Water, ice, and the importance of the ocean in global climate change

Digg This
Share

We had an unexpected and unwelcome snowfall yesterday.  It was a brief reminder that we are not in control, but temperatures are again above freezing and headed higher.  I THINK our savage winter is over.  I see that NOAA is now reporting that globally, land temperatures in February were only the 21st warmest on record – it WAAS a cold month.  The global average temperature, land and oceans combined, made it the 7th warmest February on record.

Still, back to our snow.  It got me thinking about the properties of water and how much our climate, and the current changes in that climate depend on these.  With the thaw now well under way, there is still a substantial mass of ice on the lake near my house.  Close to a meter thick and covering the lake it represents a substantial demand for heat if it is ever going to melt (as it will).  The relatively high latent heat of ice (334 kJ per kg) means that it will take a massive influx of heat to melt the ice on this lake, never mind warming the water to a swimmable range.  That ice acts like a brake on our Spring just as, on a much larger scale, the massive glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica act like a brake on climate change.

Then there is the color of ice and snow.  Imagine a world of black ice and snow.  I doubt I would be experiencing an icy winter these days if snow was black, and an excellent absorber of sunlight.  But it is highly reflective and because of this resists absorbing the energy that would be required to melt it.  Climate would be changing in a very different way if our Arctic and Antarctic were periodically covered in highly absorbent black ice and snow.  And finally there is the peculiar fact that water is most dense at 4oC and becomes less dense if cooled below this temperature, and even less dense once it becomes ice.  As a consequence, in the Fall, our lake cools down to 4oC, but only the surface layer cools further.  The ice forms at the surface, trapping warmer water beneath it.  If water was a more typical liquid, it would become increasingly dense until it froze into a solid that would sink, and lakes would freeze from the bottom up.  Presumably, we’d have enormous depths of sea ice at the bottom of the Arctic ocean and the North West Passage would have always been open (unless temperatures were cool enough to lower Arctic ocean temperature sufficiently for the whole thing to freeze solid).

These idle thoughts about the wonders of water can help explain the enormous importance of the oceans in determining our climate, and the complex ways in which the oceans are now interacting with the increased insulation due to greenhouse gases as the planet warms up.  A considerable amount of research is currently being directed to these ocean-climate interactions because they have proved challenging to model yet play important roles in how the climate will change into the future.  As a case in point, consider the reported ‘pause’ in warming that has been going on for the past 5-10 years.  When at first, climate was seen not to be getting progressively warmer, year by year, since 1998, it was put down to the natural variability of the earth’s climate system – an appropriate, cautionary approach under the circumstances.  But as the ‘pause’ has continued, there has been an active search by climate scientists to find processes that might account for what has been happening.  Basic physics says that the insulation in the atmosphere has been trending steadily upward along with increases in CO2 concentration, and that therefore the amount of heat trapped on the planet must also be increasing year by year.  If that heat is not warming our climate (which basically means warming our lower atmosphere and land and water surfaces), it must be going somewhere else.  Among various possibilities, it might be melting glaciers at faster rates than anticipated, and it might be warming the deeper waters of the ocean to a greater degree than expected.  Recent research reports suggest that both these possibilities appear to be correct.

In the April 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change, Shfaqat Khan of the National Space Institute of the Technical University of Denmark, and 12 colleagues from Europe and the USA, reported on the rate of loss of mass in the glaciers of north-eastern Greenland.  Over the past twenty years, the melting of ice from Greenland glaciers has been responsible for slightly more than 15% of the observed rise in global sea level.  It has been known that much of this was due to speed-up of glaciers draining to the southeast and the northwest coasts of the island, however, the substantially larger, northeast ice stream, which extends more than 600 km into the center of the island and drains a sizeable portion of the icefield, had been stable in size (i.e. gaining new ice mass through precipitation as rapidly as it lost ice mass through calving at the coast) at least through the last 25 years.

