Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, February 19, 2018

Islands Not sinking: Climate Change Demonstrated to Be a Hoax

Have you ever wondered how it is possible that coral islands lie flat just a little above the sea level? It is not a coincidence, the coral reef that forms the islands is alive and it can adapt to variations of the sea level. According to some people, that demonstrates that climate change is a hoax (??).

Do you remember when there was a debate about climate change? Yes, there was such a thing. Someone would set up a panel where there would be a scientist arguing for the current interpretation of anthropogenic global warming and someone who at least pretended to be a scientist who would argue for the opposite interpretation. It was supposed to be a civil debate, all based on science.

I don't have to tell you that such debates have disappeared. You don't see them anymore, just as you don't see quiet and civilized debates between Trump supporters and members of the Antifa movement. In recent times, the closest thing to a public debate on climate was the proposal by Scott Pruitt, EPA's chief, of a "Red Team" and a "Blue Team" of scientists. The fact that Pruitt chose terms commonly used in military exercises says a lot about what kind of "debate" this was supposed to be. Perhaps it is a good thing that the idea seems to have died out.

Today, we have no debate, we only have two sides shooting slogans against each other. Each side is ready to exploit every perceived weakness in the other to discharge a volley of posts and tweets aimed at gaining a few political points. A snowstorm demonstrates that AGW doesn't exist while a hurricane that we are all going to die soon. The latest example of this attitude is the news arriving from the Tuvalu Islands. An article by Kench et al.,  published on Nature, reports that, over the past 40 years, the 101 Tuvalu Islands had gained some area - on the average a little less than 3% - despite the sea level rise that took place during that period.

Of course, that generated the usual blast of attacks against "alarmists", for instance by James Delingpole and Anthony Watts. How come that the islands are not sinking? "Global Warming" (written in quotes) must be a hoax.

Neither of the two factions involved in the climate debate (so to say) seem to have shown any interest in why the islands are not shrinking while the sea is actually rising. The anti-science faction only used the news as a PR tool, the pro-science faction just ignored the story.

But if we go beyond the noise of propaganda, the story of the coral islands is fascinating and complex. That these islands are not shrinking has been known for at least ten years.The reason is that the islands, or at least the reef barriers around them, are alive. They are not just chunks of rock emerging out of the ocean surface. They are the result of the mineral excreta of tiny creatures that create the hard part of the coral barrier with their exoskeleton. The detritus of the living part of the barrier accumulates on top of it, creating the island.

Being alive, corals can grow and follow the vagaries of the sea level - within some limits. They position themselves to stay just below the water surface. If they can't manage that, they can "drown" at depths too high for sunlight to arrive, while they die and are eroded away if they are exposed to air. Some coral reefs survived the great sea level rise (some 120 meters!) that took place at the end of the last ice age. Not a small feat, but it was possible over a few thousands of years.

So, there is nothing special in the modern coral reefs having survived the sea level rise of a few centimeters of the past decades. As long as the sea level rise is not too fast, the islands can probably stay above water - perhaps they can even cope better with climate change than some low elevation continental lands.

But it is a precarious survival. Even for the modest sea level rise of the past decades, the Maldives experienced some 30 severe floods during the past 50 years, including several which affected the capital city of Malé. In 2007, a series of swells forced the evacuation of more than 1,600 people from their homes and damaged more than 500 housing units.

Periodic flooding is a problem for Maldivians, but the real problem is that, unlike the population of continents or of large islands, they have no place to escape. The islands are uniformly flat, there is no high ground to retreat to. If there comes a true big flooding, the inhabitants will be swept away.

That could happen: the current temperature increase is so fast that the sea level rise may well reach rates beyond anything that the coral reefs can cope with. To say nothing of the threats to the reef coming from seawater acidification and of human destruction for fishing or because of pollution. If the corals die, the islands are lost. And the corals are already dying. Nobody can bet that the Maldives - and many other coral islands - will still exist by the end of the century.

Up until a few years ago, the governments of the coral islands seemed to be determined to make an effort to attract the world's attention to their situation. In 2009, the Maldivian government held an underwater meeting just for this purpose.

