Climate Change Causing Mayhem Among the Ecosystems

by Colin Graham

Five years ago a group of leading biologists met at Willach in Austria to discuss how much global warming plants and animals could stand. One degree Celsius per century was their estimated maximum.

While that figure may seem surprisingly modest, we should remember some of the things that have happened during the last hundred years in which, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, average temperatures rose a mere 0.60 degrees.

A few months ago two US teams of scientists working independently and collating hundreds of scientific papers, reported that of 1700 species in North America and Europe that have been tracked over several decades, roughly half showed marked behavioural changes ranging from altered egg laying times to dates of flower blooming. Those events are now occurring, on average, 2.3 days earlier per decade.1

Other biologists have made the unwelcome discovery that changes resulting from warming can be bizarre and unpredictable. They do not necessarily follow normal logic.

Thus whereas before warming, newts and frogs in Britain matured at the same time, newts are now maturing ahead of the frogs and eating the frogs' eggs. In the US Sequoia National Forest, Checkerspot butterflies are hatching before the flowers bloom on whose nectar they used to feed. Starving and dying butterflies litter the ground. Warblers are migrating northward and leaving behind the spruce budworm that previously sustained them. The worms, of course, are proliferating.2

In addition to such individual phenomena there have been broad general trends: warming seas, changes in fish migration patterns, a dying off of coral reefs, and new stresses on northern forests.

The latest estimate of the IPCC is that the planet will, on average, warm two degrees in the course of this century.3 In any case, the planet does not warm evenly. Latitudes close to the poles will warm faster than those near the equator. Canada will warm faster than the US. Some effects will be drastic. Dr. David Schindler, Canada's leading fresh water authority, expects that in our freshwater systems heat-engendered evaporation will dry up ponds and small lakes. It will reduce runoff into streams so that pollutants in the water will become more concentrated and dangerous to aquatic life. He sees little hope for most freshwater biota.4

Scientific studies commissioned by the Worldwide Fund paint a bleak picture of species wilting under the wilting heat. British Columbia, for example, could lose 60% of its species.5

Concomitant with these unwelcome developments is evidence that the vast global economic machine has grown to the point where it is consuming the earth's resources faster than the earth can replace them. Geologists and other scientists now estimate that this change into a biological deficit regime began sometime in the mid-1970s.

That was the conclusion of more than 150 scientists working under the joint auspices of the UN and the World Resources Institute. A study by the US Academy of Sciences put it this way: "It would take 15 months for the planet to regenerate the natural capital humanity now uses in a year."6

Getting this trend under control will soon become a matter of extreme urgency. Today the global economy is valued at $31 trillion. If its growth continues at its previous rate of 2% to 3% a year the impact on the planet's ecosystems could become catastrophic as early as 2030.

By that time, according to UN analysts, humanity will have carved up 70% of the earth's natural surface.7 Anyone inclined to dismiss the significance of healthy ecosystems in humanity's future might ponder the recent remark of Edward O. Wilson, one of the world's leading biologists. "If humans were to disappear," he said, "the world would go on; but if invertebrates were to disappear I doubt that the human species could last more than a few months."8

Few things can be more important, then, than getting this growth trend under control. It will mean reducing some areas of the economy by at least 30%, and most of that reduction will have to come out of the economies of the developed world since most of the third world is living so close to penury that cuts would be unthinkable.

It will mean curtailing or even stopping the expansion of airports and city suburbs into their surrounding ecosystems. The further degrading of wild-area ecosystems by heli skiing, all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles will have to cease.

A more sophisticated grasp of the workings of ecosystems will be required than exists at present. Sadly, Canada's preparedness in this field not only ranges from passable to dismal but in some phases is actually declining.9

In January, 2000, the Canadian Ecological Monitory and Assessment Network pointed out that at a time when most developed countries are adopting forward-looking biodiversity plans, Canada has none, adding that, "Canada is losing its trained and experienced professionals to retirement or to attractive opportunities in other countries at an alarming rate." "Federal and provincial governments are not recruiting biodiversity specialists. . . . the number of professional biosystematists has fallen by a third of the level during the 1970s." All this in a country where less than half of its species are adequately known.10

Eventually, the world's growing biological deficits will become so threateningly obvious that governments and universities will find themselves in a race to catch up. In the meantime the burden of developing the subject will fall mainly on the few properly funded university departments and such non-governmental bodies as the Worldwide Fund, Greenpeace and various smaller ecologically oriented groups.

All the evidence produced so far suggests that for the most part we lack the expertise to tinker successfully with ecosystems undergoing the trauma of continual warming. For decades to come, it seems, most systems will be in chaos as species jostle each other in a Darwinian scramble to adapt to new challenges.

