Orangutans and the Fires in Indonesia–an Environmental Tipping Point

By Neva Knott

Orangutans hold a special place in my heart. My father, Norman P. Knott, was a zoologist. In the early 1970s he worked for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). We lived in Thailand and often dad would take the family with him to other Asian countries he visited for work. It was on one of these trips I fell in love with the orange Great Ape, as did my little sister. We were at a zoo and the larger male orangutan in captivity there was smoking a cigarette, an indelible image etched into my 11-year-old mind.

He was just he first of many orangutans we’d see while living and traveling in Asia.

In a later conversation between my dad and my older sister–she had asked him what he felt most proud of in his life–he said, “Creating protected habitat for orangutans.” My sister was taken aback, as the family folklore goes; she felt slighted that dad put the orangutan above his four daughters in his pride of accomplishment. When she shared this anecdote with me she said, “I said, but you have children.” My little sister and I somehow approve of dad’s heartfelt championship of the funny-looking orange and fuzzy animals we loved so much in our childhood. Truth be told, both of us still do hold them dear.

Source: wiki commons.

I’ve been following the news about the fires in Indonesia since it broke a few weeks ago. After the first few reports, focused on the fires themselves–locations, cause, containment–I began to see pieces about trapped and threatened orangutans. As I planned my next post for The Ecotone Exchange, I decided to write about them, thinking “this is another opportunity to show the power of consumerism and to talk about how we shop matters” (because the fires are a direct result of slash and burn clearing for palm oil plantations). Many of the reports I’d read explained rescue missions to get orangutans out of burning forests and to safety, another positive, I naively thought. Until last night.

My father’s legacy is going up in smoke.

Orangutans leaving burning forest. Original source unknown.

Orangutans leaving burning forest. Original source unknown.

I began my research into the depth of the orangutans’s situation–I always like to go beyond the click-bait information–with a google search of UN-FAO orangutan habitat. I crossed imaginary fingers that dad’s name would pop up, but his work was so long ago, I didn’t expect to see Norman P. Knott in my search results. I did find the recent (2011) report published by the United Nations Environment Programme, “Orangutans and the Economics of Sustainable Forest Management in Sumatra.” The photographs in the report are telling–I hope you click on the link and take them in. Information in these types of reports is always rich fodder, and not the type of information the general public reads, but I’m sure we’d all act and react differently if we had these types details easily in front of us. In fact, sometimes I think my work as a blogger is really that of extraction. The information, based on research, in this report frames the background of the orangutan’s plight in Indonesia:

First and of foremost importance, “With current trends in forest loss, the Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii) may well be the first Great Ape to go extinct in the wild.” In 1900, the population was 85,000. Now, it’s 6,600. This is a decrease of 92 per cent and has landed the species on the Red List. Bornean Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) are also rapidly declining in number, down from 54,000, and listed as endangered. Information for the UNEP report was gathered in the Leuser Ecosystem, Aceh, and North Sumatra–areas currently burning.

Orangutans are extremely vulnerable to extinction due to a combination of factors. They have an exceptionally slow reproductive rate–Sumatran orangutan females give birth to just one infant at a time, only every eight or nine years. Indeed, the loss of as little as 1 per cent of females each year can place a population on an irreversible trajectory to extinction; they require vast areas of contiguous rainforest to live in; they are very much restricted to lowland forest areas.

Orangutans are most threatened by fragmented habitat–an issue similar to the one I wrote about last week in my post about Wildlife Bridges. The orangutan’s habitat fragmentation is due to forest loss which results from a combination of road development, expansion of large- scale agriculture, logging concessions, mining and small-scale encroachment. To illustrate the magnitude of forest loss–between 1985 and 2007, 49 per cent of all forests on the island were destroyed. Road development is tied to economic development, but the problem for the ecosystem in general and orangutans specifically is that roads are not planned to maintain habitat. The authors of the report state, “These threats can be directly attributed to in- adequate cross-sectoral land use planning, reflecting needs for short-term economic growth, and a lack of environmental law enforcement.”

