The Politically Correct Climate Debate by Don H. Meredith ©
(first published in the February 2007 Alberta Outdoorsmen)
This information age in which we live always surprises me with its contradictions. Like most information hounds, I was looking forward to how the Internet and other modern forms of mass communication would keep the world informed about issues and hopefully unite many to work for common goals. Of course, I hoped that would include some concrete action on conserving our wild heritage. Alas as it turns out, easy access to mass information often isolates as much as unites. It seems when faced with overwhelming amounts of information, people tend to pick and choose their sources and ignore much information that might be relevant to the decisions they make.
A case in point is the debate that has been occurring over the last few years about climate change or global warming. I have heard about this issue for over 30 years now. Back in the early 1970s, I remember attending a university seminar in which a prominent professor mentioned as an aside to his presentation about the boreal forest that carbon dioxide levels in the earth's atmosphere had been increasing over the last century or so, in lock-step with the industrial revolution. At that time, not much research about the consequences of such increases had been done, but he believed the consequences could be serious, especially for the forests of the world.
In the intervening years, this concern did indeed grow and serious scientific studies were undertaken to document the changes that were occurring. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important component of our planet's atmosphere and helps retain in that atmosphere the heat that is transmitted daily to the earth from the sun. Without CO2 and other so-called "greenhouse gases", the earth would be a very cold place indeed. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is regulated by a complex system of physical and biological processes that cycles carbon from the atmosphere to plant and animal tissues and back into the atmosphere again. When we humans discovered a cheap source of energy in the fossil carbon found in coal, oil and natural gas, we began releasing additional amounts of carbon into the air in the form of CO2 and other gases. The result has been a steady increase in world temperatures, which in turn is changing climates around the globe. These consequences are documented scientific facts, listed for those who care to investigate them on the web sites of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Environment Canada, the United Nations, just to name a few (since the writing of this column, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its summary report confirming human influence on climate change). The studies cited by these organizations are published in peer-reviewed scientific journals that take great pains to ensure the research is sound and reported fairly. However, you don't need to be a climate or any other type of scientist to observe the climate is changing. It's reported almost daily in the news media in terms of melting polar ice caps, retreating glaciers, rising sea levels advancing timberlines in the mountains and in the North, and unusually severe weather and wildfire events around the globe.
It should be noted here that I am distinguishing "climate" from "weather". "Weather" refers to the state of the atmosphere at any one place and time. "Climate" refers to the prevailing state of the atmosphere in a region over a period of time. Therefore, a current warm or cold snap in one particular location does not necessarily indicate climate change. It may be part of the normal variation we have in our weather from one year to the next. However, a series of such changes over time, and especially if there is an overall trend, may indeed indicate climate change. What has been observed and well documented over the last few decades is the worldwide change in climate and the relationship of this change to the increase in human-generated greenhouse gases.
So if the scientific information is so good, why is there still such vigorous debate? I believe it has a lot to do with political correctness. The problem with climate change is that it may require governments to set news rules and regulations that will restrict what industry and individuals can do in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Small "l" liberals tend not to mind government intervention if there is a good reason for it, and have been more accepting of climate change information. On the other hand, small "c" conservatives tend to oppose government intervention into citizens' lives and oppose any action on climate change, some to the extent that they deny climate change is occurring at all, or if it is, that it is not the result of human-generated greenhouse gases. It has not helped that some corporations, with a stake in the outcome if restrictions are imposed, have hired "professional deniers" to dig up questionable anti-climate-change information, and ignore the rigorous research of the established scientists.
The result of all this hype and selective information gathering has been that many people have taken sides based on their political beliefs and not on the science. Othersthe vast majority of Canadianshave just been confused by the rhetoric.
So what does climate change mean to the Alberta outdoors person? We are already seeing a lot of changes. For example, because of our warmer atmosphere, much of the precipitation that used to fall on the province now falls farther east. As a result, much of Alberta is getting drier and our glaciersthe ultimate source of much of our river and ground water, are shrinking. What that means for our fisheries is yet to be seen, but many lake and river levels are dropping. However, those concerns may pale in comparison to the effect of water shortages on our overall economy.
As an example of what is happening in our forests, it can be argued that the recent destructive invasion of pine beetles into the province is a result of climate change. In the past, these beetles had difficulty entering the province because they could not withstand too many days in a row of temperatures below minus 40 degrees. Over the last few years, we have had few days in this province below -40, let alone a series of such days. What this invasion means for our forests is yet to be seen but the forests will change. As habitats change, we will see changes in the populations of our game species. Some will adapt and others will not.
What should be done? Fortunately, our governments are beginning to wake up to the problem. Although the federal Conservatives appeared to be in a state of denial, the train-wreck of their recent Clean Air Act may have brought them to face reality. The recent statements by the new Environment Minister are encouraging. We here in Alberta are in a unique position. Although we are responsible for much of the fossil fuel production in the country, the wealth we have obtained from that production provides us with an opportunity to take a leadership role in developing new technologies and strategies to reduce carbon emissions. This need not be a hardship if governments cooperate with industry to achieve a common goala sustainable environment. Do we have the will to rise above political correctness and join the rest of the world in looking for solutions? Only time will tell.
© Don H. Meredith 2007 Any reproduction of this work, in whole or part, in any media is prohibited unless expressly granted by the author. For more information, see the copyright notice.