Change

If you know what these colours mean, you probably share my surprise:

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Canadian politics, past and present, here’s a quick brush-up. (If parliamentary democracy or constitutional monarchy is new to you, Rick Mercer gives a great explanation.)

Liberal Party (Red Seats)

  • Politics: More liberal than the American Democrats, but not by a huge amount.
  • How they usually do: They’ve won elections so many times that they’re deemed “Canada’s natural government”. Whether it’s a majority or a minority, a Liberal government is the rule, rather than the exception.
  • What happened on Monday: 34 Liberal MPs were elected – only 11% of the available seats. The leader of the party, Michael Ignatieff, wasn’t even elected in his riding – a rare (but not unprecedented) occurrence.

Conservative Party (Dark Blue Seats)

  • Politics: Somewhere between American Republicans and Democrats. Canada’s most right-wing party that’s mainstream enough to win seats.
  • How they usually do: When it’s not a Liberal government, it’s a Conservative one. The last time they had a majority, it was under Brian Mulroney – an event that eventually led to the party’s collapse and division. The two halves of the party rejoined for the 2004 election, under Stephen Harper, the leader of the more right-wing of the two. Since 2006, he has held seemingly never-ending minorities. Again, Rick Mercer hits the nail on the head.
  • What happened on Monday: They got their first majority – 54% of the seats, but with only 40% of the popular vote.

Bloc Quebecois (Light Blue Seats)

  • Politics: Diverse, as the party’s sole platform is the intent to make Quebec a sovereign nation. These days, it’s pretty liberal.
  • How they usually do: Fifty-some seats in Quebec.
  • What happened on Monday: Only four Bloc were elected – most seats were lost to the NDP. The leader, Gilles Duceppe, lost the election in his riding. Now they don’t even have enough seats for party status.

New Democrat Party (Orange Seats)

  • Politics: The most liberal of the mainstream parties, they subscribe to social democracy. If Tea Partiers think Obama’s a socialist, I wonder what they’d say if the NDP swept the US Congress.
  • How they usually do: Twenty seats or so, scattered throughout the country, but rarely any from Quebec.
  • What happened on Monday: The NDP unexpectedly swept Quebec, and won 102 seats – for the first time, they’re the Official Opposition. Many of their MPs are brand new and never expected to get elected. Some are still university students. One spent her campaign in Las Vegas, but ended up winning the riding. Their growing popularity wasn’t limited to Quebec, but in many ridings – most notably some in Ontario – they split the vote with the Liberals, giving a lot of seats to the Conservatives.

Green Party (I’ll let you work out their colour of seats)

  • Politics: Not quite as left-wing as the NDP. They focus on environmental issues, climate change mitigation, and the legalization of marijuana.
  • How they usually do: Over the past few elections, they have held between 1 and 10% of the popular vote, but have never had an MP sit in Parliament. Once a Liberal MP switched to the Green Party, but Parliament was dissolved for an election before he got to sit in it as a member of the Greens.
  • What happened on Monday: Elizabeth May, the party leader, won the election in her riding, defeating a Conservative cabinet minister. She is the first elected Green and will be the first to sit in the House of Commons.

If that isn’t enough to convince you of what a massive change this election was, look at the diagrams on this page. Start at the bottom for the most recent Parliaments.

It is arguable that, although the Conservatives only have 40% of the popular vote, Stephen Harper has 100% of the power in the federal government. They hold a majority not only in the House of Commons, but also in the Senate – their five years of minorities have ensured that only Conservatives get appointed to the upper house. It is common for party leaders to demand that their caucus vote the party line on important issues, so Harper can pass pretty much any bill he wants. Also, unless his own party turns against him, he doesn’t have to call an election for another five years. Despite a more left-wing opposition that will be stronger on issues such as climate change (Elizabeth May, in particular, is a fabulous debater), they can’t actually sway results away from what Harper wants. Additionally, the new NDP MPs will have to prove their worth quickly if they want to be taken seriously.

But this is nothing new. It’s nothing specific to Harper. This concentration of power happened before with all the Liberal majority governments, as well as the Conservative exceptions such as Mulroney. This is the way majority governments in Canada work. They will pass a great deal of legislation in their favour, much of which will be undone when the opposing party eventually takes over. I am just worried because, given the Conservatives’ stance on climate change mitigation, we will likely move backwards on an issue where we don’t have time to waste. These decisions, or lack thereof, cannot be undone or reversed.

Thoughts?

Data from Elections Canada

More coverage from CBC News

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Where Activism Fails

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

This weekend, 10 000 young people converged in Washington, D.C. and protested the American government’s inaction on climate change. Students stood in front of government buildings wearing green hard hats, holding signs saying “Make Polluters Pay, Not the EPA”. Students stormed the House of Representatives and sang a song about climate change, to the tune of the American national anthem. Fifteen minutes with President Obama, who agreed with their concerns but said “I can’t do this alone”, was PowerShift 2011’s biggest accomplishment.

This isn’t working.

The climate change mitigation lobby is currently a fringe group, at least in North America. It’s mostly made up of university students who mimic the campus protests of the 1960s, creating images that scream “socialism” to baby boomers who witnessed the original events. Governments, which are mostly made up of said baby boomers, largely ignore such fringe groups. Elected officials say what they think people want to hear, and most people don’t seem to care about climate change.

So what should we do instead? We don’t have a lot of money or connections to wealthy businesses. Youth don’t even vote in large enough numbers for governments to care what they want. What we do have, however, are facts on our side. We have the weight of the entire scientific community, agreeing that humans are causing a potentially catastrophic climate change which will only be stopped by major international action.

