Tag Archives: climate change

The Fracking Mess


Since international agreements have been unable to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions — 20 years of negotiations and effort have resulted in emissions going up rather than down — those concerned about global warming had hoped that the anticipated decline in petroleum supplies would force a solution. If the availability of accessible oil and natural gas were to dwindle, nations everywhere would be compelled to find energy sources that were less carbon intensive. But fracking has put an end to that hope.

The relatively new technique of “hydraulic fracturing”, a process of drilling horizontally in shale beds and then breaking the rock by injecting a concoction of water, sand and toxic chemicals under extreme pressure, is releasing huge quantities of oil and natural gas. In addition to polluting a subterranean frontier, the global result is a total reconfiguration of the energy equation.

The economic effects are the most obvious. Natural gas is flooding the energy markets in North America and Europe, and is likely to do so elsewhere. Fracking is releasing massive amounts of natural gas in the US, reducing the price below production costs and undermining the market value of Canadian exports of gas. The economic result for BC and Alberta is a collapse of royalties to governments. And low natural gas prices may threaten the economic viability of gas lines and LNG plants planned for BC’s West Coast.

The same economic dynamic is occurring with oil. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the success of fracking could make an oil-starved America into the world’s largest producer by 2020, and a net exporter by 2030. This reduced dependence on foreign oil questions the Canadian government’s wisdom of relying on the export of petroleum resources as the country’s principal economic plan. It also casts doubt on the viability of the energy-intensive methods used to extract oil from the tar sands.

These new supplies of domestic oil in the US and other countries are likely to change global geopolitics. Saudi Arabia, for example, may lose its privileged position in the global energy equation, and thereby lose the Western support that has been key to its political security. China and India might make moves to replace the West as the strategic friend of existing oil producers. Meanwhile, generous oil supplies will reduce its market price, thereby encouraging world economic activity and further eroding the only effective incentive that has reduced oil consumption, cut carbon dioxide emissions and slowed global climate change.

So the fracking that has become the solution to shortages of gas and oil now presents a host of problems that will ultimately be far more serious than the challenge of slowly weaning our modern civilization from petroleum. “The climate goal of limiting warming to 2°C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes,” notes the IEA.

The reality is that we are running out of manoeuvring room. “Four-fifths of all carbon emissions that are supposed to be allowed by 2035 to keep warming below two degrees Celsius are already locked into power plants, factories and buildings,” writes Jeffrey Simpson in the Globe and Mail (Nov. 21/12). “If strong action is not taken by 2017, all the emissions necessary to keep warming below that level will be locked in,” he adds. Global consumption of oil, thanks to fracking, is expected to rise a third by 2035, driving “the long-term average global temperature increase to 3.6 degrees Celsius” (Ibid.).

We are already feeling the impact of global temperature increases of 0.8°C. An increase of over four-times this amount would have environmental consequences that we can scarcely imagine. George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian Weekly (Oct 26/12) provides a hint. “A paper this year by the world’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen, shows that the frequency of extremely hot events…has risen by a factor of about 50 in comparison with the decades before 1980. Forty years ago, extreme summer heat typically affected between 0.1% and 0.2% of the globe. Today it scorches some 10%.”

Ocean levels are already rising, causing coastal US cities such as Norfolk, Virginia, to flood regularly from heavy rainfall and small storm surges. Although the disasters that recently befell New Orleans and New York cannot be attributed specifically to global climate change, weather modelling suggests that such events will likely become so commonplace that smashed and flooded coastal cities will appear in lists rather than individually. Severe droughts and storms would become almost too routine to be news. All but the most extreme of the extreme weather events would just be dismissed with generalizations such as “just another bad day on Earth”.

Climatology tells us that during the last 10,000 years we have been living in one of the most benign, stable and accommodating periods in all of human history. Our global civilization is founded upon this predictable comfort. Our cities crowd shorelines because these locations have been safe and convenient. Our food production is based on mild and rhythmical weather. Our renewable resources depend upon a regular climate for regeneration. We alter this normalcy at our peril.

The carbon dioxide we are adding to the atmosphere is now occurring at a rate six times faster than the most rapid natural emissions of any geological epoch of which we know — we are doing in 500 years what nature once did in 3,000 years. This single, traumatic past event caused one of the planet’s most disastrous biological extinctions. Put simply, a future created by excessive carbon dioxide emissions is not going to be comfortable or promising.

