Category Archives: Climate

Heading for the hot seat of global warming

 

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

It’s been four years since the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted the end of the world. In that interval, the doom-saying industry has grown to meet the rising demands of the self-flagellating, environmentally righteous among us. Still, no one does moral masochism better than the IPCC.

In a fat, new report, released Monday, the Nobel prize-winning body effectively declared that unless world leaders start taking global warming seriously, the rest of us can stick our heads between our legs and kiss our derrieres goodbye. In fact, we may already be too late.

“In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans,” the report says. “Glaciers continue to shrink almost worldwide. . .Climate change is causing permafrost warming and thawing in high-latitude and high-elevation regions. . .Climate change has negatively affected wheat and maize yields for many regions 

What’s more, “while only a few recent species extinctions have been attributed as yet to climate change, natural global climate change at rates slower than current anthropogenic climate change caused significant ecosystem shifts and species extinctions during the past millions of years.”

Said IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri on Monday: “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.”

Added report co-author Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University in Bangladesh: “Things are worse than we had predicted (in the first report issued in 2007). . .We are going to see more and more impacts, faster and sooner than we had anticipated.”

Indeed, observed Princeton University professor Michael Oppenheimer, another of the report’s authors, in an interview with The Associated Press, “We’re all sitting ducks.”

Perhaps a better metaphor is: ostriches with our heads in the sand. It certainly seemed that way during Question Period this week when Canada’s Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq staunchly defended her government’s record. “Since 2006 we have invested more than $10 billion in green infrastructure, energy efficiency, adaption, clean technology, and cleaner fuels,” she said.

It’s also true, however, that since 2006, the federal government has consistently failed to meet its greenhouse gas reduction objectives. (In fact, it hasn’t even come close). Today, Ottawa couldn’t care less about the environmental impact of new oil sands projects, just as long as it gets enough pipe built to transport the black gold to all points on the map 

“Government has not met key commitments, deadlines and obligations to protect Canada’s wildlife and natural spaces,” Neil Maxwell, interim commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, declared last November.

“(There is a) wide and persistent gap between what the government commits to do and what it is achieving. . .the approval processes currently under way for large oil and gas pipelines in North America have shown that widespread acceptance of resource development depends, in part, on due consideration for protecting nature,” he said, adding,“Our trading partners see Canada as a steward of globally significant resources. Canada’s success as a trading nation depends on continued leadership in meeting international expectations for environmental protection.”

That, in fact, may be wishful thinking. If Stephen Harper evinces any concern for what his trading partners expect of him on the environmental front, it was’t readily evident last week. 

Speaking to a business crowd in Germany, he was asked for his opinion about that country’s decision to wean itself from fossil fuels and nuclear energy, in favour of renewables, such as wind and solar. Thusly replied our estimable prime minister, off-handedly, if not exactly derisively: “So this is a brave new world you’re attempting? We wish you well with it.”

Actually, he doesn’t. Over the past eight years, this country’s political establishment and accompanying officialdom have slipped backwards in all fields that require evidence and critical thinking to penetrate. Today, it seems, the only thing our leadership class respects more than oil and gas is its own high opinion of itself.  

Clearly, environmental doom-saying annoys those who are vested in regressive policies that contribute to our planet’s woes, but the science of global warming is irrefutable.

And the IPCC’s moral masochism is nothing compared with the real McCoy if we don’t start changing our minds before the climate changes them for us.

 

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Snow-bound by the weather gods

 

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“Across Prince Edward Island, all public and private school systems, along with colleges and universities, shut down in the midst of a howling snowstorm,” The Canadian Weather Trivia Calendar helpfully reports. 

Hello, Canadian spring. You seem awfully familiar to me. Have you, by any chance, met Canadian winter? Oh yes, Canadian winter and I go way back. 

Friends of mine from England are visiting. Months ago, when they began planning for this trip – which would begin in Halifax, wend through the Maritimes en route to central Canada and points west of the American prairies – they asked me what sort of outerwear would be suitable for the Maritimes at the end of March.

