[Coral-List] Two news stories about coral reefs

Douglas Fenner douglasfennertassi at gmail.com
Tue Aug 23 17:15:03 EDT 2016

    I agree with much of what you have to say.  But I didn't really say
that I thought per capita consumption of resources best measures impacts on
the environment like coral reefs.  Yes, I certainly stressed the role of
per capita consumption, but that was in response to a statement that we
needed to control population, and the implication that would help coral
reefs.  My point was that I agree with Paul Erhlich that population and
consumption have a multiplicative relationship on the environment.  They
are both involved, and one doesn't cause environmental damage without the
other.  The problem for coral reefs is that we need to reduce the damage
from global impacts like climate change, and make the reductions very
quickly, if we are to avoid mass destruction of corals by bleaching in the
next 2-3 decades.  It has already started, with the 1998 mass bleaching
that was the most destructive single event for coral reefs ever.
     I completely agree that the ideal world human population is surely
much less than at present.  There is a lively debate about what that should
be.  A survey of 69 studies of the carrying capacity of earth produced an
estimate of 7.7 billion people for the carrying capacity, but a lot of
variation between studies (https://en.wikipedia.org/
wiki/Human_overpopulation).  The UN predicts a world population of 9
billion in 2040, and in 2050 it may be as high as 11 billion.  But surely
there are great benefits to have a much lower population than that, but
what should it ideally be, half that, a third that, less?  But we are not
going to reach those levels within 2-3 decades, short of nuclear war.
Instead, it's going to be more than it is now.  That's the problem for
coral reefs.  Do we need to control human population?  I certainly think
so.  But I see no practical or ethical way to get to half the present
population in 2-3 decades.  I'm certainly willing to listen and I certainly
wish there were.  But if the entire population of the entire world stopped
having all children today, so zero-child family for everyone in the whole
world, the decrease in population would depend on natural mortality.  Will
half the human population die naturally in 2-3 decades?  According to the
Wikipedia "Demographics of the World page (
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_world), the median age of
the world population is 28.4 years, and the median life expectancy is 67
years.  So the median should have about 40 more years to their life.  So
less than half the population could be expected to die within the next
20-30 years.  And if anyone has a way to get every person on the planet to
have zero children from now on, let's hear it!  Just not going to happen.
     I completely agree that the resources of planet earth, including its
ability to absorb pollution, is finite.  And I think it is almost certain
that there are not enough resources on this planet for the entire human
population to live like Americans, consuming and wasting as much as we do
(and a very few other developed countries do).  I read on Wikipedia that
the world population is currently estimated at 7.4 billion.  As I look at
the Wikipedia population page ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wik
i/World_population), the UN "low" growth scenario predicts a peak human
population of around 9 billion around 2050.  That's the best of the
possible solutions they model, the others are all far, far worse!  We need
what, half the population by that time?  Not going to happen.  Another
graph shows the population doubling time decreasing from 554 years in 1715,
to 39 years in 1999, and now just starting to creep up slightly.  That's
the doubling time, not a decrease in population, which is what we'd need to
save reefs from mass coral bleaching from greenhouse gas emissions using
population alone.  Or we could reduce economies drastically.  That won't be
popular either.  A 50% reduction in the size of the economies of the
richest nations?  An economic disaster that would dwarf the Great
Depression?  Make all countries equally poor?  That would likely reduce
greenhouse gas pollution indeed.  Who would choose it?  Hopefully, world
population will indeed stabilize in the future, and then begin a long
gradual decrease.  That's about the best that can be hoped for.  Sure beats
world nuclear war for reducing population, in my view.
     The problem with human population reduction is not that it wouldn't
benefit people, it surely would.  It is highly desirable, but simply not
possible soon enough.  For the long term, it is absolutely necessary for
the long term survival of coral reefs.  But for the short term, it just
isn't an option, unless someone has a magical way to get everyone to stop
having children and lots of people to die before their time.
      It is true that I've read that reductions in the rate of population
growth have a surprisingly large effect on future greenhouse gas
emissions.  Slowing population growth can reduce the size of the emissions
