US government to implement its own species recovery plan for the polar bear.  Ironically, it is a recovery plan which shares the need to reduce CO2 emissions with the recovery plans for the two Caribbean Acropora corals, A. palmata and A, cervicornis.  These plans were also produced in response to pressure to list those species as threatened.

The effort to have the polar bear listed has been a failure because of two things: public fatigue, and weakness of conservation legislation.  First, the legislation.  Bureaucracies can be remarkably effective at not taking mandated action when the political leadership is not in favor of that action being taken.  The US Endangered Species Act empowers the Secretary of Commerce (via the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service) to evaluate any species of animal or plant (other than single celled organisms and bacteria) for listing under the act, including species that do not occur within the USA, but are subject of international commerce, or concern.  In reality, some species are identified by agency staff and others are brought to the attention of the agencies by interested parties, including members of the public (otherwise, the enormous task would never get tackled).  Once identified as a candidate for listing, an evaluation using the best available science must take place to decide if the species is Endangered (in imminent danger of global extinction), Threatened (at some risk of becoming endangered in the near term), or not of concern.  Once a species is confirmed as Threatened or Endangered, certain restrictions on activities directly affecting it or its habitat come automatically into play.  And, the agencies are required to develop a science-based plan for recovery of that species to a non-threatened status.  Of course, all this good action depends on the government of the day being interested in acting.  In early 2015, NMFS published the recovery plan for the Caribbean Acropora species.  Two years later, the polar bear plan appears.  But in the meantime, the interest of the US federal government in reducing CO2 emissions has declined or disappeared.  And the Endangered Species Act lacks the kind of teeth needed to push a reluctant government forward.  Can we seriously anticipated that Scott Pruitt’s EPA is going to dedicate staff time or funds to reducing CO2 emissions in order to save the polar bear from extinction?  All the Fish and Wildlife Service can do is ‘encourage’ the EPA to act.  Hence the need for some law suits.

By public fatigue I refer to the common tendency of news to become old, and therefore no longer interesting.  We have seen evocative photos of polar bears for a long time now, many standing on far tinier ice floes than above, looking forlorn.  There is not much new here, and so, attention turns to how the naked emperor styles his hair, or whether Americans, carrying concealed weapons, are made safer if the government is rude to immigrants.  But wait.  There is now some new information about polar bears so maybe we can bring them back into focus.  Because if they were threatened in 2005, they are almost certainly more threatened in 2017.

On February 1st, The Guardian reported that a new paper in Science suggests extinction of the polar bear may occur sooner than expected.  The paper, published by Anthony Pagano, USGS and UC Santa Cruz, with 8 US and Canada-based colleagues, reports on the metabolic requirements of free-ranging polar bears on the sea ice in spring.  During Aprils of 2014 to 2016, Pagano’s team captured 9 adult female polar bears, collared them, took blood samples, laced the bears with radionuclide-labeled water, and tracked them for up to 9 days before recapturing and resampling blood.  The labeling and blood sampling enabled direct measurements of metabolic rate over the time between capture and recapture.  The collars carried video cameras and accelerometers that enabled the team to determine level of activity and whether locomotion was walking or swimming.  The cameras documented habitat and hunting success as well.  In addition, they obtained estimates of resting metabolic rate from one female captive bear.

Supplementary figure S2 from Pagano’s study showing the track taken across the sea ice over the days tracked for two bears (A = bear #3 over 9 days; B = bear #8 over 8 days), and the mean proportion of time spent by all 9 bears in different activities (C = 24 hr data from accelerometers; D = daylight hr data from video cameras).  Bear #3 scavenged one dead seal (green +) but otherwise did not eat.  It lost 12% of body weight during the 9 days.  Bear #8 gained 7% of body weight by scavenging at eight sites, killing seal pups twice (white X), and killing one adult seal (yellow *).

The polar bear is unique among bears in being essentially completely carnivorous.  Correspondingly, it turns out to have a resting metabolic rate comparable to that of other carnivorous mammals (higher than for other bears).  It also exhibits a higher than expected field metabolic rate, despite the fact that much of a bear’s time is spent in sit-and-wait hunting for seals to emerge for a breath of air and a rest on an ice floe.  Their bears spent about 66% of their time in sit-and-wait or otherwise resting.  They were walking about 28% of their time but swimming a mere 0.3% of their time.  These are comparable levels of activity for terrestrial carnivorous mammals.  The real surprise is in the higher than expected metabolic rates.  Field metabolic rate across the 9 bears was 1.6 times higher than previous estimates for adult female polar bears.  This higher than anticipated metabolic rate has direct, immediate consequences – polar bears must be more successful at hunting than previously thought – they need to consume about 12 thousand kcal per day to simply maintain body weight.