I said something like, “Well, that sort of depends on the year, but you can be pretty safe with a sweater and sturdy raincoat, maybe some rubber boots.” 

Friends of mine from England are no longer speaking to me. Fortunately for what’s left of our relationship, they’re staying in a hotel. Besides, it’s not as if they can get out my front door any time soon. 

But, really, how was I supposed to know? The weather app on my iPhone is less than useless. Only four days ago, it seems, meteorologists were calmly predicting steadily improving, springlike weather. It was just possible to imagine the crocuses, narcissuses and tulips peaking up from the good earth. And then. . .

“Across a large swath of Atlantic Canada, people who ventured outside Wednesday felt the cold sting of a massive spring blizzard that brought much of the region to a standstill,” The National Post reported on Wednesday. “Most schools and government offices were closed in the Maritimes, flights were cancelled and traffic along some of the busiest streets and highways was virtually non-existent amid knee-high drifts. Even the Confederation Bridge to P.E.I. was temporarily closed as powerful gusts howled across the Northumberland Strait.”

Isn’t it marvelous that when the central Canadian media report on something as verifiable and straightforward a storm they still manage to get the facts about our region wrong? Note to NP editors: It doesn’t stake Snowmaggedon 2014 to close the Confederation Bridge; sometimes a light breeze and a dash of sea fog will do the trick.

But I digress.

The experts are divided on what all of this actually means. Of course, that’s what experts do; they become divided at the drop of mukluk. 

Some think the unusually cold, unusually long and unusually snowy winter this year is proof positive of global warming’s effect on the climate (extreme events and seasons – a product of increasing amounts of energy in the atmosphere – are what the models predict). “Scientists call it Santa’s revenge,” The Globe and Mail reported in February. “It’s the theory that persistent weather patterns at the mid-latitudes – like this winter’s tediously long-lasting polar vortex or California’s severe drought – are a direct consequence of climate change heating up the Arctic.”

Others think the persistently inclement weather doesn’t mean a thing. Or, at least, not yet. According to to Scientific American piece in 2009, “‘You can’t tell much about the climate or where it’s headed by focusing on a particularly frigid day, or season, or year, even,’ writes Eoin O’Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor. ‘It’s all in the long-term trends,’ concurs Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.”

Still others have thrown up their hands, turned off their cell phones and headed south for the remainder of whatever season we in the Great White North have decided to call this.  

In fact, the only point on which everyone in the business of forecasting the weather seems to agree is that they all got it horribly, embarrassingly wrong. (Everyone, that is, except the decidedly unscientific Farmer’s Almanac).

“Not one of our better forecasts,” Mike Halpert, the acting director of the Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States, told Bloomberg Businessweek last month. 

The piece continues: “The center grades itself on what it calls the Heidke skill score, which ranges from 100 (perfection) to -50 (monkeys throwing darts would have done better). October’s forecast for the three-month period of November through January came in at -22.”

On the other hand, unpredictable weather generates its own, comforting precedents. 

Here’s the rest of that Weather Trivia Calendar report: “Federal and provincial offices also closed, including Canada Post mail delivery, and seniors couldn’t get Meals on Wheels.”

In fact, that was March 27, exactly two years ago. 

Funny how it seems like only yesterday.

 

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If it’s flooding or frozen, it must be March

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We don’t talk about it, not really, at any rate; for to talk about it would hex us forever.

Oh, sure, we chat discursively around the subject. We say things like, “Oh well, what are you going to do?” and “Geez, we weren’t expecting this” and “Maybe, it isn’t as bad as we think.”

No, it’s not the frightening situation in the Ukraine and the threat of reigniting the Cold War with Russia. It’s not the slightly less frightening situation in Ottawa and the threat of John Baird and/or Jason Kenney replacing the off-message (which means sensible and well-meaning) Jim Flaherty as finance minister just in time for Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s next appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

It’s none of these or other legitimate, though contrived, concerns that has us trembling in our mukluks. It is, however, a bug-a-bear that’s distinctly, uniquely Canadian at this time of the year. It’s (gasp!) the weather.