Using sensitive, satellite-based GPS readings of elevation and of seaward extent, Khan and colleagues were able to show that, after 25 years of relative balance, these northeastern glaciers have been rapidly thinning (losing elevation) and moving more rapidly coastward.  From a rate of loss of ice mass of 1.4 gigatonnes (Gt) per year during the period 1974 to 2003,  the rate increased to 4.3 Gt per year during 2003-2006, 19.6 Gt per year during 2006-2009, and 20.2 Gt per year during 2009-2012.  The overall loss of ice from Greenland’s ice sheet was approximately 172.4 Gt per year in 2006, and more than doubled to 359.8 Gt per year during 2009 to 2012.

Khan and colleagues suggest that thinning of sea ice due to warming has been responsible for the acceleration in loss of glacial mass, and therefore that this process is likely to continue in the near-term future with resulting impacts on sea level and on surface salinity in the vicinity.  The latter may have important consequences for the rate of movement of the ocean conveyor that takes cold surface waters down to become the deep oceanic water.  And of course, any unaccounted for increase in ice sheet melting represents heat in the planetary system that does not show up as climate warming.

Khan et al Fig 1 nclimate2161-f1

Loss of ice mass on Greenland as measured by ice surface elevation loss in meters per year, for the three periods 2003-6, 2006-9 and 2009-12.  The extent of the northeastern glaciers can be seen in the left-hand panel.  Figure © as Fig 1 from Khan et al, Nature Climate Change, April 2014.

Mention of the ocean conveyor leads me logically to my next topic.  Casimir de Lavergne of McGill University and three colleagues from McGill and from University of Pennsylvania published a paper in Nature Climate Change, also in the April 2014 issue, titled’ “Cessation of deep convection in the open Southern Ocean under anthropogenic climate change.”  To appreciate its significance a brief review of the ocean conveyor system may be useful.  The ocean conveyor is a global pattern of immensely large, but quite slow oceanic currents that traverse the globe taking surface waters from the tropics towards both poles, then cooling and sinking this warm, salty, oxygen-rich water deep below the surface to become the water that exists at the very bottom of the oceans.  The conveyor then moves this bottom water around, ultimately bringing it back to the surface to continue the cycle.

ocean conveyor NASA JPL

The ocean conveyor is a complex pattern of shallow and deep currents that moves vast quantities of water around the oceans bringing shallow, well-oxygenated water to the depths and returning deep, oxygen-deficient but nutrient rich waters back to the surface.  Image courtesy NASA.

The figure shows water as descending in the North Atlantic and ascending within the central Indian and Pacific Oceans, however the reality is a bit more complex, with areas of downwelling in the north Pacific and in the Southern Ocean as well.  Movement of the ocean conveyor is driven by changes in the density of water as it changes in temperature and/or salinity.  Surface waters in the Atlantic are warm but relatively salty, and as they move north they lose heat to the atmosphere.  Cooling makes them more dense and they tend to sink below the cold but less saline waters coming out of the Arctic.  This major downwelling is the primary driver of the conveyor.  It is also potentially open to disruption of further melting of Greenland’s glaciers makes ocean waters in the North Atlantic a lot fresher.  If salinity is sufficiently reduced, even in the tropical water moving north, its cooling may become insufficient to cause it to sink, slowing the conveyor.  De Lavergne’s paper concerned the exchanges that occur in the Antarctic, where giant convection cells become established and bring cold dense water up towards the surface where it loses heat to the even colder atmosphere and to adjacent cool but less saline surface waters.  In the mid-1970s one of the largest such convection cells was apparent as the Weddell Polynya, a 250,000 km2 ice-free patch of open water within the winter sea ice of the Weddell Sea.  The continued upwelling at this site kept bringing relatively warm deep water to the surface and prevented the formation of sea ice.  Effectively, the patch of open water, which persisted in each of the two following winters, represented the top of a giant column connecting the surface waters to abyssal depths.  The polar southern ocean is normally only weakly stratified and the convection cell was able to transport substantial heat from the deep ocean to the atmosphere, while also bringing new cold water from the surface to depth, renewing the deep water of the ocean conveyor.  De Lavergne and colleagues were able to show via modelling that the Weddell Polynya and similar convection cells were a relatively frequent occurrence in the past, but have become less likely as melting of Antarctic glaciers has progressively reduced surface salinity, leading to enhanced stratification and greater resistance to convection cell formation.  The result is that not only is the production of deep water reduced because of the lack of downwelling at the convection cell, but that heat trapped in the water is not getting released to the atmosphere.