Polar bears emerge from hibernation on land in the spring.  They depend on being able to access the sea ice from shore in the spring, because it is out on the sea ice that their seal prey live and raise their pups.  The bears need to catch lots of seals and pups in spring to recover their body mass and be ready for the tougher times in late summer, after the pupping season, and into the fall and winter.  In fact, only 4 of the 9 bears tracked by Pagano caught sufficient food to gain weight during the 8 to 11 days they were tracked.  Four others lost at least 10% of body weight.  Given that April is the time of year when polar bears must be putting on body mass to cope with the coming food shortages of late summer, and eventual winter hibernation, this is not good news.  Pagano and colleagues cite other evidence that polar bears may be experiencing hard times.   Previous researchers reported that 42% of adult female polar bears in the Beaufort Sea during the spring from 2000 to 2016 had not eaten during the week before capture. This rate of fasting was 12% greater than measurements from 1983 to 1999, suggesting that spring ice conditions are affecting prey availability for polar bears even before the summer open water period arrives.

The work of Pagano and his colleagues shows that polar bears have higher metabolic requirements than previously thought.  Given that the original argument for considering them threatened by climate change had to do with melting ice making their hunting more difficult, Pagano has just shown that the situation could be more dire than anticipated.  And this news comes as the Arctic continues to show unanticipated warm weather.

The Arctic Continues to Warm Rapidly

Latest data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center showing the extent of Arctic sea ice tracking low and very close to that for 2016.  Looks like we could get another record low minimal extent come summer.  More open water leads to more rapid ocean warming, and also makes life for polar bears more difficult.  Image © NSIDC.

NOAA’s National Climate Data Center, now cleverly renamed the National Centers for Environmental Information, reported on the 2017 global climate late in January.  Globally, 2017 was the third warmest year on record, at 0.84oC above the 20th Century average, and the warmest year that did not have an active el Niño.  It was also the 41st consecutive year in which global average temperature was above the average for the 20th Century.  As is becoming usual, the Arctic is behaving more extremely than more equatorial regions, and unseasonable warmth in Alaska made headlines in January 2018.  As of now, the extent of sea ice in the Arctic is trending low, tracking very close to the pattern seen in 2016.  The National Snow and Ice Data Center (US) reported recently that “January of 2018 began and ended with satellite-era record lows in Arctic sea ice extent, resulting in a new record low for the month. Combined with low ice extent in the Antarctic, global sea ice extent is also at a record low.”

It’s pretty clear what has been happening, and if trends continue we are going to see a much warmer Arctic in future years.  With less sea ice being formed and an earlier melt-back each spring, the situation for hungry polar bears emerging from migration in spring looks quite bleak.

To make matters worse, The Guardian reported on 31st January that the UK Met Office had released its latest five-year forecast for global temperature.  This indicated that enhanced warming over land and in northern latitudes was expected.  There is a 10% chance that in one of these five years, global mean annual temperature will exceed the +1.5oC target set by the Paris Agreement.  In other words, the world is warming as fast as, or faster than we thought.

Was 12th December 2015 the High Water Mark on Climate

So, let me get back to the point of this commentary.  Why do I think that 12th December 2015 may have been the high point in our effort to reign in CO2 emissions?  It is not just because the polar bear is having a difficult time, while the wider public forgets it is in trouble.

There are a number of different things being monitored now as part of the global effort to assess the state of the climate.  Extent of the Arctic sea ice, global average temperature, and extent of Arctic warming are just three of them.  One of the most important is the global rate of emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs); another is the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.  These tell us the current rate at which we are adding ‘insulation’, and the current level of ‘insulation’ of the planet.

The world had high hopes for our rate of emissions.  Data published by the International Energy Association (IEA) in March of 2017 had shown that the global rate of emissions from burning of fossil fuels had remained flat in 2016, for a third straight year, at 32.1 Gt CO2.  This was taken as a sign that the world had finally turned the corner in its effort to transition out of fossil fuels and lower emissions overall.

Graph released by IEA in March 2017, showing an apparent stabilization in the annual emissions due to use of fossil fuels.  Emissions were essentially unchanged during 2014-2016.
© IEA.

That optimistic sign withered in November 2017, when the Global Carbon Project reported on total annual emissions from fossil fuel use and the cement industry.  They reported that the global annual emissions of greenhouse gases, due to these sources, had increased 2% from 2016 to 36.8 Gt CO2, a new record.

