Archive for the ‘Global warming’ Category

Conserving Emperor Penguins

Friday, November 14th, 2014

A remote-controlled rover that looks like a pile of chick feathers with a chick’s head on top has successfully penetrated the defenses of a colony of Emperor Penguins on Antarctica, getting close to the penguins without stressing them.

A remote controlled chick-on-wheels meets the real thing, and provokes interest

A remote controlled chick-on-wheels meets the real thing, and provokes interest

We know a lot about Emperor Penguin breeding behavior from 5 decades of observations on the colony at Terre Adelie, one of the 45 breeding colonies that ring the continent. There adults have been electronically tagged for id and heart rate and other measurements. That colony gave us the movie March of the Penguins

Alone of all the penguins, the Emperor breeds on the sea ice during the Antarctic winter. As winter descends, each female lays her single egg, gives it to her mate, and leaves for a very long walk out to the edge of the sea ice, as much as 100 km away by then, where she forages for krill before walking back again, arriving two months later just in time for her egg to hatch. During those two months, each male brooded the egg his mate laid, stuffed into a feathery pouch just above his feet. When the female arrives she finds her now starving and very stiff mate in the huddle of males, and he transfers the egg to her and then in turn walks away to the distant ice edge to forage for krill, to return two months later.

It takes full time effort for a monogamous pair of Emperor Penguins to raise a single chick (guardian.com)

It takes full time effort for a monogamous pair of Emperor Penguins to raise a single chick (guardian.com)

Of course this has all occurred in weather as extreme as this planet offers – extreme cold, high winds, totally dark almost all the time. A single mistake – an egg unprotected for a minute, a parent lost or delayed, unexpected climate stress – and the breeding effort fails.

As the ice recedes with the spring melt, adults don’t have to walk so far to obtain krill, the chicks grow large enough to be left in huddling creches, and both parents forage for food for their growing chick. By the time fall arrives, the chick is large and agile enough to begin to forage on its own. If by chance it survives its first winter feeding at sea, it has a reasonable chance of making it to adulthood, breeding for the first time when it is about 15 years old.

Meanwhile, environmental stress plays its increasing role. In years with very cold conditions, the extent of the sea ice forces the adults to walk much further, and chick mortality is greater. In years with warmer winters the sea ice is less extensive, the krill feeding on the under-ice algae have less to feed on and the foraging penguins find less food, and again chick mortality is greater. In warm years, sea ice can also break up under the feet of the colony, and then most chicks are lost. Successful breeding is a delicate balance of sea-ice extent, size of krill schools, and parental condition.

So we know that Emperor Penguins grow large, live long, and breed late, with the lowest possible clutch size. Chick mortality is usually very high, around 50%, and the mortality of surviving fledged chicks through their first winter is often just as high.

Altogether a harsh and extraordinary existence.

The mean decrease in sea ice concentration around Antarctica by 2100 is expected to be as high as 20% in some areas. Of the 45 identified colonies, those depicted by red are expected to be 'quasi-extinct', by orange as  'endangered', by yellow as 'threatened', and by green as 'no threatened' (natture.com/natureclimatechange)

The mean decrease in sea ice concentration around Antarctica by 2100 is expected to be as high as 20% in some areas. Of the 45 identified colonies, those depicted by red are expected to be ‘quasi-extinct’, by orange as ‘endangered’, by yellow as ‘threatened’, and by green as ‘no threatened’ (natture.com/natureclimatechange)

What’s ahead? Winter sea ice will, over the next century, continue to recede around much of the Antarctic coast, in some places much more rapidly than others. Of the 45 colonies, probably ten will go extinct, seven on the ice of the Ross Sea will probably persist, and the rest will decline enough to be endangered, vulnerable to extinction. The models indicate 2/3 of the colonies will be less than 1/2 their current size.

Look ahead longer than a century, and few colonies remain. A bleak prospect. Clearly now is the time for enlightened conservation efforts.

Knowing how many birds there are is an essential first step. Colonies were photographed by satellite in 2009 using a variety of filters, identifying 45 – some never visited and others rarely seen. The current total population estimate is around 600,000 birds. Changes that occur in colony size and location will show up clearly in similar future surveys.

Satellite image of an Emperor Penguin colony, remarkable information to have for every colony (plosone.org)

Satellite image of an Emperor Penguin colony, remarkable information to have for every colony (plosone.org)

A penguin reserve – no fishing, no tourists – is the essential next step. The Ross Sea, where sea ice loss is expected to be least, is the obvious choice. It would provide a refuge, though even there colonies are expected to shrink. And of course there is resistance to protecting the Ross Sea from fishing, particularly from the Russians.

