MarineBio Conservation Society Blog Marine conservation, science, education, research, and a sea ethic... Sun, 21 Sep 2014 21:15:06 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Climate History Made! Sun, 21 Sep 2014 21:15:06 +0000 Continue reading ]]> “Today, 310,000 people took to the streets of New York City to call for climate action — the largest climate march in history. And on Tuesday, the world’s politicians will gather in New York to talk about climate action — 125 heads of state in total. They’ll be gathering with the knowledge that more people than ever are demanding action, not just words, and that their political future is on the line — as well as the future of the planet. We will bring that message to the top leadership of the UN inside Tuesday’s summit, with a hand-delivered message to top UN climate negotiators. If you stand with the hundreds of thousands of people who marched today around the world, tell world leaders that you mean business:

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Mantis shrimp weapons and leptocephali like you’ve never seen them before… Thu, 18 Sep 2014 07:04:53 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Dr Jamie Seymour from James Cook University and Emmy Award winning cameraman Richard Fitzpatrick film a spearing mantis shrimp at 1500 frames per second:


Citizen scientists capture beautiful ribbon eel larvae (leptocephali) on film

“Leptocephali are the remarkably transparent larvae of eels and their relatives, but they are rarely seen because they mostly live in oceanic waters. Moray eel leptocephali are one of the smaller types of eel larvae (usually less than 90 mm), but recently very large, 300-400 mm (over 1 foot) long, leptocephali have been filmed and photographed in coastal Indonesia at Sangeang Island, Lembeh Strait adjacent to Sulawesi Island, Ambon Island, and Bali (Miller et al. 2013). The similarity of the head and body shapes of these leptocephali with adult ribbon eels, Rhinomuraena quaesita, suggest they are their larvae.”

This video shows large leptocephali that were filmed by divers at 3 locations within the Indonesian Archipelago from 2009 — 2011. These leptocephali were observed in Lembeh Strait adjacent to northeastern Sulawesi Island, at Ambon Island and at Bali, from December to April.

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Taking science primetime | Riley Elliott Tue, 16 Sep 2014 04:16:13 +0000 Excellent TEDx talk by Riley Elliott about combining scientific research and media savvy to get the word out about important issues, like shark finning, to the most people to help effect change when it’s most needed.

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Slow Life Fri, 12 Sep 2014 17:48:40 +0000 Continue reading ]]>
Slow Life from Daniel Stoupin

"Slow" marine animals show their secret life under high magnification. Corals and sponges are very mobile creatures, but their motion is only detectable at different time scales compared to ours and requires time lapses to be seen. These animals build coral reefs and play crucial roles in the biosphere, yet we know almost nothing about their daily lives.

Learn more about what you see in my post:

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Fantastic Encounter with a Grimpoteuthis Wed, 10 Sep 2014 23:00:13 +0000 Continue reading ]]>

Deep-sea octopuses like this amazing one in the genus Grimpoteuthis (~17 species) are sadly nicknamed “dumbo octopuses” (after the Disney character) and are generally poorly understood because they live so deep at ~3,000-4,000 m (the average ocean depth is 3,790 m). They differ from other octopuses by generally having abandoned jet propulsion, relying on their ears fins as their primary mode of locomotion. Their fins are supported by an internal shell (which also differs from other octopuses, who usually have no shells of any kind) and their arms are also seriously webbed, with their webbing usually reaching to the tips of their arms. Learn more about finned deep-sea octopuses, Grimpoteuthis spp. and watch for more deep-sea life aboard the E/V Nautilus at

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The Pale Blue Dot Wed, 10 Sep 2014 11:52:53 +0000

From Carl Sagan to all of us here, on Planet Ocean, the Pale Blue Dot… by Reid Gower and The Sagan Series.

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Red Sea Highlights Tue, 09 Sep 2014 00:20:58 +0000 Continue reading ]]>

This is a highlight reel mostly from two weeks of diving in southern Sudan aboard the Don Questo live-aboard, with supplementary footage from Saudi Arabia. The central Red Sea (southern Sudan in particular) is a truly fantastic place, home to an array of incredible sharks species, majestic manta rays, massive groupers, curious jacks, schools of barracudas and more. This video was created to showcase the incredible beauty of the region and, more importantly, to inspire and convince viewers that this largely unknown, unfished, and unexplored place is well worth preserving.

Alex Kattan is a masters student in marine science at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. He loves the ocean and all its inhabitants, with a particular fascination with tropical coral reefs. He enjoys sharing this passion with others through education, outreach, film and social media. He can be reached by email at

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Disruption: Climate. Change. Mon, 08 Sep 2014 00:18:59 +0000
“DISRUPTION” – a film by KELLY NYKS & JARED P. SCOTT from Watch Disruption.
Join the Peoples Climate March, September 21st @

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Obama to create world’s largest ocean preserve Tue, 17 Jun 2014 22:02:17 +0000 Continue reading ]]> WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is looking to create the largest marine preserve in the world by protecting a massive stretch of the Pacific Ocean from drilling, fishing and other actions that could threaten wildlife, the White House said.

Aiming to protect marine wildlife, Obama will also direct the government to create a program to deter illegal fishing. The executive steps come as Obama is searching for ways to leave his second-term mark on the environment despite opposition from many Republicans in Congress.

Obama was to announce the steps Tuesday in a video message to those participating in an “Our Ocean” conference that the State Department and Secretary of State John Kerry are hosting.

Officials said Obama is considering a massive expansion to the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. The protected waters surround a group of mostly uninhabited islands, controlled by the U.S., that sit between Hawaii and American Samoa.

Read more…

Pink corals on the Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific. Part of three  island chains designated as protected areas by President George W. Bush.

Pink corals on the Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific. Part of three island chains designated as protected areas by President George W. Bush.

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Celebrate World Sea Turtle Day! Mon, 16 Jun 2014 16:14:40 +0000 Continue reading ]]> There’s World Turtle Day (May 23) then there’s World SEA Turtle Day, which is today! green sea turtleWhy is June 16th World Sea Turtle Day? It is the birthday of Dr. Archie Carr who is widely known as “the father of sea turtle biology.” Dr. Carr focused his entire career on sea turtle research and conservation. According to The Sea Turtle Conservancy:

Archie Carr was a great biologist. His early descriptive studies of turtles set the standard of quality in the field of natural history. Later on, as he focused on sea turtles, he moved toward ecology and behavior, although his work always retained a taxonomic and evolutionary perspective. For decades the National Science Foundation (and the Sea Turtle Conservancy and the Office of Naval Research) supported his research at Tortuguero, enabling him to mount one of the longest lasting and most intensive studies of an animal population that has ever been done. To date, more than 35,000 adult female green turtles have been tagged at the research station at Tortuguero. From this effort have come papers by Archie Carr, his students, and other investigators on orientation, migration, nesting behavior, nest physiology, sensory physiology, nutrition, demography, and other subjects. Almost all of the studies have significance for conservation — Archie Carr was a conservation biologist long before the field was recognized.

