“Being in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, it is fitting to quantify the relative contribution of different mechanisms driving catastrophic biodiversity loss.”
– G. Strona and C.J.A. Bradshaw
Eighteen years ago the late William K. Stevens wrote an essay that picked up on Erlich and Erlich’s metaphor of the planet as an airplane that was losing rivets, namely, the rivets of biodiversity.[i] The prevailing notion then, and too often now, is that somehow, we can afford to lose some rivets with no real harm, because ecosystems are “resilient.” At least, “resilience” is the prevalent dogma. If you listen to BC foresters, there is even talk of losing and replacing species to keep “healthy ecosystems,” but that may be a strange interpretation of “healthy” over-simplified systems with little redundancy? Stevens, like Ehrlich, assumed, perhaps incorrectly or over-optimistically, that a certain amount of species in any ecosystem were “redundant.”
These days “resilience” seems to be on a par with “sustainability.” In 2012 the findings of Reich et al. complemented an increasing number of findings since the 1990’s that indicated that biodiversity acted as an independent variable “that controls ecosystem level functions such as nutrient and biomass production.” Peter Reich et al (2012) in “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss Escalate Through Time as Redundancy Fades” showed that biodiversity and ecosystem functioning increase monotonically, therefore extinction produces an incremental decrease in ecosystem functioning.[ii]
In that context management based on the concept of “redundancy” becomes simply a tacit admission that we do not really understand the complexity and functioning of ecosystems that are being managed. This appears to be the case in the recent debates over the fate of Canadian polar bears and caribou populations. As pointed out by Dr. Andrew Derocher (University of Alberta) with regard to the imminent extirpation of the polar bear population at Svalbard, this is no longer a matter of saving individual species, we are witnessing the rapid dismantling and re-organization of entire ecosystems: “We’re restructuring a whole ecosystem. Sea ice is to the Arctic what soil is to the forest. Without sea ice we’ll still have an ecosystem, but it won’t include polar bears & many other species”[iii] (As every first-year geography student knows, a small shift in precipitation and/or soil temperature radically alters soil biota and functioning.) While it has long been known that species may shift under climate change, and that ecosystems could not move but would have to re-organize, insufficient consideration has been given to the cascade effect of interdependencies. Derocher puts his finger on the problem, basic changes in soil or water temperature entails a major re-organization of the interdependencies of species.
No man is an island, and no province or state really lives in isolation. To equitably evaluate a government’s environmental action or inaction, it no longer suffices to do so within a framework of expectations that are limited to a comparison of the various political party policies. There is a need to re-evaluate policy in terms of its effective response to a novel rapidly evolving situation. By and large politicians, and most voters, seem unable to grasp the novel character of the global situation, which is rapidly evolving beyond our control.[iv] It requires new thinking.
The implementation of legislation to meet long-standing, but now possibly outdated concerns, is being outstripped by the deteriorating global state of the environment. Thus, it comes as no surprise that representatives of Ecojustice and World Wildlife Federation have recently noted in the press that Canadian provincial and federal governments are failing to do enough to protect Canada’s fauna, let alone its flora.[v] Of particular note in this matter is the fact that, with more than 18 months in power, BC still has no “Endangered Species Act, ” an act that has been desired for at least 4 decades ever since the President Nixon introduced the “Endangered Species Act” in 1973.
The current state of affairs only raises more questions on this matter as the concepts that have buttressed endangered species legislation for the past 45 years are themselves rapidly evolving, and possibly becoming obsolescent. While the conservation of endangered species should entail the preservation of habitat, it is unclear how that habitat is to be preserved if it is itself changing to the point that target species are displaced away from the selected habitat. As we preach the mantra that “it all hangs together,” an increasing number of reports and studies are witnessing a great unraveling of ecosystems that the growing magnitude of climate change impacts is driving.