Instead of attempting to communicate with elected officials by marching around in front of their offices with our faces painted, I think we should focus our efforts on the public. If governments think people don’t care about climate change, we have to reverse that trend.

I believe that anyone who truly understands this issue will care about it and want to fix it. Who could honestly examine the overwhelming evidence for anthropogenic climate change and still have reasonable doubts about its existence? Who wouldn’t want to prevent future wars, famines, extinctions, and waves of environmental refugees? Of course, there are the crazies who will scream about “climate scientists in Al Gore’s pocket” and “the world needs more CO2” no matter what we tell them, but we shouldn’t bother engaging with these people. Instead, we should engage with those who are constantly exposed to the crazies, and who are at risk of dismissing climate change because they think people are still debating its existence.

We need public education to create a social movement, but not like the “Green Movement” in 2007 when magazines everywhere advertised “10 easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint”. We need people to understand the severity of climate change, and to see that planting a tree and buying organic lettuce will not solve the problem. We need people to understand that meaningful action, such as putting a price on carbon, is necessary to solve the problem.

Climate change education will spread most easily through the media, whether it is mass media or new media. People need to be aware of the level of scientific support surrounding this issue, and the reality that climate scientists are not ignorant or fraudulent. Researchers know that correlation does not equal causation, and they know that the climate has changed in the past. Many people still take these arguments seriously, though, because they are thrown around and not challenged. We need to challenge the media outlets that have spread dangerous, libelous misinformation regarding climate change for years. We need to challenge them on the level of lawsuits, not on the level of writing letters to the editor.

It is vital to engage with the apathetic and show them why they should care. Apathetic youth are particularly problematic. Why should the government care about the needs of the next generation when most of its members don’t even vote? We have to make the youth vote strong enough that political parties will compete for its support, just like they do with the ethnic vote and the women’s vote. As Canadian comedian and political analyst Rick Mercer said, “If you are between the ages of 18 and 25, and want to scare the hell out of the people who run this country – this time around, do the unexpected: vote.”

When faced with a depressing reality, many will turn away and ignore the problem. However, the only way to prevent the scary stuff from happening is to suck it up and face it. Just because we wasted 20 years of potential action and got ourselves into a bad situation doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and give up. It’s never too late to act, because this bad situation can always get worse if we let it.

The Rest of the World

Here in North America, we are surrounded with rhetoric denouncing the feasibility of climate change mitigation. It’s not possible to reduce our emissions, people say. It’s not worth it.

The situation in the U.S. Congress regarding this issue is becoming so bizarre that hopes for an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have grown faint. Without the U.S. on board, many countries (see: Canada) will bail out entirely.

Not all countries are waiting for everyone else, however. Many developed countries, particularly in Europe, have gone ahead and achieved significant cuts in their emissions. Let’s take a step out of the little bubble of North America and see what the rest of the world managed to do while we bickered about whether or not there was even a problem.

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Countries: the European Union (EU), representing most of Europe

Emission Targets: 20% below 1990 levels by 2020

How They’ll Get There: The EU started a cap-and-trade system in 2005. They also plan to target energy efficiency and develop the use of renewable energy.

How They’re Doing : The total emissions of the EU have declined slightly since 1990. This is partly because many Eastern European countries are still transitioning from communism, and their emissions are fairly low while their economies recover. However, some rich countries such as Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and the UK have made significant cuts in their emissions, and, as of 2008, were already around 10-20% below 1990 levels.

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Country: the United Kingdom (UK)

Emission Targets: 12.5% below 1990 levels by 2012, as per their Kyoto targets. Through their Climate Change Acts, the UK has also set a goal of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

How They’ll Get There: The government is aiming for 40% of their energy to come from low-carbon sources (both renewable and nuclear). They are also focusing on efficiency, and planning a cap-and-trade system.

How They’re Doing: The UK is well on track to meet, and even exceed, their Kyoto agreements. By 2010, their emissions were predicted to be 11% below their Kyoto targets.

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Country: Norway

Emission Targets: Norway has some of the most ambitious targets in the world. Not only are they aiming for emissions to be 30% below 1990 levels by 2020, they are planning a carbon-neutral economy – 100% cuts – by 2050. If a major international agreement comes to pass, like Copenhagen was supposed to be, they will pledge for carbon neutrality by 2030.

How They’ll Get There: In addition to their cap and trade system, Norway is investing a lot of money into carbon capture and storage (CCS). They have also introduced taxes on natural gas and stricter efficiency standards for new houses.

How They’re Doing: Norway’s emissions have increased by 8% since 1990. Hopefully their extensive plans will reverse that trend.

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Country: Australia

Emission targets: If an international agreement comes to pass, Australia will reduce their emissions to 25% below 2000 levels by 2020. Otherwise, they will shift that target to 5-15%. Normally, using a baseline that’s later than the standard 1990 is a warning sign, a clever trick that governments use to make their targets look stricter than they are (see: Canada). However, since Australia’s emissions fell slightly between 1990 and 2000, the equivalent target with respect to 1990 is actually more than 25%.

How They’ll Get There: The Australian Parliament has had difficulty passing cap-and-trade legislation. They are hoping to implement this eventually, but will focus on energy efficiency and renewables in the mean time.

How They’re Doing: Originally, Australia refused to sign Kyoto, but in 2007 a new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was elected. He committed the country to Kyoto targets, just a little late. So far, it looks like Australia will easily meet their targets of 8% over 1990 levels by 2012.

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Country: Japan

Emission targets: Japan has set solid targets of 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% by 2050.

