Archive for the ‘Books, Movies and Aquariums’ Category

Chasing Ice

Friday, December 21st, 2012

At the culmination of the documentary movie Chasing Ice there is a striking time-lapse sequence, covering three years in a couple of minutes, of glaciers retreating and collapsing.

Almost all the glaciers on the planet are in retreat – we’ve known this for years – but still the images are impressive, and those of the collapse are new. The glacier lying before us appears to deflate, leaving a pile of dirty rubble on the ground.

Huge icebergs break off from the Greenland ice sheet, while the glaciers retreat at an ever faster rate (chasingice.com)

Huge icebergs break off from the Greenland ice sheet, while the glaciers retreat at an ever faster rate (chasingice.com)

Chasing Ice has played in theaters in many North American cities throughout the autumn and will continue to do so through much of the winter. James Balog, who made this movie, thinks – hopes? – that seeing his images will make climate change appear more real to us, and maybe even prod us into action.

Will anyone not already convinced of the reality of a warming planet go to see the movie? I hope so.

Melting glaciers in Tibet will result in short-term flooding and then long-term drought in China and northern India (the hindu.com)

Melting glaciers in Tibet will result in short-term flooding and then long-term drought in China and northern India (the hindu.com)

Chasing Ice isn’t quite a great movie, though it is long-listed for an Academy Award. It lacks the rich data and fine graphics of Al Gore’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth that upset so many people. It also lacks the human drama of Ric O’Barry’s Oscar-winning The Cove. But it is interesting enough, and some of it is quite arresting. It is worth seeing.

If we experience evidence of global warming directly, as many did with the wave surge of Hurricane Sandy, perhaps then we will be convinced to act. In Chasing Ice we follow one man’s obsession with showing some of the other evidence of global warming. Like most documentary movies it was made to try to disturb us, to engage us more emotionally.

Seeing it happen on film is not the same as experiencing it, of course. On the other hand, watching a glacier retreat in real time is less than a gripping experience. Seeing it in time-lapse turns it into the real drama that it is.

This movie can only help.

Even a single picture can have a powerful impact: in 2012 the Arctic ice cap melted further than ever on record, to half of what it was 20 years ago. (wunderground.org)

Even a single picture can have a powerful impact: in 2012 the Arctic ice cap melted further than ever on record, to half of what it was 20 years ago (wunderground.org)

The Niger Delta

Monday, November 19th, 2012

There are a lot of environmentally wrecked places around the planet, sites we have known about for years. Generally they involve our efforts to extract stuff.

Of course environmentalists are frustrated that evidence – the photographs, videos and data on contamination and destruction – is largely ignored, but we shouldn’t be surprised. These are not rational times.

Another approach is through fiction, and a new and award-winning book, ‘419‘ by Will Ferguson, does it really very well.

Winner of Canada’s 2012 Giller Prize, this is an outstanding story.

The book is about Nigeria, framed by the emailed money-requesting scams we are so familiar with. (419 refers to the Nigerian law that prohibits such fraud). It is a terrific book, a tight and evocative tale of the harsh scramble that is life in Nigeria and how it can reach out to naive North Americans – well, in this case Canadians.

The oil fields along the coast of the Niger Delta are rich, exploited by many oil companies, subjected to minimal regulations (i-er.com)

A lot of the book takes place in the Niger Delta in Nigeria in west Africa, once home to many tribes living on the fishing the delta once provided. The destruction of the delta by the oil companies has involved mangrove destruction, air and water contamination, eliminated fisheries, militancy and the ‘Mosquito’ resistance and kidnappings for ransom, impressive levels of graft, and the complicity of the Nigerian government. As a result the history is one of destroyed cultures, far too familiar and horrible, and should never have occurred.