Our ingenuity is not an asset if it is used to solve the wrong problems. Indeed, if the biggest threat now confronting us is caused by burning petroleum as our principal energy source, then the more we do to find and use this fuel, the worse our problem becomes. In a future review of our history, we will likely conclude that fracking created a bigger mess than it solved.


Not Much of a Generational Gap on Energy and Environment, Studies Show


Check out this story from Metro on different generational attitudes toward energy and environmental issues – the subject of an intergenerational dialogue in Vancouver Tuesday night. (Dec. 8, 2012)

Stereotypes and many a bitter blogger suggest Baby Boomers are to blame, or thank, for supporting the rapid expansion of Canada’s oil and gas sector.

But polls suggest Boomers’ views are surprisingly close to those of their Generation Y offspring — and the vast majority of Canadians want to see a transition away from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy.

Marc Lee, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, is speaking about the issue Tuesday in Vancouver at Bring Your Boomers, a series designed to foster intergenerational dialogue. The theme of the panel discussion is power and energy.

“The overarching problem is that no generation is really having influence on the political system relative to the concern that exists,” Lee said in a phone interview Friday.

“Every generation wants action on these issues, but we have a breakdown in our political system because our politicians are not acting on those concerns.”

A Harris/Decima poll commissioned by Tides Canada this summer found there was almost no difference between the generations in their sense of urgency about exporting more of Canada’s oil and natural gas.

Asked to rate it as a top, high, medium, low or non-priority, 33 per cent of people across the country rated it as high or top priority. Responses hardly varied among age groups, however seniors’ support was slightly higher at 39 per cent.

The biggest differences were revealed when pollsters asked how much of a priority should be placed on reducing carbon pollution and our reliance on fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal.

On the question of reducing carbon pollution, the percentage of Generation Y respondents that answered high or top-priority was 74 per cent, Generation X averaged 61 per cent and Boomers 65 per cent. However, given the sample size of 1005 respondents, the variations lie within the margin or error and could be statistically insignificant.

When asked to rate the importance of reducing Canada’s reliance on fossil fuels, 75 per cent of Generation Y respondents aged 18 to 34 called it a high or top priority, compared to 65 per cent of Boomers ages 45 and up, and 61 per cent of Generation X, ages 35 to 44.

Merran Smith, director of Clean Energy Canada at Tides Canada, said support was uniform across age demographics and consistently higher than two-thirds for using a portion of the country’s oil wealth to invest in and create more jobs in renewable energy, as well as improving energy efficiency.

“The gap’s not that big,” she said. “You could definitely say all generations are widely in support of transitioning our economy…. But younger generations are definitely more concerned about carbon pollution and Canada taking a role to reduce our carbon footprint.”

Read more: http://metronews.ca/news/canada/469985/boomers-vs-generation-y-is-there-a-rift-on-energy-views/

Environmentalists protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to Texas in front of the White House

The Surrender of an Ecowarrior


When does heroism become folly? When does struggle become futile? When does surrender become liberation? When is enough, enough? Then what? These are just some of the questions that come streaming into focus from a poignant personal essay by Lynn Lau, a 37 year-old environmentalist who, after 21 years of conscientious effort, has finally decided to abandon her quest to “Save the Planet”. Her story is worth relating and pondering.

Lau’s essay recounts when, as a girl of 16, she stopped eating meat as her “personal contribution to reducing global carbon emissions” (Globe and Mail, “An Ecowarrior Retires”,

Nov. 6/12). Then her quest for a better environment escalated to writing letters, waving banners at protests, running for political office and donating money. She tried raising chickens, growing her own vegetables, cultivating worms in her compost, and adhering strictly to the principles of the 100-mile diet. She sampled communal living to reduce her ecological footprint.

When she married and had a baby, she used flannel diapers so they could be washed and recycled. And she even attempted to become a teacher, assuming her influence on schoolchildren would eventually elevate society’s environmental consciousness. Her conscientious efforts covered nearly half of the 50 years since Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring first sounded global ecological alarms.

And the result? Lau’s answer is a blunt assessment of the impact of her own efforts, together with the collective work of the army of environmental warriors who have been her companions on this quest to “Save the Planet”. Her conclusion is “abject failure”. Ecological deterioration continues largely unabated. The trajectory “over the cliff of our planet’s carrying capacity” has accelerated during the five decades of defining, measuring, documenting, predicting and talking, talking, talking.

