Keeping on Track: Risk & Uncertainty at the Nexus of Water, Food and Biodiversity — a call to action by Bob Sandford, water champion & author, at FLOWnGROW workshop (November 2016)

Note to Reader:

An internationally recognized author, Bob Sandford co-authored the UN Water in the World We Want report on post-2015 global sustainable development goals relating to water.

He is committed to translating scientific research outcomes into language decision-makers can use to craft timely and meaningful public policy and to bringing international examples to bear on local water issues. His latest book is The Climate Nexus.

Secure accessible and abundant supplies of water, food and energy are essential to human dignity and well-being around the globe. The vitality of these three elements depends in turn of a thriving biodiversity supported by healthy ecosystems. The complex interdependence among these four factors is known as the climate nexus.


The Climate Nexus:
Water, Food, Energy & Biodiversity in a Changing World

bob-sandford_2015_trimmed2_120pThis is a critical time in the history of humanity; a time when we have by our needs and our numbers positioned ourselves to have to go through a bottleneck of change,” stated Bob Sandford when he commenced his keynote.

He then re-capped the important messages from the two morning modules, after which he delivered his keynote speech.

The transcript of his presentation follows below.

To Learn More:

Download Keeping on Track: Risk & Uncertainty at the Nexus of Water, Food and Biodiversity to view a PDF copy (6 MB) of the PowerPoint presentation by Bob Sandford.

Click below to watch the video of his presentation that is posted on YouTube:

Module A: Spirit & Science – An Inclusive Journey

team-module-a“I have been much moved by what was said this morning, particularly in the first module which essentially dealt with world views and vision. In his absolutely inimitable way Bob McDonald placed our tiny wet rock, its precious water and the thin skin of our atmosphere into a cosmic context.”

“Chief Aaron Sam explained what it is like for his people to live between a rock and a wet place where changing realities and traditional relationships conflict with economic and social pressures.”

Bob Sandford speaking at FLOWnGROW

Bob Sandford speaking at FLOWnGROW

It is Really About Reconciliation:

“Michael Blackstock focused on the interweaving of western science and traditional teaching and knowledge.”

“What I think he was essentially talking about is reconciliation: going back to the headwaters of where we got our relationships with water and with one another wrong so that we can start back down the river of time this time together with a full understanding of the importance of embracing a water-first approach to planning human interventions in the environment.”

Module B: Is Irrigation the Elephant in the Room?

“In the second module, Denise Neilson said the unsayable. Agriculture is not the elephant in the room. The elephant is endless urban growth,” continued Bob

“The second module convinced me utterly of the importance of agriculture in the Okanagan, not just to the economy of the region, but to food security in British Columbia.”

“Wow. By over-watering we are teaching our landscapes to need wetter conditions.”

“It is not so much that we are irrigating too much; it is more that we are irrigating too much of what we don’t need or want.”

“We need a building code everyone know about for landscaping so that we can make more effective water use possible.”

“What this morning proved is that you have room to move – a great deal of slack you can take up – in water management here in the Okanagan.”“A new vision, a new narrative, is within your grasp.”

“That said, there is tremendous turbulence right now at the nexus of water, food, biodiversity and climate.”

“It will be important to avoid finding ourselves in the social, political and economic crossfire of global climate politics.”

“It is important at this history-defining moment to keep on track, to stay focused, to have a vision of the Okanagan at its future and ultimate best and to stick with that vision.”

“To help you see the urgency of vision and action in support of that vision, I have been invited to talk about current risk and uncertainty regarding climate effects that could impact everything that was talked about this morning.”

“Steve Conrad started talking about the U.S. election but then wisely found the first foxhole into which he could jump. I will carry on into danger where he left off.”


Slide 2: Minot North Dakota

“As I happened I was in Minot, North Dakota speaking at a watershed basin conference the day of the election and for several days following. One of the interesting things that I observed that it was almost impossible to have an in-depth discussion about either the election or its outcomes. It was the strangest thing. news report that people had seen or heard about from others. I found the same thing when I got back to Canada.”bob-sandford_dsc_0113_120p

“It was hard to fathom. It was as if millions of people had suddenly abandoned the moral principles and standards by which they had previously stood revealing a darkness within our society we knew existed but the need to live peaceably together demanded we suppress.”

