Tag Archives: climate change

Leading Journal Nature Calls on Harper Government to Quit Muzzling Scientists


Read this story from the Globe and Mail on a recent editorial by prestigious scientific journal Nature’s open criticism of the Harper Government’s muzzling of science. (March 1, 2012)

One of the world’s leading scientific journals has criticized the federal government for policies that limit its scientists from speaking publicly about their research.

The journal, Nature, says in an editorial in this week’s issue that it is time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free.

It notes that Canada and the United States have undergone role reversals in the past six years, with the U.S. adopting more open practices since the end of George W. Bush’s presidency while Canada has been going in the opposite direction.

The editorial says that since taking power in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has tightened the media protocols applied to federal government scientists and employees.

Nature says policy directives on government communications that have been released through access to information requests have revealed the Harper government has little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge.

The journal says its own news reporters have experienced firsthand the obstacles the Canadian government puts in the way of people trying to gain access to science generated by government scientists on the public payroll.

“The Harper government’s poor record on openness has been raised by this publication before … and Nature’s news reporters, who have an obvious interest in access to scientific information and expert opinion, have experienced directly the cumbersome approval process that stalls or prevents meaningful contact with Canada’s publicly funded scientists,” the editorial says.

Read more: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/leading-journal-demands-harper-set-canadas-scientists-free/article2355740/


Tipping Points: The Haunting Uncertainties


Tipping points are haunting uncertainties because they pertain to the unpredictable moment when the cumulative effects of environmental disturbance can trigger feedback loops of unstoppable change that can collapse entire ecosystems. They apply everywhere, from species loss and climate change to ocean acidification and food production. The best predictors are mostly intelligent estimates based on projected effects. Tipping points leaves scientists anxious because of the combination of uncertainty and extremely serious consequences.

We have, however, learned of the occasional tipping point from experience. The collapse of Newfoundland’s Grand Banks’ cod, for example, occurred when over fishing lowered populations below a critical threshold and a once stupendously rich resource simply vanished from commercial value. So we usually learn in retrospect what the critical conditions were. But by then the tipping point has been reached and the sorry end is a foregone conclusion.

Of course, we have warnings. But we never know how seriously to take them because we can’t be certain how to assess the risks. When does the concentration of open net-pen salmon farms in BC’s marine ecology create the conditions that undermine the viability of wild salmon? And when does the gradual loss of wild salmon trigger a fatal collapse in orca populations? We don’t know that either. That’s another experiment we are running.

On a larger scale, we know that plastic particles are accumulating in our marine ecosystems but we don’t know when their toxic effects will render species inedible or poison the entire food chain. We know we are disturbing the planet’s nitrogen cycle because ocean dead zones have increased from just a few to over 400 in the last two decades but we don’t know when this should cause alarm. We know that carbon dioxide emissions are increasing the production of oceanic carbonic acid but we don’t know when the acidifying process will trigger a chain reaction that collapses the entire structure of marine life.

This uncertainty is risk. So we need to decide what risks we are willing to take with tipping points. Climatologists estimate that we could court climate disaster if we raise biosphere temperatures above 2°C. We are already at 1.6°C, with global greenhouse gas emissions still climbing by record amounts and no serious constraints planned until 2020. Some climatologists argue that “thermal inertia”, the delayed response of climate to emissions, means we are already committed to a temperature increase of at least 4°C by 2050 and 5.5°C to 7°C by 2100.

If we don’t know exactly where most tipping points are, then how do we know when our behaviour is safe or foolish? We don’t know ‹ yet. But we already have evidence that large quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas held in storage by cold water and frozen tundra, are being released in alarming quantities as Arctic regions warm at a rate almost four times faster than elsewhere. And measurements indicate that methane is venting along the entire interface of the Arctic and North Atlantic Oceans. Both events worry scientists because this methane release suggests we may have already exceeded a crucial tipping point.

Now we are getting disturbing information about food production on a warming planet. Satellite images of maturing wheat can identify when green plants stop growing and turn to brown. Previous indications were that a 2°C temperature increase would reduce these crop yields by 30 percent. New data from surveying the Ganges Plain suggest the reduction is 45 to 50 percent (Island Tides, Feb. 9/12).

More exacting studies in the US confirm the tipping point for three crucial crops ‹ maize (corn), cotton and soybean ‹ is 29°C. Up to that temperature, plant growth increases. Beyond that, for each degree-day spent above 29°C, production falls by 0.6 percent. (A degree-day measures the intensity and duration of temperatures above 29°C.) US agriculture regions in 2009 spend 57 degree-days above that threshold; climate models predict 413 degree-days by 2100. This means an 83 percent reduction in maize crops. Even the most optimistic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would incur a 30 to 46 percent loss by 2050 (New Scientist, Aug. 26/09).

We have used and settled our planet based on the opportunities provided by combinations of circumstances. We can’t shift traditional agricultural areas to cooler locations without the soil, water or terrain needed for the industrial production of food. We don’t have other oceans to fish. Forests are not easily moved. Warmer temperatures increase the activity of the hydrological cycle, causing weather extremes of more storms, more rain, more droughts, more wind. And even weather has tipping points, moments during gradual change when extremes suddenly occur ‹ this process, called “emergence”, has created a new and enigmatic branch of science.