Of these, the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations in recent years probably represents the greatest single agricultural threat to orangutan survival in the region. The establishment of many of these plantations has resulted in significant losses in orangutan habitat, since they have been created by converting forests instead of making use of already deforested areas, such as existing agricultural or low current use value land. Of note, one of the drivers of this rapid expansion that exists outside of the consumer market is population increase in Indonesia. In this report, the UNEP explains that 50 per cent of Indonesians rely on agriculture for income, and theirs is a population growing rapidly, so the actual number of persons represented by that percentage is much greater than it was even a few years ago–more people to support washes out as more cleared land.

As I read on into the report, I gained a little hope. I was bolstered by the fact that orangutans have been protected since 1931. Most of their habitat is in protected areas on Sumatra the rest of Indonesia. New regulations–as of the publication of the report–are in effect to make the spatial planning process one that is habitat-friendly. The government seems to want to work for orangutans, “The Government of Indonesia has ratified and integrated into national law many international environmental treaties and conventions (e.g. the Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention on International Trade in En- dangered Species, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, the UNESCO World Heritage Convention). Most of these support orangutan conservation at the national and international level. In 2007, the Indonesian government also released its own Indonesian National Orangutan Conservation Strategy and Action Plan (2007-2017, Ministry of Forestry 2009) to protect orangutans and their habitat, which was subsequently signed into law and officially launched by the president.”

Yet, the slash and burn deforestation–a cheap and dirty way to clear land–continues.

National Public Radio reported in “As Indonesia’s Annual Fires Rage, Plenty of Blame but No Responsibility” just a few days ago that much of the deforestation for palm oil is conducted illegally:

“Indonesia’s government has blamed both big palm oil companies and small freeholders. Poynton says the culprits are often mid-sized companies with strong ties to local politicians. He describes them as lawless middlemen who pay local farmers to burn forests and plant oil palms, often on other companies’ concessions.

“There are these sort of low-level, Mafioso-type guys that basically say, ‘You get in there and clear the land, and I’ll then finance you to establish a palm oil plantation,’ ” he says.

The problem is exacerbated by ingrained government corruption, in which politicians grant land use permits for forests and peat lands to agribusiness in exchange for financial and political support.

“The disaster is not in the fires,” says independent Jakarta-based commentator Wimar Witoelar. ‘It’s in the way that past Indonesian governments have colluded with big palm oil businesses to make the peat lands a recipe for disaster.’ Wimar notes that previous administrations are partly to blame for nearly two decades of annual fires.”

All that said, NPR cites Indonesia’s current and fairly new president, Joko Widodo, referred to as Jokowi, to be a man willing to take proactive measure to combat this issue, “The president has deployed thousands of firefighters and accepted international assistance. He has ordered a moratorium on new licenses to use peat land and ordered law enforcers to prosecute people and companies who clear land by burning forests.”

I find it horrific that these land-clearing fires have been part of Business As Usual for so long. The fires in 1997, according to the UNEP report, cost Indonesia 10 billion dollars; this year’s fires, according to the New York Times, cost 14 billion. I’ve read several news reports that the carbon emissions from this year’s are more than what the US in it’s entirety emits. These figures easily refute the economic feasibility argument in favor of clearing forest for palm oil.

From ABC Australia’s article, “Indonesian Fires: Forget the Orangutans, Is the Blaze a Tipping Point for Carbon Emissions?,”:

“The fires in Indonesia are more than just a threat to endangered orangutans. They have shortened by up to two years the window to reduce carbon emissions and avoid runaway climate change, according to one of the CSIRO’s leading climate scientists.

The head of the Global Carbon Project at the CSIRO, Pep Canadell, said the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may have exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in 2 million years, because of the 1 billion tonnes of carbon released by the fires in a two-month period.

Dr Canadell said the daily emissions of the Indonesian fires had been equal to the daily emissions of the US, accelerating humanity’s progress along the upward line of global emissions by about one to two years.”

As Take Part reports, there are some ugly outcomes of the orangutans having to flee their habitat because of the fires, “Orangutans have more to fear than just the fire. The flames and smoke are pushing them out of their already reduced habitats and closer to human villages, where the adults are killed and the young apes are sold into the pet trade. In the past week, International Animal Rescue saved one such young orangutan, Gito, who had been kept in a cardboard box and left in the sun to die.”