But while we may not know enough to steer ecosystems in directions we think desirable, we often know what we shouldn't do. We know, for instance, that overfishing pollock off the south coast of Alaska can produce shock waves that reverberate through systems as far south as Oregon.

Thus seals and sea lions, a major food source for orca whales, die out as the pollock they feed on decline. The whales are then forced to eat the less nutritious otter, an animal whose taste for sea urchins controls their numbers and thus prevents them from over consuming the offshore kelp beds on which they in turn feed. With the urchins free to multiply, the underwater kelp forests, which supply sanctuaries for fingerling pollock and salmon in their early months, get eaten away. Moral: keep the pollock stocks healthy.11

Undernourished whales feeding voraciously on salmon returning to their coastal spawning streams affect the forests. Bears catching salmon take them into the woods to eat and partially devour them, leaving the remains to rot and thus provide nitrogen and other nutrients for the roots of surrounding cedars, fir, and hemlock. Fewer salmon mean undernourished roots.

The world's ecosystems are replete with these complex inter dependencies.

We interfere with them at our peril.

The gathering momentum of ecosystem disintegration will at first be largely invisible to the majority of North Americans, living as they do in cities. Governments at the cabinet level will ignore it. The signatories to the North American Free Trade Agreement (Canada, the USA, and Mexico) created in response to public pressure their own environmental watchdog, the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation. When scientists at the Commission repeated in vivid terms the UN warning that our consumer-obsessed society is exceeding Nature's capacity to absorb our assault, the response was one of bland indifference.12

Quite soon, on the other hand, mounting weather violence resulting from climate change will deliver the necessary wake-up jolt to governments and their populations. In 2002 the International Red Cross World Disasters Report noted that over the past two decades the number of victims of weather catastrophes rose from 740 million to more than 2 billion. The cost of this mayhem ballooned from $131 billion to $629 billion. Tracking the rising curve of these costs, the big European re-insurance firms warned that if things continue like this, the expense of repairing damage could bankrupt the world economy by 2065.13

Admittedly, it will take some pretty violent shocks to unnerve the developed world to the point where it is prepared to face a brutal fact: having exceeded ecosystem tolerance for economic growth, the necessary pullback will entail the discarding of assumptions of unending growth which have fueled economic philosophy since the days of Adam Smith in the eighteenth century.

That philosophy will have to be replaced. But with what?

Apparently, there will be two choices. Either the countries of the developed world will engage in an internecine struggle for the control of diminishing resources, or they will adopt a philosophy in which social capital becomes more important than economic capital, in which harmonious cooperation between the various branches of a society becomes a primary aim.

Studies by the Worldwatch Institute suggest that such a radical change of outlook has already started in the beginnings of a rapprochement between two major elements of society whose basic outlook has had much in common but which have hitherto tended to stand at arm's length from each other: established religion and the environmental movement.14

In the meantime, defeatism in the face of environmental crisis is unwarranted, as a few from many available examples can show. In Britain restrictions on dumping toxic waste have resulted in many rivers becoming cleaner than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. In the USA the Endangered Species Act has brought back from the verge of extinction several key species. Over many American cities now the air is cleaner than it was. In Vancouver Island's Saanich Inlet the cleaning up by volunteers of stream banks and beds, combined with the replanting of eel grass at the mouths of streams, has resulted in the return of that key element in the marine food chain, the herring. With this much accomplished through what can only be described as a sporadic effort, think what could be achieved through a continent-wide effort involving all governments, cities and voluntary groups!

* Sources:

1. New Scientist, March 30, 2002, p.11. See also "The Butterfly Syndrome," New Scientist, April 17, 1999.
2. "Bad Evolution," Globe & Mail, May 4, 2002.
3. Andrew Weaver, a lead author of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, private communication, December, 2002.
4. "Schindler's Warning: Will it be Heard?" Globe & Mail, February 24, 2000.
5. "Bad Evolution," Globe & Mail, May 4, 2002.
6. "Earth Faces Supply Crisis," Globe & Mail, June 25, 2002.
7. Ibid.
8. Guardian Weekly, May 2-8, 2002.
9. Bioscience, January 2003, p.17. During the next decade, the volume of data on ecosystems should burgeon exponentially as the US Long Term Ecological Research Program matures. Involving more than 1200 scientists funded on a guaranteed six-year basis and coordinated with work in 25 other countries, this program is now producing some 900 scientific papers a year.
10. "The Bioscience Problem in Canada: An Unrecognized Crisis," Biodiversity, February, 2001.
11. Edward O. Wilson, The Biodiversity of Life, pp. 164-5.
12. "Narrow Probes Discourage Ecologists," Globe & Mail, November 21, 2001.
13. "High Cost Of Climate Disasters Waiting to Happen," Guardian Weekly, July 18-24, 2002.
14. State of the World 2003, Worldwatch Institute.

[From WS April/May 2003]


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