The fight for our future begins

Evidence of global warming continues to stack up despite a growing cloud of skepticism


These roughnecks drill for natural gas in the Fort St. John area. One report warns that the reduction of greenhouse gases will have huge implications because they are so much a part of the energy industry.

These roughnecks drill for natural gas in the Fort St. John area. One report warns that the reduction of greenhouse gases will have huge implications because they are so much a part of the energy industry.

On the eve of a pivotal United Nations climate conference that many observers are already describing as a failure, some of the gloomiest climate research data on record has been making its way into the public realm.

In recent days, leaders of nations including Canada, China and the United States have indicated they will attend this month's UN climate conference in Copenhagen.The decision by U.S. President Barack Obama to make an appearance, albeit a short one, at Copenhagen prompted Prime Minister Stephen Harper to announce last week that he, too, would attend.

Neither Harper nor Obama, however, is promising significant action to reduce fossil fuel emissions in their respective nations — both are promising to implement greenhouse gas cuts that will leave them, by 2020, still short of reduction targets other developed nations are attempting to reach by 2012 under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol.Moreover, the purpose of Copenhagen is to build on the Kyoto Protocol by setting new, more ambitious targets for reducing emissions — and that means Canada and the U.S., most notably among developed nations, will be left even farther behind.

Meanwhile, scientific evidence of global warming continues to stack up — even here in British Columbia — paralleling reports of increased human-caused concentrations of greenhouse gas in the Earth's atmosphere.

"Even as the science is screaming out, saying we've got to deal with it, the policy makers are posturing and managing messages and doing nothing," University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver said in an interview. Weaver is one of the authors of an international report released last month updating research since the landmark 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "It's a very frustrating time to be a climate scientist. You feel like Noah, screaming out, 'Okay, it's going to rain, time to do something,' and nobody is listening."

The new report says concentrations of greenhouse gas are at their highest levels ever recorded, Arctic sea ice is disappearing 40-per-cent faster than projected just two years ago, and the rate of sea level rise from warming oceans is 80-per-cent faster than predicted in 2001. These findings appear to present an overwhelming rebuttal to recent claims by climate change skeptics that, based on allegedly stolen e-mails from researchers at England's University of East Anglia, some sort of global conspiracy is underway to fabricate evidence of climate change.

Weaver said the controversy has obscured the fact that two other independent sets of data — both produced by researchers based in the United States — show that, if anything, the British data is underestimating the severity of the situation.

"The denial movement don't care about facts," Weaver said. "All they want is to try and throw a bunch of stuff at the public jury hoping that something sticks and leaves an element of doubt. I think the average person recognizes this for what it is: an attempt by special interest groups to undermine the science in the lead-up to Copenhagen."

In recent weeks, some of the world's most compelling research comes from British Columbia, where BC Hydro is supporting studies into the behaviour of glaciers that are essential to drinking water, aquatic habitat — and future electricity supply. A study co-authored by University of Northern B.C. glaciologist Brian Menounos and cartographer Roger Waite, looking at 20 years worth of satellite imagery for B.C. and western Alberta, reported in October that glacier-covered terrain shrank more than 3,000 square kilometres from 1985 to 2005, that 2,000 of 14,000 glaciers "disintegrated," and that 3,000 glaciers disappeared altogether.

Waite and Menounos are part of a group of glacier researchers associated with the Western Canadian Cryospheric Network, which represents universities in British Columbia, Alberta and Washington state, and have received funding from BC Hydro and Environment Canada to investigate the effects of global warming on the mountain watersheds Hydro needs to generate electricity.

Waite and Menounos were aided in their work by a German glacier researcher, Tobias Bolch, who had previously undertaken studies of substantial glacier declines in Asia's Himalayas and Europe's Alps. They compared satellite images from 1985 and 2005 in a B.C.-Alberta area that accounts for 23 per cent of North America's non-polar ice. On average, they found that B.C. glaciers shrank 11 per cent. The findings for Alberta are even more dramatic — glacier coverage fell 29 per cent between 1985 and 2005 on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains.

According to Waite there is a distinct mark, almost like the grime ring in a bathtub, that denotes the maximum growth of glaciers during the Little Ice Age that lasted until about the middle of the 19th century. "When you see that, it brings it home that the ice has decreased by quite a lot," Waite said in an interview.

There was a period about 7,000 years ago, following the last major Ice Age, when glaciers almost disappeared, but Waite said the current rate of melting greatly exceeds the natural history of that event. "What will say is that it never has retreated at this rate. The rate of ice melting far exceeds what happened at the end of the ice ages."

Nor was there any evidence that any glaciers, anywhere in B.C., are growing. British Columbia Environment Minister Barry Penner echoed those findings in a recent interview that suggests the melt trend continues.

