Stubborn Planet – Risk, Ruin, Resilience

Imagine, a good old pal of yours gets diagnosed with a serious disease. Would you react like this? “He feels fine, this can’t be happening.” “Why him? It’s not fair!” “I’ll do anything, can’t you stretch it out? A few more years.” “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”It’s going to be OK. If I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”

These Five Stages of Grief, described by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 are typical for resistance to change. And they also apply if the patient is known as Earth. Suffering from a disease called global warming; the first stage would be Denial, too. Just look at the many climate change deniers who continue to fight an uphill battle against the largest scientific consensus in history about the existence of man-made global warming. Followed by Anger, Bargaining, Depression, let’s hope they also come to Acceptance eventually: “If we can’t fight it, we may as well prepare for it.”

To prepare for climate change and accompanying natural disaster we have to look at risks. Risk can be defined as undesirable consequences of actions, where two things matter: the extent of the damage and the probability of occurrence. For instance, in the very improbably case of a meteorite wiping all the life from our green Earth, the potential damage of the risk is very high. Less extreme, there is risk in our everyday life. To increase the probability of one’s death by one in a million, one can choose to travel 6 minutes by canoe, eat 40 tablespoons of peanut butter, fly 1.000 miles by jet, smoke 1.4 cigarettes or live 2 days in New York’s polluted air. Your peanut butter eating habit aside, the latter gives an indication where many health risks in our lives come from: the environment. Environmental hazards are responsible for an estimated 25% of the total burden of disease worldwide.

Cozy Planet

This burden can be luckily reduced and managed, since the Earth itself is similarly stubborn towards change as we humans are. Call it stubborn or resilient. More precise, resilience is the ability of a system to cope with change and to respond to a disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly. One example is the Earth’s delicate climate system itself. The sun is sending us its rays which penetrate the Earth’s surface and escape back to space. Luckily there is a warming blanket around the planet, also known as greenhouse gases, reflecting some of the escaping rays back to the otherwise frosty planet. The most famous of such blankets is carbon dioxide, CO2. If it is too thin, we freeze: 850 million years ago during the Cryogenian Earth resembled a snowball with only 4 ºC, nearly frozen from the poles to the equator and 85% ice cover. Then again you also don’t want the blanket too thick and sweat a lot, like 100 Million years ago during the ‘Cretaceous Warmth’ with average temperatures of 22 ºC. All of the Earth’s glaciers were melted, tropical plants and reptiles were found close to the Earth’s poles and one third of today’s land areas were under water, including the center of the United States. Fortunately, the Earth yo-yoed to a cozy CO2 blanket, under which you can measure a pleasant 13.6 º C, making space for the modern humans to spread to all parts of the world. This was possible through the resilience of geological mechanisms, storing and releasing CO2 for example via forests, swamps or oceans, thus balancing our climate.

Underwater USA

This delicate balance, however, can also be tipped once human activities affect ecosystem resilience too much. And this is happening at the very moment: Reduction of biodiversity, exploitation of natural resources, pollution, land-use, and climate change are increasingly causing regime shifts in ecosystems, often to less desirable and degraded conditions – such as an underwater USA.

Even more than the USA, Southeast Asia and the Pacific suffer from the current global warming and the impacts of natural disasters, mainly due to the large number of people living along the coast and in low-lying islands. Those islands are not the most convenient places to be, once the leftovers from snowball Earth, the polar ice covers melt into the sea. Mind you, sea levels were up to 40 meters higher than today, when temperatures were 4 ºC warmer. As 40 meters are hard to imagine, let’s start with 8.2 mm. That’s the annual sea level rise Australia’s National Tide Facility has measured on the Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea – the 0.6 km2 small island with a maximum elevation of 1.5 meters which 2,600 people call their home. Or called, to be precise. Coupled with climate change’s tendency towards more severe weather patterns, the island is predicted to be completely submerged next year. Not wanting to wait till they had to swim away, in May 2009, the entire community of Carteret was forced to leave their home for good, becoming the first official climate change refugees.

