Climate change is for real. Meddling further with nature is not the answer
By Rohan Arthur
WE HAVE, as a global community, been perhaps too well prepared for the impending disaster of climate change. It has become part of the universal semiology of catastrophe, together with Anonymous-inspired Internet meltdowns, pandemic viruses, the Eurozone collapse and the end of the Mayan calendar. And while climate change shares plenty with these self-evident disasters, it lacks many necessary elements as a grand narrative of Man against the Apocalypse. As a slow-burn phenomenon in human time scales with a diffuse, faceless enemy and no single problem to solve, we are easily inured to its urgency. Which is perhaps why, despite being among the most urgent of these catastrophes, it is so difficult to rally our resources to do much about it. Its invisibility lies in its enormity, a symbol so overbearing that it drifts easily beneath the global consciousness.
But as a student of marine systems, you only have to snorkel over a bleached coral reef to realise that there is nothing abstract about climate change. I first saw corals bleach in early 1998 by which time many Indian reefs had already succumbed; once vibrant coral now ghostly white due to abnormally high surface temperatures. Since then, we have been tracking climate change consequences to Indian marine systems, and there is little to be optimistic about.
This is what we know for certain: Global temperatures are increasing at 0.2°C per decade, much of this absorbed by the ocean, which has seen its temperature increase by 0.6°C in the past century. Seemingly negligible, but no mean feat given the size of the ocean. A third of anthropogenic CO2 released into the atmosphere is also absorbed by the ocean, which is becoming more acidic than it has been for millennia. As polar ice As polar ice caps melt, sea levels increase about 3.3 mm/year, scarily close to the extreme projections of IPCC models. By these estimates, ocean levels will rise a metre by 2100. Current systems are also becoming increasingly unpredictable, leading to the kind of warming events I witnessed in 1998.
The fingerprint of change is with us already. At its most dramatic, it leads to major reductions in structural complexity. With it go species that depend on this complexity, leading to rapid biodiversity losses. While systems like mangroves may compensate by migrating landward, others like reefs, seagrass meadows and rocky shores clearly cannot. More perniciously, altered environmental conditions result in subtle modifications in physiology and seasonality — flowering, spawning, growth, migration — all with profound ecosystem consequences.
Opportunistic invasives utilise these conditions to expand their ranges, becoming veritable pests in their new homes. On another front, ocean acidification is changing the chemistry of essential biological processes, including the ability of many invertebrates and corals to form robust skeletons.
The human fallout of these changes is large. Already, uncertainties associated with migrating fish means that coastal fishers can no longer rely on past experience to predict their catch, and many reef fisheries have already collapsed. Among the long list of flowon consequences of climate change are increased coastal erosion, rapid salinisation of groundwater, increase in water-borne diseases, and increased risk of extreme storms, droughts and floods.
To add to this is the recognition that natural and human systems have hidden discontinuities — irreversible tipping points that can sneak up on us unannounced. Dealing with these inevitable surprises requires some very careful management.
We are a meddling lot. This is what got us into this pickle in the first place. So, it is unsurprising that we look to solve things with further meddling. Engineered solutions. If corals are dying, all we need is to create coral nurseries and replant them, surely? Eroding beaches? A bit of concrete is sucient to shore up the coastline. But these solutions are mere band-aids for a problem that is deeply systemic. And only once we embrace this as a management principle can we make any real headway.
A systemic management approach requires both an appreciation of the complexity of the networks that hold ecological and human systems together as well as the humility to recognise that we will probably never have a single set of solution tools to manage all this complexity. Climate change forces us to embrace this humility as a guiding principle.
What we are left with are lesser, more modest goals. Nurturing the natural resilience, these systems have to cope with change. Reduced expectations. Accepting that we will sustain huge losses regardless of what we do. If we do this whilst pursuing larger goals of capping global pollution and reducing CO2 levels below the 350 ppm threshold (it currently stands at 396 ppm), we will still have ecosystems worth conserving when we have achieved those aims. For this, we will need to deconstruct the catastrophe of climate change in the public mindspace so that it becomes less of dismissible semiotics and more of a tangible problem that we can engage with in real, not symbolic terms.
Arthur is a marine biologist with special interest in coral reefs and the effects of human interference and climate change on coastal ecology.