Special interest groups: the enemy within?

One of the big issues discussed in relation to climate change is the relative costs of ‘acting’ versus ‘not acting’.  Basically the argument comes down to: If the cost of ‘acting’ exceeds costs associated with the impacts of ‘not acting’, then ‘not acting’ is the preferred course.

As outlined endlessly by highly credible experts such as former World Bank chief economist, Lord Nicholas Stern, the massive costs of inaction on our economic and social systems dwarf the much smaller costs of acting.  According to Stern in his report to the British government, the cumulative cost of climate inaction in 2050 will be a startling 5 percent to 20 percent of global GDP, or 5 to 20 times as much as it would cost to take action.

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Estimated global macro-economic costs in 2030 for least-cost trajectories towards different long-term stabilization levels (IPCC 4th Assessment)

The conservative fourth assessment report of the IPCC came to a similar conclusion (bringing carbon dioxide equivalents to safe levels would cost <0.1% of GDP per annum growth over 50 years, IPCC 2007 – the figure below table and figure from Bert Metz, Co-chair of IPCC WG III).  The conclusion: the impact of responding to climate change, if taken across the board, will affect very few of us significantly.

And here is the Dorothy Dixer:  why is it that certain industry sectors and their media associates continue to promulgate inaccurate and misleading viewpoints on the important issue of whether or not we should act decisively on climate change?  The answer is, ‘special interest‘.

Eric Pooley, a Kalb fellow, has written a highly credible and clear account of the issues at stake in a discussion paper published through the Joan Shorenstein Centre on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.  In particular, he focuses on the role of some elements of the media in confusing and often deliberately misleading the debate.  I recommend reading his paper because it highlights the often devious nature of special interest (and its media associates) and outlines the challenges that we face in getting policymakers to adopt a rational and sensible policies with respect to the looming climate change catastrophe.

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Estimated mitigation strategies illustrating the cost of numbers (IPCC 4th Assessment)

As Pooley outlines, the forces of special interest have created a hysterical atmosphere that has led with the argument that any action to reduce the current rates of climate issue would cause economic mayhem and is therefore irresponsible.  I was stunned by the numbers involved.  According to Pooley, in just one example, US$427 million was spent by the oil and coal industries on lobbying, advertising and eventually defeating the important and sensible Lieberman-Warner bill that attempted to pass through the US House of Representatives.

At the end of the day, Pooley points to where the showdown really lies.  The argument is not about whether or not climate change exists or not (it exists – that debate is over), it is challenging the deliberate and unethical inaccuracies promulgated by the fossil fuel lobby.  This lobby is bent on thwarting attempts to respond to climate change so as to protect its bottom line via any means possible. As a citizen of this wonderful planet, I personally wonder how these individuals can sleep peacefully at night knowing that they are imperilling the earth and its citizens through their irresponsible and selfish actions.

“Macro-algal dominated coral reefs: shake that ASS”

In recent years, coral reefs have been hit hard by an array of anthropogenic impacts – coral bleaching, coral disease, overfishing and eutrophication to mention but a few – resulting in significant declines in coral cover and species diversity. One of the classic examples of coral reef decline was discussed by Terry Hughes in a 1994 article in the journal Nature, entitled “Catastrophes, Phase Shifts and Large-Scale Degradation of a Caribbean Coral Reef”. Hughes concluded that the synergistic impacts of overfishing, hurricane damage and disease resulted in a ‘phase shift’ from a coral dominated ecosystem (52% coral cover, 4% algal cover) to a macro-algal dominated ecosystem (2% coral cover, 92% algal cover). Similar examples of phase-shifts from coral to macroalgal dominated ecosystems have been observed across the Caribbean region, throughout the Eastern-Pacific, Indian Ocean and on the Great Barrier Reef.

asdasdWhilst macro-algal dominated reefs and phase shifts have recieved considerable attention in the scientific literature, a recent paper questions the role and driving factors of such ‘alternative stable states’ (ASS), and implicates the dominance of several other organisms that take rise following the loss of coral cover.

First establishing that a ‘phase shift’ must result from a decline of coral and subsequent increases in an other ‘alternative’ organism that must last for a significant period of time (in this case >5yrs), Norström et al conducted a survey of the literature to determine exactly what alternative organisms were dominant on reefs following a phase shift.

The authors argue a timely point that phase shifts associated with coral reefs are not exclusively coral – macroalgal shifts, and often result in shifts to ‘other’ states, including ‘soft coral’  dominance (corallimorphs and octocorals), sponges and urchin dominated states.