My final example concerns a paper by Matthew England of the University of New South Wales, and 9 colleagues from Australian and US institutions, that appeared in Nature Climate Change in March 2014.  Their paper, titled, “Recent intensification of wind-driven circulation in the Pacific and the ongoing warming hiatus”, moves us to the tropical ocean and yet another phenomenon that facilitates the transfer of heat from atmosphere to ocean.  Using a combination of dynamic ocean modelling and records of climate going back to the 1920s, they show how patterns of warming of surface air temperature are closely linked in time to the behavior of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO), a fluctuating pattern in which westerly blowing trade winds intensify and weaken on an approximately decadal cycle that ties into the el Niño – la Niña cycle also known as the el Niño Southern Oscillation or ENSO (sometimes I think climatologists just like to make life complicated, but then I realize they deal with an inherently complex system).  Their analysis shows that we have been in a period of negative IPO status for the past 20 years or so, with strong trade winds, weak el Niño events, and large amounts of deep water upwelled off the tropical Pacific coast of northern South America.  This has brought substantial quantities of cold deep water to the surface where it has readily acquired heat from the atmosphere.  As a consequence, they suggest, the warming of the climate has been less than anticipated.

Their modelling of possible scenarios into the future shows that if the IPO switches to a positive phase soon, the less strong trade winds and more powerful el Niño conditions will reduce upwellings off South America, and less atmospheric heat will be transferred to the ocean.  As a result, the rate of climate warming will increase again.  Conversely, if the current negative IPO continues, we could see a period of relative climatic stability until around 2020.  According to England and colleagues, we do not yet understand the IPO sufficiently to know how likely it is to switch over the next few years.

Kosaka Fig 1 March 2014 nclimate2138-f1

This map shows the rate of change in temperature across the globe during the recent past.  The tropical Pacific has been getting markedly cooler, and as a consequence heat has been being taken out of the atmosphere and into the ocean.  Strong trade winds over the past 20 years are responsible, but that situation could be about to change.  Figure © Kosaka, Nature Climate Change, March 2014.

Just to wind up this discussion, an article by Jeff Tollefson in the 3rd April 2014 issue of Nature reports that a strong el Niño now appears to be developing for the coming northern summer and fall.  Easterly winds were recorded in the west equatorial Pacific at the start of 2014, and it looks very much as if an el Niño event of a size comparable to that in 1997-98 may be developing.  If it does, the sink for atmospheric heat provided by the tropical Pacific over the past few years may be shut off and climate will start bumping up again.  I’m currently motivated to bet that this is in fact what will happen, simply because we are well overdue for a strong el Niño.  If that does indeed happen, I think I can be reasonably confident that next April in my part of the world, I will not be looking out on ice and snow.

Categories: Arctic, Changing Oceans, Climate change, In the News, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Climate woes. We are not very good with the big, difficult problems.