Of the seven sea turtle species, five are listed on the IUCN Red List as either vulnerable, endangered, or cirtically endangered. They are: leatherbacks (vulnerable), loggerheads (endangered), hawksbills (critically endangered), green sea turtles (endangered), Kemp’s Ridley (critically endangered), Olive Ridley (vulnerable), and flatback sea turtles (data deficient). What can you do to protect sea turtles?

  1. At night, keep bright lights off the beach to encourage sea turtles to nest and to ensure hatchlings can find their way to the sea.
  2. Keep beaches trash free to avoid turtles mistaking it for food or getting caught in plastic loops. Single use plastic bags are often mistaken by sea turtles for their favorite food, jellyfish. Consumption can cause them to suffocate.
  3. Join a coastal conservation effort working to protect sea turtle nests from predators.
  4. Of course you can always donate to MarineBio or join the MarineBio Conservation Society to help us share species information and raise awareness about the plight of endangered sea turtles. Whether you can spare $5 or $50, it will help us continue bringing the world a vast source of information on all things ocean.
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Happy World Oceans Day! Sun, 08 Jun 2014 11:47:09 +0000 Continue reading ]]>

Happy World Oceans Day 2014! ~ Together we have the power to protect the Ocean and all it’s marine life.

Join the MarineBio Conservation Society ~ Donate to the MarineBio Conservation Society

Discover 101+ ways you can help protect one of the most valuable resources on our Planet with the MarineBio Conservation Society:

Learn more about #WorldOceansDay at:

Photo Credit ~ Christian / Christian Vizl UWPhotography

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Saving Sharks in Indonesia Thu, 15 Aug 2013 16:07:02 +0000 Continue reading ]]> blacktip shark

From our friends at the Gili Shark Foundation:

Indonesia is the largest exporter of shark fins in the world. There is no current (or planned) legislation for the protection of reef sharks in Indonesia and CITES Appendix II (which only covers international fisheries) does not cover them either. This means that the fishermen around Indonesia are acting totally within the law by catching, killing and finning these animals. The animals are sold at the local fish markets for a small price in huge numbers. Ideally we would be able to use legislation to ban all fishing of sharks, however, this isn’t realistically going to happen any time soon. The local Indonesian fishermen will land anything they can from the sea in order to make some money. When we were at Tanjung Luar Market the array of reef fish, eels, sharks, rays and pelagics was unbelievable. They will take anything they can.

There is no way we can currently affect the fishermen’s trade. They are legally allowed to do this and will do so in order to make a living. 17% of the rural population lives in abject poverty. If we cant stop them from landing the Reef Sharks then we have to try and find another way of saving them. We have been working with the Gili Eco Trust and have decided to try and intercept the sale of the sharks to the market by buying them straight from the fishermen before they are killed. By releasing them in ‘safe’ places maybe the Indonesian government and the fishermen will see the impact it has on dive tourism. If we can build a shark sanctuary around the three North-Eastern Gili Islands, which are less than 50 miles from the awful Tanjung Luar fish market then maybe we can change the minds of the legislators. We already have Project Momentum, which is attacking the problem from the top, but with this initiative we can also build up from the bottom to create a concerted effort all round closing the gaps and attacking the problem of the decline of our shark populations from all sides.

So, our aim here is to keep these sharks alive by intercepting them and preventing them from being killed and sold at the local markets. We have been able to make contact with local Balinese fishermen and have let them know that, for a nominal price, we will buy any sharks that are caught so that they don’t have to be killed and sold at the market. The local fishermen we have dealt with actual seem very interested and want to keep the sharks alive, but, of course their small income is a priority for them. This creates a dilemma for us. As shark conservationists we don’t want to create a bounty for live sharks and we don’t want to support shark fishing in anyway. This is absolutely not what we want or plan for. However, there is no way we can stop the fishermen catching these sharks and so if we don’t act in anyway we can, they will 100% end up in the fish market. It is up to us to act now and by doing so maybe we can show just how much tourism is generated and international acclaim is received by creating a second shark sanctuary in one of the worst countries for Elasmobranch fishing.

We received a call a while ago from a fisherman that had caught 6 White-Tip reef sharks that were all around a meter long. He was calling us to give us first refusal, because he had heard about our efforts to save these creatures, before he took them to the fish market. We settled on a price of Rp 2,700,000 (around $270) for all of the sharks including delivery to a sea pen in Bali. Monetarily this is nothing. It just shows that we are not being held hostage by fishermen trying to ransom sharks to us and it shows that we are not encouraging the fishing of sharks by paying extortionate prices. It does however give us a glimmer of hope on two levels. Firstly, we have saved six beautiful sharks from the dinner table; in a world where over 100,000,000 sharks are killed each year this is a small achievement yet it is still a step along the way. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, a local Indonesian fisherman has decided to go out of his way to help us protect these sharks. That again is a small step, but if we can then show Indonesia what each small step adds up to, then I think we are well on the way to making a serious change here. This is a huge task, but wouldn’t it be great if we could make even a small bit of difference. You never know what can happen.

So this leads me on to where we are now…

diver with blacktip shark

We have been working with Paul Friese from Bali Sharks because of his contacts within the local Balinese fishing community and because of his location with a purpose built sea pen in Bali. He has been rescuing sharks in this way for some time now housing and making sure they are healthy and then releasing them in a secret location off Sanur. Unfortunately, he cannot provide any monitoring after release as there is no shark foundation over there and there seems to be no communication between dive shops unlike Gili Trawangan. Here we have GIDA, we have the Gili Eco Trust and we have a fiercely strong dive community that work together on a conservation level as well as safety and business levels phenomenally well. We have rubbish collections, we have Finathons we have events for earthquake victims, we have Biorocks and MPAs and we also now have the Gili Shark Foundation. This just shows how much we come together as a community. We have the habitat, over 3000 hectares of no go zones (No fishing, no diving and no snorkeling). We have the fish stocks because of this. And we have a decimated yet existing shark population that is breeding; we have all seen the beautiful juveniles and the heavily pregnant females cruising around. This shows us that they are healthy and our islands are a good and safe place for them to breed. Our islands are capable of supporting a much larger shark population than we have at the moment, some of you may be able to remember how many there used to be. Apparently, from our research, sharks used to be common right off the front on the Biorocks. This is why we decided to start to release the sharks that are ‘ready’ into our waters.

