Editor’s note: Climate change predictions have repeatedly demonstrated to be estimating disasters much later than they arrive. In spite of that, climate scientists still continue to make similar predictions. In this piece, the author – a psychologist – explores the technical and psychological reasons behind this.
One of the clichés of climate change reporting is climate scientists claiming to be ‘surprised’, ‘shocked’ or ‘baffled’ by extreme events happening so much faster than predicted by their models and research studies.
These consistent underestimations are often explained by their ‘cautious’ approach which sounds reasonable, until you realise this has led the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — whose role is to advise humanity on the seriousness of the climate crisis — to get their advice consistently wrong.
COP27 reinforced this problem when, as ever, the IPCC based their warnings exclusively on a synthesis of climate scientist’s reports that, they knew, underdetermined both what’s already happening and the speed of catastrophic future change.
This means most people, including those in power and in the media, genuinely don’t know how desperate things already are. Even many directly engaged with the subject, in NGOs and protest groups, don’t realise concepts like limiting warming to a ‘safe’ 1.5C global average are now meaningless — because scientists won’t tell them.
People know it’s bad but not how bad. This gap in understanding remains wide enough for denialists and minimisers to legitimise inadequate action under the camouflage of empty eco-jargon and false optimism. This gap allows nations, corporations and individuals to remain distracted by short-term crises, which, however serious, pale into insignificance compared with the unprecedented threat of climate change.
Alongside those vested interests who minimise climate change assessments, underestimates by scientists have potentially devastating consequences for humanity’s efforts to react to this threat to our survival. You don’t need to be a scientist to know that misjudging the seriousness of a situation compromises any response.
This article explains why traditional climate science methods cannot keep up with rapid change. It provides an analysis of the psychological defences that prevent most climate scientists from admitting this in public when, unofficially, they all do and say they are afraid. In conclusion, we consider how scientists can overcome this irrational position, for the good of us all
How wrong are climate scientists?
The list of new climate phenomena and related extreme events that ‘surprise’ climate scientists is endless, because it literally grows by the day.
This statement of fact is not ‘doomist’ or disputed by anyone serious, including scientists themselves. Roger Harrabin, the BBC’s environment and energy correspondent, recently confessed he is ‘scared’ — because he has listened for years to scientists telling him things were far worse than they could say officially and this is evident in today’s climate extremes.
The unprecedented 40C-plus temperatures of 2022’s UK and French heatwaves that provoked Harrabin’s disclosure, were forecast in 2019 to occur sometime after 2050 by the modelling of their national meteorological organisations. Multiple UK locations then saw 40C in 2022, while elsewhere in Europe they got closer to 50C. This led Professor Hannah Cloke of the University of Reading to admit, “Even as a climate scientist… this is scary.”
More, unusually public, panicked-sounding comments from scientists followed because these unprecedented extremes in Europe, undoubtedly caused they knew by humanity’s impact on the climate, were also experienced across the entire Northern Hemisphere, not least China which suffered ‘the worst drought in human history’ and vast areas of western USA.
These, plus epic and terrible related events like extremes of drought in the Horn of Africa, floods in Pakistan (covering an area the size of the UK), Australia and Niger, heatwaves in India and Argentina, and many others — were not anticipated anything like this soon by climate science models.
Worse, this was nothing new, recent history records an accelerating number of similar phenomena including:
· The 2021 ‘heatdomes’ in British Columbia and elsewhere — predicted to occur only every 10 years after average global temperature increased by 2C i.e. again, sometime after 2050. These led Michael E. Mann, a ‘go-to’ climate scientist/commentator, to state the climate models were wrong.
· The mega Australian wildfires of 2019 — predicted to occur by 2050 by only one climate scientist who, when he said so in 2007, was ridiculed by his peers for being alarmist.
So, the answer to the question, ‘how wrong are climate scientists?’ is — disastrously. The fact is, no mainstream research paper or climate model predicted where we are now.
Why don’t the methods work?
These ‘peer-reviewed’ methods cannot keep up in a time of rapid climate change because they…
1. take years from proposal to publication — so are always out-of-date
2. must limit themselves to the consideration of fragments of the climate system, to satisfy the high statistical standards of ‘certainty’ required
3. don’t include known variables, such as methane, when measurement is problematic — these are allocated zero values which works for the maths but not for real-life
4. cannot make provision for variables they know must be significant but cannot say so ‘scientifically’ yet, including many ‘feedback loops’
5. cannot co-ordinate well with other, equally-limited studies
6. cannot consider the whole planetary system or, usually, even major system components
7. were designed for the study of nature’s usual, long-term (thousands/millions of years) pace of climate change, not the unprecedented speed of anthropogenic change.
The IPCC rely exclusively on data they ‘synthesise’ from scientific papers and models complying with these methods to tell humanity what is happening, though they know these are flawed for this purpose.
They will not consider better data until a scientist has referred to this using the same process.
In addition, they use a ‘consensus’ filter — this disregards ‘outlier’ results, so those few studies that sound more realistic alarms are discounted.
All this is compounded by the IPCC’s mind-bogglingly complicated 7-year review and reporting structure. Though designed to be thorough, this has no chance of keeping up.
This modus operandi was established at their inception in 1988 but, as Naomi Oreskes, the Harvard science historian says, the IPCC ‘set the bar of proof too high’ for their vital advisory role.
For clarity, this is the bar set by the IPCC for their synthesis of scientific evidence, not for their summaries issued to policymakers. These summaries are built on the foundation of this understated evidence but are further watered-down, under external pressures, by dubious factors such as the estimated impact of unproven technologies.
The Arctic Circle
This is where these methods get it most wrong.
Significant, unambiguous new observational evidence emerged in the summer of 2022, from Svalbard and the Barents Sea, to reveal an increase of 10C there in the past 30 years alone. Accounts of Alaskan and Northern Russian land masses recording even higher temperature anomalies have been routine for decades; in this context the Siberian wildfires of 2020 surpassed in area the rest of the world’s fires put together.
We now know the temperature across the entire Arctic Circle has increased by between 4C and 10C in four decades i.e. way above the current ‘global average’ of 1.2C, and the now-unachievable ‘safe’ limit of 1.5C. The drastic climatic consequences of these astonishingly fast increases include already altering the path and speed of the jet streams, 50–100 years faster than expected.
These increases were not built into climate models prior to 2022, one of the major reasons all bar one of the IPCC’s current ‘trajectories’ for future change have already been surpassed. Additional incorrect assumptions are regularly highlighted — a December 2022 study indicates the rate of melt of Greenland’s glacier fronts has been significantly underestimated in the models due to erroneous comparisons with events in Antartica.
The effect on leaders’ and the public’s (mis)understanding is significant. At the time of writing, on the back of the summer temperature extremes of 2022, 2/3 of the landmass of the USA is in the grip of a vast winter storm, while much of Europe experiences an unprecedented winter heatwave. Any climate scientist, informally, will say these events must be related to climate change caused by human activity. But they won’t say so publicly, because their methods cannot show this yet, so the media report the cause is subject to ‘scientific debate’ — creating a false impression of uncertainty and reducing warranted alarm.
We see similar misguided misreporting in relation to changes in other major climate elements including ocean temperatures, deep ocean currents, Antarctica, glacier retreat and biodiversity loss.
Another cliché of climate reporting is the surprise expressed at so many extreme events happening at ‘only’ 1.2C but given what’s actually happened in the Arctic Circle and elsewhere — as opposed to what the models predicted — it’s no surprise at all.
They do know – So why can’t climate scientists tell us?
This is where psychology comes into it. Climate scientists are extremely clever people but they are as human, and as vulnerable to sub-conscious needs and fears, as the rest of us.
They do know
It is worth reiterating that these highly-educated professionals do know everything outlined above to be true — they know EVERY new live observation and better-quality study or model shows this.
And it isn’t only Roger Harrabin, with his significant sample size, who says so.
The problem is also well-illustrated by the fiasco of the 1.5C average ‘limit’ which at COP27, using their methodology, the IPCC still declared realistic in spite of the fact that in 2022:
· the UN’s own Environment Program declared there was no credible path to limiting warming to 1.5C
· the journal Nature broadly surveyed climate scientists and ecologists on the average global temperature rise by 2100; 96% said it would be higher than 1.5C and 60% said it would be 3C or more
· an event at the University of East Anglia asked 60 climate scientists whether 1.5C was ‘still alive’? — 100% said no.