The rate of increase in total global anthropogenic GHG emissions has slowed since 2010, but it has not stopped.  The estimate for 2017 is a 2Gt CO2 increase after three years without change.  The increase is largely due to the growing energy demands of a booming Chinese economy.  Figure © Global Carbon Project

It’s now clear that some of the slowdown was due to lingering effects of the recession in 2009.  The world economy showed real growth in 2017.  Despite the growing use of solar, wind, and other renewable power sources (including in China), our global economy is growing so fast that we continue to grow our use of fossil fuels.  When are we going to turn the corner and see real reductions in emissions?

Not surprisingly, with growing emissions there is a growing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere as well.  I’m showing you the full record of CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa from 1958 onwards, but I’m also including the record of weekly means for the past year.  The former shows the now-familiar graph, going ever upwards, and flexing ever more vertically – the rate of increase in CO2 concentration is getting faster, not slower!  The latter shows how different this February is to February 2017, and hints at the levels we are likely to see this coming summer

The full record of CO2 concentration as recorded at Mauna Loa from 1958 onward.  No changes are evident in the trend – the concentration keeps going up and the rate of rise is getting greater!  Image courtesy NOAA ESRL

A plot of CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa for the past year.  Daily means are in blue, weekly means are the red lines, monthly means are the blue lines.  Viewed this way, the data show very clearly just how rapidly the concentration of this insulator is changing.
Image courtesy NOAA ESRL

For the week of February 4th, 2018, the CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa averaged 408.21 ppm.  A year ago, the average was 406.10 ppm.  Ten years ago, in early February 2008, it was 386.03 ppm.  The level of 350 ppm, which many scientists believe is a ‘safe’ level that would stabilize temperatures no more than about 1oC above preindustrial levels, was first met during the week of 20th April 1986, and concentrations less than this were last seen during the week of October 10th, 1989.  Getting back to 400 ppm is likely what is needed to keep below the 1.5oC goal of the Paris Agreement.  That is a concentration last seen in November 2015.  It is time we woke up to the fact that we are not achieving the goals we agreed to in Paris.

What about my Three Favorite Countries?

So with all this urgency to reduce CO2 emissions, what do we see around the world?  We can point to plenty of examples of good news – some countries are transitioning their energy sources successfully.  But take the three (advanced and wealthy) countries that I am most familiar with.

Australia continues its political schizophrenia.  Political leaders continue to espouse the economic benefits of increasing coal production and export, while the Great Barrier Reef, Australia’s environmental jewel, suffers one massive bleaching event after another, and Australia’s emissions continue to rise.  Australia’s record on CO2 emissions is abysmal.  The latest estimate available, emissions for the 1st quarter of FY2018 (July-Sept 2017), was the 2nd highest quarterly result in five years and confirmed a continuing upward trend.  Australia ranked 57th (3rd last) on the 2018 Climate Change Performance Index, compiled annually by Germanwatch, the New Climate Institute and the Climate Action Network and released in November 2017.  The commentary on Australia cited its very low performance with respect to emissions abatement, energy use, and climate policy, and its low performance on developing renewable energy sources.  As for climate policy… the Australian government at close of 2017 was opening up opportunities for industries to purchase international carbon credits instead of reducing emissions at home.  That was a move seen by some as merely prolonging delay in the country’s shift to a renewables-based economy.

The 57 countries ranked by the Climate Change Performance Index for 2018.  Canada, the USA and Australia all fall close to the bottom of the pack.  (Note that the chart includes three ‘unused slots) at the top because no country performed well enough to be there.)

The USA, which was showing real international leadership at the time of the Paris Agreement, tried to reverse course with the election of Donald Trump.  After one year of his leadership (how does one lead a march backwards?), the US has formally announced the intention to formally declare, at the first permitted occasion, the intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.  The 2018 Climate Change Performance Index downgraded it from 43rd to 56th (one step ahead of Australia).  The CCPI commentary highlighted the Paris withdrawal and the dismantling of the Clean Power Plan as reasons for a very low policy performance but noted a strong engagement at the State and Municipal level and in the private sector for emissions, and energy-efficiency measures.  The backward march has proved a lot more difficult than statesman Donald Trump had anticipated and is being resisted in many sectors.  The Paris withdrawal cannot even be formally declared until December 2019, and will not take effect until December 2020 (after the next US election).  Despite the low CCPI ranking, the USA has continued to reduce emissions.  The US EPA has just released the draft annual inventory of emissions; it reports US 2016 total anthropogenic emissions were 6.55 Gt CO2e down 2% from the year before.  This decline, due largely to a shift from use of gas to use of renewables, continues a decade-long, but gradual, decline.

Not quite the steep decline in emissions that is needed to effectively combat climate change, but US total annual emissions again moved slightly downward in 2016, due largely to a shift from use of gas to alternative fuels.  Image © US EPA

How US emissions fare in 2018 and beyond is difficult to predict, because the Trump administration will no doubt continue to explore ways to move backwards.  The Trump 2019 budget, just released, cuts the EPA budget by a whopping 34% ($2.8 billion), and while it has zero chance of adoption, it signals priorities for the White House.