problem we have to solve.  I'm all for that, as part of the mix of
solutions.  But betting the farm (reefs) on rapid human population
decreases just isn't realistic, not going to happen in 2-3 decades.  We'll
be lucky if the rate of population growth slows some more in that time.
      I completely agree that the population is too big for the planet.
Can everyone on the planet consume like an American, are there enough
resources?  I don't know a definitive answer has been calculated, but it
seems highly unlikely.  If not, then what do we do?  We have an extremely
un-egalitarian distribution of wealth in the world at the moment.  Do we
say that poor countries cannot develop, they must stay poor and in misery,
while we rich countries insist on rolling in our money and wasting whatever
we want????  I think not.  The poor have as much right to escape misery as
the rich.  For everyone to have even a reasonable level of living, the
population must go down.  I completely agree.  But it won't happen in time
to save reefs.  We have to deal with that reality if we want to save reefs.
      I picked China as the best-known and most successful population
control system I know, certainly the largest.  I was congratulating them,
not disparaging them.  Yes, many people think about what it takes to force
the population to have only one-child families.  Not every developed
country has the aging population problem that China will have.  Japan is
said to already.  But the US doesn't, and most developed countries don't.
The US last I knew has an average of about 2 children per family, and the
total population continues to grow, mostly due to immigration.  But the
fact that China has not managed in decades of using the most stringent
population control measures anywhere to get its population to actually
decrease, indicates that the world as a whole will not be successful at
doing it in 2-3 decades, among other things because in democracies the
government has great difficulty imposing anything that is highly unpopular,
and such stringent population control measures as the one-child family are
not popular.  Just isn't going to happen. Wonderful if it did.  Big prize
to anybody who figures out how to do it.
    I just looked at Wikipedia's page on the demographics of China (
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_China.)  They list both US
Census Bureau and the UN as showing China's population peaking at about
2030, and then gradually declining (see "Population projection" table right
before "Vital statistics").  The Demography of China table at the upper
right gives the current population as growing at a rate of 0.47%, not
zero.  The declining rate of population growth will certainly be helpful.
Central Africa is the area that will have the largest population increases
for some time into the future.  Anyhow, slowing population growth will
certainly help, it is part of the solution.  But we are unlikely to be able
to accelerate it much, and it will not happen fast enough to save reefs
from the coming mass mortalities of major bleaching, nor to do the major
heavy lifting of reducing greenhouse gas emissions needed to happen quickly
enough to avoid killing most of the corals, or to avoid locking in major
temperature increases over coming centuries that will not only kill corals
but kill humans in major heat waves like Europe and Russia have already
seen, and many other major problems like sea level rise that will submerge
some major cities.  We have to get emissions down much sooner than
population decreases alone could possibly manage, for reefs and for humans
to survive in any reasonable approximation of health.
    I would completely agree with most your last paragraph, but we are not
going to significantly reduce human populations over the next few decades
(instead the population will continue to grow whether we want it to or
not).  Wonderful if some of the world's largest charities would take on the
task of making birth control available to everyone who doesn't have it but
wants it everywhere in the world, that might have the most effect we could
hope for, and it would be fantastic if it could slow population growth so
much that it would start to decline earlier than otherwise, but major
reductions in population are extremely unlikely in the next 2-3 decades
(reductions in fertility and population growth rate yes, but not actual
total population).  I hope I'm wrong, but fear I'm right.  We'd better not
count on it.  I would add that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions and
reduce them so fast (in a few decades) that only by shifting from fossil
fuels to renewable energy can we possibly achieve this, and even then it is
going to be quite difficult if at all possible to do it that soon.  We're
in the race of our lives to get this done fast enough.  Population is a
small part of that solution, and a very large if not dominant part of the
long term solution to get the world on a sustainable basis, which is also
crucial to the long term health of coral reefs, not to mention humans.
     Cheers,  Doug