But, because most climate scientists will not say so in public, they enable COP27, virtually all media outlets and influential figures like Sir David Attenborough to keep misrepresenting reality.
All while, everyone agrees, every fraction of a degree beyond 1.5C of warming represents exponentially-worse consequences for humanity — and more than 3C could be unsurvivable.
The psychological reasons
Scientists nonetheless repress the fact all this points to an urgent need to change their behaviours to allow them to report ‘live’ – what they know is actually happening.
This repression process is automatic — it is a sub-conscious, psychological defence mechanism activated in response to the perceived threat that changing their ways of working represents.
The superficial element of this threat is to their basic needs; climate scientists in general are not motivated by material gain but they still need to eat. All of them, from the most junior to those contributing work to the IPCC, simply cannot vary from these prescribed ‘scientific’ methods in their activities — if they do, their work will not be accepted.
More significant for climate scientists, however, is the profound psychological importance to them of their professional standing, this is fundamental to their sense of themselves — we might say their egos ‘identify’ with this. The threat to this status that the possibility of abandoning these methods represents is experienced as a kind of mortal danger, a killing of themselves.
This ego-identification of scientists with their special status is not a new concept; it’s widely accepted as a kind of anodyne, hard-earned, superiority complex that’s generally beneficial in its consequences for society. Historically this was often seen in popular culture as an inferiority complex, producing the malevolent ‘mad scientist’, but in the era of advanced technology the isolated ‘nerd’ archetype has emerged from this shadow to enjoy elevated status and influence. The tendency towards social awkwardness of many in this group is also affectionately portrayed in shows like ‘The Big Bang Theory’.
But most scientists still feel psychologically different. They grew up apart because they were more intellectually capable than those around them. Even if surrounded by good-intentions, childhood inevitably featured isolation, in the absence of many who could connect with them at their level. Worse, a significant subset of this population experience bullying for their exceptional abilities.
Academia provides a psychological refuge among a social group of their peers, but they also discover here a competitive environment with rigid and complex rules of behaviour. These rules, to which these research methods are fundamental, are reinforced over years. They are the code they must abide by to confirm and retain their membership of the group.
It follows that any threat to this membership, as breaking these rules represents, is deeply psychologically painful. The defences and complexes activated, linked to early maturational experiences, are the most difficult to shift. They provoke sub-conscious, primitive fears. Rational argument, normally the goal of scientists, becomes difficult to engage.
These fears are reinforced by the absence of an alternative group to join if they leave — outcast, back in the ‘real’ world they would find no safe community.
Thus, ongoing repression and ‘business as usual’; thousands of limited studies and inaccurate models still flow from academia, and on to the IPCC — in spite of the desperate, wider consequences.
This is an example of collective cognitive dissonance, a behaviour which denies reality, often seen in human groups where individuals place high value on their membership.
Another crucial barrier to these scientists changing their behaviours is the near absence of any external pressure to do so — indeed the opposite is the case. Efforts to dilute climate warnings continue but even those who acknowledge the problem, enmeshed in their own obligations and related defences, don’t want to hear things are worse than scientists are already saying.
The psychology of the IPCC
The continued insistence of the IPCC on basing their advice on evidence produced by methods they know under-estimate the problem, is an extension of this collective cognitive dissonance.
Their behaviour makes no sense in the context of humanity’s failure to respond to catastrophic threat. IPCC lead scientists are not pathologically-inclined to cause harm — but they too feel unable to abandon the constraints of methods within which they are psychologically secure.
It is also likely the IPCC reinforces their emphasis on these flawed in-group methods, as a primitive defence against those non-scientific vested interests who challenge and ‘bully’ them, including in the production of their summaries for policymakers.
There is, nonetheless, one psychological factor that could shift these ‘ego-identified’ complexes and that is peer pressure, especially if this comes from senior leaders across the climate science community.
The truth is ‘unscientific’
Roger Harrabin reports scientists saying they can’t tell the truth because to do so would be ‘unscientific’. This apparent insanity, given the consequences, can be understood psychologically.
But scientists are not the only ones who need urgent analysis in this incredible context. Prioritising survival in their roles at the expense of rational behaviour is accepted, even expected, among corporate leaders and politicians, both as individuals and the collective.
It’s notable all these people come from a similar demographic— mostly white, male, middle-aged, privileged — or, if not, they are obliged to conform with the culture and social norms established by this group. It may be easier for scientists though, given the importance to them of objectivity, to break through their defences and change their behaviours.
The same but different – Divergence among climate scientists
The climate science community, like the science itself, is many-faceted and includes specialists in atmospheric sciences, fluid dynamics, meteorology, geo-science and others, as well as climatologists. More than one hundred thousand work in research, corporations, environment/habitat management, public administration, NGOs etc. Most have no direct connection to the IPCC or the media.
Only their leaders have these connections and it is no surprise, in this extreme situation, that this instinctively-conservative community is fragmenting. They currently fall into 5 main groups.
1. More of the same
In classic defence-mechanism style many scientists double-down on their existing flawed methods in response to their fears. Disappearing down the rabbit-hole of another 5-year study or designing another complex model is psychologically comfortable. Most research papers still end with the recommendation ‘more study is required…’, which rationalises this defensive behaviour but diminishes the impact of conclusions and plays into the hands of minimisers.
Ineffectual attempts have been made to change things up like, ‘attribution studies’. These calculate (using a questionable comparison to an imaginary world where human influence had not occurred) the probability of anthropogenic causation as opposed to ‘weather’ variations. Their findings are published faster than standard studies but still cause delays of many months and even then are not conclusive. Thus the summer 2022 droughts were reported in January 2023 to have been ‘calculated’ by the UK Met Office as ‘160 times more likely’ to have been caused by climate change, when any scientist would have said, informally, when they were happening, there was no chance it was anything else. Others produce ludicrous individual event estimates like ‘1000 times more…’
Anything to avoid a declaration of certainty at the time of the event, because this is not allowed by scientific method. Such convoluted compromises only make sense within the climate science community where adherence to the rules is sacrosanct — even though they know these will still cause delay in communication and misunderstanding elsewhere.
2. More of the same — but magically better
Senior climate scientist and Oxford Professor Tim Palmer told Roger Harrabin: “It’s impossible to say how much of an emergency we are in because we don’t have the tools to answer the question.’’
Former Met Office chief scientist Professor Dame Julia Slingo told BBC News in 2021: “We should be alarmed because the IPCC (climate computer) models are just not good enough.’’ She went on, “(We need) an international centre… like that at Cern… with expensive new mega-computers — to deliver the quantum leap to climate models that capture the fundamental physics that drive extremes”. Such computers — everyone knows — would take years to develop, time humanity does not have, and could anyway never be ‘mega’ enough to keep up.
It is difficult to imagine clearer cases of bad workmen blaming their tools, not least as they design the tools themselves — but it’s not that a Professor Dame and an Oxford Professor can’t see the wood for the trees, it is that they are the trees.
Most climate scientists still live deep in this area of a forest of their own creation. Their irrational obsession with improving ‘scientific’ methods as a response to this problem, clearly links to their subconsciously-driven resistance to saying anything in public without reference to these; they are looking for justification (within the rules of their community) to speak out, as they know they should. Off the record, Tim and Julia and the rest will say it is 100% certain humanity caused this unprecedented climate mayhem and — using their powerful brains instead of their limited models — can give accurate ideas of what’s coming next.
3. Ongoing denial
A small group of hardliners still refuse to look beyond conclusions derived within the limited parameters of individual studies and models. They disregard the fact these, and the big picture the IPCC obtains by considering them together, cannot tell us what’s actually going on. For them if something can’t be ‘proved’ yet by their methods — it’s not happening.
Thus many refused to accept jet streams had (inevitably) shifted because of the relative speed of Arctic warming — because their models could not yet demonstrate this. Their peer-reviewed work was published in credible journals, even when other scientists like Jennifer Francis pointed out obvious flaws, such as their inability to include the impact of the warming of land masses across the Arctic Circle. This purist group were quietened by the observations and events of 2022 but they remain influential.
