Special Report: Climate Change

Changing the (Political) Climate

Climate change is not an us-and-them problem. When the very planet is at stake, there can only be us-and-us.

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 07, 2005

The Paradise ice caves at Mount Rainier, shown here in 1982, melted away by fall 1991. The Nisqually glacier has drawn back nine-tenths of a mile since early in the last century. Photo Credit: Gilbert W. Arias/Seattle Post-Intelligencer
The Paradise ice caves at Mount Rainier, shown here in 1982, melted away by fall 1991. The Nisqually glacier has drawn back nine-tenths of a mile since early in the last century. Photo Credit: Gilbert W. Arias/Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Facing the Challenge

Earlier this year, Raise the Hammer first learned about the worldwide Kyoto World Cities 20/20 Challenge, in which cities commit to reducing overall GHG emissions by 20 percent over 20 months.

Environment Hamilton is now taking the lead in starting a local, grassroots-based climate change action group for our city. The group is still in its earliest stages, but promises to raise the profile of a tremendous challenge that is too easily dismissed as either a fraud or a fait accompli.

Hamilton desperately needs an organization that is willing to take the issue seriously, raise its profile in a media environment dedicated to preserving the status quo, and offer real, tangible steps that individuals and local government can take to meet the challenge head-on instead of waiting passively with our heads in the sand.

Signs and Portents

The earth's climate is changing before our eyes.

During 2003, the glaciers that crest the Swiss Alps retreated by record amounts. None of the glaciers remained stationary, and some retreated as much as 150 metres. Swiss Academy of Natural Sciences explained, "These observations should not be associated directly with the extreme summer heat," and "the length of the glaciers reacts with a delay to the change in climate."

The United States Northwest is also experiencing warmer average weather. Shorter ski seasons meet up with more and fiercer forest fires, worse flooding, and reduced water supplies across long, hot summers. Some glaciers have disappeared completely, and many others are shrinking by the year.

At the same time, the Gulf Stream is weakening. The Gulf Stream, a mass of warm water that brings warm water from the tropical Atlantic up the North American east coast and across to northern Europe, is largely responsible for Britain being more habitable than Siberia. According to Peter Wadhams, an ocean physics professor at Cambridge University, the Arctic Sea ice is thinning and the columns of cold, dense water that sink 2,700 metres below sea level and interact with the Gulf Stream have stopped forming. This is threatening the Gulf Stream and could actually make Britain significantly cooler in coming years, with shorter growing seasons and higher demand for heating fuels.

In the summer of 2005, scientists reported that the vast frozen peat bog of sub-Arctic western Siberia is rapidly thawing for the first time in 11,000 years. Frozen peat gradually absorbs and stores organic matter through a process called cryoturbation. As the permafrost thaws, it releases its pent-up organic matter as methane gas.

"I think it's just a time bomb, just waiting for a little warmer conditions."
-- Professor Vladimir Romanovsky

Sergei Kirpotin of Tomsk State University in Siberia and Judith Marquand at Oxford University, and warn that billions of tonnes of methane gas will be released over the next few decades, doubling atmospheric levels of the potent greenhouse gas and accelerating the rise in mean temperatures over this century.

Dr. Kirpotin called the thaw an "ecological landslide that is probably irreversible and is undoubtedly connected to climatic warming." Climate change scientists, long worried about such 'tipping points' where whole systems change abruptly instead of gradually, are already revising their predictions upwards.

The thawing Siberian permafrost is joined by thawing North American permafrost. Traditionally, permafrost is coldest at the surface and gets warmer deeper under the ground, but permafrost in northern Alaska is now coldest halfway down, getting warmer as you approach the surface.

According to Vladimir Romanovsky, a geophysicist at Alaska University, permafrost is "like ready-use mix - just a little heat, and it will start cooking. I think it's just a time bomb, just waiting for a little warmer conditions."

Cognitive Bias

Climate change is a public relations nightmare. It's just not easy to get people riled up about complex atmospheric, oceanic, and geologic phenomena taking place on a global scale and at what appears to humans accustomed to short-term thinking to be a glacial pace (no pun intended). Put simply, people cannot observe climate. We can only observe weather, which is influenced as much by local and transient events as by large climatic forces.