Last Saturday four conservationists all traveled back over to the Gili Trawangan on the Gili Getaway fast boat with four sharks. Earlier that morning, we had packed them into polyboxes with hyper-oxegenated water and 100% pure oxygen. We got them back to the island where there was a team of people who helped us unload them from the fast boat straight onto one of the Big Bubble boats. We then drove out to our chosen release site, which was Manta Point where we have seen numerous sharks of both species. Each of the four teams were responsible for a shark and we had supervisors for each team as well as a supervisor watching all teams. We tagged and wrote down the vital information about each shark and then descended with the sharks after acclimating them to our water salinity and temperature and released them one by one underwater.

Gili Shark Foundation

As you can all see it was a phenomenal success. It was a great moment for each one of the sharks as they had previously been bound for the fish market. It was also a great success for the island not to mention a wonderful experience for everyone involved. Being all of our first experiences releasing sharks, it didn’t go without any hiccups. It was wonderful yet traumatic at the same time.

The white tips were incredibly strong and instantly were accustomed to their surroundings. They swam off purposefully. Unfortunately the black tips weren’t as strong. They were obviously disorientated but after an incredible amount of help from the divers they were swimming freely. We had all pretty much run out of air by the time we had to surface. One of them had bitten into the plastic and it had to be removed form its jaws in order to breathe freely. We would love all your ideas thoughts comments and advice so please don’t hesitate to like our FB page ‘Gili Shark Foundation’ and contact us at:

– Steve Woods

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Ending Overfishing Mon, 08 Jul 2013 23:19:41 +0000
Ending Overfishing from OCEAN2012

Find out more about Sustainable Fisheries »

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Happy World Oceans Day! Fri, 07 Jun 2013 16:05:24 +0000

Celebrate World Oceans Day 2013 ~ Together we have the power to protect the ocean!

Discover 101 ways you can help protect one the most valuable resources on our Planet with MarineBio:

Photo Credit ~ Pietro Cremone – Underwater Photography ~

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Giant squid caught on film in its natural habitat for the first time Tue, 22 Jan 2013 19:18:14 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Giant Squids, Architeuthis dux

A research crew from Japan’s National Science Museum have managed to capture on film for the first time a giant squid (Architeuthis) in its deep sea natural habitat. Working with Japanese public broadcaster NHK and the US Discovery Channel, the researchers found the massive invertebrate at a depth of a depth of 630 metres as the animal was holding on to bait swimming against the current in the depths. The footage was filmed in the Pacific Ocean near the Ogasawara Islands, 1000 km south of Japan, an area where two previous sightings in 2006 and 2012, have been reported.

The silver-coloured mollusc is often considered to be last great mystery of the ocean and has thought to be the inspiration for many sea monster myths and stories throughout the millennium, specifically in Nordic legend where it is known as the ‘Kraken’. Giant squids are a type of cephalopod that can grow up to 14 metres in length. They, along with its distant cousins the colossal squids, have the largest known eyes in the animal kingdom. They hunt other squid and deep sea fish throughout these cold dark depths, although they themselves are often the prey to sperm whales.

Giant Squids, Architeuthis dux

The footage was the culmination of around 100 missions during which time scientists spent 400 hours in a cramped three-man submersible tracking the beast via cameras. Zoologist Tsunemi Kubodera said: “Many people have tried to capture an image of a giant squid alive in its natural habitat, whether researchers or film crews. But they all failed. These are the first ever images of a real live giant squid.” Kubodera explained that the mission was a success due to the use of lights which were invisible to both human and squid’s eyes. He added: “If you try and approach making a load of noise, using a bright white light, then the squid won’t come anywhere near you. That was our basic thinking. So we sat there in the pitch black, using a near-infrared light invisible even to the human eye, waiting for the giant squid to approach.”

The animal in this footage was about three metres long, but according to Kubodera, the animal may have been eight metres if its two long tentacles had not been missing. He went on to explain that “with this footage we hope to discover more about the life of species”.

In the News:
26ft giant squid footage captured
Giant squid captured on film for the first time: Japanese film crew records elusive creature in its natural habitat

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The World’s Rarest Whales Fri, 07 Dec 2012 05:40:24 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Spade-toothed Beaked Whales, Mesoplodon traversii

The appearance of the world’s rarest whales has been recorded for the first time after a mother and her calf washed up on beach in New Zealand in 2010. Spade-toothed beaked whales (Mesoplodon traversii [IUCN]), aka Bahamondi’s or Traver’s beaked whales, are so rare that they have yet to be seen alive and only recently have scientists confirmed that a five-meter specimen found alongside its male offspring two years ago belonged to the rarest species of whales.

Previous specimens have been such a rare event that only pieces of bone samples have been available to scientists since the species was first identified in 1872. So little was known of the species that scientists were reliant mainly on assumptions based on similar species when trying to understand the behavior of this most elusive of marine species. In light of their relative size to other similar beaked whale (Mesoplodon) species, they are thought to most likely be a deep-water species that lives alone or in small groups, feeding primarily on cephalopods (such as squid), and small fish in the depths.

Spade-toothed beaked whales were first discovered as a species on a small group of islands off the coast of New Zealand in 1872. As no one had ever seen a living spade-toothed whale or collected any specimens for comparison, those who discovered the initial remains identified them as belonging to the more commonly found beached whales in that area, Mesoplodon grayi, southern or Gray’s beaked whales.

Further analysis over the years, however, cleared things up and revealed them to be a new species of beaked whales. More species’ remains were discovered thereafter, during the 1950’s and in 1986 in Chile, and following this most recent discovery, it is hoped that our understanding of these enigmatic marine mammals will not only increase but the exploration of the open ocean will finally begin in earnest.

Thompson, Kirsten; Baker, C. Scott; van Helden, Anton; Patel, Selina; Millar, Craig; Constantine, Rochelle, The world’s rarest whale, Current biology : CB doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.055 (volume 22 issue 21 pp.R905 – R906)

World’s rarest whale seen for first time after New Zealand beaching
World’s rarest whale seen for first time
World’s rarest whale seen for first time: Spade-toothed whale

The Rarest Beaked Whale in the World: What Is Entirely Missing In Every Media Report

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Reef Life of the Andaman Fri, 02 Nov 2012 20:03:00 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The following outstanding 2 hour video shows the amazing biodiversity of the marine life in the Andaman Sea (in the northeast Indian Ocean). Produced by Nick Hope at Bubble Vision, he again amazes us while introducing us to many rarely seen marine species the way they should be met, in their home under the sea.

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Dolphin Mass Deaths In The Gulf Of Mexico Mon, 23 Jul 2012 18:39:20 +0000 Continue reading ]]>

The BP oil spill, the largest ever oil spill on open water to date, contributed significantly to the historically high number of dolphin deaths in the Gulf of Mexico, says a two-year scientific study released July 19. A variety of other environmental factors contributed.
A research team of biologists from several Gulf of Mexico institutions and the University of Central Florida in Orlando published their findings in the journal PLoS ONE.”

