“Science fiction” comes true
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1998:
The current global ecological catastrophe is no surprise
to ANIMAL PEOPLE. Publisher Kim Bartlett and web
site manager Patrice Greanville recognized the threats of global
warming and climate change to animals at least as far back as
June 1988, when they were editor and editor-at-large, respectively,
of The Animals’ Agenda magazine.
I was then a Quebec-based environmental freelance,
whom they soon afterward hired as Animals’ Agenda news editor.
Knowing I had written extensively for more than a decade
about global warning and related climate issues, mostly for
rural newspapers and specialized environmental media, Bartlett
and Greanville asked me to discuss the effects of global warming
on animals. They published my response in November
1988 as a guest installment of Greanville’s “Dateline:
International” column. But supposed experts both in government
and with major environmental advocacy organizations
soon dismissed it all as science fiction.
“Global climate changes apparently well underway
could soon shift the whole focus of wildlife protection efforts,
doom the fur industry, alter the basis of North American agriculture,
and reorient the development of artificial life forms,” I
warned. “The result, regardless of political accomplishments,
may be a whole new agenda for animal defense activists by the
middle of the next decade. Involved are the confluence of the
‘greenhouse effect,’ ozone layer depletion, and acid rain. All
are caused largely by air pollution. But even if we could stop
pollution today, the contamination already in the atmosphere
would assure that changes now happening would continue for
another several decades.
“The ‘greenhouse effect’,” I explained, “is a planetary
warming trend caused by sunshine becoming trapped
beneath an atmospheric blanket of carbon dioxide…The oceans
are absorbing much of the heat, which in turn could gradually
shrink the polar ice caps,” now an observed and dramatic effect
in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.
As ANIMAL PEOPLE reported in May 1997, the
Adele penguin population of Cormorant Island, Antarctica,
has fallen 40% due to the ice loss. Weddell and crabeater seals,
also ice-dependent, are likewise declining, but chinstrap penguins,
elephant seals, and fur seals benefit by the change.
“As ocean waters warm,” I continued, “algal blooms
proliferate. Algal blooms are already responsible for an estimated
25% of the atmospheric sulphur that causes acid rain,
ranking right after smoke stacks and volcanoes. The blooms
sometimes develop into toxic tides, also known as red tides.
Nourished by septic pollution and soil erosion, toxic tides poison
marine life: lobsters, shellfish, even dolphins.”
Besides killing Hooker’s sea lions in the Auckland
Islands (page 8), toxic tides have recently poisoned shellfish
along much of coastal Africa, Southeast Asia, and the southern
U.S., while turning previously little known microorganisms
such as vibrio and pfisteria––which I hadn’t heard of, either––
into topics of common speech.
Toxic tides killed 151 of the record 415 Florida manatees
found dead in 1996, plus 17 in November 1997, the second
highest year for manatee deaths (240) since the annual
counts begain in 1976. About 30% of the deaths in 1996 and
1997 were unexplained. The most recent Florida manatee
count, in February 1998, showed just 2,019 still alive.
Toxic tides are also suspected as a primary cause of
coral reef deaths around the world––along with ozone layer
depletion allowing more ultraviolet radiation to strike the coral,
and the effect of warmer water itself.
“It’s an example of complete ecosystem collapse that
is directly linked to El Nino,” Columbia University climatologist
Richard Fairbanks says of the recent loss of 40% of the
coral within the Christmas Island atoll, in the equatorial
Pacific, south of Hawaii. The water surrounding the atoll was
four degrees Celsius above normal in December 1997, an
immense difference for any mid-ocean site.
DROUGHT “Global warming hits the land as drought,” I went
on. “More heat reflecting off continental surfaces increases air
pressure and evaporation, while inhibiting rainfall. Freshwater
habitat diminishes, forests yield to desert, and the root mass
holding the topsoil breaks down, causing more erosion and
ultimately contributing to more algal blooms.
“But less rain does not mean less acid rain. Instead,
atmospheric sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide become more
concentrated in what rain does fall. The effects of acid rain
compound the effects of drought: leaf burn, leaching of toxic
metals from rocks and soil, and acidification of spawning
streams and ponds.”
The latter threatens ocean-going fish such as springrun
salmon, who breed in freshwater habitat just as the acidic
surge from melting snowpacks is strongest. I had warned to little
avail since August 1979 that Atlantic Canadian salmon,
now in steep decline, were especially vulnerable.
Effects of acid rain also amplify the impact of ozone
layer depletion, which seems to hit frogs and other amphibians
hardest. Upper elevations tend to get the worst of both unfiltered
ultraviolet radiation and acidic fog. Frogs are now vanishing
from the upper elevations around the world.
“The impact of the greenhouse effect is heightened by
ozone layer depletion,” I foresaw. “Texas A&M oceanographer
Sayed El-Sayed has shown that a 10% rise in ultraviolet radiation
virtually annihilates the phytoplankton forming the basis
of the food chain feeding seals, whales, penguins, and fish in
southern latitudes,” exactly as has happened over the intervening
This especially hurts the emperor penguins of Ross
Sea, Antarctica, whose numbers are down 23%.
Whole colonies lose their chicks because the mothers
can’t find food enough nearby to feed them
adequately. The penguins eat mainly small squid,
who eat krill, who eat phytoplankton.