By now these sorts of events should be taken as a death knell ringing across the globe. It seems humans have come so far from living in caves that we’ve forgotten we are part of nature and its patterns. These fires and the plight of the orangutans is emblematic that we cannot succeed by pulling apart ecosystems, using one part that is economically beneficially and saying to hell with the rest. These fires and the plight of orangutans is another example that large-scale mono-cropping is the days-gone-by way of agriculture; it does not work with such a densely populated planet as we live on today. The UNEP put these words to the root cause of the problem, “The current economic system, which is based on the assumption that most of what is taken from the environment is a public good, or, in other words, that it is “free,” is leading humanity to either overexploit what nature provides or to destroy it completely. This has created an economic system in which one service has been maximized, usually productivity–[such as quick, low-cost slash and burn clearing], at the expense of others.”

Here at The Ecotone Exchange our moniker is Positive Stories of the Environment. Is there anything positive in this mess? I don’t know, but I was compelled to write about it anyway…

In the short term, several animal rescues like International Animal Rescue and Sumatran Orangutan Society are working on the ground in Indonesia to get the animals to safety. Follow this link to a National Geographic photo-essay, “Saving Sumatra’s Orangutans.” 

There are models for better forestry practices (about which I’ve written extensively), and as the UNEP suggests, there’s much already deforested land available to palm oil growers–some in Indonesia, some elsewhere–and realistically, orangutans take up very little space on this planet, yet palm oil can grow many places.

One thing that’s got to change is environmental standards everywhere. Much of what we consume in America is made elsewhere–to a large degree because companies don’t want to adhere to the environmental, non-pollution, standards here. So we outsource our pollution.

Indonesia is home to the Sustainable Palm Oil Platform, an advocacy that trains and certifies sustainably grown palm oil. Another agency, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, offers similar certification. And several non-profits publish lists of palm oil free products. But palm oil is in everything–I don’t think we can responsibly-shop our way out of this one. Yesterday I thought it might be an option, because so many environmental problems are market-driven (as is this one).

Nor is this a simple issue of saving a charismatic species. Contrastingly, I am looking at the plight of the orangutans as an indicator, I’m looking at them as an indicator of human outcomes. Humans and orangutans share 97 per cent of our DNA. If these Great Apes face extinction from this level of habitat destruction, might not we be next?

This is truly “the horror, the horror.” In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this is all the character Kurtz can say after living alongside the atrocities of European colonization in Africa, after seeing how the “natives” are treated by his countrymen. In the movie adaptation of Conrad’s book, Apocalypse Now, the story is set during the Vietnam War and Kurtz’s last words are the same, “the horror, the horror.”

So I don’t know what the positive is in this story–maybe it is the awareness raised around the world. Maybe it’s that the ideas in the UNEP report can now become reality under the leadership of Indonesian President Widodo. Maybe it’s that the connection between a perceived human need for a product–palm oil, and the natural world–the burning forests and fleeing orangutans, and human welfare–health problems caused by smoke and smog from the fires, and economic ruin are made plain so that future disasters will be avoided by better planning.

My father’s legacy is ablaze and I think I’m going to adopt some orangutans as Christmas presents.

Losing Hope

By Neva Knott

earth-from-space

Image courtesy of EPA.gov.

We’ve driven, shopped, and eaten our way into disaster. I am on the brink of loss of hope, ready to give up. None of my beliefs seem strong enough to put into action and my voice sounds miniscule in the drowning cacophony of corporate greed and single-purpose endeavors and snack packaging.

I cannot understand how so many humans deny that we are in a mess. Our life support system is failing. Call it what you want–climate change, ecological disaster, overpopulation, water wars…sum total, the natural processes that allow humans to stay alive on this planet are ruined, and at our own hand, by our getting and having.

I cannot understand the arguments to keep going in this way–to keep waging age-old wars that poison water and destroy the arability of land. To keep chopping down trees that control heat and air quality and groundwater retention. To keep paving ground that filters the water cycle, thereby controls flooding. To keep destroying food source after food source through poisoning with chemical pesticides and mono-cropping and over-harvesting. To keep driving as a right rather than a luxury so that high-risk drilling is the norm.

And here’s the rub–what we get for all that quickly goes into a landfill. The stuff garnered by all of that destruction is stuff, not sustenance.