How They’ll Get There: Japan has a cap-and-trade system, and is considering a carbon tax. They also want 10% of their energy to come from renewables by 2020.

How They’re Doing: Japan’s emissions have increased slightly since 1990. As of 2008, they were about 6% above 1990 levels.

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Country: Canada

Emission targets: The Canadian government has pledged to reduce emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. However, emissions in 2005 were quite a bit higher than they were in 1990. When you adjust this estimate to the standard baseline, it’s actually a 2.5% increase. The Environment Canada website describes this as an “ambitious target”. Go figure!

How They’ll Get There: So far, the Canadian government has tightened up fuel efficiency standards for passenger vehicles, but that’s about it. The current administration refuses to consider meaningful action until the United States does. In fact, the House of Commons recently passed a bill setting meaningful emission targets (20% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% by 2050)…but the Senate, which has a Conservative majority, voted the bill down with absolutely no debate. Given the fact that Senators are appointed by Prime Ministers, not elected by citizens, it’s hard to see this action as anything less than anti-democratic.

How They’re Doing:By 2008, Canadian emissions had soared to 24% above 1990 levels.

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This data almost makes me feel ashamed to be Canadian, to be a part of such an obstructionist country. Look at what countries in Europe have managed to do. It wasn’t impossible, like so many North American politicians warned. And then look at countries like the United States and Canada, that have not only failed to reduce their emissions, but have actively worked against any kind of a plan to do so.

Future generations will not look on us kindly. We will become the villains of our own history books.

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Update: By popular request:

Country: United States of America

Emission targets: None

How They’ll Get There: Despite not having a formal target for emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to regulate emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants and refineries in late December. The Republican Party is resorting to all sorts of silliness to try to change this.

How They’re Doing: As of 2008, US emissions were 14% above 1990 levels.

Legislating Scientific Truth

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Scientific statements rely on uncertainty and error bars. If our understanding changes, the scientific consensus changes accordingly, in a more or less implicit manner. There’s no official process that needs to be followed to update our knowledge.

Laws passed by governments work in the opposite way. Official technicalities are paramount, and acknowledgements that the government’s understanding could be wrong are rare.

Why, then, are attempts to legislate scientific truth – an archaic practice to any reasonable person – becoming far more common in the United States?

One of the most early, and infamous, incidents of this manner occurred in 1897, when the government of Indiana attempted to legislate the value of pi (∏). The text of the bill, describing a circle, clearly says “the ratio of the diameter and circumference is as five-fourths to four”. If you do a bit of simple fractional algebra, this comes out to ∏ = 3.2, rather than 3.1415952…and so on. The scary part is that this bill passed the House without a single nay vote. Luckily, it was postponed in the Senate indefinitely.

More recently – in fact, just last month – Joe Read, a member of the Montana House of Representatives, penned a bill that is equally disturbing. Let’s take a look at what he is planning to turn into state law:

“The legislature finds:

(a) global warming is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana;

(b) reasonable amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere have no verifiable impacts on the environment; and

(c) global warming is a natural occurrence and human activity has not accelerated it.”

At least ∏ = 3.2 was moderately close to the correct value. This bill, however, proclaims exactly the opposite of what the scientific consensus tells us. I would argue that it is even more dangerous. A fundamental constant that is 0.1 or so inaccurate could cause a couple buildings to fall down in Indiana, but a law that orders the government to believe the opposite of what the scientific community says – a law that outright denies any possibility of a problem which, if not addressed, will likely harm the citizens of Montana for generations to come – could cause political ripples leading to mass destruction.

It looks like a case of government officials burying their heads in the sand, refusing to acknowledge a problem because the solutions are politically problematic. The physical world, though, does not obey the Thomas Theorem, a sociological theory of self-fulfilling prophecies. No matter how passionately people like Joe Read believe that climate change is natural/nonexistent/a global conspiracy, the problem won’t go away. In fact, it’s more of an inverse prophecy: if enough politicians refuse to acknowledge the reality of climate change, no action will be taken to address it, and the problem will get worse. It doesn’t seem like Joe Read et al have thought through this line of logic, though. Peter Sinclair wittily describes their mindset as “[s]o simple. Just pass a law. Command the seas to stop rising.”

Dana Nuccitelli goes one step further, claiming “Republicans have decided that they can repeal the laws of physics with the laws of the USA”. In this instance, he is referring to a second, similar, bill that the Republican Party is attempting to pass, this time at the federal level. Basically, Republicans are desperate to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating  greenhouse gas emissions – which they have the authority to do, under the Clean Air Act, as they can “reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare”.

There are two ways to take away this responsibility of the EPA. First, Congress could create a system of their own to control emissions, such as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax – both more capitalist than standard regulation. Republicans aren’t too chuffed about this option, as they don’t want to have to control emissions at all. So they are invoking desperate measures by choosing the second option: if greenhouse gases were found to no longer pose a danger, regulation by the EPA would be unnecessary.

Legitimately reaching this conclusion would call over a century’s worth of physics and chemistry into question. If they could actually do it, the Republicans would probably win a Nobel Prize. Apparently, though, they aren’t interested in legitimacy. The “Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011”, by Members of Congress Fred Upton and James Inhofe, claims to overturn the EPA’s endangerment finding and, therefore, takes away their authority to regulate greenhouse gases. The justification for such an unusual scientific finding consisted of a couple of testimonies from climate change deniers, spouting out the usual long-debunked myths that scientists thought of, considered, and ruled out long before you and I even knew what global warming was. They offered no new information.

