Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Degrees of Climate Change: There's Money to be Made!

Or "How I Learned to Live With the Looming Climate Catastrophe and Love My SUV"

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As some of you know, I’m the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury’s representative on the Greater Sudbury Climate Change Consortium. The Coalition for a Livable Sudbury (CLS) is one of the managing partners of the Consortium, which was formed last year in an effort to make recommendations and provide leadership at the municipal level related to climate change impacts. Adaptation to climate change appears to be the focus of the Consortium’s mission, which is still under development. It’s fair to say, though, that mitigation efforts will also likely play a role in the Consortium’s future.

At last week’s managing partners meeting, Dr. David Pearson of Laurentian University, gave a stark presentation to attendees regarding the multiple reasons why we need to start thinking about how we’re going to adapt to a changing climate. I’ve seen Dr. Dave in action before, having had the privilege of attending a few of the public seminars he’s hosted over the past decade. Needless to say, he’s been completely ahead of the curve on climate change, and his scientific observations and recommendations have formed my opinion on this subject.

I recall attending a session which he gave to Northeastern Ontario municipal leaders back in 2002 or 2003. What stuck in my mind from that session, and which still has not become a generally well-known fact, is that even if we turn off the carbon tap today, the carbon which we’ve put into our atmosphere in the past will remain there for hundreds more years, having an impact on our climate. While today I think that there are more and more people who understand that climate change is going to pose a very long term challenge for humanity, I still believe that they are in the minority.

Near the end of Dr. Dave’s presentation last week, he threw up a slide pertaining to a very recent event, that being the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy’s recent release of a report on which they partnered with the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. I recall seeing a few articles about this report in the Globe & Mail and elsewhere; these articles contained a reproduction of a document included as a poster insert in the October, 2010 edition of Canadian Geographic Magazine. The poster, “Degrees of Change”, shows what sorts of changes we can anticipate happening to Canada’s climate should temperatures rise between 1 and 5 degrees Celsius.

Upon reading the news articles and taking a quick glance at the “Degrees of Change” poster, I have to admit that something seemed askew, beyond the fact that Canadian Geographic and the National Roundtable seemed to be downplaying the anticipated and considerable negative impacts of climate change in favour of some potentially good news stories for Canadians (such as longer growing seasons for farmers and the potential for bringing new farm land into production in northern climes). I’ll admit that I didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the poster, given that it didn’t fit in well with my own preconceived notions of the anticipated effects of climate change.

(As a quick aside here, I too find that a little interesting: because what I was looking it didn’t jive with my own bias about a particular topic, I was dismissive of the product itself to the point of disinterest. Ironically, on October 11th, environmental commentator for The Guardian, George Monbiot, wrote about this. Monbiot wrote about human decision making: “Instead of performing a rational cost-benefit analysis, we accept information which confirms our identity and values, and reject information that conflicts with them.” Seems to me that I fell into that trap in my values-based rejection of the “Degrees of Change” poster)

Although I later received Facebook updates and Twitter tweets about “Degrees of Change”, it wasn’t until Dr. Dave’s presentation that I understood the full impact of this document, and the initiative to which it is attached. It struck me like a blow to the face, and I was physically shaken. I hate it when that happens, as I don’t like being caught off-guard (especially over something which I should have realized myself).

Degrees of Change is available in .pdf form by following this link, and using the "Download Diagram" button the right-hand side of the webpage.

You may want to take a closer look at it yourself.

Dr. David Pearson impressed upon us all how this document was incredibly misleading to the public with regards to the anticipated impacts of climate change. For example, at the 2 degrees C section under “Resources & Industries”, there are a couple of gems which Canadians might be excited about: “Greater access to northern oil, gas and mineral resources” and “Timber gains from enhanced tree growth in some northerly locations”. Also at 2 degrees C, under Service Industries, “Degrees of Change” notes “Northwest passage opens to commercial shipping”.

Along with these anticipated positive changes for Canadians, “Degrees of Change” also identifies a fair number of negatives at 2 degrees C, including “Lyme disease range expanded to 1,000 km” and “Increasing costs of providing community service”. Not that most of us really understand how broadening the extent of Lyme disease is going to materially harm us as individuals. And not that municipal infrastructure and service costs aren’t going up every day of our lives anyway. So, while there are some examples which are undoubtedly anticipated negative impacts from climate change, these negatives are presented in such a way that they are not particularly compelling or understandable.

And they are done so in the same size font as the positives. Almost as if all these anticipated changes are “value free”. The very format of the “Degrees of Change” poster gives the reader the impression that no change is more significant than any other. While that seems to be a very objective approach on the surface, is the document itself then really providing a service to the reader?

Dr. David Pearson’s next slide was very telling. That slide included the “Degrees of Change” poster, but with a great big fat black marker taken to everything to the right of 2 degrees C. His statement to those of us in the Climate Change Consortium was unequivocal: “We can’t go there.”