As to this – to quote a phrase in a book I once loved to read when the snow was as high as an elephant’s arse – what in the blue-blazes and billions of blue blistering boiled and barbecued barnacles is going on around here? (Apologies to Captain Archibald Haddock of “Tintin” fame).

There, now: I’m talking about it. Bad luck be-damned. It’s March 6, and it’s time for an earnest intervention with Planet Earth. I’ll start. Dear Gaia, are you kidding me?

I mean, I get that you’re peeved about all the junk we’ve been pouring into the atmosphere. But that’s supposed to warm things up a might. What’s with the walk-in freezer two weeks before the official start of spring?

Still, to a weather junkie, it’s all perfectly explicable.

“The latest public enemy No. 1 comes complete with an ominous, super-villain name and a tendency to waver drunkenly around the Northern Hemisphere, leaking great, vast gasps of frigid Arctic air into normally more temperate latitudes,” writes Larry O’Hanlon in Discovery magazine’s online edition. He is, of course, referring to the polar vortex which, he acknowledges has “always been there, but most of the time it minds its own business and serves as a wall of wind to hold wintry Arctic air where it belongs.”

Not this winter. This winter it has been, quite literally, all over the map. Hence the pronounced and prolonged cold. There’s even some suggestion that the active vortex is linked to – if not a direct result of – global warming.

“It may well be that global warming could be making the occasional bout of extreme cold weather in the U.S. (and Canada) even more likely,” Bryan Walsh writes in Time Magazine’s online edition. “Usually the fast winds in the vortex – which can top 100 mph (161 k/h) – keep that cold air locked up in the Arctic. But when the winds weaken, the vortex can begin to wobble like a drunk on his fourth martini, and the Arctic air can escape and spill southward, bringing Arctic weather with it.”

Essentially, warmer than normal air sinking from the stratosphere upsets the vortex’s flow and sends it madly off in all directions.

Good science is always a palliative for high anxiety, but history also provides a much-needed cold comfort. My trusty Canadian Weather Trivia Calendar 2014 proves that, for we citizens of the Great White North, March truly is, and always has been, the cruelest month.

March 5, 1900: “Snows whipped into monstrous drifts blocked trains near Brantford, ON. Two young passengers volunteered to get food at a nearby town. When they returned the hungry crowd began to devour everything in sight. After the meal, cigars were indulged and in and around 12 o’clock all retired to any spot providing comfort. Two men froze their ears walking 1 kilometer from one express train to another.”

Then, of course, only last year on March 20, the first day of spring, a storm “dumped 19 cm of snow on Moncton, NB, and nearly 40 cm of snow in Fredericton. The storm closed schools, caused power outage, and shut down offices.”

All of which confirms, if nothing else, that if it seems that the weather can’t get any weirder, it only seems that way.

The bottom line: There’s no use in complaining. Indeed, it’s best not to talk at all. With these temperatures, why waste energy?

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Plotting some common ground for shale gas

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

It is only my uncommon determination to discount the fruits of my fevered and hyperactive imagination that prevents me from earnestly entertaining my latest New Brunswick Economic Development Conspiracy Theory, version 2.0.

But for this mindful discipline, however, my theory might go a little like this:

At some point in the not-too-distant past, Progressive Conservative Premier David Alward sat down with Liberal Opposition Leader Brian Gallant in a dark, windowless room in the basement of one of New Brunswick’s seedier hotels. They had agreed to meet to hatch a plot, the outcome of which, then prayed, would be to their mutual advantage.

Each man knew that the shale gas controversy was not going away any time soon. Too much emotional capital had been spent for either opponents or their opposite numbers in industry to retreat from the front lines of lunacy. Too much empty rhetoric had been spilt for the sake of hearing one’s voice repeated ceaselessly on the nightly newscasts.

