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What fish have to teach the Paris climate conference

The world may find our prime minister all the rage, but it’s scientists who are in vogue. And a leading one makes a compelling case against changing environmental goals


 
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is greeted by crowds of hysteria as he leaves his closing press conference following the APEC Summit in Manila, Philippines on Thursday, November 19, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is greeted by crowds of hysteria as he leaves his closing press conference following the APEC Summit in Manila, Philippines on Thursday, November 19, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Oh stop it, Vogue magazine. Keep your posh mitts off of Justin Trudeau. The guy is trying to run a serious G8 nation and you put him on a Sexy list? Obviously you know nothing about our country. If you did, you would have realized the hottest Canadian commodities right now are scientists, not politicians.

Yes, you heard that right. Scientists. Do not roll your eyes at earnest old Canada. This is a story straight out of Hollywood. Canadian scientists have spent a decade wearing Hannibal Lecter-sized muzzles, locked away from public sight. Unexpectedly, they have been sprung free.

When the Prime Minister and the premiers gathered in Ottawa to talk about climate change, who was the featured star? Sorry Vogue, it was not Trudeau. It was Dr. Greg Flato. Who? Oh, you didn’t know one of the senior research scientists with Environment Canada, who, I should say, sported a rather roguish goatee? Dr. Flato helped brief the premiers, then appeared at a press conference afterwards. He told Canadians that global warming is not only happening rapidly, it is caused by human activity. Flash bulbs went off. Capping greenhouse gas emissions is urgent, he said. Journalists peppered him with questions. Federal scientists just don’t say those things out loud, do they? They do now. Flato and his colleagues, who had adapted to the scientific darkness of the Harper years like naked mole rats, were almost overwhelmed by the light.

“It’s certainly not like my normal day at work,” Flato blushed when asked about his freedom to talk. “It was pretty remarkable.”

So, now that Canadian scientists are in vogue—if not in Vogue—it’s worth actually getting to know some, particularly as Trudeau gets set to lead a delegation to the United Nations’ climate conference in Paris on November 30th.

Dr. Daniel Pauly (Martin Dee/UBC)

Dr. Daniel Pauly (Martin Dee/UBC)

Meet Dr. Daniel Pauly, very much the man of this moment and the scientist who developed a theory that could save the entire climate conference from sliding into irrelevance.

Dr. Pauly, a professor of fisheries at the University of British Columbia, is a celebrity in the world of science. He has won almost every major environmental science award, been named by Scientific American as one of the most important scientists to watch, he’s published hundreds of papers and many books. He’s also done a TED talk worth watching. To truly appreciate why so many climate conferences have failed, you have to first understand Dr. Pauly and his fish.

Born in Paris to an African-American G.I. and a white French woman—he described it to me as “more of a union, not a family”—Pauly grew up in Switzerland. There, he was the only person of mixed race in a homogenous little Swiss town called La Chaux-de-Fonds. He never felt at home there, and so after attending university in Germany, he headed south to West Africa and Indonesia to study biology—and fish. “I consciously chose to go to places where I thought I would fit in, and look like other people,” he said. He is now a Canadian citizen.

Pauly’s itinerant personal experience—how resonant is that in the current debate about refugees, migrants and immigration?—ended up deeply informing his work. What was “normal” anyway? How could you really determine the true health of a fish population if you had no idea what it used to be like? You needed a baseline. To measure anything. The problem, Pauly realized, is there isn’t one. So in the mid 1990s he developed an idea called the shifting baseline theory.

It a simple but powerful notion that measures change by referencing a point in the past and comparing it to the present. The tricky part is, the point in the past might have already been changed from a previous point. Where was the proper baseline? Pauly wanted to measure the health of fish populations to understand the true impact of over-fishing, so he decided to use 1950 as a baseline. Compared to the present, the fish population in the 1950s was massive, and appeared healthy. The problem was, by 1950, many stocks had long been in decline. The 1950 baseline was, essentially a random starting point.

“Shifting baseline is a field that is historical,” Pauly told me. “You need to know the past in order to anchor the events in the present. But in fisheries we ended up actually quantifying the loss, and we know now that about half of the knowledge about fish who are not here anymore is lost every generation. Half!”