Lau concedes that all this effort has “raised awareness” but admits to the “embarrassing” revelation that “solving the world’s environmental problem is going to involve something much more powerful than a magnanimous sentiment toward Mother Nature, no matter how widely felt.” In her opinion, “reverent feelings” and “useful tidbits about flora and fauna” are not going to meet the challenge.

Besides, she admits, “to be an environmentalist you need to be a misanthrope at heart”. You need to be “individualistic” and “distrustful of authority”, qualities that do not win the support of the general public. She hints that environmentalists have an impractical idealism that matches neither the profound complexity of the problem to be solved nor the fundamental change in attitude that an entire modern culture must undergo.

The other reason environmentalists are not going to be successful, she concludes, is that, “We live in a society that solves massive problems through the co-ordinated efforts of specialists.” Their expertise with satellites measures the general health of the biosphere while their detailed scientific study evaluates its specific health. Their vast digital networks are our communication systems. Politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats, economists and others of many disciplines design, implement and operate the civic machinery that is the essential structure of societies. The business of humanity functions because of specialists. If “raised awareness” is not a part of this process, as she suggests, does this then mean that all the effort of environmentalists has been a waste of time and energy?

In the larger scheme of things, vision always precedes knowledge, just as information always precedes action. The “raised awareness” provided by all the effort of environmentalists is preparation for the work of the specialists. The “abject failure” described by Lau is merely the usual delay that occurs between understanding and behaviour.

This delay presents two questions. The first concerns the height to which “raised awareness” must rise before reaching a critical mass that is powerful enough to translate into action by the specialists. The second concerns people. Specialists are activated by political processes, when the collective will of the community directs the specialists to mobilize and correct an identified problem. We have not yet reached this critical mass of collective will. Confusion and ambivalence have not yet been replaced by conviction and resolution. We are still in at intermediate stage where environmentalists continue to raise awareness but their concerns have not yet translated into significant corrective action.

It’s helpful here to think of history rather than individuals. Lau’s sense of time moves faster than the slow march of civilizations. Her sense of frustration and futility is explainable and justified from her personal perspective. But the large change that she wants will require a paradigm shift, a wholesale adjustment in the way we collectively see ourselves and relate to the world. Not surprisingly, the momentum of humanity’s habitual behaviour doesn’t match her expectations. And she may be forgetting precedence. History suggests that humanity rarely acts with foresight.

Yet, despite Lau’s judgment of “abject failure”, she still offers hints of optimism. “I don’t know what specialists can save us from ourselves,” she confesses, “but I hope they’re out there, mixing intelligence and ingenuity with money, getting something accomplished on a really big scale.”

After 21 years of heroic effort she’s probably tired, disillusioned by the distance between where we are and where we need to be. Besides, she realizes she can’t get off the “sinking ship we’re on”. So, as she says, “I’m going to quit bailing for now and take a seat on the deck to enjoy the scenery.” She deserves the rest. And while she’s enjoying the scenery, increasing numbers of others will be bailing and raising awareness.

Can the microchip save us - or is technology part of the problem?

‘Apocaholics’: A New Word for New Times


For people who like words, “apocaholics” is a new and ingenious one. It instantly conveys the impression that those with a dystopian view of the future have a neurotic compulsion that is unhealthy and unfounded. The word is instantly dismissive and pejorative, suggesting an irrational fear, a baseless apprehension, an addictive dependence on pessimism that needs therapy, like those who are debilitated by alcohol. It’s a word that garners immediate attention.

Apocaholics made its debut in the popular media in a conversation Brian Bethune of Maclean’s magazine (Oct. 22/12) had with Brian David Johnson, the chief futurist for Intel Corporation, one of the world’s largest makers of computer chips. Johnson, of course, is optimistic about Intel’s prospects and is promoting the use and value of “putting chips into all sorts of different devices…to enrich people’s lives.” Bethune replies by noting the pessimistic mood that is so common these days. “…You do not like our current dystopian attitude toward the future. You want to change the narrative.” Johnson’s reply warrants its full paragraph.