I have come to the point where I find it hard to write about the positive, because my brain shuts down at constantly being bombarded by the negative. Not so much that it exists, but by the human stupidity behind the destruction. I understand how the media works, how a news cycle takes over rational, critical thinking, and how we all live in a culture of embeddedness. I understand that socio-political change, which is the driver of climate resilience, only comes though a constant push on many fronts to fill the gaps left in the mainstream master narrative. But I also see a lot of hypocrisy and a lack of common sense.

For example, the morning I began working on this essay, I ran across a news story about getting rid of deer in Ashland, Oregon. Too many of them–overpopulation, and they are bothering the humans. The controversy is to shoot them or not. That’s a moot point. These are the real solutions:

1. Conduct urban planning that includes habitat needs of non-human species. When the new housing development happens in what was previously home to deer… Ashland is a small town, and one that has thoughtfully built a unique destination for itself, and a human lifestyle that embraces certain qualities, those we now call make local habit. In the early planning, to protect local businesses, the town had the foresight to say no chains in downtown…it’s that same foresight that must extend to dealing with wildlife. Essentially, Ashland businesses said hey, this invasive species will ruin us if we let it set up shop here–franchises controlled by outside interests will take down our habit…deer now face the same issue.

2. The second issue with deer here in Oregon is due to eradication of predators, wolves in particular. I’ve written a series of essays on the history and science of wolves in Oregon. Let me simplify the issue–they do more good than harm when on a landscape where they belong. They are not a direct threat to humans unless humans go looking for a fight with them. In the whole history of Oregon as a state, there is no documented case of a wolf attack on a human.

The reality is, if we cut down all the places animals live in their natural states, they will come hang out in our yards and ruin our flower beds.

Even when measures are in place with the intent of co-existing with wildlife or at least easing human displacement of them, animals are there as part of the make-up of the planet, as are humans. By design. If we reach back and look at indigenous cultures, there’s much to learn about living in accordance, species to species.

But I’m not writing here today about deer overpopulation. I went on that tangent as an example of lack of simple common sense and the ability of humans to apply a concept (keep the invaders out so we can have a livelihood) to our own needs will using the other edge of that sword (we’re the invaders and now deer are displaced in their sense of livelihood) for all other species.

Common sense in this day and age and in terms of where we are as a species on this planet is this simple: Do my actions add to the problems or are they part of the solution?

Here’s a juncture where I my head begins to explode–there are so many aspects to consider–plastics in the ocean; melting Arctic ice; illegal poaching of rhinos and elephants for their horns and tusks; polluted rivers and decreasing fish runs; GMO foods and Monsanto… But not really. There is one game-changer problem and everything else is a sub-set of it–climate change.

greenhouse-effect

Image courtesy of Australia.gov.

This week, when reading around online, I was reminded of the key word in the climate debate–abashedly, I’d forgotten this word as the new level of the bar, even after having heard the lead climate scientist for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) speak last spring.

Irreversible.

This is the word used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2014 report–covered here in the Washington Post.

Climate change IS. The Environmental Protection Agency has this to say about it:

Climate change is happening.

Our Earth is warming. Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.5°F over the past century, and is projected to rise another 0.5 to 8.6°F over the next hundred years. Small changes in the average temperature of the planet can translate to large and potentially dangerous shifts in climate and weather.

The evidence is clear. Rising global temperatures have been accompanied by changes in weather and climate. Many places have seen changes in rainfall, resulting in more floods, droughts, or intense rain, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves. The planet’s oceans and glaciers have also experienced some big changes – oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising. As these and other changes become more pronounced in the coming decades, they will likely present challenges to our society and our environment.

The debate of what about it happened at Kyoto in 1997. The deniers are behind the times, stuck someplace with the cavemen who didn’t believe in fire or the wheel, with the people who doubted air flight or the moon walk. Climate change is all around us… it is the biological state of being of planet Earth. What the world’s climate scientists want us to know is that there is no turning back, no escape.

climate_change_health_impacts600w

Image courtesy of CDC.gov.

Every action every person takes every day affects how this thing is going to go. What we’re really dealing with is climate resilience, a concept agencies have been working on and running models to study for some time now–about since Kyoto. NOAA has developed a toolkit to guide Americans in this change of thinking and lifestyle. It’s time for that concept to become the mechanism of socio-political change that might save humans from extinction.