Yet, as political leaders, Messrs. Alward and Gallant recognized their respective responsibilities to take firm and preferably opposing positions on the issue.

The problem was that they also recognized, in each other, if not kindred spirits then at least a meeting of minds.

Though Mr. Alward argued publicly that shale gas was New Brunswick’s last, best hope for economic salvation, in his heart he worried about the environmental impact of an industry whose North American track record was, at best, spotty.

Conversely, though Mr. Gallant vigorously called for a moratorium on exploration and development until such time as two new studies shed better light on the subject, in his heart he worried about the province’s long-term economic future without the royalties and taxes a shale gas industry would generate.

The question, they reckoned, was how to have one’s cake and eat it too. Is it possible to satisfy both commercial and community interests without requiring unacceptably high sacrifices?

The related, if more urgent, question was how to take the mickey out of the public debate long enough to peaceably erect an industrial and regulatory apparatus acceptable to all but the most ardent green warriors (certainly all the Tories and Grits from here to the horizon)

And their stratagem?

That’s easy: Bore everyone to death, or at least until most people in the province would rather have their incisors pulled than stand to listen to a) one more meaningless, partisan diatribe about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing; and b) one more corporate shill expounding on the environmentally risk-free bounties from that friendliest of all fossil fuels.

Once the electorate is properly and finally focussed on other, more diverting  affairs like, say, the homophobic Winter Olympics 2014 (and not constantly expected to tender their proudly uniformed opinions, for or against shale gas) then, and only then, can the real, grown-up, bipartisan work of shaping a safe, regulated, productive, job-generating, income-producing, made-in-New Brunswick solution; the envy of the industrialized world.

Yup, it’s a nice theory and it does look good on paper. Too bad it’s bogus.

That constant whining sound emanating from Fredericton’s political class on the subject of shale gas is merely the all-too-familiar politics of disputation for the sake of disputation. No plan; nothing special. It’s politics as usual; that is to say, as usual Premier Alward blasts Mr. Gallant for standing soft on the issue and Mr. Gallant returns the favour by charging Mr. Alward with willful misrepresentation.

In fact, of the two, Mr. Gallant is more consistently correct and thoughtful with his criticism. But, at this point – where we seem to have come to a full stop, crumpled over by the burden of all our words – does it matter?

Where are our deeds? Where is our determination to forge practical alliances that span party and ideological lines to extract and sell our natural resources as safely and sustainably as possible?

While we’re at it, where is our courage to collectively face the essential energy paradox of our times – that we actually need the cleaner-burning fossil fuels to bridge us and our technologies to a greener more renewable future?

In the end, alas, politics upends even our finest conspiracies.

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How to defeat that dastardly coal

The world's ballooning use of coal guarantees that hot air will continue to rise

The world’s ballooning use of coal guarantees that hot air will continue to rise

To the extent that oil pipelines and drilling operations degrade the land, foul the water, spoil the air and otherwise compromise the environment all creatures big and tiny cohabit, people are right to worry and protest vigorously to their elected representatives when preventable infringements occur.

But the lunacy that now attends nearly every public debate about oil and gas – that these fossil fuels are somehow anthropomorphically evil, and that all who have truck with them are necessarily curtseying before killers – threatens to eclipse a far bigger and more concrete problem.

If we insist on making villains out of inanimate objects, we’d best start by recognizing that the real enemy of the global environment isn’t crude oil or shale gas or even Alberta bitumen; it’s coal. And, since the beginning of the century, use of this cheap, dirty energy source – the one that essentially powered the Industrial Revolution on two continents – has been rising, especially in emerging economic powerhouses, such as China and India, with vast populations to support.

