Politics of climate change in Australia

It’s been a busy few weeks in the media. Hilary Clinton and her climate change envoy met with officials in China, Obama says that the upcoming climate bill is needed to ‘save our planet’, the ‘danger threat’ of global warming was increased, Dr Hansen took the final leap from scientist to activist, and NASA’s newly launched carbon tracking satellite came to an abrupt end as it crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

However, nothing seems to beat news from home soil. In a week where the Australian government announced the emissions trading scheme (which plans to reduce emissions by 5 to 15 per cent before 2020) is full steam ahead, Australian Liberal Member of Parliament Dr Dennis Jensen (a well known climate skeptic, who holds a PhD in the physics of ceramics) managed to violate Godwin’s law by pointing to Adolf Hitler as a classic example of how scientists (and therefore climate change) can be wrong.

“Albert Einstein was very much criticised by Hitler, and Hitler actually had a group of 100 top scientists in Germany write a book called 100 scientists against Einstein,” Dr Jensen told reporters in Canberra.

“Einstein was asked: ‘Doesn’t it bother you Dr Einstein that you’ve got so many scientists against you?’

“And he said: `It doesn’t take 100 scientists to prove me wrong, it takes a single fact’.”

Unexpected relationships between human impacts on coral reefs and socioeconomic development


A fantastic new paper published recently in Current Biology (Cinner et al. 2009) examines the correlations between a variety of human demographic, social, cultural and economic indicators and reef fish biomass.  The somewhat surprising and novel result is that fish depletion is maximized at intermediate levels of human socioeconomic development.  The authors, mostly based at James Cook University’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, surveyed 19 coastal communities adjacent to coral reefs in the Indian Ocean. 








In fished sites, fish biomass was negatively related to human population density, but it was best explained by reef complexity and a U-shaped relationship with socioeconomic development. The biomass of reef fishes was four times lower at locations with intermediate levels of economic development than at locations with both low and high development.

An important underlying mechanisms was the changing availability of technologies as communities become wealthier:

…in low-development sites, technological constraints and social institutions may limit people’s exploitation of marine resources. Reduced dependence on marine resources, variable access to boats but increasing access to engines and other technologies, high use of spear guns, and a lack of customary management institutions characterize communities with intermediate levels of development. 

One thing that didn’t surprise me was that human population density was only weakly related to fish biomass and wasn’t even included in the best fit model:

A key and surprising finding from this study is that the best model included the quadratic socioeconomic-development index and reef structural complexity, but did not include human population density. 

There is a pretty big debate among coral reef and other marine scientists about whether human population size (and growth) per se is the ultimate problem (as my buddy The Natural Patriot believes) or whether the impacts of societies have a lot more to do with governance and policy, local choices and customs, and the application of technologies.  As I have written about on ClimateShifts in the past, I think simply blaming the problem on human population growth is silly, i.e., condoms are not going to  save coral reefs.  Stephen Jameson published a provocative essay addressing this debate and I still think there is plenty of evidence to suggest that we cannot mitigate most threats to the ocean simply by limiting or reducing the number of people on earth.  In the context of the Cinner et al paper, where would a human population cap put us along the development index?



One of the other things that struck me about the results was the relative weakness of the effect of the human indicators on fish biomass compared to unfished reefs in fully protected reserves (Fig 3): across a range of human population density and socio-economic indicators, people flat out totally deplete coral reef fish. I wonder what this means for the purported links between the development index, macroalgae, coral recruitment and reef resilience laid out by Bob Steneck in his companion piece (Steneck 2009; see the figure from Steneck’s article about the Cinner et al. paper below).  Given the relatively small variance in fish biomass (only about 25% of the natural range) could there really be a predictable indirect effect of human development on coral populations? Maybe. I wonder if Cinner et al. also measured macroalgae and coral recruitment in their surveys.  