That means in a few generations the entire knowledge of a species can be forgotten, and then the baseline of what is healthy and normal shifts.

“This idea is so important for climate change and the conference in Paris,” Pauly says. “The changes going on are so rapid and deep, but the loss of knowledge and contextualization from one generation to another is so subtle that often strong changes cannot be perceived.”

For example, Pauly says the little Swiss town he grew up in used to have such severe winters that the snow would block all the access roads, isolating the town for up to three weeks. Those winters no longer exist. “I try to tell my kids about that but they can’t believe me.”

The baseline shifts. It’s as if the past didn’t exist.

  (Dani Cardona/Reuters)

(Dani Cardona/Reuters)

The political consequences are enormous. When the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions was first introduced in 1997, the goal was to stabilize emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. The baseline year scientists agreed on was 1990. Those targets were not met, by Liberals or by Conservatives. Year after year, conference after conference, new baselines were established. Finally, under Stephen Harper, Canada withdrew from the Kyoto protocol altogether and reset the baseline at 2005 levels. Suddenly, that was the new normal.

When Harper moved from the Kyoto targets to the non-binding targets of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, he took lots of heat, but the trap was set. He well knew his government would never meet the Copenhagen targets. Critics howled: you must meet Copenhagen levels, they screamed. Harper smiled. No one was talking about Kyoto and 1990 anymore. It was forgotten. Instead, even critics wanted 2005 as the new normal. Baseline shifted. Mission accomplished.

So the question for Paris becomes: will a new set of targets shift the baseline even further from 1990? Will these targets be binding? Even with the U.S. and China expressing desire for change, what happens in 10 years, when some future government chooses to reset the baseline?

“Shifting baseline is also called collective amnesia, and that is not wrong,” Pauly told me. “You don’t know the loss because it was never transmitted to you properly. You forget how it was so you find the present acceptable, normal, when it is not that at all.”

I asked Pauly what’s the best way to hedge against dangerous shifting baselines.

“You have to know the past,” he said. “You have to study to know what you are losing, and what you need to really protect so you do not adapt to a false sense of normal.”

A false sense of normal. If there was ever a better way to describe the politics of climate change I haven’t heard it. In Paris, climate will be in vogue, and there will lots of sexy promises from leaders trying to look good.

But forget the political fashion show. It’s not about the hemline. It’s about the baseline.


 

What fish have to teach the Paris climate conference

  1. More brain dead BullS((t from the CBC eerr r MacLeans.

    • I’ve considered your opinion and come to the conclusion that you are mistaken, and that the myopic, brain dead “BullS((” is what spews out of your mouth.

  2. Canadians will pay dearly for the Harper years of junking the past research data.
    Climate change is a WMD on a particularly long fuse, lit for all to see.
    Climate change summits should be held somewhere meaningful- maybe sea water up to their ankles at high tide will impress upon these leaders that this is a serious problem for millions of people.
    What will Canadians do when loss of permafrost makes ice roads, highways and rail to the north untenable?
    What will Canadians do when shifting lands impacts pipelines? Don’t think it will happen, check out the photos of the highway in California lifted 15′ in the air, now buckled and closed.
    The question is ‘are we willing to do anything about climate change?’ or will we wait and deal with the consequences.

    • “What will Canadians do when shifting lands impacts pipelines?”

      Turn them off and repair them. Then laugh uproariously at moronic assertions that “climate change” causes land to shift.

    • Diane,

      You are an idiot.

      I will explain why. You write:

      “Canadians will pay dearly for the Harper years of junking the past research data.”

      And of course you are wrong. harper never junked any data. He just insisted that any data presented by accurate. a lot of science was published since 2006…and harper never junked any of it.

      You go on in your idiocy:
      “Climate change is a WMD on a particularly long fuse, lit for all to see.”

      Sorry Dianne, but climate change is not a weapon of mass destruction. It is a normal function of the planet, and it has been going on for millions of years. But you are correct….it is a very long fuse.

      More brilliance from Diane:
      “Climate change summits should be held somewhere meaningful- maybe sea water up to their ankles at high tide will impress upon these leaders that this is a serious problem for millions of people.”