Digg This
Share

It’s been a month since Malaysia Airlines 370 disappeared.  Twenty-six countries have contributed to the search that has focused on an area of the south Indian Ocean 217,000 km2 in size and 1,700 km out from Perth, Australia.  The search has involved 14 planes, 9 ships, all sorts of high-tech listening gear, and the scanning of thousands of hours of satellite images in a search for wreckage on the surface.  The ‘pings’ from the flight data recorder appear to have been heard, but it will take much more time to recover the instruments to learn as much as possible about what had happened.  The cost to date is estimated as $44 million, and it will obviously go a lot higher before it’s all over.  The loss of life and the lack of information about what happened is tragic, but what I am struck by is the evident effort by many countries contributing to the search.  Australia, China, the USA, and Vietnam appear to have contributed the most so far, with no prior (public) negotiations about how costs will be shared, or even about who should pay, and how long the search should continue if success continues to elude them.

Malaysia 370 search Scott Eisen - AP

Bluefin Robotics ROV, just one of the tools being used in the search.  Photo © Scott Eisen/AP

It’s a striking contrast to the lack of action by countries when it comes to climate change.  The long succession of climate change conferences with little to show in the way of agreements, is an uninspiring example of how skilled countries can be at avoiding taking hard decisions.  Yet the scientific data continue to expose, ever more clearly, the seriousness of climate change for our planet and our societies.  The contrast proves once again that we can be quite good at responding to what appear to be immediate emergencies, but we are nearly hopeless at addressing far larger, existential threats that approach relentlessly yet relatively slowly.

I felt vindicated last week.  I had stuck out my neck at the start of April, suggesting in print that exporting fossil fuels is just as immoral as exporting asbestos, and that it was past time for Canada to stop.  Last week Archbishop Desmond Tutu, writing in The Guardian, argued that it is past time to divest ourselves of shares in fossil fuel companies, and take other actions that will deprive them of their capacity to influence policy around the world.  And he linked these actions to a moral responsibility to care for the Earth.  Wow, I agree with an Archbishop!  Furthermore, Tutu began his column with explicit reference to the Keystone XL pipeline, calling it “appalling” that the US is actually debating agreeing to the construction of this pipeline, because it will enhance the rate at which fossil fuels get to market.  This is apt, because Keystone is heating up again as the inevitable decision gets closer, with some Democrat senators, up for re-election and facing real battles, arguing strenuously that Obama should say Yes to Keystone, and very soon – politics may be the deciding factor in this decision, a point always recognized, and feared, by those who hope that by blocking Keystone, Canada’s surging tar sands industry can remain contained.

desmog re kitimat plebiscite

The Kitimat plebiscite, just another step in the PR war for Northern Gateway.  Image©desmog.ca

Here in Canada, the fossil fuel industry and the Harper government continue the heavy-handed campaign to put pipelines from Alberta to any port available.  Enbridge is running a non-binding plebiscite in Kitimat today, having regaled the town with promises of jobs and prosperity beyond the wildest dreams of residents.  The vote has been arranged so that it’s only the townsfolk that get to vote, thereby excluding the Haisla First Nation community just outside the town, many of whom are strongly opposed.  Yet an interesting article in the Huffington Post last week suggests that stopping the tar sands growth in its tracks would not have the devastating economic impact on Canada that we are always being told about.  They base their argument on an IMF assessment published in February.  A quick read of the IMF report does not give that impression – its authors focus on the 2% increase in Canadian GDP over 10 years (that’s 0.2% per year – pretty modest) that ramping up the tar sands exports could produce, and, being economists they assume that GDP growth is always an unqualified good thing.  Huffington Post, by contrast, points to the small size of that same 2% of growth, and also at the even smaller impact (-0.5%) if additional pipeline capacity is not provided.  I think Canada could cope with a 0.5% reduction in our GDP.  Hell, it’s only the 1% who would even notice it anyway.  Of course, any suggestion in Canada that we might consider deciding to leave most of the tar sands safely underground remains a dangerous one, one liable to have the utterer quickly confined for psychiatric assessment.  There is a fair way to go before Canadians will start to see the wisdom in weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.
Robert F Kennedy. Mar 18, 1968