I also wonder  if  the net impact of people living in societies with a high development index (>1) is just being displaced across a region or even globally via protein imports, i.e., does the net impact continue to increase even as the local impact decreases?  Think of highly developed countries like the US and Japan that import a large portion of their animal protein. Such societies do have far higher protein consumption rates, so it seems plausible that they are simply eating fish from other peoples reefs!  It would be interesting to examine fish imports, exports and consumption at a local societal scale across such a development gradient.  

Another issue is how the other impacts to coral reefs, in particular fossil fuel consumption and global warming, are related to the development index.  They must certainly be related, but are they linearly related?  I bet it could even be a positive exponential function.  In other words, how is the development index related to other taxa and indicators of reef health or state.  For example, what about invertebrates?  Might prey populations of these harvested fish species show the opposite relationship with socio-economic indicators? And what about corals?  The enormous complication is that the impacts of many human activities (e.g., driving a car, using an electric clothes dryer, flying on an airplane to go on vacation, etc.) are regional to global and thus cannot be analytically related to local human socioeconomic parameters (i.e., the sample size of the response variable is essentially 1).   

Like most transformative research, the Cinner et al. paper raises at least as many questions as it answers. I think it is sometimes hard to gague the future impact of resarch when it first comes out-it can be difficult to impossible to envision all the twists and turns a research program will take.  But I put my money on this being a citation classic.  It has already really influenced my thinking and future research plans!  

Literature Cited

Cinner, Joshua E, Timothy R McClanahan, Tim M Daw, Nicholas A.J Graham, Joseph Maina, Shaun K Wilson, Terence P Hughes (2009) Linking Social and Ecological Systems to Sustain Coral Reef Fisheries.  Current Biology 19:206-21

Jameson SC (2008) Guest editorial: Reefs in trouble  the real root cause. Marine Pollution Bulletin 56(9):1513-1514

Steneck, RS (2009) Marine Conservation: Moving Beyond. Malthus. Current Biology R117 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.12.009


Is fishing the ultimate cause of coral bleaching, disease and loss?


Several of our San Diego-based colleagues have been making the argument that fishing is the ultimate cause of coral bleaching, disease and loss in a series of stimulating papers.  One purported underlying mechanism is that by reducing the density of herbivores, fishing is causing increases in macroalgae and concentrations of Dissolved Organic Carbon (DOC), thereby fueling microbes that lead to coral diseases or make corals more susceptible to  warming.

Evidence supporting this idea stems from somewhat artificial laboratory studies and a field survey of four remote reefs in the central Pacific (see my post on this work here).  After reading these papers, three UNC undergrads working in my lab asked “why doesn’t someone do a field experiment to test this idea?”  So they did.  Working with Ernesto Weil and I in Puerto Rico they performed three field manipulations to test the general hypothesis that overfishing and the subsequent alteration of coral reef trophic dynamics are a cause of coral epizootics.  Specifically, they asked whether the presence of macroalgae can influence within- and among-colony spread rates of Caribbean Yellow Band Disease in Montastraea faveolata.


They placed macroalgae in small pouches next to infected and healthy, adult and small coral colonies to measure effects on disease spread rate, coral growth and coral survival.  Surprisingly, the addition of macroalgae did not affect disease severity or coral fitness.  Their results (published yesterday in PLoS One; Vu et al. 2009) suggested that macroalgae have no effect on the severity and dynamics of Caribbean Yellow Band Disease, a critical coral epizootic.

There are several unresolved issues though.  First, could other algal species or other combinations of algae cause or exacerbate yellow band disease? What about other host species and other coral disease syndromes?  Could there be other unexplored factors that are also necessary for infection to occur (e.g., high temperature)?  And how is the concentration of relevant forms of DOC related to fish, fishing and algae?   All of these questions remain unanswered.  Leaving lots of room for future field experiments by ambitious students.

Five places to go before global warming messes them up

From CNN.com:


By John D. Sutter, CNN

Boats of people with snorkels typically launch into the reefs from Cairns, Queensland. If you go, tread lightly, Henson said. Visitors can damage the reefs if they get too close.