One of the key findings of the research suggests that whilst these different alternative states are common, the factors driving the shift may be considerably different. Whilst macro-algal states are driven by ‘top down’ factors (a loss of herbivorous fish or urchins through overfishing or disease), soft coral and sponge states are more closely associated with ‘bottom up’ factors (declining water quality).

Site specific examples of phase shifts in coral reefs: a) Israel, b) Seychelles, c) Belize

Site specific examples of phase shifts and the persistence of alternative stable states in coral reefs: a) Israel, b) Seychelles, c) Belize

So what does it take to ‘shake that ASS’? (Alternative Stable State, of course). Once a coral reef has shifted to an alternative stable state, simply removing the stressor that triggered the shift might not be sufficient to produce recovery back to a coral dominated state – partly due to feedback mechanisms, or a longer-term decline in environmental conditions.

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“Climate change: a self-fulfilling prophecy” – Monbiot

After reading that Barack Obama may be forced to delay signing the Copenhagen climate change deal due to the scale of opposition in the US Congress, I can only conclude that ignorance and complacency in our policy makers continues to reign supreme. When will we wake up to the fact that tweaking the business-as-usual approach will do nothing to prevent the catastrophes that loom?  Without a directed and massive reorganization of the way we generate energy, we are headed for disaster.  Despite this, many policy makers pretend that there are good reasons for delaying action. As George Monbiot reiterates yet again, the cost of doing nothing is far less than the costs that will swamp our societies if climate change continues to run out of control.

Quietly in public, loudly in private, climate scientists everywhere are saying the same thing: it’s over. The years in which more than two degrees of global warming could have been prevented have passed, the opportunities squandered by denial and delay. On current trajectories we’ll be lucky to get away with four degrees. Mitigation (limiting greenhouse gas pollution) has failed; now we must adapt to what nature sends our way. If we can.

This, at any rate, was the repeated whisper at the climate change conference in Copenhagen last week. It’s more or less what Bob Watson, the environment department’s chief scientific adviser, has been telling the British government. It is the obvious if unspoken conclusion of scores of scientific papers. Recent work by scientists at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, for example, suggests that even global cuts of 3% a year, starting in 2020, could leave us with four degrees of warming by the end of the century. At the moment emissions are heading in the opposite direction at roughly the same rate. If this continues, what does it mean? Six? Eight? Ten degrees? Who knows?

Faced with such figures, I can’t blame anyone for throwing up his hands. But before you succumb to this fatalism, let me talk you through the options. (Read More)

“Calls for Barrier Reef to be declared disaster area”

Cyclone Hamish [maptype=G_SATELLITE_MAP;gpxview=all]

According to the ABC news website, a number of people including the Queensland Sea Food Industry Association are calling for the southern half of the Great Barrier Reef to be declared a ‘disaster zone’. Reports from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority suggest that >50% of the reef was affected by cyclone hamish, and reports from the commercial fishing operators say that in the wake of cyclone, most commercially viable fish stocks have all but disappeared:

“Half the reef has been completely overturned from Bowen South. It’ll affect tourism, it’ll affect certainly commercial fishers – about 50 per cent or 300 jobs are at risk with 30 guys put off yesterday,” he said.

“There’s just nothing left out there to fish on.”

He says the damage is having a similar effect to Cyclone Larry’s destruction of banana farms three years ago.

“We’ve had our boats out there working this week for the first time after the cyclone and people with 20 years experience can’t recognise the damage being done,” he said.

“Their catches where they’d catch 150 fish a day have been down to five fish a day.”

The Department of Primary Industries says such a disaster declaration would be a first.

But director-general Jim Groves says the circumstances are unusual.

“This is what we call a quota management fishery. These fishermen, some of them have actually paid to go and catch these fish so they’ve paid for a right they no longer have because of a natural disaster, so that’s what makes it different to past events,” he said.

I hadn’t actually got chance to look at the track of the cyclone yet, but after plotting the path above in Google Earth, it looks like the Swains Reefs in the south-eastern GBR took a direct hit whilst hamish was a category 5 (>290km/h wind gusts).

Climate Change Myths and Facts

There is a great article in the WaPost by Chris Mooney author of the book The Republican War on Science about some of the misleading arguments made by the conservative columnist George Will in his recent editorial about climate change.

Consider a few of Will’s claims from his Feb. 15 column, “Dark Green Doomsayers“: In a long paragraph quoting press sources from the 1970s, Will suggested that widespread scientific agreement existed at the time that the world faced potentially catastrophic cooling. Today, most climate scientists and climate journalists consider this a timeworn myth. Just last year, the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society published a peer-reviewed study examining media coverage at the time and the contemporary scientific literature. While some media accounts did hype a cooling scare, others suggested more reasons to be concerned about warming. As for the published science? Reviewing studies between 1965 and 1979, the authors found that “emphasis on greenhouse warming dominated the scientific literature even then.”