“Since the election, the situation does not appear to have changed. Conventional wisdom and twitter are telling us now that everything will be fine if we just give Donald Trump a chance to form his cabinet and get going on the business of make America great again.”

“While anyone can be global citizen by simply declaring yourself one, it is the expressed duty of everyone working with the UN to hold the state of the world above the interests of any given nation state. That does not mean, however, that UN can interfere with domestic politics. I am not an American citizen.”

“While it might make me wince, what the U.S. does domestically in terms of taxation, health care, education, civil rights, immigration, the management of water or dealing with environmental problems is none of my business. Unless American political choices in some way contravene UN conventions to which the U.S. is signatory – and there aren’t many of those – I have nothing to say.”

“On the matter of climate, however, the U.S. is signatory to the Paris Climate Accord, and its potential failure to meet its obligations with respect to that accord ought to be of concern to not just to those who consider themselves global citizens but to everyone alive today.”


Slide 3: President Trump

“The President-elect of the United States has repeatedly stated that climate change is a hoax, and that, once elected he will tear up the Paris Climate Accord. What I am here to say it that climate change is not a hoax; and that one of the places that is going to be most immediately and dramatically impacted by climate disruption is Canada.”

“The purpose of my presentation today is to challenge President Trump’s claim that climate change is a hoax by providing the latest scientific evidence reminds us of why we should support action on climate impacts globally and then more specifically in Canada – and to do so in the context of risk.”


Slide 4: Donald Trump

“So what is going to happen now that Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States? Trump has already announced that as President he would “cancel” the U.S. commitment to the Paris Accord. He has three avenues for doing so. Under the Paris agreement, countries volunteer to take steps to reduce their impacts on climate beginning in 2020. The U.S. had pledged to reduce its greenhouse emissions to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, principally by moving away from coal burning to produce electricity.”

“Article 28 of the Paris agreement, however, gives the U.S. the option to formally withdraw from the agreement a year after it takes effect by abandoning a 1992 climate framework treaty without any need for lawmaker approval. The second option available to Trump is to wait until the end of his first term of office to withdraw from the agreement. The third and easiest option would be for the Trump administration to simply abandon all the rules, incentives and programs designed to reduce emissions in the United States which would prevent the U.S. from living up to its commitments to the agreement.”

“The simple way for Trump to do that is for him to eliminate the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which he has threatened to do.”

“As we noticed recently when Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall rejected a carbon tax on the grounds that our American neighbours will no longer adhere to the Paris Climate Accord, the risk here is that what is happening in the U.S. will slow the global momentum on climate action. If this happens Mr. Trump may be condemning future generations of Americans and the rest of the world to hell on Earth.”

“The uncertainty is whether or not Trump will go through with his threat to immediate walk away from the Paris agreement.”

“What is happening in the U.S. need not be the end of the world, however.”


Slide 5: COP 22 Marrakech

“Canada can move around ‘the Wall’ Brad wants to build around Saskatchewan.”

“And the Paris Agreement could eventually be proven ‘Trump-proof’ if all the others countries in the world meet their promises in a timely manner.”

“And if the private sector globally steps up to the plate, which, as we just saw at COP 22 in Morocco is not impossible.”

“The world, however, is going to get lot more hot and bothered before things get any better. And I should say crowded, too.”


Slide 6: Global Population Growth

“Over the past decade it has been generally held that, perhaps miraculously, that the world population was somehow going to level off and stabilize around nine billion people and that is where the goal posts for sustainable development should be set. As seems to be the case with most of parameters by which we measure the sustainability of human presence on this planet, those goal posts have moved.”

“The 2015 UN Report on Global Population Prospects projected that we should expect to live in world we will share with between 9.7 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion people by 2100.”

“While Europe shows a decline, most continents including North America show large growth but ones that can perhaps be somehow managed. However, Africa shows a quadrupling in numbers, from 1.1 to 4.4 billion. Since Africa cannot feed itself now, how will it feed itself with four times more people? The answer is that it won’t. The rest of the world will have to feed Africa. Denise Neilson talked about this in her presentation this morning.”

“The problem, however, is that deteriorating soil health; desertification and competition for land and water in tandem with climate warming will make it difficult to do so. In a world in which every nation seems to have more and more of its own problems, one can foresee a shortage of compassion leading inevitably to famine on a massive scale. Public health officials around the world are hot and bothered by this because climate change is increasing the vulnerability of humans and the domestic plants and livestock upon which we depend are vulnerable to disease threats. Denise talked about this, also.”