Today, the situation seems to have changed. The new Maldivian government has shifted emphasis from fighting climate change to economic development on the tune that "Development must go on, jobs are needed." I argued that this policy switch may well be the result of the Maldivian elites having discovered that it is too late to stop global warming and that nobody from the mainland will help them. I wrote in my post that:

Imagine that you are part of the elite of the Maldives. And imagine that you are smart enough to understand what's going on with the Earth's climate. As things stand today, it is clear that it is too late to stop a burst of global warming that will push temperatures so high that nothing will save the Maldives islands. Maybe not next year but in a few decades, it is nearly certain.
So, given the situation, what is the rational thing for you to do? Of course, it is to sell what you can sell as long as you can find a sucker who will buy it. Then you can say good riddance to those who remain.

Translate that to the whole world and you have one of the reasons why there is no debate anymore on climate change. 


  1. Couple of years ago I posted a comment on Archdruid's blog where I mentioned a great SF novel by J.G. Ballard "The Drowned World" (published in 1962!) about this rising sea level problem. It's time to read it again. The consequences of rising sea level are not only financial but mental too.

  2. Precisely I am re-reading "The Last Generation" by Fred Pearce, it is a book from 2006.
    I am glad that Tuvalu is not yet under the sea, as he predicted it would be by now, this article explains why very well, in fact Darwin explained the formation of atolls and such like in the 19th Century.
    You can get the book from Amazon, from 10 pence, Kindle 5 pounds.

    "Nature is fragile, environmentalists tell us. Not so. The truth is far more worrying. She is strong and packs a serious counter-punch. And, it could be on the way. This is the story that scientists are scared to tell us, because they fear they won't be believed. Man-made global warming is on the verge of unleashing unstoppable planetary forces. Biological and geological monsters are being woken, and they will consume us.
    The process will not be gradual.
    New scientific findings about how our planet works show that it does not do gradual change. Under pressure, it lurches into another mode of operation - virtually overnight Nature's revenge will be sudden and brutal, like a climatic tsunami sweeping across the globe. In this impassioned report, Fred Pearce travels the world on the story to end them all. He shares the fears of scientists about a man-made apocalypse within our lifetime. And, he visits the places where the action may start: deep in the Amazon, high in the Arctic, and among the bogs of Siberia. Most troubling, he uncovers the first signs that nature's revenge is already under way. Read his book, or your children will never forgive you."

    Attention to what Pearce says that the process is not going to be gradual!

  3. The final sentence of this article reads: “Translate that to the whole world and you have one of the reasons why there is no debate anymore on climate change.”

    I’ve been grappling with the use of the pronoun ‘that’ in this sentence. Its antecedent is the entire previous paragraph, beginning “Imagine that you are part of the elite…” and ending “…Then you can say good riddance to those who remain.”
    So, what we are being asked to “translate to the whole world” are these 6 givens –
    • I am a member of the elites of the world
    • I am smart enough to understand what’s going on with the Earth’s climate
    • It’s too late to stop global warming
    • Global warming will push temperatures very high
    • So high, nothing will save us
    • The rational thing for me to do as an elite is to sell off what I can, for as long as I can and go --- Where exactly? (Presumably, Maldivian elites would move to high ground in the northern hemisphere) But since I am asked to translate my situation “to the whole world”, where can I escape to?

    In a “whole world” scenario, the implication, as it plays out under the 6 givens, seems to be that as an earthling I am doomed to suffer the same fate as those left behind on the Maldives.

    Under such stark and dire conditions, it comes as no surprise that “there is no debate anymore on climate change.”

    However, formal, public, civil debate based on science is one thing. But that does not preclude even wealthy elites, facing certain death, from gathering together the best minds on the planet to debate and discuss possible solutions grounded in the science and 21st century economics of climate change. On the ecological economics front, people like Tim Jackson (author of “Prosperity without Growth”) and Kate Raworth (author of “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist”) are busy doing just that – leading the discussion in their own fields, creating the space for new ideas to emerge.

    Whether intentional or not, the final sentence in the article is despairing.

    1. Well, sorry for the "despairing" sentence but my impression is that, currently, the world's elites are thinking in the same way as the Maldivian elites. They are maneuvering to save themselves and that implies belittling the threat, so that the poor will be taken by surprise when the disaster strikes.