More overwhelm. (Keep in mind, it can be assuaged by common sense and working through some simple biology lessons…)

I have pretty good sustainable living habits, some born of frugality way back in college, some born of awareness and my liberal arts educational experiences, some born of my embeddedness in a “subvert the dominant paradigm” counter-culture, some born of travelling third-world countries as a child, some born of what I learned about the natural world from my father, some born of the waste-not, want-not mentality of my grandparents who lived through the Depression, some born of common sense and my innate understanding of right action.

Lately, though, I have changed or refocused my thinking about my own getting and having. I’ve re-oriented everything I do so that I now look at it through the lens of climate change.

If my actions to get my needs met now require me not to contribute climate change, I have to think about my getting and having of food, shelter, livelihood, social needs, and the kind of work I do. What can I do in my daily life to eliminate carbon, methane, and nitrogen emissions–the main greenhouse gases that cause global warming–in production of what it takes to run my life?

To date, I’ve made these changes:

I drive a car that runs on biodeisel and use fuel produced in Oregon where I live and I drive as little as possible; I eat only organic food and as much of it locally grown as possible; I don’t eat much meat at all, and I what I do eat I make sure is sustainably grown or fished; I avoid plastic and work to minimized disposable stuff, mainly packaging and single-use what-not; I use only eco-friendly home and personal care products and as few of them as possible. These actions have become habits.

What’s new for me is thinking about the clothing I purchase and how much I travel.

Sustainability practices measure sourcing, energy of production, and waste…take these factors into account when thinking about the goods and services you consume and work to reduce harmful sourcing, wasteful energy in production, and wastefulness (disposability) in the life of the product, and you’ll be making great strides minimize your impact and creating climate resilience.

The message from scientists and climate activists is loud–it’s here and it’s real but we can work to slow the progress. The planet has warmed just a degree and a half–I can’t imagine it at the 6.3 F degree increase that is the projection. It’s time to act.

After the Bridge–Let’s Continue to Block Drilling in the Arctic

By Neva Knott

It’s been just ten days since Greenpeace activists dangled from the St. Johns Bridge across the Willamette River here in Portland, working to block Shell Oil’s icebreaker, the MSV Fennica, on its way from dry dock back to the Arctic to drill for oil. The image below is now iconic, having appeared in media pretty much everywhere.

Streamers float in the wind under the St. Johns Bridge In as activists climbed under the bridge in an attempt to prevent the Shell leased icebreaker, MSV Fennica from joining the rest of Shell's Artctic drilling fleet. T According to the latest federal permit, the Fennica must be at Shell’s drill site before Shell can reapply for federal approval to drill deep enough for oil in the Chukchi Sea.

Photograph courtesy of Greenpeace.

According to reportage in Portland’s Willamette Week, Greenpeace arrived as a surprise. Local activist groups 350 PDX, Backbone Campaign and Portland Rising Tide had planned to put boats in the water to block the Fennica from departing, but had no idea of Greenpeace’s plan. The bridge activists descended in the pre-dawn hours and the other groups and concerned citizens launched at dawn. All in all, the Fennica was unable to leave.

gpbridge4Photograph courtesy of Greenpeace.

The action lasted 39 hours and was truly a peaceful protest. Details of it can be found on the Greenpeace website, local commentary can be found at Willamette Week, and several photos are on Alternet.org. In the end, the Fennica was court-ordered passage, but the direct action made an impact. The spokesperson for Portland Mayor Charlie Hales’s office remarked in the WW, “…the protesters had done a tremendous job of getting their message out…” and Jessica Moskovitz of Oregon Environmental Council was quoted to say, “You need moments that focus everybody’s attention, and that’s what Greenpeace does.” Of course, Greenpeace followed the action with a petition to President Obama, who recently approved, and defended his decision to allow, Shell’s drilling in the Arctic. 

There’s been enough media coverage of the events at the St. Johns Bridge. I’m writing to extend the conversation beyond the huge direct action–because there is much more to do, and several aspects to consider (which I’ll cover soon in future posts) about Shell drilling in the Arctic.

300px-Chukchi_Sea

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

But first…what’s the problem with Shell drilling in the Arctic? With Shell as a company, at least in environmental terms?