The third step? We’re back to the need to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases, and this week the US and China have given us cause for at least some slim hope.

Now, adding even more detailed and reliable information to support effective conservation, the rover-chick has arrived. It has its own camera peeking out in the middle of its chest, and it can get close enough to adults to read their electronic ids and download physiological data. It creates little stress among the adults, unlike a human creeping into the colony to gather the data, and it can roll right into creches where it appears to be accepted. We’ll know more about the state of the penguins as global warming stresses increase.

The rover-chick has joined a creche, apparently successfully (ibtimes.co.uk)

The rover-chick has joined a creche, apparently successfully (ibtimes.co.uk)

Perhaps some of the colonies of Emperor Penguins will adapt to the loss of sea ice. Four colonies have apparently moved back onto the glacier ice shelf, well above sea level, as sea ice has receded. But they may not be able to adapt to diminishing schools of krill.

The other too-famous movie ostensibly about Emperor Penguins, ‘Happy Feet‘, includes concerns about the effects of global warming. Its solution? Humans and penguins dancing enthusiastically together as a call for action. Absurd and mindless fantasies are not helpful.

Emperor Penguins are a worthy icon for illustrating the stresses and effects of climate change and global warming. Their long-term survival is anything but certain, probably even unlikely, but they seem to intrigue us enough to care about them.
successfully conserving them conserves so much more of what we could lose.

The one colony we know most about is close to a research station. Most colonies remain remote. (whoi.edu/oceanus)

The one colony we know most about is close to a research station. Most colonies remain remote. (whoi.edu/oceanus)

Ocean Heat

Thursday, October 30th, 2014
Deploying an Argo Floater (NOAA.png)

Deploying an Argo Floater (NOAA.png)

Argo Floaters are technological wonders.

Each one, when set, sinks to 1000 meters below the ocean surface where it drifts with the current for 9 days. On day 10 it sinks to 2000 meters, then over a 6 hour period it rises to the surface, recording temperature and salinity. When it reaches the surface, it signals its position to a GPS satellite, and it transmits its data to a data bank. Then it sinks again to 1000 meters to start the cycle over again.

An Argo floater (there are actually a few different models) measures salinity and temperature, adjusts its buoyancy to rise and fall in the water column, signals its position at the surface, when it also transmits its most recent data.  (argo.ucsd.edu)

An Argo floater (there are actually a few different models) measures salinity and temperature, adjusts its buoyancy to rise and fall in the water column, signals its position at the surface, when it also transmits its most recent data. (argo.ucsd.edu)

Since the Argo project started, funded by NOAA, in 2000, more than 3500 floaters have now been set, about 300 km apart, with 30 countries participating. The US has set about half of them, but Canada has set almost 400, and China nearly 200. They now produce about 120,000 temperature and salinity profiles from all parts of the ice-free oceans each year.

Argo floaters have now been set in all ice free oceans, one every 3oo km (argo.ucsd.edu)

Argo floaters have now been set in all ice free oceans, one every 3oo km (argo.ucsd.edu)

An Argo floater sinks, drifts, sinks further, rises rapidly gathering data, transmits the data, then sinks to start the cycle over again (argo.ucsd.edu)

An Argo floater sinks, drifts, sinks further, rises rapidly gathering data, transmits the data, then sinks to start the cycle over again (argo.ucsd.edu)

It gets better. That transmitted data uploaded to a data bank is made available to internet users around the world within the next 24 hours, providing an almost real-time view of ocean temperatures and salinity down to 2000 meters.

We have been measuring ocean temperature and salinity at many depths and many places for decades, but never like this. With so much data, uncertainty decreases, and a detailed picture of the climate of the oceans emerges. We are documenting in remarkable detail the heat accumulating in the ocean and how it is transferred within the ocean on local, seasonal, annual and now decade scales.

The graphs are unequivocal, updated almost daily, there for all to see.

The heat content of the ocean continues to rise correlated with the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases (NOAA.png)

The heat content of the ocean continues to rise correlated with the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases (NOAA.png)

A recent commentary in Nature emphasizes that no one indicator of global climate change is sufficient. Just as the measurement of multiple vital signs give a clearer sense of a human’s health, so multiple indicators give us an increasingly clear image of the planet’s climate change. We have relied a lot on the calculation of the global average surface temperature of our atmosphere, which is variable in every way imaginable. Other indicators are greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations, high-latitude temperatures, and sea level rise.

