Skip to content

The Changing Climate, especially in Canada

  • by

IPCC AR5 coverLast month the IPCC released CLIMATE CHANGE 2013 The Physical Science Basis in final form.  The Working Group 1 contribution to IPCC’s fifth assessment report, its summary had been released in draft form last September, but now it is in final form with all the tables and figures in the correct locations in the text.  It is a massive document – 1308 pages, plus another 200 or so of annexes.  In final form it is a lot more accessible than the draft version was.  While I still believe that the main documents released by IPCC can be read and understood by non-specialists, this is not light reading for a winter evening.  There are plenty of complex topics discussed in considerable detail and the reader has to work hard.  Still, we now have IPCC’s latest assessment of the physical science basis and the changes in climate that are likely to occur over the next century.

The following paragraphs are quoted directly from the main bullets in the Summary for Policymakers.  I quote verbatim, except for removing references to figures and tables, or explanatory text – all gaps marked by … .  In reading these paragraphs bear in mind that IPCC uses words like likely, very likely, exceedingly likely with precise meanings in terms of statistical likelihood of the event occurring.  Also bear in mind that AR4 is the Fourth Assessment Report of 2007, and SPM 2.6, 4.5, 6.0 and 8.5 are four scenarios detailing patterns of energy use and CO2 emissions into the future that IPCC uses in its projections of future change.  Of these SPM 8.5 is very much like the trajectory we are currently on, and SPM 2.6 is an aggressive reduction in emissions of CO2.  The others are intermediate between these (the four are named for the likely total increase in global temperature at 2100).

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.  The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased. … Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. …. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years. … Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010…  It is virtually certain that the upper ocean (0−700 m) warmed from 1971 to 2010, and it likely warmed between the 1870s and 1971. … Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent. … The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia…. Over the period 1901 to 2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.19 [0.17 to 0.21] m. … The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.  Carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification. … Total radiative forcing is positive, and has led to an uptake of energy by the climate system.  The largest contribution to total radiative forcing is caused by the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1750. … “

“Human influence on the climate system is clear.  This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system. … Climate models have improved since the AR4.  Models reproduce observed continental scale surface temperature patterns and trends over many decades, including the more rapid warming since the mid-20th century and the cooling immediately following large volcanic eruptions. … Observational and model studies of temperature change, climate feedbacks and changes in the Earth’s energy budget together provide confidence in the magnitude of global warming in response to past and future forcing. … Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes…. This evidence for human influence has grown since AR4.  It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. …

“Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all Components of the climate system.  Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. … Global surface temperature change for the end of the 21st century is likely to exceed 1.5°C relative to 1850 to 1900 for all RCP scenarios except RCP2.6. It is likely to exceed 2°C for RCP6.0 and RCP8.5, and more likely than not to exceed 2°C for RCP4.5.  Warming will continue beyond 2100 under all RCP scenarios except RCP2.6.  Warming will continue to exhibit interannual-to-decadal variability and will not be regionally uniform. … Changes in the global water cycle in response to the warming over the 21st century will not be uniform.  The contrast in precipitation between wet and dry regions and between wet and dry seasons will increase, although there may be regional exceptions. … The global ocean will continue to warm during the 21st century.  Heat will penetrate from the surface to the deep ocean and affect ocean circulation. … It is very likely that the Arctic sea ice cover will continue to shrink and thin and that Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover will decrease during the 21st century as global mean surface temperature rises.  Global glacier volume will further decrease. … Global mean sea level will continue to rise during the 21st century… Under all RCP scenarios, the rate of sea level rise will very likely exceed that observed during 1971 to 2010 due to increased ocean warming and increased loss of mass from glaciers and ice sheets. … Climate change will affect carbon cycle processes in a way that will exacerbate the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere… Further uptake of carbon by the ocean will increase ocean acidification. … Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond … Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped.  This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2. … “

All the authors of this report are identified by name, as are all those who reviewed the drafts as the text was finalized.  This is done for every chapter within the document.  This document represents a consensus statement of the state of our understanding in 2013 by a very large number of members of the scientific community.  Yes, the document includes areas of uncertainty.  These are discussed and the evidence supporting various hypotheses is reported.  And like all consensus statements, it errs on the side of caution.  I find it impossible to read this document and not come away convinced that we have a very good (not perfect) understanding of what is happening to our planet’s climate, and convinced that what is happening is definitely very serious.  Meanwhile, we are making precious little progress in dealing with the emissions of CO2.