Continue reading @Planetsave...

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Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math Mon, 23 Jul 2012 02:37:18 +0000 Continue reading ]]> By Bill McKibben, July 19, 2012

If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.

Not that our leaders seemed to notice. Last month the world’s nations, meeting in Rio for the 20th-anniversary reprise of a massive 1992 environmental summit, accomplished nothing. Unlike George H.W. Bush, who flew in for the first conclave, Barack Obama didn’t even attend. It was “a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago,” the British journalist George Monbiot wrote; no one paid it much attention, footsteps echoing through the halls “once thronged by multitudes.” Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I’ve spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.

When we think about global warming at all, the arguments tend to be ideological, theological and economic. But to grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math. For the past year, an easy and powerful bit of arithmetical analysis first published by financial analysts in the U.K. has been making the rounds of environmental conferences and journals, but it hasn’t yet broken through to the larger public. This analysis upends most of the conventional political thinking about climate change. And it allows us to understand our precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless – position with three simple numbers.

The First Number: 2 Celsius

If the movie had ended in Hollywood fashion, the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 would have marked the culmination of the global fight to slow a changing climate. The world’s nations had gathered in the December gloom of the Danish capital for what a leading climate economist, Sir Nicholas Stern of Britain, called the “most important gathering since the Second World War, given what is at stake.” As Danish energy minister Connie Hedegaard, who presided over the conference, declared at the time: “This is our chance. If we miss it, it could take years before we get a new and better one. If ever.”

In the event, of course, we missed it. Copenhagen failed spectacularly. Neither China nor the United States, which between them are responsible for 40 percent of global carbon emissions, was prepared to offer dramatic concessions, and so the conference drifted aimlessly for two weeks until world leaders jetted in for the final day. Amid considerable chaos, President Obama took the lead in drafting a face-saving “Copenhagen Accord” that fooled very few. Its purely voluntary agreements committed no one to anything, and even if countries signaled their intentions to cut carbon emissions, there was no enforcement mechanism. “Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight,” an angry Greenpeace official declared, “with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport.” Headline writers were equally brutal: COPENHAGEN: THE MUNICH OF OUR TIMES? asked one.

The accord did contain one important number, however. In Paragraph 1, it formally recognized “the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius.” And in the very next paragraph, it declared that “we agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required… so as to hold the increase in global temperature below two degrees Celsius.” By insisting on two degrees – about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit – the accord ratified positions taken earlier in 2009 by the G8, and the so-called Major Economies Forum. It was as conventional as conventional wisdom gets. The number first gained prominence, in fact, at a 1995 climate conference chaired by Angela Merkel, then the German minister of the environment and now the center-right chancellor of the nation.

Some context: So far, we’ve raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. (A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods.) Given those impacts, in fact, many scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target. “Any number much above one degree involves a gamble,” writes Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes, “and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up.” Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank’s chief biodiversity adviser, puts it like this: “If we’re seeing what we’re seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.” NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet’s most prominent climatologist, is even blunter: “The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.” At the Copenhagen summit, a spokesman for small island nations warned that many would not survive a two-degree rise: “Some countries will flat-out disappear.” When delegates from developing nations were warned that two degrees would represent a “suicide pact” for drought-stricken Africa, many of them started chanting, “One degree, one Africa.”

Despite such well-founded misgivings, political realism bested scientific data, and the world settled on the two-degree target – indeed, it’s fair to say that it’s the only thing about climate change the world has settled on. All told, 167 countries responsible for more than 87 percent of the world’s carbon emissions have signed on to the Copenhagen Accord, endorsing the two-degree target. Only a few dozen countries have rejected it, including Kuwait, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Even the United Arab Emirates, which makes most of its money exporting oil and gas, signed on. The official position of planet Earth at the moment is that we can’t raise the temperature more than two degrees Celsius – it’s become the bottomest of bottom lines. Two degrees.

The Second Number: 565 Gigatons

Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. (“Reasonable,” in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.)

This idea of a global “carbon budget” emerged about a decade ago, as scientists began to calculate how much oil, coal and gas could still safely be burned. Since we’ve increased the Earth’s temperature by 0.8 degrees so far, we’re currently less than halfway to the target. But, in fact, computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we’re already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.

How good are these numbers? No one is insisting that they’re exact, but few dispute that they’re generally right. The 565-gigaton figure was derived from one of the most sophisticated computer-simulation models that have been built by climate scientists around the world over the past few decades. And the number is being further confirmed by the latest climate-simulation models currently being finalized in advance of the next report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Looking at them as they come in, they hardly differ at all,” says Tom Wigley, an Australian climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “There’s maybe 40 models in the data set now, compared with 20 before. But so far the numbers are pretty much the same. We’re just fine-tuning things. I don’t think much has changed over the last decade.” William Collins, a senior climate scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, agrees. “I think the results of this round of simulations will be quite similar,” he says. “We’re not getting any free lunch from additional understanding of the climate system.”

We’re not getting any free lunch from the world’s economies, either. With only a single year’s lull in 2009 at the height of the financial crisis, we’ve continued to pour record amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, year after year. In late May, the International Energy Agency published its latest figures – CO2 emissions last year rose to 31.6 gigatons, up 3.2 percent from the year before. America had a warm winter and converted more coal-fired power plants to natural gas, so its emissions fell slightly; China kept booming, so its carbon output (which recently surpassed the U.S.) rose 9.3 percent; the Japanese shut down their fleet of nukes post-Fukushima, so their emissions edged up 2.4 percent. “There have been efforts to use more renewable energy and improve energy efficiency,” said Corinne Le Quere, who runs England’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. “But what this shows is that so far the effects have been marginal.” In fact, study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year – and at that rate, we’ll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years, around the time today’s preschoolers will be graduating from high school. “The new data provide further evidence that the door to a two-degree trajectory is about to close,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist. In fact, he continued, “When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees.” That’s almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit, which would create a planet straight out of science fiction.

So, new data in hand, everyone at the Rio conference renewed their ritual calls for serious international action to move us back to a two-degree trajectory. The charade will continue in November, when the next Conference of the Parties (COP) of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change convenes in Qatar. This will be COP 18 – COP 1 was held in Berlin in 1995, and since then the process has accomplished essentially nothing. Even scientists, who are notoriously reluctant to speak out, are slowly overcoming their natural preference to simply provide data. “The message has been consistent for close to 30 years now,” Collins says with a wry laugh, “and we have the instrumentation and the computer power required to present the evidence in detail. If we choose to continue on our present course of action, it should be done with a full evaluation of the evidence the scientific community has presented.” He pauses, suddenly conscious of being on the record. “I should say, a fuller evaluation of the evidence.”