And now we also have the finest data we could hope for, measuring the relentless increase in the heat of the oceans. Oceans absorb 93% of the extra energy being added to the climate system, in turn heating the atmosphere. The rising levels of ocean heat is our best indication – and warning – of the long-term global warming that has just begun.

We may be documenting global warming with increasing accuracy and confidence, but denial by powerful politicians remains an immense obstacle to action. For instance if the Republican Party wins the US Senate in next week’s election, Senator Inhofe is in line to Chair the Committee on Environment. He’s the one who wrote the book about global warming called The Greatest Hoax

Meanwhile, school programs scattered around the US are following the Argo project, learning about the rising heat content of the oceans, even adopting Argo Floaters.

Hope lives.

Talking About Climate Change.

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

In his new book ‘Don’t Even think About It’ George Marshall raises a lot of very uncomfortable questions.

Marshall is an environmentalist, certainly is convinced of the seriousness of the impact of climate change, and considers himself a communicator.

His book, however, is not what you might expect. Instead of a defense of the science, he presents a strong case that climate change scientists and environmentalists have failed in their job of communicating.

George Marshall's book (climateconviction.org)

George Marshall’s book
(climateconviction.org)

It is a discouraging list. We have failed to explain ‘uncertainty’, we use language that turns off listeners, we lack engrossing narratives, we pile on more and more evidence that further turns people away, we buy into the confrontational approach of the extremists at both ends, and we do not honestly face up to our own energy-consuming habits that others find hypocritical.

And there’s a lot more. Marshall explores why it is that most of us avoid talking about climate change, or even thinking about it – hence the title of his book. He suggests that we find the topic too complex, with too many aspects, what he calls ‘multivalent’. It seems to be an issue of the future, not the immediate present. No single solution can possibly solve it. Thinking about it only provokes anxiety. We avoid thinking and talking about it the way we do about death, for some of the same reasons.

This isn’t a book that attacks the climate change deniers – in fact Marshall seeks to understand them and to find some common ground with them. This is an attack on the rest of us for our poor communications skills and for our silence and unwillingness to truly confront the issue.

Marhall has talked with a large number of people, and quotes a lot of them – this is book of many voices. Through it all is a sense that we as humans are deeply imperfect, filled with contradictions, our opinions a product of our biases and the views of our peers and society, struggling still to do the right thing. And that we need to acknowledge our imperfections.

marshall is also the founder of Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) (climateoutreach.org.uk)

marshall is also the founder of Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) (climateoutreach.org.uk)

So Marshall calls on us to talk about climate change with each other – not expecting everyone to agree since that will never happen, but to seek ways to cooperate, ways to deal with the issue together.

This is a scary book. It is scary because the problem ultimately is us. We are all responsible, and yet we are silent. Our limitations are too clearly on display. You may not read this book, but if you get a chance, at least visit his websites: www.climateconviction.org and www.climatedenial.org .

Let’s talk, not fight, about climate change.
Let’s talk about global warming.

Civil Disobedience

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Sixteen months ago two environmental activists anchored a lobsterboat in the path of a coal freighter, preventing it from unloading its coal at the Brayton Point Power Station on the border of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They were quickly charged with conspiracy and disturbing the peace, as they expected to be, and they left without being arrested.

Environmental activists Ken Ward and Jay O'Hara on the boat named the Henry David T (bostonglobe.com)

Environmental activists Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara on the boat named the Henry David T (bostonglobe.com)

Their jury trial was set for early September 2014, drew the attention of other environmental activists, and Bill McKibbon agreed to be an expert witness on their behalf. Their defense was going to be that they had to act because the threats of climate change are so great. Henry Thoreau would have approved.

Politics as usual, you might think.

Instead, the most unusual happened. At the last minute, the prosecuting DA, Sam Sutter, dropped the charges. He is quoted as saying: “Climate change is one of gravest crises our planet has ever faced.,,,the political leadership on this issue has been sorely lacking.”

Sutter, also a ‘fervent environmentalist’, took a risk, acted boldly, and gives us if not a precedent, at least a model. The two activists didn’t get their day in court, but they also didn’t get prison time, and the event got wide publicity in the press, so they are pleased.

D.A. Sam Sutter talking to the crowd gathered outside the courtroom (bostonglobe.com)

D.A. Sam Sutter talking to the crowd gathered outside the courtroom (bostonglobe.com)

Civil disobedience has been an effective tool in bringing about major social change – for instance in civil rights, women’s suffrage, and more recently in climate change issues – but it is a tool not to be used lightly.

