As Below, So Above
Wednesday, October 10, 2018
AS BELOW, SO ABOVE: Are we witnessing a real-time extinction of southern resident killer whales?
The question was raised multiple times in meetings by the governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, which two weeks ago released a draft report of findings and recommendations for public comment.
Resident orcas in the Salish Sea approached a high of 98 in 1995, according to the report. However, between 1995 and 2003, the population dropped by 16 percent, down to 82 orcas, and prompted their listing as an endangered species. These orcas were classified as endangered in Washington and surrounding waters under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2005 and in Canada under the Species at Risk Act in 2003. Their numbers continue to decline, however, and of particular concern is the recent loss of several healthy breeding females.
The 45-member task force, representing diverse groups from throughout the state, expressed concern the orcas may be entering a death spiral toward extinction. The root cause? Increased human activity, and chemical changes in Northwest waters wrought by anthropogenic climate change.
“The extinction of these orcas would be an unacceptable loss,” task force members noted in their report. “If these creatures—the mammals who inhabit the top of the food chain in our Salish Sea—are unable to survive, it portends trouble for the rest of the inhabitants of this region. Action is required immediately to help not only these whales, but also the entire ecosystem we depend upon.”
Their report eerily augured that of one released by a scientific panel of the United Nations that paints a far more dire picture of the immediate consequences of climate change than previously thought and says that avoiding the damage requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent.”
The report, released this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass ocean die-off as soon as 2040—a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population.
With more than 6,000 scientific references, the 728-page document details the impacts of a 0.5ºC increase in average world temperatures and urges revised policy based upon this target, rather than the 1ºC increase established in international climate agreements. The report is the first to be commissioned by world leaders under the Paris agreement, the 2015 pact by nations to fight global warming.
Of course, current climate policy sets us on a path to blow well past even the 1º increase agreed to in the Paris Accords. Even that goal was considered unachievable without a dramatic reordering of the impacts of human behavior.
“One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes,” said Panmao Zhai, co-chair of IPCC Working Group, in a press release.
“I think the biggest takeaway is the urgency. We’re at a critical juncture. We really only have a few years to turn things around,” Kirsten Zickfeld, an associate professor in geography at Simon Fraser University, said in an interview in the Canadian press. Zickfeld was one of two Canadians selected to author the report, along with dozens of experts around the world.
Avoiding the most serious damage requires transforming the world economy within just a few years, the authors noted, estimating that damage from failure to do so would come at a cost of $54 trillion. But while they conclude that it is technically possible to achieve the rapid changes required to avoid 2.7 degrees of warming, they concede that it may be politically unlikely.
For instance, the report says heavy taxes or prices on carbon dioxide emissions—perhaps as high as $27,000 per ton by 2100—would be required. But such a move would be almost politically impossible in the United States, the world’s largest economy and second-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China. Lawmakers around the world, including in China and the European Union, have enacted carbon pricing programs. The United States has not.
Washington could be the first in the nation to adopt a carbon price by ballot, the ambitious goal of Initiative 1631. The initiative would enact a carbon emissions fee on large emitters of carbon based on the carbon content of fossil fuels sold or used in the state and electricity generated in or imported for use in the state. And, yes, those costs will be passed on to consumers and ratepayers.
Its passage in November could telegraph public support for increased measures to respond to the threat of climate change; its failure would no doubt signal the opposite to politicians—that staving off $54 trillion in future damages and global mass extinctions is not worth a nickel to voters.
Early polling indicated public support for I-1631, but the measure is under heavy siege by the Western States Petroleum Association and the conservative Association of Washington Business.
To date, petroleum interests have raised more than $21.3 million to defeat the I-1631, according to filings with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, and only a fraction of that amount has been spent. Of the amount raised, $17.9 million has arrived from contribution by the owners of the three largest refineries in Whatcom and Skagit counties.
It is no particular feat to connect the dots between the plight of the apex predator of Salish Sea and that of the human species, also dominant in its ecosystem. In their essence, these reports call upon us to care about those connections and they warn that we will pay the costs—whether today by weal or tomorrow by woe.