“The irony,” I added, “is that habitats
protected by hard-won sanctuary status,” such as
the Antarctic, “may not remain what conservationists
bargained for. No amount of legal protection
can preserve a mangrove swamp from persistent
drought,” as is happening in Southeast Asia,
“keep a river from being choked with erosion, or
safeguard an eastern hardwood forest against acid
rain. If their habitat changes too severely, highly specialized
plants and animals may stand a better chance of survival in
areas presently beyond their range…Northern forest animals
such as the fisher, lynx, and wolverine might become endangered,”
I predicted, “their range diminished by half.”
Fishers have proved more adaptable and fecund than
expected, with trapping pressure diminished. Lynx, however,
are now officialy endangered in the Lower 48, and wolverines
are official candidates for an endangered species listing.
BEAVERS “Beaver, otter, and muskrat could suffer from a
dryer climate,” I suggested, “though the beaver’s ability to
construct habitat for itself and other pond-dwellers might
ensure the continued health of all.”
Indeed, proliferating beavers probably can be credited
even more than federal anti-“swampbuster” legislation with
slowing and in some areas reversing a two-century trend toward
wetland loss over much of the U.S. Though cursed for flooding
badly built roads and ill-advisedly cleared marshy fields,
beavers probably deserve major credit for the unexpectedly fast
recovery of North American ducks and geese from the all-time
recorded lows of 1988 to their present all-time recorded high.
The animal rights movement can take a bow for a
supporting role, by deflating fur trade demand for beaver pelts.
Pending New York state bills to liberalize beaver trapping rules
and a beaver bounty of $25 a tail posted in March by Marlboro
County, South Carolina, meanwhile manifest some of the most
astounding ecological ignorance since the so-called “mountain
men” of the 18th and 19th centuries, their brains frequently rotten
with syphillis, trapped beaver to the verge of extinction.
The cooling effects of wetlands are so dramatic,
especially in inland regions, that if North America escapes the
worst effects of global warming, beavers expanding their habitat
may be the biggest reason. North America has regained
abundant beavers; eastern Asia, most seriously afflicted by climate
change, has no species of similar runoff-retaining habits
except people. The human tendency, meanwhile, is to build
big dams of cement and steel that kill fish runs and impound
large amounts of water at relatively great depth, instead of
small dams made of permeable sticks, whose cumulative
impact is to spread wetlands and stabilize a temperate ecology.
“Agricultural changes,” I predicted, “would begin
with the grain belt edging northward, as southern farmlands
dry out while the northern growing season lengthens,” exactly
as is occurring, from Oklahoma to Alberta.
“The most interesting challenge to the animal rights
movement, and to bioethicists around the world,” I continued,
“will probably be the new impetus to the development of artificial
life,” both “toward increasing profits from animal husbandry,”
and as “a means of adapting various species to survive
in radically altered habitats,” as well as to “conserve the
genes of animals otherwise doomed to extinction.”
In other articles, for Quebec and Vermont newspapers,
I had already projected years earlier that climatic change
also meant increasingly frequent and severe ‘natural’ disasters,
such as storms, floods, erratic snowfall, and forest fires.
GARBAGE AND SEWAGE
I could take this opportunity to proclaim myself a
prophetic expert genius, but even then this all seemed to me
fairly basic and obvious. Seeing it took only a globe, knowing
that what goes up must come down, as much awareness of
weather patterns as anyone could get from TV forecasts, and
the curiosity to start asking scientists what X-amount of air pollution
would do if it stayed airborne here but came down there.
Some of the scientists I interviewed had already been
struggling to interest someone––anyone––for over 30 years.
Environmentalists were so preoccupied with garbage and
sewage that some even regarded the fact that methane from
manure helps eat the ozone layer as a threat to their agenda to
promote composting. The nuclear power industry didn’t help
by seizing upon acid rain from coal-fired generating plants as a
way to promote nukes. I didn’t favor that, either.
Ironically, as the environmental movement took off,
approaching the 1990 20th annual Earth Day celebration, taking
an overview of climate issues became less and less politically
acceptable. People would talk about ozone layer depletion
and acid rain as separate issues, or as symptoms of “consuming
too much,” and talk about global warming as a consequence
of cutting rainforest, but the notion of doing anything
about it besides recycling, buying “green” products, and blaming
Brazil was anathema. I’d pushed recycling since 1969, but
when I wrote that becoming vegetarian could do a hundred
times more to help stabilize climate and protect habitat, I was
accused of being anti-environmental.
Some farm wives were paradoxically among the first
to get it. They’d call to ask what they could do to help the
songbirds in their gardens. After a while even their husbands
would call. They’d see, at least, that the concentrations of
hogs and poultry on factory farms, along with imports of beef
raised on former rainforest, were not only killing them economically,
but were also killing their hayfields and woodlots.
But almost nobody could see a way to do anything about it.
They mostly weren’t willing to give up meat, quit raising animals
for meat, and become more tolerant of the wildlife who
really create our habitat just about as much as we create theirs.
I’d explain the role of beavers in keeping their wells
filled, and how trapping beavers and logging off forests in the
19th century helped set up the Dustbowl in the 1930s, and the
farmers would say, “You’ve been talking too much to animal
rights activists.” They couldn’t comprehend how beavers
flooding their back 40 acres could be more valuable to them
than the few extra head of cattle they could graze on the same
boggy land––if they didn’t have a drought.
They’d ask when the beavers were going to pay rent,
I’d say, “When they charge you for water.” And they’d say
their water came from God, as if the beavers didn’t.