“It’s a feast for the eyes in terms of color, texture variations — it’s just amazing to see,” he said. “It’s wonderful to be enveloped in the warm water and look down just a few feet below at this amazing spread of ocean life.”

Henson said the reefs’ colorful displays are not to be missed.

(CNN) — Scientists expect some great travel spots to be altered or ruined by global climate change.

Some of the changes are already taking place. Others are expected to be seen in coming decades.

There are two ways to look at this: Either stay home (which might be less depressing and won’t add more airline emissions) or get a move on it and see the hot spots you just can’t miss.

For those who want to head out, CNN got advice on the best pre-warming travel destinations from Bob Henson, author of “The Rough Guide to Climate Change” and a writer at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

Here are Henson’s top five choices:

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Warming temperatures can spell disaster for coral reefs, which depend on a delicate balance of ocean temperature and chemistry to bloom into colorful displays.

Many of the world’s reefs already are experiencing “bleaching” in which algae living in the coral die and leave behind whitened skeletons.

The Great Barrier Reef — which is composed of about 2,900 individual reefs and is off the northeast coast of Australia — is seeing limited bleaching now, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority expects the problem to grow in coming decades.


See the full article here

James Hansen: Coal-fired power stations are death factories. Close them

The Observer, Sunday 15th February:

A year ago, I wrote to Gordon Brown asking him to place a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in Britain. I have asked the same of Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Kevin Rudd and other leaders. The reason is this – coal is the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet.

The climate is nearing tipping points. Changes are beginning to appear and there is a potential for explosive changes, effects that would be irreversible, if we do not rapidly slow fossil-fuel emissions over the next few decades. As Arctic sea ice melts, the darker ocean absorbs more sunlight and speeds melting. As the tundra melts, methane, a strong greenhouse gas, is released, causing more warming. As species are exterminated by shifting climate zones, ecosystems can collapse, destroying more species.

The public, buffeted by weather fluctuations and economic turmoil, has little time to analyse decadal changes. How can people be expected to evaluate and filter out advice emanating from those pushing special interests? How can people distinguish between top-notch science and pseudo-science?

Those who lead us have no excuse – they are elected to guide, to protect the public and its best interests. They have at their disposal the best scientific organisations in the world, such as the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences. Only in the past few years did the science crystallise, revealing the urgency. Our planet is in peril. If we do not change course, we’ll hand our children a situation that is out of their control. One ecological collapse will lead to another, in amplifying feedbacks.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the air has already risen to a dangerous level. The pre-industrial carbon dioxide amount was 280 parts per million (ppm). Humans, by burning coal, oil and gas, have increased this to 385 ppm; it continues to grow by about 2 ppm per year.

Earth, with its four-kilometre-deep oceans, responds only slowly to changes of carbon dioxide. So the climate will continue to change, even if we make maximum effort to slow the growth of carbon dioxide. Arctic sea ice will melt away in the summer season within the next few decades. Mountain glaciers, providing fresh water for rivers that supply hundreds of millions of people, will disappear – practically all of the glaciers could be gone within 50 years – if carbon dioxide continues to increase at current rates. Coral reefs, harbouring a quarter of ocean species, are threatened.

The greatest danger hanging over our children and grandchildren is initiation of changes that will be irreversible on any time scale that humans can imagine. If coastal ice shelves buttressing the west Antarctic ice sheet continue to disintegrate, the sheet could disgorge into the ocean, raising sea levels by several metres in a century. Such rates of sea level change have occurred many times in Earth’s history in response to global warming rates no higher than those of the past 30 years. Almost half of the world’s great cities are located on coastlines.

The most threatening change, from my perspective, is extermination of species. Several times in Earth’s history, rapid global warming occurred, apparently spurred by amplifying feedbacks. In each case, more than half of plant and animal species became extinct. New species came into being over tens and hundreds of thousands of years. But these are time scales and generations that we cannot imagine. If we drive our fellow species to extinction, we will leave a far more desolate planet for our descendants than the world we inherited from our elders.