Crucially, the IPCC itself belongs here — as they continue to reference only data from studies and models which they know cannot reflect reality.
4. Underestimation to ‘avoid panic’
Some scientists attempt to rationalise underestimation by claiming this avoids the paralysis the resultant panic would provoke. This, psychologically-speaking, is nonsense; history tells us the mass ‘freeze response’ they allude to will not be provoked by credible experts telling the truth. Not telling people, however, does risk confusion, paralysis and no meaningful action — which is what has played out.
These scientists collude with the ‘stubborn optimists’ in public life, people like the UN’s Cristiana Figueres who advocate maintaining a belief in things getting better, even when they look bleak — which sounds okay but, has led to magical thinking such as faith in non-viable techno-solutions and the untenable insistence on ‘keeping 1.5C alive’.
This group includes public-facing scientists like Katherine Hayhoe and Michael E Mann, popular because they say what people want to hear. Mann now acknowledges there has been no meaningful action. He still insists ‘progress’ made on ‘policy’ is ‘hopeful’, however, which is like praising the driver of a runaway train for jamming down the accelerator, before going back to talk with passengers about slowing down. So, he hasn’t found his way out of this group yet.
5. Going public
Some scientists are breaking ranks to tell it much more like it is. They include some whose reputations are established, like Sir David King, or are retired/emeritus professors like Peter Wadhams, or they are the more confident and the boldest, people like James Hansen, Makifo Sato, Jennifer Francis, Ye Tao, Bill McGuire, Peter Carter, Kevin Anderson, Tim Lenton, Jason Box, David Spratt, James Dyke and Peter Kalmus. They are not rooted so deeply within the forest and have in common the psychological trait that the existential fear in them provoked by this situation, has become stronger than any psychological threat.
Some are organising in groups such as Scientist Rebellion, The Climate Crisis Advisory Group, Scientists Warning, and Scholars Warning. Some of the youngest are breathing fire — Capstick et al in 2022 in the journal Nature Climate Change, argue that all climate scientists must get involved in civil disobedience to provoke action. Others focus on practical suggestions — but do so in silos which receive minimal attention, such as the Centre for Climate Repair.
Other academics are also realistically engaged including Jem Bendell, professor of Sustainable Leadership and Rupert Read, Associate Professor of Philosophy.
Though in touch with reality themselves, and connecting with probably several million others now across the globe, none of these or others like them have had a meaningful impact on the behaviour of governments, corporations and most individuals, nor on humanity’s omnicidal trajectory.
Scientists, collectively, telling the unvarnished truth about the desperate seriousness of the situation, right now, is something that could have this impact.
How can climate scientists allow themselves to tell the truth?
1. Admit the problem
Climate scientists must admit they are still the only ones who know the extent of the climate iceberg below the surface.
They must accept, in the face of this unprecedented threat, their primary professional responsibility now is to provide up-to-date information to humanity — about what’s really happening to our climate and to our essential habitat. This is the single most important task any group of scientists has ever faced.
They have to admit that rigid adherence to their academic methods, in this astonishingly rapid context, leads directly to their failure to communicate the truth.
They have to acknowledge the confusion this failure has provoked facilitates inadequate action, empty pledges, fantasy techno-solutions, and false-optimism.
Scientists must concede humanity urgently needs them to find new ways to communicate what they already know, not only what their methods, or some future super-computer, will allow.
2. Unite and co-ordinate
Pointing to accelerating climate-extreme events happening ahead of their predictions — and the failure of humanity to respond linked, in part, to these underestimations — senior scientists must build a new ‘permanent-emergency’ coalition of IPCC and climate science leaders from all disciplines.
This strong new coalition must overcome their psychological resistances to agree an urgent new direction for the climate science community, finding a way through the politics to co-ordinate this.
The attraction of civil disobedience as a potential catalyst is understandable — and the climate science community should support members who get involved.
Accurate information communicated effectively, however, has the best chance of provoking meaningful action, in the form of impulses to radically change originating from within governments and corporations, including fossil fuel companies.
The new coalition must collectively acknowledge it is climate scientists themselves who need to lead in these communications and ensure they are effective. To do this they will need to engage with psychological and comms experts to break through the defences of leaders in all spheres of human activity, as well as the wider population.
3. Plan and Act
This coalition must initiate a plan of action that could look something like this.
1. Announce the permanent-emergency
Getting ahead of the likely unprecedented new extremes of the 2023/2024 El Niño, issue statement to all media platforms (simultaneously from all national agencies, IPCC, NASA, NOAA, NSDIC, UK Met Office and equivalents, all university Climate Change departments, Institutes etc), declaring:
· A new state of climate ‘permanent-emergency’ is here. Comparisons with the past are now irrelevant — our climate has irrevocably changed, at a speed unprecedented in this planet’s history and will change ever faster, with devastating impacts much faster than expected.
· Traditional climate science methods could not predict this and cannot keep up — ‘live’ observation, interpretation and communication of this new climate reality will now be the priority of scientists.
· Humanity has to react without further delay. 1.5C is gone. Paris 2015 goals, COP pledges, carbon budgets etc are obsolete — radical new policies are needed.
· These must promote urgent, meaningful action in all areas of human activity, based on new ‘live’ information.
2. Initiate new Permanent-Emergency Climate Science Code of Practice
· All institutions and individual climate scientists required to adopt
· Requires all activity (teaching, funding, research, modelling, other activity) prioritises live observations, analysis and reporting.
· Requires senior climate scientists behave congruently in their professional actions — eg 40% of time allocated to external facing comms/education and personally ensuring colleagues adopt this code.
3. Co-ordinate global climate scientific resources as a permanent-emergency response
· Create new 24/7 network of climate hubs, based in existing institutions, with the primary purpose of live analysis of weather/climate events, probable future events and related parameters — all individuals and institutions to prioritise their work for these hubs.
· Ensure hubs are co-ordinated to cover and connect planet-wide climate activity.
· Task hubs with improving quality of live observations including in remote locations. Advance computer capabilities — without delaying communication of live information.
· Set up central ‘planet hub’ at the IPCC — the coalition base — operates 24/7 to co-ordinate/ integrate/synthesise work of individual hubs.
· Using psychological approaches, engage with resistance from within the climate science community and related disciplines.
· Promote emergency-first mobilisation of all academic disciplines.
· All in co-ordination with government, corporate, NGO, health, education, social care and arts etc sectors — includes delivery of rolling information programs.
4. Set up 24/7 primary communication centre at IPCC ‘Planet Hub’
· Provides rolling analysis in planet-wide report, continuously synthesises and translates technical work of individual hubs into accessible language — replaces 7-yearly reporting cycle.
· Pro-actively engages with psychological resistance in leaders and the wider public to ensure effective communications.
· Supervises parallel/reciprocal communication functions in all climate hubs.
· Engages and trains media-friendly scientists.
· Targets rolling comms/education programs at all media platforms — eradicates misconceptions, replaces with accurate narrative.
Conclusion and questions for scientists
This article is aimed primarily at climate scientists, related professions and the media, written by a psychotherapist/friend. Someone with enough post-graduate education to understand the scientific papers and the climate models, and their shortcomings, but without the professional authority to do more than hold a psychological mirror up to this group.
The aim is to encourage scientists to overcome their resistances to communicating what they know. Because if they don’t — then we all face the prospect of the end of civilised society, including academia, also much faster than expected.
It is beyond the scope of this article to argue how bad the situation is or what appropriate responses should look like. The truth is no-one knows if we have 5 years or 50 before societal collapse sets in — but there is no doubt, whatever the timeframe, the situation is desperate and there is still no sign this is properly understood.
The climate science community could have a crucial influence in closing this gap in understanding — no-one else in this arena gets close to their hard-earned authority.
From this point the author only has questions because, as we say in psychotherapy, ‘insight is half the battle’. Changing behaviours is the difficult other half. It is for scientists themselves to answer the following:
· Can climate scientists overcome the subconsciously-driven defences that prevent most of them from telling the truth in public?
· Can they re-organise themselves to take responsibility for the effective communication of the true severity of this unprecedented ‘permanent-emergency’?