A civil disobedience handbook summarizes its use, constraints, and risks:
– it is employed only after other means have failed
– it is non-violent
– it is undertaken openly
– its participants are willing to submit to prosecution and punishment for breaking the law
– it is aimed at publicizing and challenging injustice
– it is not employed for coercive or intimidating reasons

Environmental activists like Tim DeChristopher, Bill McKibben, and now Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara have the courage required for non-violent civil disobedience, for the risks are very real.

Henry David Thoreau (huh.harvard,edu)

Henry David Thoreau (huh.harvard,edu)

Such civil disobedience is a tricky business, but it remains crucial where injustice is great or when the threat is dire. The objective remains to force leaders to acknowledge the climate change crisis and to take action.

The threat is dire.

What Coral Reefs Can Teach Us

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

On many coral reefs, the living corals have died, the reef has turned to rubble, and diverse algae have overgrown the rubble. So far, about 80% of coral cover on Caribbean reefs has been lost, and about 50% has been lost on the reefs in the tropical Pacific. Ecologists call this shift in ecosystem structure a phase shift, or ‘regime change’.

This global coral reef disaster is not a new and sudden response to some new stress. The shift to algae has been coming for 3 or 4 decades, and the stresses responsible include overfishing of both predators and herbivores, pollution, demolition, hurricanes, diseases of both corals and sea urchins, along with ocean warming and coral bleaching. Sea level rise and ocean acidification pose ever greater threats in the decades ahead.

Surviving coral reefs around Indonesia are still fished illegally with dynamite (solcomhouse.com)

Surviving coral reefs around Indonesia are still fished illegally with dynamite (solcomhouse.com)

If we could stop the fishing, the pollution, and the habitat destruction, as we do in no-take Marine Protected Areas, and assuming for the moment that the ocean is not going to get too warm, too high, or too acidic too quickly, what kind of coral reef recovery is then possible?

If herbivores like parrot fish and sea urchins return to a reef, they can clear the algae off pieces of the substrate, and coral larvae have a chance to colonize. Whether they succeed depends on many factors: light, current, predators, competition, chance, and even the ‘taste’ of the reef. But recovery is at least possible.

To help coral reefs recovery, corals are grown for a year or two and then transplanted to a damaged reef (digitaljournal.com)

To help coral reefs recovery, corals are grown for a year or two and then transplanted to a damaged reef (digitaljournal.com)

Of course we cannot pretend that climate change will not devastate coral reefs, no matter how resilient they might be now. Even under ideal conditions, recovery would take decades, and time is something we don’t have much of.

But coral reefs may still have a lot to teach us. We know now that shifts from one stable phase to another stable phase of an ecosystem can take decades, and is likely to be the result of accumulating and interacting stresses. Such a shift may start without our recognizing it for decades, and once we finally recognize it, there may then be little we can do about it. As the climate warms, we are likely to see this play out repeatedly in both marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Can it also occur at a planetary scale, shifting us from a cool and dry planet to a hothouse planet? It has happened before. Perhaps it has already started, a result of accumulating stresses that we have caused, passing a tipping point we have not noticed.

Or perhaps we have not reached that point, and we can recover some of what we have lost, like no-take zones in MPAs. Perhaps we can still slow the process enough so that the outcome is one we and most of our co-existing species can tolerate as we too explore the limits of our resilience.

Coral reefs as we remember them (plaza.ufl.edu)

Coral reefs as we remember them (plaza.ufl.edu)

The Great Barrier Reef : We Barely Knew You

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

We are going to lose our coral reefs within the next century – including the greatest of them all, the Great Barrier Reef. Warming ocean temperatures, coral bleaching, and ocean acidification will kill them. This is without the overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution that already seriously stress them. Some very tolerant and adaptable coral species will probably persist, but the reefs will crumble.

The Great Barrier Reef extends for 1430 miles close to the coast of northeast Australia, with 3000 separate reefs or cays, and hundreds of islands (cairnsdiveadventures.com.au)

The Great Barrier Reef extends for 1430 miles close to the coast of northeast Australia, with 3000 separate reefs or cays, and hundreds of islands (cairnsdiveadventures.com.au)

Coral reef biologists continue to have depressing annual meetings. Individuals, scientists, NGOs and other organizations all continue to search for ways to protect reefs and give them more time to adapt to what lies ahead. But what lies ahead is bleak indeed.

What to do? Just accept it and watch it happen? Find some way to prevent it? Though much has been written about this, Ian McCalman’s new book The Reef is an intriguing contribution.