Natural gas is burned off as ‘flares’ wherever oil is drilled – but existing regulations on flaring are rarely enforced in Nigeria. The CO2 emitted by flaring in the Niger Delta is about equal to the CO2 emissions of Italy (nair aland.com)

If improvements can occur, if the destruction is to be successfully reduced and even perhaps reversed, the spotlight on the Delta needs to be a bright and strong one. ‘419’ will be read for its absorbing plot of relationships, manipulation, scams and life-and-death events. But as well it evokes an environmental hell, one for which we are all to blame.

Many very fine non-fiction books have been written by fluent and lucid environmentalists. Books that should have influenced the political leaders of the world, books that should have scared them into action. They obviously didn’t. Probably they didn’t get read by the people who most needed to read them.

So let’s see where good fiction takes us.

The Niger Delta is a reasonable target – if it can be in part recovered, probably anywhere can. Responsible drilling, gas flares eliminated, contamination cleaned up, communities made part of the solution, government laws concerning environmental and cultural protection not just passed but actually implemented: is this too much to strive for?

It can’t be – though in his book Ferguson offers only the very slimmest of hopes.

ExxonMobil The Evil Empire

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

After waiting years to get permission, Royal Dutch Shell finally began drilling its first exploration well in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest Alaskan coast this past summer. Tests of its safety equipment have not gone well, and wind-driven sea ice has threatened the operation. Any further drilling of the exploration well has now been postponed until next summer.

Shell’s Noble Discoverer drilling rig on the Chukchi Sea, seen from the deck of the Tor Viking icebreaker. (Royal Dutch Shell, latimes.com))

This has been a benign season in the Arctic, and still the result is failure. This does not bode well for Arctic drilling, but if we can be sure of anything in this uncertain world, we can expect Shell, and BP, and Chevron, and the biggest of them all, ExxonMobil – as well as the Norwegian and Russian oil companies – to explore the Arctic and then to drill it over the next decades.

A recent book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, by Steve Coll tells the tale of ExxonMobil from the catastrophic spill by the Exxon Valdez in 1989, through its rise in reach, power and wealth to become the most profitable of global corporations, to its present belated enthusiasm for fracking. It is an extraordinary tale of bald self-interest and cynicism.

Steve Coll’s book, published in 2012, is long, detailed, short on reflection, and frightening (nytimes.com)

Over the past 20 years, ExxonMobil has moved slowly and reluctantly through a series of attitudes about climate change. Of course it denied the reality of global warming for as long as possible, and funded the research of the skeptics. Then, eventually, it agreed that burning carbon-based fuels was in fact warming the planet – but its own analysis determined that the global demand for energy is growing so fast that even if alternate sources are available, they will only fill a small part of the need. We will remain dependent on ExxonMobil and the other oil companies for oil and natural gas for the next decades.

Seeing how the wind is now blowing in the US, ExxonMobil now supports the call for energy independence and even says that it could tolerate a carbon tax – but it believes in neither taxes nor the need for US energy independence.

ExxonMobil is a huge global corporation whose products are natural gas and oil, and whose sole motive is profit. It is present in 200 countries, extracting oil and gas from dozens of them. It is resistant to any action that might decrease its global access and profit. Its influence in US flows through through the efforts of lobbyists working on congressmen, cabinet members, and presidents. Access is never denied.

No government can resist the oil companies, not even the US. Coll’s book is very sobering.

Meanwhile, despite the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, offshore exploration and drilling is expanding around the world. Taking the risks, especially in the Arctic, is madness. Unfortunately, the oil companies, in their endless quest for more profits from more exploitable oil and gas deposits, remain indifferent to the long-term impact of what they do.

ExxonMobil has drilled a well offshore California that extends more than six miles horizontally and more than 7,000 ft below sea level. It was drilled from the Heritage platform using the company’s Fast Drill technology. (drillingcontractor.org)

The only concern ExxonMobil and the other oil companies express is that at some point the nations of the planet finally will become really afraid of the effects of global warming and agree to take concerted, major action.

Our challenge then is to bring that about now, not decades from now. We can start with the current US election – although neither party talks about climate change, at least President Obama understands that it exists and that it poses great dangers. In Canada we can try to constrain the development of the Alberta oil sands and the exploration for oil and gas in Canada’s Arctic.