· Can they lower their self-imposed ‘bar of proof’ to a rational level that allows them to competently perform, at last, this vital role — so minimisers can be negated and meaningful actions initiated?
· Can they engage with parallel psychological resistances in leaders, the media and the public to receiving this information?
· Can they play the unique part, only their expertise allows them to play, in reducing harm to billions of human beings and other species?
In the last few years whales stranded on the beaches of the East Coast have become common. In just the past two months there have been over a dozen. And that does not include the whales who have died in that time and sank to the bottom of the ocean. Fishermen blame industrial wind farm surveys, the wind industry blames climate change, and the vessel strikes of the global supply chains of civilization will not slow down. All the while mainstream “environmental” groups have become PR people for industrial energy. That stance is mutually exclusive from their professed goal to protect wildlife like desert tortoise, sage grouse, bats and to Save The Whales.
NOAA declared an official “unusual mortality event” for humpback whales in 2016, when the number of deaths on the East Coast more than doubled from the average in previous years. Coincidentally that is the same year when offshore wind development began, which coincides with the huge jump in NOAA Incidental Harassment Authorizations. The claim that this huge jump in mortality predates offshore wind preparation activities is patently false. This strong correlation is strong evidence of causation, especially since no other possible cause has appeared. It also seems odd that dead whales are now showing up on the west coast just as wind development is starting up there as well.
If what we are seeing is what happens during the surveying process for an offshore wind farm, we can only imagine what will happen when major construction begins. If vessel strikes are a leading cause of death, why on earth would you diminish habitat and increase vessel traffic with the construction of wind turbines? Yet in the recent denial of a vessel speed reduction, NOAA said it was “focused on implementing long-term, substantive vessel strike risk reduction measures.” Hopefully that will include the cancellation of any further wind farm construction. We certainly should not be increasing vessel traffic at this time, we should be restricting it. Vessel strikes and ocean noise from these extra ships and their sonar mapping is killing whales.
Noise interrupts the normal behavior of whales and interferes with their communication. It also reduces their ability to detect and avoid predators and human hazards, navigate, identify physical surroundings, find food and find mates. Such effects make it difficult for whales to avoid ships. It is one of NOAA’s four threats, along with vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements and climate change.
Sound travels farther and four times faster in water than in air (at a speed of almost 1,500 meters per second). The noise produced by humans can therefore spread considerable distances underwater. These sounds can be relatively constant, such as the noise produced by a ship’s engine and propeller, or sudden and acute in the case of naval sonar and seismic air guns. The sound produced by a seismic air gun can cause permanent hearing loss, tissue damage and even death in nearby animals.
Evidence for the lethal effects of noise can be hard to document in the open ocean, but seismic surveys have been linked to the mass mortality of squid and zooplankton. In 2017, research revealed that a single air gun caused the death rate of zooplankton to increase from 18% to 40–60% over a 1.2 kilometer stretch of the ocean off the coast of southern Tasmania.
Examination of the dead whales revealed they had suffered trauma similar to decompression sickness. This was believed to have been caused by sudden changes in their deep diving behavior following exposure to sonar. The wind companies are using sonar in the geotechnical and site characterization surveys. There is also the detonation of unexploded ordnance (UXO) items from ship wrecks at this time, accidental and intentional.
Noise increases animals’ physiological stress. Research found that a reduction in shipping following the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to a six decibel drop in noise levels in the Bay of Fundy on Canada’s Atlantic coast. This coincided with lower levels of physiological stress detected in North Atlantic right whales when researchers measured stress hormones from floating whale feces.
During construction of the turbines, high-duty cycle impact pile driving (one strike every ~two seconds) will be used. And the pile driving is expected to occur for approximately four hours at one time for monopile installation, and 6 hours per pile for piled jacket installation.
This takes us to the biggest threat to whales and the ocean ecosystem that they live in: climate change. Climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions. These are created by industrial development. So climate change is a symptom of industrial development. That is the extractive industries of mining, deforestation, agriculture, factory fishing and dams which provide — through production, manufacture, transport, installation and operation — the current conveniences of a modern way of human life.
Industrial development destroys ecosystems. More industrial development, by the installation of thousands of offshore wind turbines, will not solve the problem of climate change. There’s one inescapable truth about the headlong rush to cover vast swaths of our countryside and oceans with 800-foot-high wind turbines: the more turbines that get built, the more wildlife will be harmed or killed. And no amount of greenwashing can change that fact. So it is distressing to see the numbers of whales washing up on our beaches. NOAA also says there is no proof that offshore wind is killing the whales. We must remember the onus isn’t on whales to prove guilt, it’s on industrial development to prove their innocence.
The production of the materials as well as the manufacturing processes for wind turbines and associated infrastructure of the extracted energy storage and transmission are made possible by burning fossil fuels. To obtain the raw material used in wind turbines, habitat is destroyed through open pit mining and mountaintop removal. The raw materials are then transported to processing plants to be turned into the component parts. It will take a tremendous amount of energy to mine the materials; transport and transform them through industrial processes like smelting; turn them into wind turbines, batteries, infrastructure and industrial machinery; install all of the above; and do this at a sufficient scale to replace our current fossil-fuel-based industrial system. In the early stages of the process, this energy will have to come mostly from fossil fuels, since they supply about 80 percent of current global energy. Their emissions will be added to the current use emissions. After manufacture, the turbine parts need to be transported to the project location. The construction and operation of offshore wind farms increase boat traffic, also leading to more greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. All of which adds to a non-existent carbon budget and thus increasing climate change. Not to mention the increased risk of marine mammal vessel strikes.
All of that energy use has a carbon payback period to plan, build, maintain and decommission the processes involved in an offshore wind turbine and its required infrastructure amounting to many years. This could be up to a quarter of its expected lifecycle. But this does not take into account the wildlife loss and habitat destruction from those processes. And then in 20 years the process must be done all over again. So this is not renewable. Also there are not enough metals on the planet to produce even the first generation of a total electric energy extracting transition, even if we mine the deep sea as we are starting to do.
Currently only 20% of our energy is electric. The other 80% is fossil fuel, the bulk of which is used by industry. The industrial advantage of fossil fuel is that it is stored energy that is extracted rather than an energy extracting device that requires storage and transmission infrastructure.
The paradox of “renewables” is that they need unprecedented volumes of non-renewable mined materials. Increasing “renewables” means large upticks in battery metals such as copper, cobalt, lithium and nickel. Wind turbines need rare earth metals such as neodymium of which there are scarce amounts. But the work wouldn’t stop there.
Closed mines themselves are a huge source of devastation. If all mining stopped today there would still be an area at least the size of Austria with degrading and, in some cases, dangerous levels of heavy metals. Mining brings materials that have been locked up in concentrations underground and lets them out into the world. Mines usually operate at depths below the water table — they need to be constantly dewatered using pumps. When a mine is abandoned, the ground water gradually re-floods underground passages and mineral seams over many months, creating acidic reservoirs of water. Above ground there are tailings ponds and piles of low-grade ore with traces of heavy metals. All of this material is exposed to oxygen and water. Exposing such elements wreaks havoc on ecosystems, soils and water supplies through acid leaching. A mine that is abandoned can have chronic pollution for hundreds if not thousands of years.
Cleaning up a mine consists of reducing water acidity, detoxifying the soil and treating waste before reintroducing flora and fauna to the site. It’s a lengthy, expensive process and can cost billions for a single large mine. Avoiding an environmental catastrophe and cleaning all the world’s mines at once would cost hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars. So mining the materials needed for renewable energy will increase the threats to biodiversity. These threats will surpass those avoided by “renewable” climate change mitigation.
The concept of material footprints, in addition to carbon footprints, should be taken into consideration by governments. If not, the planet’s scarce non-renewable resources will continue to be destroyed. These factors will more than offset BOEMs calculations for climate change in the DEIS.
During their operation wind turbines create a disturbance in the air that can have far-reaching effects on the environment. The turbulence created is known to warm up the surface temperature around them by up to 2℉. This will change the climate by taking away the cooling breeze. Wind turbines will change weather patterns and currents which will create more and stronger storms.
Michael Moore, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said whales face “a suite of risks” as turbines are built, such as increased vessel traffic and potential changes to the ecology. But that ecological change, he said, “needs significant further study to truly understand its significance.”