Change means tipping points for us, too. When fish fall below a certain threshold, we suddenly stop being fishers. When trees die of disease, we suddenly stop being loggers. When crops no longer grow, we suddenly stop being farmers.

So far, our adaptive skills have allowed us to moderate the impact of these environmental changes. But global trends promise both a rate and extent of change that will be unimaginably swift, dramatic and pervasive. Multiple tipping points lurk almost everywhere in our uncertain future. We can be certain, however, that we won’t want to experience what they might be.


Review of B.C.’s Dysfunctional Carbon Tax Aims for Repairs in 2013 Pre-election Budget


British Columbia’s controversial and widely misunderstood carbon tax will soon be subjected to a comprehensive review with the results likely to be revealed in next year’s budget, just in time for the tax to become another pre-election political football to be kicked around by voters and political parties in the run-up to the May 14, 2013 voting day.

B.C. Finance Minister Kevin Falcon announced the move in his 2012-13 budget speech, and a few more details were provided in budget documents, but there are still no details on who will do the review and only a few bits are known about how and when, namely that citizens will have the opportunity to make written submissions to the Minister of Finance and that “changes will be considered as part of the 2013 Budget process” (which usually begins in earnest in the Fall and leads to formal announcements in the February budget). Further details of the review were to be posted on the Ministry’s website: http://www.gov.bc.ca/ca/fin/.

Though that move is thus open to many partisan political manipulations, such as the B.C. Liberal Party potentially trying to use it to portray the B.C. New Democrats as anti-job if they oppose any changes, Falcon made it clear that there also are numerous practical considerations about the carbon tax that need to be reviewed, notably providing some early relief to the export-oriented agriculture and greenhouse industries but possibly including other areas related to air emissions and climate change such as the Pacific Carbon Trust, a Crown corporation seen by many as dysfunctional because it taxes hospitals and schools among other flaws.

The carbon tax is now applied to fossil fuels and other combustibles based on their equivalent carbon dioxide emissions and generates roughly $1 billion a year which is applied to a variety of tax expenditures to make it ostensibly revenue neutral to government. It began on July 1, 2008 at $10 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) – i.e. less than a year before the 2009 provincial election that also featured the HST fiasco – and grew by $5 annual increments but will now be capped when it reaches $30 per tonne on July 1, 2012 or about 6.7 cents per litre of gasoline.

“The review will cover all aspects of the carbon tax, including revenue neutrality,” said a discussion paper in the budget documents, which is a reference to the revenues being dedicated to pay for a 5% cut in personal income taxes ($218 million in 2011-12), the low-income climate action tax credit ($188 million), a corporate income tax cut ($381 million), a small business tax cut ($220 million) and several other boutique-type tax cuts and credits needing to be pulled in as the revenues rise (e.g. this year the new childrens’ arts and sports tax credits and the Seniors’ Home Renovation Tax Credit were added).

Curiously the carbon tax expenditures of $1.15 billion in 2011/12 exceeded the revenues of $960 million by $192 million but in years ahead the revenues are expected to grow and exceed the expenditures so new subsidies from the carbon tax are being targeted to science and film incentives to maintain an increasingly-farcical revenue-neutral balance, as Independent MLA Bob Simpson (Cariboo North) pointed out in an interview.

Falcon gave assurances that the government will still “continue moving forward with other components of our Climate Action Plan” such as the LiveSmart home retrofits program, tax incentives for buyers of “clean” or electric cars, and subsidies to help convert heavy-duty vehicle fleets to natural gas, all of which appear to be healthy on-going programs.

However that list of surviving initiatives strangely omitted mention of the government’s also-controversial Pacific Carbon Trust corporation which separately runs a carbon offsets program that public-sector entities are required to participate in and which is seen by Simpson and many other observers as a costly misuse and waste of taxpayer dollars (e.g. taxing school districts and hospitals that are already in financial distress).

“We remain committed to addressing climate change. However, four years in, the revenue-neutral B.C. Carbon Tax remains the only one of its kind in North America,” Falcon said in the Budget speech, noting that the rate increase on July 1 is the last one scheduled which makes now “a good time to pause and examine how the carbon tax is affecting our economic competitiveness.” The budget tax measures legislation includes an amendment to clarify that the carbon tax will continue beyond June 30, 2013 but will be capped at $30 per tonne.

In the budget lockup and subsequent media appearances Falcon reiterated his pride in the government’s leadership on the carbon tax and noted that putting a price on carbon is necessary if you want to address climate change but since no other provinces have followed and the Obama administration has backed off it has become necessary to review B.C.’s plans and probably make some changes, possibly including to the Pacific Carbon Trust.