"One of the things that gave me concern this past summer, in August. The Ministry of Environment issued which was in my memory unprecedented," Penner said. "It was a high stream flow advisory — in August during what amounted to a drought. How could that be? Because it was so hot that the glaciers on the coast were melting at a very rapid rate.

"There were clearly, unusually high flows when we hadn't had any rain on the coast for weeks and yet the water levels were so high that people in the river forecast centre felt we needed to issue a public warning about staying away from riverbanks — particularly in the Sea to Sky corridor where we have some good-sized ice caps.

"Those kinds of things really trouble me because that's our heritage up there. I view that as our insurance plan for long droughts. When it starts melting at such a rate that the rivers are raging, with no precipitation contributing, all coming from the ice melt, you know you are drawing down your heritage assets at a rapid rate."

Glaciers provide water

A BC Hydro report released last month at a glaciologists' conference in Lake Louise shows that while Hydro relies primarily on rain and snowmelt to supply its hydroelectric reservoirs, glaciers provide up to 11 per cent of annual water inflow to reservoirs for its Revelstoke and Mica generating stations on the Columbia River.

In particular, they provide a late summer bump of water after all the previous winter's snow has melted. An 11-per-cent shift in glacier water inflows to those reservoirs represents the difference between a good water year and bad one for Hydro. If you compound an 11-per-cent decline over as few as three years, you're looking at a significant, persistent supply shortfall for the province's primary electricity generating system — and for all the U.S. generating stations on the Columbia downstream of the Canada-U.S. border, including the Grand Coulee, the fifth largest dam in the world.

Numbers like that explain at least partially the interest of the B.C. provincial government in developing substantial new small-scale hydroelectric resources over the next 15 years, for both domestic consumption and export.

Other numbers explain Canada's broader reluctance, under Harper's Conservative government, to embrace Copenhagen as an opportunity to commit to large-scale greenhouse gas emission reductions. Natural Resources Canada reports that energy resources account for seven per cent of Canada's GDP, make a positive $55-billion-per-year contribution to the nation's balance of trade, and represent 20 per cent of domestic exports.

They are also the primary reason the Canadian dollar has gained strength against the U.S. currency in the last two years, buoyed by higher global prices for oil. Canada would need to curtail emissions 29 per cent just to come into compliance with the Kyoto Protocol that it ratified in 2002.

Canadian plans failed

Kyoto is only the first of a series of greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that by 2050 would put emissions 50 per cent below the 1990 'baseline' levels established by international climate scientists as essential to avert runaway global warming by the end of the century. The United States, facing a 31-per-cent cut to reach the Kyoto target, declined under Republican president George W. Bush to become a signatory to the protocol. European nations, by contrast, face cuts of three to nine per cent, and will go into the Copenhagen conference prepared to negotiate a second, deeper round of cuts.

Efforts by the former federal Liberal government to curtail Canadian greenhouse gas emissions did not succeed, and two subsequent sets of policies by the Conservatives have achieved nothing. According to a forthcoming book co-authored and co-edited by University of British Columbia political scientist Kathryn Harrison, "Canada accepted perhaps the most ambitious commitment among all parties to the agreement." Harrison suggests Canada is unlikely to take action until its largest trading partner and largest oil customer applies the spurs. She thinks this has become likely with Obama's election.

"After two 'made-in-Canada' plans, it has become increasingly clear that the next round of Canadian climate policy will be made in the United States," Harrison writes in Global Commons, Domestic Decisions: The Comparative Politics of Climate Change, which will be published in 2010 by MIT Press.

"Given the close integration of the two economies, actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States will reduce the economic effects of, and thus political opposition to, adoption of comparable measures in Canada. And if the opportunity to respond to voters' expectations at a low cost is not enough, the threat of trade retaliation will undoubtedly ensure that Canada closely follows the U.S. lead."

In an interview, Harrison said, "Climate change is a particularly difficult issue for Canada in two ways. One of them is that our economy is relying to a significant degree on production and to a large degree sale of fossil fuels.

"Fossil fuels, used as intended, produce climate change. So we are in some ways in the business of producing greenhouse gasses.

"It's also true that our manufacturing sectors and we as individuals are used to having low-cost fossil fuel-derived energy available to us. So climate change represents a big challenge for the Canadian economy and for Canadians because if we are going to be serious about addressing climate change we have to over time move away from a fossil fuel-dependent economy.

"Fossil fuel production in Canada, certainly the oil sector, is certainly getting more, not less, greenhouse gas intensive as we move from reliance on conventional crude to oilsands and heavy oil."

