Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

The Beetle and the Feedback

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

September 12, 2010

The valleys of the Interior of British Columbia are like slashes in the earth’s skin — deep, steep, dramatic, falling precipitously into dark, narrow lakes. The landscape looks like frozen violence, the product of a time when tectonic plates collided, their edges crumpling and folding under the unimaginable force of crustal jockeying.

But the violence is not frozen, and the jockeying is not over. The plates are still moving. Their sudden shifts are earthquakes, and their vents are volcanoes. These mountains and valleys are part of a stupendous “Ring of Fire” that surrounds the entire Pacific Ocean.

We think of geology as finished, complete, the world having been made ready for its masters. But geology is never finished. Nature is always a work in progress. On our recent trip, Marjorie and I enjoyed the hot springs of Ainsworth and Nakusp. What heats that water? The hell-fires in the basement of the mountains.

The slopes of these valleys should be a uniform swath of green: spruce and fir, pine and cedar. In 2010, however, great rusty smudges on the mountainsides mark the corpses of vast numbers of dead trees. British Columbia is suffering from a massive mountain pine beetle infestation, and more than a billion of its trees have died. The infestation stretches south to Colorado and east to Alberta.

The villainous beetle is a little black bug about the size of a grain of rice. It lays its eggs under the bark of pine trees, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the white phloem layer under the bark, cutting off the tree’s supply of water and nutrients. The beetle does have predators — woodpeckers, for instance — but the predators have been overwhelmed by the sheer size of the infestation.

The factor that normally controls the beetle population is cold weather. For the last decade, however, even the normally-cold Interior has had mild winters, while the summers have been sizzling. Marjorie and I spent 21 broiling days in BC last month, and the alleged rainforest gave us only one day of rain. This is thoroughly novel. BC’s summers used to be warm but moist.

This is climate change in action. And here’s the kicker: BC’s forests have normally been a huge sink for carbon, sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and sequestering its carbon within the trees. When trees die, however, they slowly but inexorably release all that stored CO2.

The shocking result is that BC’s forests have not only stopped absorbing carbon, they’re now emitting it — and on a huge scale. Last year, the carbon emissions from the dying forests were larger than all the human emissions in BC — and roughly double the size of the emissions from the Alberta tar sands.

This is a positive feedback loop — an outcome that amplifies the original cause. Emissions change the climate, and the changed climate creates even more emissions. The result is a self-feeding, intensifying spiral. There’s a feedback loop in the Arctic, where ice cover has normally reflected the sun’s heat back into space. As the ice shrinks, the dark water absorbs heat, and the remaining ice shrinks ever faster.

Another feedback loop is the ice-and-gas crystals known as “clathrates,” which exist at the bottom of the sea and form the permafrost in some parts of the Arctic. Clathrates sequester methane gas, which is more than 20 times as potent a climate-warming agent as carbon dioxide. As temperatures rise, however, clathrates disintegrate and the methane escapes into the atmosphere, driving up the temperatures.

The eventual result of such feedback loops, scientists hypothesize, could be runaway global warming, where feedback loops keep reinforcing one another and the process becomes self-fuelling and irreversible, speeding up like a snowball rolling down a hill.

If it can’t be stopped, it would be smarter not to start it. The emissions caused by the pine beetle were a shock to scientists — but who knows what other high-risk feedback loops we may be creating? Human civilization evolved over the past 10,000 years, nurtured by a period of uncharacteristically stable and temperate climate. For us, this hospitable climate is utterly indispensable. We should treat it with reverential care.

– 30 –

True Unbelievers

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

February 21, 2010

Where does the vitriol come from?

Last week, I wrote about the implosion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and about what I called “the touching faith of some climate-change critics that if they can just convince enough people that the whole thing is a hoax, then that will be reality, and we can get back to business as usual.” Alas, I said, ‘t ain’t so. Natural processes are impervious to human opinions.

Some readers went ballistic.

An Annapolis Valley reader declared that he had previously “’sensed’ MAYBE you were one of only a few North American journalists to have the gonads to speak a little truth, among the foolishness that permeates our mainstream media…Alas, the editors at the Herald must have finally trumped you, and actually got you to state that there REALLY COULD BE truth behnd the concept of human caused climate change. Wow, what a sad sellout this was. Truely disturbing to the core… you are throwing support behind an idea created and perpetuated by international criminals… It is a sad day when Silver Don sells out.”

