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By Ed Struzik
On Coats Island, in northern Hudson Bay, thick-billed murres—members of the auk family—have been under assault on several fronts in recent years. Polar bears, faced with a sharp decline in the sea ice from which they hunt ringed seals, have retreated to the island and are eating the murres’ eggs. As the sea ice disappears, the murres now have to fly farther and work harder to get food that they normally find along the ice edges. And as temperatures around Hudson Bay rise, mosquitoes are hatching earlier in the season. So many mosquitoes have swarmed on Coats Island in recent years that some of the nesting murres have perished from blood loss, according to biologist Anthony Gaston of Environment Canada, who has been studying the murre colonies on the island since 1984.
Gaston believes that the toll these changes are taking on long-lived murres and their chicks will inevitably lead to a sharp decline and ultimate collapse of the island’s 30,000 breeding pairs. "Maybe not in my lifetime, but it will happen," says Gaston, who will retire in March. "These and other seabirds are superbly adapted to the sea ice environment. Without that ice, and with polar bears and mosquitoes hitting them hard, the only future in the Arctic for them is to move north."
Across the Arctic, resident birds such as the murres are experiencing increasing stresses that affect their foraging patterns and reproductive success. Researchers say that the gyrfalcon, the peregrine falcon, the willow and rock ptarmigan, the long-tailed jaeger or skua, and Ross’s and ivory gulls are in decline, as are some other birds that fly north to nest in the Arctic. In many cases, the birds’ prey—from lemmings, to snowshoe hare, to cod in the southern reaches of the Arctic Ocean—are experiencing population declines and shifts in their reproductive cycles.
"There’s no doubt that something is happening," says Dave Mossop, a biologist at Yukon College who has been studying birds in the Yukon for more than 40 years. "Kestrels here are declining so fast, it’s scary. As many as 60 percent of the adult peregrines we have in the Yukon haven’t even bothered nesting in recent years. Our gyrfalcons are breeding much later, seem to be producing fewer young, and are declining in abundance."
Scientists are working hard to understand why these cycles are changing, but many suspect that climate change is at least partially responsible. With springtime in the Arctic advancing by two or three weeks, snowshoe hares may not be losing their white coats fast enough to make them less vulnerable to predation in spring. Higher temperatures may be having an impact on vegetation that is critical for some birds, and warmer and shorter winters are resulting in snowfall and icing events that may not be conducive to lemming, vole and other rodent reproduction.
Predators such as the peregrine, the gyrfalcon, the snowy owl and the Greenland long-tailed skua depend on peaks in these prey species to reproduce in numbers that will sustain their populations. For these birds, collapsing prey cycles are bad news. A team of Danish scientists, for example, recently documented how a collapse in collared lemming cycles at two sites in Greenland between 1998 and 2010 resulted in a 98 percent decline in the snowy owl population. They also documented a similar, albeit less drastic, decline in the population of long-tailed jaegers, part of the skua family.
Mossop and others are convinced that this rush of protein that periodically flushes through the system during predator peaks is what drives these resident populations in the Arctic. "All Arctic creatures have to have sophisticated strategies in order to survive in this part of the world." he says. "Exploiting those peaks, I think, is part of the strategy."
According to Don Reid, a scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Yukon, early and deep snow provides the insulation that is necessary for lemmings to breed and produce enough young to account for the population peaks. Because snow conditions are declining or changing in some places in the Arctic, that insulation is being compromised, Reid says. Lemmings, as a result, cannot produce enough offspring to bounce back from the lows that follow heavy predation.
University of Alberta biologist Alastair Franke has unequivocal evidence of peregrine falcon nestlings starving to death on the west coast of Hudson Bay. But lack of food, he says, is not the main thing killing these birds. According to a recent study led by graduate student Alexandre Anctil of the University of Quebec, some regions of the Arctic are now experiencing more periods of heavy rain each summer when compared to the early 1980s. With their downy white coats insulating them against the snow and the cold, these chicks do just fine. When it rains heavily, however—as it has increasingly been doing along the west coast of Hudson Bay since 1980—up to a third of the peregrine chicks in the study area die of hypothermia as their wet feathers rapidly draw heat from their bodies. Some even drowned in their nests.
Anctil and Franke came to this conclusion by analyzing meteorological records dating back to 1980 and by placing nest boxes on cliffsides to provide shelter for some of the chicks. With the help of remote cameras, they discovered that sheltered chicks fared better than birds that were exposed to heavy rain events. All of this counters the good news for a species that has undergone a strong recovery after nearly being driven to extinction in the 1970s.