Ed Markey, the Representative from Massachusetts, took the opportunity to openly wonder what field of science Republicans will “excommunicate” next: will it be gravity, the heliocentric solar system, or special relativity? Watch and listen to his brief remarks. (Aside: I am amazed at how quiet and civil the House of Congress is. In Canada, Members of Parliament from opposing parties like to shout and pound their desks when others make speeches.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHVrE1NTgxI&feature=player_embedded

The Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee invoked amendments to this bill that, instead of repealing the scientific consensus, acknowledged it:

Congress accepts the scientific finding … that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal”; that the scientific evidence regarding climate change “is compelling”; and that “human-caused climate change is a threat to public health and welfare.”

Zero Republicans on the committee voted in favour of these amendments. Why am I not surprised?

I wouldn’t place these words of legislation in the same category as the others. Instead of saying “this is how the physical world works”, the amendments state, “we, as politicians, accept what our scientists tell us.” Most importantly, the Members of Congress aren’t trying to outsmart experts in a field in which they have no experience.

However, I agree with Henry Waxman, the Representative from California, who says that such amendments shouldn’t be necessary – not because they’re wrong, but because the “finding is so obviously correct”. To me, governments accepting what their scientists tell them is the null hypothesis. The idea of politicians stamping down ideas that they don’t like, by attempting to legislate scientific truth, seems unspeakably bizarre. How did the most powerful and developed nation in the world reach this point?

Nuclear Power in Context

Since its birth, nuclear power has been a target of environmental activism. To be fair, when nuclear power goes wrong, it goes wrong in a bad way. Take a look at what’s happening in Japan right now. Friday’s tsumani damaged the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, and several of its reactors have experienced partial meltdowns. Radiation from the nuclear reactions has been released into the surrounding environment, and could endanger public health in the immediate area, causing cancer and birth defects.

Nuclear disasters are horrifying, and this is by no means the worst that has happened. However, nuclear isn’t the only form of energy that experiences periodic disasters. In fact, over the past century, hydroelectric disasters have killed more people than all other forms of energy disasters combined.

(Sovacool et al, 2008, Fig. 1).

So why do we worry so much more about nuclear power disasters? Is it because the idea of the resulting radiation is more disturbing than the prospect of a dam breaking, even if it’s far less common?

However, an energy source can kill people without a large-scale disaster occurring. Let’s look at fossil fuels. Think of all the miners killed by coal accidents, all the people killed by smog inhalation or exposure to toxic chemicals (such as heavy metals) that are present in fossil fuels, deaths due to gas leaks, civilians killed by wars over oil, and so on. It’s difficult to quantify these numbers, because fossil fuels have been in use for centuries, but they clearly exceed the 4,000 or so deaths due to nuclear power accidents (as well as any other deaths due to nuclear power, such as uranium mining).

We must also look at the deaths due to climate change, which fossil fuel burning has induced. The World Health Organization estimates that over 150 000 people died as a result of climate change in 2000 alone. This annual rate will increase as the warming progresses. If we don’t step away from fossil fuels in time, they could lead to a devastating amount of death and suffering.

Fossil fuels are silent, passive, indirect killers which end up being far more destructive to human life than nuclear power. However, much of the public remains opposed to nuclear energy, and I believe this is a case of “letting perfect be the enemy of good”. I feel that we hold nuclear power to an impossible standard, that we expect it to be perfect. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s far better than the existing system, which desperately needs to be replaced.

There are also exciting developments in nuclear technology that could make it safer and more efficient. In his recent book, top climatologist James Hansen described “fast reactors“, which are a vast improvement over the previous generations of nuclear reactors. It’s also possible to use uranium-238 as fuel, which makes up 99.3% of all natural uranium, and is usually thrown away as nuclear waste because reactors aren’t equipped to use it. Another alternative is to use thorium, a safer and more common element. If we pursue these technologies, the major downsides of nuclear power – safety and waste concerns – could diminish substantially.

Renewable sources of energy, such as solar, wind, and geothermal, are safer than nuclear power, and also have a lower carbon footprint per kWh (Sovacool, 2008b, Table 8). They are clearly the ideal choice in the long run, but they can’t solve the problem completely, at least not yet. Cost is a barrier, as is the problem of storing and transporting the electricity they generate. Maybe a few decades down the line smart grids will become a reality, and we will be able to have an energy economy that is fully renewable. If we wait for that perfect situation before doing anything, though, we will overshoot and cause far more climate change than we can deal with.

I don’t know if I would describe myself as “pro-nuclear”, but I am definitely “anti-fossil-fuel”. I am aware of the risks nuclear power poses, and feel that, from a risk management perspective, it is still preferable to coal and oil by a long shot. Solving climate change will require a multi-faceted energy economy, and it would be foolish to rule out one viable option simply because it isn’t perfect.

The Pendulum

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

A few years ago, climate change mitigation became a major political issue. Before 2005, governments certainly knew that human-caused climate change was a serious problem – but the public knew next to nothing about it, so there was no incentive to act. However, between 2005 and 2007, a perfect storm of events splashed the reality of climate change onto the world stage.

The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, finally came into force in early 2005, after years of negotiation. The United States refused to sign, and Australia signed on a little late, but every other developed nation in the world agreed to emission targets. Here in Canada, the Liberal government enthusiastically pledged its support for Kyoto. My local newspaper ran editorials exploring the different ways we could meet our targets, through combinations of clean energy, green infrastructure, and efficiency standards.