Slide 7: Global Health Image

“The fact is that we have no idea what warmer mean global temperatures will awaken. What global health experts are telling us is that a vast storehouse of ancient bacterial DNA exists ready to leap into new bacterial forms with the slightest change in acidity, the right nutrients and the right temperatures. As we advance toward altered Earth system conditions, we will be seeing lifeforms that we have never experienced before; many of which we will fear.”

“Ebola, H1N1 and the Zika virus are just a hint of what we will awaken in terms of pathogens in the future as we continue change the conditions of life on Earth. We should expect similar surprises with invasive species. We have to be ready for anything. This was made clear this morning, also.”


Slide 8: Earth System Boundaries

“The cumulative and compound effects of human numbers and activities on Earth system function are accelerating everywhere. In addition to altering our planet’s global nutrient cycles, we are also causing changes in the chemistry, salinity and temperature of our oceans and the composition of our atmosphere. Changes in the composition of the atmosphere in tandem with land use changes and our growing water demands have also altered the global water cycle which, through altered precipitation patterns is affecting our climate.”


Slide 9: Our Warming World (Globe & Water)

“In addition, what we are seeing globally is that changes in Earth system function are accelerating faster than even the most extreme projections.”

“In terms of hydro-climatic change, 2050 is the new 2100; and 2030 is the new 2050.”

“No matter where you live, climate change is coming to a theatre near you, and its coming fast.”


Slide 10: Water in the World We Want Cover

“Here are some of the effects we need to stabilize if we don’t want adaptation and resilience to constantly be beyond reach here.”


Slide 11: Land-Use Changes

“More than half of the entire of surface of the planet – and much of Canada – has been significantly altered by human activities.”

“Over the past 20 years I have observed that the Okanagan has changed almost beyond recognition.”


Slide 12: The Hydrological Cycle

“Land-use and cover changes, however, are only the beginning of the effects human activities are having on the global hydrologic cycle.”

“Michael Blackstock talked about this. Life made possible by all the ways in which water reacts with nearly every element in the physical world. Some parameters, however, have more influence than others over the nature and function of any given hydro-climatic circumstance. Changes in temperature for example – cascade through all of the other biogeochemical parameters.”

“If our global temperature changes, an entire new hydrological geometry is created around that change. The most frightening discovery of this young century is that this is exactly what is happening. The rate and manner in which water moves through the global hydrological cycle is accelerating.”


Slide 13: Winter versus Summer snow cover

“It has been very difficult even for experts to grasp the full extent of what the loss of relative hydrological stability means.”

“Some 52 million cubic kilometers of water are being cyclically redistributed at any given moment through the global hydrological cycle.”

“What we have discovered is that 10 trillion metric tonnes of water are shifted from one hemisphere to the other in the form of winter snow cover during only one annual seasonal cycle.”

“The volume and weight of water moving continuously around the surface of the Earth and between the surface and atmosphere annually is so great that its redistribution actually causes changes in the shape and spin rate of the planet which in turn affects the behavior of all of the planet’s fluid systems including both the hydrosphere and the atmosphere.”

“What we are also discovering is that the ratio of snow to liquid water in the great seasonal redistribution of precipitation in Northern Hemisphere is changing with huge potential consequences for all of us.”

“Nowhere is this more evident than here in the Rocky Mountains.”


Slide 14: Saskatchewan Glacier and
Icefield Book Cover

“Research conducted by the Western Canadian Cryospheric Networks has demonstrated that we lost some 300 glaciers in the mountain national parks region of the Rockies alone in the 85 years between 1920 and 2005.”

“This loss is expected to continue with over 90% of the ice that exists in the interior ranges of Canada’s western mountains expected to be gone by the end of this century. This matters in that it confirms that the hydrology of the entire Canadian West is changing and changing fast. It should be noted that the loss of glacial ice is a symptom of a much larger problem.”

“The same warming that is causing our glaciers to disappear so quickly is reducing snowpack and the duration and extent of snow cover throughout the mountain West. Snowpack and snow cover are now declining by 17% per decade.”

“Uncertainty resides in the fact that while we can project temperature increases fairly accurately, our knowledge is limited with respect to how warming will ultimately impact precipitation patterns over the long term.”