If things are hotting up re Keystone or Northern Gateway, they are also hotting up in the global battle over climate.  As I put this post together the IPCC is meeting in Berlin to finalize the text of the Summary for Policy Makers for the third report comprising their 5th Assessment of the state of the global climate.  This Summary and the associated report to be released on Sunday are the work of Working Group III, and deal with mitigation of climate change.  I’ve not seen any documents although there have been a few leaks.  Since the document is a presumably logical discussion of how to mitigate effects of growing CO2 emissions, it considers alternative approaches.  Directly reducing emissions be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels is the approach most discussion centers on, but this report also discusses the broad range of options that address the effects of growing concentrations of GHGs less directly.  These are mostly technological approaches known collectively as ‘geoengineering’.  The fact that geoengineering approaches are included is one of the causes of conflict within the meeting according to those with inside information.  And I think I can see why.

geotech and GHG emissions

Ah, geoengineering to the rescue.  Floating mirrors high in the sky, reflective parasols shading the ground, and a sea-going, water-spraying gismo to increase cloud cover over tropical seas.
Figure © PhysicsWorld.com

I think that upon its public release, this third IPCC report will lead to a flurry of discussion concerning the relative merits of alternative technological fixes, none of which have yet proved feasible.  It’s a bit like putting filters on cigarettes.  I had a good friend in the 1970s who swore by his cigarette holder that incorporated some sort of advanced filter.  He smoked about two packs a day, and regularly cleaned his filter by soaking it in alcohol.  He showed me more than once the dramatic change in color of the alcohol as the tars leaked out of the filter.  He was a scientist, and a smoker, who bought the promises of the filter maker, because that was easier than kicking his habit.  Come to think of it, in those days I was just as seduced by the claims by the cigarette industry – my brand loyalty was heavily influenced by advertisements extolling virtues of the filters.  I eventually smartened up and quit.  My friend, more invested and more hooked than I, did not, and died soon after.

Ecologists and conservation scientists are familiar with the concept of the precautionary principle – the idea that you do not undertake actions, no matter how attractive they might seem, until you are sure that they will have no serious negative environmental effects.  Too often in environmental management, we have learned the hard way that what seemed a very appropriate action to take had unexpected negative consequences that outweighed any benefits.  And we have also learned that actions with negative consequences can be exceedingly difficult to repair – natural systems do not always bounce back after we stop damaging them.  Examples of hard lessons that have led to adoption of the precautionary principle can be found in our long and sorry efforts to manage fisheries around the world, our efforts to ‘improve’ places by importing ‘desirable’ species either for cultivation or simply to provide pets or plants for the garden, and our adoption of chemical insecticides, herbicides or fertilizers.  I fear we are going to have to be ready with arguments in favor of the precautionary principle, because all sorts of hare-brained schemes to mitigate climate change are going to be floated, by sincere and serious scientists and engineers as well as by hucksters and frauds looking for windfall profits.  Fact is, sometimes it is a lot better to break your addiction to a damaging substance than to try and engineer your way out of the problems it is causing.  And schemes to reducing the warming effects of CO2 in the atmosphere are going to be far larger, and therefore potentially far more risky, than schemes to protect smokers from tobacco while letting them keep smoking.  Worse, still, these will be mostly schemes that are untested, and that need lots of R&D to bring them to scale – a wonderful way for the fossil fuel industry to simply draw out the timeline before we finally wake up and quit using their products.

39-viceroy-cigarettes-ad-dentist-recommended

The filter was a technological fix for tobacco’s little problem.  We’ll have bigger proposed fixes for climate change, many no more reliable.  Figure from Viceroy

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Economics, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | Leave a comment

Maybe it is time for a serious rethink? Is a moral economic policy possible?

Digg This
Share

Has anyone failed to notice how full of garbage the ocean has become?  The southern Indian Ocean is a long way from anywhere, but searchers for Malaysian Airlines 370 keep spotting objects that turn out to be fishing nets, plastic jugs, shipping pallets and other refuse.  Nothing that has been anywhere near a plane.  I remember back in the early 1970’s when Jacques Cousteau first complained about how littered the oceans were getting.  It’s clearly got a lot worse since.  But oceanic litter is just a symptom of today’s topic.

