The climate change conundrum

Scientists are in agreement: Climate change is happening and the consequences could be dire. So why aren’t we doing more about it?

by Sylvain Comeau

When Hurricane Sandy battered the U.S. east coast last fall, many environmentalists were quick to point to the disaster as evidence of global warming. Famed activist David Suzuki called it “a glimpse into our future.”

Chris Green: “My personal focus is that climate change is essentially an energy/technology problem, and a very difficult one to solve.” (Photo: Owen Egan)

Most scientists tend to be more circumspect, even as they issue warnings about the global climate change phenomenon.

“When it comes to individual events like [Hurricane Sandy], it's impossible to ascribe them, scientifically speaking, to climate change,” says emeritus professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences Jacques Derome, BSc’63, MSc’64.

Scientists try to keep their focus on the big picture, Derome adds. “[The research on] climate change tells us something about the statistics of how things might change in the future. Those statistics may tell us that events like this might occur more often. As the climate and the oceans get warmer, storms become more likely. Climate change research is all about probabilities and statistics – it’s not about specific events.”

However, researchers readily acknowledge that extreme weather garners headlines, and brings the reality of climate change home to the average person in a forceful way.

“Events like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and the European heat waves, show us just how vulnerable we can be,” says James Ford, the head of McGill’s Climate Change Adaptation Research Group. “In developed nations, we have had a belief that we are somehow insulated from the climate, but these events show us that assumption is false.”

Ford and his team examine the effects of climate change on Canadian northern communities. “What is happening in the Arctic is definitely an early warning,” he says.

“If global warming goes over two degrees Celsius, we say that will be indicative of dangerous climate change. Where I work in the Arctic, temperatures have already increased by about five degrees Celsius in the past 30 years. We are talking about very visible impacts; climate change in the Arctic is a reality, it is happening now.”

The warming trend endangers the food security of Inuit and other communities, and it is not difficult to project similar long term effects on much larger populations.

“In the Arctic, we are talking about 55,000 people, and the stresses are already quite significant,” says Ford. “When you take a global view and make projections, we can see likely impacts in hot spots like Asia, for example, where billions of people are dependent on local agriculture. These people will be vulnerable to droughts.”

The most pressing danger is not rising temperatures, but the speed at which it is occurring.

“Islands or parts of continents may be flooded,” says Derome. “We are likely to see whole populations being displaced.”

Derome says there is little serious debate at this point over the existence of climate change. “Today there is a very wide consensus among scientists. There are still a few doubters here and there, but it’s a very small minority. At this point, it's not a theory anymore – no more than evolution. Both have basically become accepted facts.”

But while global warming trends are becoming increasingly urgent, many scientists express frustration at the glacial pace at which their research results are being translated into public policy. Government action remains the persistently missing piece to the puzzle.

“Climate change may be at the top of some politicians’ agendas, but certainly not in Canada – far from it,” says Derome.

Elena Bennett: “I hope to teach students how to tell good information from bad.” (Photo: Owen Egan

“We have essentially reneged on the Kyoto Protocol. The Harper government also cut funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, which funded climate change research for 10 years.”

Those funding cuts spelled the end for the Climate Variability Network, once led by Derome.

“It is quite frustrating for scientists,” he says. “We are preaching in the desert.”

So, what is a scientist to do?

If you’re Lawrence Mysak, an emeritus professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, you seize every opportunity that comes your way. Spotting federal Liberal MP Marc Garneau on a train last year, Mysak approached him to come to McGill to talk about the role of science in society.

“I have taken to giving more and more public lectures on climate change – these have generally been very successful and engaging, and from them I hope the general public can put pressure on their MPs and MNAs,” says Mysak, the former president of the Royal Society of Canada’s Academy of Science. “We can also write op-ed letters. I have done this in the past and now my former students and their students are doing this very successfully.”

Mysak was recently involved in research that garnered plenty of media attention. The study noted that warmer temperatures in Canada were resulting in a shortened season for outdoor hockey rinks in many parts of the country. It pointed to the effects of global warming in a manner that couldn’t help but draw attention in a hockey-mad country.

Mysak says the study was “fun and worth doing” and he references it in the public talks he presents on climate change. “But we still need to [focus on] basic research, to keep our field moving forward.”

Elena Bennett, an assistant professor of natural resources sciences, believes scientists have a responsibility “to translate their research for use by politicians and other stakeholders,” adding, “there are lots of people making decisions that affect the world and the environment who aren’t politicians.

“To my mind, this means trying to understand the perspective of those stakeholders and how to make the message meaningful for them while accurately reflecting science.”

One of the best ways that university researchers can affect change is in the classroom, she says. “I hope to teach students how to tell good information from bad, how to tell when science is respectable [and] how to interpret the spin in a newspaper story.”

Researchers insist that governments can’t ignore climate change for long because it will have an impact on every aspect of our lives. For example, the issue can’t be uncoupled from the number one concern of most politicians: the economy.

“Economists started to get interested in climate change at the very end of the eighties,” says Chris Green, an economics professor affiliated with the McGill School of Environment. “My personal focus is that climate change is essentially an energy/technology problem, and a very difficult one to solve.”

In fact, Green doesn’t view a lack of political will as the principal stumbling block to tackling climate change.

“The notion that we can just do away with coal, oil and gas is preposterous,” he argues. “Barring a future technological revolution, we are not close to doing so.” Green says, “fossil fuels dominate for a reason,” and that heavily touted environmentally sound alternatives aren’t yet capable of meeting our energy needs. “For example, we have no way of storing solar and wind power on a mass scale,” he stresses.

“If you end up constricting the use of fossil fuels without having good substitutes, then the economy will suffer. What we need are ways of financing the technological race, and that part would not be difficult. You could start very low; a five dollar carbon tax, for example. It would raise enormous amounts of money for research – roughly $30 billion per year in the U.S., and $3 billion in Canada. The solution is not political will, or who is in power at the moment. We need heavy investment in long term research and development.”

If there is one bright spot when it comes to government action, it is in the area of adaptation, says James Ford. An increasing cadre of researchers have been directing their efforts toward the human side of the equation; specifically, what strategies human communities, large and small, can take to adapt to the effects of climate change.

Federal departments such as Natural Resources Canada, Health Canada, and Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, have adaptation programs in place, but most of the real progress is at the provincial and municipal level.

"Canada has lagged behind on mitigation, but was an early leader when it comes to the adaptation side of the equation," Ford says.

Still, many of the McGill scientists working in the area wish that climate change and its related environmental challenges occupied a much higher position on policymakers’ to-do lists.

“I think that people simply don’t know what to do about it,” says Nigel Roulet, director of McGill’s Global, Environmental and Climate Change Centre. “I think people throw up their hands because the problem is too big to deal with. And it's certainly not amenable to being solved within four-year election cycles. With our political structures, we are not very good at long-term planning, which is really what is required.”

Still, Roulet offers proof that research can have an impact. He was one of the scientists who contributed to the much-cited Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an effort that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

“Environmental problems often seem to happen slowly – at least at first,” says Bennett, “so perhaps we are like the proverbial frog in the pot, not realizing that the water is heating around us.”

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