So far, though, such calls have had little effect. We’re in the same position we’ve been in for a quarter-century: scientific warning followed by political inaction. Among scientists speaking off the record, disgusted candor is the rule. One senior scientist told me, “You know those new cigarette packs, where governments make them put a picture of someone with a hole in their throats? Gas pumps should have something like that.”

The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons

This number is the scariest of all – one that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma. It was highlighted last summer by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who published a report in an effort to educate investors about the possible risks that climate change poses to their stock portfolios. The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.

The Carbon Tracker Initiative – led by James Leaton, an environmentalist who served as an adviser at the accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers – combed through proprietary databases to figure out how much oil, gas and coal the world’s major energy companies hold in reserve. The numbers aren’t perfect – they don’t fully reflect the recent surge in unconventional energy sources like shale gas, and they don’t accurately reflect coal reserves, which are subject to less stringent reporting requirements than oil and gas. But for the biggest companies, the figures are quite exact: If you burned everything in the inventories of Russia’s Lukoil and America’s ExxonMobil, for instance, which lead the list of oil and gas companies, each would release more than 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Which is exactly why this new number, 2,795 gigatons, is such a big deal. Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That’s the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically aboveground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.

If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.

So far, as I said at the start, environmental efforts to tackle global warming have failed. The planet’s emissions of carbon dioxide continue to soar, especially as developing countries emulate (and supplant) the industries of the West. Even in rich countries, small reductions in emissions offer no sign of the real break with the status quo we’d need to upend the iron logic of these three numbers. Germany is one of the only big countries that has actually tried hard to change its energy mix; on one sunny Saturday in late May, that northern-latitude nation generated nearly half its power from solar panels within its borders. That’s a small miracle – and it demonstrates that we have the technology to solve our problems. But we lack the will. So far, Germany’s the exception; the rule is ever more carbon.

This record of failure means we know a lot about what strategies don’t work. Green groups, for instance, have spent a lot of time trying to change individual lifestyles: the iconic twisty light bulb has been installed by the millions, but so have a new generation of energy-sucking flatscreen TVs. Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we’re certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.

People perceive – correctly – that their individual actions will not make a decisive difference in the atmospheric concentration of CO2; by 2010, a poll found that “while recycling is widespread in America and 73 percent of those polled are paying bills online in order to save paper,” only four percent had reduced their utility use and only three percent had purchased hybrid cars. Given a hundred years, you could conceivably change lifestyles enough to matter – but time is precisely what we lack.

A more efficient method, of course, would be to work through the political system, and environmentalists have tried that, too, with the same limited success. They’ve patiently lobbied leaders, trying to convince them of our peril and assuming that politicians would heed the warnings. Sometimes it has seemed to work. Barack Obama, for instance, campaigned more aggressively about climate change than any president before him – the night he won the nomination, he told supporters that his election would mark the moment “the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal.” And he has achieved one significant change: a steady increase in the fuel efficiency mandated for automobiles. It’s the kind of measure, adopted a quarter-century ago, that would have helped enormously. But in light of the numbers I’ve just described, it’s obviously a very small start indeed.

At this point, effective action would require actually keeping most of the carbon the fossil-fuel industry wants to burn safely in the soil, not just changing slightly the speed at which it’s burned. And there the president, apparently haunted by the still-echoing cry of “Drill, baby, drill,” has gone out of his way to frack and mine. His secretary of interior, for instance, opened up a huge swath of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming for coal extraction: The total basin contains some 67.5 gigatons worth of carbon (or more than 10 percent of the available atmospheric space). He’s doing the same thing with Arctic and offshore drilling; in fact, as he explained on the stump in March, “You have my word that we will keep drilling everywhere we can… That’s a commitment that I make.” The next day, in a yard full of oil pipe in Cushing, Oklahoma, the president promised to work on wind and solar energy but, at the same time, to speed up fossil-fuel development: “Producing more oil and gas here at home has been, and will continue to be, a critical part of an all-of-the-above energy strategy.” That is, he’s committed to finding even more stock to add to the 2,795-gigaton inventory of unburned carbon.

Sometimes the irony is almost Borat-scale obvious: In early June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled on a Norwegian research trawler to see firsthand the growing damage from climate change. “Many of the predictions about warming in the Arctic are being surpassed by the actual data,” she said, describing the sight as “sobering.” But the discussions she traveled to Scandinavia to have with other foreign ministers were mostly about how to make sure Western nations get their share of the estimated $9 trillion in oil (that’s more than 90 billion barrels, or 37 gigatons of carbon) that will become accessible as the Arctic ice melts. Last month, the Obama administration indicated that it would give Shell permission to start drilling in sections of the Arctic.

Almost every government with deposits of hydrocarbons straddles the same divide. Canada, for instance, is a liberal democracy renowned for its internationalism – no wonder, then, that it signed on to the Kyoto treaty, promising to cut its carbon emissions substantially by 2012. But the rising price of oil suddenly made the tar sands of Alberta economically attractive – and since, as NASA climatologist James Hansen pointed out in May, they contain as much as 240 gigatons of carbon (or almost half of the available space if we take the 565 limit seriously), that meant Canada’s commitment to Kyoto was nonsense. In December, the Canadian government withdrew from the treaty before it faced fines for failing to meet its commitments.

The same kind of hypocrisy applies across the ideological board: In his speech to the Copenhagen conference, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez quoted Rosa Luxemburg, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and “Christ the Redeemer,” insisting that “climate change is undoubtedly the most devastating environmental problem of this century.” But the next spring, in the Simon Bolivar Hall of the state-run oil company, he signed an agreement with a consortium of international players to develop the vast Orinoco tar sands as “the most significant engine for a comprehensive development of the entire territory and Venezuelan population.” The Orinoco deposits are larger than Alberta’s – taken together, they’d fill up the whole available atmospheric space.

So: the paths we have tried to tackle global warming have so far produced only gradual, halting shifts. A rapid, transformative change would require building a movement, and movements require enemies. As John F. Kennedy put it, “The civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He’s helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.” And enemies are what climate change has lacked.

But what all these climate numbers make painfully, usefully clear is that the planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. “Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices,” says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. “But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.”

According to the Carbon Tracker report, if Exxon burns its current reserves, it would use up more than seven percent of the available atmospheric space between us and the risk of two degrees. BP is just behind, followed by the Russian firm Gazprom, then Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell, each of which would fill between three and four percent. Taken together, just these six firms, of the 200 listed in the Carbon Tracker report, would use up more than a quarter of the remaining two-degree budget. Severstal, the Russian mining giant, leads the list of coal companies, followed by firms like BHP Billiton and Peabody. The numbers are simply staggering – this industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they’re planning to use it.