Drilling in the Arctic is a climate change game changer of devastating proportion. Treehugger reports that, “Northern Alaska is warming at twice the rate as the lower 48 [states].” Drilling will only accelerate warming. Additionally, there is the risk of a spill–along the lines of the BP oil spill in New Orleans in 2010, which changed that ecosystem forever. Greenpeace, in Top 10 Reasons Why Arctic Oil Drilling Is A Really Stupid Idea, enumerates: It’s extremely dangerous; our climate can’t afford it; relief wells are harder to drill [and necessary in terms of spill mitigation]; oil recovery is near impossible in ice; there isn’t nearly enough spill response capacity; nature is even less capable of absorbing oil there than in lower latitudes; the local wildlife is very vulnerable to oil; it’s hugely expensive; we don’t really need to–given that “car makers are perfectly capable of making only fuel-efficient vehicles.” Possibly the biggest reason not to enact this environmental damage is that it provides only…

A three year fix – the US Geological Survey estimates the Arctic could hold up to 90 billion barrels of oil. This sounds a lot, but that would only satisfy three years of the world’s oil demand. These giant, rusting rigs with their inadequate oil spill response plans are risking the future of the Arctic for three years worth of oil. Surely it’s not worth taking such a risk?

Shell has aggressively pursued drilling in the Arctic. As the world’s biggest company, Shell has pull–part of the St. Johns Bridge story is how quickly a judge ruled in their favor. The recent analysis of climate change polluters summarized by The Guardian lists Shell as one of the 90 companies that caused two thirds of man-made global warming. Shell also has a horrible environmental record, as you’ll see reported by manufacturing.net and Oil Change International. In a well-sourced article on wikipedia, Shell is named a “high priority violator” in terms of pollution violations against the Clean Air Act. And there’s the rub–once again big money is allowed to leap over laws. The company seemingly operates from the stance that might makes right.

Why? Because we live in a market driven society. This problem is that simple. Shell and companies like it do what they do because they make lots and lots of money–for themselves and stockholders.

Such favor is extended because the dominant belief is that Shell is filling a societal need, providing a benefit, by damaging the ecosystem/geographic region known as the Arctic. Change the need and change the game…

oil1

Image courtesy of University of Oregon.

The US is the world’s largest oil consumer. If most other countries–some large, some small, some industrialized, some not–can consume so much less, we can. This is where we, individuals who function in the market-driven society as consumers, come in. First step–drive less. Second step–change your fuel sources; for example, I use Oregon-produced biodiesel in my car and wind powered electricity for my home. Third step–stop buying petroleum-based products… and the list of them  is long, and sort of scary, considering one I saw was novelty candy.

I’ve written a handful of pieces in the last few months that tie to changing purchasing habits to help the environment. If face of companies like Shell, it’s really the only boots on the ground way to affect change. Big actions like dangling off a bridge are truly important to raise awareness, but then we must–each and every one of us–act to manifest that awareness as change.

Our consumer habits are our weapons of immediate action, other actions are also effective–please sign the petition to stop Shell from drilling, and please contact your Senator; several are already putting pressure on President Obama to protect the Arctic.

Sign the Petition in Support of President Obama’s Veto of the Keystone XL Pipeline

The time is now to support the president’s veto of the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that carries the weight of irreparable environmental damage. The first link below is to the petition in support of Obama’s veto. The other links are to sites that explain what’s harmful and dangerous about the pipeline.

Petition: https://secure3.convio.net/lcv/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=2097

Information:

http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/about-2/why-oppose-kxl/

http://www.foe.org/projects/climate-and-energy/tar-sands/keystone-xl-pipeline

http://www.nrdc.org/energy/keystone-pipeline/

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/17/keystone-xl-pipeline-opposition-cowboys-indians-alliance-oil

http://350.org/campaigns/stop-keystone-xl/

Hope for Mitigation of Ocean Acidification

By Neva Knott

I teach at a small college in Washington, Centralia College. Even though we only have 2,600 students, the college has a strong STEM focus. As an extension of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math programs, the college hosts speakers for the Rising Tide Seminar Series. The speaker for the January 2015 seminar was Dr. Christopher Sabine, Oceanographer and the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of NOAA. He opened his presentation at Centralia College with the message that climate change is undeniable and serious, but it’s not too late.