As Sunrise Wind admits, their planned construction and operations activities are not expected to “take” MORE than small numbers of marine mammals. They say incidental long-term impacts that have negative effects on large whales from the presence of turbine foundations is uncertain. For the right whale, according to NOAA Fisheries, “The potential biological removal level for the species, defined as the maximum number of animals that can be removed annually while allowing the stock to reach or maintain its optimal sustainable population level, is less than 1.” This means the death of a single right whale could make the difference between extinction and recovery.
There is no question wind turbines kill wildlife. Humans and domestic animals account for 96% mammal biomass on the planet. Only 4% is wild. Our activity has reduced the biomass of wild marine and terrestrial mammals by six times. Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens all life on the planet.
Jennifer Jacquet, a professor of environmental studies at New York University, said, “But we know that even in the face of a shifting climate, direct exploitation remains the largest factor affecting aquatic animals.”
BOEM is basing its conclusions in the DEIS on a false analysis that offshore wind turbines will reduce climate change. They will not. It makes no sense to increase disturbance to whales when they are suffering through an unusual mortality event. Whales as a keystone species are the canary in the coal mine. As they go, so do we. That in the effort to save the climate and continuance of business as usual, we are destroying the environment. If this offshore wind project continues, it will be humans who experience an unusual mortality event.
Carl van Warmerdam has lived his life on the West Coast of Turtle Island. He has always aligned with the counter culture ideals there. Now he currently lives on the coast of New England, the ancestral home of the North Atlantic Right Whale. If you would like to help Save the Whales email Lafongcarl@protonmail.com. We stopped offshore wind before, we can do it again.
Editor’s note: It is true that wind and heat from the sun are renewable but the devices used to capture that energy are not. Creating such devices only adds on to a non-existing carbon budget. Richard Heinberg, the author of the following article, is an advocate for “renewable” energy as a part of the “transition” to a post carbon civilization. However, the following article demonstrates that the so-called transition is not happening in real life. In reality, civilization and a “post-carbon” future is an oxymoron. Civilization cannot survive in a post-carbon future. It is highly unlikely that humanity will willingly transition out of civilization, so it must be brought down “by any means possible”. The best way to accomplish that is through organizing. The sooner it is brought down, the better for the planet.
Despite all the renewable energy investments and installations, actual global greenhouse gas emissions keep increasing. That’s largely due to economic growth: While renewable energy supplies have expanded in recent years, world energy usage has ballooned even more—with the difference being supplied by fossil fuels. The more the world economy grows, the harder it is for additions of renewable energy to turn the tide by actually replacing energy from fossil fuels, rather than just adding to it.
The notion of voluntarily reining in economic growth in order to minimize climate change and make it easier to replace fossil fuels is political anathema not just in the rich countries, whose people have gotten used to consuming at extraordinarily high rates, but even more so in poorer countries, which have been promised the opportunity to “develop.”
After all, it is the rich countries that have been responsible for the great majority of past emissions (which are driving climate change presently); indeed, these countries got rich largely by the industrial activity of which carbon emissions were a byproduct. Now it is the world’s poorest nations that are experiencing the brunt of the impacts of climate change caused by the world’s richest. It’s neither sustainable nor just to perpetuate the exploitation of land, resources, and labor in the less industrialized countries, as well as historically exploited communities in the rich countries, to maintain both the lifestyles and expectations of further growth of the wealthy minority.
From the perspective of people in less-industrialized nations, it’s natural to want to consume more, which only seems fair. But that translates to more global economic growth, and a harder time replacing fossil fuels with renewables globally. China is the exemplar of this conundrum: Over the past three decades, the world’s most populous nation lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, but in the process became the world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal.
The Materials Dilemma
Also posing an enormous difficulty for a societal switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is our increasing need for minerals and metals. The World Bank, the IEA, the IMF, and McKinsey and Company have all issued reports in the last couple of years warning of this growing problem. Vast quantities of minerals and metals will be required not just for making solar panels and wind turbines, but also for batteries, electric vehicles, and new industrial equipment that runs on electricity rather than carbon-based fuels.
Some of these materials are already showing signs of increasing scarcity: According to the World Economic Forum, the average cost of producing copper has risen by over 300 percent in recent years, while copper ore grade has dropped by 30 percent.
Optimistic assessments of the materials challenge suggest there are enough global reserves for a one-time build-out of all the new devices and infrastructure needed (assuming some substitutions, with, for example, lithium for batteries eventually being replaced by more abundant elements like iron). But what is society to do as that first generation of devices and infrastructure ages and requires replacement?
Circular Economy: A Mirage?
Hence the rather sudden and widespread interest in the creation of a circular economy in which everything is recycled endlessly. Unfortunately, as economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen discovered in his pioneering work on entropy, recycling is always incomplete and always costs energy. Materials typically degrade during each cycle of use, and some material is wasted in the recycling process.
A French preliminary analysis of the energy transition that assumed maximum possible recycling found that a materials supply crisis could be delayed by up to three centuries. But will the circular economy (itself an enormous undertaking and a distant goal) arrive in time to buy industrial civilization those extra 300 years? Or will we run out of critical materials in just the next few decades in our frantic effort to build as many renewable energy devices as we can in as short a time as possible?
The latter outcome seems more likely if pessimistic resource estimates turn out to be accurate. Simon Michaux of the Finnish Geological Survey finds that “[g]lobal reserves are not large enough to supply enough metals to build the renewable non-fossil fuels industrial system … Mineral deposit discovery has been declining for many metals. The grade of processed ore for many of the industrial metals has been decreasing over time, resulting in declining mineral processing yield. This has the implication of the increase in mining energy consumption per unit of metal.”
Steel prices are already trending higher, and lithium supplies may prove to be a bottleneck to rapidly increasing battery production. Even sand is getting scarce: Only certain grades of the stuff are useful in making concrete (which anchors wind turbines) or silicon (which is essential for solar panels). More sand is consumed yearly than any other material besides water, and some climate scientists have identified it as a key sustainability challenge this century. Predictably, as deposits are depleted, sand is becoming more of a geopolitical flashpoint, with China recently embargoing sand shipments to Taiwan with the intention of crippling Taiwan’s ability to manufacture semiconductor devices such as cell phones.
To Reduce Risk, Reduce Scale
During the fossil fuel era, the global economy depended on ever-increasing rates of extracting and burning coal, oil, and natural gas. The renewables era (if it indeed comes into being) will be founded upon the large-scale extraction of minerals and metals for panels, turbines, batteries, and other infrastructure, which will require periodic replacement.
These two economic eras imply different risks: The fossil fuel regime risked depletion and pollution (notably atmospheric carbon pollution leading to climate change); the renewables regime will likewise risk depletion (from mining minerals and metals) and pollution (from dumping old panels, turbines, and batteries, and from various manufacturing processes), but with diminished vulnerability to climate change. The only way to lessen risk altogether would be to reduce substantially society’s scale of energy and materials usage—but very few policymakers or climate advocacy organizations are exploring that possibility.
Climate Change Hobbles Efforts to Combat Climate Change
As daunting as they are, the financial, political, and material challenges to the energy transition don’t exhaust the list of potential barriers. Climate change itself is also hampering the energy transition—which, of course, is being undertaken to avert climate change.
During the summer of 2022, China experienced its most intense heat wave in six decades. It impacted a wide region, from central Sichuan Province to coastal Jiangsu, with temperatures often topping 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and reaching a record 113 degrees in Chongqing on August 18. At the same time, a drought-induced power crisis forced Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., the world’s top battery maker, to close manufacturing plants in China’s Sichuan province. Supplies of crucial parts to Tesla and Toyota were temporarily cut off.
Meanwhile, a similarly grim story unfolded in Germany, as a record drought reduced the water flow in the Rhine River to levels that crippled European trade, halting shipments of diesel and coal, and threatening the operations of both hydroelectric and nuclear power plants.
A study published in February 2022 in the journal Water found that droughts (which are becoming more frequent and severe with climate change) could create challenges for U.S. hydropower in Montana, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, California, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, French nuclear plants that rely on the Rhône River for cooling water have had to shut down repeatedly. If reactors expel water downstream that’s too hot, aquatic life is wiped out as a result. So, during the sweltering 2022 summer, Électricité de France (EDF) powered down reactors not only along the Rhône but also on a second major river in the south, the Garonne. Altogether, France’s nuclear power output has been cut by nearly 50 percent during the summer of 2022. Similar drought- and heat-related shutdowns happened in 2018 and 2019.
