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Like deer in the headlights – responses to the IPCC 5th Assessment of climate change

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I’ve waited a few days since the IPCC released the first portion of what will become its 5th Assessment Report on September 27th.  I wanted to see how this news was going to be received around the world.  The response is much as I had anticipated and feared, we are like deer in the headlights.


Around these parts of Canada, seeing deer in your headlights is not an uncommon occurrence.  They don’t usually carry Photoshopped googly eyes, but they do stare as you approach, and they do freeze immobile.  If you and the deer are particularly unlucky, the result is damaged fenders or worse and fresh venison.  More usually, you react in time and the deer eventually regains its senses and bounds away.  There are physiological reasons why deer, and many other animals, behave this way, but the phrase ‘like deer in the headlights” has come to symbolize that unthinking inability to act that can strike people when confronted with what appears to be a rapidly approaching problem that desperately cries out for a quick solution.

Even before the IPCC report was released, the denialist universe had a flurry of activity across the blogosphere denouncing it and attempting to muddy the waters, however, with a number of glaring exceptions, the mainstream press rightly reported this campaign of confusion for what it was, and a number of scientists associated with the IPCC process were available to quietly demolish each of the denialist arguments.  Otherwise, however, response to the release in the media has been definitely muted, and its perhaps not surprising why – the report did not contain radical revisions of prior information and therefore was technically not really important news.

IPCC 5th Assessment wg1cover

When the publication process is complete in October 2014,
the IPCC 5th Assessment will have a cover like this,

The document released on 27 September is titled, “Working Group I Contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis Summary for Policymakers.”  A bit of a mouthful, it’s a 36 page detailed summary of a much longer report from Working Group I that lays out current understanding of the physical science underlying our knowledge of climate change.  In 2014, there will be reports from Working Groups II and III dealing respectively with impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, and with mitigation of climate change respectively.  These will be followed in October 2014 by the Synthesis Report that culminates the 5th Assessment.  The IPCC moves slowly and deliberately – the Synthesis Report, appearing late next year will be summarizing information that the scientists were examining when they began the drafting of the individual working group reports back in 2010.

Basically, the September 27th document reports that the scientific community is now somewhat more certain than before that climate change is occurring, largely because of human activities, and they pin down some of the projections into the future with somewhat more certainty than before.  Our understanding of the world’s climate continues to grow and so these refinements are to be expected.  How certain are they that we are causing climate change?  They were close to being certain of these facts in 2007 when the 4th Assessment was released; now they are incrementally more certain.  There is definitely no room for debate among reasonable people on the fact of human-caused climate change.  There remains room for reasoned debate on specific aspects such as the patterns of change in precipitation or sea level, or on how the regional-scale patterns in climate will vary from one another.

Still, the fact that this latest IPCC effort is generally confirming, and making more explicit, the results of past assessments, while it may not be earth-shattering news, should be cause for a heightened sense of urgency among policy makers.  The need to act, in order to plan for coming climate change, and to mitigate releases of greenhouse gases so as to prevent the most serious of changes, should now be seen as definitely greater than it was two weeks ago.  And this does not yet appear to be happening.

The US is busily demonstrating what a large wealthy country without a functional government can be like, so I do not expect an early response on climate change from that quarter.  Australia is not a likely quick responded either, having just thrown out a government with a vision that included curtailing releases of CO2, and replaced it with one that is led by a climate change denier and which campaigned on throwing out the carbon tax that had been introduced.  Europe, fixated perhaps rightly on its continuing economic woes, might be forgiven for not rapidly jumping to the fore.  But what about dear little Canada?  Surely here is an opportunity to regain some of our lost credibility around the world?  After all, the IPCC report confirms that extreme precipitation events are going to be more common here.  To quote, the Summary for Policymakers states, “It is very likely that there have been increases [in either the frequency or intensity of heavy precipitation] in central North America”.  And the full report expands on that saying that in future there will be more tropical storms extending up the eastern coast of US and Canada causing “extreme precipitation increases” and that the trend for central North America is “very likely trends towards heavier precipitation events”.  Excuse me, but did we not experience such an event around Calgary, Alberta, earlier this year?  At $1.7 Billion in insured damage, the floods in southern Alberta have caused the greatest amount of damage of any natural disaster in Canada’s history according to the Insurance Board of Canada, and the Alberta government is now pegging the total cost of the floods at $6 Billion.  Surely the Canadian government might have sat up and taken notice of the IPCC report?

