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.


Odds and Ends

I must thank Michael Tobis for two pieces of reading that his blog recently pointed me to. First, a fantastic article by Bill McKibben, which everyone should print out and stick to their fridge. Here’s a taste:

Read the comments on one of the representative websites: Global warming is a “fraud” or a “plot.” Scientists are liars out to line their pockets with government grants. Environmentalism is nothing but a money-spinning “scam.” These people aren’t reading the science and thinking, I have some questions about this. They’re convinced of a massive conspiracy.

The odd and troubling thing about this stance is not just that it prevents action. It’s also profoundly unconservative. 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.

Read the rest of the article here. Highly recommended to all.

The other link I wanted to share was a new publication entitled “Science and the Media”, just released by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (not to be confused with the American Association for the Advancement of Science – why all the acronym duplication?)

With contributions from everyone from Donald Kennedy to Alan Alda, and essays with titles from “The Scientist as Citizen” to “Civic Scientific Literacy: The Role of the Media in the Electronic Era”, I’m virtually certain that I will enjoy this one (sorry, I can’t bring myself to say things like “certain” without caveats any more). The 109-page pdf is available free of charge and can be accessed from this page, which also includes information on ordering hard copies.

In other news, the La Niña conditions in the eastern Pacific (see anomaly map above) have bumped this year’s temperatures down a bit, so January-September 2010 is now tied for the warmest on record, rather than being a clear winner. This analysis is from NCDC, however, and I’m not sure how they deal with sparse data in the Arctic (for background, see this post – a summary of one of the most interesting papers I’ve read this year). Does anyone know if GISS has an up-to-date estimate for 2010 temperatures that we could compare it to? All I can find on their website are lines and lines of raw data, and I’m not really sure how to process it myself.

That’s all for today. Enjoy the week, everyone.


It really annoys me when people treat climate change purely as an environmental issue.

I care about the environment, probably more than most people. I pick up litter so birds won’t eat it and get sick. I’m maintaining three composting systems at the moment. When I have my own house one day, I’m going to tear up the sod and let prairie grasses take over the lawn so it becomes a habitat conducive to frogs and sparrows.

But I hold climate change in an entirely different category. It hardly even overlaps with the “environment” section of my brain.

Climate change certainly will severely impact ecosystems and the environment. Wildlife will be forced to adapt, shift its range, or face extinction. Droughts will lead to lower water levels in some areas, which increases the concentration of pollutants. Habitat loss, the other major threat for species, will be aggravated in many areas: forests, coral reefs, year-round ice, and lakes – to name a few – face stress from changes in temperature and precipitation.

But it doesn’t end there. Climate change is way too complex and far-reaching to be labelled as “just another environmental issue”. Yes, it is an environmental issue. But that’s the least of it.

Consider agriculture. A recent study in Science claims that average temperatures in the tropics and subtropics – areas which are home to more than 3 billion people, the majority of whom depend on community agriculture for sustenance and income –  are highly likely (>90%) to exceed even the warmest temperatures on record by the end of this century. “Experimental and crop-based models for major grains in these regions show direct yield losses in the range of 2.5 to 16% for every 1°C increase in seasonal temperature,” the report states, and “despite the general perception that agriculture in temperate latitudes will benefit from increased seasonal heat and supply food to deficit areas, even mid-latitude crops will likely suffer at very high temperatures in the absence of adaptation.”

An even more fundamental requirement for human survival is drinking water. More than one-sixth of people worldwide depend on glacial/snowpack meltwater to drink (IPCC AR4 WG2, 3.4.3), a source which could become threatened in the near future, as “many small glaciers, [especially in the Andes], will disappear within the next few decades, adversely affecting people and ecosystems.”

One of the scariest impacts is sea level rise. Nearly every major city in the world is coastal, and could be wiped out in the centuries to come. We’re only expecting an increase of 0.6 m by 2100, but there’s enough ice in the world to increase the sea level by 80 m, should sufficient warming come to pass. This would take at least a few hundred years, but consider how long some of those coastal cities, such as Amsterdam and Shanghai, have been standing, and how many years of cultural significance they contain. Imagine that we only have a few centuries left before we have to move everything in them – or lose them altogether.

It gets even scarier when you start looking at climate change from a national security perspective, at its potential for political conflict and resource wars. Scientists give the best estimate; but military officials prepare for the worst possible scenario. Unfortunately, most of these documents are classified – I can’t find anything unclassified that would qualify as an acceptable source under our comment policy. However, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (a bipartisan foreign policy think tank) recently published a fairly terrifying report on this topic. I’m also reading a book called Climate Wars, by Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer, which contains cheery scenarios such as the breakup of the European Union (due to drought in southern Europe, leading to conflict with the north for food supplies) and a “Colder War” over Arctic sovereignty.

It’s not just about polar bears. It’s about the life, security, and prosperity of our civilization. It seems radically unfair to classify climate change as one of many environmental problems – somehow implying that it is just an environmental problem, no worse than commercial pesticides or eutrophication. We can’t fix this with a single law. We need more than a change in what kinds of products we buy. This is one of the worst problems, if not the worst problem, of our time purely because its impacts are so far-reaching and it is so hard to fix.