Gosh. Actually, I’m eager to sell out, but I’ve never found a buyer. If you know people that I might sell out to, please ask them to call. I prefer cash, but annuities, bonds, real estate, luxury yachts and fine automobiles will all be considered.

From another reader who similarly accused me — along with Gwynne Dyer — of selling out, I asked for an explanation of why Dyer or I would consciously promote untruth. Even if we were hopelessly corrupt, what were we getting out of it? A fat stipend from a windmill manufacturer? Secret cheques from Al Gore?

A third reader revealed that “a small group of politicians and scientists have forced a ‘false reality’ on the world and have thwarted (falsified, denigrated) the hard work of many responsible scientists (i.e. ‘the skeptics’) from even bringing these facts to light…. You are now on the same side as the false reality makers. Is that where you want to be?”

Ah. Once more, evil people are manipulating public affairs in pursuit of their own ends. But why? And what are those ends?

Look, I replied, despite the rot at the IPCC, many eminent and honest scientists do believe that climate change is real, that humans are responsible for much of it, and that its impact may be catastrophic. If they are right, and we don’t take action, many people will die. If they’re wrong, and we do take action, we’ll spend a lot of money on things that will still be useful, like restoring forests, reducing our fossil fuel consumption, and cleaning up our air quality which is already killing people. Is that bad?

Expensive? We spill torrents of money on failed banks and automakers, and on wars. Why cavil at spending on changes that would unquestionably be beneficial, whatever the truth about climate change?

My favourite reader response was this:

“Your a liar and full of sh*t, if you were with-in reach right now I’d slap you. Many names on the IPCC reports are there fraudulently, they don’t agree, many more have no more knowledge of Climate than my Cat and are not climatologists. It’s not just a few scientists either, it’s every single one that has any ties to this scam, they are all fraudsters. Sorry you fell for the scam., but buddy I’ve followed this since before Mo strong first came up with the scam to create the IPCC and gave the UN nod to WWF and others to spread the lie.

“Your an idiot or a fool, period. CO2 does not effect temps, temps effect CO2. IMO you should all be jailed and have your assets seized and sold off by the Governments to repay the citizens who have already been scammed out of billions.”

Wonderful. Imitating Stephen Leacock, I wrote:

Dear Sir:

I thought it would be a kindness to let you know that a lunatic is writing abusive messages on your computer, and is sending them out to people over your signature. You may want to take action to put a stop to this.

Best regards,

– 30 —

Manufacturing Reality

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

February 14, 2010

“It sounds silly when you say it out loud,” said Ram Myers, “but they seemed to have a notion that you could sit in Ottawa and make up reality. If you could enforce a scientific consensus, that would be reality.”

That’s Dr. Ransom A. Myers, Dalhousie University’s late, great, and sorely-missed marine biologist, talking about the federal bureaucrats who “gruesomely mangled and corrupted” the research of their own scientists, to quote an internal DFO report, and thus allowed three imperilled groundfish stocks to be fished almost to extinction.

Ram Myers’ comment has echoed in my mind since the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change began imploding in the blizzard of compromising emails that escaped from the University of East Anglia in December. That episode was followed by the disclosure that several findings in the IPCC’s report of 2007 were based on faulty evidence.

These were not trivial findings. One was the widely-reported prediction that, based on current trends, the glaciers of the Himalayas would melt away by 2035. Since Asia’s nine largest rivers arise in those glaciers, the result would have been a nightmare sequence of catastrophic flooding and lethal droughts for the one billion people who live downstream.

But the prediction was based on anecdotes, not on peer-reviewed science — and it was “so wrong that it’s not worth discussing,” says Georg Kaser, a leading Austrian glaciologist who flagged the error before the report was issued, and was dumbfounded to find it in the text. Maybe part of the reason is that the head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, also heads a New Delhi research group that has scooped up millions of dollars in grants to study the melting of the Himalayan glaciers.

The IPCC’s scientists now stand accused of shabby science, selective reporting, naked self-interest and the intimidation of skeptics. And of course the climate change skeptics are all over the issue: See? These guys are liars and cheaters and thieves — and therefore, climate change is all humbug.

