2017 COMOX VALLEY ECO-ASSET SYMPOSIUM: Keynote Address by Bob Sandford on "The Hard Work of Hope: Sustaining Cooperation on Water Security & Climate Stability in a Post-Truth Trumpocene" (public presentation)

Note to Reader:

The Comox Valley Eco-Asset Symposium comprised two events in one. The first was a public event, open to the community at large. Bob Sandford was the keynote speaker. He was followed by a panel session. The Eco-Asset Symposium was held the next day. At the second event, Kim Stephens was the keynote speaker.

Comox Valley Eco-Asset Symposium -Panel at Public Presentation

Comox Valley Eco-Asset Symposium -Panel at Public Presentation

Keynote Address by Bob Sandford, EPCOR Chair in Water & Climate Security, United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment & Health

Slide 1: Title Slide

“Thank you for the kind introduction. I would like to thank David Stapley for the invitation to speak here tonight in advance of next week’s World Water Day.

“I should report that the reason I accepted David’s invitation was that in our discussion about the objectives of this symposium, he put the words ‘restorative’ and ‘development’ together in the same sentence.

“That is not common parlance. I was reminded instantly that this was clearly my kind of place and I would like to visit again. And I should say that every time I come here my reaction is the same. I just hope you people realize how fortunate you are to live here.

“I would like to begin my presentation this evening, if I may, by explaining why David’s observations about the relationship between restoration and development are critical by way of describing the challenges we face globally in terms of assuring humanity presence on this planet over the long term.

“By the time I finish outlining what is happening globally, you will be even happier you live here and hopefully you will see the wisdom of what Tim Ennis offered in his presentation.

“After examining our global challenges I would like to explain what the UN is doing to advance sustainability.

“I would then like to outline some of the current circumstances and setbacks that stand in the way of an equitable, prosperous future for all. I will then return in conclusion to why what you do here matters so very much to you, your children and ultimately to the rest of the world.”


Slide 2: Earth System Function

“Allow me to begin by explaining why we need to be urgently concerned about sustainability.

“What we have discovered and affirmed scientifically in the past two decades is that our planet is not simply a static ball of rock and water miraculously animated by life. Existence on this planet is a consequence of trillions of highly inter-penetrating bio-geo-chemical feedbacks that together we call Earth system function.

“The concept of Earth system function is based on evidence that the conditions that make life possible and tolerable on this planet as we know if today have been brought about and are being maintained by biodiversity.

“Life in interaction with the physical elements of the planet have over billions of years created a self-regulating, co-evolutionary system that functions to ensure optimal conditions for life on Earth even in the face of periodic shocks. The world is a different place when viewed from the perspective of Earth system function.”


Slide 3: Courtenay

“The forests around you here are the combined product of billions of years of evolutionary advancement; the will of every living thing to sustain itself within the shifting conditions created on this planet by the hydrologic cycle’s oceanic interaction with the global atmosphere and with the resulting climate that life and the hydrologic cycle perpetuate.”


Slide 4: Clouds and Sky and Atmosphere

“Viewing the world from an Earth system perspective is at once humbling and awe-inspiring. Suddenly what you are seeing when you look upward into the blue of the sky is not just inert air but the suspended residue of every geophysical process and the cumulative exhalation of every living thing and every ecological system that has ever existed on or near the surface of the Earth and its oceans since the beginning of the world.

“The mind slows at the realization of how much life contributes to and is in turn made possible by self-regulating global processes which are ultimately represented in the composition and resulting conditions created by our planet’s thin and fragile atmosphere. And the Earth’s atmosphere is fragile.”

“We now realize that the Earth’s system is so sensitive and so utterly and completely inter-connected – that the entire global system can be altered by the addition or subtraction of even a few parts per million of substances that already compose it.

“We now also know that the extra heat caused by very small changes in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere will eventually warm our oceans, accelerate the global hydrological cycle; change global weather patterns and in combination with other impacts we have caused threaten the sustainability of human presence on this planet unless we respond.

“In other words, what we have done is disrupt our planet’s self-regulating homeostasis.  Donald Trump’s uninformed views and policies notwithstanding, this is not a hoax.

“Gambling now that one man’s uninformed political opinion will somehow prove to be more valid than the fundamental laws of atmospheric physics is a bad bet. The fundamental conditions of planetary habitability are changing so quickly that scientists are having trouble keeping up. 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 temperature of our atmosphere.