In this respect, one of the most interesting articles this semester has to be Giovanni Strona and Corey J.A. Bradshaw’s modelling experiment “Co-extinctions annihilate planetary life during extreme environmental change.”[vi] The findings of this experiment challenges the reassuring 2017 work of Sloan et al.[vii] which purported that based on the extraordinary tolerance of tardigrades, life on earth has the capacity to “survive asteroid impacts, supernovae, and gamma-ray bursts.”[viii] Sloan et al. should have specified: “taken in isolation” As Strona et al. note, the problem with that contention is that it is strictly based on the known physiological tolerances only of individual species. The guiding assumption of Sloan et al. is that individual species exist in the real world without being ecologically connected to, and therefore, reliant on, other beings. In other words, as Strona and Bradshaw note, the approach taken by Sloan et al., suggests that biodiversity is merely a collection of independent individual objects rather than an interactive community of individuals.
It is worth noting that this problem is one of the oldest in the history of science. It is, in point of fact, the key controversy that gave birth to science: the debate between Idealism and Nominalism in the late Middle Ages. For idealists, the reality of objects and words lies in their definitions which gave them meaning, whereas nominalists believed that objects and the words referring to them only acquired reality through their performative function.[ix] Arcane as this may seem, these two conceptions of reality continue to prevail in the human mind today, even in the scientific world. As Strona and Bradshaw point out:
“This ostensibly reassuring news highlights how some scientists still tend to disregard the role of co-extinctions within collapsing communities in driving global biodiversity loss, while focusing on individual species’ tolerance limits as the only criteria relevant to species survival in a changing world.”
Sloan et al.’s perspective is regrettably one all too frequently adopted by a wide number of biologists involved in wildlife management, which informs and shapes government policy and implementation. Species do not exist independently of whole ecosystems, outside of museums, zoos or herbariums. There is a pervasive idealism that disconnects the nominalist reality of our ongoing mass extinction from the convenient assumption of day-to-day business-as-usual that the world about us is museum-like relatively stable and unchanging. Figure 1 in Strona and Bradshaw illustrates what happens when organisms physiologically tolerant to extremes are inserted in an ecological context subjected to the instances of co-extinction. (From: G. Strona and C.J.A. Bradshaw, 2018)
Whether we consider the fate of tardigrades or polar bears, it seems that we can no longer dabble about the edges. We appear to be facing a significant environmental tipping point that we may be able to mitigate in the short-term but cannot entirely avoid. At least, that is what the release in early November of IPCC and WWF reports, followed by the Fourth National Climate Assessment[x] are trying to make amply clear to the political class which appears to remain generally tone-deaf. The coldly-comforting thing is that it is becoming increasing clear to the mainstream that humanity is now facing large and unavoidable environmental changes.
Gone is the referential stability that used to guide compensation policy in conservation. Over the past 150 years, governments have created parks or conservation areas, including the 1992 United Nations Rio Conference proposal, which followed the Brundtland Report, to guarantee ecological sustainability by setting aside 12% of the global land mass as reserves, so that business-as-usual could proceed.[xi] (As pointed out by E.O Wilson, the real requirement is 50% – and we are nowhere near that.[xii]) While this may have been economically sustainable, it has been an ecological failure. The reliable stability marked by national parks and conservation areas that has served as a reference point in the mental maps of four generations is now a thing of the past. Iconic landscape-level ecosystems are changing before our eyes, as the New York Times can now confidentially point out: “Your Children’s Yellowstone Will be Radically Different”.[xiii]
Ecosystems that depend on snow, just as polar bears depend on ice, are no longer seeing enough snow, forests are giving way to grasslands and are now home to low-nutrition invasive grasses that reduce soil moisture, accentuate drought conditions and fire, shifting millennial migration patterns and potential ranges of iconic mammalian species, to the point that parks established for their preservation are no longer suitable habitat for these species. Of particular note in these matters, studies that focus on the loss of iconic mammalian species, do not account for the perhaps even more important collapse of invertebrate and floral species which effectively support these ecosystems.