According to the December 16, 2013, bulletin of the International Energy Agency (IEA) – a self-described “autonomous organisation which works to ensure reliable, affordable and clean energy” for its membership  – “tougher Chinese policies aimed at reducing dependency on coal will help restrain global coal demand growth over the next five years,” but coal will still “meet more of the increase in global primary energy than oil or gas, continuing a trend that has been in place for more than a decade.”

The IEA also predicts that while demand for coal in North America and Europe will flatten over the next five years – the result of tougher environmental regulations, among other factors – the effect will likely be temporary as the price differential between coal and oil will vastly favor the former. Moreover, “for the rest of Asia, coal demand is forecast to stay buoyant. India and countries in Southeast Asia are increasing consumption, and India will rival China as the top importer in the next five years.”

Indeed, observed IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven, “like it or not, coal is here to stay for a long time to come. Coal is abundant and geopolitically secure, and coal-fired plants are easily integrated into existing power systems. With advantages like these, it is easy to see why coal demand continues to grow. But it is equally important to emphasize that coal in its current form is simply unsustainable.”

No kidding. NASA scientist James Hansen has called this black rock “the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.” That might be overstating the case just a bit, but there’s no denying the fact that coal-fired plants are atrocious polluters. The short list of toxic byproducts from your average burner might make you faint: mercury (a bonafide nerve poison), nitrogen oxide (which can turn your lungs into soup) and sulphur dioxide (which can, given enough time, stop your heart cold).

Then there’s cobalt, lead, arsenic, particulate matter. chromium, zinc, manganese, and radionuclides. And, let us not forget coal’s particular facility for producing greenhouse gases.

According to Greenpeace (which should have, by now, earned some mainstream  street cred), “coal fired power plants are the biggest source of man made CO2 emissions. This makes coal energy the single greatest threat facing our climate. . .Coal is the most polluting of all fossil fuels and the single largest source of global warming in the world. Currently one-third of all CO2 emissions comes from burning coal.”

And, don’t for a minute, get fooled by “clean-coal” claims of carbon, capture and storage technology. It doesn’t exist and probably won’t in any affordable manifestation for several years, even decades.

The inescapable fact is that burning fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal) is warming the planet. But not all such fuels are equal in their deleterious effects on the land, water and air we share with all living things.

Unless we are prepared to dismantle our societies, remove ourselves from our various grids, and find several million caves in which to dwell and from which to hunt beasties and gather berries, we’d better use the less harmful fuels at our disposal to wean ourselves from one that really will kill us sooner, rather than later.

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Go ahead, blame it on the weather

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Let us just finally admit, with one pitiful sigh, that we are, in fact, responsible for the walk-in freezers we’ve installed in towns and cities across much of the country.

We’ve certainly had better starts: milder temperatures, sunnier skies and drier conditions to mark the new year. We’ve even had lights that stayed on and airports that remained open.

But all that was before the dreaded polar vortex debuted in our lives and on the late-night TV comedy circuit of 2014.

“Good to have you with us folks – and by ‘with us’, I mean still living,” funnyman Stephen Colbert quipped this week. “It was so cold on New Year’s Eve, that the ball went back up.”

Watch out, he warned, for the “polar vortex” and its “thunder snow. . .Frankly, I’m not sure that those are weather terms, or finishing moves from ‘Mortal Kombat’.” When the thaw begins, he cautioned, the forecast calls for “Partly cloudpocalypse with a 20 per cent chance of rain-a-geddon.”

A somewhat more sober analysis appears on CBC’s website:

“The polar vortex refers to winds that whip around the polar ice cap, trapping Earth’s coldest temperatures there. Its deterioration with global warming, however, can send arctic weather south into areas as far away as the southern U.S. and Europe, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists. ‘When the polar vortex. . .breaks down, this allows cold air to spill south, affecting the eastern United States and other regions,’ says NOAA’s Dr. James Overland. ‘This can result in a warmer-than-average arctic region and colder temperatures that may include severe winter weather events on the North American and European continents.’”

It’s that phrase – “its deterioration with global warming” – that will stick in the craw of every climate change denier from Hibernia to Fort McMurray.