Climate Change means Ocean Change

But these refugees do not only have to fear rising sea levels. Rapidly growing greenhouse gas concentrations are driving the entire ocean system toward conditions not seen for millions of years. Since oceans absorb more than 90% of the global warming they become warmer, more acidic, change their salinity, their concentration of oxygen and their circulation patterns. This leads among others to a decline in phytoplankton, a critical part of our planetary life support system. Mind you, these tiny green ‘plant drifters’ produces half of the oxygen we breathe. Another grim example of what we have to expect gave the 1998 El Niño event, when exceptionally high temperatures caused the bleaching and death of 16% of all corals worldwide. Experts agree that under current scenarios 90% of coral reefs will have dramatically changed or disappeared by mid-century. If, and when they go, they will take with them about one-third of the world’s marine biodiversity, over a billion people rely for their daily food.

These people are all too often poor people, who pay for disaster with their lives. In 2009, six of the ten countries with the highest mortality rates and GDP losses from natural disasters were in Asia, with 82 % of all lives lost in disasters since 1997. The regions will also bear the highest adaptation cost of the estimated $100 billion a year in a 2° warmer world.

How can this happen? Isn’t the world with its ecosystem supposed to be stubborn towards change and thus very resilient? Let’s go back to 1983, when a sudden, unexpected collapse of the Caribbean coral reefs occurred. Why had the resilient ecosystem become so vulnerable? Following several centuries of overfishing, the once diverse community of herbivores, grazing on algae, had been extinguished. This left the control of the algae cover almost entirely to a single species of sea urchin. When this species abruptly disappeared, the reefs choked immediately below the deadly algae layer. They had shifted irreversibly what caused huge economic losses.

Insurance on the Cheap

To prevent economic losses it is common sense to take out an insurance. Likewise, here the diversity of algae eaters acted as natural insurance, providing resilience. Alright, better safe than sorry then. Let’s get an insurance against the risks of climate change and its natural disasters. But who will provide this? Surely not AXA or Allianz! The answer waits just around the corner of the beach of Carteret Island: a couple of inconspicuous, torpedo-shaped seedlings in the sand. Wading a bit further in the chest-deep, brackish, tea-coloured water, we can see towering giants. 25 meter tall Mangroves, which are the best example of biodiversity resilience – even in the face of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. When the rumbling 30 meter wave hit three mangrove-sheltered villages of the Cuddalore District on India’s East shore, the lucky inhabitants experienced the cushion effect of mangroves. Already 30 trees per 100 square meters reduce the maximum flow of a tsunami by more than 90 %. Satellite photographs remarkably show how in contrast the two neighboring villages without mangroves were found in shreds.

And this trick does not only work to protect from the odd tsunami, but also from much more frequent calamities, such as typhoons and floods. Even though mangroves can only be planted in an appropriate habitat with the right sea stream and sand dynamics, sometimes involving restoration efforts, the potential is huge. No wonder that Vietnam decided to plant and protect nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves, spending US$1 million but saving annual expenditures of well over US$7 million, on dyke maintenance alone. Try to get such interest rate from your bank.

Besides planting and protecting mangroves for better resilience, climate and disaster resilience has become a major goal for national and international bodies. Efforts encompass social, economic, technological, and political strategies that are being implemented at all scales of society, from local community action to global treaties. The International Day for Disaster Reduction, October 13, for instance, encourages every citizen and government to take part in building more disaster resilient communities, nations and regions. In the region of Southeast Asia the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) addresses the problem in numerous ways, with support from the German Development Cooperation’s (GIZ) Project on the nexus between biodiversity and climate change.

Blue Carbon Locked into the Soil

The fact that both are closely inter-linked, brings us back to the Acceptance of the problem: “If we can’t fight it, we may as well prepare for it.” But wouldn’t it be better to fix climate change in the first place, rendering an insurance against it obsolete? Just take the inconspicuous mangroves who point at the solution by addressing the root cause. This cause is the boosted carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which lead to the warming greenhouse gas effect. Just like any other tree, mangroves capture carbon from the air and store it in their wood. But mangroves do an even better job. To discover their secret, we have to dig deep in the muddy, grubby ground. In the rich, tidally submerged soil mangroves store about 90% of the fixed carbon in the form of organic material, which decomposes very slowly. Thus they continuously lock huge amounts of blue carbon into the soil under the sea level: 1,000 tons per hectare, more than three times as much as tropical forest on land. That’s true resilience towards climate change, transforming the five stages of grief to: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Fight!

First Published 19 Jul 2014. Written by Philipp Gassner | Special to the BusinessMirror