Heavy rain and flooding can also pose risks for both hydro and nuclear power—which together currently provide roughly four times as much low-carbon electricity globally as wind and solar combined. In March 2019, severe flooding in southern and western Africa, following Cyclone Idai, damaged two major hydro plants in Malawi, cutting off power to parts of the country for several days.
Wind turbines and solar panels also rely on the weather and are therefore also vulnerable to extremes. Cold, cloudy days with virtually no wind spell trouble for regions heavily reliant on renewable energy. Freak storms can damage solar panels, and high temperatures reduce panels’ efficiency. Hurricanes and storm surges can cripple offshore wind farms.
The transition from fossil fuel to renewables faces an uphill battle. Still, this switch is an essential stopgap strategy to keep electricity grids up and running, at least on a minimal scale, as civilization inevitably turns away from a depleting store of oil and gas. The world has become so dependent on grid power for communications, finance, and the preservation of technical, scientific, and cultural knowledge that, if the grids were to go down permanently and soon, it is likely that billions of people would die, and the survivors would be culturally destitute. In essence, we need renewables for a controlled soft landing. But the harsh reality is that, for now, and in the foreseeable future, the energy transition is not going well and has poor overall prospects.
We need a realistic plan for energy descent, instead of foolish dreams of eternal consumer abundance by means other than fossil fuels. Currently, politically rooted insistence on continued economic growth is discouraging truth-telling and serious planning for how to live well with less.
Richard Heinberg is Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He is the author of fourteen books, including some of the seminal works on society’s current energy and environmental sustainability crisis.
Editor’s note: Oil has been called the “master resource” of industrial civilization, because it facilitates almost every other economic activity and subsidizes almost every other form of extraction. Chainsaws, for example, run on gasoline; tractors run on diesel fuel; and 10 calories of fossil fuel energy (mostly oil) is used to produce 1 calorie of industrial food. From transportation to shipping, industrial production, plastics, construction, medicine, and beyond, industrial civilization is a culture of oil.
Richard Heinberg presents an interesting conundrum for us. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on peak oil, and understands the energy dynamics (such as EROI, energy density, transmission issues, and intermittency) that make a wholesale replacement of fossil fuels by “renewables” impossible. And while he understands the depths of ecological crisis, he is not biocentric.
This leads to our differences from Heinberg. While he calls for mass adoption of “renewables” as part of the Post Carbon Institute, we advocate for dismantling the industrial economy — including the so-called “renewables” industry — by whatever means are necessary to halt the ecological crisis.
Nonetheless, Heinberg is an expert on peak oil, and we share this article to update our readers on the latest information on that topic.
Will civilization collapse because it’s running out of oil? That question was debated hotly almost 20 years ago; today, not so much. Judging by Google searches, interest in “peak oil” surged around 2003 (the year my book The Party’s Over was published), peaked around 2005, and drifted until around 2010 before dropping off dramatically.
Keeping most of the remaining oil in the ground will be a task of urgency and complexity, one that cannot be accomplished under a business-as-usual growth economy.
Well, civilization hasn’t imploded for lack of fuel—not yet, at least. Instead, oil has gotten more expensive and economic growth has slowed. “Tight oil” produced in the US with fracking technology came to the rescue, sort of. For a little while. This oil was costlier to extract than conventional oil, and production from individual wells declined rapidly, thus entailing one hell of a lot of drilling. During the past decade, frackers went deeply into debt as they poked tens of thousands of holes into Texas, North Dakota, and a few other states, sending US oil production soaring. Central banks helped out by keeping interest rates ultra-low and by injecting trillions of dollars into the economy. National petroleum output went up farther and faster than had ever happened anywhere before in the history of the oil industry.
Most environmentalists therefore tossed peak oil into their mental bin of “things we don’t need to worry about” as they focused laser-like on climate change. Mainstream energy analysts then and now assume that technology will continue to overcome resource limits in the immediate future, which is all that really seems to matter. Much of what is left of the peak oil discussion focuses on “peak demand”—i.e., the question of when electric cars will become so plentiful that we’ll no longer need so much gasoline.
Nevertheless, those who’ve engaged with the oil depletion literature have tended to come away with a few useful insights:
Energy is the basis of all aspects of human society.
Fossil fuels enabled a dramatic expansion of energy usable by humanity, in turn enabling unprecedented growth in human population, economic activity, and material consumption.
It takes energy to get energy, and the ratio of energy returned versus energy spent (energy return on investment, or EROI) has historically been extremely high for fossil fuels, as compared to previous energy sources.
Similar EROI values will be necessary for energy alternatives if we wish to maintain our complex, industrial way of life.
Depletion is as important a factor as pollution in assessing the sustainability of society.
Now a new research paper has arrived on the scene, authored by Jean Laherrère, Charles Hall, and Roger Bentley—all veterans of the peak oil debate, and all experts with many papers and books to their credit. As its title suggests (“How Much Oil Remains for the World to Produce? Comparing Assessment Methods, and Separating Fact from Fiction“), the paper mainly addresses the question of future oil production. But to get there, it explains why this is a difficult question to answer, and what are the best ways of approaching it. There are plenty of technical issues to geek out on, if that’s your thing. For example, energy analytics firm Rystad recently downgraded world oil reserves by about 9 percent (from 1,903 to 1,725 billion barrels), but the authors of the new research paper suggest that reserves estimates should be cut by a further 300 billion barrels due to long-standing over-reporting by OPEC countries. That’s a matter for debate, and readers will have to make up their own minds whether the authors make a convincing case.
For readers who just want the bottom line, here goes. The most sensible figure for the aggregate amount of producible “conventional oil” originally in place (what we’ve already burned, plus what could be burned in the future) is about 2,500 billion barrels. We’ve already extracted about half that amount. When this total quantity is plotted as a logistical curve over time, the peak of production occurs essentially now, give or take a very few years. Indeed, conventional oil started a production plateau in 2005 and is now declining. Conventional oil is essentially oil that can be extracted using traditional drilling methods and that can flow at surface temperature and pressure conditions naturally. If oil is defined more broadly to include unconventional sources like tight oil, tar sands, and extra-heavy oil, then possible future production volumes increase, but the likely peak doesn’t move very far forward in time. Production of tight oil can still grow in the Permian play in Texas and New Mexico, but will likely be falling by the end of the decade. Extra-heavy oil from Venezuela and tar sands from Canada won’t make much difference because they require a lot of energy for processing (i.e., their EROI is low); indeed, it’s unclear whether much of Venezuela’s enormous claimed Orinoco reserves will ever be extracted.
Of course, logistical curves are just ways of using math to describe trends, and trends can change. Will the decline of global oil production be gradual and smooth, like the mathematically generated curves in these experts’ charts? That depends partly on whether countries dramatically reduce fossil fuel usage in order to stave off catastrophic climate change. If the world gets serious about limiting global warming, then the downside of the curve can be made steeper through policies like carbon taxes. Keeping most of the remaining oil in the ground will be a task of urgency and complexity, one that cannot be accomplished under a business-as-usual growth economy. We’ll need energy for the energy transition (to build solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, heat pumps, electric cars, mass transit, etc.), and most of that energy, at least in the early stages of the transition, will have to come from fossil fuels. If oil, the most important of those fuels, will be supply-constrained, that adds to the complexity of managing investment and policy so as to minimize economic pain while pursuing long-range climate goals.
As a side issue, the authors note (as have others) that IPCC estimates of future carbon emissions under its business-as-usual scenario are unrealistic. We just don’t have enough economically extractable fossil fuels to make that worst-case scenario come true. However, even assuming a significant downgrade of reserves (and thus of projected emissions), burning all of the oil we have would greatly exceed emissions targets for averting climate catastrophe.
