Tuesday, February 06, 2007

"Yes - But Is It True?" - The Global Warming Debate

Ever since the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change the rhetoric on Global Warming has reached a fever pitch. Even the fire-breathing "Global Warming Deniers" - the Conservative Party of Canada - are now making noises that something must be done to protect the environment. I guess that the dramatic increase in crazy weather patterns is pushing people over the edge.
Canada is in for a tidal wave of (dis?)information on the subject over the next little while. The challenge for all of us is to discern truth from alarmist propoganda and prudent response from knee-jerk reactionism. There are a number of issues and questions involved.
  1. Is global warming occurring? The answer to this is obviously "yes." Science has demonstrated that the average temperature has increased by about .6 degrees Celsius over the past 30 years.
  2. What causes global warming? This is where the debate begins. Scientists know that greenhouse gases are a major cause of global warming, and greenhouse gases are caused by Carbon Dioxide and Methane, as well as other factors. Solar activity has also had an effect on global warming.
  3. Who is responsible for the greenhouse gases? Good question. Much of the blame has been placed on the burning of fossil fuels, which produces carbon dioxide. Methane is also a chief cause. So, the lion's share of the blame is laid at the feet of the developed nations who have been pumping it out since the Industrial Revolution. there are other natural causes, of course, such as peat bogs and cows producing methane.
  4. What to do? Here's the big question. Experts admit that even if we were to eliminate emissions immediately, the effects would continue to worsen for 100 years. This is due to the fact that these gases take so long to dissipate. The Kyoto Protocol aims to reduce emissions through a "carrot and stick" approach of rewarding countries who meet their targets and penalizing those who fail to do so. Criticism of the protocol includes the claim that the "Carbon Credit" transfer system amounts to a transfer of wealth to the developing world by the industrialized nations. Then there's the question of effectiveness. The U.S., which hasn't ratified the Kyoto Protocol, has done far better with its targets than Canada, which did ratify.

Let the debate begin. Al Gore's surprise blockbuster "An Inconvenient Truth," which some claim plays fast and loose with the truth, has certainly helped to bring this to the forefront of public consciousness. In Canada, Stephane Dion became the leader of the Liberal Party largely on the basis of his emphasis on environmental causes. This even though Canada's environmental record worsened while he was environment minister and his party was in power.

The noises being made by the Liberals are that they are planning to take some radical steps to change things in Canada. Charles Adler managed to extract a picture of the future from Mark Holland, a Liberal MP and adviser to Dion. Apparently the Liberals would place severe limits on the Alberta oil industry in order to meet targets. There's no mention on how the economy might recover from such a shock to the system, nor what difference this would make in the long run since China is now preparing to open scores of new fossil fuel-burning plants. (China is not considered a developed nation under Kyoto.)

I think it's important to take a step back from the precipice here and look at a more balanced approach. It will do no good to destroy the world's economy with reactionary policies, especially since there is a great deal of disagreement out there (see Larry King debate) about what the right solution may be.
We are in this boat partly because we have been bad stewards of the planet. We've been belching out pollutants for 300 years without thought to the consequences. Add to this the destruction of the rain forest, clear-cutting of timber and pollution of our waterways and it's no wonder we're in the mess we're in. We've built our economies by allowing industry to profit without responsibility. Having done so, it's equally irresponsible to turn this around on a dime. Prime Minister Harper stated the obvious recently: "The problem is enormous. It's large, it's long-term and there are no quick fixes to this," Harper told reporters in Ottawa last Friday. "You can't just snap your fingers and reduce Canada's energy use by one-third in the space of a couple of years."
The Liberals are being hypocritical in pushing this issue, seeing that emissions rose to 27% above 1990 levels while they were in power. Yet something obviously must be done. Is nuclear power safe enough for its use to be expanded? Does that create a whole other range of problems? What pressures or rewards can be brought to bear on industry to eliminate unnecessary waste? How can processes be refined to be as fuel-efficient as possible? Is there any scientific research promising solutions to this issue? Questions, questions, questions.... There are no simple answers.
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