Not so fast, bub. To begin with, the IPCC report was written by 620 scientists from 40 countries, and only a few have been impugned. Georg Kaser himself was a lead author of the section of the report dealing with the physical science of climate change. Despite the furor, Kaser says the report’s central contention that climate change is an established reality and a major threat is absolutely sound.

What reminds me of Ram Myers is the touching faith of some climate-change critics that if they can just convince enough people that the whole thing is a hoax, then that will be reality, and we can get back to business as usual. I’d love to believe it, but it’s nonsense. Somewhere out there, beyond all the noise and clamour, the real world is evolving according to its own nature, no matter what we may hope, wish or believe.

I listen to Gwynne Dyer, who travels the world investigating the military implications of climate change. “When you talk to the people at the sharp end of the climate business, scientists and policy-makers alike,” Dyer writes, “there is an air of suppressed panic in many of the conversations. We are not going to get through this without taking a lot of casualties.”

I listen to Jim Lovelock, a towering figure in earth science, who concedes the possibility that the skeptics are right and that global warming is an illusion — but whose observations suggest that global heating is happening much faster than expected. For example, he says, the great global heat sink is the sea. When the sea gets warm, it expands, and sea level rises. Well, sea level is rising faster than predicted, so the sea is absorbing a lot of heat. That’s an observation, not an opinion.

How do we deal with all these uncertainties? In 2007, a young Oregon science teacher named Greg Craven reviewed the options in a little YouTube presentation called “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See.” His conclusion? Acting to counter the risks of climate change will certainly cost a lot of money, perhaps needlessly. But failing to act could very well cost a lot of lives. How hard a decision is that?

– 30 —

Gaia’s Spokesman

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

January 24, 2010

“It’s important for Gaia that human beings survive,” says James Lovelock. “Our intelligence, if it can be integrated as part of the whole planetary system, would make ours the first intelligent planet in the galaxy, perhaps. What a wonderful future for humans!”

A great scientist needs great courage and a great imagination and Jim Lovelock has both, in spades. It is now 40 years since he rattled the scientific world and electrified the rest of us by publishing Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979), which argued that the earth behaves like a single living organism that creates and maintains a viable environment for life.

The Gaia hypothesis — named for the Greek earth goddess– implied that the world was far more complex than modern reductionist science had imagined. It offered a coherent vision of the whole living world that echoed all our wisdom traditions, and renewed the human sense of wonder.

Mainstream scientists were horrified. Many still are. But Lovelock’s bold insights, and his continuing exploration of their implications, became the foundations of “earth system science,” the study of systems like the circulation of the oceans, the maintenance of the atmosphere and the relationships among the earth’s many systems. Noted author Gwynne Dyer considers Lovelock “the most important figure in both the life sciences and the climate sciences for the past half-century,” and compares his achievements to Darwin’s.

Slight, cheerful and white-haired, Lovelock is now 90 years old, though he looks decades younger. He published a new book last year, The Vanishing Face of Gaia. He and his American-born wife Sandy spend their summers in Devon, England, and their winters in her home town of St. Louis, Missouri, where I came calling one brilliant January morning.

Lovelock resembles a geologist in his easy navigation of the vastness of deep time, but he recalls the Enlightenment sages in his assumption that science is a single enterprise, artificially split into disciplines. He has been self-employed as a freelance scientist and instrument-maker for 50 years, largely because of “silly people who would say to me, ‘you can’t do biology, you’re a chemist.’ As if I didn’t have a brain.”

Freedom from institutional politics allowed him to indulge his preference for observation over computer modelling, and permitted him to follow the evidence fearlessly wherever it led. In 2007 he was “shocked” to learn that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had “reached a consensus on a matter of science.” Science is about nature. Consensus is about politics.

So where has the evidence led him lately?

Sea level, Arctic ice cover and ocean algae populations, he says, are the best indicators of global warming and they all reveal that the earth is heating up much faster than the IPCC’s projections. Furthermore, the evidence from the earth’s last hot period, 55 million year ago, shows that global temperatures don’t necessarily change slowly and evenly; they can flip fairly quickly to hotter or colder states. On that early occasion, most of the earth became a scorching desert. Life retreated to the shores of an Arctic Ocean with surface temperature of 21C, where crocodiles lived and bred.