Duh. That was what I missed when I first looked at the document. Sometimes, I'm not the swiftest runner in the race, that's for sure. In my defence, though, Dr. Dave outranks me considerably in the credentials department, I think he even gets paid for some of the great work he does to raise these issues. I'm...well, a volunteer at best. And you get what you pay for. Now, that's not a reason to stop reading this blog.

Anyway, we’ve known now for a number of years that if we are to alter our climate beyond 2 degrees Celsius of warming that we will considerably risk triggering feedback loops, taking us into runaway climate change scenarios. World governments agree that we need to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. A benchmark of 450 ppm of carbon in our atmosphere will roughly translate into a global temperature rise of 2 degrees C.

In an effort to curb the expected amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the international community came together in Copenhagen in December, 2009, and agreed to an accord will provide restrictions and lead to reduction. Of course, when the numbers were crunched, the anticipated amount of carbon in our atmosphere at the end of this century, as per what was agreed to at Copenhagen, is expected to be about 770 ppm; nevertheless, that’s less than what we’d been working towards under a business as usual scenario. Yes, yes; there are significant assumptions built into the 770 ppm, including a growing global economy; nevertheless, it remains clear that Copenhagen was an epic failure, despite the fact that the political leaders of industrialized nations announced it as a triumph.

We Canadians continue to be sold a load of nonsense regarding climate change. The “Degrees of Change” partnership between the Royal Canadian Geographic Society (who really ought to have known better) and the Canadian Government’s National Round Table on Environment and Economy continues to perpetuate the false notion that action is being taken to address the climate crisis.

Oh, wait a minute. Did I say “climate crisis”? Sorry, folks, but that’s not the kind of talk that’s going to get you very far in Ottawa’s political circles. Sure, they’re talking about a changing climate at the highest levels, but as you might have guessed, our government is taking a different approach, one which focuses on the opportunities that a changing climate will provide for Canadians. And no, I’m not even kidding. Check out the National Round Table’s website for yourself: Climate Prosperity: A Canadian Initiative

So rather than telling Canadians the complete story about those impacts identified in “Degrees of Change”, what we have is a climate change branding exercise from our government, financed with your tax dollars, which trumpets how a warming planet is going to be an economic boon to Canadians and their children in the years to come! Hip Hip Hooray! Let’s hear it for global warming, and let’s start making all of those investments in northern oil and gas exploration! Climate Change: There’s money to be made!

Dr. Pearson provided the last little bit of trivia here, regarding the “Degrees of Change” poster. In the same font, at 2 degrees C, under “Security and Trade”, right at the very bottom of the poster, we find the following anticipated impact: “Increasing demand on peacekeeping and diplomatic resources from conflicts over water and food scarcity in parts of the world”. There’s no mention in which parts of the world we can expect these impacts to be occurring when the temperature rises between 2 and 5 degrees globally, but it seems that “Degrees of Change” is implying that water and food scarcity are going to be problems for some “other” locales. That lack of specificity is a little scary. Surely Canadians will also be impacted. Certainly if not directly, than indirectly.

What this last little line, trivial-sounding in its presentation, which evokes that oh so-Canadian instituation of keeping the peace in far-flung regions of the planet, what this line really means, as Dr. Dave so pointedly expressed, is war. How Canadians will find themselves immune to global civil unrest is not at all clear to me.

But massive civil unrest and war is absolutely what Canadians (and everyone else) can expect should we foolishly allow global warming beyond 2 degrees C to occur. The preservation of our global society, surely, must be more important than short-term warming-induced profits for the rich minority of the world’s citizens? One would think.

Yet rather than engage Canadians about the reality of the situation which is looming just around the corner, our government would rather toot the horn about how much money we stand to all make! Of course, that was also Stephen Harper’s initial reaction to the 2008 meltdown of the global economy, when he stated that there were some good deals to be had for investors. I guess there's something to be said for consistently. But "consitently bad" is something I'd rather not personally experience. Too bad that Harper guy remains my Prime Minister.

Look, dollars and cents are important. But making money isn’t nearly as important as the human tragedy which is expected to unfold with 2 degrees of global warming. Despite the National Round Table on Environment and Energy’s recognition of global conflict occurring at 2 degrees C (even if expressed in an underwhelming font, in weasle words, at the bottom of a questionable poster), our Conservative government still doesn’t seem to get it. Maybe they, too, are blinded to the truth by their own values.

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Addendum (added October 20th, 2010): Looks like I'm a complete Johnny-come-lately to this issue. DeSmogBlog was totally out in front on the government's propagandization of climate change, back on October 6th. Check out: Climate Change: Canadian Government Launches New Campaign to Spin Global Warming as Good for Canada. I hadn't read this at the time I wrote the above post.

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