Canada also ranks low in the 2018 Climate Change Performance Index, at #51, barely ahead of the US and Australia.  The CCPI commentary notes Canada’s very low target for 2030 emissions, as well as very low performance on energy use.  Our current trajectory on cutting use of fossil fuels will not meet the weak 2030 target, let alone a target more appropriate for meeting the Paris Agreement commitment.  Canada is performing at a medium level in bringing renewables forward, and receives very high grades for its international climate policy efforts.  In other words, the people responsible for CCPI recognize the significant climate effort that has been made by the Trudeau government, following a long period of neglect of this issue.  Still, lots of us have been gently reminding Justin Trudeau, and Catherine McKenna, his Minister of Environment of the need to step up and set more realistic targets and really get started on the tough road forward.  The Trudeau government came to power in November 2015, and is now past the halfway point to our next election.  We have carbon pricing starting to be implemented, but there has been no sign yet of steps to raise the bar on where this country needs to get re Paris commitments.

In a sense, Justin, for all his virtues (and he looks very virtuous compared to his geographically closest head of state), is still playing that strange game of trying to ride two horses at once.  For understandable political reasons, he wants to court Alberta, and believes he can only do so by fighting to support growth in the tar sands sector.  So he endorses pipeline proposals.  He is also politically trying to hold on to his support in British Columbia, so he is talking up his positive climate actions there, while struggling to ensure that province will not block a particular pipeline.  It is not proving to be an easy ride.

A March 2017 Parkins cartoon that remains relevant as the fight over the Kinder-Morgan expansion continues.  Image © David Parkins.

Kinder Morgan, a US-based pipeline operator has an existing pipeline that delivers tar sands product to Vancouver for export.  The plan to ‘twin’ this pipeline, thereby tripling its capacity (funny how ‘twinning’ equals tripling), was seen by many as the easiest to approve of several pipeline proposals a few years ago.  After all, it would use an existing corridor.  But surging enthusiasm for protecting the amazing natural environment of British Columbia, plus a change of provincial government last fall, has made approval in greater doubt than it was, despite the fact that the federal government has already approved it, Alberta has labeled it essential, and Trudeau is on record saying it ‘will’ be built.

Kinder Morgan has plenty of pipe lying photogenically around western Canada, and certainly seems to want to put it in the ground and connect it up.  (I say ‘seems to’ because a recent news item hints that the economic argument for twining may be weakening.)  The Globe and Mail reported on 7th February that the President of Kinder Morgan Canada had said the pipeline could become untenable the longer it takes to obtain needed permits, but he stopped short of saying the company is close to abandoning the major expansion.  The company has already slowed spending on the pipeline and said oil shipments won’t start before December, 2020, at the earliest, one year later than planned. The expansion also faces numerous court challenges.

If we were being rational, the Canadian Federal government would be encouraging Alberta to expand refining capacity within its own borders and begin an aggressive transition towards use of tar sands bitumen as a raw material for an advanced chemicals industry.  It is long past time to think of this goop as fuel because, never mind the environmental arguments, the economics are no longer viable.  It is simply too costly to compete successfully with other fossil fuels.  As it stands, existing pipelines are sufficient for current demand, and while the price of the Alberta product (what did Harper call it… ethical oil) may one day rise back towards triple digits per barrel, I see no sign of that happening any time soon.  And, as Canada eventually comes to the realization that we really do have to lower CO2 emissions drastically, we will also realize that burning this stuff as fuel is simply not possible.  Still, given the way governments work, given what happens when pipeline companies have lots of unused pipeline pipe, and given what happens when anyone does anything that might hurt Our Most Holy Economy, I’ll bet this pipeline will ultimately get built, and perhaps even used a little bit.  And that will only further delay the struggle to bring climate change under control.

Perhaps it’s because it is now mid-winter, a time for dark and brooding thoughts.  Perhaps it’s because the evidence seems to be accumulating that most people tire of environmental arguments fairly quickly.  Perhaps it’s because the political tide, globally, seems to be turning towards a rather horrible nativist populism unlikely to make rational decisions on important questions.  Or perhaps it’s just because I am getting very tired of waiting for an environmental Godot.  But I really do fear, today, that when we look back on this time, we will see 12th December 2015 as the high point on climate action – the day the Paris Agreement was finalized.  Tomorrow, or next week, maybe I will see something to make me optimistic again.

We do live on a beautiful planet.  Sunrise thru the trees.  Image © psynovec/Shutterstock