by Kim Petersen
November 1, 2003
We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.
-- Albert Einstein
In the wake of Hurricane Juan, many people in the eastern Canadian port city of Halifax emerged from days of blackout and the extirpation of many trees. Hurricane Juan was a storm devastatingly unlike any other in recent memory. But was Hurricane Juan a freak? The number of storm systems making their way up from the tropical Caribbean is increasing and this year might be a record-breaker according to the Canadian Hurricane Centre.
The Canadian Hurricane Centre states: “The last 10 years have been the busiest of any decade on record for Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes.”
Preceding the hurricanes up north is some of that tropical warmth; Haligonians have been basking in an unusually balmy September and October. It points at global warming as the culprit. With last winter’s snowy blizzards and Hurricane Juan still fresh in memory, the downsides of global warming are all too apparent.
Gary Lines, spokesman for climate change at Environment Canada, cautions that several aspects need to be understood in relating hurricane activity to global warming. “In the case of tropical cyclones the historical frequency varies,” says Mr. Lines. The variable historical record renders scientists unable to quantify unequivocally the trends in hurricane activity.
“One thing we can say is that society as a whole is becoming increasingly vulnerable. The suspicion is that these events are on the increase.”
Mr. Lines says that climatologists cannot extrapolate climate trends from any one event. However, what can be said according to Mr. Lines is that “variability is becoming more and more impacted by anthropogenic factors.” On whether storms of exceedingly catastrophic proportions will become more prevalent, he iterates that the evidence is not categorical but that scientific studies by intergovernmental panels support this contention.
Eco-activist Robert Hunter in his book 2030: Confronting Thermogeddon in our Lifetime relates on how the breakdown in the climate regulatory system has led to a plethora of weather-related disasters including increased storm activity.
So what does global warming portend for Canada and the rest of the world?
Off Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Artic, the ablation of the over three-millennia-old Ward Hunt Ice Shelf is tangible evidence of climate-change processes already underway. Aside from rising sea levels and an inundated coastline, an Artic thaw may have implications for Canadian sovereignty in the North. An editorial from the Edmonton Journal reports that an ice-free Northwest Passage may lead to it being declared an international waterway with increased traffic.
British Columbia’s southern interior was beset by a hotter and dryer summer than usual this year. The bone-dry conditions primed the arboreal cover for forest fires that caused extensive damage and the evacuation of many residents.
Trees serve as a sink for carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that impacts global warming, while the burning of trees conversely releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The unprecedented BC forest fires emitted prodigious quantities of greenhouse gas that could itself be a self-perpetuating phenomenon warns University of Northern BC forestry professor Scott Green. “You have the potential for a tremendous amount of carbon being put back into the atmosphere. And this carbon can be a driver for the cycle of global warming.”
“An increase in fire and hotter fires could certainly increase the rate at which we might expect carbon-driven warming to take place.”
The huge wildfires have ramifications for Canada’s international environmental obligations. Under the Kyoto Accord, Canada is committed to limit greenhouse gas emissions at 6 percent below its 1990 levels. Forests play a key role in this process.
To add to the interior’s summer wildfire woes, British Columbia has been hit a double whammy; now the lower mainland is contending with the worst flooding in a century. This is further fodder for the evidence mill that the world’s climate regulatory mechanism is out of whack.
Time is of the essence. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho of the Institute of Science in Society says that computer modeling demonstrates that climate change can occur abruptly.
“The recent rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide simply has no geological precedence in the known history of our earth,” states Dr. Ho. “A newly published study from the University of East Anglia’s climatic research unit confirms that since 1980, we have been experiencing the hottest climate for the past 2000 years.”
It could very well be that global warming is a self-perpetuating system. The disintegrating polar ice shelves not only will raise ocean levels but also possibly affect currents and contribute to global warming. Dr. Ho points out that recent years show the polar seas are increasingly fresher while tropical waters exhibit higher salinity because of accelerated evaporation. Notes Dr. Ho: “Water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas, which would contribute to further warming, a positive feedback that could precipitate abrupt change.”
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien committed Canada to the Kyoto Accord. The fear is that his successor Paul Martin, playing to western Canadian political interests, will bend to the oil-industry, which vehemently opposes the Kyoto Accord as it now stands. This would imperil future generations something understood by an identical 74 percent of Canadian respondents in two polls released in late 2002 that indicate support for the Kyoto Accord.
The Premier of the province of Alberta, Ralph Klein, and his oil industry friends may disagree, but the scientific community is solidly on record that the Earth is warming and steps are required to reverse the process or face catastrophic consequences.
As quoted by Mr. Hunter, science writer Lydia Dotto makes the straightforward case:
The obsession with whether we’ve already seen the human signature is puzzling in some ways. After all, there is no question that human activities emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, or that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are increasing as a result, or that greenhouse gases cause warming. Therefore, logically, there is no question that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are currently increasing every year, we know that their climate influence is bound to grow.
While there is insufficient historical data to draw a link between an increasing frequency of hurricane activity and global warming, Mr. Lines is convinced of global warming. There is strong evidence “in at least maritime Canada” although the exception of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador is noted.
“There is no doubt that we see increased global warming and more greenhouse gas emissions.” That Newfoundland and Labrador do not evince global warming merely points out that it “is not a globally uniform phenomenon.”
“Ratification of the Kyoto Accord is an important step forward. Admittedly it is a small step. In and of itself, there must be further movement and further reduction.”
Mr. Lines identifies the need to deal with climate change issues on two fronts: 1) mitigation of greenhouse gas, and 2) adaptation to changes that will occur from greenhouse gases already released into the atmosphere.
MIT professor Noam Chomsky cautions:
“Well, the environmental problems are simply much more significant in scale than anything else in the past. And there’s a fair possibility -- certainly a possibility high enough so that no rational person would exclude it -- that within a couple of hundred years the world’s water levels will have risen to the point that most of human life will have been destroyed. Alright, if we don’t do something about that now, its not impossible that that’ll happen. In fact, it’s even likely.” (Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, eds. Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel, New Press, 2002, p. 401)
Kim Petersen lives in Nova Scotia and is a regular contributor to Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be reached at: email@example.com