Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell (Edward Abbey)

You can't put a price on the priceless (E.F. Schumacher)

  • João Stacishin de Queiroz

Climate Change: Are we barking up the wrong tree?

Updated: Jan 21

The disappearing beach

Fifteen years ago we bought a beachfront property in Mompiche, a coastal village in northwestern Ecuador, where we built a small hostel. Over the next five years I watched helplessly as the sea ate away at the forty meters of dry beach we had on front of our property. Were it not for a hastily erected rock "wall" 10 or so years ago our hostel would be no more. To me the culprit was clear: global warming caused by an excess of greenhouse gases emitted by humankind. Stop emissions; problem solved!

Figure 1. Mompiche beachfront, today. Over 15 years, 50 meters of beach gone.

But the story is not that simple. Local elders tell me that over the past 60 years the shoreline retreated by more than 200 meters. They tell me that 50 years ago they moved the town a few hundred yards inland to its current location where my hostel is now on the waterfront. Here in Mompiche, the relentless advance of the ocean over the continent seems to be a trend that began well before human-induced climate change became fashionable among politicians, UN bureaucrats, scientists, environmentalists and the media. Sixty years ago the atmospheric CO2 concentration was below 280 ppm.

Abandoned shorelines and pre-Colombian settlements

I regularly take my two dogs for long walks down the hill from my house and across the low-lying coastal plain where my son and I have a small conservation area. As we move down the steep slope and across the foothill soils are clayey, a reflection of the fine-textured poorly consolidated sedimentary rocks from which they are derived. The clayey soils are also shallow and lack significant development. This means that they are young. As we move away from the footslope the fine-textured soils abruptly give way to deep loamy sands and sandy loams, soil textures that are typical of those derived from either sandstones or coarse sediments such as beach sands.

Figure 3. Sandy soils, good infiltration. Ceramic fragments found here
2. Clayey soils, poor infiltration, muddy

As we enter the sandier areas, we encounter mounds that rise above the surrounding surface by 1 to 1.5 meter, and measure about 10 meters in diameter. Out of curiosity I dig around with my machete and shovel and find that the mounds are formed by broken ceramic fragments, piled as such by a culture that is no longer here. The mounds disappear as one moves to the younger surface nearer to the current shoreline. The roughness of the ceramic pieces is characteristic of pottery produced by the Atacames culture believed to have existed from around 1300 to 500 years before present (BP).

Figure 4. Ceramic fragments piled into mounds, presumable by the Atacames culture of Northwestern Ecuador (1300-500 before present)

I begin to wonder what the environment was like when these people lived in the area. I am intrigued not only by the omnipresence of ceramic artifacts but also by the abrupt change in soil textures from clays to sands. It seems as if we are walking across relict beaches, islets, and abandoned stream channels similar to those found in mangrove areas today. The sand, I thought, must come from elsewhere since there are no significant strata of sandstone in the rock formation that underlies our area.

Back at home I use google earth to examine the satellite image of the area. The abandoned shorelines are evident and hark back to a time when the sea was retreating. The bird's eye view provide clear evidence that not too long ago the shoreline around Mompiche was at least 1 kilometer further inland from where it is today. But does it matter to us?

Figure 5. Satellite image clearly showing relict shorelines and abandoned mangrove areas, channels. The red and yellow line represent 2 kilometers on the ground.

The time frame

That the climate changes and sea-level waxes and wanes over time has been known for centuries. By now most people accept that around twelve thousand years ago much of Canada and the United States was covered by glaciers. In our minds, however, 120 centuries is a long time and we need not concern ourselves with these long-term natural cycles. They are practically irrelevant to us and to the next few generations of our descendants. Besides, there is little we can do about it without tinkering with the solar system itself. Our current concern should be with the shorter and less extreme climatic cycles that are superimposed on longer-lived ones. How old then, are the shoreline features described above? Are they remnants of the last ice age, or a result of a more recent cycle of sea-level change?

A picture is worth a thousand words and Figure 4 speaks for itself: the abandoned shoreline features are clearly visible in the satellite image. That they are so easily discernible indicates that time has not been sufficient to camouflage the evidence of the advance and subsequent retreat of the ocean. Moreover, the soils are young, lacking pedogenic development save for the accumulation of organic matter in the surface horizon. Hence, the footprint of the event that we are seeing is that of a phenomenon that took place hundreds, not thousands of years ago. The presence of ceramic artifacts presumably from the Atacames culture in the inland parts of the abandoned shore zone suggests that the sea began its last long-lived retreat before 1300 years ago. It has since reversed course and is reclaiming lost territory. According to the local history as told by the elders, it did so well before GHGs became a topic of concern.

So what?

The International Panel on Climate Change maintains that by pumping GHGs into the atmosphere humans have super imposed a man-made cycle on the ever changing climate. Global temperature and atmospheric GHGs data indicate that we are in the "warming" phase of an anthropogenic climate oscillation. The ensuing conclusion is that since this is a man-made phenomenon it can be reversed by human action. Agreeing as to what these actions should look like is the center of discussions and disagreements at the now infamous climate change COPs (Conference of the Parties). In these finger-pointing events, national governments and private interests negotiate to minimize the costs and maximize the benefits they can derive from a "low-carbon" economy. Meanwhile, NGOs scavenge on the sidelines eager to snap up scraps of the billions of dollars pledged for climate action by wealthy nations. But are we barking up the wrong tree?

In 1998 I joined a prominent international development agency as its climate change advisor for Central America. Because of the dearth of climate change expertise among development assistance personnel at that time, the agency sent several of us to the JFK School of Government at Harvard University for an intensive two-week course on the topic. The message conveyed was clear: Human activity is the primary cause of global warming. To be fair, Dr. Lindzen ( a renowned MIT climate change skeptic, was invited to share with us the reasons for his skepticism. Most of us listened respectfully but the evidence seemed to be overwhelmingly in favor of human-induced climate change. Dr. Lindzen was dismissed by the great majority of course participants as an outlier, perhaps at the service of the oil industry.

Twenty years on, my rock solid belief that we humans play the dominant role in changing the climate has been shaken by the evidence in my backyard. Perhaps Dr. Lindzen had a point after all: Human kind may not be the primary force driving "climate change"; instead the unusual climate events we are experiencing are the outcome of a natural cycle induced by events external to our planet.

The implications of this conclusion are profound. First, since the main driver of the current warming trend is external to earth and uncoupled from human activity, there is little we can do to reverse it. Yes, fossil fuel extraction and use should be reduced for many reasons, but the spewing of CO2 and other GHGs into the atmosphere may not be the principal one . Second, since the current climate warming trend is mostly outside our control, the focus should be on adaptation to a future climate regime. Difficult since we do not know what it will look like. Third, the eagerness with which we are promoting "green energy" can be eased while we take a hard look at the significant negative impact of this emerging industry. Once we do, we can come up with an energy system that is decentralized and environmentally and socially smart.

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