Monday, June 22, 2015

And the Band Played On

It's generally accepted in the scientific community that it takes one to several centuries, on average, for species to truly adapt to a 1 degree Celsius shift in temperature, up or down.

Look around today and you'll see species "running" for their lives, continually migrating ever further away from the equatorial zone.  Some species, particularly those that swim or fly, have a big advantage when it comes to migration.  Plants aren't quite so lucky yet it's calculated that, in totality, they too are migrating at about 8-inches every year.

From my perch out here on the Pacific we see lots of signs of this migration out of the south.  Humpbacks have returned to our waters in big numbers.  Large schools of white sided dolphins have arrived bringing pods of transient orca with them.  California has lost its once abundant anchovies which might be the same populations that have recently shown up here.  Victoria now even has a resident flock of brown pelicans that have taken up residence between the provincial capital and Race Rocks.

This may be a case where the race goes to the swiftest in which event there'll be plenty of losers.

One of the most prominent experts in this area is the University of Hawaii's Camilo Mora, whose specialties include biogeography, geology and climate data modeling.  Mora and his fellow researchers made headlines a couple of years ago when they produced a study that forecasts 2047 as the year by which every year that follows - every year - will be hotter than the hottest year that area has experienced over the previous century and a half, a phenomenon called "climate departure."  Some places will reach that point long before then:

Mora forecasts that the unprecedented heat starts in 2020 with Manokwari, Indonesia. Then Kingston, Jamaica. Within the next two decades, 59 cities will be living in what is essentially a new climate, including Singapore, Havana, Kuala Lumpur and Mexico City.

In an interview last year with Yale University's e360 Project, Mora touched on the frustration caused researchers by the public's and their leaders' reluctance to respond to the plain science.

You don’t see any action on these things. And the problem is that these things die away pretty quickly. The press coverage of this paper lasted two days. We were in the New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN. And next week, people were talking about something else. So as scientists, we are struggling to figure out how we can increase public awareness on this issue.

Pope Francis stirred up a lot of reaction last week to his papal encyclical on climate change in which he focused on climate change and over-consumption, especially by the advantaged countries, that were wrecking the environment. The pope, however, disingenuously gave overpopulation a pass.  Mora disagrees.  To him our population loading is already excessive.

Well, it’s paramount because people need food. And the planet is limited in the amount of resources that it can produce. We already have calculated that the planet has on the order of 11 billion hectares that can be harvested in a sustainable manner. Of course we can increase the number by increasing technology, but that’s been happening for the last three decades. The worldwide population is 7 billion people, and we know that to sustain a human being you need on the order of two hectares per person. That means that the world human population every year consumes on the order of 14 billion hectares. The planet only has eleven to give to us.

This doesn't take into account the more recent research about global soil degradation and the mounting threat to food security.  In March, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization released a report on the ongoing degradation of our stocks of arable land, warning that a lot of our topsoil over the next 60-years will be ruined by intensive agriculture and the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.  Like Mora's research and the Living Planet Report, 2014 finding that we have lost half our wildlife over the past 30 years, the UNFAO study was almost immediately flushed straight down the memory hole, completely forgotten.

Much of Mora's claims about overpopulation is borne out by research conducted by the NGO, Global Footprint Network, which tracks the biomass deficit that has set in around the world (only a handful of countries, Canada being one, remain in a biomass surplus).  From this the GFN issues an annual release to mark "Earth Overshoot Day," the date on which we exhaust a full year's supply of the planet's renewable resources.  Just a few years ago, Overshoot fell in mid October.  Now it has advanced to August.  For the balance of the year we deplete Earth's resource reserves and the rate at which our over-consumption is accelerating is a warning that we're depleting those reserves rapidly too.

In 2014, Earth Overshoot Day fell on August 19.  This year it will arrive on August 15.  For more on that and GFN's take on the papal encyclical, you can go here.  

Professor Mora faults the environmental community, including the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for deliberately ducking the overpopulation issue.

Mora: It’s pure fear. It seems amazing, but friends of mine recommended to me not to publish that paper. They said, “This paper is going to be damaging to you. You don’t get it. You don’t need it.” What is remarkable, though, is that after the paper got published, I had multiple people calling me to endorse it.

e360: Did they endorse it publicly?

Mora: No, just to me. This is really the problem. But why we don’t take it on? I have no clue. Because the data are very clear. I guess the problem is that it can backfire. We have seen, historically, situations in which a scientist has taken on an issue and there are people who have been fired, or attacked by interest groups. So I guess the problem is fear of retaliation.