“Our collective cumulative and compound effects on every component of the Earth system appear to have reached a tipping point.”


Slide 5: Loss of Stationarity

“The fact that changes in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere are causing water to move more energetically through the global water cycle makes these crises even more urgent to address. Until we lost it, we had no idea of the critical importance of a relatively stable water cycle.

“What we are discovering is the extent to which the fundamental stability of our political structures and global economy are predicated on relative hydrologic predictability, especially as it relates to precipitation patterns that define water security. As a result of the loss of relative hydrologic stability, political stability and the stability of our global economy in a number of regions in the world are now at risk.

“We are only now beginning to understand how complex this issue has become. As we saw in the case of prolonged drought in Syria, hydro-climatic change has the potential to literally redraw the map of the world. We now realize that the loss of hydro-climatic stability also threatens the global economy and the prospects of prosperity for all.”


Slide 6: The Global Economic Forum

“In January of each year, the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland releases its annual Global Risks Report.

“Once again the environment dominated the entire 2017 global risk landscape in terms of impact and likelihood, with extreme weather events, large natural disasters as well as failure of mitigation and adaptation to climate change as the most prominent global risks.

“The reported urged that actions have to be immediate and long-lasting to have any hope of reversing the trajectory of climate change.”


Slide 7: The Anthropocene

“Human impacts on the function of the Earth system are now such that scientists are arguing that we have entered an entirely new geological epoch in the history of the Earth, which they propose to call the Anthropocene: an age defined by the effects human needs and numbers on the stability of the Earth’s self-regulating life-support system and all that depends on the stability of that system.

“So what the hell is going out there?”


Slide 8: Extinction Rates

“Again, it is not immediately about climate.

“Climate change in our current context is a consequence of damage we have done to other parts of the Earth system, among them our impact on biodiversity. Climate is very much influenced by biodiversity in large mesaure because of the combined effects living things have on the atmosphere.

“The distinguishing features of the Anthropocene include evidence in the fossil record of a rise in extinctions at a rate 100 to 1000 times faster than in background strata.

“Well, you might say, doesn’t everything species eventually become extinct? Yes, but it is the rate of extinction, just as it is the rate of climate change that matters. The reality is that with extinctions in the past, species often didn’t die at all, but instead evolve into two or more sister or daughter species.

“The accelerated extinction rates brought about by human impacts do not allow time for new species to emerge from the old. The problem here is that our planet’s self-regulating Earth system – the system upon which we depend for predictable conditions upon which to base our economic and social stability – is biodiversity-based. If you take out too many parts, its function will change or cease.

“At the moment we are not just diminishing the stability of the Earth system, we are dismantling it.

“It is not just the loss of individual species that is of concern; it is the loss of biodiversity itself. As of 2013, 31% of all amphibians, one in five mammals and 13% of all birds are on the brink of extinction.

“As socio-biologist E.O. Wilson has observed, we are on our way to being alone in the world.

“It may interest you here to know that the most vulnerable habitats of all, with the highest extinction rates per unit area include rivers, streams and lakes in both tropical and temperate regions.

“These threats suggest there has perhaps never been a more important time to recognize – and I mean recognize not just give lip service to –the fact that ecosystem do not exist simply to create benefits for one species and one species alone, humans.

“Given we barely know half the organisms that comprise our ecosystems, sustaining ecological benefits will require precautionary care if only because, even if we could somehow afford to, we don’t know how to replace many ecosystem services with technology.”


Slide 9: Population Growth

“Let’s go now to a topic few want to talk about: 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.

“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 troubled 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.

“Public health threats aside, there is also the issue of impacts of human numbers on our planet’s land cover. Even before climate became an issue we had already begun altering the global hydrological cycle through rapid and expansive alteration of land use and cover.

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

“Serious constraints exist with respect to whether there is enough fresh water and how much of the Earth’s arable land remains to be cultivated, without causing further collapse of biodiversity.”


Slide 10: Agricultural Impacts

“Studies show that in order to feed our growing populations over the next 40 years we will have to produce more food than all of agricultural production over the past 10,000 years combined.

“The agriculture we have now will not get us there. While successful over the past 60 years, the green revolution is now failing.

“Critically, global food production relies almost entirely on a stable climate. At present the global climate is anything but stable. Moreover current agricultural production accounts for 30% of all greenhouse gases humanity produces.