And we can push back against the oil companies. They need our encouragement to do the right thing.

As do our governments.

Leadership Exists

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

A young Canadian Inuit hunter, Jordan Konek and his cousin Curtis Konek, have traveled from Nunavut to Durban, South Africa, to the very sad UN climate change summit occurring there. They carry the message that the Arctic is melting and that their hunting culture will soon be lost.

Jordan (left) and Curtis Konek, Inuit from the Canadian Arctic, are in Durban, calling for action(theglobeandmail.com).

They are there because Canada once again is the pariah, the voice for taking no action on controlling carbon emissions. No country in the world, not even the US, is more disappointing than Canada, which continues to advertize the Alberta tar sands as the ‘ethical alternative’. Such an embarrassment.

Joesph Konek accepts the Colossal Fossil mock award on behalf of Canada at the UN climate talks in Durban (globeandmail.com)

Other industrialized countries of course have succeeded in taxing carbon emissions.

The best recent example is Australia, where per capita carbon emissions have been the world’s worst – greater than in both Canada and the US. Now the 500 most polluting companies in Australia will have to pay $24 per ton on CO2 emissions. The target is 80% reduction of 2000 levels by 2050. The resistance to this has been great, and will continue to be so. But it has happened.

Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia, announcing the new carbon tax (independent.co.uk).

Carbon emission taxes have in fact existed in the four Scandinavian countries since 1990-1992, and the United Kingdom since 2001. Some taxes exist in India, and even China is indicating plans to limit emissions.

Despite of the unfortunate official federal positions of Canada and the US, a few states and provinces are going their own ways. A cap and trade scheme is pending in California; nine North East states established the Regional Greenhouse Initiative for cap and trade in 2006 and 2009, though New Jersey’s Governor Christie wants out; the US Western Climate Initiative, involving California (the 6 other states withdrew in November) and 4 Canadian provinces has at least not totally collapsed in the current political climate; Quebec province and British Columbia have carbon taxes; and Ontario has an encouraging Green Energy Act.

Lisa Jackson, head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, is a rare effective environmental leader in the US at the national level (politico.com).

Even some North American cities are going it alone. Boulder, quite famously, started a Carbon tax in 2007, and is the greenest city in the country. Seattle, Portland and San Francisco are moving toward sustainability. Vancouver plans to be carbon neutral by 2012, and to be the greenest city in the world by 2020.

A movie worth looking for is The Island President, currently doing the film festival circuit (it won the award for best documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival in September). Directed by Jon Shenk, it follows the efforts of the extraordinary president of the Maldives as he tried in 2009 to get the international community at Copenhagen to pay attention to the impact of global warming on low lying island nations.

Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Maldives (nytimes.com)

Leadership may not come from our nationally elected leaders – though as Australia and the Scandinavian countries tell us, that isn’t impossible – but it can come from smaller jurisdictions, and this certainly should continue to give us hope.

It’s all a reminder that strong, passionate and intelligent leaders do exist.

We should encourage them wherever we can find them.

Lessons from Irene: Future Weather

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Climatologist Heidi Cullen includes seven major examples in her fine book The Weather of the Future: The Sahel in Africa, coral reefs, California’s Central Valley, Nunavut in Canada’s Arctic, Greenland, Bangladesh – and New York city. She uses the examples to explore the changes in weather that lie ahead, and the opportunities and the catastrophes that will occur.

The Weather of the Future, by Dr. Heidi Cullen

With her focus on New York City, she looks at the damage a large Level 3 hurricane will have on the City as we know it now. Irene could easily have been that storm, had it not weakened and then dumped most of its remaining rain on the New England states. NYC prepared responsibly for a more direct hit with evacuations and highway and transit closures – but of course was not able to protect itself from the immense damage serious flooding would have wrought.

More intense storms, like Irene, are predicted by the many models of climate change. Cullen imagines that NYC, hit and flooded by a Level 3 hurricane, responds by building dikes and walls and protecting itself not just from rising sea levels but from the full impact of future similar storms.