“I do. I do,” he says. “There’s been some research recently that human beings seem to be ‘apocaholics’ — always seeing something right around the corner that’s going to kill us all. I understand it. As human beings, we’re hard-wired for a world where, if you heard a twig break behind you, you jump and you have a physical fear reaction. That was okay when that snap was a sabre-toothed tiger, but we don’t live in that world any more. Now that reaction blocks us from coming up with the really great ideas, so I’m on a crusade against fear, because being afraid of the future means we’re giving up our power. You can’t let the future happen to you, you can’t sit back and be passive — you need to be an active participant. We all, as human beings, personally build the future, whether it be our own, our family’s, the world’s. We have to own that fact and we need to do something about it.”

Johnson presents a convincing argument for the power of trust, optimism and volition, for the merit of taking control of our destiny and believing in our ingenuity. Indeed, considering our accomplishments to date, the prospects for tomorrow should be bright and promising. So, why the gloom? Perhaps the best reply to Johnson’s argument comes from Surviving Progress, a recently released documentary distributed by Canada’s National Film Board.

As a sequel to anthropologist Ronald Wright’s brilliant book and Massey Lecture series, A Short History of Progress, Surviving Progress reminds us that the very brain that is managing our computers, nuclear bombs, fossil fuels, global finances, and the full suite of our modern technological complexity, is the same brain that responded reflexively to Johnson’s example of the breaking twig. Our brains are virtually unchanged in 50,000 years. The ingenuity that is determining our future is the same electro-chemical hardware that met the sabre-toothed tiger. This mismatch between our inner capabilities and our outer challenges does not exactly warrant confidence in the outcome. Indeed, a dash of fear and caution might be precisely what we need. If the same visceral intensity that attacked the sabre-toothed tiger with clubs and spears now operates intercontinental ballistic missiles, the mechanism of international economics, the ethics of transnational corporations and the processing magic of computers, then this is legitimate cause for apprehension.

Surviving Progress also makes the poignant point that progress is not synonymous with improvement. The ingenuity that could kill a mammoth was probably useful. The ingenuity that could kill two mammoths might have been better. But the ingenuity that stampeded whole herds of mammoths over cliffs was an excess that may have caused the extinction of a valuable food source. Arrows might have been an improvement over clubs but thousands of nuclear warheads poised to obliterate most life on Earth hardly seems like the progress that induces confidence in our ingenuity.

Indeed, our reflexive response to the breaking twig may be the human failing that has prevented us from anticipating consequences and restraining the impulse to extremes. A succession of best first responses doesn’t necessarily lead to a desirable ending. Agriculture fed more people than hunting-gathering but this innovation, that occupied only 0.2 percent of human history, has left a legacy of local ecological disasters and a population of seven billion people responsible for global ecological problems. The automobile eliminated the tonnes of horse manure littering city streets but a billion cars now clog the world’s roads, filling the air with toxins and spurring the quest for ever-greater amounts of oil — another extreme of its own. And the essential goods we need for survival and comfort have morphed into an epidemic of consumerism that is polluting the planet while burdening our lives with excesses.

True, as Brian David Johnson says, we “can’t let the future happen” to us. We “can’t just sit back and be passive.” We have an obligation to “personally build the future…”.

How much future we can “personally build” is a mute point these days. A corporation such as Intel doesn’t consult with humanity about the life-enriching benefits of “putting chips into all sorts of different devices”. Monsanto doesn’t ask people about the need for genetically modified crops. Pharmaceuticals don’t solicit from citizens a priority of diseases to be cured. Television stations don’t design their programs to elevate the collective wisdom of society. Advertising invents wants and then indiscriminately elevates them to the status of needs. Petrochemical industries design exotic concoctions that subject living organisms to calculated risks. Global financial traders wreak economic havoc by playing loose with monetary prudence. This might be progress but it is not necessarily improvement. And, for most people, it isn’t choice.

As Brian David Johnson proposes, we each “must personally build the future”. Then, for emphasis, he adds, “We have to own that fact and we need to do something about it.” Apocaholics are simply people who are taking his advice, are assessing our present situation, and are reaching their own conclusions.


Where Was the Climate in US Presidential Election? Ben West in the Huffington Post


Read this column from Ben West in the Huffington Post on the lack of attention focused on climate and environmental issues in the recent US Presidential election and what that means for concerned Canadians. (Nov. 5, 2012)

“It’s global warming, stupid!” Believe it or not, that is what it says on the cover of Business Week right now. This is of course a reference to Bill Clinton’s internal campaign slogan from 1992 — “It’s the economy, stupid” — which was made famous by the documentary film The War Room. The slogan is a play on the old adage, “Keep it simple, stupid,” sometimes known as the “KISS” principle.