SIO 090904-01-great-pacific-garbage-patch-gyre-ocean-trash_big

A ‘ghost net’ floating with other debris in the central Pacific in 2009.  Photo © Scripps Institute of Oceanography

 

Our Environmental Footprint

The human footprint on this planet is enormous, and growing larger every day.  Our footprint is a measure of the extent to which we use the goods and services provided by our planet – our use of food, water, timber, fuel, other resources, our release of pollutants that the planet must detoxify, all expressed in terms of the area of a typical portion of the planet’s biosphere that would be required to replace those resources or repair that pollution.  Our footprint is currently at about 1.4 planets, meaning that we use 40% more per year than the planet can provide in a year.  We’ve been dipping into accumulated planetary capital for some time, and this overdraft living is going to continue in the foreseeable future, growing a bit worse each year.  But it cannot go on indefinitely – the planet is finite.  We need economic policies that acknowledge this fact.

The growth in our footprint is fueled by the continued growth of our global population, 7,223,846,960 this moment according to one population clock, and growing at the rate of about 69 million people per year.  That’s about 190 thousand extra people per day, or the equivalent of adding an entire Barrie, Ontario, every single day of the year.  (You can do the math for your own region, if these places are unknown to you.)

Barrie On from air

Barrie, Ontario, a small city about an hour north of Toronto, with a population of 187,000 in 2011.  The world gains a new Barrie every day of the year as our population grows.

Growth in our footprint is also fueled by our individually growing rates of consumption of food, fuel, and other resources.  Global GDP has grown nearly continuously for at least the last 50 years, at an average rate of growth of over 3% per annum, which translates as just under 2% per annum per capita.  With more and more of us engaging in more and more economic activity, is it any wonder that our footprint is growing rapidly?

per capita gdp 1800 to 2007

The trend in GDP per capita has been rising steeply over at least 200 years – each one of us is generating more economic activity than before.  Image © MJ Perry.

In Our Dying Planet, I spent a short chapter talking about exponential growth.  I did so because we mostly do not understand the power of growth.  Yes, some of us may have mastery of the math, and may be capable of calculating how accumulated interest will grow if we do not pay off our credit cards, but few of us have a visceral appreciation for what growth can do.  We need to appreciate exponential growth far better, because all this growth is taking place on a finite planet, and our footprint is now large enough to seriously sully it.  There are hard limits to growth ahead of us, and applying the brakes sooner than later would be wise.

NOAA co2_data_mlo

CO2 concentration in the atmosphere above Mauna Loa has increased 25% since 1958, and the rate at which it increases is also growing.  Graph courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory.

Climate Change 2014, the latest from IPCC

The latest report from IPCC, titled Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, came out on Monday.  It provides further sobering news concerning the diversity and extent of impacts of a changing climate, all substantially caused by our exponentially growing consumption of fossil fuels, removal of natural forests and manufacture and use of cement.  The concentration of CO2 — the most important of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) — in the atmosphere above Mauna Loa was 400.8 ppm on March 31st.  It has been growing steadily since instruments were first installed in 1958, and the slight upward inflection of the curve shows this growth too is exponential rather than linear.  We are releasing CO2 into the atmosphere at slightly faster rates each year, and impacts on climate are now becoming obvious.

Like the report from IPCC Working Group 1 that appeared late last year, this latest provides lots more evidence of climate impacts than previous reports, but no real surprises for anyone who has been following the emerging story.  The Summary for Policy Makers which forms one part of the release provides a brief summary of the range of impacts, and makes the point that many impacts are already happening although they will be getting worse in the future.  It talks primarily about the human impacts that result from the environmental changes that are occurring: food and water security, reduced quality of life due to lowered health status, increase risk of hazard due to extreme climate-related events such as storms, heat waves, floods, droughts, and sea level rise, differential impacts on the poor, and increased tension and civil conflict.  I particularly liked the final figure in the summary document.