The summer of 2005 was a wake-up call for the United States, as Hurricane Katrina mercilessly demonstrated the amount of damage that extreme weather can bring. It’s impossible to say, at least with our current technology, whether or not Katrina was caused or even worsened by a warming planet. However, such devastating storms will become the norm as climate change progresses. Scientists aren’t sure whether or not hurricanes will become more frequent in a warming world, but the average hurricane is expected to become stronger and more damaging, and we are already beginning to see this rise in storm intensity. Katrina gave us an example of what we can expect from climate change – even if it wasn’t a direct effect in itself – and the world was shocked by the suffering that ensued.

2006 marked the release of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary about climate change. For scientists studying climate, the film was an admirable, up-to-date example of science communication, albeit with a few minor errors and oversimplifications. However, for citizens new to the issue (I particularly remember my classmates in grade 9 social studies discussing the film), An Inconvenient Truth was a disturbing reality check – scarier than any horror movie, because it was real.

The major scientific event of 2007 was a drastic, unexpected drop in Arctic summer sea ice. That season’s melt was exacerbated by coincidental weather conditions, so the next years weren’t quite as bad, but the trend was still worrying, to say the least. The research community had assumed that summer ice would stick around for at least a century, but this timescale was soon halved and quartered as ice melt exceeded even the worst projections.

By 2007, lead-up to the 2008 US presidential election was underway, and political awareness of climate change was obvious. It was no surprise that Democrat Barack Obama had ambitious plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but even the Republicans seemed to be on board. During his time in office, George W. Bush had insisted that, since climate change could be natural, any mitigating action was not worth the economic risk. Republican presidential candidates seemed to realize that continuing to adopt this attitude would be political suicide. The most extreme example, John McCain, who would eventually win the Republican presidential nomination, had emissions targets only slightly less extensive than Obama’s. As he said in 2007,

The world is already feeling the powerful effects of global warming, and far more dire consequences are predicted if we let the growing deluge of greenhouse gas emissions continue, and wreak havoc with God’s creation…The problem isn’t a Hollywood invention nor is doing something about it a vanity of Cassandra like hysterics. It is a serious and urgent economic, environmental and national security challenge.

However, McCain, once an author of a bill designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, would soon completely change his stance. By 2010, he was asserting that cap-and-trade legislation was unnecessary and carbon dioxide posed no harm to the American people. He even went so far as to question the political motivations of science he once wholly accepted:

I think [global warming is] an inexact science, and there has been more and more questioning about some of the conclusions that were reached concerning climate change. And I believe that everybody in the world deserves correct answers whether the scientific conclusions were flawed by outside influences. There’s great questions about it that need to be resolved.

The story of John McCain isn’t too surprising. Politicians frequently base their statements on public sentiment rather than personal opinion. They say what people want to hear, rather than what they truly believe is important. This aspect of our political system is depressing, but persistent. The real question, though, regards what changed public sentiment so quickly. Why did politicians like McCain feel compelled to denounce the importance of action on this problem, or even the existence of the problem itself? What happened since 2007 that made the pendulum swing so far in the other direction?

Strike one was the economy. The global recession that began in 2008 was the largest since the Great Depression, and concern for all other problems promptly went down the drain. It’s understandable for citizens to not worry about the environment when they don’t even have the means to feed and clothe their children properly. However, for governments to not realize the long-term economic implications of allowing climate change to continue, along with the potential job-creating benefits of a new energy economy, was disappointing, even though it wasn’t surprising.

Strike two was the all-out war on climate science, spearheaded by the fossil fuel industry and the far right. This PR campaign has been underway since the early 1990s, but was kicked up a notch just over a year ago. Since public understanding of the causes and effects of global warming was growing, and the science was becoming more solid by the month, the PR tactics changed. Instead of attacking the science, they attacked the integrity of the scientists. The most extreme example occurred in November 2009, when private correspondence between top climate researchers was stolen, spread on the Internet, and spun in an attempt to cast doubt on the scientists’ motives. This event, known as “Climategate”, spurred a great deal of anger among the political right, and everything from bitter editorials to death threats against scientists ensued. Perhaps most distressingly, by the time investigations found that the scientists involved were innocent, and the reality of climate change untouched, Climategate was old news and media outlets failed to adequately follow up on the story. Citizens heard the accusations, but not the exonerations, so political will to cut greenhouse gas emissions slipped even further.

Strike three – well, there has been no strike three, and a good thing too. Strikes one and two were so bad that some are hoping the pendulum has swung as far as it can go. It’s certainly difficult to imagine how the situation could get worse. The Kyoto Protocol is set to expire next year, and the Copenhagen meetings failed to create a replacement. As it was, many developed nations failed to meet their targets, and the Canadian government backed out completely.

The possibility of federal climate legislation for the United States is laughable now that not a single Republican Senator thinks action is necessary, and most doubt the reality of the problem, choosing to believe that the entire scientific community is out to lunch and/or an agent of conspiracy. President Obama’s director of climate policy, Carol Browner, recently left her position, although none of her major goals had been met. Obama’s recent State of the Union address included lots of hopeful statements about clean energy, but absolutely no mention of climate change, as if merely acknowledging the most pressing reason for a new energy economy would be political suicide. The time-honoured tradition of saying what the public wants to hear has even reached Obama, the man who promised change.

In Canada, legislation to simply set targets for emission reduction passed the House of Commons (made of elected representatives), but the Senate (composed of appointed politicians) chose to use their newfound Conservative majority to strike down the bill with no debate whatsoever, in a blatantly undemocratic move that has not happened since the 1930s. The Canadian government is all for a new energy economy, but not one based on environmental and social responsibility. The Alberta tar sands, which are substantially more polluting and carbon-intensive than traditional oil, continue to expand, and both federal and provincial governments are worryingly enthusiastic.

