Mind the Gap

This is the script of a presentation I will make to several groups of high school students on Earth Day. I was originally going to use the same script from my PowerShift presentation, but in light of recent developments and my ever-expanding thoughts on climate change, I decided to create an entirely new presentation.

I would greatly appreciate any thoughts, input, suggestions, etc. Keep in mind that I don’t have my PowerPoint created yet, so some of the text may seem a little confusing without the visuals I’ll be pointing to.


Update: Thanks for all the helpful comments and critiques. I’ve made some changes here, but feel free to keep them coming.

Welcome everyone, nice to see you all here. My name is Kate, I’m in my last year of high school, and I am here to talk to you about climate change, or global warming. After I graduate I want to be a climate scientist, so until then, I’m channelling my obsession into a website. For the past year, I’ve been writing the blog ClimateSight.org, which has allowed me to meet a lot of cool people and correspond with a lot of scientists.

I’ve spent several years doing a lot of research on climate change, and something that’s been really interesting to me is the link between climate scientists and the public – the communication between these two groups. And the very first thing I want to talk about is assessing credibility, which is probably the most important tool I can give you. How much weight should you give different statements from different sources about scientific issues?

The scientific community that is actually studying the issue is going to be more credible than the media and the public. And that scientific research starts with scientists. They write peer-reviewed articles, published in journals like Nature or Science. Anything that is a serious scientific idea will be in one of these journals at some time or other. But there are thousands of journal articles published every month, and because they’re generally studying the frontier of their field, it’s inevitable that some of them are going to be proven wrong later. That’s why there are scientific organizations and assessment reports that look back at all these papers and compile what we know about the major issues. So statements from organizations like NASA, or from assessment reports like the IPCC, means that something has stood the test of time.

Among all the people who are not scientists, some know more than others. People who communicate science, like journalists and high school teachers and some politicians, are held a little more accountable for what they say than just any random person on the street.

So let’s see what the different levels of the credibility spectrum say about global warming. Who would disagree – who would say that humans are not causing the Earth to warm? 0% of scientific organizations say no. Pretty much 0% of peer-reviewed articles say no – there is the odd one out there, but they’re so small in number that they round right down to zero. And less than 3% of publishing climatologists say no. But 57% of articles in leading newspapers say no (or probably not, or maybe, maybe not), and 53% of the public says no.

As you can see, there is a big gap right here. The top half of the credibility spectrum is very confident about human-caused global warming, and the bottom half is very confused. Why is this? How can an issue that is so important to public policy have such drastically different levels of support between those who study it and everyone else?

There are all kinds of common objections that you and I hear about global warming. What if it’s a natural cycle and we’re just coming out of an ice age? What if the Sun is heating up? And how could there possibly be global warming when it is so cold outside? There are all kinds of arguments against the idea of climate change that everybody knows. But the scientific community is still saying this. They are still sure that yes, it’s going on and yes, it’s us.

So there are three possible explanations. Scientists could be ignorant and overconfident. Maybe they never considered the idea it could be a natural cycle. Scientists could be frauds, part of some Communist conspiracy to take over the world somehow. Or, maybe scientists know what they’re doing, and have evidence to say what they’re saying. So let’s look at the evidence that they do have.

We’ve been studying this problem for a long time, and it all started in the 1800s, when the greenhouse effect was discovered – the gases in the atmosphere that trap heat and keep the planet warm enough for life. The idea that emissions of carbon dioxide from our burning of fossil fuels – like coal, oil, and natural gas – would eventually cause warming was first proposed in 1896. So this is not a new theory by any means.

We began measuring the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere in the 1950s, and we can see that it’s steadily going up. Over the last 2.1 million years, CO2 never exceeded 300 ppm, but right now it’s at 390. This might not seem like a lot, but 390 ppm of arsenic in your coffee would kill you.

We can confirm that this increase in CO2 is due to human activity because of its isotopes. The carbon in CO2 from fossil fuels has fewer neutrons, on average, than CO2 from natural sources like volcanoes or the ocean. That makes it lighter, so we can tell the difference in samples from the air.

So we know that an increase in greenhouse gases causes warming, and we know that we are increasing greenhouse gases. So it’s not really a surprise that we’re starting to see the warming show up. There are five independent research teams worldwide that measure the average global temperature, some from weather stations and some from satellites, and all five of them are finding a very similar pattern of warming since about 1975.

But what if it’s a coincidence? What if something else was causing the warming, and it just happened to be at the same time that we were dumping fossil fuels into the air? Something that a lot of people don’t know is that there are ways that we can confirm that the warming is caused by us. First of all, there’s nothing else going on that could be causing it. Actually, if you took human activity out of the picture, we would be slowly cooling: the cycles of the Earth’s orbit show that we should be very very slowly going into a new ice age.

There is also a specific pattern of warming we can look at. If warming were caused by the sun, the entire atmosphere would warm in a uniform fashion. But if greenhouse gases were causing global warming, the first layer of the atmosphere (the troposphere) would be warming, but the next layer up, the stratosphere, would be cooling. This is referred to as the “fingerprint” of greenhouse warming, because it’s like DNA evidence or the smoking gun. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing – stratospheric cooling. (Randel et al, 2009).

So we can be very sure that yes, our activities are causing the Earth to warm, at a rate that we haven’t seen for at least the past 55 million years, which was before humans even existed. That’s really the problem – the rate of change. It’s not the actual temperature that poses a threat, it’s all about how much it changes and how fast. The world has been plenty warmer than this at times, like when dinosaurs were around. And dinosaurs were okay with that because it had been like that for a really long time and they had adapted to it. But a change in temperature at the rate we’re seeing now? It might seem slow to you and me, but on a geological timescale, it’s incredibly quick, too quick for species – including humans – to adapt. Yes, the climate has changed many times before, but it never really ended well.

For example, the largest extinction in our Earth’s history, the Permian extinction 250 million years ago, was most likely caused by warming from greenhouse gases that came out of supervolcanoes much larger than anything we have today. It got so warm that the ocean couldn’t hold any oxygen and produced hydrogen sulphide instead. That’s what makes rotten eggs smell bad, and it’s actually poisonous in large enough quantities. It killed 97% of species in the ocean and 70% of species on land. It has been nicknamed “The Great Dying”. So this is the absolute worst-case scenario of what can happen when too many greenhouse gases go into the atmosphere at once. It means a whole lot more than just nicer Winnipeg winters.

So, to the people who really look at this issue, the evidence is undeniable. In academic circles, there really is no argument. All the objections that we have – they thought of them long ago, and covered them all, and ruled all of them out, before you and I even knew what global warming was. The evidence for climate change is not a house of cards, where you take one piece out and the whole theory falls apart. It’s more like a mountain. Scrape a handful of pebbles off the top, but the mountain is still there.

As for the second option, that scientists are part of a conspiracy – if you stop and think about it, like, really? Scientific fraud happens, but on the scale of one paper, or at the most one scientist, not an entire field stretching back for over a century. Scientists are not that organized. And that only leaves one explanation – that the field of climatology does know what it’s doing, and does have evidence to say what it’s saying: that humans are causing the Earth to warm, and it’s not going to be good.

We’ve established that the top half of the credibility spectrum is the one that we can trust on this issue. So what’s going on in the communication between the top and the bottom so that the public has got totally the wrong idea? This is what I spend most of my time working on, and there are a lot of factors involved, but it really comes down to three points.

Firstly, climatology is a complex science, and it’s not a required course in high school, so the public doesn’t understand it the way they understand Newton’s Laws of Motion. Most people do not know all this stuff I just told you, and that’s only scratching the surface; there is so much more science and so many more lines of evidence. And when you only have bits and pieces of this story, it’s easy to fall prey to these kinds of misconceptions.

Second, there are, sadly, a lot of people out there trying to exploit number one. There are a lot of very prominent people in the media, politics, and industry who will use whatever they can get – whether or not it’s legitimate, whether or not it’s honest – as proof that global warming is not real. You’ll hear them say that all scientists said an ice age was coming in the 70s, so we shouldn’t trust them now. In reality, most scientists were predicting warming by the 70s, and the single paper to talk about an ice age was proven wrong almost immediately after its publication. You’ll hear them say that volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans, but volcanoes only emit about 1% of what we do. They’ll say that the Greenland ice sheet is getting thicker, so therefore, it cannot be warming. But the reason that Greenland is getting thicker is that it’s getting more snow, caused by warmer temperatures that are still below zero.

Some of these questionable sources are organizations, like a dozen or so lobby groups that have been paid a lot of money by oil companies to say that global warming is fake (Hoggan and Littlemore, 2009). Some of them are individuals, like US Senator James Inhofe, who was the environment chair under George W. Bush, and says that “global warming is the greatest hoax ever imposed upon the American people.” Some of them have financial motivations, and some of them have ideological motivations, but their motivations don’t really matter – all that matters is that they are saying things that are inaccurate, and misleading, and just plain wrong.

The third reason that the public is so confused about climate change is that the media has been very compliant in spreading the message of these guys. You would expect that newspapers and journalists would do their research about scientific issues, and make sure that they were writing science stories that were accurate, but sadly, that’s not what’s happening.

One of the major problems is that there are fewer journalists than there used to be, and there are almost no science journalists in the mainstream media – general reporters cover science issues instead. Also, a few decades ago, journalists used to get a week or two to write a story. Now they often have less than one day, because speed and availability of news has become more important than quality.

And, finally, when it comes to climate change, journalists follow the rule of balance, or presenting “two equal sides”, staying neutral, letting the reader form their own opinion. This works really well when the so-called controversy is one of political or social nature, like tax levels, a federal election, how we should develop infrastructure. In those cases, there is no real right answer, and people usually are split into two camps. But when the question at hand is one of science, there is a right answer, and some explanations are better than others. Sometimes the scientists are split into two equal groups, but sometimes they’re split into three or four or even a dozen. And sometimes, like we see with climate change, pretty much all the scientists are in agreement, and the two or three percent which aren’t don’t really publish, because they can’t prove what they’re saying and nobody really takes them seriously. So framing these two groups as having equal weight in the scientific community is completely wrong. It exaggerates this extreme minority, and suppresses everyone else.

All these problems are perfectly explained by a man named James Hrynyshyn, a journalist himself. He says, “Science journalism….is too often practiced by journalists who know so little about the subject they’re covering that they can’t properly evaluate the reliability or trustworthiness of potential sources. The result is that sources with no credibility in the field routinely appear alongside genuine experts as part of an effort to provide balance.”

One of the best examples of how this kind of journalism can really go wrong happened quite recently. Someone hacked into the email server of the Climatic Research Unit in the UK, stole thirteen years of emails between scientists, sifted through them all to find the juiciest ones, and put them on the Internet. The police are trying to figure out who did this, because it’s quite illegal, but it wasn’t some teenage kid in their basement.

Some of the emails certainly were embarrassing, the scientists said some things that weren’t very nice and insulted some people. But can you imagine if all of your email was released to the world? Scientists are people too, and they say stupid stuff that they don’t mean over email just the same as you and I do – especially when there are so many people actively spreading lies about their work.

The most important thing, though, is that there was nothing in there that compromised any science, any data sets, anything that we know about climate change. Nothing actually changed…..but the scary part was that a striking amount of the media reported that the entire field of climate science was potentially a political scam.

For example, some scientists are working on reconstructing temperatures from before we had thermometers, using tree rings or ice cores or ocean sediment. In one of the most widely circulated emails, the scientists discussed how to “hide the decline” in a set of tree ring data that’s known to have some serious problems – the tree growth is going down while thermometers show local temperatures going up, which is the opposite of what you’d expect. It probably means there was a drought or something. So they were trying to see if they could still use the first part and cut out the useless part at the end. They’re only hiding it in a mathematical sense, they’re not hiding it from their colleagues or from the media. In fact, they’ve written about this decline in one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, so if they’re trying to pull off a conspiracy here, they’re not doing a very good job.

But somehow, in the media, the story changed. Instead of saying that scientists were “removing regional tree ring data known to be erroneous,” the media said they were “covering up the decline in global temperatures”. That’s so fundamentally different, so removed from the facts – these scientists don’t even work with global temperatures! – but you heard it everywhere. The story that reached virtually every newspaper in the world was that the world is cooling and scientists are trying to hide it from us.

That’s only one example of how a single phrase can be taken out of context and have its meaning completely twisted. It doesn’t surprise me, you see it from these guys all the time, but what absolutely amazes me is how the media just sat and lapped it right up without doing any research into the validity of these serious allegations.

Subsequently, two independent investigations into the contents of these emails have been released, and the scientists involved were basically cleared in both cases. The British Parliament found that “the focus on CRU has been largely misplaced”, that the scientists’ “actions were in line with common practice”, that “they were not part of a systematic attempt to mislead”, and that all of the CRU’s “analyses have been repeated and the conclusions have been verified”. (British House of Commons, 2010). The University of East Anglia found “no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the CRU”, “no hint of tailoring results to a particular agenda”, and that “allegations of deliberate misrepresentation and unjustified selection of data are not valid”. (UEA, 2010) So this affirms what the climate science community already knew: the stolen emails do not change the science one bit.

But look at what newspapers told us for weeks on end. Every time the Winnipeg Free Press mentioned the emails, they would say something along the lines of, “The correspondence appears to suggest researchers may have manipulated data to exaggerate global warming.” These are very serious allegations to make, and they were made without evidence in serious, credible and widely read newspapers, and they’re not being retracted or corrected in the media now that the investigations are coming up clear.

Spencer Weart, who is a science historian, had some great words to say on this issue: “The media coverage represents a new low. There are plenty of earlier examples of media making an uproar without understanding the science….but this is the first time the media has reported that an entire community of scientists has been accused of actual dishonesty. Such claims….would normally require serious investigation. But even in leading newspapers like The New York Times, critics with a long public record for animosity and exaggeration are quoted as experts.”

Many of the scientists featured in the emails received death threats. Phil Jones, the director of CRU, says that he’s been suicidal. The story of these stolen emails is not a story of scientists engaged in conspiracy – it is a story of how desperate some people are to make it seem that way, and how gullible and irresponsible the mainstream media can be.

And not long after that, story after story broke that the IPCC, which is a huge UN publication about everything we know about the science of climate change, had all kinds of mistakes in it. So what were these mistakes? In 3 000 pages, two examples of overestimating climate change were found. First, the report said that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, and we now know that it’s going to take a lot longer than that. Second, it said that 55% of the Netherlands is below sea level, when in fact 55% of the Netherlands is susceptible to flooding, and only some of that is below sea level. This last one is background information. It really isn’t all that relevant.

So should that have happened? No. But does it actually matter to our understanding of the science? No.

Then several British journalists managed to invent five or six other “IPCC scandals”. When these were investigated more seriously, they were found to be completely false. But they were still reported in virtually every newspaper around the world. Again.

However, the IPCC has made a lot of mistakes, much more serious than these, that none of the newspapers are reporting. The difference is that the mistakes that make the media scream scandal are examples of overestimating climate change, while the ones you don’t hear about are examples of underestimating climate change. There was recently a report published that evaluated the last IPCC report, and this is what it found:

Over the past three years, there was about 40% less Arctic summer sea ice than the IPCC predicted, and melting in the Arctic is far exceeding its worst case scenarios. Recent observed sea level rise is about 80% more than the IPCC predicted.  Global sea level by 2100 is expected to rise at least twice as much as the IPCC predicted. (Copenhagen Diagnosis, 2009)

So which seems more important? The exact date at which a specific glacier is expected to melt? Or the amount of sea level rise we can expect all over the world? I have yet to find a newspaper in the world that covered this, but I have yet to find a newspaper in the world that did not cover this. Yes, the IPCC makes mistakes, but they are almost always mistakes that say, “oops, it’s going to be worse than we thought.”

So, as you can see, the real message about the reality and severity of climate change is not getting through. Communication of science is always important, but it’s especially important for climate change, because it could potentially screw up our civilization pretty bad, and we want to minimize that risk.

Scientists, in general, are not that great at public communication – that’s why they’re scientists and not journalists or salesmen or whatever. They want to sit in the lab and crunch numbers. And there’s always been sort of a stigma in the scientific community against talking to the media or the public. But the one good thing about all these rumours and all this awful journalism is that it’s finally making the scientific community wake up and realize how bad things are and how much their voice and their input is needed.

In the period of just a few months, over 300 American climate scientists signed an open letter to the US government about how two small mistakes in the IPCC do not impact the overall message that humans cause climate change, and should not impact our efforts to stop it.

And the National Academy of Sciences, which is one of the most prestigious organizations in the world – 1 out of 10 members have a Nobel Prize – has all sorts of plans for public lectures and articles in newspapers and a science show on prime time television.

The one good thing about things getting this bad is that it makes the people involved mad enough to step up and finally try to stop it. To finally narrow this gap that has existed for so long. That’s why I’m here today, that’s why I’ve been writing my blog for over a year, because I’m mad, and if I don’t do anything about it my head is going to explode. I cannot just sit and watch while these rumours threaten our ability to preserve a good future for me and for us and for everyone who will come after us. And I sincerely hope that all of you will not just sit and watch it happen either. We need to fix this together.

Something Unexpected

The differences between the Canadian and American political systems amaze me.

Whenever anyone mentions greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the States, people argue, journalists rant about dire economic costs, and Senators stand up and say that cap-and-trade is completely unnecessary because CO2 is plant food.

But here in Canada, the government will be voting on greenhouse gas targets next Wednesday, and I didn’t know a thing about it until DeSmogBlog mentioned it. None of the mainstream media outlets or other Canadian climate blogs I follow said a word about it. Maybe they didn’t know either.

Which is really quite strange, seeing as the federal government likes to call a 3% reduction from 1990 levels “aggressive action” and make a whole website about it, featuring a picture of Stephen Harper planting a tree. You’d imagine that, now that they’re considering a cut of 25% from 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% by 2050, they would make sure that every citizen in the country knew how responsible they were being.

The bill is known as C-311, or the Climate Change Accountability Act, and I encourage you to all read it here, it’s not very long. It’s been around for a few years, and even passed through the House once, but it had to restart several times due to various prorogations. Now it’s finally ready to be voted on by the House, and they’re doing that vote on Wednesday.

I’m not sure how much support this bill has from the MPs, but I sure hope it passes, because it would actually put us in line with the EU. Yes, no more number games of shifting around the baseline years – the proposed targets actually fall within the UN’s recommendations to avoid 2 C of warming.

Something even better about these targets, though, is this:

The Minister shall, within six months after this Act receives royal assent, prepare and lay before both Houses of Parliament an interim Canadian greenhouse gas emissions target plan for the years 2015, 2020, 2025, 2030, 2035, 2040 and 2045. The target plan shall

(a) establish a Canadian greenhouse gas emissions target for each of those years;

(b) specify the scientific, economic and technological evidence and analysis used to establish each target, including consideration of the latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the most stringent greenhouse gas emissions targets adopted by other national governments; and

(c) show that each target is consistent with a responsible contribution by Canada to the UNFCCC’s ultimate objective of preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system and with Parliament’s strong commitment to the Kyoto Protocol.

Bill C-311 isn’t just an empty promise. It makes the targets that we need attainable. If we could actually pass this, it would be the first time in my short life that I was impressed with the government and felt that politics was doing its job of protecting the interests of its citizens, rather than squabbling and trying to sabotage the other parties.

Update: It passed! Now on to the third reading. If it passes that, it moves to the Senate.


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.

Lightbulbs Aren’t Enough

When you read about climate change in magazines, the articles almost invariably conclude with a list entitled “10 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint”, or something similar.

Instead of driving, ride your bike, walk, or use public transit. When you do drive, avoid idling and make sure your tires are properly inflated. Insulate your home. Use compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Recycle and compost. Buy local food from farmer’s markets. We’ve heard it all before.

These are important actions to take. They can go a long way to improve local air quality and save you some money. Local food is yummy, and composting is fun to watch. But will they really help fight climate change?

Dr James Hansen, a climatology pioneer with an incredible track record, believes that atmospheric CO2 needs to be reduced to “at most 350 ppm” from the current 389 ppm. Kyoto required an average reduction of 5% below 1990 levels. The Waxman-Markey climate change bill that just passed the US Congress is aiming for an 80% cut by 2050.

It’s an incredible feat in today’s fossil-fuel dependent world for a country to even stabilize their emissions, let alone decrease them, let alone decrease them enough so that CO2 concentrations will stabilize, let alone decrease them enough so that CO2 concentrations will also decrease.

Is it enough just for the government to run a series of ads which encourage bike riding? Is it enough for them to give a tax credit on compost bins? Will that alone cut our global CO2 emissions the drastic amount that is needed? And most importantly, will enough people even make an effort?

Personally, I believe that governments need to take two different kinds of action against climate change.

1) Improve and expand on infrastructure to support a sustainable lifestyle. Basically, make it easy for everyone to follow the “10 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint” list. Create a public transit system which is even more convenient than driving – in Ottawa, where I recently traveled, their rapid-transit buses are so efficient that most (or at least a good chunk of) people ride them to and from work each day. Build bike paths so cyclists don’t have to ride in traffic. Provide a curbside composting and recycling system. Make sustainability so easy for citizens that it won’t seem like an inconvenience.

2) Create legislation and financial incentives, including an emissions target, for industries to move away from fossil fuels and start using clean energies. Citizens and industries tend to care about money more than anything else. If cap-and-trade is designed correctly, it will be in a company’s best financial interests to reduce their emissions. CSS plants will be gold mines. If a carbon tax works correctly, clean energies will cost less than carbon-dense fossil fuels, so people will be more willing to choose them. Their demand will increase and they will become more present in the market.

If you make it easy for people to reduce their carbon footprint, and then it make it more expensive for them not to do so, they will change. If you introduce the freedom to pollute as a currency to industries, they will do what industries like to do, which is to make money and save money.

But simple encouragement will only work on the most ethical of people. And even then it doesn’t go far enough. I would live a far greener lifestyle if transit was better and farmer’s markets were easy to get to.

Until then, commercials encouraging bike riding and energy-efficient lightbulbs are nothing but a facade that make the government look like it’s doing something to support sustainability.

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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 Time We Have Left

11th hourLast Christmas, I was given the documentary The 11th Hour as a gift. I admit that I was somewhat skeptical of its legitamacy – as much as we all loved Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, I wasn’t sure how credible a documentary created by a movie star would be. It was also wrapped in something called BioFilm that sounded kind of sketchy (admittedly, I don’t know what the plastic was made of, but chances are that it’s corn ethanol – not the greatest of fossil fuel replacements).

However, when I watched the film, I was utterly engrossed. My favourite thing about the 11th hour is that most of the dialogue and narration comes from interviews with incredibly articulate experts. This film featured scientists, authors, First Nations leaders, CEOs of green businesses, and national security officials. David Suzuki, Stephen Schneider, Paul Hawken, and Stephen Hawking were just a few of those interviewed.

The 11th Hour dicusses many different aspects of environmental depletion, sociology, and solutions. It opened with a sort of celebration of life and the beauty of nature. I believe it was Paul Hawken that said something along the lines of, “In your body, right this very second, there are three (something with a lot of billions and trillions) things happening at once. That’s a three with twenty-four zeros after it. Right this second. And in the next second, as you sit there on the couch, one hundred times more things are happening than there are stars and planets in the universe. And that is what we call life.”

The section on climate change was brief, but quite well done. Most of the time was devoted to talking about possible impacts – how warming would affect our water security, food security…..However, Stephen Schneider delivered a fantastic quote that’s quite relevant to this blog:

“Some scientists are amazed that in the media debate and in Congress there are people who stand up and say, “I believe” or “I don’t believe in global warming,” as if it were some sort of object of religion, instead of based in evidence.”

(Check out the post Making Up Your Own Science for more on that topic.)

Following the climate change discussion were small sections devoted to forestry, aquatics, biodiversity, and hyperconsumerism. However, the discussion on extinction was so compelling to me that it dwarfed all the previous discussions. The film explored how extinction is inevitable to a species, that the demise of an entire species is as natural as the death of a single organism. It’s no secret that humans will eventually become extinct. The question is how our actions today are affecting when that extinction will happen, and how many other species we are taking down with us.

The last third of the movie was devoted to possible solutions. I applaud the filmmakers in this decision. The first part of the film was pretty darn scary, and ending on an optimistic note made me feel more motivated for action. And what an optimistic note it was! The film discussed how our current system of economics discourages environmental action, and how we could reinvent our economy so that it is more in tune with sustainability and quality of life. It discussed biomimicry, a principle of design which mimics nature, such as the incredibly strong spider’s silk, the structural (rather than pigmented) colour of the blue morpho butterfly, and self-cleaning leaves. “The generations alive today,” Paul Hawken said, “will have to reinvent everything…..what a great time to be born, what an opportunity.”

Happy things

The 11th Hour ended on such a hopeful note that I felt myself becoming more optimistic. There is time to solve the problem of climate change. If our global carbon emissions drop to zero by the middle of this century, we will never pass the 2 C warming which is estimated to be a tipping point. Some warming is inevitable, but we still have time to stop it getting out of control.

In the Discover article on climate change this June, the panel of scientists was asked how hopeful they were that humanity could solve the problem of climate change. Most of them answered that they felt very sure that we had the resources and technology to drastically reduce, or even eliminate, carbon emissions. But they weren’t so sure that we had the will. The world has known about this problem for over 40 years, but little has been done.

But to think that we still have a chance…..no matter how small….it makes me want to grab on to that chance and run with it and do all that I can to make it come true.

If it clashes with the economy, we’ll reinvent the economy. If the oil executives get mad, we’ll pay them a lot of money to develop wind power and geothermal. If the skeptics continue to argue, we’ll say to them, as we should be saying now, “The stakes are too high to base our actions on the best possible scenario.”

The fact that there still is a tangible chance, however small, that we could fix the problem of climate change altogether, is so exciting that I feel obliged to pursue it.


In Canada, where I live, there are recycling bins everywhere you go. Every public place, office building, or school has blue boxes that are almost as easy to find as garbage cans. In Canada, it is almost a public embarrassment not to recycle. I seem to remember reading that upwards of 97% of homes put out recycling with their garbage pickup every week.

In Canada, it would be hard to find a suburban street where nobody had a compost pile in their backyard. Most universities have some sort of campus composting program. More and more municipalities are even getting curbside compost pickups along with their garbage and recycling.

In Canada, most sit-down restaurants serve their meals in reusable dishes. Receiving a meal where anything other than the napkin was designed to be thrown out would reflect badly on the restaurant. Eating a hotel breakfast out of Styrofoam would make the hotel seem much less classy.

In Canada, we know we have a long way to go. We continually feel bad about our national ecological footprint. We compare ourselves to Europe and groan. We’re one of the worst per-capita polluters in the world.

I have never had reason to feel proud of the environmental practices of my country. Until now.

A trip south

This weekend, I travelled down to the United States for the first time since becoming interested in the environment. I already knew that the US was slightly worse than Canada in terms of environmental policy. But I wasn’t prepared for what I found.

Recycling appeared to be nonexistent. It was the exception rather than the rule. At the hotel I stayed at, there was not a single recycling bin in the entire building. Not even for paper! In my entire stay, I believe I saw recycling bins in two public places. I ended up hoarding all my recyclables and bringing them home with me. I couldn’t bear to throw out a milk carton, drink can or piece of cardboard.

Even worse were the widespread use of disposable products. The continental breakfast that the hotel served did not offer a single reusable plate, glass, or piece of cutlery. There were only two places that I ate where not everything was designed to be thrown out. One of those places randomly served water and soft drinks in flimsy plastic cups. Food just doesn’t taste as good in dishes designed for the landfill, at least for me. I ate out of a Tupperware container and a travel mug for most of my meals.

I am so used to, after every meal, separating my waste into three piles: recycling, composting, and garbage. It’s almost unconscious. And now, suddenly, I was expected to merge my three piles into the one that I avoided most of all.

How could the most economically powerful nation in the world lack basic sustainability practices? How could cities that have light rail transit not have a recycling program?

It never occurred to me that somewhere so developed could be so undeveloped in their environmental practices.

Please, America. Catch up to the rest of the world. This isn’t like health insurance where only the nation involved is affected. When you take no measures to decrease your environmental impact, every being on this planet is being harmed.