The Guardian’s environmental blogger George Monbiot has written an article claiming that whales should be conserved because their poo helps to mitigate climate change. He takes this as “refutation of the idea that we can manipulate the living world with simple, predictable results,” despite being a strong advocate of the anthropogenic global warming theory.
In his lengthy article, Monbiot warns that removing top predators from food chains can have catastrophic effects that cascade down the chain (known as ‘trophic cascades’). For example, he contends that the arrival of humans in Australia 40,000 – 50,000 years ago was responsible for a shift in fauna from being lush rainforest to scrubby desert. Yet he ignores the climb in global temperatures across this period as the world emerged from the last ice age.
He then goes on to apply the idea of trophic cascades to the marine food chain, explaining that the presence of whales in the oceans ensures a plentiful supply of plankton. This is because large whales feed predominantly at depth, where there is little fauna as plants are unable to photosynthesise in the dark conditions, but defecate near the surface. In doing so, they effectively fertilise the surface layers of the ocean. This theoretical cycle is known as the “whale pump”, and there is some evidence to support it.
However, at this point Monbiot enacts a leap of eco-logic. “It is hard to quantify, but when they were at their historical populations, whales are likely to have made a small but significant contribution to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The recovery of the great whales, which were reduced by between two-thirds and 90%, but whose numbers are slowly climbing again in some parts of the oceans, could be seen as a benign form of geoengineering,” he writes.
He continues: “This should not be the only, or even the main, reason why we should wish them to return, but the way in which whales change the composition of the atmosphere provides yet another refutation of the idea that we can manipulate the living world with simple, predictable results.”
In his book Heat: How We Can Stop the Planet Burning, Monbiot asserts: “The problem is compounded by the fact that the connection between cause and effect seems so improbable. By turning on the lights, filling the kettle, taking the children to school, driving to the shops, we are condemning other people to death. We never chose to do this. We do not see ourselves as killers. We perform these acts without passion or intent.”
Yet his whale example is proof that a small action taken on one side of the planet is unlikely to elicit such a direct and definite reaction on the other side of the world – there are simply too many variables at play to be sure of the cause and effect.
In another example of Monbiot advocating simplistic solutions for complex problems, last May he warned that reaching an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 400 parts per million (ppm) signified “our failure to put the long-term prospects of the natural world and the people it supports above immediate self-interest.”
“The only way forward now is back: to retrace our steps and seek to return atmospheric concentrations to around 350ppm, as the 350.org campaign demands. That requires, above all, that we leave the majority of the fossil fuels which have already been identified in the ground.”
But like the seal hunters whom he criticises for failing to acknowledge that predation by seals can be beneficial to the local fish population, Monbiot fails to accept that rising carbon dioxide concentrations, being plant food, can have a beneficial effect on worldwide fauna, leading to a greening of the planet that is already being recorded. In doing so, he is guilty of the blindness to evidence that he levels at his opponents.