As Canadians, we are well aware that we are sleeping next to an elephant, and that the choices made by the American president have broad implications not only for Canada but for rest of the world.

Much to the chagrin of many conscientious Canadians, the implications of a changing climate were off the radar in the American election before Hurricane Sandy swept in. The topic was not raised even once during the 2012 U.S. presidential debates. You would think it would be a no brainer to talk about this issue, given that the United Nations has called climate change “the single biggest threat facing humanity today.”

This “climate silence” has perhaps been a reflection of the power of the fossil fuel industries in U.S. politics. In one of the debates, Obama and Romney actually fought over who was more supportive of the coal, oil and gas industries. Romney attacked Obama for stopping the Keystone XL pipeline and Obama responded by bragging that he had built enough pipeline during his presidency to “… wrap around the earth once.”

The fact checkers at Politifact checked it out and it’s true. Over 29,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines were built in the U.S. in the last four years; the circumference of the globe at the equator is a little less than 25,000 miles.

Even with that, Obama looks like a tree hugger compared to Romney, who is heavily backed by barons of the oil industry — like the infamous Koch brothers who are behind much of the junk science that still to this day is trying to undermine the international consensus that human activity is causing climate change.

Read more: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/ben-west/us-elections-climate-bc-canada-oil-gas-global-warming_b_2077627.html


The new Cuban Missile Crisis


The Cuban Missile Crisis that occurred just over 50 years ago can provide us with some important insights about ourselves and how we might address the global environmental challenges unfolding around us.

The Crisis, between Monday, October 16th and Sunday, October 28th, 1962, was 13 days of the Cold War that came despairingly close to becoming an extremely hot nuclear Armageddon that could have incinerated both the Soviet Union and the United States.

The scenario was set when the Cuban revolution ended. Fidel Castro had declared his country a communist state and had allied with the USSR. To protect its new strategic interests just a few convenient miles from Florida, the Soviets had stationed some 40,000 troops in Cuba and used the opportunity to balance the nuclear threat coming from the United States by installing both short and long-range missiles on the island. To halt this threat, the US countered with a naval blockade 500 miles from Cuba, warning that any ships that crossed that line would be sunk. The Soviets countered by defending their interests with submarines carrying nuclear-tipped torpedoes.

The background details are even more scary. America’s failed invasion of Cuba the year before at the Bay of Pigs had convinced a volatile Castro that war was inevitable, so he was urging the Soviets to strike the US with nuclear missiles before it could launch another attack. Meanwhile, the hawks in the US military and Congress were urging President John F. Kennedy to bomb the Soviet’s Cuban missile installations. Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, had his own military hawks to worry about, in addition to an unpredictable and uncontrollable Castro. Professor David Welch of the Political Science Department of the University of Waterloo writes that the whole situation “was an incredibly messy, dangerous interaction” (Globe & Mail, Oct. 15/12). Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were “scared to death” about actions their bellicose generals might initiate if not closely supervised, and both leaders were sometimes out of communication with their military.

Two incidents illustrate the precariousness of the situation. In one instance, in the middle of the Crisis and against standing orders, a Soviet general shot down an unarmed US high-altitude spy plane over Cuba. In a second instance, US warships were dropping depth charges on a Soviet submarine that had violated the blockade. The submarine’s captain decided to launch a nuclear-tipped torpedo at the American warships, an event that could have ignited a full nuclear exchange between America and the Soviets. Only impassioned pleas from the Soviet sub’s crew dissuaded the captain from launching the torpedo (John Ibbitson, Globe & Mail, Jul. 30/08).

When the Crisis ended on October 28th, the only fatality was the spy plane’s pilot — and, of course, truth. American propaganda praised the US military for staring down the Soviets, creating the mythology that unilateral power can win in such circumstances. The reality was very different. Kennedy and Khrushchev were in frequent communication, and neither wanted a nuclear exchange. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, U Thant, negotiated between two hastily assembled diplomatic groups at UN headquarters, while also managing to subdue the volatile Castro. By agreement, the Americans would not invade Cuba, the Soviets would take their missiles back to the USSR, the body of the pilot would be returned to the US, and the American missiles in Turkey that threatened the Soviets would be secretly removed.