“These emissions include not only carbon dioxide, but methane and nitrous oxides that produced as a by-product of fertilizer use that are up to 300 times potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.

“The need to dramatically increase in food production globally – if even possible – is unsustainable by way of current practices if only because those practices will mean more greenhouse gases which will further accelerate climate change and attendant extreme weather events thereby increasingly threatening future food production.

“In the face of the changes in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere the agriculture we have perfected over the past 10,000 years might well be self-terminating.

“There are also other problems. In a rush to increase agricultural productivity we bred crops that required profligate amounts of water which demanded dramatic and now unsustainable agricultural water use. High production agriculture also relies on heavy fertilizer use.

“Pollution of shallow lakes and sea shores by excessive nitrate or phosphorous nutrients in run-off can cause clear water rich in fish and vegetation to quickly become turbid as a result of exploding algal growth. That growth results in oxygen depletion of the water. This process is called eutrophication.

“Algal blooms as large as 17,000 square kilometers in area are now appearing in bodies of water Lake Winnipeg. Independent research findings identified the presence of cyanotoxins such as those that have appeared in Lake Winnipeg in 246 lakes across Canada. Eutrophication is clearly becoming an issue nationally.

“Freshwater and saltwater eutrophication is, in fact, now seen as one of the ten most serious environmental problems facing humanity in the 21st century.

“All that said we should never forget that agriculture is the foundation of our civilization. By way of the green revolution agriculture has already saved us once; now we need agriculture to save us again not just from the unintended consequences of the first agricultural revolution but from the real threats of further population growth, water insecurity and climate instability.

“To manage water and land as living systems we need a new narrative. Within that new narrative, we must also rethink what constitutes infrastructure.

“The thin layer of soil that imperfectly covers much of the terrestrial Earth, for example, must be seen as a vital part of our civilization’s water infrastructure and be managed as such. Soil conservation and health – keeping soil and water on the land and carbon in the soil – is critical.

“What we need is another agricultural revolution – but one this time focused on increasing productivity certainly, but also on the integration of water, food and climate security at the basin scale.

“The next green revolution must perfect soil health as a means of mitigating and adapting to extreme weather events such as droughts and floods and on the ability of healthy soils to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and to capture and store it in the vast agricultural landscapes we are going to need to create a sustainable future.

“Canada should be a leader in that revolution.”


Slide 11: Externalities: Passing on the cost of today’s irresponsibility to future generations.

“But agriculture is not the only major global economic sector that is unsustainable under changing hydro-climatic regimes brought about by changes we have made to the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere.

“To achieve lasting sustainability it will be necessary to reform our global economic system to the extent that we need to accurately account for what economists call externalities. We also need to appropriately value natural and agro-ecological services that contribute to Earth system stability with a specific focus on source water protection and aquatic ecosystem function.

“In economics, an externality is a cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. The costs that our current economic system is now passing on to us that none chose to incur include environmental degradation, air pollution and water contamination generated through industrial processes and transportation.

“At present the cost of the business activities of the world’s largest 3000 corporations in damage to Earth system function in terms of loss of forest ecosystems alone is estimated to be between 1.3 and 3.1 trillion dollars a year. These are costs that will have to be paid for by someone in the future. Maybe you and me. More likely our children.

“To quote the Deutsche Bank economist who did the assessment of the costs of these externalities, Pavan Suhkdev:

‘The rules of business urgently need to be changed, so corporations compete on the bases of innovation … and satisfaction of multiple stakeholder demands, rather than on the basis of who is most effective at influencing government regulation, avoiding taxes, and obtaining subsidies for harmful activities in order to maximize the return for just one stakeholder – shareholders.’  

“Will this happen. Not likely.

“What may be within our grasp, however, is a new global business model that includes respecting the critical value of ecosystem services rather than creating a market for repairing the damage we do to them.

“What such assessments reveal is that water security, food security, and climate security are inseparable; one is implicit in the other. It could even be said they are the same thing.

“Water, food, and climate security are critical elements of sustainability. Without stable water and climate regimes, sustainability will forever remain a moving target. We need to define a safe place in terms of sustainability to which all of humanity must aim.

“So what is the United Nations doing about all this? It is here that we come back to David Stapley’s two heroic words: restorative and development and why you should be glad you live here.”


Slide 12: Transforming Our World

“In responding to the urgency and the opportunity of finally getting sustainable development right, the United Nations announced its long anticipated new framework for global action.