SPM ( IPCC WGII 5th assessment SPM

Figure SPM.9 from IPCC report: Opportunity space and climate-resilient pathways.  Image © IPCC.

The left-hand panel of this figure depicts our global environmental system impacted by multiple anthropological stressors which combine to reduce resilience – the capacity of the system to continue to function effectively as external conditions change.  The center panel portrays the possible set of adaptation and mitigation strategies that human societies may adopt – some are more effective than others at retaining or restoring resilience.  The right-hand panel depicts possible future states for our environment ranging (optimistically) from ones where resilience is actually increased over the current case, to very poor situations in which resilience of the environmental system has been almost entirely lost and conditions for people are very degraded.

It should be clear to all that different societies are currently moving through the “opportunity space” making decisions that are better or worse, and moving towards different end results.  To the extent that the stressors on the global system vary geographically in type and severity, the problems posed will vary among societies.  Many small island states face annihilation as sea level rise submerges their land beneath the waves.  Cities like Chicago and Toronto, high above sea level, will face challenges, but quite different ones to those faced by New York, Yokohama or Manila.  Societies will have to work together to reduce emissions of GHGs, but they will be dealing at the same time with quite different types and levels of impact, and may be differentially motivated to cooperate in emissions reduction as a consequence.

Choices for Canada

Canada, as a lightly populated, energy self-sufficient, food-exporting nation, is in a relatively good situation to deal with climate change.  That does not mean that climate change impacts are not going to be substantial.  Nor will they be easy to adapt to.  Our capital-intensive lifestyles (for most of us, anyway) mean that the extreme weather events we are already seeing will incur major costs for repair of our elaborate infrastructure.  Even if insurance policies or governmental relief funds are adequate, those funds still come from somewhere.  The shift northward in climate zones will make some of our farmland much more arid, and the new, more northern land is going to prove to be of far lower quality thanks to the efficient southward shift of soils during the Pleistocene – farming will become much more challenging.  Despite our abundant supplies of fresh water, increased aridity and warmer summers will likely make water supply a greater issue in some parts of the country than at present.  And the rapid warming of the Arctic is going to have major repercussions on the natural systems on which so many northern people still depend for food and livelihoods.

Arctic-ice-cave-001 Alexandra Kobalenko-Getty

Arctic ice is melting at a record pace, suggesting the region may be ice-free during summer within 30 years. Photo © Alexandra Kobalenko/Getty

While some Canadians are speaking confidently of climate change “opening up” the Arctic to development, they might be wise to reflect on the extent of the changes taking place and the likely repercussions on land and in the lakes, rivers and ocean.  Of course, the Canadian government has such a stellar reputation for its culturally sensitive and effective support of First Nations and Inuit peoples, that I am sure that nobody in the north will be worried about the risks to them or their communities from climate change.

Now the IPCC diagram does not make it simple to place a nation or more local region somewhere within the web of pathways through the “opportunity space”.  But I think it is safe to argue that the Harper government (and, to a degree, governments of other political stripe before them) has not been making wise choices and moving towards high resilience and low risk.  True, they have not stood in the way of Provinces or communities introducing initiatives to adapt to coming climate impacts, or to mitigate their own contributions to GHG emissions.  Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec have all taken steps that make them better off than they would otherwise have been.  But the Harper government has mostly refused to let climate become a topic of discussion, has muzzled science, ignored informed advice, and eliminated many environmental regulations designed to protect resilience in one form or another.  It has also become chief cheerleader, rather than responsible regulator, of the fossil fuel industry that is seeking to triple production from the Alberta tar sands as rapidly as possible and ship the product overseas by any means, to whoever wants to buy it, regardless the environmental cost.  Without even counting the GHG emissions that result from the ultimate use of this fuel offshore, the per capita emissions of Canadians to fuel their energy-intensive lifestyles, and to extract these messy, difficult fossil fuel resources, put us within the top three nations on the planet as major carbon polluters.  It is frankly irresponsible and immoral of our national government to behave the way it has.  The Harper government is misleading Canadians about the reality of climate change, it is creating a more difficult future for Canadians than we needed to have, and it is justifying its actions by wasting government funds in advertising its economic action plan, all the while portraying a move towards a carbon-neutral economy as economic suicide, and a threat to the prosperity that Canadians are enjoying.  (The Harper government seems to forget that most Canadians have not seen much prosperity in these years of stagnant wages and rising costs.)