What we cannot observe becomes difficult to think about. The cognitive bias of humans is to concern ourselves with the immediate, the visual, and the visceral. Climate change is none of those things. Its myriad causes - including human activities - run into the billions, so individuals find it difficult either to assign or accept responsibility.

Our difficulty in imagining the likely effects of climate change translates into a difficulty believing they could actually occur.

Similarly, its effects, while predictable in a statistical sense of identifying changing broad patterns and relationships among huge sets of data points (for example, an average increase in the frequency of severe hurricanes due to the complex interplay of air and water temperatures and wind shear effects), cannot be applied so easily to specific events (for example, Hurricane Katrina, the formation of which may have been influenced by climate change, but which might well have formed anyway).

In fact, because the long-term potential for climate change to devastate the carrying capacity of our planet is so horrible, the very act of trying to imagine what a changed global climate might be like throws many people into denial. Our difficulty in imagining the likely effects of climate change translates into a difficulty believing they could actually occur. Learning that a million square kilometres of frozen peat bog are thawing is paralyzing, not galvanizing.

Obfuscation and Denial

Climate-change denial has gone through four stages. First the fossil-fuel lobbyists told us that global warming was a myth. Then they agreed that it was happening, but insisted that it was a good thing: we could grow wine in the Pennines and take Mediterranean holidays in Skegness. Then they admitted that the bad effects outweighed the good ones, but claimed that climate change would cost more to tackle than to tolerate. Now they have reached stage four. They concede that climate change would be cheaper to address than to neglect, but maintain that it's now too late. This is their most persuasive argument.

-- George Monbiot, September 20, 2005

Efforts to raise the profile of climate change have yielded very little in terms of actual changes to how North Americans live. The Canadian government hired polling firm Ipsos-Reid to gather feedback on Rick Mercer's One-Tonne Challenge campaign, and discovered that most people remembered the campaign but had no idea what it was about.

The Day After Tomorrow, a disaster movie featuring a century of climate change crammed into a couple of apocalyptic days, was an embarrassment. It may actually have done more harm than good for persuading the public to take the issue more seriously, by making a mockery of the complex and subtle science involved in climate modeling.

This comes after two decades of obfuscation and outright denial on the part of those industries most responsible for producing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: the auto industry, oil and gas companies, and other heavy industries.

From the way the mainstream news media have generally reported it, climate change sounds like a controversial theory, hotly disputed by experts. In fact, a review of 900 peer-reviewed papers on climate change published in 2004 turned up not one paper disputing the theory that climate change is a) occurring and b) at least partially human-caused.

A recent US Senate dog and pony show on climate change had to rely on popular fiction author Michael Crichton to produce a dissenting voice, apparently because its ringmaster, Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), couldn't find any real scientists to support his belief that climate change is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people".

It should go without saying that a novelist with a background in science is not the same as a practicing scientist whose research is peer-reviewed. When those differences are obscured, the narrow, self-interested body of climate change deniers gain much more prominence than they deserve, and the public is left with a false sense that the issue is highly uncertain.

That confusion, of course, promotes the status quo by default. As a result, a quarter of a century after scientists began publicly to worry about climate change, our lifestyles have actually gotten even more harmful.

Big Business Tipping Point

Finally, big business is starting to acknowledge that something must be done. In January, Lord Oxburgh, the chairman of Royal Dutch-Shell, insisted, "governments in developed countries need to introduce taxes, regulations or plans ... to increase the cost of emitting carbon dioxide."

Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, made headlines this spring when he demanded that governments give up on "voluntary standards" and mandate reductions.

In Britain, environmental journalist George Monbiot threw down the gauntlet in a recent column, demanding that (wait for it) the British government follow the lead of big business and establish regulations that encourage better corporate behaviour.

A week ago, I would have said that if it is too late, then one factor above all others is to blame: the chokehold that big business has on economic policy. ... But last Wednesday I discovered that it isn't quite that simple. At a conference organised by the Building Research Establishment, I witnessed an extraordinary thing: companies demanding tougher regulations - and the government refusing to grant them.

A cynic might say that big business finally got what it always wanted: a hands-off government willing to let the market to its magic. Amazingly, the British Department of Trade and Industry responded that the rules businesses are demanding would be "an unwarranted intervention in the market".