Historian Iain McCalman book The Reef takes us from Captain Cook's imperial invasion to the impact of current climate change,

Historian Iain McCalman book The Reef takes us from Captain Cook’s imperial invasion to the impact of current climate change,

It is, to start with, a very fine book. It tells the history of our emerging understanding of the Great Barrier Reef through the journals and accounts of 20 people, in 20 chapters, starting with Captain Cook’s trip up the GBR Inner Passage in 1770, one he was lucky to survive with his repaired ship still floating.

Captain Cook on his first trip mapped the coasts of New Zealand and Eastern Australia (gbrexperience.com)

Captain Cook on his first trip mapped the coasts of New Zealand and Eastern Australia (gbrexperience.com)

Then some of the naturalists on board subsequent navigating trips by other ships used the opportunity to get to know the Aborigines and the geology and some of the biology of the reef. The naturalists mainly counted species, all well known long before that by the coastal Aborigines.

Some castaways from ships wrecked on various parts of the reef at the north end near Torres Straight were saved and adopted by Aborigines, and lived to tell their remarkable stories about the people who were radically different from their popular reputation as savage, violent and ignorant cannibals.

And then in the early 1900s came the trained naturalists and scientists who began more serious study of the reef. Maurice Young’s year long expedition in 1929, leading a team of 14 scientists (amazingly for its time, 6 were women) revealed a lot about corals and their commensal and possibly symbiotic algae (known as zooxanthellae).

The colors of coral come from their symbiotic zooxanthellae that are expelled when ocean surface temperatures rise a couple of degrees, bleaching the corals (lovethesepics.com)

The colors of coral come from their symbiotic zooxanthellae that are expelled when ocean surface temperatures rise a couple of degrees, bleaching the corals (lovethesepics.com)

Yonge and the team wrote extensively about the year, drawing attention to the great uniqueness of the GBR – and unintentionally attracted hordes of tourists with all their collateral damage. So close to the mainland, the unprotected reef became stressed by resorts, pollution, uncontrolled fishing, destructive dynamiting, and growing interest by oil and gas companies.

All of this provoked the increasing concern of the conservationists and ecologists emerging over the past half century. In 1979, after great conflict among the players, the GBR Marine Park was finally created. In 1981 UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site.

McCalman concludes the personal narratives with an account of the naturalist and coral expert, Charlie Veron, who early on recognized the growing threats to coral reefs from climate change. He published his own fine book in 2009 with the sobering title A Reef in Time: the GBR from Beginning to End.

Charlie Veron's book tells the history of the GBR and its imminent end (amazon.com)

Charlie Veron’s book tells the history of the GBR and its imminent end (amazon.com)

At the very end of his book, McCalman tries not to leave us in fatalistic despair about the reef by sharing the anecdotes of some very resilient humans, determined to not give up.

But that is not enough.

The only real hope for any kind of coral reef survival is rapid reduction of CO2 emissions. We need to dispel the myths that prevent the US, Canada and other nations from taking action. And we need to nourish plausible new ideas, like the cap-and-dividend proposal of US Congressman Chris Van Hollen which even libertarians seem to like.

But all of this has happened far too quickly. Just under three centuries will have passed from our ‘discovery’ of the GBR to its probable destruction at our hands.

We thought we would have more time together.

Signal from Sea Butterflies

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

Sea butterflies are in the news, stressed by ocean acidification.

What do we now know about the decline in pH of ocean waters?

Well, we know that the pH has dropped from 8.2, where it was at the start of the Industrial Revolution, to its current level of about 8.1, and that the rate of change has increased in the past several decades. This may not sound like much, but in fact it indicates a 30% increase in the concentration of H+ ions in sea water. That is plenty to stress species that depend on carbonate ions in the water to build the calcium carbonate shells and skeletons that they depend on.

pH of ocean water in 1850 was about 8.2, with lower levels occurring in a few areas of coastal upwelling (igbp.net)

pH of ocean water in 1850 was about 8.2, with lower levels occurring in a few areas of coastal upwelling (igbp.net)

At current rates of global atmospheric CO2 emissions, ocean pH will drop further to 7.8 by the end of the century.

By 2100 ocean pH will have dropped to about 7.8, with extensive coastal areas particularly affected (igbp.net)

By 2100 ocean pH will have dropped to about 7.8, with extensive coastal areas particularly affected (igbp.net)

Ocean acidification has occurred before on the planet, but this event is different: it is happening 100 times more rapidly than any previous events we know of. Geochemists are looking 300 million years into the past, and there is nothing like it.

As CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen, about 30% has dissolved in ocean water, where pH has dropped (igbp.net)

As CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen, about 30% has dissolved in ocean water, where pH has dropped (igbp.net)

And it matters. Anything with an exposed calcium carbonate shell or skeleton will be affected – think mollusks, corals, and shellfish like crabs, shrimp and lobsters. With more CO2 dissolved in the water, there are more more bicarbonate ions along with the greater levels of H+ ions, and as a result less carbonate is available to make calcium carbonate. The shells are vulnerable to dissolution unless the surrounding water is saturated with carbonate ions, for they then lose calcium back into the water. As the shells erode and weaken, the animals become stressed, misshapen and potentially dead.

We’ve known about the increasing threat of ocean acidification for some years, but perhaps it has seemed a more distant threat than others associated with our increased CO2 emissions. But we know there already has been an impact on shell growth of oysters and mussels, and we know that coral reefs are particularly vulnerable as pH continues to decline. We have certainly been warned.

Sea butterflies are planktonic snails abundant over the world's continental shelves (realmonstrosities.com)

Sea butterflies are planktonic snails abundant over the world’s continental shelves (realmonstrosities.com)

Now we are warned once again, this time by sea butterflies. Also known as pteropods, these actually are pea-sized snails that live in the plankton where they are predators of other plankton and the common prey of fish. They are very beautiful to us – translucent, graceful, with the snail foot modified into what look like flapping wings. The shell is much reduced, though still very present, and the shells of species living in the California Current along the west coast of the US are showing signs of unusual erosion from exposure to the lower pH.

Electron micrographs of the shell of a healthy sea butterfly on the left, and the eroded shell of one stressed by lower pH on the right (arstecnhica.com)

Electron micrographs of the shell of a healthy sea butterfly on the left, and the eroded shell of one stressed by lower pH on the right (arstecnhica.com)

There are several key issues here. The rate of ocean acidification is unprecedented, and we don’t really know what lies ahead. We also know that vulnerable organisms will have insufficent time to adapt even if adaptation were possible. Eliminating vulnerable species like pteropods – or brittle stars, corals, mollusks or crustacesns – from ecosystems where they play a critical role as prey or predator will change the communities in ways that may also effect the top predators we want to catch. We are not short of discouraging examples of such community restructuring.

Do poster species help? Though the looming loss of coral reefs has not galvanized us to action, effective conservation campaigns have been built on the images of a variety of mammals, from whales and polar bears to koalas and pandas.

But sea butterflies as poster species? Because of their beauty, perhaps that isn’t impossible. It can’t hurt.

Grassroots Alternative

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

How do we achieve a global response to the challenges of climate change? How do we protect the planet from the risks of global change?

Arguments built on evidence-based science of course are essential, but they are also clearly insufficient. More evidence isn’t going to sway the deniers or the oil and energy corporations.

Better leadership is always worth pursuing, and some good leaders do exist, but the process of changing poor leaders for good ones is painfully slow, unpredictable, and anything but inevitable – no matter whether we look at the US, Canada, Russia or China.

unfccc

The UN would seem to be a likely forum, with its annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings – but these are highly politicized and very frustrating meetings of government representatives, and exclude the representatives of the many NGOs and civil organizations that are forced to meet around the edges and have very little influence.

At every annual COP meeting, Canada has received 'Fossil of the Day Awards' for its abysmal action and leadership in dealing with climate change (climateactionnetwork.ca)

At every annual COP meeting, Canada has received ‘Fossil of the Day Awards’ for its abysmal action and leadership in dealing with climate change (climateactionnetwork.ca)

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is calling together what he hopes will be a more inclusive Climate Summit in NYC in 2014, and perhaps it will do better, but too many of the government players remain the same.

The 2)the annual Conference of the Parties, COP 20, organized by the UNFCCC will be held in Peru this year (mocicc.org)

The 2)the annual Conference of the Parties, COP 20, organized by the UNFCCC will be held in Peru this year (mocicc.org)

We clearly need something more – more global, more representative of civil views as well as those of scientists and NGOs.

A proposal has emerged from several directions: we need an annual conference along the lines of the International AIDS Conference, with the intent of provoking global cooperation to protect the climate.

Like the IAC it would include scientists, NGOs, and representatives of civil society, but not the UN and not individual governments. Like the IAC, it would be a forum for sharing information, for developing policy, for advocacy, a place where we can encourage action and where we can also call out nations and corporations that are behaving badly, like Canada.

The International AIDS Society has also been holding annual AIDS conferences for 20 years. AIDS 2014 will be held in Melbourne, with 20,000 delegates expected. (iasociety.org)

The International AIDS Society has also been holding annual AIDS conferences for 20 years. AIDS 2014 will be held in Melbourne, with 20,000 delegates expected. (iasociety.org)

This is not an impossible dream. The IAC started small and has grown huge. It has effected important changes. Obviously there are many differences, not the least being the sense of immediate and personal medical urgency that has driven the IAC.