Lovelock thinks that’s the kind of world we’re creating — and because of our essentially tribal politics, our efforts to avoid it will likely fail. Since a less habitable earth won’t sustain a global population of seven billion, populations will crash. Human beings should plan a “sustainable retreat” to the Arctic region. Canadians should prepare for hordes of people trying to relocate to northern Canada.

Is this inevitable? No, says Lovelock. Gaia is far more complex than we understand, and we do not even know the depth of our ignorance. A scientist can only say that this nightmare scenario is probable. But we should prepare for it now, while the world is still a reasonably civilized place. The real horror would be if our species survived, but its finest achievements were lost — science, art, culture. Lovelock believes we could be the evolutionary ancestors of an intelligent post-tribal species that will serve an aging Gaia as her consciousness.

This is a colossal vision of tragedy and redemption. Lovelock smiles.

“Gaia needs us,” he says. “What a wonderful future for humans!”

– 30 —

In Dyer Straits

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

November 15, 2009

As a writer and analyst, Gwynne Dyer’s greatest strength — disregarding his formidable intelligence — is his ruthless realism, his relentlessness in pursuing a body of evidence or an argument to its inevitable conclusion, however disquieting that may be.

And his most recent book, Climate Wars (Random House, $34.99) is a disquieting volume indeed.

Most climate change books describe the impacts on the planet in geophysical terms — melting glaciers, rising sea levels, expanding deserts, more hurricanes. But the planet is not just a ball of land and water. It’s also a quilt of societies and nations that will be individually affected, with unpredictable results. Perhaps Mexicans starve and Siberians thrive, while the sea covers Holland and Bangladesh.

Their people won’t go quietly. Dyer — who spoke last week at Dalhousie University’s new College of Sustainability — is an expert on war, and his departure point is his realization that the first major effect of climate change will be “an acute and permanent crisis of food supply.” Countries that can’t feed their people “are unlikely to be ‘reasonable’ about it.” Northern European countries, for instance, may have enough food for themselves, but nothing to share. If the starving countries of southern Europe and Africa have nuclear weapons, the outlook is grim.

Military planners everywhere are already reviewing such scenarios, says Dyer, having visited leading international scientists, soldiers, bureaucrats, scholars and politicians. The experience produced some sobering conclusions. First, only fools and rascals doubt that global heating is a reality — and it’s happening much faster than expected. If we don’t eliminate global emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050, the last half of this century will be almost unimaginable chaos.

Will we meet that ambitious target for 2050? Not likely, Dyer says. To do it, we’d have to be cutting emissions by 4% annually right now, but in fact emissions are increasing by 3% a year. The only way to hold temperatures down while emissions rise (thus preventing “runaway warming” that’s entirely beyond human control) is through “geo-engineering” — seeding the sea with iron to encourage plankton growth, seeding the clouds with mist or the stratosphere with hydrogen sulphide, to make them more reflective.

But geo-engineering is fraught with “moral hazard,” the risk that people will believe that geo-engineering is an alternative to slashing emissions. It’s not. Geo-engineering, Dyer argues, is just an umbrella to shield us from sunburn while we enable the earth to re-build its natural defences. It merely buys us time.

And we need time, because the greatest risk is a major failure of politics. We have wasted twenty remarkable years of relative international tranquillity. With luck, we may have twenty more. After that, Dyer believes, huge climate disasters could produce failed states, mass migrations of starving people, and vicious wars, both civil and international.

The catastrophic casualty in those wars will be the very possibility of global co-operation which is the only way to bring down emissions and contain global heating. That possibility dies in a world where India and Pakistan nuke it out over the feeble trickles remaining in their shared rivers, where Britain and Japan hunch behind nuclear shields, where an automated killing wall along the US-Mexican border provokes an internal insurrection from Hispanic Americans.

In this nightmare world of blood, radiation, disease, starvation and chaos — ungovernable, seething with demagogues and fuhrers and apocalyptic prophets — human beings will never agree on anything, ever. Their failure potentially leads to runaway global warming and a world as toxic as Venus.

But Gwynne Dyer is not fundamentally a prophet of doom. He believes that the risks are huge and real, and that our odds of sneaking through the environmental mine-fields are not good. But he notes that human beings have made great social progress over the past two centuries — democracy, education, the welfare state. He has watched humanity get through its “mid-term exam,” avoiding the risk of destroying civilization through nuclear war. The final exam is about our ability to salvage our world by exercising the adult virtues of self-restraint and co-operation.

