Thoughts and balance on climate change

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submitted by Ed Norman

Recent NG Times articles and letters regarding climate change are a microcosm of a broader discussion. In any controversy, media discussion tends to polarize the issue, and climate change is no exception. Those most concerned about climate view global warming skeptics as “deniers”, stereotyping them as scientifically ignorant, dupes of big oil, and unconcerned about the future of the planet. Those who doubts climate change theory, or who feel the issue is overblown, view proponents of radical changes as “alarmists”, exaggerating the truth, frightening children, and promoting a globalist agenda.

As usual for polarized issues, the reality is somewhere in the middle, between these two extremes. To explore the issue calmly and to seek the truth of the matter, I offer four questions for readers’ consideration, along with some commentary:

  1. Is the climate changing and the world getting warmer?
    The short answer is yes, but. The climate is indeed changing, but then it is always changing somehow. The climate is a complex interplay of various influences, which is never in equilibrium. The world has indeed been getting warmer for the past century, but not continually, and not more so than past changes. Better to ask whether the rate of warming has increased since humans began pumping lots of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. There the evidence says probably yes, but it depends on which data is analyzed, and how.
  2. If so, are we humans causing the changes?
    Having read about this from various perspectives, I judge that we are causing 50% +/-40% of any warming effects seen; i.e. somewhere between 10 and 90%. That rather cynical answer should satisfy almost everyone (and thus no one), but probably represents the reality of what we know for certain. To attribute all global warming to human CO2 emissions is overly simplistic. Many factors affect climate, and there are several reasons for warming. Some of them are better understood than others, and no one can claim to understand them all well enough to predict the future with any certainty. Computer climate model predictions for the past two decades were all over the place, and mostly wrong, expecting more warming than has actually occurred.
  3. Is climate change and a warmer planet bad?
    Doubtless yes for many people, but others will surely benefit. There are arguments both ways. Some of the feared effects, such as extreme sea-level rise, increased major storms, widespread floods, droughts, famine and disease, are less certain than the temperature rise itself. Moreover, many plants grow better with higher CO2 levels. We might also ask, when in the past (and on what basis) was the climate deemed “optimum”? It is unreasonable to expect an unchanging climate simply because we are used to today’s version. Historically, warming periods were considered generally beneficial. Clearly any changes will have both positive and negative effects.
  4. Finally, is there anything we can do about it?
    One might be cynical about this, given the track record of global policy agreements and accountability. And most people seem unwilling to make even simple lifestyles changes. With such political and personal inertia, even heroic calls for change may have minimal impact. Moreover, Canada is a small player when it comes to global CO2 emissions.

Despite this pessimism, there are hopeful signs that change over time is possible. Technology shifts, such as electric vehicles, renewable energy sources, carbon sequestration, and conservation measures, will help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Various cities around the world have already successfully reduced their CO2 emissions. Eventually oil reserves will run out and we will be forced to use alternatives. There are precedents for mankind making technology shifts, but they do take time.

In the ongoing debate, both extremes have made false or misleading statements, which do not help the public. Sea levels are unlikely to rise more than a foot in the next century, and the computer models have overestimated recent warming trends. Not every hurricane, drought or snowstorm that happens can be attributed to “climate change”. On the other hand, the world is indeed slowly getting warmer and some of that is undoubtedly due to human activity. Some aspects of climate change are real, and as we learn more, we need to develop mitigation plans and adjustments, especially to help poorer nations and the natural environment cope with the effects.

I also believe that many of the practical suggestions offered to limit emissions and mitigate the effects of warming are good to implement, regardless of where one stands on the climate change issue. Individuals, municipalities and nations can all do their part for the environment. We know about the four R’s: reject, reduce, reuse and recycle. Renewable energy approaches will continue to expand, once we have practical energy storage schemes. Reforestation and other conservation measures are important, as are efficiency improvements for industry. Ultimately, people and especially governments must learn to live within their means. Good stewardship of the world around us should be possible without massive economic impacts, or heavy-handed government controls.

In summary, global warming and climate change are real and at least partly due to human activity, but the sky is not falling and the world will not end soon. There are actions we can take personally and corporately to reduce our environmental impacts, and to become wiser and better stewards of the resources around us. I probably won’t make friends from either extreme of this issue, but maybe these questions and comments will help us understand each other better and even come to a true consensus of what we should be doing together.

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