      Or, you could hire a few thousand people to make a bunch of “ankle high” bricks and have them slip them under the foundations of homes affected by the rising tides. Or failing that, have people start building homes about 5 feet further up the shore.

      The genius goes on:
      “What will Canadians do when loss of permafrost makes ice roads, highways and rail to the north untenable?”

      simple fix. Build real roads and bridges. You know…like the rest of us Southerners have been doing for a couple hundred years now. Very tenable.

      Even more idiotic..Dianne writes:
      “What will Canadians do when shifting lands impacts pipelines? Don’t think it will happen, check out the photos of the highway in California lifted 15′ in the air, now buckled and closed.”

      Ok brain dead……do you know what an earthquake is? Ever hear of them? Here’s a hint…they happen daily; some areas have stronger earthquakes than other areas. some of them are capable of shifting massive plates of stone 15 feet in the air. The Tsunami in Indonesia, raised a ridge about 1000km long, about 25 ft from the ocean floor. And guess what, Dianne? Regardless of your brilliant analysis…it wasn’t caused by any form of climate change; man-made or otherwise.

      She proves her “idiot credentials” with this gem:
      “The question is ‘are we willing to do anything about climate change?’ or will we wait and deal with the consequences.”

      What you do when the climate changes…is very simply. You mitigate. You don’t build your home on the waterfront. You don’t wear as many sweaters, and you don’t heat your home as much. In fact Dianne…do you know what has happened to the planet in the past when CO2 levels were 50 times higher than we have today? Do you know what the earth was like when the temperature was much higher than it is today?

      here’s a hint: It was teeming with animals and plant life. In fact, Dianne, when you increase CO2 in the atmosphere…..you get LIFE. All sorts of varieties, in fact, the planet becomes so green and full of animals, you would think that today’s world is a barren desert in comparison.

      Dianne, you have bought into the idiocy of others’, but probably because you are too lazy to think for yourself. The only redeeming factor however, is that we cannot entirely blame you for your ridiculous comments, as your idiocy and ignorance is entirely the creation of someone else.

      Now excuse me….I need to turn up my thermostat. I’m trying to raise my front yard by 5 feet. I think jacking the furnace up to 70 F should do the trick.

        • Tresus,

          If you want to show links….show the links of all the science that was published since Harper was PM. Simply providing a link by the media is just lazy.

          Media lies.

          • Hah! Logic is hard.
            Some science was published therefor no data was destroyed.

            And yes jameshalifax, I’m terribly lazy.
            I imagine it’s quite taxing to your imagination to just make everything up yourself. Reality is the easy way out.

      • I can see that a defeated government is not enough to get you to change your “tone”.
        Suffice to say that I stopped reading your post after line number two.

      • James – you make excellent points , but calling Diane an idiot is not helpful and diminishes you creds.

        Little can be said nowadays to defend against the environmental theocracy – but one must keep trying – sigh!

        • Karin,

          I will assume you are a new contributor. Dianne and many others’ like her are always writing weak-minded, ill thought out drivel. Idiot…is the only term that applies, and that is a kindness.

          I’m not worried about my “cred” as folks like this don’t place any value on real facts, logic, or simple common sense. Frankly, I don’t care what they think of me….I just wish they could think at all. But as you will see….I won’t hold my breath. Folks like Dianne, Tresus, et al, aren’t here for debate in any event. They already know all the answers, and anything you say that they do not agree with…..makes you a neanderthal, bigot, racist….etc..etc..etc…..

  3. Yes, these climate change “scientists” are so concerned about baselines……..except for those baselines that show the climate was far warmer in years gone by than they have been recently. They don’t want to talk about the medieaval warm periods, Greenland growing grapes, CO2 levels a hundred times higher than they are now……etc..etc..

    No money to be made if you tell the whole story. Much more lucrative to try and scare people into servitude to the climate gods, and then raise their taxes to save the planet. What a crock.

    • It’s all part of the conspiracy.
      Your climate paper must be just about ready for publication, jameshalifax?
      Better hurry it along if you’re going to save us from economically catastrophic carbon taxes!