Still, the urgency we face with the risks of climate change gets greater every year. To deal with them, we need global cooperation. So far the UN conferences and other government gatherings have achieved little of substance. We need another route to building a global voice.

Why don’t we start up a Global Conference on the Risks of Climate Change? It needs to come from us, a grass roots initiative that ignores governments and corporations.

It can start as small as it has to, but why not start?

Why not? (le-mot-juste-en-anglais-typepad.com)

Why not? (le-mot-juste-en-anglais-typepad.com)

Cultural Cognition

Monday, February 17th, 2014

It doesn’t seem to matter which topic we choose – climate change, evolution, gun control, gm organisms, nanotechnology, vaccine use, incarceration methods and sentences, tobacco smoking – all have resulted in angry and polarized confrontations.

Why does this occur over and over again?

Dan Kahan at Yale has done a number of quite extensive studies, both experimental and survey based, looking at a variety of topics, trying to address this question.

Our wet, blue planet: how great are the risks? (nasa.gov)

Our wet, blue planet: how great are the risks? (nasa.gov)

In one study he asked his subjects how much risk climate change poses for human health, safety or prosperity. As in all his studies, the sample size was large enough that he could test for age, gender, race, class, education, political party, and cultural world view.

What did he find? For gender, race, class or age, no correlations.

What about degree of science literacy and numeracy? Not only not correlated, but in fact an increase in science literacy and numeracy magnified the polarization of views, perhaps quite the opposite of what you might have expected.

Surely political affiliation was correlated? Only barely: the typical political orientation of a person dismissing the risks of climate change was an Independent just right of center, while that of one who considered the risks to be great was an Independent just left of center.

Only one’s cultural world view strongly predicted the sense of environmental risk. People whose world views were simultaneously more hierarchical (authority respected) and individualistic (individual initiative prized) tended to dismiss the evidence of environmental risk, while those whose values were more egalitarian and communitarian considered the risks to be unacceptable.

Senator Inhofe is the ranking Republican on the Senate's Environment and Public works Committee. His book should embarrass him, but doesn't (demunderground.com)

Senator Inhofe is the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Environment and Public works Committee. His book should embarrass him, but doesn’t (demunderground.com)

Sandy Poster: this doesn't help either: it just polarizes us further (blogs.cbn.com)

Sandy Poster: this doesn’t help either: it just polarizes us further (blogs.cbn.com)

Kahan concludes that no matter what the evidence may be, we actually make our own decisions based on what he calls ‘cultural cognition’.

For example, each of us knows that as an individual there is little that we can do to alleviate the effects of climate change, yet at the same time we know that if we take a position on the question that is in conflict with that of our peers, we face the real repercussions of their anger, abuse, disapproval, dismissal, even shunning. Weighing the comparative risks, most of us accept the peer pressure, reject arguments we might otherwise accept, and survive intact in our social communities.

Kahan’s other studies have very similar results. Is all of this surprising? Maybe not. But it does mean that in many situations evidence-based arguments will not prevail.

Kahan proposes that the real challenge then is how to communicate good science in ways that reduce the polarization. For instance in the case of the climate change debate, focusing on alternative energy sources and possible geo-engineering solutions might be helpful. Involving diverse ‘communicators’ apparently may also make a difference.

Of course this isn’t saying that all extremists can be induced to moderate their views. And Kahan’s suggested solutions still look weak. But the problem before us now is clearer: we make some of our important decisions based on our ideologies, not on evidence. More evidence, more clearly presented, may not be the solution.

Congressmen John Boehmer, John Shimkus, Paul Rand (treehugger.org)

Congressmen John Boehmer, John Shimkus, Paul Rand (treehugger.org)


Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver and Prime Minister Stephen Harper (ipolitics.ca) These are all political leaders in North America. All dismiss the risks of climate change. According to Kahan, white men, especially entitled ones, are more likely to dismiss the risks of climate change than women or people of other races.

Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver and Prime Minister Stephen Harper (ipolitics.ca)
These are all political leaders in North America. All dismiss the risks of climate change. According to Kahan, white men, especially entitled ones, are more likely to dismiss the risks than women or people of other races.

Kahan’s conclusions are at least based on evidence-based arguments. Now we need unusual ways to communicate them or we probably won’t accept them anyway.

What if we’re just not smart enough to find ways to moderate our polarized positions? That really is too bleak to contemplate. Kahan’s ‘truth’ may be partial, but surely it is worth pursuing.