Keystone report US State Jan 2014At the end of January, the US State Department released its long-awaited environmental assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline.  The Executive Summary is available here.  Immediately, the Canadian forces in favor of building this pipeline sprung into action.  Slight upward movement in the value of the Canadian dollar was immediately translated as market optimism following release of the report.  TransCanada CEO Russ Girling, Alberta Premier, Allison Redford, and federal Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver, all quickly welcomed the report, and urged President Obama to quickly approve the project.  The speed of their responses suggests they spoke before reading the report carefully.  As the Globe and Mail points out, “The report says oil sands crude produces 17 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions per barrel compared to the average crude processed in the United States.  And it spells out a possible scenario in which low crude prices and failure to build other pipelines would increase impact that Keystone XL project would have on oil sands production, and hence greenhouse gas emissions”.  The Globe also quotes the Vice President of CAPP (Canadian Association of Petroleum Porducers) as saying that the industry is going to need the Keystone XL, other pipelines to the east and west, and railroad transport, in order to export the product as quickly as they want to.  This fits precisely with the claim of those opposed to Keystone that all the pressure to build extra avenues for transporting the bitumen away from Alberta is driven by the desire to ramp up production as quickly as possible.  They are currently producing a substantial amount of bitumen, and transporting it south and east, but they are not satisfied with the size of their enterprise.  They want to grow it rapidly, and they want nothing to stand in the way of that growth.

“They’ in this case does not only include the producers, as represented by CAPP, or the transporters, as represented by TransCanada.  It also includes Ms Redford’s provincial government and the Harper government, which The Star reported on 9th January has just signed a contract with the PR firm FleishmanHillard to develop a $22 million campaign to promote the tar sands industry in the US, Europe and Asia.  The contract is worth $1.695 million in commissions to FleishmanHillard, and if the campaign extends into 2015, could become worth $4 million to them.  The Harper government thinks nothing of spending taxpayers’ money to promote this industry – should that not be the job of the corporations that are mining the muck and selling it around the world?  And how can any government pretend to be regulating an industry that it is spending millions to promote?

Harper ad spend

Image © the eco-senior blog

More evidence of the concerted push in favor of Keystone XL can be seen in a report on mid-January speeches to a meeting of the Canadian Club business group by Russ Girling of TransCanada and by Brian Ferguson of Cenovus.  Both claimed that there is real urgency to develop the tar sands and associated pipelines now, because if they are not developed immediately the opportunity to develop them could be lost for decades.  That delay will result because China and other potential buyers will find alternative sources of fuel.  I personally do not see any problem with that.  It has always been true that resources left in the ground do not melt away, and Canada needs to decide what kind of a nation it wants to become in future years.  Rapid exploitation, exporting raw (low value) products to other countries so that these other countries can add the value (and build the high-paying skilled jobs that go with high value-added products), has been the Canadian way for a long time.  Perhaps it is time to think anew about what we want our society to be like in 50 years from now?  A program of aggressive conversion of the Canadian economy to a low-carbon one, coupled to a measured ramping down of tar sands exploitation would mean that Canada could once again hold its head high as a leader among nations in the battle to avoid worst-case future climate, while building a robust, high-value economy with good jobs into the future.  That is a viable path forward for our country, but any attempt to discuss that path is met with ridicule by the oil lobby, including the Harper government.

oilsands Jeff McIntosh - CP

Athabasca tar sands development.  Photo © Jeff McIntosh/CP

On 29th January, a new report from University of Toronto concerning PAH pollution in the Athabasca region was posted on-line at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA).  I’m reading it now, but it seems that this is just one more piece of evidence that the environmental impacts of the tar sands industry is worse than governments or industry seem willing to admit.  On 6th February, CBC reported that 7 major environmental charities in Canada are being audited by the Canada Revenue Service to see if their public comments violate their status as charities.  They are

The David Suzuki Foundation
Tides Canada
West Coast Environmental Law
The Pembina Foundation
Environmental Defence
Ecology Action Centre

All have been outspoken about the tar sands, and these audits seem to stem directly from that, and probably from complaints to government from Ethical Oil, a tar sands industry lobby group.  The very next day, CBC reported an interview with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty concerning the 2014 budget.  In it, he announced will outline the government’s plans to curb the link between terrorists, organized crime and charities, as part of stricter rules coming in the federal budget next week.  Said Flaherty, “There are some terrorist organizations, there are some organized crime organizations that launder money through charities, and make donations to charities…. That’s not the purpose of charitable donations in Canada, so we’re becoming increasingly strict on the subject.  You’ll see some more on Tuesday.”

Flaherty Jason Franson - CP

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, tough on charities.  Photo © Jason Franson/CP

The finance minister did not say what specific measures he’d take, but said he’s not concerned about suggestions that changing rules for charities would be perceived as a way to silence critics of the government.  “If the critics of the government are terrorist organizations, and organized crime, I don’t care,” he said.

In other words, right in the middle of the Olympics, he will add to the government’s powers to go after charities that say unpopular things about government policies, all the while waving the terrorist card.  Never mind the economy.  Never mind the environment.  Never mind freedom of speech, including the freedom of environmental charities to educate and inform about environmental issues.  Let’s just make sure the terrorists do not interfere with the plans of the Harper government and its pals at CAPP.  All aboard, full speed ahead.