Henny Penny Is Right: The Sky Is Falling


By James Hoggan

My years of research for I’m Right, You’re an Idiot, as well as decades of experience in public relations, have persuaded me that we humans have a fickle relationship with facts. We paint a picture of the world according to facts that appeal to us, and we unconsciously blur the edges or use brushstrokes of denial when faced with disagreeable realities and alarming truths.

Why is this? Columbia University professor Elke Webber says we tend to ignore or deny unpleasant facts because we have a finite pool of worry, a personal well of anxiety that has only so much room in it. When our lives overflow with bad news we turn away.

Psychologist Bob Doppelt adds that denial is an active form of avoidance often driven by fear, shame or pain. In the case of climate change, many of us work hard not to notice the reality, to avoid feelings of embarrassment and distress, because our worldview would crumble if we were to acknowledge the truth about global warming or ocean acidification, and its link to our misplaced need to exploit and control nature.

To overcome this inertia we must face up to the challenge, not ignore it. Naturally, we always need to balance uncomfortable facts with hope and the courage to act, but we deny frightening facts at our peril. As Doppelt put it, “No tension, no change.”

Every scientist and activist I know has at some point been berated by a well-meaning person who accused him or her of being too alarmist, but we need to recognize certain facts in order to change the way we interact with the world if we are to solve these problems.

For example, a new climate change study published in the March 2016 issue of the journal Nature predicts high greenhouse gas emission levels could raise the oceans as much as two meters by the end of this century, and by 13 meters—from Antarctica alone—by 2500. Past estimates did not include the melting of Antarctica, but the study suggests when this continent is taken into account we will see a doubling of previous forecasts.

As television journalist Bill Blakemore once told me, after a producer criticized his climate change reporting for being too gloomy: “Nobody likes to be Chicken Little, but the sky really is falling.”

In my new book I discuss why critical messages aren’t getting through and how to improve our communications, but in this blog I first explain why we need to ring the alarm bells. Here are some warnings from some of the 97 percent of climate scientists whose peer-reviewed papers show human caused global warming is indeed happening and a serious problem.

It is already too late to avoid climate change because temperatures are rising, says University of Hawaii associate professor and ecologist Camilo Mora, but if dangerous greenhouse gas emissions are stabilized soon, the effects could be modified or delayed. For instance, imagine you’re driving at 100 miles per hour and there is a hazard in front of you, he said. Even if you slam on the brakes you will likely hit the hazard, but it’s much better to hit it a 20 miles per hour rather than 100.

Earth is similarly hurtling towards a hazard, a time when many of today’s most populous cities—places like New York, London, Singapore and Cairo—will become unbearably hot. His 2013 study, published in Nature, The Projected Timing of Climate Departure from Recent Variability, predicts the first of these apocalyptic changes will be seen in Indonesia as soon as 2020, and unprecedented temperature shifts will spread to other regions soon after. We can expect a heavy toll on humans and many species as extreme weather accelerates beyond anything we have experienced.

Even Mora was shocked by the results of his study because, rather than using standard deviation, he based his study on the largest extremes he could find in historical records dating back 150 years. Despite this conservative approach, he discovered that climate will move outside those bounds by 2047. This is the year he therefore defines as “climate departure,” the date when the historic maximum temperatures will become the new minimums.

One of the areas Mora is most concerned about is species extinction and although 20,000 species are disappearing every year, neither he nor any other scientist can predict which will vanish next. He offers a vivid analogy: “Imagine you are climbing a ladder to the second floor of a building and you fall. Can you accurately predict, given the height of the fall, whether you’re going to be injured or precisely what your injuries will be?” Whether you hurt both legs, sprain a wrist or break your neck depends on many factors. If you’re lucky, perhaps you will limp away — but you might never walk again. Likewise, scientists cannot predict all the fallout from climate change, but humanity can minimize the impact by using its experience and knowledge.