“Keeping parts of the Pacific Carbon Trust would reinforce our role as leaders on the environment front and I don’t want to give that up,” Falcon said on Vaughn Palmer’s Voice of B.C. show on Shaw TV (viewable online), suggesting changes could be rolled out “in coming months” – but also hinting that Falcon looks upon the whole policy area as a battleground in partisan politics too.

That also hints that a structural change could emerge too in which the carbon tax revenues would be redirected towards Pacific Carbon Trust activities, perhaps replacing the monies now paid in by school districts, health authorities and local governments – even becoming a subsidy for urban transit as Metro Vancouver officials have been recently seeking.

Falcon seemed to avoid such ideas and instead repeatedly focused on the carbon tax impacts on agriculture in general and on greenhouses in particular, noting they will be hit hard when the Harmonized Sales Tax is removed and replaced by the Provincial Sales Tax on April 1 next year so removing the carbon tax would help them survive and remain competitive in export markets, a promise welcomed by Independent MLA Vicki Huntington of Delta South in recent remarks in the Legislature.

Meanwhile Agriculture Minister Don McRae said the government has been working closely with greenhouse operators to create an environment that supports growth and in the weeks ahead will work to that end to provide carbon tax relief.

That precedent of reforming what some have seen as an untouchable sacred cow could help start a number of other carbon and climate policy reforms, many of which will be welcomed by critics such as MLA Simpson and B.C. Conservative Party leader John Cummins and some of which will be regretted by environmental activists, with the B.C. New Democrats so far remaining more or less silent, probably because they suffered in the 2009 election from having a confused policy on the carbon tax.

Cummins stands out by stating that the carbon tax will be the first tax eliminated by a B.C. Conservative government, when he spoke to a post-budget lunch meeting of the Surrey Board of Trade, apparently believing that such a tax cut would create jobs, but his only suggestion so far for replacing the tax revenue has been spending cuts by government, which is nonsensical if one looks at the size of government as a proportion of GDP as was done recently on the Tyee website by pundit Will McMartin, revealing that the Campbell regime has already cut government to the bone.

Nonetheless there is a widespread view especially among fiscal and political conservatives that the carbon tax and its related programs such as the Pacific Carbon Trust have become a confusing mish-mash of contradictory and perverse concepts that kill commerce and services and fail to achieve their supposed goal of combatting global warming or climate change.

When you go online to research the B.C. government’s climate program you find a blinding montage of pretty photos and padded rosters and not many details or numbers until maybe the end of a document if at all. And as Simpson in particular complains, the Pacific Carbon Trust is not open to legislature or public purview even though it is a Crown corporation, the Legislature is exempt and some entities are taxed twice, such as health authorities paying both carbon tax and emissions charges.

That suggests part of the reasons for Falcon’s somewhat unexpected foray into carbon tax and climate policy is to do some political damage control, to make some changes that will mollify such criticisms before they become a political albatross for the Liberals in the 2013 election campaign.

In fact there are still quite a few good things happening in this policy area too, such as energy retrofits of public-sector buildings and private homes, and projects such as the Carbon Offset Aggregation Co-operative of Prince George which on Feb. 24 received $2 million from Environment Minister Terry Lake to help heavy equipment operators and trucking companies retrofit their vehicles’ engines to lower their carbon emissions (though social program advocates could argue that that money would have been better spent on something like addressing child poverty or on home care to help keep seniors out of more costly institutions).

But what you also find, as Simpson pointed out in an interview, is that beneficiaries of such energy-efficiency handouts have an amazingly high rate of also being donors to the B.C. Liberal Party, which ratio he estimated at 95%, and that some of the projects being subsidized might have been done anyway and so should not be considered as incremental for climate purposes.

Simpson interestingly has become such an expert in the whole area that he was singled out for praise by Falcon on the Shaw cable show but that didn’t stop Simpson from calling the Liberals’ various climate programs “bizarre” and “goofy” and “confusing” and “unfair” and even “totally bogus”.

That latter epithet was regarding the government’s initial decision and continuing policy to apply the carbon tax to consumers and public-sector entities but to exempt carbon-intensive industries such as cement plants and natural gas scrubbers, the latter venting methane into the atmosphere comprising about 20% of the province’s total emissions but none of which are subject to a climate tax, and about half of that is now coming from fracked shale gas. Another large source of emissions not being taxed is landfills (i.e. garbage dumps).

B.C. Green Party leader Jane Sterk also drew a connection between climate policy and party politics, surmising that if the government does choose to appoint an outside committee to review the carbon tax (as it has done in other policy areas such as tax reform) then most of the members will be donors to the B.C. Liberals and oriented towards business and industry.

Sterk also shares some skepticism about what the government wants out of the process and what will be done versus what should be done, whether it is to redesign a better carbon tax (which could be done without a review) or merely tweak the system to make it better understood and more acceptable.

“I expect the review will recommend scrapping the tax because other jurisdictions have not followed suit and to rely instead on joining the group of jurisdictions committed to cap and trade,” she said, or it could reduce the tax by half to reflect the reality of it being uncompetitive but still demonstrate some commitment to climate change.

