Saturday, February 07, 2015

Learning from Passenger Pigeons and Cod

Passengers Pigeons once flew in flocks across the North Americas that were so large and dense they would darken the skies for hours.  At the turn of the 19th century, their population was estimated at 5 billion and they made up ¼ of all the birds in the North Americas. 

But the land these flocks were flying over was changing rapidly and beyond all recognition. Slave colonies were being expanded which needed the cheapest protein sources possible, and nothing was cheaper than plucking tonnes of high quality protein out the sky. At the same time the industrialisation of the continent brought railways and logistics networks to allow this cheap protein to go straight to the market.

It probably remains one of the most perfect illustrations of the paradoxes that human development causes, as well as being one of the first.  The result was that the number of passenger pigeons started declining, while the slave plantations and industrial networks that supported them grew. Within a short time the numbers of passengers pigeons had fallen to a critical level, at which point the birds that had evolved to live in large social communities were unable to survive. The population decline was transformed into a population nosedive. By the turn of the century the passenger pigeons were extinct. Slavery was abolished which begs a curious question; was the collapse of slavery driven partly by the economics becoming less favourable due to the loss of a cheap protein source? The only survivor was the industrialised system which then went on to exploit other natural sources.

A similar argument played out in the cod fisheries in Newfoundland which were once world's most productive fishing grounds. The first European explorers described the waters as being so full, one just had to lower a basket into the water and it would come up filled with cod. Up to the 1950s the bounty of the Grand Banks was enough to supply local small-scale fishing, as well as feed millions of harp seals. 

But this happy picture was not to last. The Grand Banks fishery was destroyed by technological advances in fishing techniques in the 1950s and 60s. Small artisan fishing boats found themselves competing with trawlers modelled on the factory whaling ships that had devastated the last remaining whale populations.

The giant trawlers came from distant countries, attracted by the seemingly endless bounty of the fishery. Their huge nets took unprecedented amounts of fish, which they would quickly process and deep-freeze. The trawlers worked around the clock, in all but the very worst weather. In an hour they would haul up to 200 tonnes of fish; twice the amount a typical 16th century ship would catch in an entire season.
In 1968, the cod catch peaked at 800,000 tonnes. By 1975, the annual catch had fallen by more than 60 per cent. Catches of other fish species were also plummeting. In a desperate attempt to increase catches Canada extended its fishing limit for foreign vessels from 12 to 200 miles from the coast.
As cod catches declined, factory trawlers used ever more powerful sonar and satellite navigation to target what was left. This led to overall catches remaining steady throughout the 1980s. But traditional inshore fishermen noticed their catches declining. The government, most members of which owned shares in industrial fishing companies, refused to listen to them, or to the growing scientific warnings that cod was in crisis.  
Politicians also feared that cutting the quota would lead to politically unacceptable job losses, but their short-term thinking led to catastrophe.
By 1992, when the cod catch was the lowest ever measured, the government was forced to close the fishery. The moratorium put 40,000 people out of work in 5 Canadian provinces, and required a several billion dollar relief package to be disbursed to coastal communities.
In 1993 the moratorium, initially put in place for two years, was extended indefinitely. In 2003, the two main populations of Atlantic cod were added to Canada's list of endangered species. Recovery efforts are hampered by the trawling for other species that still goes on in the area, and which often leads to high levels of cod as bycatch.
Like passenger pigeons, the cod lived in huge shoals. Like the flocks of the passenger pigeons, the size of the shoals and population density was a critical factor in their survival. With a large population density, larger cod would predate on other fish and crustations that would otherwise threaten the cod nurseries.  Once the population density fell below a critical level, recovery is virtually impossible. Since the moratorium in 1993 still no reliable recovery in cod stocks have occurred, and what catches were allowed were still reported as declining in 2013.
The Passenger pigeons extinction and cod crash raise an interesting question for humanity. If these social animals have a critical population level, below which recovery is impossible and extinction becomes inevitable, what is the critical population for human societies?
Pre industrialisation, it would have been relatively low as food was abundant in the local environment and skills were honed to exploit and sustain these. Those tribes still living nomadically across the world at the beginning of the 20th century were testimony to this, from the Australian Aboriginals to the Eskimos of the Arctic.