Chris also addressed the common tactic of climate change skeptics to conflate climate and weather and cherry pick short term trends that agree with their points.

Will also wrote that “according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade.” … Will probably meant that since 1998 was the warmest year on record according to the WMO — NASA, in contrast, believes that that honor goes to 2005 — we haven’t had any global warming since. Yet such sleight of hand would lead to the conclusion that “global cooling” sets in immediately after every new record temperature year, no matter how frequently those hot years arrive or the hotness of the years surrounding them. Climate scientists, knowing that any single year may trend warmer or cooler for a variety of reasons — 1998, for instance, featured an extremely strong El Niño — study globally averaged temperatures over time. To them, it’s far more relevant that out of the 10 warmest years on record, at least seven have occurred in the 2000s — again, according to the WMO.

See the full article here

Lomborg vs Rahmstorf – are the IPCC estimates fundementally flawed?

Bjørn Lomborg: Climate change decisions should be based on science, not political activism

lomborgI pointed out that one conference participant, Stefan Rahmstorf, argues that sea level rises will be much higher than those anticipated by most researchers. Rahmstorf is a well-established, serious researcher on climate change who holds a minority view on the rise in the sea-level — the IPCC’s estimate is an 18cm to 59cm rise by the end of the century. I mentioned him to make the point that meeting with like-minded colleagues does not somehow create a new global scientific consensus.

In arguing that sea levels are rising much more than the consensus view of thousands of scientists, he makes a lot of the fact that the 1993-2003 sea level estimates were 50% higher than the IPCC’s models expected, indicating that future sea level rises would also be higher. He fails to mention that the particular decade centred on 1998 has one of the highest sea level rises, which in the past has varied dramatically over decades. The decade before, the sea level was almost not rising or possibly even dropping (as one can see on p413 of IPCC’s first report). One cannot pick the timeframes to fit the argument. (Read more)

Stefan Rahmstorf: Climate sceptics confuse the public by focusing on short-term fluctuations

rahmstorfLomborg argues that 18 years could be too short for a robust trend comparison because of decadal variations in trend – but the 42-year period analysed by IPCC yields the same result. And it is telling that he then goes on to draw an “inescapable” conclusion about a slow-down of sea level rise from just four years of data. This is another well-worn debating trick: confuse the public about the underlying trend by focusing on short-term fluctuations. It’s like claiming spring won’t come if there is a brief cold snap in April.

Why does Lomborg cite the trend since 2005? Last October, he cited that of the previous two years. Why now four years? Because the trend of the past two years (2007-2008) is now + 3.7 mm/year? It is even worse. The trend since the beginning of any year of the data series varies between 1.6 mm/year and 9.0 mm/year, depending on the start year chosen. Using 2005, Lomborg cherry-picked the by far lowest. He’s done this before, see for example his recent claim that the globe is cooling. (Read More)

“Carbon emissions creating acidic oceans not seen since dinosaurs”

“The choice to continue emitting carbon dioxide means that we will be an agent of biological change of a force and magnitude exceeded only by the causes of the great mass extinction events. If we do not cut carbon dioxide emissions deeply and soon, the consequences of ocean acidification will stand out against the broad reaches of geologic time. Those consequences will remain embedded in the geologic record as testimony from a civilisation that had the wisdom to develop high technology, but did not develop the wisdom to use it wisely.” – Ken Caldiera (10.03.08)

Ebay a bid to win the naming rights to a new species of shrimp

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Go check out the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s latest fundraising quest over on ebay, and bid for the exclusive rights to name a new deep water shrimp species from south-west Australia! The bid is currently at $1102.00, which is an impressive effort having started at 99c. The society do a great job for conservation of Australia’s marine environment – read more about their work here. Keep any eye on the auction in the meanwhile, which is due to end on the 31st March (permanent link to the auction here).

In early April this year, a small spotted shrimp discovered deep in the waters of south west Australia will be given a new scientific name. PhD student Anna McCallum, who discovered the shrimp, has generously chosen to auction the naming rights of the shrimp and dedicate all profits from the auction towards marine conservation. This is a rare and exciting opportunity!