Mora was also lead author in a 2013 study published in the journal PLOS Biology that looked at the disruptive impact of climate change on the oceans. Eighty percent of the animal protein consumed in the world comes from fish but he calculates by 2100, roughly 98 percent of the oceans will be affected by acidification, warming temperatures, low oxygen or lack of biological productivity. This will threaten up to 870 million of the world’s poorest — those who rely on the ocean for food and jobs.

Mora, who studies how biodiversity is impacted by overexploitation, habitat loss and climate change, advises we are losing six million hectares of forest a year, three million hectares of mangroves, 100 square kilometres of seagrasses, and we have already said goodbye to 90 per cent of the top predators since 1950. He believes people who don’t care about driving species down to extinction display a shockingly selfish view and lack of foresight.

The good news is, our knowledge of climate is improving, as is our capacity to analyze what we learn, thanks to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that is gathering data from 39 models in 21 different locations. The bad news is, readings are disturbing. By 2050, the panel predicts the available fresh water per capita in India will be two-thirds what it is today. Some places are already heavily water-stressed, warned past panel chair Rajendra Pachauri, when I interviewed him, prior to the most recent IPCC report being released. He anticipated a global scarcity of food, which is particularly alarming as the panel predicts crop yields will likely decrease by up to two percent each decade, while the world’s population rockets to nine billion by 2050.

Rapidly melting Himalayan glaciers will affect 500 million people in South Asia and about 250 million people in China and the Tibetan Plateau. “This nexus between climate change, water availability and food security is something that needs a lot of study, and quickly, so we can institute water resource management changes,” he warned.

Pachauri said any suggestion that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would lead to massive reductions in economic output is incorrect. “We estimate that if we were to carry out very stringent mitigation beginning today, the maximum loss of GDP would be about three percent of global GDP in 2030,” he said. “That’s not a very heavy price to pay for avoiding some of the worst impacts of climate change. And there are many attractive, positive benefits. The sooner we act the cheaper it will be.”

While climate change deniers have attacked the IPCC in the past, it is interesting to note that thousands of leading experts around the globe have sought to contribute to the assessments and comprehensive reports. That high number shows the panel’s strong backing by the scientific community, said Pachauri, who was re-elected by acclamation in 2008 and stepped down in 2015.

The past chairman’s message is just as powerful today as it was when we spoke. Earth’s climate is changing and the data shows how it is happening. We know the results of inaction will be extremely serious, particularly in the most vulnerable regions of the world. “If you want instant change, then you also get instant frustration —but we must believe that in the end, human beings will be rational,” he said.

The panel’s predictions of increasing frequency and intensity of floods, droughts and heat waves were echoed in a report, Turn Down the Heat, commissioned in 2012 by the World Bank. If we fail to act it forecasted a potentially devastating four-degree rise in temperatures by the end of this century. Prepared by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, the report spelled out cataclysmic changes. World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim forecasted the inundation of coastal cities and increasing risks for food production as dry regions become dryer, wet regions wetter. He predicted unprecedented heat waves and water scarcity in many regions, “increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.”

Close to a quarter of the world’s coral reefs have already vanished and another third are threatened by pollution, habitat destruction, over fishing, increasing ocean temperatures and acidification. Coral bleaching has devastated parts of the Great Barrier Reef in northeastern Australia and now the problem has spread to Kimberley in the northwest. It is being blamed on climate change and that region’s unusually warm waters during the summer of 2015/16, combined with the largest El Niño ever recorded. Reporting across the Pacific shows the extensive nature of the problem and the dramatic impact of temperature changes on reefs. Experts say the effect on marine life could be catastrophic.

One of the world’s leading marine conservation biologists, Callum Roberts, a British research scholar at the University of York believes, “We’re not just losing pretty marine life, we’re losing a lot of the values that we look to marine environments for.”

He offers a frightening example of the devastation happening around the world when he talks about the Irish Sea, a body of water between Ireland and England. Reports from the 1820s and 1830s described an abundance of huge fish here including cod, conger eels, ling, halibut and giant skates measuring meters across. But problems began when sailing trawlers moved into the area and started dragging nets across the seabed, pulling up seaweeds, sponges, sea fans, corals and more. Fish stocks declined and the seabed habitat was degraded.

