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


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©

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 ©

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.


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