Acadia University biologist Mark Mallory has been watching this and other similar events unfold with concern for the fulmars, murres, black guillemots, and other year-round Arctic residents that he studies in the High Arctic. This past summer was an especially bad one for the birds Mallory studies. As happened with some regularity in the past, snow, ice, and cold conditions lingered for so long that the terns, gulls and jaegers at Nasaruvaalik Island didn’t even lay eggs. Mallory says that while the birds are adapted to deal with these occasional seasonal extremes, the overall warming trend is a real cause for concern. "What worries me is what’s happening in the southern parts of the Arctic," says Mallory. "If we see these ecosystem changes and rain events migrating north into the High Arctic, I don’t know how these birds are going to adapt."
For researchers, the problem in almost all cases is that there is a dearth of information about how Arctic birds and their prey are faring throughout the circumpolar world. The impact of climate change is often an indirect one, creating subtle mismatches between predator and prey that may be caused by changes in snow and vegetation, icing events, the arrival of an invasive species or the early melting of sea ice.
What’s more, climate change is not be the only reason some birds like the ivory gull are in trouble. For example, Mallory and colleague Grant Gilchrist of Environment Canada once thought that receding sea ice—which makes it increasingly difficult for these birds to forage for fish and marine invertebrates—was the main reason for the 80 percent decline that they documented in Canada’s ivory gull population since the 1980s. "Receding sea ice means that, just like bears having less time to hunt seals, there's less time for the gulls to follow bears and scavenge kills," says Mallory.
But now he and other scientists have evidence to suggest that high levels of mercury, which the gulls may be ingesting from foraging on seal carcasses left behind by polar bears, may also be a factor. "Mercury is something we think is a smoking gun," he says. "But because there are so few of the birds in Canada, it's tough to justify sampling to run experiments."
To get a clearer picture of what is happening in the Arctic, Mossop, Mallory and other scientists are attempting to set up international networks that can better track changes. Even with that, says Mallory, figuring out what is going on is still daunting.
"We have a very small population and few, widely distributed sampling sites (e.g. weather stations), so our baseline data is not too great," says Mallory. "Add to that the complex suite of threats that some of these species are facing simultaneously—climate change, contamination of food webs, alteration to migratory stopover sites and wintering habitats, competition with human fisheries for prey, industrial development in the Arctic, invasion of the Arctic by new parasites, diseases — and you can appreciate that trying to nail down a cause-and-effect explanation for what we are seeing is very tough."
Mallory says three things are needed to better understand these significant shifts in Arctic bird populations: interdisciplinary and international collaboration, a commitment to long-term studies, and the financial resources to do the work properly. "The commitment to long-term studies and the funding to do them properly is floundering," he says.
Laval University scientist Gilles Gauthier—who has spent the last quarter century leading a team of scientists studying the fauna and flora on Bylot Island in the eastern Arctic—cautions his colleagues not to read too much into short-term trends in animal cycles. But Gauthier says that when change happens in a simple food web such as the Arctic, it can occur abruptly, whether from declines in prey abundance, the appearance of new competitors or diseases, or changes in vegetation.
"The eastern Arctic where I work is still relatively cold compared to what is happening in Fenno-Scandinavia and Alaska and the western Arctic of Canada," says Gauthier. "That may account for the fact that on Bylot Island we are not seeing the big changes that are occurring elsewhere. What we do know, though, is that the warming that is coming will greatly exceed anything we have seen so far. In order to understand how plants and animals can adapt to constraints brought on by rapid change, we need to better understand these linkages between different species."
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Natalie Hanman
Why are you publishing this book now?
I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.
The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?
When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.
What's stopping the left doing this?
In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.
Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?
I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.
That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.
This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.
One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?
When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?
I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.
This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.
In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?
In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.
Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...
Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.
Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?
I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?
Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?
It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.
What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?
One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.
You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?
I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.
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By Ben Jervey
Drivers of electric cars are being unfairly punished by punitive fees in several states, according to a newly published analysis by Consumer Reports. Legislators in 26 states have enacted or proposed special registration fees for electric vehicles (EVs) that the consumer advocacy group found to be more expensive than the gas taxes paid by the driver of an average new gasoline vehicle.
By Oliver Milman
Two-thirds of Americans believe climate change is either a crisis or a serious problem, with a majority wanting immediate action to address global heating and its damaging consequences, major new polling has found.