One factor potentially limiting future oil production not discussed in the new paper has to do with debt. Many observers of the past 15 years of fracking frenzy have pointed out that the industry’s ability to increase levels of oil production has depended on low interest rates, which enabled companies to produce oil now and pay the bills later. Now central banks are raising interest rates in an effort to fight inflation, which is largely the result of higher oil and gas prices. But hiking interest rates will only discourage oil companies from drilling. This could potentially trigger a self-reinforcing feedback loop of crashing production, soaring energy prices, higher interest rates, and debt defaults, which would likely cease only with a major economic crash. So, instead of a gentle energy descent, we might get what Ugo Bardi calls a “Seneca Cliff.”
So far, we are merely seeing crude and natural gas shortages, high energy prices, broken supply chains, and political upheaval. Energy challenges are now top of mind for policymakers and the public in a way that we haven’t seen since oil prices hit a record $147 barrel in 2008, when peak oil received some semblance of attention. But now we run the risk of underlying, irreversible supply constraints being lost in the noise of other, more immediate contributors to the supply and price shocks the world is experiencing—namely lingering effects from the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russian oil and gas, and far stricter demands for returns from domestic investors. Keeping the situation from devolving further will take more than just another fracking revolution, which bought us an extra decade of business-as-usual. This time, we’re going to have to start coming to terms with nature’s limits. That means shared sacrifice, cooperation, and belt tightening. It also means reckoning with our definitions of prosperity and progress, and getting down to the work of reconfiguring an economy that has become accustomed to (and all too comfortable with) fossil-fueled growth.
Editor’s note: As the climate crisis accelerates, extreme weather is causing crop failures and other disasters. Today’s article shares a grim projection: the world may see more than 1 billion climate refugees by 2050.
This problem is not new. Throughout the last 10,000 years, many civilizations have grown powerful, destroyed their land and water, and collapsed. Our situation today is only different because of scale. Modern civilization is global, and so the problems are worse.
Industrial civilization is a failed experiment. Wealthy consumer societies have been built by vast quantities of fossil energy and harvesting the natural world. Reversing this crisis will require a basic restructuring of our entire society. The economics of growth are obsolete. Destructive industries must be dismantled. Population must be stabilized and then reduced. Consumerism must be abandoned. Wild nature must be protected and allowed to expand and repair itself. And as centralized systems for food production and other necessities fail, new grassroots structures will need to be created.
“The media report on these crises as though they are all separate issues. They are not. They are inextricably entangled with each other and with the culture that causes them…
These problems are urgent, severe, and worsening… [they] are not hypothetical, projected, or “merely possible” like Y2K, asteroid impacts, nuclear war, or supervolcanoes. These crises are not “possible” or “impending”—they are well underway and will continue to worsen. The only uncertainty is how fast, and thus how long our window of action is.”
– From the book Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet
NB: This report is anthropocentric and focused purely on government aid programs which have limited ability to solve systemic issues.
Today marks the launch of the inaugural Ecological Threat Register (ETR), that measures the ecological threats countries are currently facing and provides projections to 2050. The report uniquely combines measures of resilience with the most comprehensive ecological data available, to shed light on the countries least likely to cope with extreme ecological shocks. The report is released by leading international think-tank the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), which produces indexes such as the Global Peace Index and Global Terrorism Index.
19 countries with the highest number of ecological threats are among the world’s 40 least peaceful countries including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Chad, India and Pakistan.
Over one billion people live in 31 countries where the country’s resilience is unlikely to sufficiently withstand the impact of ecological events by 2050, contributing to mass population displacement.
Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa are the regions facing the largest number of ecological threats.
3.5 billion people could suffer from food insecurity by 2050; which is an increase of 1.5 billion people from today.
The lack of resilience in countries covered in the ETR will lead to worsening food insecurity and competition over resources, increasing civil unrest and mass displacement, exposing developed countries to increased influxes of refugees.The Ecological Threat Register analyses risk from population growth, water stress, food insecurity, droughts, floods, cyclones, rising temperatures and sea levels. Over the next 30 years, the report finds that 141 countries are exposed to at least one ecological threat by 2050. The 19 countries with the highest number of threats have a combined population of 2.1 billion people, which is around 25 per cent of the world’s total population.The ETR analyses the levels of societal resilience within countries to determine whether they have the necessary coping capacities to deal with future ecological shocks. The report finds that more than one billion people live in countries that are unlikely to have the ability to mitigate and adapt to new ecological threats, creating conditions for mass displacement by 2050. The country with the largest number of people at risk of mass displacements is Pakistan, followed by Ethiopia and Iran. Haiti faces the highest threat in Central America. In these countries, even small ecological threats and natural disasters could result in mass population displacement, affecting regional and global security.
Regions that have high resilience, such as Europe and North America, will not be immune from the wider impact of ecological threats, such as a significant number of refugees. The European refugee crisis in the wake of wars in Syria and Iraq in 2015 saw two million people flee to Europe and highlights the link between rapid population shifts with political turbulence and social unrest.
However, Europe, the US and other developed countries are facing fewer ecological threats and also have higher levels of resilience to deal with these risks. Developed countries which are facing no threats include Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and Iceland. In total there are 16 countries facing no threats.
Steve Killelea, Founder & Executive Chairman of the Institute for Economics and Peace, said:
“Ecological threats and climate change pose serious challenges to global peacefulness. Over the next 30 years lack of access to food and water will only increase without urgent global cooperation. In the absence of action civil unrest, riots and conflict will most likely increase. COVID-19 is already exposing gaps in the global food chain”.
Many of the countries most at risk from ecological threats are also predicted to experience significant population increases, such as Nigeria, Angola, Burkina Faso and Uganda. These countries already struggle to address ecological issues. They already suffer from resource scarcity, low levels of peacefulness and high poverty rates.
Steve Killelea, said:
“This will have huge social and political impacts, not just in the developing world, but also in the developed, as mass displacement will lead to larger refugee flows to the most developed countries. Ecological change is the next big global threat to our planet and people’s lives, and we must unlock the power of business and government action to build resilience for the places most at risk.“
The global demand for food is projected to increase by 50 per cent by 2050, meaning that without a substantial increase in supply, many more people will be at risk of hunger. Currently, more than two billion people globally face uncertain access to sufficient food. This number is expected to increase to 3.5 billion people by 2050 which is likely to affect global resilience.
The five most food insecure countries are Sierra Leone, Liberia, Niger, Malawi and Lesotho, where more than half of the population experience uncertainty in access to sufficient food to be healthy. COVID-19 has exacerbated levels of food insecurity and given rise to substantial price increases, highlighting potential volatility caused by future ecological change.
In high income countries, the prevalence of undernourishment is still high at 2.7 per cent, or one in 37 people do not have sufficient food to function normally. Undernourishment in developed countries is a byproduct of poverty; Colombia, Slovakia and Mexico have the highest undernourishment rates of OECD countries.
Over the past decade, the number of recorded water-related conflict and violent incidents increased by 270 per cent worldwide. Since 2000, most incidents have taken place in Yemen and Iraq, which highlights the interplay between extreme water stress, resilience and peacefulness, as they are among the least peaceful countries as measured by the Global Peace Index 2020.
Today, 2.6 billion people experience high or extreme water stress – by 2040, this will increase to 5.4 billion people. The majority of these countries are located in South Asia, Middle East, North Africa (MENA), South-Western Europe, and Asia Pacific. Some of the worst affected countries by
2040 will be Lebanon, Singapore, Israel and Iraq, while China and India are also likely to be impacted. Given the past increases in water-related conflict this is likely to drive further tension and reduce global resilience.
Changes in climate, especially the warming of global temperatures, increases the likelihood of weather-related natural disasters such as droughts, as well as increasing the intensity of storms and creating wetter monsoons. If natural disasters occur at the same rate seen in the last few decades, 1.2 billion people could be displaced globally by 2050. Asia Pacific has had the most deaths from natural disasters with over 581,000 recorded since 1990. Earthquakes have claimed the most lives in the region, with a death toll exceeding 319,000, followed by storms at 191,000.
Flooding has been the most common natural disaster since 1990, representing 42 per cent of recorded natural disasters. China’s largest event were the 2010 floods and landslides, which led to 15.2 million displaced people. Flooding is also the most common natural disaster in Europe, accounting for 35 per cent of recorded disasters in the region and is expected to rise.