The Cuban Missile Crisis has its parallel in the global environmental challenges now unfolding around us. The threat is not nuclear annihilation but a gradual increase in ecological and climate disturbances that will trigger all manner of political conflicts relating to oceanic fish resources, Arctic sovereignty, refugee migrations, water allocations, technology sharing, food stresses, population management, mitigation costs, economic inequality, property damage and humanitarian assistance.

Driving and exacerbating these conflicts are greenhouse gas emissions. They are the nuclear bombs slowly but inexorably exploding in every nation around the world. The Climate Vulnerable Forum, a 20-country gathering of scientists, economists and policy strategists estimates that abnormal weather is already causing $1.6 trillion in damage every year, reducing GDP by 1.6 percent and killing 400,000 people (Ibid. Eric Reguly, Sept. 29/12). These emissions must come down. How will this happen? What will the national commitments be? Who will monitor, supervise and enforce them? How will the global financial system be adjusted to facilitate emission reductions? Should some high emitting nations compensate others for damage? What are the ethical and moral dimensions of this profoundly human and ecological event?

Bluster and bravado are counterproductive when everyone is responsible. Might and power are negated when when everyone is the victim. Negotiations, diplomacy, sharing, co-operating, helping and compromising are going to be the new watchwords when no one can win without everyone losing.

Climate change is like another threatening nuclear holocaust. It’s going to spin out of control if the “generals” of industry push the limits of brinkmanship. The consequences will be devastating if the “Kennedys” and “Khrushchevs” of the world don’t have the imagination to gauge the severity of the situation. As with the Cuban Missile Crisis, we need an international forum like the United Nations to mediate, negotiate and communicate the complexities of this issue so it can be resolved for the benefit of all. Failure will leave no heroes or victors.


New York Mayor Bloomberg Endorses Obama Over Hurricane Sandy, Climate Change


Read this story from the New York Times on New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s last-minute, surprise endorsement of Barack Obama for president – citing Hurricane Sandy and his sense that Barack Obama will more seriously address the growing challenge of climate change. (Nov. 1, 2012)

In a surprise announcement, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said Thursday that Hurricane Sandy had reshaped his thinking about the presidential campaign and that as a result, he was endorsing President Obama.

Mr. Bloomberg, a political independent in his third term leading New York City, has been sharply critical of Mr. Obama, a Democrat, and Mitt Romney, the president’s Republican rival, saying that both men had failed to candidly confront the problems afflicting the nation. But he said he had decided over the past several days that Mr. Obama was the better candidate to tackle the global climate change that he believes might have contributed to the violent storm, which took the lives of at least 38 New Yorkers and caused billions of dollars in damage.

“The devastation that Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City and much of the Northeast — in lost lives, lost homes and lost business — brought the stakes of next Tuesday’s presidential election into sharp relief,” Mr. Bloomberg wrote in an editorial for Bloomberg View.

“Our climate is changing,” he wrote. “And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Mr. Bloomberg’s endorsement is another indication that Hurricane Sandy has influenced the presidential campaign. The storm and the destruction it left in its wake have dominated news coverage, transfixing the nation and prompting the candidates to halt their campaigning briefly.

Read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/02/nyregion/bloomberg-endorses-obama-saying-hurricane-sandy-affected-decision.html?hp&_r=1&

Protestors outside the Rio Climate Conference earlier this year. Photograph by: Aaron Favila, AP

The ethics of politically impossible


Most words are to be read and forgotten; others are to be read and remembered; and some few are to be read, remembered and considered carefully. The words of Michael Marshall fall into the last category. They appear in “Climate’s Dark Dawn”, an article in NewScientist (Dec. 31/11).

The poignancy of Marshall’s words derive from the scientific consensus that we can’t afford to warm the planet any more than 2°C without incurring climate change that could be catastrophically stressful to a global civilization already under pressure from other serious environmental threats. In response to this warning, our leaders at international gatherings have concurred with the scientific consensus, have adopt this temperature increase as their tolerable upper limit, and have pledged that regulations on allowable emissions will hold the global temperature increase below this critical mark.

But modelling of these pledges shows “that even if those cuts were implemented in full we would still see 3.5°C of warming by 2100,” writes Marshall. And this temperature increase could easily escalate to the 4.0°C that “could wipe out the Amazon rainforest and halt the Asian monsoons” (Ibid.).