They’re clearly cognizant of global warming – they employ some of the world’s best scientists, after all, and they’re bidding on all those oil leases made possible by the staggering melt of Arctic ice. And yet they relentlessly search for more hydrocarbons – in early March, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson told Wall Street analysts that the company plans to spend $37 billion a year through 2016 (about $100 million a day) searching for yet more oil and gas.

There’s not a more reckless man on the planet than Tillerson. Late last month, on the same day the Colorado fires reached their height, he told a New York audience that global warming is real, but dismissed it as an “engineering problem” that has “engineering solutions.” Such as? “Changes to weather patterns that move crop-production areas around – we’ll adapt to that.” This in a week when Kentucky farmers were reporting that corn kernels were “aborting” in record heat, threatening a spike in global food prices. “The fear factor that people want to throw out there to say, ‘We just have to stop this,’ I do not accept,” Tillerson said. Of course not – if he did accept it, he’d have to keep his reserves in the ground. Which would cost him money. It’s not an engineering problem, in other words – it’s a greed problem.

You could argue that this is simply in the nature of these companies – that having found a profitable vein, they’re compelled to keep mining it, more like efficient automatons than people with free will. But as the Supreme Court has made clear, they are people of a sort. In fact, thanks to the size of its bankroll, the fossil-fuel industry has far more free will than the rest of us. These companies don’t simply exist in a world whose hungers they fulfill – they help create the boundaries of that world.

Left to our own devices, citizens might decide to regulate carbon and stop short of the brink; according to a recent poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans would back an international agreement that cut carbon emissions 90 percent by 2050. But we aren’t left to our own devices. The Koch brothers, for instance, have a combined wealth of $50 billion, meaning they trail only Bill Gates on the list of richest Americans. They’ve made most of their money in hydrocarbons, they know any system to regulate carbon would cut those profits, and they reportedly plan to lavish as much as $200 million on this year’s elections. In 2009, for the first time, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce surpassed both the Republican and Democratic National Committees on political spending; the following year, more than 90 percent of the Chamber’s cash went to GOP candidates, many of whom deny the existence of global warming. Not long ago, the Chamber even filed a brief with the EPA urging the agency not to regulate carbon – should the world’s scientists turn out to be right and the planet heats up, the Chamber advised, “populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological and technological adaptations.” As radical goes, demanding that we change our physiology seems right up there.

Environmentalists, understandably, have been loath to make the fossil-fuel industry their enemy, respecting its political power and hoping instead to convince these giants that they should turn away from coal, oil and gas and transform themselves more broadly into “energy companies.” Sometimes that strategy appeared to be working – emphasis on appeared. Around the turn of the century, for instance, BP made a brief attempt to restyle itself as “Beyond Petroleum,” adapting a logo that looked like the sun and sticking solar panels on some of its gas stations. But its investments in alternative energy were never more than a tiny fraction of its budget for hydrocarbon exploration, and after a few years, many of those were wound down as new CEOs insisted on returning to the company’s “core business.” In December, BP finally closed its solar division. Shell shut down its solar and wind efforts in 2009. The five biggest oil companies have made more than $1 trillion in profits since the millennium – there’s simply too much money to be made on oil and gas and coal to go chasing after zephyrs and sunbeams.

Much of that profit stems from a single historical accident: Alone among businesses, the fossil-fuel industry is allowed to dump its main waste, carbon dioxide, for free. Nobody else gets that break – if you own a restaurant, you have to pay someone to cart away your trash, since piling it in the street would breed rats. But the fossil-fuel industry is different, and for sound historical reasons: Until a quarter-century ago, almost no one knew that CO2 was dangerous. But now that we understand that carbon is heating the planet and acidifying the oceans, its price becomes the central issue.

If you put a price on carbon, through a direct tax or other methods, it would enlist markets in the fight against global warming. Once Exxon has to pay for the damage its carbon is doing to the atmosphere, the price of its products would rise. Consumers would get a strong signal to use less fossil fuel – every time they stopped at the pump, they’d be reminded that you don’t need a semimilitary vehicle to go to the grocery store. The economic playing field would now be a level one for nonpolluting energy sources. And you could do it all without bankrupting citizens – a so-called “fee-and-dividend” scheme would put a hefty tax on coal and gas and oil, then simply divide up the proceeds, sending everyone in the country a check each month for their share of the added costs of carbon. By switching to cleaner energy sources, most people would actually come out ahead.

There’s only one problem: Putting a price on carbon would reduce the profitability of the fossil-fuel industry. After all, the answer to the question “How high should the price of carbon be?” is “High enough to keep those carbon reserves that would take us past two degrees safely in the ground.” The higher the price on carbon, the more of those reserves would be worthless. The fight, in the end, is about whether the industry will succeed in its fight to keep its special pollution break alive past the point of climate catastrophe, or whether, in the economists’ parlance, we’ll make them internalize those externalities.

It’s not clear, of course, that the power of the fossil-fuel industry can be broken. The U.K. analysts who wrote the Carbon Tracker report and drew attention to these numbers had a relatively modest goal – they simply wanted to remind investors that climate change poses a very real risk to the stock prices of energy companies. Say something so big finally happens (a giant hurricane swamps Manhattan, a megadrought wipes out Midwest agriculture) that even the political power of the industry is inadequate to restrain legislators, who manage to regulate carbon. Suddenly those Chevron reserves would be a lot less valuable, and the stock would tank. Given that risk, the Carbon Tracker report warned investors to lessen their exposure, hedge it with some big plays in alternative energy.

“The regular process of economic evolution is that businesses are left with stranded assets all the time,” says Nick Robins, who runs HSBC’s Climate Change Centre. “Think of film cameras, or typewriters. The question is not whether this will happen. It will. Pension systems have been hit by the dot-com and credit crunch. They’ll be hit by this.” Still, it hasn’t been easy to convince investors, who have shared in the oil industry’s record profits. “The reason you get bubbles,” sighs Leaton, “is that everyone thinks they’re the best analyst – that they’ll go to the edge of the cliff and then jump back when everyone else goes over.”

So pure self-interest probably won’t spark a transformative challenge to fossil fuel. But moral outrage just might – and that’s the real meaning of this new math. It could, plausibly, give rise to a real movement.

Once, in recent corporate history, anger forced an industry to make basic changes. That was the campaign in the 1980s demanding divestment from companies doing business in South Africa. It rose first on college campuses and then spread to municipal and state governments; 155 campuses eventually divested, and by the end of the decade, more than 80 cities, 25 states and 19 counties had taken some form of binding economic action against companies connected to the apartheid regime. “The end of apartheid stands as one of the crowning accomplishments of the past century,” as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, “but we would not have succeeded without the help of international pressure,” especially from “the divestment movement of the 1980s.”