Nevertheless, according to a piece this week for Climate Central, “Such weather patterns, which can feature relatively mild conditions in the Arctic at the same time dangerously cold conditions exist in vast parts of the lower 48, may be tied to the rapid warming and loss of sea ice in the Arctic due, in part, to manmade climate change.

“The forecast high temperature in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Monday was in the 20s Fahrenheit – warmer than many locations in Georgia and Alabama. That fits in with the so-called ‘Arctic Paradox’ or ‘Warm Arctic”, Cold Continents’ pattern that researchers first identified several years ago. Such patterns bring comparatively mild conditions to the Arctic while places far to the south are thrown into a deep freeze.”

Of course, scientists have been predicting the intensification of traditional cold snaps in North America for at least a decade. In fact, in 2004, NASA had this to say in an article entitled, “A Chilling Possibility” posted to its website:

“Global warming could plunge North America and Western Europe into a deep freeze, possibly within only a few decades. That’s the paradoxical scenario gaining credibility among many climate scientists. The thawing of sea ice covering the Arctic could disturb or even halt large currents in the Atlantic Ocean. Without the vast heat that these ocean currents deliver – comparable to the power generation of a million nuclear power plants – Europe’s average temperature would likely drop 5 to 10°C (9 to 18°F), and parts of eastern North America would be chilled somewhat less. Such a dip in temperature would be similar to global average temperatures toward the end of the last ice age roughly 20,000 years ago.”

All of which bodes well for the bottom lines of those who manufacture the excellent Snow Goose line of outerwear. As for the rest of us. . .not so much.

Still, perhaps this is just the kick in the pants the Fraser Institute thinks we need as we set about dismantling governments and collecting the wood from their paneled offices for kindling. There’s nothing like an encroaching ice age to clarify the mind, gird the loins, and fortify the soul.

It’s even possible – if only just – that we’ll finally start taking responsibility for the various hardships we like to blame on everything and everyone except the person in the frozen mirror.

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Modern mythologies in the post-apocalypse

 

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It’s been precisely 10 months and 10 days since the Mayan long count calendar ran down and the world, as we know it, was supposed to have ended in a cataclysmic fury. Not for nothing, but we’re still here.

Fortunately, as the world survives, popular myths and misconceptions continue to proliferate. I say “fortunately” because in the absence of such apocrypha, grim, intractable reality would be well-nigh impossible to bear.

A well-known, national newspaper columnist contends this week that “the idea that people ever achieved secure and stable lives with ease is largely a myth.”

Indeed, The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente writes, “My grandparents weathered the Depression. My folks lived with them until having their third child. My dad had health problems in middle age and lost his business. That’s life. I’m pretty sure that most of today’s up-to-their-necks-in-debt graduates will be fine.”

Sure they will, just as soon as they manage to obtain gainful employment, which is also “largely a myth”. Or so says the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in a September 27 report, to wit:

“In 2013, the unemployment rate for Ontario youth aged 15-24 fluctuated between 16 per cent and 17.1 per cent, trending above the Canadian range of 13.5 per cent to 14.5 per cent and placing Ontario as the worst province outside Atlantic Canada for high youth unemployment.

“Windsor, Oshawa, Brantford and London stand out as youth unemployment hotspots: their youth unemployment rate is over 20 per cent, similar to the European Union rates. Toronto’s youth employment rate – the measure that determines how many youth actually have jobs – is 43.5 per cent. That’s the worst employment rate of any Ontario region and it may be driving some youth out of the province in search of work. Toronto also gets the prize for having the largest gap between youth and adult employment in the province, at 21.8 per cent. That’s the highest it’s ever been.”

Higher still, of course, is the percentage of voting-age Canadians, either employed or otherwise, who support the reigning federal Conservatives as they bob for apples at their policy convention tonight.