19 countries included in the ETR are at risk of rising sea levels, where at least 10 per cent of each country’s population could be affected. This will have significant consequences for low-lying coastal areas in China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand over the next three decades – as well as cities with large populations like Alexandria in Egypt, the Hague in the Netherlands, and Osaka in Japan.
The Institute for Economics and Peace is an international and independent think tank dedicated to shifting the world’s focus to peace as a positive, achievable and tangible measure of human well-being and progress. It has offices in Sydney, Brussels, New York, The Hague, Mexico City and Harare.
Editor’s note: The oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the excess heat trapped on planet earth due to global warming. Greenhouse gases are also absorbed into the ocean which has increased the acidity of ocean water significantly. Increased heat and acidity makes reproduction and survival more difficult for calcifying organisms such as corals and other marine life. It should be no surprise to anyone that we see coral reefs dying globally. So are plankton populations, fish populations, and countless other species. What is surprising is that efforts to halt and reverse greenhouse gas emissions have thus far been so tepid and ineffective. We must change that.
In 2003, a marine heat wave devastated coral reef communities in the Mediterranean Sea, including the reefs in the Scandola Marine Reserve, a protected region off the coast of Corsica.
More than 15 years later, the coral reef communities in Scandola still have not recovered.
Researchers determined that persistent marine heat waves, which are now happening every year in the Mediterranean, are preventing Scandola’s slow-growing coral reefs from recuperating.
Human-induced climate change is the culprit; persistent rising temperatures in the ocean have normalized marine heat waves, not only in the Mediterranean, but in the global oceans.
For years, Joaquim Garrabou donned scuba gear and dove into the waters of the Scandola Marine Reserve in Corsica to find a paradise. Twenty meters (66 feet) beneath the surface, there were reef walls draped with soft red coral (Corallium rubrum) and red gorgonian sea-whips (Paramuricea clavata), all swarming with fish and other sea creatures. But in 2003, a marine heat wave hit Scandola, leading to the death of many coral reefs. More than 15 years later, the reefs have still not recovered.
Now when Garrabou dives at Scandola, he’s greeted by the skeletons of once-thriving corals.
“It’s like seeing someone who is ill, who has a disease that you cannot find the solution for,” Garrabou told Mongabay in a video interview. “You hope that someday there will be a [solution] but you see that there’s not much hope.”
After the 2003 marine heat wave, Garrabou and colleagues began monitoring Scandola’s coral reefs to track their recovery. But after accumulating reef survey data and temperature data over many years, they eventually realized they were actually tracking the reefs’ collapse. The results of their long-term study were recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
“We knew something bad was happening to the corals around the world, but we weren’t expecting a collapse in all of the populations that we studied,” study lead author Daniel Gómez-Gras, a marine ecologist at the Institut de Ciències del Mar in Barcelona, told Mongabay in a video interview. “The point of tracking these populations for such a long time was to show recovery in the long term because we expected that the populations — maybe not in five years, but in 15, 20 years — [would be] able to recover. However, we saw a collapse.”
‘We don’t call it bleaching’
The data showed that marine heat waves were happening every year in different parts of the Mediterranean between 2003 and 2018. For 12 of those years, the water temperature at a depth of 20 m reached more than 23° Celsius (73.4° Fahrenheit), which is considered a sublethal threshold for corals. And for four of those years — 2009, 2016, 2017 and 2018 — temperatures at that depth breached the lethal threshold for corals at 25°C (77°F).
The researchers found that the ceaseless heat wasn’t allowing these slow-growing coral reefs to recover.
“Frankly, I never thought that I would be seeing it,” Garrabou said. “And it’s happening really fast.”
Soft coral species in the Mediterranean don’t “bleach” the way that tropical corals do, Gómez-Gras said. That’s because Mediterranean corals don’t have a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, the algae that tropical corals expel when they experience heat stress.
“We don’t call it bleaching here in the Mediterranean for these coral species, since they don’t bleach,” he said. “They directly die with a loss of tissue and skeletons being exposed.”
While the results of the study are relevant to many coral communities across the Mediterranean, the researchers chose to focus their study on Scandola because the area had been established as a marine protected area (MPA) in 1975, and had been relatively free from other human pressures such as fishing and pollution. This helped them eliminate other possibilities for the coral reef population collapses and to pinpoint marine heat waves as the reason for their demise.
Researchers used to think that deeper reef communities might shelter coral species from heat stress. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this isn’t the case, not only in the Mediterranean, but in other parts of the world, including coral reef sites in the Pacific.
“We are witnessing that if you go deeper, [there is still] impact,” Garrabou said.
Human-induced climate change is responsible for the heating of the oceans — and it’s becoming hotter and hotter in the water. According to another study, the global oceans have broken a heat record for the sixth year in a row. As the oceans warm, heat penetrates downward — and this heating trend will continue even if emissions stop tomorrow, Kevin Trenberth, co-author of this separate study, told Mongabay in January.
A related study also found that marine heat waves have become the new normal for the global oceans as climate change rapidly transforms our world.
The Mediterranean may be feeling the impacts of climate change even more intensely than other parts of the world. A report published last year by WWF found that the Mediterranean was warming 20% faster than the rest of the world’s oceans.
Gómez-Gras said the accelerated warming in the Mediterranean has partly to do with its semi-enclosed shape. While this is unique to the region, he added that the Mediterranean shows what will happen in other parts of the ocean due to climate change.
“Marine heat waves are becoming the new normal in the Mediterranean Sea,” Gómez-Gras said. “So you can guess that in the future, it can become the new normal [elsewhere] in the world.”
Georgios Tsounis, a marine biologist at California State University, whose work was based in the Mediterranean for 11 years, but who was not involved in this research, praised the new study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B for its “valuable approach.”
“We need more long-term demographic studies such as this one to better understand where our environment is heading in the future,” Tsounis told Mongabay in an email.
While the study is focused on the soft coral communities of the Mediterranean, Tsounis said the research can help us understand how other coral communities “may or may not recover from repeated stress over a period of 15 years.”
“We are seeing coral mortality in other parts of the world as well,” he said. “The tropical coral reefs make sad headlines every year. But in the tropics we are mainly concerned with reef-building hard corals (as opposed to the soft corals in this Mediterranean study). The temperature range and entire cause-effect mechanism differ between these two examples. What is common to most of these scenarios is that the corals have adapted to a narrow set of environmental conditions, such as temperature, over a long period of time, and are sensitive to changing climate.”
The researchers said they are searching the Mediterranean for “refugia,” places that offer coral reefs protection from thermal stress. One possible place could be the waters off the coast of the Calanques near Marseille, France, which seems to get enough cold water to protect its corals, Garrabou said. That said, the coral reef communities here experienced mass die-offs during marine heat waves in both 1999 and 2003. But since then, the region hasn’t had any major warming, and the corals have been able to slowly recover, he said.
While there are currently many places of refugia for coral communities across the world, a new study found that most of these places will disappear once the world reaches 1.5°C (2.7°F) of warming above pre-industrial levels, which is likely to happen within the next decade.
But it’s not just climate change placing pressure on the Mediterranean — fishing and pollution are additional stressors to the region. Because of this, Garrabou said it’s important to establish MPAs with strict protective measures to enhance the resilience of coral reef communities.
Currently, there are more than 1,200 MPAs in the Mediterranean, but only about 0.02% of the area they cover is closed to fishing year-round.
While the future looks grim for coral reefs, Garrabou said he feels hopeful about the momentum that’s building for the establishment of MPAs, especially with global efforts to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.
“When we provide the right conditions and the right tools, nature can be really generous and nature has demonstrated that it can bounce back,” he said.
But he said that MPAs need to be urgently established for the oceans to reap their benefits. “It has to happen,” he said, “and it has to happen fast.”
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Gómez-Gras, D., Linares, C., López-Sanz, A., Amate, R., Ledoux, J. B., Bensoussan, N., … Garrabou, J. (2021). Population collapse of habitat-forming species in the Mediterranean: A long-term study of gorgonian populations affected by recurrent marine heatwaves. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 288(1965). doi:10.1098/rspb.2021.2384
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Banner image: A red gorgonian coral (Paramuricea clavata) partially dead due to a marine heatwave. The lefthand side is still alive, while the righthand side is dead and the skeleton is exposed. Image by Eneko Aspillaga.