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The fate of Canada's unicorns of the sea

What narwhals can teach us about the climate change tipping point.

A female narwhal shot by hunters, sinking near the ice edge of Admiralty Inlet, Lancaster Sound, Nunavut, Canada on June 28, 2006. (Paul Nicklen/National Geographic/Getty Images)

TORONTO — In these heady days of hope and audacity, the fate of some 600 narwhals in Canada’s Arctic has the makings of a cautionary tale.

These unicorns of the northern seas, creatures of legend and imagination, regularly feed around Baffin Island in Canada’s high north. In late September they migrate to open waters to escape the encroaching ice.

Last fall, the ice was late in forming so the whales lingered. Then it formed in a flash, trapping them by late November in rapidly shrinking breathing holes. Video images showed narwhals jostling to gasp for air, their spiral tusks jutting out like exhausted pleas for help.

Canadian fisheries officials, convinced the whales were doomed to drown or die of starvation, allowed the local Inuit to “harvest” the trapped narwhals. They were shot, harpooned and dragged from the water in a bloody ritual that lasted days. The meat and muktuk was a boon for the 1,300 Inuit living in Pond Inlet, for whom hunger is a too-common reality.

Animal welfare groups, meanwhile, denounced the slaughter, insisting the government should have tried to free the whales with an icebreaker. But the incident’s lessons run deeper.

Canadian officials chalked it up to a “misfortune of nature.”

But Inuit hunters, noting that the last mass trapping of narwhals occurred 75 years ago, blamed global warming. Arctic ice, as numerous scientific studies tell us, is melting at an accelerated rate. Freezing comes later, and suddenly.

The new ebb and flow of ice seems to have caught the narwhals off-guard, despite their tusks, which have millions of nerve endings used to detect subtle changes in temperature. The situation is reminiscent of anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s “quasi-scientific fable” of a frog sitting in a saucepan of cold water. When the heat is turned up gradually, the frog fails to notice and boils to death.

If narwhals and frogs can miss the climatic tipping point, what chance do humans have to detect it? It’s a question that seems not to concern Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

His Conservative Party government has consistently placed traditional, fossil fuel-based economic development above global warming concerns. It stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the administration of George W. Bush and was often accused of being a U.S. proxy for subverting agreements at international conferences.

Harper’s government, however, is less hypocritical than the Liberal Party government it replaced three years ago. That government made much of signing the 1992 Kyoto Protocol, only to flagrantly disregard its carbon emission targets, which call for a cut to 6 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Liberal inaction made it easy for Harper to scorn the targets as unrealistic when he came to power in 2006. By that year, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions were 22 percent above its 1990 levels. Harper made little effort to improve matters.

A comparison of the world’s 57 biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, released during December’s international environment conference in Poland, fingered Canada with the second-worst record, behind only Saudi Arabia.

With the election of President Barack Obama, it looked like Harper would finally lose the U.S. as an excuse for inaction. Obama, after all, has warned of “a planet that is warming from our unsustainable dependence on oil.” But look again.

Harper’s much-criticized greenhouse gas emission targets call for a 20 percent reduction from 2006 levels by 2020. Obama, widely celebrated as environmentally sensitive, has a policy with much the same effect. Both leaders would take greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels — well short of the Kyoto target. It explains why Harper wasted no time in embracing the Obama agenda, proposing an emissions agreement that would bind the two countries.

“Thanks to Obama, we and other (Kyoto) laggards are off the hook,” said Peter Gorrie, a Toronto-based writer who focuses on the environment. “To claims that Canada’s target is too weak, (Harper) can now say: ‘We’re on the same page as Obama.’”

Long denounced as Bush’s Kyoto attack dog, Harper, thanks to the wildly popular Obama, “effortlessly slips to the side of the angels,” Gorrie wrote.

Obama’s environmantal policy, with its $150 billion promise for clean technologies in wind and solar power and clean coal, is a clear improvement from the Bush years. His election also heralds the United States' reengagement in international attempts to forge a post-Kyoto deal.

But in the short term, Obama’s targets are no better than those of Harper, who is reviled by many environmentalists. And with the U.S. economy battered, some fear Obama will push for an international deal with carbon emission cuts well below what many scientists have been calling for.

That should leave the rest of us wondering about the narwhals in the Arctic and the frog in the saucepan, and their inability to guage the tipping point. 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/canada/090120/the-fate-canadas-unicorns-the-sea