A whale being speared with harpoons by fishermen in the arctic sea. Engraving by A. M. Fournier after E. Traviès.  CC-BY-4.0

The Royal Society of Queensland,[1] yes a branch of that Royal Society dating back to 1660 and featuring such layabout gadflies as Newton, Hooke, Darwin, Boyle, Babbage and Einstein, this week published the March 2019 edition of its members newsletter, containing two insightful contributions on climate change, one by Don Keith about how bees do it (or in this case don’t); the other by Simon Black (not the AFL luminary) about harpoons, plastics and the dangers of frog-boiling (incremental change).

Don Keith has been keeping bees in southern Queensland for more than 53 years and has seen bee populations and honey production decline from many causes, habitat loss being the most dramatic and intensive.

Widespread habitat destruction from about 1970 due to clearing for plantation pine and urbanisation made greater Brisbane itself largely useless for keeping bees. Outside Brisbane, State forests and other reserves supported the major honey producing trees, but these have become relentlessly fragmented and less productive as the ‘urban’ sprawled at a breakneck pace, aided by huge bulldozers and Tordon[2], the nuclear warhead of herbicides. Exotic bee diseases and pests, industrial farming and crop pesticides all took their toll on the abundance, connectedness and health of forests.

Changing climate is now undercutting what remains. Yellow box,[3] the apiarist’s most productive species, is no longer reliable. Warming of one degree has moved peak flowering from November-December to September-October. The bees are stymied. Their major  food source has disappeared by the time they need it most. Populations crash. It’s not just about honey. Bees are major pollinators of high value crops. Almond growers are deeply worried.

Simon Black of Greenpeace was a media tart over Christmas 2018-19. Finally, the media wanted to talk to him. The topic was Japan’s announcement they were pulling out of the IWC and would resume commercial whaling more than 30 years after it was banned.

This flurry of fame had affected his social life. At social gatherings he was hounded, besieged and beseeched by people very upset about Japan and very worried about whales. He noticed there was one thing he could say to make the conversation falter. He told them that in the bad old days the main thing a whale had to worry about was a harpoon. Now, they also have to worry about starving to death because their stomachs are so full of plastic they can’t eat. Not only that they have a few concerns about ocean acidification, feeding grounds shifting due to climate change and pressures on oceans from fishing.

“I don’t want to talk about climate change, plastic pollution and fishing fleets,” they said. They were angry with him. This was supposed to be about whales!

Simon highlights the emotional and psychological power of harpoons versus the slow, but monstrously more significant and far-reaching, frog-boiling effect of a stretched and damaged system breaking down. Harpoons are simple, bloody, shrieking with pain and immediate. With a whale on one end and a human with a big winch on the other. It’s a fist in the face.

Systemic change, on the other hand is diffuse, confusing, deniable, debatable. We are now seeing catastrophic outcomes of climate change. But because these are part of ‘the weather’ which is characterised as an ‘unpredictable mystery’, people are foolishly optimistic. If things are mysterious, then you still have a chance, right? No one can be sure what’s going to happen. It could rain all next week!

Because of climate change, habitat loss, agro-business, urbanisation, over population and, let’s face it, what humans are doing all over the planet, the signs of systemic failure are becoming more common. Wildfires in California followed the worst drought in 1200 years. Yes that is a 12 with two noughts. The worst drought since the year 818! That must have been a doozey.[4]  Ice the size of the UK and Ireland has already disappeared from the Bering sea this February 2019. The most ever, since when? Since 2018. The previous record melt. Oops. Permafrost thaws are buckling Alaska with thermokarsts, causing crooked forests. Alaska Schmalaska. Who cares?

Blood and shrieking pain. Now that’s something I care about. And what are you going to do about it, huh?