So, here are Marshall’s words to be remembered and considered carefully. “The reality is that the 2°C target is technically and economically feasible,” he writes, “but politically impossible.” In other words, we have the technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to avoid the serious environmental consequences of raising the global temperature above 2°C. We even have an economy that can afford to do so. But our leaders lack the political will to rectify a problem that they both recognize and have the power to correct.

This failure of political will is disappointing, destructive and cancerous. It creates a metastasizing cynicism that infects optimism with pessimism. It transforms high hope into sinking despair. When forecasts are bleak but corrective resolve is weak, we abandon the best and resign ourselves to the worst. Everything we think and do is shadowed with frustration. Trust is replaced by suspicion. So we drift in confusion and conflict rather than moving together with focus and resolve. Indeed, if our leaders would publicly acknowledge that global warming and its haunting partner, climate change, were as serious as scientists describe, then we could unite in common cause and firm commitment. But without the political declaration, direction and leadership, we flounder.

This is why the future isn’t what it used to be. The mood of innocence and optimism that once pervaded our individual and collective lives is now sobered by the growing realization that we are confronting a major environmental crisis without leadership. We have reached the edge of yet another crucial limit without an initiation or coordination of remedial measures.

We now know that almost everything positive we want to do comes with negative consequences that weigh against the folly of proceeding with thoughtless habit. Old practices, once accepted and unquestioned, are presently complicated with unwanted results and complex ethical dilemmas. It is the role of our leaders to read this conundrum and steer us through a dangerous and difficult course. Instead, they are silent. Or even worse, they remain the proponents of the thoughtless habits that mire us in a deepening problem.

This is the root explanation for the rising chorus of public objections to mines, pipelines, oil tankers, tar sands, free trade agreements, international financial systems and a corporate world of manufactured venality and consumerism. All these practices are carrying us in the direction of environmental trouble rather than away from it. Negativity becomes the pervasive mood because the pervasive course is negative. We cannot be hopeful if we are moving in the direction of our undoing. When we are not actively pursuing solutions to difficult problems then the frustration accumulates as cynicism. If society’s energies are not directed in constructive behaviour, they are wasted in destructive diversions.

The role of political leaders is to inform and lead the public. If they are in denial about the global climate crisis, or if they are deliberately avoiding the scientific evidence, or if they are attempting to deceive, then their exercise is futile and defeating. This is the age of information. People know. They can recognize dishonesty because it appears as hypocrisy.

People also recognize honesty and bravery, the attributes of heroes, visionaries and leaders. “Politically impossible” is the acquiescing course of the opportunist who follows the path of old destructive habits even when a better route is known.

The present is connected to the future through the unfolding of circumstances. We know how those circumstances are unfolding. So, what will be history’s judgment of those who knew of the unfolding climate crisis but did not act to prevent it? When something could have been done, ethics require action. History has declared that “politically impossible” has never been an excuse for abject and wanton neglect.

Arctic sea Ice shrinks to new low in satellite era - NASA image

Shrinking Arctic Sea Ice


Arctic sea ice reached a record low of 3.42 million square kilometres on September 16, 2012, surpassing by 18 percent the record set in 2007 of 4.17 million square kilometres. And this 2007 record surpassed the previous 2005 record by 22 percent. Dr. Walt Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, summarizes the events this way: “On top of that [2012 record], we’re smashing a record that smashed a record” (Globe and Mail, Sept. 20/12). To set this in perspective, the Arctic’s summer sea ice in the 1980s covered an area slightly smaller than the mainland United States; now it covers half that area.

Adding to Dr. Meier’s statement is a comment from his colleague, Dr. Mark Serreze. “Recently the loss of summer ice has accelerated and the six lowest September ice extents have all been in the past six years. I think that’s quite remarkable” (Ibid.). With the exception of one “strong storm”, all this melt has been due to the day-by-day effects of a warming planet. As Dr. Jason Box of Ohio State University notes, “Arctic sea ice is one of the most sensitive of nature’s thermometers”(Ibid.).

As the Arctic’s temperature goes up, the effects are felt directly in the Arctic landscape. The increasing warmth melts permafrost so roads sink, building foundations collapse , shoreline settlements slough into the sea, while trees and power poles tilt helter-skelter as their footings soften. Except for the release of methane, these are incidental micro effects of relatively little environmental significance.