From 2005 to 2007, politics was high on promises of mitigation, but low on delivery. Since then, it has been devoid of both. It’s starting to seem as if it will take a major global disaster that can be unquestionably tied to climate change for governments to get their act together.

This would all be very well if there was no lag time between cause and effect in the climate system, but it doesn’t work that way. It takes several decades for all the warming in the pipeline to show up. If we waited until climate change became unbearable, and then cut off our emissions completely, the situation would still get worse for decades before it stabilized.

The worldwide failure of governments to take action on climate change is baffling. It seems that the best they can do is occasionally promise to fix the problem, but never actually get started. If this continues for much longer, we’re all going to pay the price for their mistakes – and so will people for generations to come.

Geoengineering the Climate

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Climate change would be a whole lot easier to fix if we could immediately see the results of our actions. First of all, we would have recognized the reality of the problem long ago, before very much harm was done. And even if we initially stalled on fixing the problem, we could throw all our weight into reducing greenhouse gases as soon as the floods and droughts and rising sea levels became too much, and stop the warming overnight.

This kind of fantasy scenario is like riding a bike. As soon as you jerk the handlebars to avoid running off the road, the bike responds. The only lag between your recognition of a problem and the subsequent resolution of that problem is your reaction time.

However, the climate system works more like a ship. Remember in the movie Titanic, when the crew first saw the iceberg, and cranked the wheel all the way to the right so they could go around it? The ship didn’t turn immediately. She kept going straight for a while before she responded. Unfortunately, she didn’t respond early enough to miss the iceberg, and you know what happened next.

The climate is very similar. There is a lag time between when we emit carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and when we see the effects of the subsequent warming. A lot of this has to do with the oceans, which store massive amounts of heat and slowly release it to the atmosphere. The warming we are seeing today is from fossil fuel emissions in decades past, and the actions we take today will not show up until decades in the future. Even if we bring global greenhouse gas emissions down to zero tomorrow, the world will continue to warm.

Because CO2 emissions continue to rise year by year, and because governments have had little to no success addressing this problem, some scientists are beginning to think that we won’t be able to stop climate change in time. Another unfortunate aspect of the climate system is its non-linearity – there are hidden thresholds and “tipping points” which, if crossed, could trigger feedbacks that cause global warming to spin out of our control. The scientific community thinks that, once the world has warmed about 2 C from pre-industrial times, these tipping points and feedbacks will start to kick in. We have already warmed 0.8 C, and at least another 0.5 C is in the pipeline, even if we were to cut off all emissions tomorrow. You do the math. There’s not a lot of wiggle room, especially given the increasingly low chances of climate legislation being passed by the world’s governments.

So what happens if we’ve gone too far? Do we have no choice but to sit back and watch all hell break loose? In fact, there are other choices, but they could easily come with unexpected side effects that make our situation worse. Techniques known as “geoengineering”, in which radical technologies offset our influences on the earth’s climate, fall into two categories:

1) Counteracting the warming. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide trap heat and cause the Earth to warm up, so we could introduce technologies that have a cooling effect on the Earth. By increasing the planet’s albedo (reflectivity), more of the Sun’s rays will bounce right off the Earth’s surface without being absorbed.

One way this could be achieved would be to inject massive amounts of sulfate particles into the stratosphere, blocking sunlight just like a volcanic eruption. However, this could have detrimental effects on the ozone layer, especially around the polar regions. We could end up trading the damaging effects of a warming climate for the damaging effects of too much UV radiation, a problem that we’ve already spent considerable time and energy addressing.

A similar proposal is to put objects in the Earth’s orbit that would reflect sunlight – giant mirrors, lenses, or sunshades in space.

2. Counteracting the CO2. If we can’t stop or even slow down our emissions of greenhouse gases, perhaps we could alter the biogeochemical systems of the Earth so they would absorb the gases and keep them safely out of the atmosphere. CO2 “sinks” already exist – forests, oceans, permafrost – but they’re not big enough to contain all of our emissions. How could we expand them, or add more?

The concept of artificial trees, that will perform photosynthesis anywhere, is intriguing – but the scale of implementation needed is not very feasible. Think of the amount of land that would have to be covered with these machines in order to offset our emissions.

A more widely discussed possibility for expanded carbon sinks involves fertilizing the ocean with iron filings, promoting blooms of phytoplankton that would photosynthesize, absorbing our emissions of CO2. However, as anyone living near the Great Lakes knows, overloading a water body with nutrients can have serious consequences for the ecosystem. Algal blooms can deplete the water of oxygen and block sunlight, killing the other plants and animals that share the habitat. For an ecosystem that covers most of our Earth’s surface, that might not be such a good idea.

All of these propositions have another dimension of questions attached: Who will control them? If we’re going to actively counteract our climatic influences, many careful decisions will need to be made. Who will calculate how much geoengineering, and of what type, to implement? Who will decide when enough is enough?

I have heard geoengineering described as a tourniquet: the worst possible option, except for bleeding to death. Scientists understand that it should be considered a “last resort” – only to be used when we have eliminated fossil fuel use and it still isn’t enough. However, there are doubtlessly politicians and industry leaders out there who see geoengineering as an attractive alternative to cap-and-trade systems or carbon taxes.

Recently, at their Convention on Biodiversity, the UN decided to ban geoengineering – it’s just too dangerous, and we don’t know enough. However, this ban will also restrict large-scale research projects on geoengineering, that could give us a clearer picture of what is and is not feasible. Isn’t it more prudent to take small risks now so that we understand our future options, rather than jump blindly into full deployment when the time comes?