And that’s why it takes up so much more space in my mind.

The Role of Government

I think I’m somewhat libertarian. At least that’s what the Political Compass tells me, and it seems to make sense. I tend to believe that people are generally good and will make good decisions when they’re properly informed. I care more for the needs of the individual citizen than I do for the power of the whole state.

I’d certainly rather have socialism, which aims to spend money to help as many people as possible, than conservatism, which aims to save money and maximize personal wealth. Money is imaginary; suffering is not. I’ve known for ages that I’m left-wing, but far more along the lines of Gandhi and Mandela (libertarian) than Stalin (authoritarian).

My ultimate belief is that the actions of the government should adequately reflect the needs and interests of the people. I believe that it’s difficult to achieve this when too much power is given to one person. My ideal system of government, should it become feasible (it certainly would cost a lot), would be a direct democracy – where citizens have the option to vote on every bill, instead of just on their representatives. The government would still exist, but as the group that dished out funding for projects the citizens had voted on, rather than the group that made all the decisions.

It’s not too hard to find examples of how the government’s actions don’t always represent the needs and wants of their citizens. Look, for example, at the American cap-and-trade bill. A Zogby poll found that 71% of Americans favour cap-and-trade, that 67% thought the government was doing either the right amount or not enough about climate change, and that a staggering 45% wanted the government to do more. Here in Canada, where we have more than two parties, 45% support would almost certainly create a minority government. Add in the 22% that thought the American government was doing enough, and you could easily pass all kinds of emissions legislation.

And what is the American Senate doing? Waiting until next year to look at cap-and-trade because they need to spend time on health care. The government is both too large (making all the decisions themselves, whether or not they accurately reflect those who voted for them) and not large enough (unable to focus on more than one major issue at a time).

When we decide what to do about climate change, I strongly believe that our decisions should be based on how the costs and benefits of action vs inaction will affect individual, average people of the world. I am far more concerned about the water security of those who depend on glacial meltwater to drink than I am about the income of an American oil executive.

Everyone is a citizen of the world, even those who can’t vote. Rich people aren’t worth more than poor people. Everyone is equal. And if we held a worldwide referendum on climate change, I have no doubt that we’d find an overwhelming demand for action. Humans are a species like any other, and like all species, we are first and foremost interested in survival.

That’s my take on it. What’s yours?

A Few Moments of Brilliance

heatI just finished reading one of the many climate change books on my reading list, “Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning” by George Monbiot. I have to say that the subtitle really annoys me. Fossil fuels are burning, yes, but the planet isn’t burning. It isn’t combining with oxygen and disintegrating.

Most of the book was a fairly dry account of possible ways to create a low-carbon economy – carbon capture and storage, building efficiency standards, reducing reliance on air travel. It was well researched and carefully planned, but not really my cup of tea.

However, there were several quotes, at the beginning and end of the book, which I found absolutely brilliant, for their style and word choice as well as their content.

“We can determine, for example, that the financial costs of Hurricane Katrina…..amount to some $75 billion…..But does it capture the suffering of the people whose homes were destroyed? Does it capture the partial destruction, in New Orleans, of one of the quirkiest and most creative communities on earth? Does it, most importantly, capture the value of the lives of those who drowned?” -page 50

“This must, in other words, be a moral decision, not an economic one. Either we decide that it is right to spend a lot of money seeking to prevent catastrophic climate change or we decide that it isn’t, but we must make that decision on the grounds of how much we value people and places as people and places, rather than as figures in a ledger.” -page 51

“But this baby, this strange little creature, closer to the ecosystem than a fully grown human being, part pixie, part frog, part small furry animal, now sixteen days old and curled up on my lap like a bean waiting to sprout, changes everything. I am no longer writing about what might happen to “people” in this country in thirty years’ time. I am writing about her. As she trembles on the threshold of life, the evidence of her mortality is undeniable. It seems far more real than mine…..Global warming is no longer a generalized phenomenon, its victims no longer abstractions. Among them might be my child. Or yours. Or you. Or even  me. Of all the complex matters encapsulated in this subject, this, until now, has been the hardest to grasp.” -page 206

Among these quotes runs a common thread: the idea that money is imaginary, numbers are imaginary, but people are real. People are the basis of the very real, tangible world of the human species. And now this species seems willing to destroy itself in favour of imaginary topics such as math and the economy.

I’m not sure if I’d recommend this book to others. If you’re interested in the real nitty-gritty of sustainable energy, it’s very thorough. But otherwise, I found the parts of the book that were most worth reading are the quotes listed above.

If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear your opinion of it. Feel free to leave a comment if you’re so inclined.

The Last Minority

Over the past century, our society has significantly expanded its definition of “citizen”. It wasn’t too long ago that the only people who were allowed to vote were white males.

In Canada, where I live, women with close relatives away at war could vote in federal elections beginning in 1917. By 1919, the right to vote was extended to all women.

As we were an enormously racist country until Trudeau came into power in 1968, Chinese Canadians were not allowed to vote until 1947. It was even worse for the First Nations peoples – their right to vote was not granted until 1960.

In 2002, prisoners were granted the right to vote. Today, you can even vote if you are a Canadian citizen living overseas, or are homeless and don’t have an address to verify on your Voter Identification card.

It took us a long time to get here, but now, every Canadian citizen has the right to vote, regardless of gender, ethnicity, personal circumstances, or religion.

Or do they?

What about young people?

“They’re not mature enough,” you may object. “Teenagers are rebellious troublemakers who can’t understand their own decisions.”  But I have witnessed a fair few rousing discussions in geo and history classes, and can personally attest to the fact that there are many teenagers out there who are more politically aware than most adults.

Probably the reason that Canadian citizens under 18 aren’t allowed to vote is that a lot of the legislation being voted on only applies to those 18 and older. Prison sentences, insurance, property taxes…..a great deal of it only kicks in once you’re old enough to get a library card without a parent signature.

However, not all legislation is only applicable to legal adults. Some is actually more applicable to youth than any other segment of the population.

Climate change is a long-term problem. Due to the lag time between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and temperature, whatever changes we make in our emissions won’t be noticeable for another 50-60 years. You can bet that most of the politicians debating Waxman-Marley and Copenhagen won’t be around to experience the results of their actions, or lack thereof.

Maybe I’m just being cynical, but it seems a lot easier to care about a problem when it’s your future in jeopardy. When it’s your chance to go to university and travel the world, to have a family, to own property. When you might be left in a world where travelling is impossible due to sea level rise and environmental refugees, where the chances of your family being injured in a natural disaster or infected by a vector-borne disease increase, where cashing out your insurance on your new property looks a heck of a lot more likely.

We, the youth, haven’t experienced any of the milestones that our parents have. It’s our future that’s threatened. But we have no say in it. Instead, the decision is being made for us by people who won’t be around to experience most of the consequences. Youth are some of the only people that have a vested interest in the long-term consequences of society’s actions. So why is it that we are the only ones prohibited to vote?

Finally, I was really touched by this commercial from Australia. Most of it is the normal “use clean energy! ratify Kyoto!” propaganda, but then the narrator says, “I’ll do everything in my power to make it happen. The only thing I can’t do is vote.”

A quick housekeeping note: I have purchased a domain name from WordPress and the URL for my blog is now! Shorter and catchier. The old URL,, will still work. No links to this site will be broken. I just thought that a more obvious URL would help the blog reach more people.

It’s Everyone’s World

A nation’s policies usually only affect its citizens. Take health care, crime, or taxes. These policies could affect the rest of the world indirectly – through the economy, for example – but the benefits and consequences of the policies’ effectiveness, or lack thereof, will be present first and foremost in the nation in which they were created.

Climate change legislation doesn’t work the same way.

Firstly, the mechanism of climate change is just not fair. If it was, the countries which had caused the problem would suffer the greatest consequences, and those which had had no hand in causing the problem would go on as normal. Unfortunately, the areas which will suffer the most from a warming climate are affected due to their physical geography – such as latitude, ocean and wind currents, and topography – not due to the amount they contributed to the problem. This means that a lot of developing nations, whose per capita carbon emissions are virtually nil, will suffer greatly from climate change.

Additionally, developed nations are undoubtedly the best equipped to deal with the consequences they do suffer. Here in Canada, for example, we have floodways, free health care, food reserves, and insurance. But look at somewhere like sub-Saharan Africa. What backup plans do they have for natural disasters?

I am not suggesting that I want the developed nations to experience the drastic consequences of their actions. Conversely, I am suggesting that the developed nations have a global responsibility to repair their actions, as the consequences will affect many who are innocent and unequipped.

We should stop looking at climate change legislation, or lack thereof, as “How will this help or hurt me?” and start looking at it as “How will this affect the rest of the world?”

An interlude of Canadian politics

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, head of our minority government (for our American friends – read up on Canada’s governmental system here if you’re lost) hasn’t done a lot about climate change. When he came into power several years ago, he got rid of the previous government’s emission plan and got rid of our Kyoto agreement. Then he created a “20% emission reduction by 2020” plan which looked pretty decent. But then the economy went downhill and he got rid of that plan as well. Now he’s pledged to not take any action against climate change until the US plan is fully underway – 2016 or so.

Luckily, here in Canada, we can call elections whenever we want (not just every four years), so he may be out as early as September, depending on how angry the opposition gets with him.

Regardless, it’s pretty obvious that Canada isn’t going to take any action until the United States does.

Why I care about US policy

I am not a citizen of the United States. I’ve only ever travelled there, I believe, three times. I assume that the US culture is quite similar to Canada’s, but I don’t know for sure. I’m perplexed at the lack of recycling in the States.

But I care a lot about what the US does in terms of climate change policy. I care what American citizens think about climate change. I believe that when the US takes significant action, the rest of the world will follow. As an economic superpower, the US has the biggest potential to be a leader in climate change action. As the largest per-capita emitter in the world, it also has the biggest potential to make climate change worse if it doesn’t take action.

“Why do you care about US policy?” you may ask me. “It’s not even your country.”

No, it’s not my country.

But it is my world. It’s everyone’s world. And what the United States does about climate change will affect everyone.