On Mon, Aug 22, 2016 at 9:24 AM, Peter Sale <sale at uwindsor.ca> wrote:

> Hi Doug and listers,
> Your recent post argues that it is per capita consumption of resources,
> rather than population size that best measures human impacts on ecosystems
> such as coral reefs.  You then state that in your view it is not productive
> “to complain about population causing reef declines, since there is nothing
> that is feasible or ethical that *can be done about it soon enough* to
> save the reefs” (my italics).  I have to differ.
> First, while it is true that the impact of people on the planet depends on
> the size of our footprints, that is not a good reason to ignore population
> size entirely while complaining about per capita resource use.  I’d suggest
> that the world is currently overpopulated unless we advocate a world pushed
> back to a $1 per day per capita use of resources.  Nobody is arguing for a
> return to a mythical past with everybody starving or close to it.  Ergo,
> our population is too big for the planet.
> Second, and this is why I decided to chime in, it is absolutely not true
> that it would take too long to reduce human population to make it a useful
> thing to advocate if one wants to save reefs, rainforests or any other
> ecosystem.  It is difficult to get unbiased discussion of China’s
> population policy in English – most reports are either overt efforts to
> show how wrong it was to legislate fertility, or reports subtly influenced
> by such anti-China ideas.  (Arguing that China now has an aging population
> because of its one child policy, for example, ignores that most western
> countries currently suffer the same problem – it is an inevitable
> consequence of reducing fertility, and will have to happen globally if the
> global population is to be reduced; it is also a ‘temporary’ problem that
> resolves itself once population stabilizes.)  But cutting through the
> anti-China bias, it is fact that China has wrestled its fertility rate from
> about 4.8 births per woman in 1975 down to 3.0 births per woman in 1980
> when the policy was fully in place, and down to 1.5 to 1.6 births per woman
> in the years since 2000.  This is a very rapid reduction; it has brought
> China into line with most western European or North American countries very
> rapidly – we are all suffering the temporary pain of aging populations as
> population size falls (or is maintained by immigration from elsewhere).  By
> contrast, India is still dealing with a fertility rate of 2.5 births per
> woman.  Which of India or China would you prefer to govern right now?
> You are correct that China’s population has not yet fallen.  But in 20+
> years, China stopped growing and is on the cusp of falling.  It seems
> likely that it will take at least another 35 years to wean the world off
> fossil fuels, and it is going to take most of this century to pull
> atmospheric CO2 down to levels needed to bring temperature below a 1.5
> degree C increase from preindustrial.  That enormous challenge could be
> made easier if the giant fossil fuel corporations would join the fight to
> stop using their products, but it will also prove much easier if large
> parts of the developing world had stable or declining birth rates.
> There is value in pushing for serious efforts to reduce CO2 emissions.
> There is value in pushing for local management efforts to keep ecosystems
> sustainable.  And there is value in pushing for 1) recognition of not just
> the desirability, but the need, for reduction of the global human
> population, and 2) real actions designed to achieve significant reduction
> over the next several decades.  Then we might be able to deliver
> flourishing coral reefs to future generations.
> Peter Sale
> www.petersalebooks.com

Douglas Fenner
Contractor for NOAA NMFS, and consultant
"have regulator, will travel"
PO Box 7390
Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799  USA

phone 1 684 622-7084

Join the International Society for Reef Studies.  Membership includes a
subscription to the journal Coral Reefs, and there are discounts for pdf
subscriptions and developing countries.  Coral Reefs is the only journal
that is ALL coral reef articles, and it has amazingly LOW prices compared
to other journals.  Check it out!  www.fit.edu/isrs/

"Belief in climate change is optional, participation is not."- Jim Beever.
  "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts."-
Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

NASA: sea ice settling into 'new normal'
Arctic sea ice has stabilized over the last 10 years or so.  But then, the
average world surface temperature hit a high in 1998 (El Nino year) and did
not break that for over 10 years.  But now surface temperatures are
breaking all time records every year and in most months.  So unless the
laws of physics and the melting temperature of water change, soon Arctic
sea ice will begin setting new lows.

Earth's hot streak continues with warmest May since at least 1880.

website:  http://independent.academia.edu/DouglasFenner

blog: http://ocean.si.edu/blog/reefs-american-samoa-story-hope

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