Hurricane Irene sweeps into the US East Coast (NASA)

Will NYC actually now do this? The cost of doing so is considerable. The cost of not doing so is immense. Irene was a warning, and NYC was very lucky – despite Anderson Cooper’s plaintive ‘where’s the beef’ attitude when he wasn’t blown off the streets.

Cullen also presents a clear summary of the evidence for global warming and climate change, and her reference list is impressively up-to-date and peer reviewed, for anyone looking for the details. As she emphasizes, even if carbon emissions were now suddenly reduced to the levels of a few decades ago, we still have a long time to wait for atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide global and global temperatures to begin to drop again. The best case scenario will still us challenge us to adapt, and then adapt some more..

The current scenario, though, is ‘business-as-usual’, essentially taking no action even though we know more or less what lies ahead over the next century. Cullen has written her book with that attitude in mind, asking what does it take to get us to act to mitigate what we can, and prepare for the rest. As she and others have pointed out, if we wait until there really in nothing left to do but act, it will be too late: the planet will be irreversibly on the way to a ‘hot-house’.

Road Warrior: Challenging outcomes to 'business-as-usual' have been imagined for decades (thinkprogress.org)

And so she imagines what lies ahead, looking as far as 2050, if CO2 emissions remain at current levels. That’s not long from now. In some places, survival through planning and adaptation is possible – NYC, the Arctic, the Sahel. In others there will just be loss, with environmental refugees fleeing Bangladesh and all low lying cities that are not rich and prepared, and vulnerable ecosystems like coral reefs dissolving and bleaching to oblivion.

One of my daughters lives in Connecticut, and felt the recent earthquake and coped with the stress of Irene, while some of her cousins live in Texas where endless hot days and drought have now morphed into a state of fires. And her comment is: so this is what it is now going to be like.

It doesn’t need to be. Let’s once again raise the question of reducing carbon emissions. The ‘business-as-usual’ scenario is what we would expect from an ignorant and foolish species, and surely we are not that.

Atlas of Stress

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

Do you wonder:

– Where are dead zones most abundant and most severe?
– How many of global coral reefs are now already threatened, destroyed, or in critical danger, and how does this vary globally?
– Where are the world’s shipping lanes most concentrated, and what impact do they have?
– What sources of energy from the oceans are being developed and implemented?
– What places are most vulnerable to rising sea levels?
– How quickly is the ice being lost from the Arctic and from the West Antarctic Peninsula?
– Where are ocean territorial disputes most serious, and where are pirates most successful?
– Where have Integrated Coastal Ocean Management Plans been created, and why haven’t they been successful?
– Where are the world’s embarrassingly small Marine Protected Areas located?

The Atlas of Coasts and Oceans by Don Hinrichsen, just out in soft cover, looks at these and many other questions with 2 or 4 page spreads liberally illustrated with global and regional maps, pie charts and histograms, and lays out the many stresses the oceans and and coastal ecosystems face in relentless detail. Concise, well organized, colorful, the atlas emphasizes just how much we know about what the press of humanity has done to the oceans, both directly in terms of resource use, urbanization and tourism, and indirectly, in terms of climate change.

The Atlas ends with a section on coastal and ocean management. Almost all coastal nations have developed management plans, almost all recognize that managing at the level of Large Marine Ecosystems is necessary, and almost all of the plans still exist only on paper, while the need for action grows ever greater.

Of the 64 LMEs of the world, only 5 have any plan in place: the Mediterranean, Baltic, Black, Caribbean, and North Seas. Many other International Management Plans also now exist, but again only a few are functional – the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Black Seas.

Not coincidentally, these are five of the LMEs most likely to be unable to recover. They are examples, if we really need them, of the all too familiar human response of refusing to take action to try to fix something until it is too late.

The Atlas is a valuable addition to the global debate. The overall impact of course is grim and disturbing, but clearly we also have the knowledge and the management tools to at least alleviate some of the stress.