“While it did not receive the same attention in the media, the announcement of UN’s 2030 Transforming Our World global sustainable development agenda in September of 2015 was at least as important as the later climate negotiations in Paris if only because it deals with damage we are doing to other elements of the Earth system that are exacerbating and being exacerbated by climate change.

“What is important about the UN’s global Transforming Our World agenda is that at last have a universally understood and accepted definition for what sustainability really means and a common timetable for implementation of clear goals aimed at achieving measurable targets at both global and national levels.

“The 2030 Transforming Our World agenda makes it very clear that sustainable development can no longer simply aim for environmentally neutral solutions. If we are to achieve any meaningful level of sustainability all development has to not only be sustainable, but restorative.  We can no longer simply aim to slow or stop damage to the Earth system; we have to thoughtfully restore declining Earth system function.

“We face so many overlapping and intersecting crises we can no longer afford to fix them one at a time or in isolation of one another.

“All future development must seek double, triple if not quadruple benefits in terms of the restoration of fundamental Earth system function as reflected in biodiversity stability, efficient water use, soil vitality, carbon storage and human and planetary health.

“In order to achieve these goals it is important to further incentivize acceleration of advancements in both engineering and planning toward which everyone in this room I am sure aspires.

“The endorsement, however tentative of the UN’s 2030 Transforming Our World global sustainable development agenda may be the most important thing humanity has done for its future since we created the United Nations; and what you are doing here is part of it.

“What is unfortunate is that what is happening right now in the U.S. threatens the UN’s already fragile efforts to ensure sustainability through water security and climate stability not just in North America but globally in time to prevent irreversible Earth system damage and possible collapse.”


Slide 13: Atmospheric Rivers

“From an Earth system point of view, the timing of what is happening in the U.S. could not be worse. Paris broadened and deepened awareness but, as everyone here knows, we are not going to get to the world we want unless scientific evidence drives public policy priority at the national and sub-national level.

“The UN is now working around the clock to put forward again to the other 192 signatories to the Paris Accord, the hard-won scientific evidence which each of these countries has already verified that, contrary to President’s Trump’s assertions, proves beyond any reasonable doubt that climate change is most assuredly not a hoax.

“We are reminding the world that if we back off on our efforts to stabilize the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere now it could cost our civilization the last precious years in which our actions might have made a difference in managing a rapidly accelerating water cycle and its potentially devastating effects.”


Slide 14: Warming in 2016

“So what have the climate and the global water cycle been doing while we have been distracted by the geopolitical upheaval associated with the U.S. election? Please permit me a small digression at this point.

“Tim Ennis mentioned the ecological value of water in the bank in the form of glaciers.

“I live in the Rockies where between 1920 and 2005 we appear to have lost 300 glaciers in the mountain national parks alone. We know the direction our climate is going.

“For the third year in a row, U.S. scientists officially declared 2016 the hottest year on record. Arctic warming is already 3.54˚C above the global average, so holding that region below 2˚C of warming as per the Paris Accord is already out of the question and has been so for a decade.”


Slide 15: Arctic on November 17th, 2017

“What we have witnessed in the Arctic in the fall and winter of 2016 suggests we should stop worrying so much about what is happening down south and start paying serious attention to what is happening up north.

“Arctic snow cover has been declining at a rate 22% per decade. Arctic sea ice has been declining at a rate of 12% per decade; but now something else is happening. Multi-year ice is disappearing and not as much sea ice is reforming.

“This is what the Arctic looked like in November of 2016. Temperatures over the North Pole and the Arctic Ocean were 20˚ Celsius above normal and sea ice formation was lower than at any point since researchers began keeping records.

“Climate scientists fear that this prolonged and persistent warming of the Arctic may mean that the climate problem and the further acceleration of the global water cycle could be on the way to getting away on us.”


Slide 16: Sea Ice Loss and Jet Stream

“Some very basic climate science is necessary to understand the problem. A positive as opposed to negative feedback in the climate system is a chain of cause and effect in which two or more circumstances begin to accelerate one another. A positive feedback loop enhances or amplifies changes which tend to move a climate system away from its equilibrium and make it more unstable.

“It appears that a positive feedback has been created between warming in the Arctic and the behaviour of the Northern Hemisphere jet stream – the westerly winds that are created as the world spins inside the torn blanket of its own atmosphere.

“To put it simply, the loss of northern snow cover and diminishment of Arctic sea ice is causing the jet stream to slow and become wavier. We see now that a wavier Northern Hemisphere jet stream brings warmer air to the Arctic more frequently.