However, when even those corporations most likely to be affected by new rules limiting GHG emissions are demanding them, it's an important sign that our society is ready for a change.

Kyoto Cities

The Kyoto Accord doesn't go anywhere near far enough to reverse the human causes of climate change. Most scientists agree that humans would have to reduce our output of greenhouse gases by 70 to 80 percent to accomplish that - essentially, what we were producing at the start of the industrial revolution.

However, Kyoto is a line in the sand; it's an official acknowledgement that the way we've been doing things has to end. It's also the first step in what should be an ongoing, progressive effort to continue rolling back GHG emissions over the coming years and decades.

The biggest problem with Kyoto, aside from its modest targets, is its national focus. While 157 countries have signed the Kyoto Accord, no cities have done so. Since 70 percent of all people live in cities, and traffic accounts for over half of air pollution, cities have a unique role to play in meeting and eventually exceeding the Kyoto targets.

Portland has reduced its GHG emissions significantly during a period of robust economic growth and dramatic improvement in livability for its residents.

In North America, city governments of both political parties across the United States have pledged to meet their Kyoto obligations and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions - despite the U.S. federal government's rejection of the Kyoto Accord.

A few cities like Portland, Oregon have proven that the so-called "trade-off" or "balance" between economic and ecological considerations is a sham. Portland has reduced its GHG emissions significantly during a period of robust economic growth and dramatic improvement in livability for its residents.

Businesses in Portland love the high efficiency of environmental building and smart transit, while businesses in other cities are struggling under rising energy costs and demanding fuel subsidies.

Getting Hamilton on Board

Unlike Portland, Hamilton has more than its fair share of automotive traffic. A physical layout that has been allowed to sprawl away from the downtown core for decades and a spending pattern that has constantly favoured roads and highways over transit has made much of Hamilton utterly car-dependent.

Unfortunately, Hamilton City Council has taken little interest in making Hamilton a cleaner, more efficient city. Instead, Council has placed its hopes yet again on the 20th century model of "development": more highways, wider lanes, a huge investment in air travel (by far the most polluting per kilometre travelled), and more residential growth in sprawl areas far from the centre of town.

City Council's decision to hire energy consultant Richard Gilbert to study the effects of rising oil prices is an encouraging sign that local government may be starting to take the large issues facing our long term plans seriously. Climate change and declining energy supplies both originate from the same wasteful practices, so our efforts to respond to both challenges will be similar.

Environment Hamilton's new climate change group couldn't come at a better time. Its success will lie in engaging and involving as many individuals and groups as possible - from all parts of our society and from every political background - to bring pressure on our local government to take the issue seriously, re-think its long-term planning strategy, and begin the task of transforming Hamilton from a part of the problem into a part of the solution.

This is no longer an us-and-them problem. When the very planet is at stake, there can only be us-and-us.

References

Lisa Stiffler and Robert Mcclure, "Our Warming World: Effects of climate change bode ill for Northwest", The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 13, 2003 http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/148043_warming13.html

Elizabeth Kolbert, "The Climate Of Man Part I", The New Yorker, April 25, 2005 (no longer available online)

Jonathan Leake, "Britain faces big chill as ocean current slows", The Sunday Times (Britain), May 8, 2005 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-1602579,00.html

Marsha Walton, "Changes in Gulf Stream could chill Europe", CNN, Tuesday, May 10, 2005 http://www.cnn.com/2005/TECH/science/05/10/gulfstream/

Editorial, "Climate Signals", New York Times, May 19, 2005 http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/19/opinion/19thu1.html?ex=1274155200&en=d7b124255621e19b&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss

Bill Curry, "The challenge no one understands", The Globe and Mail, July 7, 2005, Page A4 (no longer available online) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/ArticleNews/TPStory/LAC/20050707/TONNE07/TPNational/TopStories

Ian Sample, "Warming hits 'tipping point'", The Guardian, August 11, 2005 http://www.guardian.co.uk/climatechange/story/0,12374,1546824,00.html

George Monbiot, "It would seem that I was wrong about big business", The Guardian, September 20, 2005 http://www.guardian.co.uk/climatechange/story/0,12374,1574002,00.html

Jamie Wilson, "Novel take on global warming", The Guardian, September 29, 2005 http://books.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,16488,1580591,00.html

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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