The fossil-fuel industry is obviously a tougher opponent, and even if you could force the hand of particular companies, you’d still have to figure out a strategy for dealing with all the sovereign nations that, in effect, act as fossil-fuel companies. But the link for college students is even more obvious in this case. If their college’s endowment portfolio has fossil-fuel stock, then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won’t have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree. (The same logic applies to the world’s largest investors, pension funds, which are also theoretically interested in the future – that’s when their members will “enjoy their retirement.”) “Given the severity of the climate crisis, a comparable demand that our institutions dump stock from companies that are destroying the planet would not only be appropriate but effective,” says Bob Massie, a former anti-apartheid activist who helped found the Investor Network on Climate Risk. “The message is simple: We have had enough. We must sever the ties with those who profit from climate change – now.”

Movements rarely have predictable outcomes. But any campaign that weakens the fossil-fuel industry’s political standing clearly increases the chances of retiring its special breaks. Consider President Obama’s signal achievement in the climate fight, the large increase he won in mileage requirements for cars. Scientists, environmentalists and engineers had advocated such policies for decades, but until Detroit came under severe financial pressure, it was politically powerful enough to fend them off. If people come to understand the cold, mathematical truth – that the fossil-fuel industry is systematically undermining the planet’s physical systems – it might weaken it enough to matter politically. Exxon and their ilk might drop their opposition to a fee-and-dividend solution; they might even decide to become true energy companies, this time for real.

Even if such a campaign is possible, however, we may have waited too long to start it. To make a real difference – to keep us under a temperature increase of two degrees – you’d need to change carbon pricing in Washington, and then use that victory to leverage similar shifts around the world. At this point, what happens in the U.S. is most important for how it will influence China and India, where emissions are growing fastest. (In early June, researchers concluded that China has probably under-reported its emissions by up to 20 percent.) The three numbers I’ve described are daunting – they may define an essentially impossible future. But at least they provide intellectual clarity about the greatest challenge humans have ever faced. We know how much we can burn, and we know who’s planning to burn more. Climate change operates on a geological scale and time frame, but it’s not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue; we have met the enemy and they is Shell.

Meanwhile the tide of numbers continues. The week after the Rio conference limped to its conclusion, Arctic sea ice hit the lowest level ever recorded for that date. Last month, on a single weekend, Tropical Storm Debby dumped more than 20 inches of rain on Florida – the earliest the season’s fourth-named cyclone has ever arrived. At the same time, the largest fire in New Mexico history burned on, and the most destructive fire in Colorado’s annals claimed 346 homes in Colorado Springs – breaking a record set the week before in Fort Collins. This month, scientists issued a new study concluding that global warming has dramatically increased the likelihood of severe heat and drought – days after a heat wave across the Plains and Midwest broke records that had stood since the Dust Bowl, threatening this year’s harvest. You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can’t do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we’re now leaving… in the dust.

This story is from the August 2nd, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

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Whale Wars in Seattle: A U.S. Court Discusses Antarctic Whaling Fri, 20 Jul 2012 07:12:01 +0000 Continue reading ]]> By Timothy G. Nelson*

This March, a Seattle-based federal judge issued a decision dealing with the continued practice of whaling in Antarctic waters. The court’s ruling, arising from a dispute between whalers and the activists depicted on the TV show, “Whale Wars,” stopped short of declaring whaling to be a violation of international law, but nevertheless declared it to be against the public interest of the United States as reflected in U.S. marine environmental legislation. The court also highlighted the potential importance of a dispute concerning this issue between Australia and Japan, currently pending before the International Court of Justice (“ICJ”).

The International Ban on Commercial Whaling

The hunting of whales, once a major industry in several maritime states, became subject to international regulation in 1946, through the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (“ICRW”). By that treaty, which gained widespread adherence, an International Whaling Commission (“IWC”) was established, with power to set annual catch quotas for each member state.

The IWC initially operated as a kind of industry regulator, essentially facilitating the continuation of the whaling industry. Over the decades, however, as environmental voices gained prominence, the IWC eventually took action to curb the practice. After a series of partial measures, in 1982 the IWC enacted a full ban (or “zero catch” limit) on commercial whaling, effective in 1986. This ban, however, was subject to certain exceptions: first, under the ICRW system, member states had the right to object to the ban (in which case it did not apply to such states); second, states could still permit whaling by aboriginal peoples; and third – most controversially – states could continue whaling for “scientific” research. Furthermore, the IWC itself lacked sanctioning power for violation of the quota, meaning that enforcement was left to member states.

During the 1970s, U.S. Congress enacted various anti-whaling measures. By the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Congress outlawed whaling in all U.S. waters, and banned U.S. nationals from engaging in whaling on the high seas. By the 1971 “Pelly Amendment” and 1978 “Packwood Amendment,” it obligated the Secretary of Commerce to impose sanctions on any nation which, in his or her opinion, was acting so as to “diminish[ ] the effectiveness of the [ICRW].” 16 U.S.C. § 1821(e)(2)(A)(i). These measures were enacted partly to fill the gap left by the IWC’s lack of sanctioning power and place pressure on countries whose whaling fleets were still active, some of which (such as Japan, Iceland and Norway) had opposed the zero catch limit.

The sanctioning legislation indeed provided the United States with sufficient leverage to enter into an executive agreement with Japan in 1984, whereby Japan agreed to drop all objections to the zero catch limit and discontinue commercial whaling by 1988. In exchange, the United States agreed that it would not “certify” Japan as subject to sanction under the Pelly and Packwood Amendments. This arrangement was challenged by environmental groups, who sought an order mandating that the Secretary take steps to sanction Japan. In a 1986 ruling, however, the Supreme Court held (by 5-4 majority) that the Secretary could validly determine that the issue of whether to “certify” Japan as having undermined international whaling restrictions was one for executive discretion – thus removing any basis for applying sanctions. See Japan Whaling Ass’n v. Am. Cetacean Soc’y, 478 U.S. 221, 234–42 (1986).

Even under the zero catch regulations, there remained a “scientific research” exception to whaling. In 1987, the Japanese government enacted the “Japanese Whaling Research Program Under Special Permit in the Antarctic” (“JARPA”), which licensed the continued hunting of whales in the Southern Ocean for scientific research purposes. As noted below, this has proven controversial.

Further National and International Measures, Including Australia’s “Sanctuary” Legislation

Over the last few decades, the IWC has not only kept the zero catch whaling quota in place, but has enacted further environmental measures. In 1994, it declared the Southern Ocean – a highly significant ecosystem for many species of whale – a marine sanctuary. It has also continued to maintain a whaling sanctuary in the Indian Ocean.