For at least the past 20 years, we have known that we were exceeding the planet’s regenerative capacity.[xiv] Anthropogenic climate change has merely been the accelerant that brought home the consequences of a global population explosion and the consumption associated with an ever-growing population. The illusion has been to pretend that somehow the collapsing regenerative capacity of the planet could be by-passed by the resilience of select individual species. The collective impoverishment of biodiversity and its contribution to ecosystem functioning has only become the focus of attention since 1990. The collapse of biodiversity is only now coming to general attention, perhaps because it has become all to obvious.[xv] The road map to these changes to be expected is fairly explicit in the latest IPCC report, which lays out what broad ecological collapses are to be expected per half degree of global warming.
As Figure 2 illustrates the 2018 IPCC Special report conservatively indicates that major impacts to ecosystems, in particular coral ecosystems which are expected to disappear within the coming decades[xvii], while coastal and arctic systems, which includes alpine ecosystems, will experience major upheavals by 2050, unless political will shifts by 2020 to reach targets by 2030.[xviii]
What is emerging is the realization that that the climate change problem is largely a “cultural problem,” and that therefore solutions cannot simply be brought down from above. There is a need to increase public awareness and participation. The “cultural” dimension is not, as the media and government shills would have it, a matter of Western, Oriental or First Nations cultures. It is a matter of living in a social environment shaped by global consumerism, in which problems are expected to be solved by “experts”, without having to assume personal responsibility or question assumptions guiding daily life. It is therefore interesting that media response to the IPCC report and United Nations calls to action, has been to provide commonsense lists of what individuals can do.[xix]
Of particular note, the American Fourth National Assessment produced by and rejected by the Trump administration, points to the fact that the inter-relatedness of climate change impacts requires that public stakeholders be engaged: “Failure to anticipate interconnected impacts can lead to missed opportunities for effectively managing the risks of climate change and can also lead to management responses that increase risks to other sectors and regions. Joint planning with stakeholders across sectors, regions, and jurisdictions can help identify critical risks arising from interaction among systems ahead of time.”[xx]
If we consider how climate change policy is being managed now, it is hard not to note that while the public is being re-assured of government action, the public itself is not being engaged in decision-making and policy development. Government continues to rely on industry to shape policy rather than on independent science and public participation. Nowhere is this more obvious than in BC’s proposed Bill 51, which was supposed to re-vamp environmental assessments, but only appears to perpetuate the source of the problem.
Faced with the twin problems of climate change and biodiversity collapse, the first step to conservation may not lie in the urgency of an endangered species act, but in the rigour of the environmental assessment act based first on science and then on public participation. In this respect, BC’s new Environmental Assessment Act falls short of expectations. As reviewed by the University of Victoria’s Centre for West Coast Environmental Law, Bill 51 fails to address many of the problems that plagued its predecessors.[xxi] And it fails largely to meet the very need for “joint stakeholder participation” “to anticipate interconnected impacts,” as noted in the American “National Assessment.” While Bill 51 engages with First Nations, one has to wonder if this is mere window-dressing since the Bill does not meet the minimum standards set by the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Rights. Nor does it address the question of public or community participation, it refers to the need for “Community Advisory Committees” which have no legislated role and meet only if there is “sufficient community interest” (to be arbitrarily determined by the minister.) Similarly, the bill allows for “regional assessments” outside of the project-specific assessment, however, it is not clear what would trigger a regional assessment, and the findings would be non-binding. That has to be the fulcrum of this new Environmental Assessment Act, assessments would continue to be non-binding and arbitrary, with decisions left entirely at the discretion of the minister.
In other words, although First Nations are invited to discuss the environmental impacts of projects on their territories, they in fact have little say on the outcome which is a ministerial decision. Similarly, although “Community Advisory Committees” may be formed and meet, if the minister deems that it is in community interest, the recommendations are non-binding. As in the past, the only data that will be considered will be data proposed by the proponents. While the bill requires the creation of “technical committees” drawn from ministry staff, industry contractors and First Nations, as is the current practice, the new bill effectively does not require that any member of the “technical committee” actually have any technical or scientific expertise necessary to evaluate the evidence” “…..there are no requirements for independent studies, expert peer reviews or panel hearings to test evidence.”[xxii] This is not just a legal problem. This is a problem that has to do with how our society actually views and relates to science. There is in point of fact very little difference between a government in Washington berating science and scientists, and a government in Victoria simply arbitrarily disregarding science in order to advance an economic or business agenda. Both disregard the magnitude of the climate change problems that humanity faces and the science behind this.