How can we possibly know all this, and still not take sufficient action?

Climate Change is Not a Black Swan

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has become famous for his Black Swan theory: “A Black Swan is a highly improbable event with three principle characteristics: it is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after it occurs, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random and more predictable than it was. We restrict our thinking to the irrelevant and the inconsequential, while large events continue to surprise us and shape our world.”

The 2007 edition of The Black Swan

It’s worth checking out Taleb’s website for a sense of his energy, intelligence and impatience – he is not constrained by humility. And it’s worth reading his books, particularly The Black Swan (2007 or the recent 2010 edition)

Black Swans have occurred frequently during this past decade: 9/11, Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the current rebellions in North Africa are reminders of how little control we have over political and cultural affairs.

The many natural disasters of the decade are also Black Swans: the fires of British Columbia and Russia, the floods of Pakistan and Queensland, the earthquakes in China, Haiti, and Chile, the tsunami of 2004, hurricanes or cyclones like Katrina, and now the triple impact of earthquake, tsunami and partial nuclear meltdown at the Daiichi facility in Japan. Amazingly, there are still some who try to explain the occurrence of such events as divine punishment for human transgressions.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

With more and more people living everywhere, the impact of each major Black Swan is felt by increasing numbers of people. With economic globalization, and the ever expanding Internet, each has the potential to impact the world.

But not all seemingly unexpected massive events are Black Swans. Taleb points out forcefully that the economic meltdown of 2008 was not a Black Swan, but that instead it was the unavoidable outcome of the extraordinary greed of the banks and other financial institutions: bankers might want to convince us that it was a Black Swan, but in fact they were responsible.

Our current global climate change can also look a Black Swan the size of our entire planet, and in many ways we behave as if it is, acting as if it is an improbable, random event with a massive impact whose causes are the natural cycles of the planet that are beyond our control.

But now we know that’s wrong. Current climate change isn’t random and improbable. It is the unavoidable outcome of our uncontrolled carbon emissions. We know how and when it started, how it has developed, and considering our collective unwillingness to do much about it, we know in general terms where it may take us. We know we caused it. Like the economic meltdown, but vastly greater in impact, this is no Black Swan.

We need another metaphor, something to identify a massive catastrophic event that we have made unavoidable because of our own deficiencies.

Any suggestions?

Four Fish

Monday, November 8th, 2010

Four Fish, by Paul Greenberg, published this past year, is an outstanding commentary on the problems faced by global fisheries and what we could do to solve some of them.

Paul Greenberg's Four Fish is the best of recent environmental books.

Greenberg is an excellent journalist and a very experienced fisherman. Although he features salmon, cod, sea bass and tunafish, he includes a diversity of other often, but not always, related fish, as he explores our attitudes to fishing out the remaining wild stocks, and the challenges of aquaculture alternatives.

He condemns efforts to farm carnivorous species, especially tuna, which will eat at least 20 times their weight before they are harvested, but also salmon, which still eat 3-6 times their weight before harvest: this is simply not a sustainable way to feed us.

Bluefin tuna, fattened in pens in the Mediterranean, harvested for shipment to Japan. (fao.org)

He encourages the farming of fish that eat at lower trophic levels, eating less than two times their harvest weight, and where possible eating plants, or plant meal, instead of fish meal. Fish such as the sea bass, barramundi; kahala (or Kona Kampachi) which could easily be used as an alternative in sushi which is currently killing all the remaining bluefin tuna; a fish call tra, catfish-like, popular in Asia; and of course tilapia.

Barramundi hatchery in Queensland, Australia (aaq.com.au).

This leads him to propose something very simple and potentially effective. Let’s market two kinds of fish. One consists of the wild stocks of fish we love to eat because of their extraordinary taste and texture. Their fisheries need to be reduced to long-term sustainable levels; the fishing should be local, artisanal, and not industrial; and the fish should be sold for their real cost to those who can afford to eat them: they should not be subsidized.