“The risk here, however, is real. Water security for the entire West may be altered by changes in the timing and nature of precipitation.”

“Our models are having trouble keeping up with this.”

“By mid-century the Canadian West could be as changed by this as it was by European settlement.”


Slide 15: The Clausius-Clapeyron Relation

“I need to remind everyone of this.”

“We have known for more than a century that for every degree Celsius of warming we can expect the atmosphere to carry 7% more water vapour.”

“If you increase the temperature of the atmosphere by 2˚C the atmosphere can carry as much as 14% more water vapour.”

“If you raise the temperature of the atmosphere by 4˚C it will carry 28% more water vapour. That changes everything.”

“The Clausius-Clapyron relation is proving to be a critical driver in climate disruption.”

“Storms are now occurring that feature higher relative humidity than ever experienced before. This in combination with rising sea surface temperatures allows for extreme cloud bursts and storms with greater power that last longer and carry more punch.”

“And that is why recently identified phenomena such as atmospheric rivers demand our full attention.”


Slide 16: Atmospheric Rivers

“I want to remind you also that we are witnessing things we either haven’t seen or weren’t able to recognize as such before. These include atmospheric rivers.”

“Since I spoke here last we discovered that atmospheric rivers – like the winds of the jet stream – derive their energy from temperature differences between the poles and the tropics.”

“Their intensity also derives from the Clausius-Clapeyron Relation in that the warmer the air the more water atmospheric rivers can carry.”

“Mr. Trump’s rhetoric notwithstanding, there is nothing uncertain about the link between temperature and increased atmospheric transport of water.”

“To claim this is hoax is to ignore a fundamental law of atmospheric physics. It is tantamount to saying that apples don’t fall from trees.”

“The risk here is that until we stabilize the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere sustainability and adaptive resilience will forever remain a moving target.”


Slide 17: The Jet Stream

“What we seem to be seeing in Canada is that the loss of Arctic sea ice and the rapid reduction of the extent and duration of snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere are affecting the behaviour of the jet stream.”

“The less ice there is in the Arctic the slower and wavier the jet stream becomes and the more erratically it behaves.”

“There is a growing realization of the extent to which Arctic sea ice acts as a thermostat controlling climate right down to the mid-latitudes throughout the Northern Hemisphere.”


Slide 18: Sea Ice Loss 2016

“On November 3rd of this year, Arctic sea ice coverage was more than 600,000 square kilometres below the previous record low and nearly 2.5 million square kilometres below the October average.”

“The main reason for this was that October was warmer than usual for the entire month. November was warm also.”

“On November 17th the temperatures over the North Pole and much of the Arctic Ocean were 20˚C above normal.”

“Expect more erratic weather in southern Canada. Expect more erratic weather here.”

“Water temperatures are also rising. Instead of being 0˚C, sea surface temperatures of 17˚C have been recorded in the Arctic.”

“Ocean waves which now have greater fetch in the absence of sea ice mix the water down to the bottom so that we now have for the first time in tens of thousands of years water that is above the freezing point impinging on the seabed of the Arctic Ocean where it encounters frozen sediments that are a seaward extension of permafrost on land.”


Slide 19: Arctic Methane Plumes

“Within these frozen sediments is embedded methane in the form of methane hydrates and clathrates which are now disintegrating as the sediments that contain them thaw producing methane gas that has begun to rise to the surface in great bubble plumes.”

“In deep water, these plumes oxidize and disappear before they reach the surface, but in less than 50 to 100 metres in depth the methane does not time to dissolve.”

“It emerges instead almost intact to enter the atmosphere, where in the immediate term it appears it may have a greenhouse effect that can be as much 100 to 200 times that of carbon dioxide.”

“Alarmingly, we have found that the overall combination of ice loss and the loss of snow in the Northern Hemisphere may contribute an additional 50% to the direct global heating effect caused by the addition of CO2 to the atmosphere.”

“The importance of this has yet to be generally realized.”

“We are reaching the point at which we should no longer simply say that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by way of our emissions is warming our planet.”

“Instead we have to say that the carbon dioxide, which we have added to the atmosphere has already warmed our planet to the point where the feedback processes related to loss of reflectivity of ice and snow are themselves increasing the effect of those emissions by a further 50%.”