We have, he thinks, “at least some chance of passing it. And how interesting the long future that stretches out beyond it will be, if we do pass.”

– 30 —

The Greening of the Taxman

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

“It is difficult to imagine a tax that actually improves our lives,” says Paul Hawken. “We are so battered by the insults of the existing system that we fail to see how creative are the alternatives.”

Hawken is a notable author, businessman and environmentalist who cuts to the heart of issues by framing them in a novel way. In The Ecology of Commerce, he argues that the problem with taxes is a design problem. Our tax system isn’t designed to recognize the true costs of human activities – so it punishes things we should encourage, and leads us to disregard the real environmental and social costs of our actions.

For example, we tax incomes, profits, sales, payrolls and savings – which suppresses jobs, savings, new investment and business formation. The tax system encourages everyone to cheat, and it is ferociously inefficient. The cost of accounting, administration, paperwork and waste may amount to 65 cents for every dollar collected.

But, says Hawken, look what would happen if we shifted our focus to products and processes, and placed heavy taxes on pollution, waste, energy consumption and the use of non-renewable resources. Instead of taxing things we value, like initiative and entrepreneurship, we would be taxing things we wanted to discourage. The tax would induce people and companies to make environmentally-sound choices.

In truth, green taxes simply send the correct signals about what things cost. Oil is unique, finite and irreplaceable. We should be using it as sparingly as possible. If it is priced appropriately – as a resource far too valuable to be burned, and also a fuel which pollutes and poisons – then people will use it carefully. Where possible, they’ll choose renewable energy sources instead.

Green fees could also help to conserve minerals, old-growth forests, clean air, clean water and many other vital resources. A carefully-designed green-tax regime would support business in doing what it does best – adapting, inventing and innovating, searching for lower costs and greater efficiencies. Every success would lower the corporate tax bill – and reduce environmental damage.

To succeed, green taxes need to be substantial. If the price of gasoline rises by 10 cents, not much will happen, because we’re used to small fluctuations. If it doubles or trebles, people will start looking for alternatives.

But surely the last thing we need is more taxation? Hawken agrees, arguing that the new green taxes should not be added to the existing system, but should replace it. As green taxes are phased in, taxes on incomes, profits, sales and the like should be phased out. The shift should be “revenue-neutral,”meaning that at the end of the process government would be collecting exactly the same amount, but from different sources.

Hawken’s example is a person earning $30,000 a year and paying $5600 in income taxes plus $1100 in energy costs. If we double his energy costs to $2200, but cut his income tax to $4500, his total bill is no higher – but now he has a powerful incentive to conserve energy and thus increase his net income.

Does a shift to green taxes represent an intolerable intrusion into the free market? Hardly. Markets are never free. They require a framework of legislation and regulation to ensure the fair and orderly conduct of business. Green taxes are essentially just a regulatory change, though a dramatic one.

Paul Hawken’s fundamental theme is that business has become the dominant institution on the planet, and is largely responsible for the ecological crisis – but business is also the only force with enough dynamism, creativity and energy to turn things around. The key to the whole human future is “restorative” business, the evolution of an economy which does not merely cease despoiling the world but finds a mission in repairing the damage.

Is he dreaming? Maybe not. Odd though it seems, corporate leaders are actually human. Like the rest of us, they have children and grandchildren. They drink the poisoned water, eat the pesticide-laced food and breathe the brown air. They too are beginning to see that radical change is our only hope.

Last week, incredibly, the pin-striped paleolithics of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives announced an “unprecedented consensus” that climate change is our “most pressing and daunting issue.” Furthermore, the CCCE members recognized that government should bring in emissions trading, and also institute green taxes to raise energy prices.

Ye gods. And three cheers.

So perhaps Hawken’s hopeful expectation of a leadership role for business will prove justified. He is, incidentally, one of the thinkers interviewed in The Eleventh Hour, Leonardo DiCaprio’s jet-propelled environmental documentary – and his message there is delightful.

“What a great time to be born!” he says. “What a great time to be alive! Because this generation gets to, essentially, completely change this world.”