Dr. Sabine gave the following five take-home points:

1. The profound impact of humans on the earth’s climate is “unmistakable at this point”

2. Carbon dioxide released into the climate has fundamentally changed the chemistry of oceans

3. The current amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will impact climate for thousands, if not 10’s of thousands, of years

4. Even though the rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been higher in the past, the rate of increase is 10-100 times faster than ever before in the geological past; this rapid rate of increase has a real, negative impact on adaptation–the ability of species, including humans, to change enough to exist in the changed biotic system

5. That there is a way out

Dr. Sabine’s presentation was largely based on the International Panel of Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report (2013), on which he consulted. The latest findings are that the evidence substantiates a better than 95 percent likelihood of human influence as the driver of climate change. In referencing the work of IPCC, Sabine explained that there are “multiple lines of evidence” to support the unequivocal warming of the earth’s climate system, evidence that he suggested climate deniers can no longer avoid. These lines of evidence are: increasing air temperature; increasing atmospheric water vapor; increasing temperature over oceans; increasing sea temperature; increasing sea level; increasing ocean heat; decreasing sea ice.

The statistics behind these factors are staggering and somewhat unfathomable. Dr. Sabine explained that, as the climate has warmed in the last 40 years, 275 zeda jewels of additional solar energy have accumulated in the earth’s system. To illustrate–one zeda jewel is enough energy for the needs of the entire human population for two years. About seven percent of this accumulated energy is stored terrestrially, on land, in plants and soils. The rest is going into the oceans.

Carbon emissions into the atmosphere are measured in parts per million (ppm). Pre-industrial revolution the atmosphere measured 228 ppm of carbon dioxide, whereas today the measurement is 400 ppm or more.

Dr. Sabine illustrated the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide with another measurement, the petagram. The current rate of release is right around 10 petagrams per year. The image Sabine offered in order for the audience to wrap our minds around this huge number was this: a 156,500 mile-long hopper car of coal would release one petagram. Thus, the current 10 petagrams would equal that hopper car of coal circling 70 times around the earth at the equator. To further illustrate, Sabine explained that the annual rate of 28,000 square miles of deforestation equals one petagram of carbon dioxide emission.

The culminating effect of the increase in carbon dioxide in the oceans is that the oceanic carbon cycle has been reversed. Pre-industrial revolution and climate change, oceans were a carbon source. Through their natural processes, they released carbon into the atmosphere that was, in turn, taken up by leaves, which then degraded into the soil system, where the carbon was stored. Now, oceans are a carbon sink. This increase is the cause of ocean acidification–because carbon dioxide is an acid gas. Dr. Sabine stated that pH balance is “very important for ocean ecosystems.”

Unknown-1

Corals of The Great Barrier Reef. Courtesy of wiki commons.

Acidification makes it difficult for organisms to form shells, using reefs to weaken and bleach. In the arctic, shells are dissolving off snails. The Great Barrier Reef has lost 50 percent of its coral over the last three decades. Not only is ocean acidification problematic to marine species, one billion people globally rely on the oceans as a food source, some for 100 percent of their dietary protein.

NOAA has several programs to help coastal communities mitigate the effects of climate change. One of the organization’s goals is to create a “climate literate” public. In addition to these public support programs, NOAA offers a Climate Stewards Education Project. NOAA’s efforts are also linked with President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. The solution to ocean acidification is at once simple and enormous–humans must decrease carbon emissions. The time is now.

The Spin is on…Finally, America Gets Real about Climate Action

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Image courtesy of treehugger.com

By Neva Knott

Today, thankfully, President Obama released his Plan to Fight Climate Change, based on the third National Climate Assessment. I say “thankfully,” because the US in contrast to other first world nations has been hesitant to commit to climate action–ever since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Legislatively, our nation’s leaders have favored the monied interests of big business over the concerns of the world. Culturally, Americans have allowed stereotypes and soundbites broadcast by ill-informed blabbers to dominate the conversation about what’s happening to our world as it heats up. As individuals, Americans are hesitant to change our habits of getting and having that, largely, are the cause of climate change.