Even the geo-political complications of newly opened international shipping routes through melted Arctic waters are of minor importance. Canada’s jurisdictional disputes with China, Russia and the United States about authority over these passages will simmer more actively as the ice retreats even further. Many of these marine routes are still uncharted so vessels risk grounding or sinking. Oil spills become a constant worry in the pristine Arctic waters. Drilling for petroleum and gas resources becomes a contentious subject that didn’t exist before the sea ice began melting.

The more serious effects, however, are macro. Sea ice reflects about 90 percent of the sun’s heat — the so-called albedo effect that helps to cool both the Arctic and the planet. Without sea ice, about 50 percent of this heat is absorbed by the dark water that replaces it, a process that accelerates the effects of global warming and explains why the Arctic is warming at about twice the rate of the rest of the planet. In a positive feedback loop, the increasing areas of open water absorb even more heat, that melts even more ice, that raises the temperature even higher, that causes even more ice to melt. And the implications are not just local but global.

A warmer Arctic means that the temperature differential between northern and southern latitudes is reduced. And this has direct effects on both climate and weather.

The ocean currents that distribute heat around the planet are driven by the simple physical principle that cold water is heavier than warm water. Tropical water flows northward on the surface, bringing heat to northern latitudes. It then cools, sinks and carries cool water southward along the ocean’s bottom to alleviate high temperatures in the tropics. Global weather patterns are partly determined by this movement of ocean water. As Arctic waters warm, they are less inclined to sink, the convection currents slow, and the planet’s weather changes.

Melting Arctic sea ice has another macro effect. Jet streams, the high elevation winds that mix air around the planet, are affected by Arctic temperatures. When the temperature differential between high and low latitudes is relatively large, the jet streams tend to be more active, drifting north and south more vigorously and shifting weather with them. With a lower temperature differential, the jet streams tend to be less active, thereby locking weather patterns in place for protracted periods. This may explain why droughts tend to be more persistent and wet periods tend to be longer. It may also explain why the summer of 2012 brought record rainfall to the East Coast of Canada and record dry spells to the West Coast. Wildfires, crop failures, dried rivers, and floods are more likely when weather patterns are locked in place by stalled jet streams.

A warmer Arctic from melted Arctic ice also means higher humidity in the higher latitudes. The dry air of the northern desert becomes wetter. When this air is pulled southward by winter storms, the result is more rain and snow for lower latitudes. This dynamic may account for some of the extreme rain and snowfall of recent winters.

Weather, of course, is extremely complicated. But the changes occurring around the planet are supported by current data and are consistent with the most advanced computer modelling at our disposal. And Arctic sea ice is a significant factor in this complex matter.Alter it and everything else changes. We, too, are affected because we have built our cities, farms, industries and global systems upon a presumption of predictable weather. Agricultural crops are totally dependent on climate normality. Harvest failures affect food prices and economic stability, even reverberating into political security — the so-called Arab Spring that rocked Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and now Syria was triggered by food shortages caused by weather anomalies.

As climatologists have noted, the greatest experiment being conducted on the planet these days is not our search for the elusive Higgs boson at the multi-billion dollar Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Rather, it is our experiment with global climate and weather, conducted by the massive amounts of carbon dioxide we are emitting from burning fossil fuels. Melting Arctic sea ice is just one disruptive consequences of this huge, uncontrolled experiment.


Video: Record Artic Sea Ice Melt Defies Models, Dramatically Speeds up Predictions for Ice-Free Arctic


Read and watch this story from CBC on the dramatic new records set this summer for arctic ice melt, defying even the most alarming scientific models and significantly speeding up predictions for an ice-free arctic. (Sept. 20, 2012)

Arctic sea ice has melted to a record low this year, say researchers at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.

According to scientists like David Barber from the University of Manitoba, what happens to Arctic sea ice is a huge indicator on what will happen to Canada and the world in terms of climate change.

“The thaw this year broke all the records that we had previous to this and it didn’t just break them, it smashed them,” Barber told CBC News.

“The Arctic is changing so rapidly right now and that is connected to our global climate system, so it’s really a precursor to what is coming for the rest of the planet and it really should be an eye-opener for people.”

Scientists say that at this rate there could be an ice-free Arctic as early as the summer of 2015.

Read story and watch video: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2012/09/20/arctic-sea-ice-melt.html