By the late 19th century trawlers with steam engines were towing much bigger nets, going deeper, farther offshore and fishing round the clock. The abundance of fish was knocked down even more, while impacts on the seabed broadened as diesel engines intensified trawling and new technologies such as better fish finders were developed.

As fish became less plentiful people turned to harvesting scallops and prawns, using fine mesh nets and heavy dredges to scour the seabed. The result? “The Irish Sea has been stripped of its wildlife,” said Roberts who dived there a couple of years ago and was both slightly cheered and horrified by what he saw. In a bay that was declared off-limits to scallop dredging and prawn trawling for 20 years he saw life starting to return in the form of anemones, sponges, fish and small rays, but an area still open to scallop dredging “looked like a six-lane highway. I only saw five things that were alive and one was dying: two scallops, two sea urchins and a smashed clam perforated by a dredge spike.”

The oceanographer explains this kind of harvesting is bad for all the ecological processes that go on in the sea, including sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and locking it away in sediments, a process greatly reduced by the removal of filter feeders on the seabed. “We are seeing increasing outbreaks of things like jellyfish which are now predator-free since we’ve taken out most of the things that eat them,” he said. “A jellyfish species called Mnemiopsis leidyi was accidentally introduced into the Black Sea in the 1980s and proceeded to eat everything, eventually becoming 95 percent of the biomass there.”

We are witnessing an increase in harmful algae blooms that are toxic to plankton and he predicts a time when people will not want to holiday at the seaside because it will be too dangerous and unpleasant. For example, intensive pig farming in France releases huge amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous into the sea, producing masses of slimy seaweed that wash up along the coast in Brittany. Rotting in vast heaps, it produces lethal hydrogen sulfide gas and has resulted in the deaths of people and animals exposed to the slurry.

Some argue that dredging the seabed is no worse than plowing the land, but there is a fundamental difference: In the oceans we can’t use chemicals to manipulate the environment. We have to rely on the sea’s ability to repair itself.

Roberts worries about the loss of biodiversity in the ocean because when we convert it from the richness and complexity of two centuries ago to the monocultures of prawns and scallops of today, we lose a great deal of the ecosystem’s resilience and stability. Already there is an increasing frequency of disease affecting prawns, crabs and other crustaceans. “It is in the interest of everyone to rebuild ocean life,” Roberts said. “To have abundance, we need diversity and complexity.”

If we continue on this course many of the iconic species people know and love—albatrosses, penguins, leatherback sea turtles that have been around for 100 million years—could become extinct. It’s one thing to inadvertently deplete a species, but another entirely when actions are taken with full knowledge they will push a species to the edge. He fears we’re getting to a stage where corporations are so controlling of the political process that increasingly risky and counterproductive decisions are being made.

“Big fish like bluefin tuna and dolphins will not make it through the transition,” he predicts and we’re already seeing a shift from bigger life to smaller life. Mini-fauna is replacing mega-fauna. “We had huge fish in the Irish Sea 200 years ago, now we have scallops and prawns. Eventually the kingdom of the worms will prevail on the sea floor.”

We need to start communicating better about these issues so people start seeing the world as it really is, so the public is not tricked or misled by PR spin or propaganda.

In the next post I talk to environmentalist, geneticist and zoologist David Suzuki; anthropologist and ethno botanist Wade Davis; and archaeologist and author Ronald Wright who emphasize why we need to change our behavior immediately and why it’s essential to clear the air in the public square.

In my next post I will explain how we find the courage and the tools to fix these problems, and how we can inspire hope not despair.

James Hoggan is president of the Vancouver PR firm Hoggan & Associates, chair of the David Suzuki Foundation and founder of the influential website DeSmogBlog. He is also the author Climate Cover-Up, Do the Right Thing and the recently released I’m Right and You’re an Idiot.


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