It used to be a safe topic of conversation. Now talk of the weather is ominous. Our planet is heating up at an alarming rate and no one seems to be able to do anything about it.
Canadians might be tempted to feel good at the prospects of a warmer climate, but there’s more to global warming than comfort. The consequences of climatic change are more than an adjustment of the thermostat.
We’re already getting a preview of the effects of global warming. In B.C., the pine bark beetle is normally killed off during the winter. But for the last few warm winters, it has survived, and is ready to devour stands of timber — 11,000 hectares in the Kamloops region alone.
Glacial scientist, Dr. Mindy Brugman, says the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park is shrinking at an alarming rate, melting faster now than it has in the last 40 years. As the Columbia ice fields disappear so does a critical water supply for several large prairie water systems. In a hot dry summer like the summer of 1998, the glacier was the only thing that kept the rivers flowing. When the glaciers are gone, the prairies will become permanently parched.
In Manitoba, winter temperatures are 4.4 degrees above normal. “When we see seasonal changes in the order of magnitude of five degrees. That’s a lot of change,” says John Parker of Environment Canada, “It means we’re getting weather that’s normal a few hundred kilometres south of us.”
The Canadian polar bear is slowly starving to death as our arctic ice retreats. Polar bears hunt from ice surfaces and when the ice is gone, they have to live from stored fat. Last year, polar bears had to survive about a month longer than usual on stored reserves. As summer fasting grows longer, polar bears get weaker.
It’s no secret what’s causing global warming. Greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, are trapping the sun’s heat. These gases occur naturally. They contribute to the finely tuned cycles of warming and cooling that have been going on for millions of years. The difference now is that added greenhouse gases created by the burning of fossil fuels threatens to tip that delicate balance.
While the greenhouse gases that humans produce represent only one-thirtieth of the total, that still amounts to 6 billion tonnes each year. That relatively small addition is accelerating global warming at an alarming rate. Small changes can have a proportionally large effect in climate. For example, as ice and snow melts, more and more of the earth’s dark surfaces and solar heating accelerates through amplified feedback.
We have known about the problem for decades. In 1967, Princeton meteorologists, Syukuro Manabe and Richard Wetherarld warned that human activity was increasing the amount of carbon dioxide significantly.
So, who will do something about global warming? Not governments. The governments of the World made a commitment to reducing greenhouse gases in the 1997 Kyoto agreement. Canada’s commitment was 6 per cent. Not only is it unlikely that we will meet our target, but an increase in gases is probable.
The fossil fuel industry will not do anything. They sell 1 trillion dollars worth in one day. The automobile industry won’t. They are busy selling gas-guzzling Sport Utility Vehicles. Not the consumer. An increase in the cost of fuel has generated a revolt across the land. A cost increase would reduce consumption and the resulting greenhouse gases. But we are hooked on cheap fossil fuels. Canadians consume one of the largest per-capita amounts of fuel in the world.
Incremental increases could be part of a strategy of decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels and moving towards alternate energy sources. But the haphazard way in which the petroleum industry is going about it is causing a hardship. Their motive is profit, not the good of the world’s citizens and climate.
Market forces and big business have resulted in the worst of both worlds — high cost of fuel and a climate that is getting precipitously warmer. After this, I find it hard to understand how anyone can believe that the marketplace can solve the big problems we face.