She also predicted the carbon tax will be a key issue in the next election campaign, with the Liberals possibly promising to eliminate the tax if re-elected but also trying to trap the New Democrats similar to what happened in 2009 when the NDP wanted to “axe the tax” but have since swung around to supporting it. However the New Democrats have been silent on the issue of late and did not respond to requests for a comment for this article.

Sterk believes the carbon tax was poorly designed and has become regressive for low-income people and she says the Pacific Carbon Trust needs to be improved but she still wants to retain the carbon tax, hike it to $50 a tonne and keep raising it, and apply it to large emitters while directing some proceeds to transit, rail, biking and pedestrians.

“Our policy on the carbon tax needs to be seen in terms of our overall policy which is to move to regionally self-sufficient and resilient economies,” she said, linking climate change to food security, job creation, health and social and community well-being.

Sierra Club BC executive director George Heyman said the government’s announcement of the carbon tax review sends the wrong signal at a critical time when scientists say we need immediate action to slow global warming.

“Real climate leadership requires long-term commitment, not a one-time gesture,” said Heyman, surmising that the government is definitely looking for a way to get out of the carbon tax either fully or partially.
“This is a government that, at one point, showed leadership on pricing carbon. What they’re saying now is: `We expected everyone to follow us and they didn’t so we’re going to back out of it.’”

Heyman said there should be a systematic expansion of carbon tax coverage to all B.C. sources of carbon emissions but B.C.’s natural gas strategy alone will make it all but impossible to meet the province’s legislated carbon reduction targets, and that the Liberals are not prepared to be honest about the need to develop a low-carbon economy that can assure sustainable, jobs-intensive employment for future generations.

Simpson also believes the government should put a tax on industrial process emissions and with no cap-and-trade on the horizon that the proceeds should go first to Pacific Carbon Trust and then to general revenues, with changes made to PCT, which now gets most of its revenues from the public sector even though it produces less than one per cent of total emissions.

He said the government’s clawback of money given to public agencies such as school and hospital boards is a complete distortion of tax policy and a wrong thing to do when those agencies do not have taxing powers, and that is further distorted because those entities have to pay $25 a tonne for offsets when their market value is only about $4 a tonne.

He noted there are numerous unfair aspects in the system, such as the school districts getting rebates when others don’t, and the health authorities being double-taxed with the carbon tax on the fuels they use and a $25 per tonne charge on emissions.

“To me the issue is we have a finance minister who has never been enamored of the carbon tax … and now is saying enough is enough,” said Simpson, explaining that the Liberal caucus was caught unawares when former premier Gordon Campbell suddenly “got religion” on the need for a carbon tax to address climate change and though the original intent in 2008 was to change behaviours there has been little evidence of that and meanwhile many people in rural areas complain they are being taxed on things they have no choice about.

Simpson said the Liberal government now seems to be after three things, an end to the revenue-neutral nonsense and an easier way to find valid projects to invest in, an end to further increments in the tax, and some relief for sectors being damaged such as agriculture and possibly log truckers.

A roster of the public agencies and what they’re emitting and paying to invest in offsets shows a total of about 800,000 tonnes and offsets worth $18.2 million. It can be viewed in the appendix at:

In any case the carbon tax review could and probably should be seen as an opportunity to make some changes that are progressive and constructive, which is the gist of an op-ed article published Feb. 28 in the Vancouver Sun by Ian Bruce of the David Suzuki Foundation, Matt Horne of the Pembina Institute and Merran Smith of Tides Canada.

After citing international examples of how carbon taxes have stimulated green industries and prosperous economies, they conclude that B.C. also could have a win-win solution for the environment and the economy.

“Communities could see new investment and jobs, a balanced transportation system, reduced traffic congestion, cleaner air, more green spaces, energy savings, and, best of all, a better quality of life. But only if we demand it,” they wrote, urging people to participate in the review proces

The following two items are unedited news releases from the stated sources:

PRINCE GEORGE – Environment Minister Terry Lake announced $2 million in funding for the Prince George-based Carbon Offset Aggregation Cooperative (COAC).

This first-of-a-kind program helps heavy equipment operators and trucking companies to lower their carbon emissions.

COAC is a marketing cooperative that provides a framework for owners of heavy equipment and trucks to reduce operating costs and create, aggregate and sell carbon offsets that are produced through a reduction in diesel consumption.

The funding is essential seed money that will help COAC provide more members with low-interest loans to retrofit their heavy duty diesel trucks and equipment to increase fuel efficiency, save money and reduce carbon emissions. Currently, 33 units (trucks and equipment) have been retrofitted. Installation has been completed on the first truck fleet of six units and COAC expects to install another 24 in the near future.

This funding is expected to provide financing to retrofit 100 units per month, resulting in emission reductions of approximately 13,400 tonnes over the first three years. With every 1,000 litres of diesel saved, approximately three tonnes of carbon dioxide will be diverted from the atmosphere. One truck operating for 250 days a year can use up to 300 litres per day and will emit approximately 200 tonnes of carbon annually.