      As for Tim Jackson and Kate Raworth, they are nice and smart people. Like many of those of us who are not part of the elite, they play their role of sounding the alarm. But I am afraid that in some quarters they (we) are considered as nothing more than clowns performing their funny antics.

  4. Grazie mille Ugo - As tough as it is to hear it is infinitely preferable to false promises of the technocopian lightness of being that is peddled as the only reasonable way to think.

    The one and only thing that I can say for certain about the natural world is that the one and only way that it gets "better" is when we humans stand back and leave it entirely alone. No one anywhere can prove otherwise.

    And that is just something humans can not do. Its like putting a sweet, juicy, frosted chocolate cake down in front of a two year old and saying "don't touch" then walking away.

  5. Firstly, "bravo!" for standing up for complexity, and the will to deal with it.
    Secondly, I believe, that the trench war you refer to is a specific US-American phenomenon, which cannot be observed in many other countries (correct me if I'm wrong...) and, how often it has to be repeated?, contrary to their own belief, the US of A are not the world. I believe, the discussion have ended, more or less because the scientific side has won. But only on the prognosis domain. On the action domain, the picture is very different. The part of mankind, which has accepted the science, but remains inert in changing course, is living in a kind of schizophrenia.
    Thirdly, the metaphor of Jef has a lot in it: mankind as a whole and most of its members have not yet developed a grown up personality when it comes to long-term-developments.
    And then there is the phenomenon of distributed responsibility. "My contribution is so minute, it doesn't make any difference." - which is, of course, wrong. For situations of this kind, we have Kant's principle of morality: "Let the maxim of my actions be so, that it could become a general law." (more or less)

    1. Yes and no, Dominik. It is true that in Europe denial doesn't seem to be so deeply entrenched as in the US. but, you know, sometimes you think that some ideas are relics of the past - racism for instance. Then, you go to bed in Italy in 2018 and you wake up in Alabama in 1930

    2. …or you wake up wherever, whenever. Immanuel Kant was a negrophobe; Martin Luther was a judeophobe. Und so weiter. In her novel LA CASA DE LOS ESPÍRITUS, Isabel Allende proposes the question about the creeps that took over Chile with the Pinochet dictatorship: Where did they all come from? Her disturbing answer: They were right here among us all the while. As the Tralfamadorians say, "So it goes."

      It is often said (by me), "When you have good milk, the cream rises to the top. When you have untreated sewage, the fecal matter rises to the top." As the Anthropogenic Age yields to the Coprophagenic Age, it's tempting to abandon all hope, ye who enter herein.

  6. This will be a very pessimistic take on the prospects for change.

    The facts are that a handful of men control a big majority of the world's wealth. Even someone as wealthy as Mark Zuckerberg can't stand up to Rupert Murdoch. You can find the evidence in this long essay tracing the problems that both Google and Facebook have run into, courtesy of Murdoch.

    You will also see incoherence among the elite. Facebook called a meeting and invited a bevy of 'conservatives' who shouted at each other and reached no conclusions. I believe they could have called the same meeting with 'liberals' and similarly failed to reach any conclusions....except that whatever is wrong is Putin's fault.

    The old saying that 'He who has the gold, makes the rules' is more true now than ever before. And just as Murdoch is not about to surrender his power to Zuckerberg, neither are the OECD countries about to accept as equals the likes of Russia and China and India and Brazil.

    The biggest sign of sanity I have seen recently is that China assigned 60,000 soldiers to plant trees,

    Don Stewart

  7. the article did not explain why the coral islands stay above surface of the ocean (if this is even true). the explanation given makes no sense, because the islands are not composed of living coral and so cannot respond.

    it only explains how UNDERWATER reefs keep pace with sea level rise, staying just below the surface when sea level rises (or being exposed if sea level goes down).

    if the islands put on elevation over time there must be another mechanism at play, ie vegetation trapping sand, in the way marram grass builds up sand dunes on a beach.

    1. Yes, sorry, it wasn't clearly explained in the text. It islands are detritus accumulating on top of the living part of the barrier. Let me retouch the text to make this clearer.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)