Bart Gordon, the outgoing chair of the U.S. Congress Science & Technology Committee, just issued a congressional geoengineering report. He was interviewed by a Chemical & Engineering News article on the subject, and had these words to say:

A research moratorium that stifles science, especially at this stage in our understanding of climate engineering’s risks and benefits, is a step in the wrong direction and undercuts the importance of scientific transparency. If climate change is indeed one of the greatest long-term threats to biological diversity and human welfare, then failing to understand all of our options is also a threat to biodiversity and human welfare.

How many risks should we take in order to secure a safer alternative for possible future use? Will pursuing research into geoengineering distract us from the important task of reducing greenhouse gases, or is the situation already so far gone that preparing for the worst is worthwhile? One thing is clear: If earlier generations had thrown their efforts into fixing climate change as soon as scientists recognized it was underway, we wouldn’t be worrying so much today about the feasibility of giant mirrors in space or oceans full of iron.

A Misplaced Ban

The recent UN Convention on Biodiversity passed a ban on geoengineering. The journal Science gained access to the draft text of the protocol prior to its official release, parts of which they quoted in a recent news article. Here are the relevant passages:

Ensure…in the absence of science-based, global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms for geo-engineering, and in accordance with the precautionary approach…that no climate-related geoengineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place, until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts, with the exception of small scale scientific research studies that would be conducted in a controlled setting…and only if they are justified by the need to gather specific scientific data and are subject to a thorough prior assessment of the potential impacts on the environment.

Any technologies that deliberately reduce solar insolation or increase carbon sequestration from the atmosphere on a large scale that may affect biodiversity (excluding carbon capture and storage from fossil fuels when it captures carbon dioxide before it is released to the atmosphere) should be considered as forms of geoengineering which are relevant to the Convention on Biological Diversity until a more precise definition can be developed.

The implications of this ban are staggering. As the Science article notes, it could “broadly affect a whole field of research still taking shape”, a field that could end up being vital to our survival. Nobody wants to have to use geoengineering before we do all we can to reduce fossil fuel emissions (well, except for some U.S. politicians, I’m sure). But if it’s 2100 and we’ve virtually eliminated fossil fuels but it’s still not enough, the planet still hasn’t reached radiative equilibrium, and the sea keeps rising and the temperatures keep going up and up…drastic measures to counteract the damage we’ve already done might be our only hope. I’ve heard geoengineering described as a tourniquet: the worst possible option, except for bleeding to death.

The convention leaves the door open to small-scale research, but what if small-scale isn’t enough to improve our understanding of geoengineering’s impacts? I believe that it’s more prudent to take small risks now so that we understand our future options, rather than jump blindly into full deployment when the time comes – and unless we get our act together in the next few years, a prospect that looks more unlikely by the day, that time might easily come sooner than we’d like.

Science interviewed Ken Caldeira, one of the world’s top environmental scientists, on the geoengineering ban, and he made some good points. He argued that “may affect biodiversity” is such a weak statement that it could be used to prevent almost any field research into geoengineering. Additionally, failing to specify negative effects could also prevent studies that aim to increase biodiversity for geoengineering – for example, increasing the productivity of an ecosystem in order to expand its capacity as a carbon sink.

I am also at a loss as to why expanded carbon sinks are given the same status as solar insolation techniques, such as giant mirrors in space or sulfates in the stratosphere to scatter sunlight. It was my understanding that the latter was seen to be riskier. However, I haven’t read much geoengineering research – does anyone have recommendations for good papers?

The Chemical & Engineering News article on the subject interviewed Bart Gordon, the outgoing chair of the U.S. Congress Science & Technology Committee. (I’m really scared to find out who the Republicans are going to replace him with. Initial prospects don’t look good.) He issued a geoengineering report the same day that the UN ban passed, and also had some great words to say:

A research moratorium that stifles science, especially at this stage in our understanding of climate engineering’s risks and benefits, is a step in the wrong direction and undercuts the importance of scientific transparency. If climate change is indeed one of the greatest long-term threats to biological diversity and human welfare, then failing to understand all of our options is also a threat to biodiversity and human welfare.

Science and knowledge isn’t the threat. What we do with that knowledge is the threat. Since the possibility of geoengineering is already out there, how could increasing our understanding around the topic be anything but the most proactive option?

What If…?

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Let’s start with the obvious – the U.S. midterm elections are upon us, and it’s quite likely that the Republicans will win a majority. (My American friends tell me that this is possible even with Barack Obama remaining president. Please bear with my limited knowledge of the American political system. It works very differently in Canada.)

I’m not going to comment on partisan issues – health care, immigration, economic stimulus. What I am here to talk about is an issue that should not be partisan, but has become partisan regardless: science, specifically climate science.

Climate change is not a theory – it is the logical result of several theories, based in physics and chemistry, that scientists have understood since the 1800s. What’s political about that? Exactly what part of the equation dF = 5.35 ln(C/Co) is an opinion that differs based on ideological factors?

