Climate Change

Dreaming of a Wet Christmas

By Ryan McGreal
Published December 27, 2006

I hope everyone enjoyed a few days off to spend with family and friends this Christmas.

Personally, I find I suffer from a kind of Charlie Brown complex - holidays like Christmas, which emphasize the continuity of ancient traditions, always seem to provide me with opportunities for anxious contemplation of looming threats to that continuity.

As Linus concluded, "you're the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem."

It doesn't help that my taste in reading runs to alarming non-fiction and apocalyptic fiction. That's how I found myself just after Christmas sitting up late and reading my just-received copy of The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery (watch for a proper review next RTH issue), looking out the window at a steady drizzle of rain.

I'm only partway through The Weather Makers, but it is already a breathtaking book, promising and by measured increments delivering the means to think about the climate as a complex, moving, ever-shifting entity, "the great aerial ocean" as Alfred Russel Wallace called it in 1903.

In his book The Long Emergency, Jim Kunstler chiselled out a simple, grim, and hard-to-refute thesis: people cannot or will not confront the two-fisted challenge of climate change and peak oil in time to respond effectively, and civilization will suffer accordingly through a chaotic period of cascading crises with a sharply reduced capacity to adjust.

Kunstler focused more on peak oil, a subject with which he is more familiar, and ticked off the effects of climate change through a speculative but comparatively simplistic checklist of dangers.

Flannery, by contrast, ignores peak oil but delves deeply, fluently, even lovingly, into the beautiful complexity of climate science, teasing out the various patterns and cycles that shape climate and explaining how they intersect over time.

One of his conclusions is that we are today in an anthropocene period, in which human activity is one of the patterns shaping our climate. What may surprise you is when this era began.

Bill Ruddiman, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia, found nothing in the natural cycles [affecting climate] that could account for the stability of our long summer [which began 8,000 years ago after the last ice age], and so he began to look for a unique factor - something that was operating only in this last cycle, but in none of the earlier ones. That unique factor, he decided, was ourselves, and in doing so he revolutionized another recent development - the endowing on our post-industrial times of its own geological period.

The widespread advent of agriculture - cutting and burning forests, planting crops and cultivating swamplike conditions - measurably increased the production of carbon dioxide and methane gas into the atmosphere, forestalling another ice age.

Interestingly, as the climate grew drier around 6,000 years ago, humans adapted by designing more complex irrigation systems and by congregating around cities, dividing labour among farmers and various artisans to improve labour productivity.

The sum of all this change was a shift in human organization, and by 3,100 BC Mesopotamia's southern cities had become the world's first civilizations. Indeed the city, [archaeologist Brian] Fagan would argue, is a key human adaptation to drier climatic conditions.

This human adaptation to a changing climate in turn exerted its own influence on the climate.

Ruddiman's thesis implies that, by adding sufficient greenhouse gases to keep the Earth 'just right' to delay another ice age, yet not overheating the planet, the ancients performed an act of chemical wizardry. ... According to Ruddiman, however, it was a damn close thing.

However, I'm interested right now in the role that cities may play in the future, as, in Flannery's words, "there are unmistakable signs that the Anthropocene is turning ugly."

When people think "environmentalism", images of wooden houses nestled in forests or pastoral settings jump to view. Getting "back to nature" or "close to nature" implies leaving the city behind, packing a tent, setting out across calm water in a cedar canoe, resting in a hammock hung between two trees - go on, pick a stock image.

Of course, when everyone tries to do this, we end up with suburban sprawl, which actually magnifies dramatically the energy consumption, pollution, and sheer waste of civilization, by which I mean human life organized in a permanent community of physical buildings.

One of the most important things environmentalists must do - and many are already aware of this - is to recognize and cultivate a sense that to a large extent, environmentalism means living in cities; dense, diverse, physically bounded, rich in living trees and plants, requiring less energy to heat and cool buildings or to move around, managing and reducing net carbon emissions, and learning to produce food locally rather than trucking everything in from elsewhere.

This has always been a good idea, but as our climate grows more chaotic, huddling together for security and cooperation in a well-defined, well-designed place may turn out to be crucial for our long-term survival.