      • I don’t need to publish a paper, Tresus…that’s my point.

        All the folks you believe, have published many papers, created many models, and written many stories. And they have all been proven to be wrong, or based on fraudulent, or factually incorrect data. In fact, the “Hockey Stick” by Mann, is one of the biggest frauds ever perpetrated, and even his peers want nothing to do with it.

        When a climate scientist actually publishes something that turns out to be correct, I may change my mind. For now though…they have all been wrong. 100% of them.

        • ” And they have all been proven to be wrong, or based on fraudulent, or factually incorrect data. ”

          I know you’ve proved them wrong, jameshalifax, but you need to publish that paper to show the world! Don’t you know that carbon taxes are being drawn up as we speak?

    • Industrialization has been well under way for over 100 years and in that time we have witnessed the disappearance of many species, the endangerment of many, many more and the overall degradation of air and water quality. Yet you fall lockstep in with the dismissal of environmental warnings, just like a good corporate soldier.
      The world is slowly waking up and contrarians like yourself will cry “conspiracy” and “utter nonsense” until you’re blue in the face.

      • DAMAN,

        You are an intellectual lightweight. Industrialization has been underway for more than 100 years, but even if what you wrote was accurate, you would still be wrong. (do you get that part…or do I need to spell it out for you?).

        Species that have disappeared, did not do so because of increased CO2. They were hunted to extinction, or we took their habitat, or poisoned their environment to the point they could not recover. It had nothing to do with CO2.

        Air and water quality today, is far superior to what it was even 30 years ago, let alone 100 years ago. Again, it had nothing to do with CO2 in the atmosphere. It was due to pesticides, fertilizer, chemicals, etc. We have regs now to limit such discharges into the environment and things are getting better, and will continue to get better. but driving a gas guzzler had nothing to do with the problem.

        As for crying “consipiracy”…sorry. that is what your side does every time someone points out how terribly wrong you are. It is a conspiracy of the oil companies…..etc..etc..etc…

        In fact Daman, the only sure thing about the whole “climate change” debate, is that you will continue to be wrong. Your complete misunderstanding of what you yourself wrote is evidence enough that you don’t have a clue about what you are discussing. I’m assuming that you work in a coffee shop; probably cleaning the floors until you work up the experience to run the latte machine.

        Keep up the good work…..and get the corner. Looks like you missed a spot.

        • Man, your imagination gets a work out!
          Aren’t you ever tempted to just accept reality?
          I know, I know – it’s the lazy man that says things that can be substantiated.

          • tresus, au contraire….

            it is the global warming alarmists who cannot accept reality.

            here is the reality:

            the earth has not shown any significant warning for almost 19 years, and even then, it was only about half a degree. Further reality….there is absolutely NO EVIDENCE that any warming that has occurred, or MAY occur…is the result of human activity.

            Further reality: CO2 gas, is NOT a pollutant…it is an essential compound for life on this planet, and as history has shown, when there is more CO2, there is more life. You may not realize this Tresus…but the enemy of life on this planet, is not plants, animals, or a warm climate. The enemy of life on the planet is ice, snow, and cold temperatures.

            In fact tresus…if you want to know just how wrong you are simply take a trip. Go to the Amazon jungle and walk around for a while. Here is what you will find: Life is teeming amongst the hundreds and thousands of different types of plants. There are too many animal species to mention, and you need a raincoat, not a winter jack. Now record all the species of plants and animals you find.

            Now, after visiting the Amazon, go North to the Canadian Tundra, or South to Antarctica. Make lists of the plants and animals you find there. Here’s a hint…you’ll need about half a sheet of 8 and a half X eleven. Compare that to the encyclopedia you have created from the Amazon.

            Now compare the two sets of notes; that is your substantiation.

            That Tresus, is REALITY. Don’t let it hit you in the asz on the way out.

          • This is fantastic, jameshalifax!
            You’ve overturned, not just the work of world’s climate scientists and biologists, but also the laws of physics!
            Get that paper done! I know you don’t care about the personal accolades and the Nobel Prize that’s waiting for you, but think of the carbon taxes and economic catastrophe you’ll save us from!
            You’re our only hope.

            Hahahahaaa!

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