Clearly, if we burn all fossil fuels, we will destroy the planet we know. Carbon dioxide would increase to 500 ppm or more. We would set the planet on a course to the ice-free state, with sea level 75 metres higher. Climatic disasters would occur continually. The tragedy of the situation, if we do not wake up in time, is that the changes that must be made to stabilise the atmosphere and climate make sense for other reasons. They would produce a healthier atmosphere, improved agricultural productivity, clean water and an ocean providing fish that are safe to eat. (Read more)

Obama’s energy secretary outlines dire climate change scenario – The Guardian

The Guardian has a fascinating article on Steve Chu, the Nobel laureate physicist appointed as the Secretary for Energy under the Obama administration. Chu has been a long time advocate for alternative energy sources and nuclear power, and is a member of the Copenhagen Climate Council, established to help promote global awareness of the upcoming UN climate summit in Copenhagen later this year. Listen to the audio discussion below by Suzanne Goldberg, or click below the jump for the full article.


Steve Chu’s warning the clearest sign to date of the greening of America’s political class under Obama:

Unless there is timely action on climate change, California’s agricultural bounty could be reduced to a dust bowl and its cities disappear, Barack Obama’s energy secretary said yesterday.

The apocalyptic scenario sketched out by Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate appointed as energy secretary, was the clearest sign to date of the greening of America’s political class under the new president.

In blunt language, Chu said Americans had yet to fully understand the urgency of dealing with climate change. “I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen,” he told the Los Angeles Times in his first interview since taking the post. “We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California. I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going.”

Chu’s doomsday descriptions were seen yesterday as further evidence that, after eight years of denial under George Bush, the Obama White House recognises the severity of climate change. (Read more)

Monaco Declaration by scientists urges ambitious, urgent plans to cut emissions drastically

155 scientists from 26 countries have issued a declaration on the severe threat posed by ocean acidification following the 2nd symposium on “The Ocean in a High-CO2 World” held on 6-9 October 2008 at the Oceanography Museum of Monaco.

The Monaco Declaration, issued on 30 January 2009, states:

Ocean acidification is accelerating and severe damages are imminent
Currently the average concentration of atmospheric CO2 is 385 parts per million (ppm) [and increasing] At that 560-ppm level, it is expected that coral calcification rates would decline by about one-third. Yet even before that happens, formation of many coral reefs is expected to slow to the point that reef erosion will dominate. Reefs would no longer be sustainable. By the time that atmospheric CO2 reaches 450 ppm, it is projected that large areas of the polar oceans will have become corrosive to shells of key marine calcifiers.

Unfortunately, despite these specific findings, the policy recommendations made by the Declaration are vague and do not state a quantitative level to stabilise atmospheric carbon dioxide that will avoid significant impacts to the marine ecosystem.

The Declaration merely urged policymakers to develop “ambitious, urgent plans to cut emissions drastically” as one of four types of qualitative initiatives.

The Declaration is one of several made by marine scientists in recent years on the threat of climate change and ocean acidification, such as the Consensus Declaration on Coral Reef Futures issued by 50 Australian scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in 2007.
Some previous statements by similar international symposia have been more specific and suggested quantitative stabilisation targets. The Third International Tropical Marine Ecosystem Management Symposium in Mexico in October 2006 and the International Coral Reef Initiative General Meeting held in Japan in April 2007 stated that the actions required to support reef resilience to climate change include:

Limit climate change to ensure that further increases in sea temperature are limited to 2°C above preindustrial levels and ocean carbonate ion concentrations do not fall below 200 mol. kg-1.

The Monaco Declaration adds to the calls for urgent action to address the threats of climate change and ocean acidification but the vagueness of its recommendations means it is unlikely to alter national policies in this area.