Post industrialisation and post climate change collapse, a very different scenario will emerge. Little natural environment will be left which can be exploited and sustaining this will be an almost impossible job. High quality food that was once free, such as passenger pigeons which could be plucked out of the sky or cod that could be scooped out of the sea, has already long since gone and will not return in a post climate change collapse environment. What foods we have today are already energy intensive and dependent on fossil fuel. In a post collapse society they will be even more so. This in turns means that a fossil fuel industry must be kept going which will be impossible without a large population to provide the equipment and manufacturing infrastructure.

So the dilemma of the passenger pigeons and cod stocks comes to haunt us. On the best and most optimistic assumption, the sustainable global population is considerably less than 1 billion if any degree of industrialisation is be maintained, most likely in the order of no more than 10 million. Once climate collapse hits us, it is maybe as low as 1 million people scratching out a living around the Arctic. However, if this is below the critical level that is needed for survival then that small band of survivors will succumb. So climate change imposes two conflicting targets, the sustainable population must go down while the critical level for long term survival goes up. Once these two levels pass each other, eventual extinction is unavoidable. 

See The Vortex of Violence and why we are losing the war on climate change

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown's position on Trident and climate change

Emails with Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP in response with regard to Trident and climate change.
Dear Geoffrey,
Thank you for your reply and clarifying your position. I am however concerned that you have not acknowledged my questions in your response.  
This may be because they are uncomfortable and you find it easier to ignore than answer these. In this context you are like many others. However, the questions I have raised are valid; they will not go away and responses to these will become more pressing as time progresses and atmospheric CO2 increases. So I will try again in the hope that you are prepared to more fully consider the issues I have raised.  
To clarify the situation; atmospheric CO2 is at 400 ppm today and it will most likely exceed 450 ppm by 2030. At this level, science predicts unavoidable runaway climate change. It is probable that this summer the Arctic will be ice free. This collapse of sea ice has already triggered large-scale methane releases with serious global heating implications.  These events are of such profound magnitude that a global civilisation collapse of unimaginable horror is virtually inevitable and must be planned for. This will happen well within the lifetime of the Trident replacements that you are supporting.  
You have listed in your reply the efforts that the government is making. Against the background that I paint above, these are wholly inadequate. To put it in perspective, you quote the international budget of £3.87 billion (approximately $6 billion) to help the world's poorest adapt to climate change from 2011 to 2015. This trivial amount is about a thousandth of the global military spending over the same period ($6.8 trillion). 
As regards your statement that the government has pressed for an EU target, this offers little assurance. The history of climate change agreements since 1990 has been that ambitious targets are agreed, only to be ignored. There is little to suggest that anything will be different this time round. On the contrary, the UK is pursuing high carbon developments such as airport expansions, shale gas development, deep sea drilling, unsustainable biomass, road building and continuing with coal powered electricity. This contrast between action and intent is supported by a complete lack of debate as to what the zero carbon economy we need to move towards would actually be like.  
With the rise of UKIP and other extreme parties across the EU, which are driven in large part on a popularist climate change denial platform, then the risk of failure to meet CO2 targets increases dramatically. Your response does not explain how this risk can be insulated against.  
So I come back to the three unanswered questions that I asked that you to answer before you supported Trident and which I expand further below: 
  1. Will the intensifying international competition that climate change drives make agreeing on nuclear disarmament impossible in the future? 
If we do not make substantial progress towards nuclear disarmament and nuclear risk reduction now, we never will. The window of opportunity is closing and this election represents one of the few chances on the global stage to force a genuine debate on the merits of nuclear weapons when climate change has now built up such dangerous momentum. By contrast, all the political parties are actively co-operating to stay silent on this debate. The result is that we will be lumbered with nuclear weapons to the last days of civilisation and trapped in the competitive environment they reinforce.  As well as this, the high carbon military industrial complex will get first call on the remaining carbon budget plunging the rest of the economy into extreme poverty.  
I therefore cannot accept the justification that you gave that we need Trident because "we do not know how the international environment will change in the future." We now know exactly how the international environment will change in the future - it will be one of climate change ruin. 
Likewise, I do not accept your argument that we need Trident to prevent nuclear threats being made against us. Today, we have Trident, yet Russian jets and submarines continue to threaten us and so far we have not responded with a a direct threat to Russia of a nuclear attack, and most sane people in this country will hope that we never do.  
  1. Will the ensuing economic collapse make it impossible to guarantee that Trident submarines will remain safe from accidents or premature launches? 
As we move towards ecological collapse many of things that as a nuclear power we must have will become unavailable or diminished.  Thus, our conventional forces will be cut back leaving our nuclear weapons more vulnerable and prone to either attack or having to be used prematurely to avoid destruction in a first strike. Maintenance cut backs will lead to higher risks of catastrophic accident. Most worryingly of all is that people driven mad by climate change will have their fingers on the button. Our political scene may be reasonably stable at the moment, but climate change may result in a Nigel Farage or worse being in charge in the coming years. All nuclear weapons states will face these same dilemmas and as all these effects are being driven by the common root cause of climate change they will likely happen simultaneously making them much more unpredictable.  
  1. Will Trident submarines and their missiles become an eternal liability for the survivors of climate change struggling in a dystopian environment? 
If you are to support Trident, then you must first address our moral responsibility to the future survivors on the planet following the apocalypse of climate change, that is assuming the weapons have not already been fired. The climate change survivors will find themselves in a dystopian world struggling for basic food and staples while having to simultaneously decommission these weapons; a task that we struggle to do today.  
I thus return to my previous request of you, it was to satisfactorily answer these three questions before you gave your support to Trident and I make this request again.  
As I have pointed out in on my blog (see "Does it matter if your MP is an Etonian Millionaire?"), the privilege that you have been lucky enough to have throughout your life insulates you from the consequences of the decisions that you make. However, climate change will not differentiate and it will be nightmare for all. I hope that this final thought does persuade you to consider these questions more fully because we are unavoidably all in this together.