I’ve finally reached the point where I think it is well past time that Canadians ask themselves some important questions.  Is it possible to have a quality life without continuous growth in personal financial worth?  Is it possible to have a quality life without a sustainable environment in which to live it?  Is it possible that our educated workforce could be employed in high value-added enterprises that would sustain a vibrant economy that was not based on digging up resources to sell them overseas to whomever will buy them?  Is it possible that the vast majority of Canadians could enjoy a quality life even if we closed down the tar sands because digging up fossil fuel in excess of our own energy needs simply enables some other nations’ addiction to energy?  Is it possible that the vast majority of Canadians could enjoy a quality life into a good future if we started now to make decisions that retain environmental resilience instead of GDP growth as our top priority and best measure of success?  Think about these questions, and find out if any of our political leaders are talking about them, or suggesting some approach other than “full steam ahead, dig it up, dust it off, ship it out, and pocket the profits, to hell with the mess left behind.”  That is what I hear every time our esteemed Minister of Environment opens her mouth to report that “Canada is working on climate change”.

Aglukkaq question period counting on fingers commons-20140331

Leona Aglukkaq in Question Period last week defending the Harper record on climate.  She seems uncertain of how many fingers to hold up in answer to the question, ‘how many steps has the government taken to address climate change?’  Photo © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

In 2012, Canada had to be dragged kicking and screaming to a decision that finally end export of asbestos, a known killer product.  We continued the immoral trade long after we banned its use at home.  It would be preferable to see Canada voluntarily cease export of fossil fuels, on the ground that this is the responsible course of action that will encourage other countries to wean themselves off these products.  It would also be good to see Canada working aggressively to shift away from carbon-intensive fuels at home as a way of correcting our own sorry emissions record.  Fossil fuels should be left in the ground until such time that they can be used without releasing carbon to the atmosphere.

Some Good News

Those last few sentences may sound like the ravings of a lunatic naïve about the fundamentals of economics, but it is past time for Canadians who care about their environment to continue unquestioned acceptance of the mantra that we must sustain continued economic growth regardless of the type of economic activity relied upon.  We can build a vibrant economy that provides high-value jobs for Canadians, that protects and restores our environment, that adapts us for the climate change that is now upon us, that minimizes the exploitation of fossil fuels, and that shifts us aggressively to a carbon-free economy.  But we will not begin that journey if we continue to believe that exploiting all our natural resources as rapidly as possible is not only desirable, but necessary to our well-being.  It is past time to question the status quo.  And to remember that we live on a finite planet and must reduce our footprint.

Lest I got you all depressed, here are two pieces of good news to close with.  First, some communities within the US are starting to question the desirability of having tar sands oil flow through pipelines near them.  It may only be nimbyism, but it may be a case of putting their environment ahead of profits for the wealthy.  Second, the Ontario government has just announced an agreement to fund the Experimental Lakes Region, summarily cancelled by the Harper government a year ago, at $2 million per year, about the same level as in the past.  Again, this may be a case of crass political action prior to an election, or it may be a case of a government recognizing that supporting environmental science is a legitimate and necessary role during a time of substantial climate change.

Categories: Arctic, Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Economics, In the News, Our Dying Planet, Politics, Tar Sands | Leave a comment