The other kind of fish are species selected for rapid growth, vegetarians if possible, that can be easily raised under non-polluting aquaculture conditions: responsible aquaculture. Barramundi and tilapia are excellent examples. They may lack some of the special features of wild fish species, but they taste fine, can be sold relatively cheaply, and provide us with needed protein source. If subsidies are necessary, they should get them.

Another easily farmed species: Tra fish harvest in the Mekong River (vietnamnews.biz)

Greenberg is also critical of our desire to be told which fish are the ones we ought to eat, and then thinking we have done our bit to protect other overfished wild stocks. As he points out, although the public education that is involved is important, there really isn’t any evidence that our eating preferences have had much impact on either wild stocks or farmed populations.

Instead, we need to make much larger changes. For example, the hunting of bluefin tuna needs to stop completely, now, or there just won’t be any left. We need to stop farming species that eat 5-20 times their weight before harvest. We need to find more successful ways to market much more appropriate but less well known farmed species. We need to reduce global industrial fishing, and to fish far more sustainably. We need to protect coastal and oceanic areas that are critical for the survival – and sustainable harvest – of the wild stocks.

These are practical, realistic proposals, and if they were implemented, fish could still have a future in the oceans of this planet. Some of them already occur in very limited ways. Four Fish is a thoughtful, interesting, well-researched, and very reasonable book. It is not strident or extreme, but it is very concerned for, as always, time is short.

It is more than worth just reading it yourself, if you haven’t already: it is worth trying to get our politicians to read it. An excellent Christmas present.

The G20 leaders meet next week. This is a picture of those who met in 2009. Some are still in power. They deserve a chance to read Four Fish (telegraph.co.uk)

Barramundi

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

There’s a new fish in town. Well, perhaps not that new, since Oprah featured it in her magazine, and Paul Greenberg included a few pages on it in his fine book Four Fish. But it’s new for me, and perhaps it is for you as well.

It’s a kind of seabass called Barramundi, an Australian Aboriginal word that means ‘large-scaled river fish’. It lives along the coasts and estuaries of South West Asia, Papua New Guinea, and Northern Australia. Some call it Asian Seabass. The Thai call it Pla Krapong, and eat a lot of it.

The seabass Barramundi (Lates calcarifer), with its large silver scales (reef.crc.org.au)

This is a fish worth seeking out at your local fish market. Like other coastal seabass, it is a white fish that is considered to be fine eating. Like other seabass, it is also an exciting recreational fish – it grows large and fights hard, and supports an active recreational fishery, at least in Northern Australia and in Thailand – but that’s another story.

Most seabass grow up in coastal waters and then migrate up coastal estuaries to breed. Barramundi do the opposite: they live in rivers, and then descend to estuaries and tidal flats to breed. A female lays millions of eggs that require at least brackish water to develop. The fish grow up as males, reaching a length of about 60cm by the time they are 3 years old, and then they become females as they continue to grow. This is an excellent reproductive strategy – males don’t need to be large to produce abundant sperm, while the larger a female, the more eggs she can produce. A female could grow to 1.8 m in length, and then shed a remarkable 30 million eggs.

The unusual life cycle of Barramundi (hinchinbrookfishing.com.au)

This is a fish that is ideal for aquaculture. It has huge gills that let it tolerate environments with little oxygen. It is disease resistant, needing little in the way of antibiotics, or hormone supplements, for that matter. Despite its reputation as a spectacular fighting sport fish, it is docile in captivity. And it grows quickly on vegetarian feed, able to make Omega-3 from plant oils. It needs only small amount of fish oil and feed at end, as a finishing diet. It is usually sold at about 400gm and 32cm ‘plate size’, good for 2 people.

A small, spiced Barramundi cooked on a banana leaf (smh.com.au)

Most Barramundi aquaculture of course is in Australia, India, Indonesia, and Thailand, though Israel and Poland are in the business as well. In the US, it is cultured at Australis Aquaculture at Turners Falls, Mass, in a closed, recirculating system using water from the Connecticut River. They start with hatchery fish at least 5cm long, grow them to 400-600gm in 12 months, and to 3kg in 18-48 months.