This newly described species is a mysterious little creature living in the cool dark depths of our South-west oceans. Despite living 400m below the surface, this shrimp species has a jewel-like appearance. Morphing from yellow to green, this spectacular shrimp is covered in scarlet spots and sports a toothed crest across the top of its body, which gives it the delightful appearance of having a mohawk. It is in the group or genus of shrimps known as Lebbeus, and is waiting for you to place your bid and choose a unique species name that will go down in scientific history (Read More).

Widespread coral mortality associated with river flood discharge in the Great Barrier Reef

Satellite image from 15 January 2009. Image courtesy of Lachlan McKinna, JCU.

Image 1: Satellite image from 15 January 2009. Image courtesy of Lachlan McKinna, JCU.

Heavy rainfall has been occurring in northern Queensland since December causing widespread flooding of coastal rivers (Burdekin, Haughton, Bohle, Herbert, Tully, O’Connell and others) as well as inland catchments. In some places all-time records were broken, especially around Townsville, and the flows in the Herbert and Burdekin were both far above average (more rain may occur as well).

The river discharge events are being tracked by satellite imagery in collaboration with Arnold Dekker’s group, CSIRO, Canberra and Lachlan McKinna in Michelle Devlin’s flood plume project at JCU. The plumes are noticeable as sediment rich in the early stages (January – image1) and extending out to near Dunk Island but colour rich (chlorophyll and coloured dissolved organic matter) in the latter stages (February – image 2) extending completely across the main reef and into the Coral Sea.

The plumes are being sampled via the GBRMPA – Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, Marine Monitoring Program run by the Catchment to Reef Group, ACTFR, JCU (Michelle Devlin coordinator) and AIMS (Britta Schaffelke). Sampling from both fixed installations and vessel surveys have been going since December.

Satellite image from 18 February 2009. Image courtesy of Arnold Dekker, CSIRO.

Image 2: from 18 February 2009. Image courtesy of Arnold Dekker, CSIRO.

Incidentally to the plume monitoring, reports from many scientists working on the reef in the area between Mackay and Cooktown have been coming in of coral ‘bleaching’ and mortality, ‘fresh’ water layers, turbid water layers, green water and stratified water. Corals in poor condition have been reported by Katharina Fabricius (Dunk Island and surrounds), Sheriden Morris (Frankland group), Angus Thompson (Pandora, Palms, Whitsundays), Michelle Devlin, Jane Waterhouse and David Haynes (Dunk and surrounds), Britta Schaffelke (Franklands, High, Fitzroy, Pandora and others), Ray Berkelmans (Magnetic Island), Stephen Lewis and Brett Baker (Burdekin plume).

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Image 3: Coral mortality at Russell Island (Franklands group) 24 February 2009. Photo: Britta Schaffelke, AIMS.

Images of white/dead coral from Franklands can be seen in image 3 and white bommies from surface near Dunk Island and the Family Group in image 4. Ongoing monitoring is being coordinated by David Wachenfeld and his team at GBRMPA.

Coral mortality and ‘bleaching’ is widespread on inner-shelf reefs in the above region. I put ‘bleaching’ in commas as this event is probably not mostly normal bleaching i.e. expulsion of zooxanthellae, but rather actual death of the coral organism. This is obviously somewhat speculative but consistent with observations of coral mortality in low salinity water by van Woesik and others after similar events in 1991 in the Keppel Islands.

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Image 4: White coral bommies at Coombe Island (Family Group) 5 March 2009. Photo: Jane Waterhouse, ACTFR.

The coral mortality is no doubt associated with the long period (more than 8 weeks) of low salinity flood water but other factors such as elevated suspended sediment, nutrients and pesticides may also be important. Water temperatures were also above average in the period before the floods and an element of combined stress may also be important. Disentangling the separate and combined effects of the multiple stresses and their role in the coral mortality will be a major challenge.

The aftermath of Cyclone Hamish: Moreton Bay oil slick is Queenslands worst environmental disaster

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Miles of coastline in Australia have been declared a disaster zone after a large oil spill from a storm-damaged cargo ship.

At least 40 miles (60km) of the southeastern shore of Queensland were contaminated as an estimated 42 tonnes of oil spilt into the ocean from the MV Pacific Adventurer on Wednesday night. The ship, which had sailed into cyclonic weather, lost 31 containers, one of which pierced the hull and a fuel tank.

“It may well be the worst environmental disaster Queensland has ever seen,” said Anna Bligh, the state premier. She has declared Moreton Island, Bribie Island and southern parts of the Sunshine Coast disaster zones. The northern tip of Moreton Island, where the worst of the spill damage occurred, was declared a marine national park only two weeks ago. The island is noted for its populations of dugong, green turtles and bottlenose dolphins. (Read More)