The Australian Parliament has gone even further: in 1999, it enacted the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (Cth), a sweeping environmental statute that banned all commercial whaling within 200 nautical miles of the “Australian Antarctic Territory” – a large body of coastal land in Antarctica claimed by Australia. The Act is predicated on Australia’s long-standing claim that the waters adjacent to the Australian Antarctic Territory are also subject to Australian jurisdiction – specifically, that they are an “exclusive economic zone” (“EEZ”) for purposes of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and are thus subject to Australian regulation on matters affecting fisheries and the marine environment.

Although the concept of the EEZ under international law is widely accepted, Australia’s assertion of territorial sovereignty over Antarctic land is controversial: several states (including the United States) declined to recognize any territorial land claims over Antarctica; and, indeed, Australia’s claim is only recognized by the United Kingdom, New Zealand, France and Norway. Moreover, Article 4 of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 bars the assertion of “new” territorial claims over Antarctica while the treaty remains in force (although Australia can claim that its EEZ claim is not a new claim but a consequence of its pre-1959 territorial claim).

Litigation Ensues in the Australian Courts and the ICJ

Australia’s legislation, which took effect in 2002, formed the basis for a private action by the Humane Society, seeking an injunction against the various owners of the whaling fleet that had been carrying out Antarctic whaling under the JARPA scientific license. In January 2008, after an unopposed evidentiary hearing, Justice James Allsop of the Federal Court of Australia issued a judgment declaring that the whaling fleet had “killed, injured, taken and interfered with Antarctic minke whales,” fin whales and humpback whales in the “Australian Whale Sanctuary,” in contravention of the Australian legislation, and permanently enjoined such activity . Humane Soc’y Int’l Inc v. Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha Ltd (2008) 165 FCR 510, 525–26 (Austl.).

Perhaps conscious that the 2008 judgment had not led to a diminution in “scientific” whaling in the Southern Ocean, in 2010 Australia initiated a proceeding against Japan before the ICJ. In this case, titled “Case Concerning Whaling in the Antarctic,” Australia seeks a declaration that the JARPA whaling program is not a valid scientific activity for purposes of the IWC whaling ban and related international regulation. The case remains pending.

The Whalers Take Action in a United States District Court

The scene now shifted to Seattle. In late 2011, certain companies, which held scientific whaling licenses from the Japanese government’s JARPA program, instituted proceedings in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington in an attempt to quell the activities of “eco-warriors” who oppose Southern Ocean whaling – the same activists featured on the cable TV show “Whale Wars.” The lawsuit, brought by the owners of the JARPA-licensed whaling fleet, named as defendants the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and others allegedly responsible for the actions of “Steve Irwin,” “Brigitte Bardot” and “Bob Barker,” three colorfully named vessels whose crews utilize a variety of tactics to interrupt whalers in Antarctic waters. The plaintiffs sought to enjoin these actions, claimed that they constituted international piracy and other torts actionable under the Alien Tort Act of 1789. See Inst. of Cetacean Research v. Sea Shepherd Conservation Soc’y, No. C11-2043RAJ, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 36867, at *8-19, 19-20 (W.D. Wash. Mar. 19, 2012).

In March 2012, U.S. District Judge Richard Jones issued a decision denying preliminary relief. Although finding that the more aggressive maneuvers of the eco-warriors may have violated international navigation rules, he found that they did not constitute “piracy” for purposes of the Alien Tort Act. See id. at *41-42, 47-48. Even to the extent the plaintiffs had identified an actionable tort, however, Judge Jones held that an injunction was still not warranted, because: (1) plaintiffs had failed to show they would suffer “irreparable harm” absent an injunction, (2) the public interest did not favor an injunction and (3) plaintiffs came to the court with “unclean hands.” Id. at *70-72, 73-76.

On these latter two grounds (public interest and unclean hands), Judge Jones made certain holdings that arguably were critical of plaintiffs’ conduct. On the public interest issue, he made the stark observation that “[i]f the court were to grant the whalers their injunction, more whales would die,” in violation of an “unquestionably important” U.S. public policy (as enshrined, for example, in the Marine Mammals Protection Act). Id. at *74. The court also considered that the public interest (and U.S. foreign policy interests) made it preferable for it to refrain from granting injunctive relief, noting that “this Southern Ocean dispute” was best resolved by diplomatic means, or through international adjudication. Id. at *73–75.

At the same time, Judge Jones declined to hold that plaintiffs’ activities were unlawful, holding instead that they were being carried out under color of law (in the form of the JARPA scientific whaling permit). Id. at *76–77. The court also declined to adjudicate the defendants’ claim that the JARPA program itself was “a thin veneer for the commercial slaughter of whales,” holding that, “[a]bsent an unambiguous edict from the IWC or other international authority” such as the ICJ, the court would not seek to question or examine the validity of the JARPA permit. Id. at *77.

The court was perhaps most directly critical on the “unclean hands” issue, finding that plaintiffs were “tainted” with inequitable conduct in connection with the relief sought. It found that, “inside the [Australian Whale Sanctuary]” (i.e., inside the zone covered by Australian legislation) the evidence did show that the plaintiff whalers were “flouting the Australian injunction.” Judge Jones found it inconsistent for the whalers to be “demonstrat[ing] their disrespect for a judgment of a domestic court” in Australia, while seeking parallel injunctive relief from another domestic court. Based on this incongruity, the court found that the defendant eco-warriors were likely to prevail on an unclean hands defense. Id. at *76–78.


The Cetacean Research decision underscores the problems domestic courts sometimes encounter in disputes involving closely contested issues of international law, particularly where the issues are politically sensitive. These difficulties are particularly apparent in the tension between (on the one hand) the court’s strong remarks about the U.S. policies against whaling and (on the other) its unwillingness to adjudicate the core legal issue at the heart of the debate, namely, whether the plaintiff whalers’ scientific permit (and the JARPA program) were valid under international law. There is also a tension between the court’s refusal to adjudicate the legality of JARPA and its willingness to afford comity to the 2008 Australian judgment – even though that judgment ultimately derives its authority from an Australian territorial claim over Antarctica that is internationally contested (and is not recognized by the United States). It is, however, unclear whether the Antarctic territorial controversy was fully briefed to the court – and also uncertain whether the validity of the Australian judgment was ultimately a critical factor in the court’s analysis. These and other points are sure to be addressed further in the Ninth Circuit, should the whalers pursue their currently pending appeal.

*Mr. Nelson is a partner of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, New York practicing international litigation and arbitration. Copyright 2012 by the author. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and are not those of Skadden Arps or any one or more of its clients. The author would like to thank Tina Praprotnik, a Summer Associate in Skadden’s New York Office, for her invaluable assistance in preparing this article.

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