So: fast growing, and unlike salmon, mostly vegetarian, non-polluting, disease resistant, and no added antibiotics or hormones. This fish could solve a lot of aquaculture challenges. And yes, it has a fine flaky white flesh. Steam it, fry it, or grill it wrapped, with some herbs, lemon, and white wine.

Lemon and herbs, Barramundi: too good. (thebetterfish.com)

I found Barramundi at a fish monger in the great St.Lawrence Market in Toronto, but it isn’t always there. I don’t see it around at the local supermarkets, but I’m asking every time I visit.

Ask for it where you are, if you haven’t eaten it, and want to.

This fish could make a difference.

Aboriginal art, Australia (kumwinjku-aboriginal-art.com

Cassandra Syndrome

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Cassandras are prophets who speak the truth, yet no one seems to listen.

The original Cassandra had a very hard and frustrating life. She was the king of Troy’s daughter at the time of the Trojan War. The god Apollo liked her, and gave her the gift of foretelling the future. Unfortunately, she didn’t much like Apollo, so he twisted his gift to her: in her prophecies, she would still speak the truth, but no one would believe her. After the war, Agamemnon took her home with him as a concubine, where – as she knew would happen – his wife Clytemnestra killed her.

Death of Cassandra (historyforkids.org)

Perhaps most prophets are unlikely to be believed, but it is most discouraging when their predictions are based on mountains of hard data. With increasing detail and breadth of evidence, environmental scientists have been warning us for two decades or more about the immense impact of global warming and the climate destabilization associated with it. They are the Cassandras of our times, for those who have the power to take action have chosen not to believe them.

Do you remember The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, published in a few volumes in 2005, involving more than 1300 scientists from around the world? It clearly documented the declining health of the planet, and explored in several distinct scenarios the major options we have. By far the bleakest was the take-no-action ‘business-as-usual’, scenario, which none of the authors expected would occur. But business-as-usual it has remained.

Considering the bad press of a year ago, you probably do remember the 4th Assessment Report published in 2007 by the
International Panel on Climate Change. Another huge multi-national, multi-authored effort, it got a couple of its facts wrong, but it also clearly presented the evidence for current rapid climate change. It almost certainly has underestimated the rate of change that is occurring. Yet, at least in North America, it has been ignored.

The 5th IPCC Report is underway, due in 2013 (ipcc.ch)

And who can forget the embarrassing and disastrous outcome of the ‘take-no-action’ UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December?

Many books of course have also been published. The most popular was The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery. He followed it up with Now or Never in 2009. He has been a fluent and tireless critic of the inaction of the global community.

Tim Flannery

Gus Speth, one of the most experienced environmentalists on the planet, with the ear of US presidents over the past decades, has written two remarkable books, Red Sky at Morning , where he pointed out the ways we could have dealt with some of the challenges, and several years later with Bridge at the End of the World, where it was clear he feared how little time we have left to do anything meaningful. He initiated the unusually useful website environment360 www.e360.yale.edu.

Gus Speth

Have any policies changed? Not in the US, or Canada.

David Orr, in his more recent book Down to the Wire once again raised the familiar issues and their discouraging causes, but since time has passed, the challenges are both clearer and larger. As the time we have left to respond grows ever shorter, the necessary response grows ever larger and more complex.

Since just saying it is now too late to do anything useful is hardly a helpful message, Orr calls for transformative change – of how we govern ourselves, of our consumerism, of our use of energy and fossil fuel resources. He calls for an end of war and violence, and for global cooperation, as we become submerged in a long emergency for planet Earth.

David Orr

He says we have run out of time to do anything less, but that we do have the capacity to act. So will the US Congress finally listen? Will the Canadian Parliament begin to show some leadership? Will the massive corporate world recognize its responsibilities?

At some point, our environmental prophets will have to be believed, and cease to be Cassandras.
How do we get there?