“This means that carbon dioxide my not be the only driver of climate change.”

“Peter Wadhams, one of the world’s leading experts on the relationship between sea ice and climate characterized the risk associated with these kinds of feedbacks this way:

“When Jimi Hendrix played the guitar he had the ability to play passages using feedback alone – his fingers didn’t pluck the strings but he manipulated electronic feedback to produce the sounds.

We are fast approaching the stage when climate change will be playing the tune for us while we stand back and watch hopelessly, with our reductions in carbon dioxide having no effect.”


Slide 20: Szeto slide.

“Finally, if I have not provided enough evidence to suggest to you that in the Canadian context climate change is no hoax, please allow me to leave you with this.”

“Recent research has demonstrated that the Alberta Floods of 2013; the Assiniboine flood of 2014; extreme drought on the prairies in 2015; and the Fort McMurray wildfires in 2016 all appear to be linked to human caused climate change effects over the western Arctic.”

“The Arctic is now well on its way to becoming a driver of, rather than just a responder to, global change.”


Slide 21: Reasoner Image 1. (Hit 7 times)

“You are not getting off the hook in the Okanagan either.”

“At present the Okanagan is warming at twice the global rate.”

“Dr. Mel Reasoner gave me a glimpse of what you can expect here. I like the way Mel presents his projections. Here is a bell curve of what a principle in a high school might expect from the results of any given exam.”

“Notice the distribution.”


Slide 22: Reasoner Image 2. (Hit 6 times)

“The same bell curve can be applied to changes you can expect here in a warming climate.”

“Increases in mean annual temperature move the bell curve in the direction of hotter extremes.”


Slide 23: Reasoner Image 3

“What you end up with is less cold weather, more hot weather and more record hot weather.”

“Presently many of your bridges and other infrastructure elements are designed to withstand temperatures up to 40˚C before they begin to wear out of elements of construction fail.”

“Under conservative projections, by mid-century you should expect extreme temperatures somewhere in the range of 48˚C.”

“On those days it will be like living in Karachi, Pakistan now.”

“At present it is hard to know what to expect, but it will be warmer: that we know.”


Slide 24: July Temperatures

“For forty years climate scientists have been telling us that there are going to be surprises as the trajectory of climate effects unfolds.”

“Those surprises keep presenting themselves.”

“On Monday, August 15th, 2016, NASA released its global temperature data for July. It announced that a stunning record has been broken.”

“July, 2016, was the hottest month for as long as humanity has kept records.”

“July of 2016 may in fact have marked the warmest absolute temperatures since human civilization began.”

“Depending on how you count temperatures, July of 2016 already surpassed the 1.5˚C mark and perhaps the 2˚C mark above pre-industrial levels the Paris climate agreement hoped to somehow limit warming on this planet in the future.”


Slide 25: February-March Heat Wave

“Warming this year may, in fact, have also touched 2˚C during a February-March heatwave that coincided with the peak of this year’s El Niño.”

“The risk is that keeping warming below 1.5˚C or even 2˚C may no longer be achievable.”

“Uncertainty is compounded in the timing of these extreme events.”

“The UN report on how the world might keep global temperatures from rising beyond 1.5˚C isn’t scheduled to be released until 2018.”


Slide 26: Follow the Water

“So where do we go now?”

“The first thing people often think when confronted by this question is: I am just one person, what can one person do?”

“The first thing one person can do is stop being one person. If we look around we are not alone, in our knowledge, our concerns or our principles.”

“If we are to be successful in retreating from the brink of climate catastrophe, we need to get a better handle on how even non-tipping points in climate and other parts of the Earth system might cause truly abrupt tipping points in our social and political systems.”

“We need to better understand the “critical thresholds” that exist within our water and water-related climate systems and better connect them to associated social, economic, public health and political risks and tipping points.”

“We need to do that now.”

“We have to accept that climate change is not a hoax. It is not something that is happening to someone else, somewhere else. It is happening to us.”

“I am sure none of us today need to be reminded that there is something greater at stake here than simply adapting somehow to change.”

“What is at stake here is the future.”

“The ultimate goal to which we should be aiming locally is to preserve our prosperity and sense of place while making the Okanagan a place where people want to live not leave in a warming world.”

“You have room to move. Move now while that room still exists. In this I wish you every success.”