In my opinion, America to date has missed an opportunity to lead–to be the world leader in response to climate change. So, again, I say “thankfully” today, the spin is on. CNN promoted Obama’s report, Time promoted Obama’s report, The Guardian promoted Obama’s report, The Washington Post promoted Obama’s report. Fox News not only covered the roll-out of Obama’s report, but covered the firm statement by White House spokesman  John Podesta that Congress will not be able to stop Obama’s enforcement of Clean Air Act (1970) regulation of polluters (those big business types who thing this is all some eco-nazi film-flam). On NPR today, I heard a brief report of what America is doing already– two examples: restoring wetlands, adapting to green energy sources. So, the spin is on. News reportage changed today; climate change and the need for action is now part of the mainstream news cycle.

Many of the reports I’ve linked to this post provide easily-digestable and discernible information on climate science. Each publication covers just a bit of a different angle on the issue. In sum, all strongly document the reality of climate change, and our immediate need as a nation and as individual Americans to act.

We’re a mediatized culture; once the spin is on, we’ll begin to act–legislatively, culturally, individually.

Thankfully.

 

When an owl species goes silent

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Spotted Owl: Photograph courtesy of USFWS

By Rebecca Deatsman

Is it ethical to kill one native species to save another? What if one is common and widespread and the other is endangered? This is the dilemma faced in recent years by wildlife managers in the Pacific Northwest as they continue the struggle to save the Spotted Owl.

First placed on the endangered species list in 1990, the Spotted Owl has become infamous as a symbol of the ongoing conflicts between environmentalists and loggers in the Northwest. Spotted Owls need undisturbed old-growth forests to thrive, but those same forests also contain valuable timber that helps support loggers, their families, and entire communities. However, habitat loss isn’t the only serious threat that the Spotted Owl is facing, and some people may be surprised by the source of its newest challenge: another owl.

Barred Owls are originally native to eastern North America, but have been gradually expanding their range west over the last century, likely due to how humans have altered habitats in the once-treeless Great Plains; they were first documented in California in the 1950s and in western Washington in the 1970s and have been increasing ever since. Barred and Spotted Owls are close cousins, both in the genus Strix, and look very similar, with dark eyes and without the distinctive “ear” tufts sported by many other owls; however, Barred Owls have horizontal and vertical barring on their breasts and bellies while Spotted Owls are more, well, spotted. (See photos.) Barred Owls are also larger, more aggressive, and can use a wider range of habitats – and when they move into Spotted Owl forests, they can easily outcompete their shy western cousins. When big, boisterous Barred Owls move into an area, Spotted Owls learn to be quiet in order to avoid them. Since owls rely on vocalizations to find mates and defend territory, an owl population that goes quiet doesn’t last for long.

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Barred Owl: Photograph courtesy of Oregon Fish and Wildlife

Trapping Barred Owls alive and moving them to a new location away from Spotted Owl habitat is difficult and costly; the only real option for eliminating them is killing them. In 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorized a pilot project to kill eighty Barred Owls in Spotted Owl habitat in California and study the results. The experiment was a success, with Spotted Owls rapidly recolonizing sites where their competitors had been removed, and based on these results the USFWS is greatly expanding the program – last September, they announced a plan to kill 3600 Barred Owls in California, Oregon, and Washington over the next four years. The Canadian government has reached the same conclusion and last year okayed the killing of 40 Barred Owls in British Columbia, where as few as ten Spotted Owls remain in the wild.

These decisions are not without controversy. Native birds of prey, including the Barred Owl, are protected in both the U.S. and Canada under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, making it illegal under most circumstances to capture or kill them; the USFWS had to issue special exemptions to allow the cull to go forward. In the U.S., a group called Friends of Animals is suing the USFWS to stop the cull, saying the plan is “immoral, unethical and cruel, as well as illegal.” An online petition petition against the shooting of Barred Owls in British Columbia garnered over 15,000 signatures. Many people are uncomfortable with the government-sponsored killing of native, non-game wildlife, even with the best of intentions. Still, the cull is going forward, having begun in America near the end of last year.

It’s hard to argue with a simple, cost-effective measure that may be able to help bring a declining species like the Spotted Owl back from the brink, but it’s also understandably hard for some wildlife lovers to stomach. In this case, the owls in the old growth may be our canary in the coal mine.

As habitats across the continent continue to be altered by climate change, this is probably not the last time that two species, both considered native, will come into conflict and force wildlife management agencies to make tough decisions. In addition to reshaping our climate, the decades to come may reshape the very definition of “native,” and our concept of wildlife ethics along with it.  For now, the Spotted Owl and its habitat remain safe.

Further reading: