Close to the Point of No Return: A View from the West Coast
If you’ve ever been troubled by the grim global-warming scenarios that have been bubbling at the margins of serious public attention all these years, there’s good news: you don’t have to wait any longer to see whether or not there’s really anything to it all.
The future is here now.
The Canadian winter that just ended was the warmest on record. Last year in Greenland, where the summers are now milder than they’ve been in 100,000 years, glaciers shed an amount of water into arctic seas more than twice the annual flow of the Nile River, tripling the yearly loss of Greenland’s glaciers from 10 years ago. There are robins on Baffin Island now, and the people of Pangnirtung are seeing thunder and rain for the first time and walruses, on melting ice floes, are starving to death.
If you drive from Vancouver to Williams Lake, you will have the privilege of travelling to the epicentre of a thing no human being has ever witnessed. It’s the largest insect infestation in the history of North America’s great forests. British Columbia’s mountain pine beetles, without cold winters to stop them, have just devoured their way across a landscape roughly the size of the United Kingdom.
On the drive to Williams Lake, you will find yourself following the Fraser River, where millions of salmon are now routinely dying on their homeward migrations in lethally warm water. In six of the past 15 years, river temperatures have exceeded the fatal 18°C threshold. Two years ago, in Fraser tributaries such as the Nicola and the Clearwater rivers, summer temperatures were already exceeding 25°C.
Everything is different now, everywhere. Our winters are now 4°C warmer than they were a century ago, and up and down the B.C. coast, cedars are dying. There is more rain, but not in the summer, so the cedars are literally dying of thirst. Sea levels are rising faster than at any time in 3,000 years, and the sand bluffs on the beach at the northeastern tip of Graham Island, in the Queen Charlotte Islands, are eroding at a pace of about 12 metres a year.
The Pacific Ocean itself is getting warmer. Measurements at the Race Rocks lighthouse near Victoria show an annual average rise in temperature of 1°C since 1921, which doesn’t sound like much until you remember that it’s only 10°C in the other direction that separates us from the deep freeze of the Ice Age. The ocean, absorbing increasing volumes of carbon dioxide, is becoming more acidic, too, inhibiting the production of plankton, the basis of all life in the sea.
Everything is changing. There are mackerel swimming where the salmon once were, and Humboldt squid from Chile are now a frequent sight off Vancouver Island. Roughly a million Cassin’s auklets returned to Triangle Island to pair up and nest last year, but the small fish the birds rely on were gone, and not one chick is known to have survived. Hake were seen as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands, and there were Hawaiian moonfish north of there.
In the Rocky Mountains, the glaciers that have always fed the great prairie rivers, the Athabasca, the Saskatchewan and the Bow, are receding, and the diminished rivers are thinning even more as they traverse a drought-wracked landscape where another historic event occurred about 18 months ago. That was when Canada’s oil industry finally surpassed Saudi Arabia to become the primary supplier of fossil fuels to the United States.
Around the same time, the administration of President George W. Bush, himself an oil man, adopted a strict policy of censorship to see to it that no federal official, not even James Hanson, head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, would candidly and honestly explain all those grim global-warming scenarios.
It had been Hanson’s habit to be very clear that the shrinking of Greenland’s glaciers and the increased atmospheric loading of carbon dioxide, as well as the growing acidity of the world’s oceans, are all part of a story that begins with the burning of fossil fuels. Hanson had begun to warn that without a major reduction in these “greenhouse gas” emissions, the planet would soon pass a “tipping point” of sorts, where there will be no turning back.
Like the silenced Hanson, the Australian paleontologist Tim Flannery is convinced that humanity is crossing a tipping point in climate change, and the consequences are likely to be horrific. Unlike Hanson, Flannery is not easily made to shut up.
In his just-released The Weather Makers: How We Are Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth (HarperCollins, $34.95), Flannery presents a panoramic view of the intricate mechanisms of global climate, the geophysical feedback loops that drive it, and the impact humanity is having on the way all these things work.
The book is a tour de force of plain-language science writing.
The first thing to understand is that it really is already too late to stop global warming because the damage has been done, Flannery explains. The great challenge we face is the work of seeing to it that we don’t make matters worse. The only realistic goal now is to slow the rate of global warming and keep the planet’s temperature down, just enough, so as to prevent the deaths of billions of people owing to global droughts, desertification, massive crop failures, and resultant starvation.
The things we need to do are not all that hard to figure out. The tools to do the work are already available, and among those tools are nuclear power, geothermal power, wind and tidal power, energy efficiency, and money—lots of it. Trillions of dollars, for starters. Personal “lifestyle choices” and voluntary, individual actions, like getting out from behind the wheels of SUVs and driving hybrid-fuel vehicles instead, can make an enormous contribution.
The main thing is we have to start now. Right now.
Flannery is currently touring North America with his book, and I caught up to him by telephone the other day. We hadn’t spoken in almost four years. That was after he’d just finished his last book, The Eternal Frontier, which offered an idealistic view that North Americans were capable of shifting to a more sustainable way of life. Back then, I was struck by his optimism. These days, he’s just as hopeful, although sober in the knowledge of just how dire things have become in such a short time. And he wasn’t sure, when he started Weather Makers, whether he could sustain any optimism at all.
“I got pretty depressed,” Flannery said. “It is pretty awful. But I got so relieved when I started to see what the solutions might be.
“We’re very close to the edge,” he added, “but we just have to push.
What the Bush administration has been especially adamant in censoring is the research U.S. federal scientists have been doing in the area of “impacts and response strategies”. And it’s that kind of research that brings us straight back again to the strange events unfolding in British Columbia.
If you want to know whether or not, say, Richmond’s dikes can be expected to withstand an anticipated sea-level rise of perhaps a metre, you turn to a federal agency known as the Canadian Climate Impacts and Adaptation and Research Network (C-CIARN), which concentrates on precisely the types of climate-change impacts and response strategies the White House doesn’t want to hear about.
And if you were to ask such questions of Robin Sydneysmith, C-CIARN’s B.C. coordinator, as I did the other day, this is the answer you would get: “I’m not supposed to talk to you.”
The day before I telephoned him, Sydneysmith had just been advised that the entire C-CIARN program—and even the drop-in-the-bucket “one tonne challenge” initiative, designed to convince individual Canadians to voluntarily pitch in to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions—had been suspended, on the order of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Everything is up in the air, Sydneysmith said. The word from Ottawa was that things were in a “holding pattern”.
Harper, it needs to be remembered, is the Alberta oil-patch republican and Bush acolyte who vociferously opposed the Kyoto Accord—the international treaty requiring signatory countries to scale back their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions in an effort to staunch the global-warming hemorrhage.
Harper has long insisted that Ottawa should not interfere with Alberta’s oil industry, which drives the economy of his political base, which is, in turn, roaring along a growth trajectory that’s expected to push Canada to a point 44 percent above its permitted Kyoto levels within the next five years.
Harper has also insisted that Canada will not meet its Kyoto commitments, but shortly after winning the election he vowed that even so, Canada would still, somehow, work within the Kyoto treaty, all the while developing a “made in Canada” solution to the climate-change problem.
It was by this hypocrisy that C-CIARN was cast into its limbo, even though it was a central feature in what was already a “made in Canada” solution, and even though C-CIARN wasn’t even concerned with any “controversial” assessments of the role that fossil fuels play in the disassembly of the planet’s fragile climate systems. In these ways, Canada is being dragged back from an emerging position of leadership in the global struggle to control greenhouse gases, and everything is simply ambiguous again, and shrouded in dispute, and irredeemably politicized. And it is precisely this murky state of affairs that has kept global warming at the margins of serious public attention for so long.
“Every time we have something stupid, like the political developments in Canada, it’s a real step backwards,” Flannery told me. “It’s crazy. It can’t go on. But we have to have a real determination to win. We’ve just got to keep pushing.”
So here’s how we do that.
By all means, hold all politicians accountable by the commitment they’re willing to show in the global-warming fight, but don’t wait for government, Flannery says. And don’t wait for industry. Start doing it yourself.
That might be one of the more surprising of Flannery’s findings in The Weather Makers. It’s his argument that no solutions will emerge without harnessing the thing that worked so diligently to create the problem in the first place, “the melee of buyers and sellers known as the market”.
Forget knocking a few percentage points from 1990 greenhouse-gas emission levels. It’s a bit late for that, Flannery writes. What’s needed, to avoid calamity of apocalyptic proportions, is a 70-percent reduction in current emission levels. Daunting as it sounds, most of us could incorporate that target into our own lifestyle choices, voluntarily, without much noticing it.
It’s especially easy if you drive an SUV: just switch to a hybrid-fuel vehicle and that’s 70 percent right there. If everyone who has the means to do this kind of thing actually did it, they’d save nine of every 10 endangered species, besides.
There is also the power of working people, Flannery points out. If you can make major contributions to the war on greenhouse gases as a consumer, just think what you might be able to accomplish in the workplace.
Economic trends have their tipping points too, Flannery notes. When renewable-energy technologies start taking off, like computer technology did about 25 years ago, a whole new horizon of possibility opens up. Simple economies of scale will bring the prices of these technologies down, which would, in turn, give China, for instance, a cheaper and cleaner alternative to coal.
There are also such market-oriented solutions as British politician Aubrey Meyer’s “contraction and convergence” proposition, which involves securing a global agreement on the acceptable limit on atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations, including an agreement on how fast emissions need to be cut back to stay within that limit. The budget is then allocated as a “carbon currency”, on a per-capita basis, to the citizens of the world. Governments could then buy, sell, and trade between themselves. Anyone who wants to pollute has to pay.
During our conversation, Flannery insisted that he wasn’t being purposefully optimistic just to hold onto the audience for his book, or for these ideas. “There is that temptation,” he said. “But, no. I really am cautiously optimistic.”
One thing that is justifiably encouraging is that the alleged “debate” about whether or not global warming is occurring, and whether fossil fuels are significantly contributing to the phenomenon, is finally over. On the basics, the scientific consensus is overwhelming. Previously dismissive politicians are recanting, now that the vast majority of people in the industrialized world are making it clear that they’re ready for bold steps to tackle the problem.
Even in Flannery’s native Australia, one of the handful of countries that refused to be among the 160-plus nations that have signed Kyoto, the government now admits it was wrong about global warming, thanks at least partly to Flannery. And British Prime Minister Tony Blair has effusively praised Flannery’s book.
Time magazine recently declared global warming and its causes to be obvious and undeniable facts. National Geographic has devoted extraordinary resources to explaining the phenomenon to its readers. Mainstream American news organizations are becoming more vigilant in exposing the duplicity of White House policy on the matter. There is now such a preponderance of evidence of massive climate-related disruption that journalists don’t have to do much of anything, except get out of the way so the stories can tell themselves.
That is what Elizabeth Kolbert set out to do in a series of articles for the venerable New Yorker magazine, which she compiled and elaborated upon for her newly released book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change (Bloomsbury U.K., $29.95).
Although Flannery’s special gift is in making complex scientific matters understandable, and he is properly concerned with laying out solutions to the problem, Kolbert is a master narrator whose method was to write dispatches from the front lines of climate change, letting the facts speak for themselves.
Kolbert travelled to Fairbanks, Alaska, where houses are disappearing into the ground as the permafrost melts away underneath them. In England, she traced the subtle but persistent shifts in climate regimes by following the northward expansion of the range of certain butterflies. Rather than just take notes while some scientist explains that atmospheric carbon dioxide is at higher levels now than it has been in 325,000 years, Kolbert takes the time to explain the rigorous scientific detective work behind the finding.
But the chapter in Field Notes that will make you want to put the book down and go for a long walk, if only to overcome a powerful desire to put your fist through a wall, is the chapter titled “The Day After Kyoto”. This is where Kolbert writes about the public-relations liars and oil-industry bullies and congressional cowards who crippled the ability of the United States government to respond properly to the global-warming crisis when American leadership was needed most.
Americans generate about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases, and they continue to do so, unencumbered by the restraint of international covenant. This is mainly because the American people—and many legislators who should know better—were lied to about Kyoto. They allowed themselves to be convinced that Kyoto provided an unfair “free ride” to countries such as India and China by not binding those countries to greenhouse-gas limits in Kyoto’s first phase.
Now that the United States is the world’s biggest Kyoto free rider, India and China are less likely to sign on to Kyoto’s next round.
It’s true that Canada’s emissions growth has exceeded that of the United States, but that’s also partly because of all the oil we’re drilling to keep the Americans happy—an obligation in the free-trade commitments we’ve foolishly given them. But that in itself is a pitiful excuse, now that we also have an openly anti-Kyoto prime minister. China intends to build 150 new coal-fired generating stations in the next five years and another 168 new ones during the following decade. And much of that coal is expected to come from Canada.
“If China and India aren’t brought in, we’ll be in big trouble,” Flannery noted. “We must do something, something to show our bona fides. It’s really hard to see another way out.”
But the worst of it is the moral cowardice among politicians who won’t show leadership and aren’t prepared to make any economic “sacrifice” and refuse to take action so long as there’s someone else, somewhere, who is also refusing.
“The opponents of action on climate change live in a moral vacuum,” Flannery said. “It’s a horrible, unsustainable world. People call it realpolitik. Well, that’s bullshit. It’s just plain immoral. It’s about greed and money.
“It’s a bleak universe they live in.”
Terry Glavin is the author of the just-published Waiting for the Macaws – And Other Stories From the Age of Extinctions (Viking Canada, $35), and this essay appeared in the Georgia Straight, April 13, 2006. Glavin’s web log can be found at transmontanus.blogspot.com/.