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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By jason (registered) | Posted December 27, 2006 at 23:44:41

All I know is that my daughter is 3 years old and we've only been able to play in the snow once in her entire life (last December)! We're both begging and praying for snow. Who would have ever thought we'd have to do that living here???

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By bearwithus (anonymous) | Posted December 28, 2006 at 01:36:02

The U.S. government has finally decided that polar bears need more protection. (60% of all the world's polar bears live in Canada)

It's one thing to decide that polar bears needed physical protection, although they have not said what means will be used to protect them. (Do they intend to fly food in to feed them as they starve to death? Maybe they can find a way for them to hybernate if there is no longer sufficient snow cover? A Club Med for bears?) This is not as simple as just cordoning off more of the southerly habitat for grizzleys, because the needs of all polar animals are more complex.

The U.S. needs to decide to protect the environment that the bears need to live in. As long as the U.S. government sees global warming as some kind of fairy tale, there is no hope for any of the polar species, land mammals, sea mammmals, fish, birds, or invertebrates.

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By constantine (anonymous) | Posted December 28, 2006 at 19:08:18

It used to be we just had to worry about Rome burning while Nero fiddled. While today's Neros fiddle, the whole damn planet is burning!

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By joejoe (anonymous) | Posted December 29, 2006 at 09:42:21

Holy Crap RTH,

I've just read this and watched the Hiroshima clip. Can't we find any good news to post? At this rate I won't make it past the new year...;)


Give us some HOPE!!

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted January 01, 2007 at 14:31:12

Being curious, I just looked at the climate data from Hamilton Airport, which goes back to 1959.

The average temp for december is -2.7 C.

December 2006 averaged +1.6C which is a new record (47 year) high.

Only one other year on record is close, 1982 at +1.5C.

2005 was below normal at -4.2C, also 2000 at a chilly -8.2. Otherwise the last 10 years were at or above normal.

I note though that the standard deviations are highest in the winter, so more variable temps are found in winter as compared to summer.

January averages -6.0 so there is some hope for snow yet.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted January 01, 2007 at 14:40:19

Interestingly, the "seasonal forecast" here: http://weatheroffice.ec.gc.ca/saisons/im... predicted average weather on dec 1 for the next 3 mos and colder for most of the country.

It's now revised to warmer than average. For Hamilton area, "historical percent correct" is less than 50%! WHY do they bother?

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 02, 2007 at 12:18:54

as David Phillips said, we can't point directly to climate change as the cause of such crazy weather because next year we might be buried in snow. that's one of the fascinating things about science and weather in my mind - so inticrate and tough to predict. World wide, climate change and 'global warming' are certainly happening to some degree, but it seems that predictions and opinions will vary until we get some more years under our belts and have real, hard data to observe. Even the last 5 years has shown us this. pretty much the only group left saying that the world's temp isn't going up or that humans have nothing to do with it are the oil and US government 'scientists'. The real scientists are slowly seeing their views align a little more clearly. Tell the folks in Denver that December was the warmest ever! Weather is marvelous.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 02, 2007 at 14:14:25

To clarify, Jason, plenty of data from a wide variety of sources exists to indicate that climate change is happening. Philips is reluctant to state for a fact that climate change is human-caused because that's not how science works, not because the case isn't strong.

Similarly, you can't state for a fact that smoking causes lung cancer or that germs cause disease, but we believe these theories because they make risky predictions, large amounts of data from varied sources are consistent with them, and no other theory explains observed events or predicts future events as accurately.

As a scientist, Philips has to word his opinion very carefully to avoid stating a theory that is well-supported by strong circumstantial evidence as a fact.

The reason why we can't state for a fact that climate change is causing our freaky winter weather is that climate and weather are not the same thing. Climate is the global set of systems and conditions within which local weather events manifest themselves.

One of the predictions of climate change theory is that weather will become harder to predict - that systems will become chaotic and lurch suddenly from one energy state to another.

Think of 25 hot, dry summer days in a row, followed by a torrential downpour that overloads sewers and washes out culverts; or hurricanes in the southern hemisphere; or rain on New Year's day in Southern Ontario...

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