The cooperative provides financing to member businesses for modifications of existing vehicles and machinery that use fossil fuels (diesel). Operators will also receive driver-awareness training that will lead to even more energy efficiencies and GHG reductions that will save them money.

To learn about the first company to participate in the COAC program, visit: http://www.bcjobsplan.ca/ourprogress/b-c-heavy-equipment-company-goes-green/

These reductions in fuel consumption and GHGs emitted will produce carbon offsets, which are then aggregated and sold, transferred or traded by COAC. The proceeds of the sales are returned to the member as a dividend. The offsets are sold as made-in-B.C. greenhouse gas offsets.

This is part of a suite of B.C. Clean Transportation programs and follows on the heels of the Clean Energy Vehicle Program and BC SCRAP-IT funding, which the Province announced in November 2011.


Terry Lake, Minister of Environment:

This co-op demonstrates that being environmentally responsible can save companies money. It also shows how our Climate Action Plan benefits rural communities by helping business owners save money, reduce emissions and participate in a program that benefits B.C. families and helps create jobs.

Shirley Bond, MLA Prince George-Valemount:

This made-in-the-North program will reduce emissions and help heavy-duty vehicle operators increase their fuel efficiency. Congratulations to everyone who worked so hard to create this unique program.

Pat Bell, MLA Prince George-Mackenzie:

COAC is showing some real innovation with this program, and it shows how British Columbia is a leader in developing innovative solutions to lower GHG emissions.

Mary Anne Arcand, COAC chair:

This kind of support from government sends a clear signal that it is serious about addressing climate change, and supportive of industry’s initiative to be innovative and engaged at the ground level.

COAC member representative Doug Pugh:

Having the funding to help smaller operators like me get on the program makes it possible for everybody to do their part in reducing fuel consumption and emissions.

Quick Facts:

  • COAC currently represents 25 member companies provincewide.
  • Collectively, the companies consume more than 58-million litres of diesel annually.
  • The program helps business owners overcome the technological and financial barriers to making carbon-reduction changes to their operations.
  • The purpose is to provide a fuel-efficiency and carbon-reduction program for owners of heavy equipment and long- and short-haul trucks to reduce operating costs, aggregate and transfer, trade or sell carbon offsets.
  • COAC expects the average savings from these measures to range from 10 to 15 per cent annually.

Learn More:

BC Newsroom – Ministry of Environment: http://www.newsroom.gov.bc.ca/ministries/environment-1/

Carbon Offset Aggregation Cooperative (COAC): www.carbonoffsetcooperative.org


Suntanu Dalal
Communications Officer
Ministry of Environment
250 387-9745


Heyman sees budget as threat to water:

Eliminating regulations for B.C.’s expanding mining projects will jeopardize water and wildlife and lead to increased community concern and conflict, Sierra Club BC Executive Director George Heyman warned today following the B.C. budget.

“British Columbians are increasingly concerned about secure access to clean water, but this budget fast-tracks mining projects while cutting regulatory provisions that clearly exist to protect the public interest,” said Heyman. “There is no vision here for a sustainable economy that protects our environmental assets; instead we have more raw resource extraction with reduced public interest protection.”

Government’s public affairs bureau budget – at $26 million – is now three times as big as the budget for B.C.’s environmental assessment office, which has been frozen at $8.75 million despite a significant leap in proposed mining and energy projects.

“There appears to be plenty of money for the government to spin its message, but no increased funding for environmental assessment.  New mine proposals around the province, and the environmentally questionable practice of natural gas fracking, cry out for strong measures that guarantee public and community health,” said Heyman.

“The government will spend $24 million in reducing the turnaround time for mineral exploration permits, but not a penny more to ensure robust environmental assessment capacity,” Heyman said. “With the Fish Lake debacle, we saw B.C.’s environmental assessment process green-light a mine that was later scathingly rejected by the federal environment minister. And now the B.C. government wants to make it even easier for mining companies to engage in controversial road-building and drilling that will only lead to community conflict and economic uncertainty around the province.”


BC’s Coal Exports Undermine Climate Action Goals


Read this story from the Vancouver Sun on the mounting criticism from climate scientists of BC’s growing coal exports and their contribution to carbon emissions. (Feb. 20, 2012)

VANCOUVER — Coal is fast gaining notoriety as the dirtiest fossil fuel and a growing source of global greenhouse gas emissions, all of which is staining the B.C. government’s green climate-action initiatives.

“It’s a curious inconsistency of the old economy and the new economy at the same time,” said Dan Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California in Berkeley.

In an interview Monday, he said B.C. must take into account not just carbon emissions within the province, but the full emissions resulting from its coal exports.

“On one hand B.C. is an impressive innovator …” said Kammen, who recently served as chief technical specialist for renewable energy and energy efficiency at the World Bank.

B.C.’s climate-action initiatives include provincial greenhouse gas targets, low-carbon energy projects, the Carbon Tax Act and the Pacific Carbon Trust.

“Like the U.S. and Australia, B.C. also exports coal and that has to go on the books somewhere,” Kammen continued. “That accounting is going to be controversial. No one wants to put pressure on a revenue-producing and job-producing [export] industry.