“Temperature anomalies as high as 30˚C above normal have been recorded over the fall and throughout the winter of 2016 in the Arctic and parts of Northern Canada.

“These warmer temperatures are leading to more sea ice loss which, in turn, makes the jet stream even wavier which brings even more warm air into the Arctic. This, in turn, makes the jet stream even wavier yet which again results in even more warm air being transported into the Arctic which causes further sea ice loss and on it goes.”


Slide 17: Methane Releases

“As this feedback accelerates the Arctic Ocean absorbs more heat affecting the behaviour of deep ocean currents.

“Increased natural methane releases from the warming land into the air and into inland and coastal waters are also being observed.

“Sea ice, we have discovered, is a central element in the natural thermostat that regulates the temperature of the entire hemisphere, and once that thermostat is turned up, weather down to the mid-latitudes and beyond quickly becomes more variable and erratic.”


Slide 18: Arctic Feedbacks

“So why does that matter?

“The relationship between warming air and how much moisture that air can carry is critical.

“One of the fundamental laws of atmospheric physics decrees that for ever degree Celsius the atmosphere warms; it can carry 7% more water vapour.

“Water vapour is a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right. Its increased presence in the atmosphere adds to the warming produced by the transport of warmer air northward.

“But, according to climate scientist Jennifer Francis, that is not the only effect increased water vapour has had on the acceleration of Arctic temperatures. The more water vapour there is the more clouds form.

“Cloud cover holds the heat in which increases evaporation from the ocean further accelerating warming. The Arctic is now warming five to eight times faster than the equatorial region.

“By breaking down the temperature gradient between the poles and the tropics these feedbacks are disrupting the entire weather system in the Northern Hemisphere.

“A slower, wavier jet stream is causing lock-ins of weather extremes that result unstable weather patterns that bring heavy snowfalls in places where that has not been common in the past; as well as horrific rainfalls in some places and deep and persistent drought in others.

“What scientists fear is that the climate system in this part of the world is destabilizing. What we appear to be facing in the Arctic is a carbon release time bomb. Only by keeping the Arctic cold can we prevent that bomb from going off.

“So what do we do?

“The first thing we should do is to clearly recognize that, President Trump’s claim notwithstanding, climate change is not a hoax. Nor is it something we can wish away.

“As Winston Churchill once famously said, ‘The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.’ We have to stop what has effectively become an uncontrolled oil spill into the Earth’s atmosphere.”


Slide 19: Hard Work of Hope: Follow the Water

“So where does hope reside in all this? We are all lucky to live in Canada right now where progress on water issues and climate instability can still be made.

“We should be reminded that all hope for achieving the goals of the UN’s 2030 Transforming Our World global sustainable development agenda depends on what each Member State is able to achieve at the national and sub-national level.

“We should also remember that – though it may not seem like it at the moment – great opportunity still very much exists not just to change the world, but to make it a better place; a place where human and planetary health are seen to mirror one another; where human equality and rights are respected and expanded; where treaties with one another as peoples are honoured and where development is restorative not destructive.

“It is of great importance that these goals remain qualities of nationhood to which we continue to relentlessly aspire here in Canada. By ceaselessly continuing our effects to achieve true and lasting sustainability despite the troubles that surround us we will become a beacon for others.

“If we just stay the course – and by our example help others to do the same – there is no question that – if we want it to be – this could be Canada’s moment; its chance to shine. This is Canada’s opportunity to lead the world. It could be yours also.

“I am here to support people like David Stapley and others in your communities who believe that development has to be not just sustainable in the traditional sense; it has to be restorative – in fact to be sustainable, development MUST be restorative.

“We have entered an era in which we can no longer count on self-willed, self-regulating natural landscapes to absorb human impacts on Earth system function.

“Whether we like it or not we have to assume responsibility for staying within Earth system boundaries. And to stay within Earth system boundaries we have to restore the full circle function of the global hydrological cycle.

“It may be that now is the time to show the rest of the world that much, much more can be done when hope is no longer focused on the future but instead becomes an electrifying force for action in the present.

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

“If there was ever a time for relentless and courageous citizenship it is now.

“The ultimate goal to which we are aiming locally is to preserve our prosperity and sense of place while making our communities places where people want to live not leave in a warming world.

“And in this I wish you every success.

“Thank you.”