Calgary flood johv111110614_high1

The floods which hit Calgary and a number of smaller towns this past June were record-breaking.  IPCC  report suggests they may not be seen as record-breaking in the future.  Photo © Jonathan Hayward, Canadian Press

Nope!  On the report’s release, Stephen Harper chose to be unavailable for comments, and his new Minister of Environment, Leona Aglukkaq, a lady who grew up in the Arctic, and might be expected to know about ice and snow and melting Arctic seas, released a statement in which she uttered the usual platitudes: “Our government is playing a leadership role in addressing climate change”.  Then she got partisan, criticizing the previous Liberal government and the NDP and making the incredible claim that “[Unlike these parties] our government is actually reducing greenhouse gases and standing up for Canadian jobs.”  Jason MacLean has nicely dissected the idiocy in Aglukkaq’s statement.

Harper and Aglukkaq - postmedia news

Stephen Harper and Leona Aglukkaq practicing the Conservative lie-measuring gesture
Photo © PostMedia News

(If you don’t know about this gesture, see here and here)

Subsequent to issuing her statement (which actually did not mention the IPCC report) Ms. Aglukkaq was interviewed on CTV’s Power Play.  There she managed to cast doubt on the reliability of climate science, suggesting that maybe the Arctic ice was melting and maybe it was not.  Meanwhile, Mr. Harper has gone on record stating he “will not take ‘no’ for an answer” to the Keystone XL pipeline, and has raced off to Malaysia, no doubt to sign deals with Petronas concerning pipelines to the British Columbian coast.  In sum, Harper and Aglukkaq are not quite like deer in the headlights, they are more like deer ignoring the headlights, assuming that the problems will fade quietly away while they get on with the real business of digging up Canada and selling it cheap overseas.

Syncrude tailings pond Reuters 1297325708051_ORIGINAL

A serious discussion of the tar sands industry must include discussion of water use and consequences of permanent storage of polluted wastewater in giant tailings ponds.  It should also include discussion of the fraction of the value of the tar sands bitumen that is returned to the Albertan and Canadian people, the true boost to our economy that this industry provides, and the other environmental risks of moving this corrosive product by pipeline or by rail across Canada or to our coasts.  Is an environmentally sustainable tar sands industry something to aim for, or should we just leave it in the ground?  Photo, Syncrude tailings pond © Reuters

I think it is long past time for a serious discussion within this country concerning environment, climate, our resources industry, our economy and our quality of life.  Denying climate change is perhaps the stupidest policy our government could adopt.  Putting in place a sound program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a rate that is sufficient to meet our international obligations even while permitting continued oil and gas extraction does not clash with Conservative principles, and might be a way out of the deep morass that Stephen Harper and his government have dug themselves into.  I certainly would want more effort towards ensuring environmental sustainability (think about all those tailing ponds littering the oil patch) than this government would be likely to propose, but at least there would be the opportunity of a rational discussion.  Saying there is no “no’ as far as Keystone is concerned, while the Minister of Environment claims the Arctic may not be melting is not a rational way to run this country.

And as for the rest of us deer in the headlights … We need to recognize that our governments are unlikely to lead us to safety until we start demanding more accountability from them.  Canadians should be asking why our national government refuses to discuss climate change while continuing the pretense that Canada is acting responsibly on greenhouse gases.

3 thoughts on “Like deer in the headlights – responses to the IPCC 5th Assessment of climate change”

  1. yeah, I saw the photo of Leona with her teeth – took me back to the film they made of ‘Never Cry Wolf’, a silly movie with a grain of truth which I have tried to sort out in this clip: (sound is not very good for some reason?)

    I was sorry to miss your last forays onto the stage, no videos eh?

    the IPCC ‘attribution statement’ over at Real Climate recently is interesting …

    I am a simple man, there are more words in it this year so … (fricken’) what?!

  2. one of the problems Peter, is that for every scientist like yourself, there are how many diligently working on a ‘better’ insecticide, or a ‘better’ fracking fluid?

    I am sorry to say this y’unnerstan …

  3. Pingback: More on Our Commitment to Global Environmental Change and its Impacts on Us | Peter Sale Books

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