“But it’s exactly the sort of thing we have to sort out as we figure how to institute a lower-carbon economy going forward.”


Fascinating New Data Puts Different Twist on Arctic Sea Ice Decline


Read this fascinating report from the University of Washington and NASA scientists on new research into arctic sea ice decline and freshwater accumulation in the Beaufort Sea. (Jan. 4, 2011)

A hemispherewide phenomenon – and not just regional forces – has caused record-breaking amounts of freshwater to accumulate in the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea.

Frigid freshwater flowing into the Arctic Ocean from three of Russia’s mighty rivers was diverted hundreds of miles to a completely different part of the ocean in response to a decades-long shift in atmospheric pressure associated with the phenomenon called the Arctic Oscillation, according to findings published in the Jan. 5 issue of Nature.

Continue reading Fascinating New Data Puts Different Twist on Arctic Sea Ice Decline


Shades of Green: Kaleidoscope 2011


The kaleidoscope turns, the patterns change, but the colours remain mostly dark and sombre. This year, last year, and the years before are sobering because the dramatic changes in awareness, policy and mechanisms we need to address our major environmental challenges do not match the urgency they require.

Everyone who is informed on environmental matters is justifiably subdued because our corrective actions are not even slowing the erosion of the fundamental ecosystems that provide us with our essential comfort and security. Some individual and local efforts have been heroic. Some European countries have met or exceeded their Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas reduction targets. But the record for the collective human community has been dismal. Most measures indicate deteriorating ecological conditions. Science confirms that our multiple environmental problems are escalating from serious to crisis.

The ethical reflex of those who are concerned about these environmental threats is to go where the problem is, to assume a critical position and highlight shortcomings for correction and future avoidance. This is not only a journalistic inclination but a moral imperative. If we are to confront our behaviour and its consequences realistically then we must examine ourselves with a blunt and painful honestly. We can applaud our successes – and we have many of them – but they mostly measure small against the enormity of the challenges we face. Changing to more energy efficient lights bulbs, building biking routes or buying a fuel efficient car may make us feel better but they are corrective actions that barely register against the magnitude of the changes we must accomplish. Complacence and an exaggerated sense of accomplishment is dangerous self-deception. As for solutions in progress, they no longer need attention because they are now effecting their benefits. The big worries are the big problems. And 2011 addressed them poorly.

The United Nations’ December climate talks in Durban were mostly unsuccessful, a formal exercise in futility that succeeded only by rescuing delay from the jaws of total failure. If climatologists are correct, we don’t have another eight years of grace to negotiate and implement an international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. This strategy is so fraught with procrastination, pitfalls and vague commitments that – if precedent is any indication – either nothing will happen in 2020 or binding reductions will happen too late to avoid serious climate change.

A recent study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for example, compares the economic damage in 2050 by two strategies: by either making low-cost reductions in greenhouse gases immediately or by delaying major reductions until 2020. The worldwide impact on “real income” for the first option was minus-6 percent and minus-9 percent for the second option. According to the OECD projections, Canada would fare worse than the world average with both options: minus-12 percent for immediate reductions versus minus-15 percent for delayed reductions (Globe & Mail, Nov. 28/11).

And this is just the impact on “real income”. The UN has estimated that by 2030, the economic damage from climate change alone will be about $100 billion annually, a figure that counts only added health expenses, farming adaptation and infrastructure repairs. A broader assessment of costs, considering flooding, storms, manufacturing impacts and ecosystem restoration at least triples that annual amount to $300 billion. And even this amount may be too low because the UN’s worst-case scenarios for carbon dioxide emissions are regularly exceeded. In 2011 alone, the United States had a total of $52 billion in damages from a record of 12 major weather events (Ibid., Dec. 9/11). Statistically, 75 percent of all natural disasters are now climate related. The obvious conclusion to be reached from this trend is that greenhouse gases have incontrovertible adverse effects on weather and, from a purely economic perspective, we would find it cheaper to cut emissions now rather than later.

But that’s just climate change. We have other critical issues that need immediate attention. Species extinction is in freefall. The world’s industrial fishing fleets are exhausting the oceans of fish, the source of protein for one-fifth of humanity. Why is no emergency action being taken to create protective marine reserves? Acidification, dead zones and pollution beleaguer our oceans, problems that need immediate action. Canada, instead of subverting action on climate change and muzzling scientific dialogue, could be leading the world community toward sustainable uses of our oceans and resources. It could be spearheading a universal carbon tax on all CO2 production, a levy that could be directed toward preventative measures such as energy research, mass transit and ecological protection. (Both BC and Australia have a variation of this tax.) Instead of subsidizing the fossil fuel industry and encouraging Alberta’s dirty tar sands, Canada could be financing geothermal energy, a massive source of clean and renewable power that could meet our nation’s entire electrical needs with as few as 100 projects (Times-Colonist, Sept. 14/11).

