Archive for September, 2014

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)