If he's right, if the scientific community is already too intimidated to address the issue of overpopulation, then we're genuinely screwed.  The pope hit two of three - climate change and over-consumption - but if you can't address overpopulation, you have almost completely undermined your chances of effective action on the other two.

We're already seeing the impacts of climate change but doing little to prepare for what those early impacts tell us is coming.  For now we're forestalling the consequences of ever increasing over-consumption by raiding the Earth's diminishing resource reserves. We have no collective will to even begin tackling overpopulation. 

We comfort ourselves by talking in terms of what might happen by 2100.  Oh hell, we'll all be gone by then anyway so, no big deal.  But, if Mora's research is accurate, "climate departure" begins to set in by 2020 and then spreads across the world until every country is hit by 2047.   


Dana said...

I continue to think it most probable that we will exterminate ourselves.

I don't think that would necessarily be unfortunate.

The Mound of Sound said...

Dana, I wish there was something, anything, I could point to that might refute your conclusion. I do, however, think it will be immensely unfortunate given that what we're doing, the path we insist on following, most impacts the poor and vulnerable, the very young and the very old.

Purple library guy said...

Incidentally, looking at your list it would seem as though, well, what are we worried about? They aren't adapting to a 1 degree shift in temperature, they're just pissing off to somewhere that has the temperature they're used to.
The rub is, some of their food sources (and predators) can't follow. Kelp can't swim north, as far as I know neither can clams and so forth. So now you've got two separated chunks of an ecosystem, with the more sessile sea life stuck in a climate that's wrong for them, while the more mobile isn't but is missing big swathes of the web they usually depend on. Bad business all around.
Then you get into acidification and the news gets really bad.

I continue to think Dana's dead wrong, though. Human extinction isn't the issue and isn't going to become the issue, whether justified feelings of guilt make it seem almost wistfully desirable or not. Humans live in every climatic zone and in places with very wild weather. As the ecosystem can support less life, it will also support fewer humans in proportion, and the rapidity of disruption will add a lot of chaos and unpleasantness to that. But exterminate? A big nuclear war might accomplish that, but climate change and environmental degradation won't. Every time there's a humanitarian catastrophe in the world, whether from war or from natural disaster, what always amazes me is not how many people are killed, but how small a proportion that always is of the number of people who live there. I'm all "How the &*#! are all those people still alive?!" It's just very, very hard to eliminate humans as a population. Look at Easter Island. Classic story of human-caused ecological collaps (see Jared Diamond's Collapse). The result was that the island became mostly barren where it had previously had forests and supported abundant wildlife and stuff. A terrible lesson in hubris and shortsightedness and what not to do. But while populations crashed and quality of life worsened, as far as I know there never actually stopped being people on Easter Island despite that.

Which is to some extent the problem. As far as I know there still aren't any forests on Easter Island. The place never recovered from people because the people never went away. To some extent what we need to worry about is, after all the disasters happen, how do we change our culture so we nurture the land instead of being a burden that stops it from recovering? Because we are not going to conveniently go away.

Purple library guy said...

On a side note, I've raised overpopulation as an issue in various places, and get attacked pretty much every time. Right wingers hate mention of overpopulation because the magic of free enterprise and human ingenuity is limitless and they know as an article of faith that there will always be technological fixes as long as people will pay for them. Some of them also because religion, "be fruitful and multiply" and all that jazz (plus, some religions seem to have a weird sort of "win by demographics", almost evolutionary mindset where they will conquer the world for their religion by having lots and lots of kids who will be brought up in it).

Many left wingers hate overpopulation as an issue because they think it's another right wing plot to export our problems to the third world, where the growth in population is mostly happening. Ergo, worrying about population is another sort of climate injustice, where we will make the third world pay for our sins by restricting their population. I've never been clear why they think the people of the third world are desperate to continue increasing their population and would be horrified if it stabilized or decreased. And of course whether it's a form of climate injustice or not, it's clearly not a right wing plot because right wingers hate talk of population control.
The very same people who will tell you that intensity targets are useless because every time we get more energy efficient at doing X we just end up doing enough more of X to make up for it, will in the same breath tell you that overpopulation isn't an issue because, basically, third world people are less intensive in their energy/food use. Gah. It's a big hurdle for sure.

Dana said...

It ain't just me, PLG. I know you wish it were but it ain't.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ PLG - migration is one form of climate adaptation. Alpine creatures do something similar, they head further uphill. The problem occurs when they can't go any higher. They're trapped and they did.