Eemian Evidence

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

So what do we really know?

We’re deep in an Ice Age, the third that has occurred in the past half billion years. In between Ice Ages, the Earth has been very warm, in its ‘hot-house’ phase, with high sea levels and free of glaciers and ice caps.

The Ice Ages that preceded ours occurred 290 and 440 million years ago. Note that the time scale is more compressed on the left(acer-acre.ca)

The Ice Ages that preceded ours occurred 290 and 440 million years ago. Note that the time scale is more compressed on the left(acer-acre.ca)

Our Ice Age began 2.6 million years ago, caused at least in part by the drift of Antarctica to cover the southern polar region, and the northern continents closing off much of the Arctic Ocean. Without cold polar water easily mixing with warm tropical water, polar ice caps and glaciers formed and grew, and the global average temperature dropped from about 22 degrees C to about 12 degrees C.

plate_history_lge classroomatsea.net

The continents drift endlessly, slowly, on 12 plates driven by convection currents in the magma below the Earth’s crust (classroomatsea.net)

During our Ice Age glacial and interglacial periods have cycled regularly. We’re in an interglacial period now, but even the interglacial periods are cool – the ice caps just retreat, they don’t completely melt, for cold polar water is still trapped in the Arctic and around Antarctica.

In our current Ice Age, glacial and interglacial periods cycle with remarkable regularity (atala.fr)

In our current Ice Age, glacial and interglacial periods cycle with remarkable regularity (atala.fr)

Our interglacial period, which we’ve named the Holocene Interglacial, started about 12,000 years ago. Probably not merely coincidentally, while we as a species have evolved over the whole time of this Ice Age, our explosion into whatever it is we are now began with the onset of the Holocene Interglacial.

Antarctic temperatures and atmospheric CO2 and Methane levels over the past four cylces of glacial and interglacial periods (eoearth.org)

Antarctic temperatures and atmospheric CO2 and Methane levels over the past four cylces of glacial and interglacial periods (eoearth.org)

We have also learned much from the analysis the last interglacial, the Eemian Interglacial, which began 130,000 years ago and lasted for about 20 thousand years. An ice core drilled into the northern Greenland ice sheet reached down to bedrock through 2.5km of ice, and back 250,000 years. The drilling took three years, the analysis another year, and the results were published in Nature last January.

The NEEM ice core was taken from the northeern part of the ice sheet where the deepest ice is 250,000 years old (neem.dk)

The NEEM ice core was taken from the northeern part of the ice sheet where the deepest ice is 250,000 years old (neem.dk)

In the Eemian Interglacial, global average temperatures were about 4 degrees C warmer than our current global average; CO2 levels rose to about 320 parts per million, sea levels rose about 6-8 meters higher than present, and the Greenland ice sheet melted from about 200m higher than present to about 130 lower than it is now. Since the Greenland ice sheet didn’t all melt during the Eemian Interglacial, the rest of the sea level increase must have come from the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet.

Knowing all this, what can we truly predict about our future? We have clear models from the recent and from the more distant past of what the possible outcomes actually would be.

With atmospheric CO2 levels as high as they are at present, 393 ppm as of October, we can expect the global average temperature to become at least a few degrees warmer, and sea levels to rise at least a few more meters.

Average global temperature tracks CO2 levels over the past 400,000 years. Our Holocene Interglacial is on the extreme right, and our CO2 levels are striking (icecore_records-sympatico.ca)

Average global temperature tracks CO2 levels over the past 400,000 years. Our Holocene Interglacial is on the extreme right, and our CO2 levels are striking (icecore_records-sympatico.ca)

If CO2 levels continue to rise, as they are likely to do, we may force the Earth prematurely out of this Ice Age and back to its hothouse phase, over-riding the impact of continental drift in keeping the poles cold.

Obviously this is an ever changing planet, whether or not we are here to ride it out, and any sense we have that it is stable, benign or in any kind of equilibrium is shear delusion on our part.

But we have increased the pace of change, and this is going to be quite a trip. There are an awful lot of us on the planet, and if the changes happen as quickly as all the graphs from the past indicate they will, the human cost of the upheaval is going to be huge.

Of course we can adapt, but we need more time to do so without excessive misery.
We still do have the potential to limit both the extent and the pace of global warming.

Celebrating the last piece of ice core, extracted from 2.5 km below the surface of the Greenland ice sheet (neem.dk)

Celebrating the last piece of ice core, extracted from 2.5 km below the surface of the Greenland ice sheet (neem.dk)