The political part comes when we ask the question, “What do we do to stop climate change?” A carbon tax? Cap-and-trade? Regulation? Some of these solutions are more liberal or conservative than others. The only decision that doesn’t adhere to U.S. politics is to do nothing. Absence of action is a decision in itself, and the overwhelming scientific evidence (based not just on computer models, but also observations of past climate changes) shows us that doing nothing will allow this problem to spiral out of control, causing damages that no amount of money will be able to repair. What U.S. party advocates leaving that kind of world to their grandchildren? As Bill McKibben says, you wouldn’t expect it to be the Republicans:

If there was ever a radical project, monkeying with the climate would surely qualify. Had the Soviet Union built secret factories to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and threatened to raise the sea level and subvert the Grain Belt, the prevailing conservative response would have been: Bomb them. Bomb them back to the Holocene—to the 10,000-year period of climatic stability now unraveling, the period that underwrote the rise of human civilization that conservatism has taken as its duty to protect. Conservatism has always stressed stability and continuity; since Burke, the watchwords have been tradition, authority, heritage. The globally averaged temperature of the planet has been 57 degrees, give or take, for most of human history; we know that works, that it allows the world we have enjoyed. Now, the finest minds, using the finest equipment, tell us that it’s headed toward 61 or 62 or 63 degrees unless we rapidly leave fossil fuel behind, and that, in the words of NASA scientists, this new world won’t be “similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Conservatives should be leading the desperate fight to preserve the earth we were born on.

But they’re not. Instead, many are choosing a psychological easy way out: if every solution seems imperfect, deny that the problem exists. Out of all the Republican contenders for the Senate, none support action on climate change, and most deny the existence of anthropogenic global warming.

It is questionable whether all of these statements are sincere. Politicians, after all, will say whatever they need to say to get elected. If these Republicans feel that their voting base denies climate change, they will adjust their public statements accordingly. Look at John McCain – during the 2008 presidential election, his promises for clean energy were nearly as strong as Obama’s. Now, he rejects cap-and-trade, and views the anthropogenic cause of climate change in the Arctic as an “opinion”.

Admittedly, a new, but growing, segment of the Republican voting base overwhelmingly denies climate change. As the New York Times reports, Tea Party supporters have all kinds of convoluted arguments against a field of science they know virtually nothing about. It contradicts “the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture”, and it could be caused by “the normal cycles of nature” (whatever those are), so thousands of scientists spending their lives studying this problem must be missing something. Or they could be part of a massive conspiracy.

Republican candidates are catering to the extreme segments of their party, and, arguably, to their party as a whole. However, their plans to base action (or lack thereof) on the fervent hope that the scientific community is out to lunch may alienate voters who understand what a risk that would be.

Or so we hope. If Republicans get their way, climate science will not just be disregarded: the men and women who study it will be criminally investigated, for no reason other than that their research supports the existence of anthropogenic climate change. And since James Inhofe can’t find any gaping holes in the math, that means the scientists must be fraudulent, right?

The Republican Party also hopes to conduct yet another investigation into the private correspondence of scientists, stolen and distributed a year ago. Although these emails show that climate scientists are not always very nice, it does not undermine one iota of our understanding of the climate system, as five independent investigations have concluded. But that’s not the answer Republican officials want, so they will waste taxpayers’ money and researchers’ time with their own investigation. Kind of hypocritical for a party that promises fiscal responsibility.

I’m a Canadian. I don’t get a vote in this election. I am also eighteen years old. I, unlike most Republican Senators, will be around to witness the effects of climate change. We have wasted twenty years in the fight against climate change, and if we continue to let petty politics and finger-pointing delay us more, the whole world will suffer.

It’s no secret that American politics disproportionately influence the world. The same is true for American emissions of greenhouse gases, and American agreements to reduce these emissions, and American patterns of energy use and energy sources. So please, when you go to vote this week, think about not just yourself and your country but other young people and other countries too.

And please vote. I’ll leave you with some wise words from Seth Godin:

If you don’t vote because you’re trying to teach politicians a lesson, you’re tragically misguided in your strategy. The very politicians you’re trying to send a message to don’t want you to vote.

Voting is free. It’s fairly fast. It doesn’t make you responsible for the outcome, but it sure has an impact on what we have to live with going forward. The only thing that would make it better is free snacks.

Even if you’re disgusted, vote. Vote for your least unfavorite choice. But go vote.

What’s Your Idea?

If you ran the world…how would you fix climate change? What would be your plan to implement clean energy? What renewables would you focus on, and how would you put a price on carbon?

Personally, I am more in favour of a carbon tax than cap-and-trade. It just seems simpler, more difficult for businesses to find loopholes around, and easier to gradually increase over the years. However, I would be happy with either of these two competing propositions…just as long as we can put a price on carbon, so that its true costs are finally reflected in goods and services.

From there, I would leave it to businesses to reduce their emissions through whatever method they wanted…no strict rules. When carbon has a cost, the invisible hand will be able to sort out the best methods. Businesses have spent centuries saving money and maximizing profit. Carbon would just be another form of currency, and we would take a fiscally conservative approach to spending it.

I believe that a multi-faceted approach to renewable energy is essential. At this point, no one technology will be able to replace fossil fuels. In combination, though, it would be possible. Lots more nuclear energy, supplemented with wind and solar (geographically suited to the area – in the future, though, a smart grid for better transport and storage of the energy would be ideal). We could use biomass from sustainable sources – algae looks quite promising, as it grows quickly, has a high content of oil, and its harvesting would have the benefit of reducing eutrophication in affected watersheds. Geothermal power is well worth developing, and in the meantime, it could be used for heating and cooling.

Continuing to burn natural gas, in the place of coal and oil, would be a very acceptable intermediate step. Collecting methane from landfills and farms would provide us with a carbon-neutral substance that’s chemically identical to natural gas.

Improved efficiency standards and cogeneration of heat and electricity could make a big dent in our energy usage, even before changing the source.

That’s what I advocate for – how about you? Leave your responses in the comments.