A 'huge' issue for Canada

Harrison noted that Alberta's oilsands at this point account for "a relatively small per cent of Canada's emissions. But growth in production is expected to account for a very significant share in Canada's growth in emissions" if Canada proceeds on its present course. So absolutely, this is a huge issue for Canada as we try to deal with climate change." Harrison adds that curtailing emissions would be challenging for any Canadian federal government, not just one with a power base in Alberta. "The Conservatives actually have seats in Alberta. They have more members of their caucus from western provinces that produce oil and gas. So in that sense it could be more difficult for them. But this is a difficult issue for any federal government, not just because of the economic significance of the oil and gas industry for Canada but also, because it's regionally concentrated, the industry tends to have very powerful defenders in the form of provincial governments. It's not just Alberta and Saskatchewan. Increasingly, it's provinces and territories that are counting on expansion of their currently small oil and gas sectors like Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Northwest Territories. The industry has a strong voice on its own but it also has powerful defenders at the table at first ministers conferences or meetings of environment ministers."

Harrison doubts Canada will take more decisive action without a stronger message of support from voters. "I think to some degree Canadian voters have been inconsistent. We want politicians to fix this problem, to show leadership but whenever proposals come out that might involve some pain a lot of people make a big stink. Witness the reaction to a very minor carbon tax in British Columbia — two cents a litre and people were outraged. That's where I think there's a lot more the electorate could do to put their actions — and indeed it's going to take money — where their ideas are, and to back politicians who take tough positions."

Two groups of countries

Meinhard Doelle, an environmental law specialist at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, believes a failure at Copenhagen to advance the emission limits inherited from the Kyoto Protocol would serve Canada's interests — but only in the short term.

"Broadly speaking you have two groups of countries in the negotiations," Doelle said in an interview. "You have countries that are pushing for more ambitious global agreement, and you have countries that are pushing for a less ambitious global agreement — or none at all. I think right now Canada falls into the category of a country that would like nothing better than to have no agreement or an unambitious agreement because of the short-term economic costs that are associated with meeting a more ambitious goal. We clearly have challenges that no one else has. We are one of only a few developed countries that are significant exporters of fossil fuels and that creates challenges that put us in a different position than most other developed countries."

If Canada were to take a longer-term view, he adds, a greater commitment to action might be easier to embrace.

"Europe has positioned itself uniquely so far to take full economic advantage of the transition we know is inevitable, not just because of climate change but also because of energy security issues. You know the transition is coming. Really the question is, how long do you delay engaging in that transition? The tradeoff is that, for as long as you can delay it, you have a marginal competitive advantage. But as the transition takes place, those that paid a little bit of extra early on are way ahead because they are more energy efficient because they have invested in technologies that are part of the solution, and all of a sudden the scale on the economic side shifts dramatically to those countries that are ahead of the game. The real risk for Canada is that for the benefit of protecting a few industries in the short term, we are going to lose big-time in the long term."

Tories posturing?

Simon Fraser University energy economist Mark Jaccard, a globally sought expert on greenhouse gas emission policies, sees more than a small amount of posturing in the way the federal Tories and the Alberta Conservative government are dancing around the issue of emission controls. Jaccard was one of the Conservatives' choices for a National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy which in 2009 delivered a report, titled Achieving 2050; A Carbon Pricing Policy for Canada.

The report indicated that the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets set by the Tories, 20 per cent by 2020 and 65 per cent by 2050, represent change on a scale "that should not be underestimated."

"Greenhouse gases are so widely embedded in the energy we use that to significantly reduce emissions will have wide-ranging economic and social implications," the report warns. The round table recommended an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to "provide real market incentives" for both businesses and families to reduce dependence on fossil fuel by putting a price — a noticeable cost — on every purchase or expense that requires combustion of CO2-emitting fossil fuel, whether it's driving an automobile or buying an imported strawberry at a grocery store.

The recommendation for a cap-and-trade system to curtail emissions followed a blunt rejection by the Tories in 2008 of an earlier round table report on the merits of implementing carbon taxes to achieve the same objective.

True to his non-partisan approach, Jaccard's consulting company followed up this year with a report for TD Economics, David Suzuki Foundation and Pembina Institute, titled Climate Leadership, Economic Prosperity, looking at both cap-and-trade and carbon taxes as tools for reducing emissions without sacrificing the economy. Jaccard has said publicly on many occasions that he does not care which policy is adopted — his only interest is seeing a meaningful reduction of emissions that does not destabilize the Canadian economy. He believes the report for TD Economics and its enviro-partners contains a blueprint to achieve that goal. However the report was quickly rejected after its November release by both federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice and Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach — even though, Jaccard noted in an interview, it was premised upon the work of the federal government's own advisory body, the round table.

Jaccard wonders how much of the report's negative reception was due simply to the way in which the data was presented. For example, his company's economists described Alberta as facing a minus-10-per-cent growth rate projected over the next 10 years if an emission reduction policy is adopted nationally. What was absent from that projection was an explanation that in fact, Alberta's economy would grow 50 per cent in 10 years under an emission policy rather than 60 per cent without one, Jaccard said.