So a review of 2011 provides the sobering realization that the world community – and Canada in particular – is moving backwards rather than forwards on key environmental issues. Circumstances are getting worse rather than better. We are not rising to meet our environmental challenges. If we were at least moving in a positive direction perhaps some optimism would be warranted. Criticism and negativity are prevalent because humanity – and particularly Canada – is failing the most important test in our history as a species. Cynicism is rising measurably. Political leaders seem to lack the insight, will or ability to take the necessary remedial action. And voters seem to lack the perspective, conviction or resolve to direct them to do what is increasingly imperative.

If this changes, then the colours in the kaleidoscope will brighten. Maybe 2012 will be a better year.


New Report: Tar Sands Carbon Emissions on the Rise


Read this story from CBC.ca on a new report from the oil and gas industry’s lobby that confirms carbon emissions from the Alberta Tar Sands are on the rise.

The intensity of oilsands carbon emissions — the amount of greenhouse
gases created per every barrel of oil produced — increased by two per
cent between 2009 and 2010, according to an industry report.

The 2010 Responsible Canadian Energy progress report by the Canadian
Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) also found that overall
greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the oilsands rose 14 per cent in the
same time period as the number of oilsands operations expanded.

“The increase in total GHG emissions is a result of the significant
increase in both mining and in situ production, both of which require
more fuel — for mine trucks, in situ steam production and upgraders,”
read the report.

The document offered the same explanation for the increase in intensity. (Dec. 16, 2011)

Read more: http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/story/2011/12/16/pol-capp-oil-industry-emissions-report.html


Serious Finacial Costs and Trade Implications for Canada from Abandoning Kyoto


Read this article from The Globe and Mail on the very real risk of serious economic impacts to Canada stemming from the Harper Government’s decision to abandon its treaty commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.

There’s politics in climate change and money at stake in talks. Moral arguments aside, the politics will matter.

Kyoto withdrawal was an unusually big news story for a country that
gets little mention, playing as a big deal in international media. It
was a top Web-hit story for the BBC. Reporters kept asking U.S. climate
negotiator Todd Stern about Canada. Canada’s emissions story jumped to
the masses. It could be the new seal hunt. Japan and Russia won’t meet
Kyoto targets either, but Canada withdrew and got headlines.

There was also pointed criticism from countries such as China and France, and many more…

…It’s not just that the oil sands are a fast-growing source of
emissions. Canada is 30 per cent over Kyoto targets, and the oil sands
are just part. Canada is the eighth-largest greenhouse-gas emitter.
China is largest, but per person its emissions are one-third of
Canada’s. Ottawa has no regulation plan for big emitters. Canada can’t
combat the story that the oil sands make us dirty.

One day,
politics will bring cost. A 2009 U.S. bill to apply tariffs on goods for
countries that fail to meet climate standards passed the House but died
in the Senate. Mr. Levi expects Europeans or others to revive the idea.

Mr. Leach said: “I think you’re going see countries looking to apply blame by punishment.” (December 15, 2011)

Read more: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/quitting-kyoto-could-cost-canada-down-the-road/article2271728/


New Research Shows Retreat of Arctic Ice Releasing Deadly Methane Gas


Read this frightening report from England’s The Independent on the shocking discovery of massive releases of methane gas – a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 – with the retreat of arctic sea ice.

Dramatic and unprecedented plumes of methane – a greenhouse gas 20
times more potent than carbon dioxide – have been seen bubbling to the
surface of the Arctic Ocean by scientists undertaking an extensive
survey of the region.

The scale and volume of the methane release has astonished the head
of the Russian research team who has been surveying the seabed of the
East Siberian Arctic Shelf off northern Russia for nearly 20 years.

an exclusive interview with The Independent, Igor Semiletov, of the Far
Eastern branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that he has
never before witnessed the scale and force of the methane being released
from beneath the Arctic seabed.

“Earlier we found torch-like
structures like this but they were only tens of metres in diameter. This
is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive
seeping structures, more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It’s amazing,”
Dr Semiletov said.
(Dec. 13, 2011)

Read more: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/shock-as-retreat-of-arctic-sea-ice-releases-deadly-greenhouse-gas-6276134.html

Mark Brooks - a recent addtion to our team of Common Sense contributors

Harper’s Climate Death-Wish


Withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol only the latest effort to derail climate change action

Amidst the ongoing circus that constitutes the United Nations climate change summit (COP 17) currently underway in Durban, South Africa, Canada has once again distinguished itself as the country most hostile to virtually any serious international effort to curb rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada has long been considered a climate change pariah by the international community. We were the only signatory to the Kyoto Protocol to simply ignore its responsibilities following ratification and our country’s total emissions are now more than 34 per cent above our Kyoto targets. Not only did the previous Liberal government fail to do anything to meet its Kyoto obligations, in recent years the government of Stephen Harper has gone a step further, becoming increasingly obdurate in its efforts to deliberately obstruct the progress of international climate talks.