Bill 51 in fact, continues to authorize the minister to arbitrarily waive the need for an environmental certificate altogether. Just like the previous government the current government arbitrarily promotes the fossil fuel industry. Such has been the case of dams in Northern BC illegally built without authorization by a subsidiary of Petronas, Progress Energy, for the development of LNG which the government now supports.[xxiii] Sierra Club is now taking the government to court because it granted environmental certificates without requiring any review.
There is a disturbing logic in all this, or at least there should be for anybody interested in science and public policy. The picture that emerges out of Bill 51 is not just that there is no change commensurate with the magnitude of the problems which we face, but that status quo is being maintained under another name, and politics will continue to have precedence over science.
Bill 51 follows on the heels of Bill 49 the “Professional Governance Act”. Bill 49 may best be understood in terms of the content of Bill 51. Bill 49 provides the scaffolding for the role of professionals in Bill 51. This bill implements the first 2 recommendations of the Haddock Report, but it makes no mention of the other 119 recommendations which have bearing on the government’s own mismanagement of the environment. Whereas the Haddock report recommended the creation of a Superintendent’s office which would oversee environmental professionals with enforcement capacity answering to the public and reporting to the Legislature and the Supreme Court, this bill severely limits the Superintendent’s powers to simply reporting to the minister. Given that breadth of discretionary ministerial powers in Bill 51 the Environmental Assessment Act, and the continued reliance on information to be provided by the project proponents and evaluated by potentially unqualified personnel, Ministerial discretion in Bill 49 is unlikely to provide British Columbians with the required objective science-based environmental management this government was elected to provide.
It is not really clear that BC is really moving to address climate change, any more than Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba or Ontario, or Ottawa. Yes, today BC joined Ottawa to impose a much-needed carbon tax across the country, because BC wants to be a leader in the fight against climate change.[xxiv] It implemented a carbon tax in 2008, ten years ago, with very little progress since. 10 years ago is eons ago at the rate that the world is currently changing. So that is against a background of a provincial government – like its federal counterpart- whose policies are largely out-of-step with every report on the actual state of the environment that has been published in the scientific literature, for at least the last 12 months. It is a bit like going to court to ban matches when a wildfire like California’s Camp fire lights up the courthouse.
The policies which we are seeing this government implement are already redundant and too timid, because they are based on a misconception that our environment is somehow “resilient” and that it can continue to bear unprecedented economic insults if only we accept the now very-dated 1992 Rio Proclamation that our economy can be made “sustainable.” The reality is that this same economy has collapsed 70% of insects and 60% of wildlife since 1970 and that this economy is endangering, and continues to endanger future generations. We may expect the American president to receive reports that tell him as much and to not give these reports credence, but it is disturbing when governments that claim to know better are de facto not implementing progressive science-based policies, and just maintaining status-quo.
(First written for and published by The Bulletin of the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists, November 29, 2018)
[v] https://www.ledevoir.com/societe/environnement/541632/la-protection-de-la-faune-est-insuffisante-au-canada-selon-des-experts; https://www.msn.com/en-ca/news/canada/canadas-wildlife-threatened-conservationists/ar-BBPNQyr?ocid=sf
[vi]Giovanni Strona and Corey J.A. Bradshaw (2018) https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-35068-1
[viii] Strona et al.
[ix] Karl Popper (1945) “Two Kinds of Definitions” ed. David Miller Popper Selections, Princeton, 1985. 87-100.
[xiv] Mathis Wackernagel et al (2002) “Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy.” PNAS. http://www.pnas.org/content/99/14/9266