As a species, ours has no history, no experience of an extinction event. The last mass extinction occurred about 60-million years ago. Five of the known six mass extinctions were triggered by excessive CO2 atmospheric loading. As I understand it, that leads to ocean acidification, de-oxygenation, and eventually the release of massive volumes of hydrogen sulphide into the air that kills off terrestrial life. Paleontoligst Peter Ward describes the process in his book,"Beneath a Green Sky." After several hundred thousand years the process is reversed, oxygen levels rebound and new life forms emerge.

It's amazing that, at my birth, the world's population was just under 2.5-billion. We only hit the billion mark around 1814. Now we're just under 7.5 billion heading to 9 billion in another 20-years and possibly 12-billion by the end of the century. Our demand for resources would mean crowding out almost all other mammalian life. We would need their habitat, their water, their biomass just to keep going.

It's madness.

Anonymous said...

Rapidly expanding population = consumers for the (big)business and prey for banksters.
Did I mention conspiracy to suppress issue of population growth? ;-)

Hugh said...

The banking/money system demands infinite growth, so a shrinking population would be a major problem.

Purple library guy said...

So, MoS, you're telling me that 60 million years ago (and at various other times during episodes of runaway climate change) all multicellular aerobic organisms became extinct because they couldn't breathe? I would have thought I'd have heard about that.

Anonymous said...

not 'all' organisms, but a large percentage, plg. I read 'under a green sky' a couple years back and it presents a truly horrifying and persuasive argument for the mechanism of most past mass-extinctions. the horrifying aspect is that ward posits that in nature the changes in the environment needed to create the synergy of the extinction process have tended to occur over geologic timescales; our actions have been, and are, doing the same in a few hundred years.

The Mound of Sound said...

@PLG - no, that's not what I'm saying. Human beings have never experienced a mass extinction event, especially one that produced an atmosphere dominated by hydrogen sulphide (Peter Ward's "green sky"). Some organisms will live, perhaps underground, but more complex organisms are particularly vulnerable.

Our global civilization functions in ways similar to an ant colony. Our colony is incredibly interdependent, of itself a potentially mortal vulnerability. Cyber war can do nearly as much damage to civilization as nuclear war. Each of us performs a minuscule but vital function, relying on others to do everything we don't. In the context of resilience it's a house of cards. Even the basic skills of survival are lost to the great majority of us. That includes foraging; cleaning, maintaining, repairing and operating essential equipment; subsistence farming of whatever remains growable. Human existence would become very primitive rather quickly without someone to fill our gas tanks, manufacture ammunition, make our jeans, set our broken bones. Even then, humans are one of those species that could not function without an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere.

Sure we're "masters of the universe" but that's this one, the one we're so intent on destroying. That doesn't mean we'll be masters of the next.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Anon. You've touched on an important point - timescales. So many critical things are occurring today at rates far beyond any prospect of management, even if we found the collective will that always eludes us. When I was born, mankind's population was at an all time record. Today, in this one lifetime, that record has not only been broken, it's been tripled and by the time I settle down for my dirt nap it could be quadrupled. In this same interval, per capital GDP, a reflection of individual consumption, resource depletion and waste, has also soared. Where there was one person at my birth there now stand three and those three consume as though they were five or even six.

My dad was born on the kitchen table by the light of a coal oil lamp. My grandfather lit the fire to heat water that he hand pumped out of the ground. He was also the midwife. It was a bitter cold night, too much snow on the ground to think of hitching a team of horses to the wagon to carry my grandmother the many miles to the closest hospital. People back then had to make do.

I was born in time to witness the tail end of old time threshing bees and even a barn raising bee on my grandfather's farm. The wives showed up to prepare monstrous amounts of food to give the men lunch and dinner at long tables out on the farmhouse lawn. When one farmer's crop was in, they all moved onto the next farm. That exemplified a level of cooperation and organization that's beyond us today. We've been conditioned to be insular. We mingle, sure, with strangers at shopping malls and then retreat to our cubbyholes to absorb ourselves in our widescreen TVs. Even the family dinner is said to have become something of an endangered species, an artifact resurrected at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We're more apt to stay in touch today electronically - text messaging, facebook, email - a desiccated substitute for human presence.

Our collective unwillingness to deal with these three looming threats to the continuation of our civilization - climate change, overpop and over-consumption suggests how we have been conditioned, over time, into a state of complacency and powerlessness.

Anyong said...

We Canadians are taking on the American attitude. I am entitled and my personal freedom is paramount. Add to the mix, the obsession regarding cell phones. It has gone beyond the pale. Add to that people like Donald Trump, chumping at the bit, just to get his name on the wall.