Why the antipathy of the Harper government toward limits to carbon emissions? Well, as you might expect, the tar sands are one factor. Tar sands reserves are now valued at a stunning $14 trillion and oil companies are investing hundreds of billions of dollars in exploiting the resource, money that could boost federal tax revenues considerably.

This is only part of the story however. Harper has long maintained his government does not support Kyoto because it does not include all of the world’s major emitters such as the United States, China and India. Their oft-repeated refrain is that Canada is a small player, contributing only 2 per cent to global emissions and, as Harper once stated, if emissions from emerging economies are not controlled, “whatever we do in the developed world will have no impact on climate change.”

Besides the fact that we are only in the first Kyoto commitment period and that subsequent phases were intended to include all major emitters, what are we to make of Canada’s Environment-minister-turned-big-oil-lobbyist, Peter Kent, saying on Monday that Canada will not renew its commitment to Kyoto, even if doing so would mean China would agree to firm targets to cut its own greenhouse gases? Worse, speculation is that sometime before Christmas when the House of Commons is not in session and the public is paying little attention, the government will announce Canada’s complete withdrawal from Kyoto. In Durban, Canada is rumoured to be encouraging other countries to follow its lead in rejecting Kyoto.

Although it is technically permitted under Kyoto’s terms, withdrawal from a legally binding, multilateral environmental agreement (MEA) is almost unheard of and it is not entirely clear at this stage what the ramifications of such a move might be for future MEAs. Withdrawal may mean that Canada successfully evades responsibility for the commitments that it undertook in Kyoto but why would any nation believe that Canada will deliver on any commitments we make in the future? And what is to stop other countries withdrawing from other conventions that are no longer to their liking?

This is not to say that Kyoto is without its flaws. But it was a tentative first step by the international community to try to wrestle with a climate change problem that requires concerted international action and is quickly spiraling out of control. Any future treaty would certainly require improvements but Canada is effectively – and almost single-handedly – killing any chance of negotiating a successor to Kyoto before 2020.

So after Durban we are left with nothing but the hastily negotiated and non-binding Copenhagen Accord of 2009, an agreement that our government claims still to support. This agreement calls for the increase in average global temperatures to be limited to two degrees Celsius (2 C) above pre-industrial levels, as many scientists believe that beyond this point, we may cross a climate threshold into potentially catastrophic and unmanageable runaway warming. Yet for several reasons, Copenhagen is also doomed to fail.
First, voluntary commitments by the countries that have so far signed the agreement would leave the world heading for warming of over 3 C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Second, many feel that the 2 C target is itself simply too high. An average global increase of 2 C means some regions in the developing south — much of Africa, for instance — will be subject to a 3.5 C or even 4 C increase. This, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has said, “is to condemn Africa to incineration and no modern development.”
Finally, when you crunch the numbers, it becomes clear that accepting the 2 degree limit globally would mean a dramatic reduction in global emissions in the short term. Yet by 2020, tar sands emissions are expected to triple from their 2005 levels.  It would be very difficult for Canada to reconcile any expanding tar sands production with such sharp global declines in carbon emissions. With the economies of China and India expanding at a rapid rate, there simply is not enough atmospheric space available for a tar sands industry that already accounts for a whopping 6.5% of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
Industrialized countries have already emitted roughly 75 per cent of total historical greenhouse gas emissions. By asking poorer countries to bind themselves to diminishing emissions budgets before we have even attempted to meet our own targets, Canada is contributing to perhaps the single biggest impediment to progress in international climate negotiations. For developing countries, acquiescing to such a demand would be “like jumping out of a plane and being assured that you are going to get a parachute on the way down,” as the former Executive Secretary of the UN climate negotiations, Yvo De Boer, said. Why would China and India ever agree to such a deal?
Very few would deny the fact that developing countries will have to rein in their carbon emissions if we are to have any chance of solving the climate crisis but if countries like Canada are unwilling to make deep cuts quickly, it’s very difficult for poor countries to see how they can reconcile their development aspirations with the atmospheric limits of climate stabilization at 2 C of warming. Today, the only proven routes out of poverty still involve an expanded use of energy and, consequently, a seemingly inevitable increase in fossil fuel use and carbon emissions — unless more expensive alternative energies can rapidly be deployed.
So here we find ourselves at what may be an insurmountable political impasse created by sheer self-interest and apparent egotism. “Western nations are engaged in a lose-lose game of chicken with developing nations,” wrote Naomi Klein in Rolling Stone following the Cophenhagen Summit. And in the meantime, the climate will not wait for us to get our act together. As emissions rise, the climate will continue to change.
If even a 2-degree target is out of reach, where does this leave us? The answer is not pretty. In a recently published, must-read article called Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world, Kevin Anderson, a professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, explains why a temperature increase of more than 2 degrees would be extremely dangerous. In fact, he says “a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.” According to the International Energy Agency, we’re currently on course for a 6 degrees C temperature rise.
Viewed in these stark terms, I cannot help but wonder if future generations will one day judge the actions of our political “leaders” such as Harper and Kent – who in the face of all the scientific evidence, continued to value increasing tar sands production in Canada over climatic stability – as crimes against humanity.