Kevin Lister

From: "CLIFTON-BROWN, Geoffrey"
To: Kevin Lister
Sent: Tuesday, 20 January 2015, 14:52
Subject: RE: The dangerous and unacknowledged linkage between climate change and Trident.

Dear Mr Lister
Thank you for contacting me about Trident and Climate Change.
While I appreciate your concern with this issue, I believe it is absolutely vital that we maintain a continuous independent nuclear deterrent as the ultimate guarantee of our national security. The Government, and its predecessors, have consistently set out the case for maintaining our nuclear deterrent: that although no state currently has both the intent and the capability to threaten the independence and integrity of the UK, we do not know how the international environment will change in the future.  We cannot dismiss the possibility that a major direct nuclear threat to the UK might re-emerge.
Despite successes over recent decades in limiting the number of states with nuclear capabilities, we cannot rule out a major shift in the international security situation which would put us under grave threat. That is why the Government believes it would not be right unilaterally to give up this capability.
I fully support this position. Given the range of potential nuclear threats the UK could face over the coming years and decades, I believe that maintaining our continuous deterrent is a national security imperative.
As was set out in the Coalition Programme for Government and subsequently in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the Government’s policy is to maintain a continuous submarine-based deterrent and to proceed with the renewal of Trident and the submarine replacement programme.  Work on that programme has already begun, although final decisions on the number of replacement submarines to be ordered and the final design will be taken in 2016 at what is known as the ‘Main Gate’ checkpoint of the acquisition programme.
With regards to your concerns about climate change I would like to assure you that it is something the Government takes extremely seriously.
The UK is taking a leading role on the world stage, working towards a binding global deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit climate change to manageable levels. British Ministers led the push to get European leaders to reach agreement on a historic deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions. EU countries agreed a new 2030 energy and climate policy framework that includes a domestic 2030 EU emissions reduction target of at least 40 per cent.
This represents a big victory for the UK and it is a vital step towards achieving an international climate agreement at the key Paris conference next year, where all the world's leaders will gather.
The International Climate Fund was set up by the Government to provide £3.87 billion between 2011 and 2015 to help the world's poorest adapt to climate change and promote cleaner, greener economic growth. In addition, the UK supports efforts to integrate climate change policies into international development plans.
Through the fund, the UK work in partnership with developing countries to:
.           reduce carbon emissions through promoting low carbon development
.           help poor people adapt to the effects of climate change
.           reduce deforestation
Britain is leading by example and the Government's flagship Energy Act is based on the premise that the UK needs to decarbonise its energy sector and everything in the Act works towards achieving this goal at the lowest possible cost to the consumer. It puts Britain firmly on track to meet the 2050 target to reduce emissions of all greenhouse gases by 80 per cent.
I hope this information is of use.
Yours sincerely
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, F.R.I.C.S. M.P
Member of Parliament for The Cotswolds
T: 020 7219 5147