Received wisdom had called for a shellacking of Tory prospects in the court of public opinion – so appalled are we with the Senate expense scandal and the knobby knees of short-panted factotums in the Prime Minister’s Office.

But received wisdom begins to look like a myth when Ipsos Reid reports that the Conservatives currently enjoy a 30 per cent approval rating – virtually unchanged from a week ago, before the most serious allegations came to light.

Here, in New Brunswick, rank politics takes a back seat to. . .well. . .rank politics as we juggle the myths and realities associated with shale gas development.

The provincial government says it is committed to consulting with opponents of hydraulic fracturing, yet it has no intention of slowing down the exploratory work that has sparked most public protests and demonstrations.

Leaders of the Elsipogtog First Nation, chief among the anti-frackers, decry what they term unnecessary provocation in the debate, yet they formerly resolve to reclaim Crown land to “save our waters, lands and animals from ruin.”

Meanwhile, the stories we tell ourselves dip in and out of verisimilitude heedless of their sources.

“Britain’s energy secretary on Wednesday advocated a public awareness campaign to promote shale gas and dispel the ‘myths’ surrounding fracking, the controversial method for unlocking the natural gas,” the Wall Street Journal online reported this summer. “Energy Secretary Ed Davey said the concerns were being dealt with through study and regulation, suggesting they had given rise to false notions about the dangers. The industry’s main challenge is to win over the public, he said.

‘Because those myths have taken hold in some areas, and sometimes when a myth takes hold it’s quite difficult to dispel it,’ he told a cross-party parliamentary group on unconventional oil and gas.”

For its part, Friends of the Earth Europe reports, “The American myth of ‘cheap and abundant’ energy from shale gas is based on artificially low prices driven by speculation and industry overestimates. Trying to repeat this experience in Europe would only lead to even higher gas prices and would lock public subsidies into fossil fuel use at the expense of renewable energy and energy efficiency policies.”

Who’s right?

We may have survived the apocalypse, but we might not live long enough to know the truth.

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Counting down the days to the Great Transformation

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The world as we know it has been coming to end for years now. We haven’t had to look far to perceive the portents of impending doom: in the entrails of Wall Street corpses; in the tea leaves of governments that no longer work; in the uromancy that predicts widening income gaps between the rich and the rest.

We just haven’t been able to reliably nail down a year for the Great Transformation. Until now.

A researcher at the University of Hawaii, who used to work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., thinks he knows. The point of no return will arrive. . .wait for it. . .in 2047. . .give or take.

Camillo Mora, who studies numbers for a living, tells the Globe and Mail’s science reporter Ivan Semeniuk that, overall, this is the year in which climate change will become a permanent feature of life on Earth. . .more or less.

According to the article, “The turning point arrives. . .as a worldwide average, if fossil fuel consumption continues unabated; as late as 2069 if carbon emissions are curbed. City by city, the numbers are a bit more revealing. In Montreal, for example, the new normal will arrive in 2046, and for Vancouver not until 2056. But the real spotlight of Dr. Mora’s study is the tropics, where profound changes could be entrenched in little more than a decade.”

As the good doctor says, “Today, when people talk about climate change, the images that come to mind are melting ice and polar bears. People might infer from this that the tropics will be less affected.”

People would be wrong.

But, then, there’s nothing new about that.

Once, not very long ago, people assumed that economic globalization would insert several chickens in pots from Beijing to Kalamazoo – that gross domestic products around the world would rise like juggernauts, heedless of any and all counterforces they may encounter.

Once, not very long ago, people assumed that democratically elected governments served the best, common interests of the majority of voters – that reason and circumspection would effectively quell fanatical and reactionary figures intent on reshaping the public sphere in their own ideologically pinched and impoverished image.

Now comes word from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that, generally speaking, the world’s got itself in an economic ringer – one from which it is not likely to emerge any time soon. Welcome to the age of slow growth.

“Emerging economies have cooled off,” an item in The New York Times reveals. “Europe remains in the doldrums. The United States is facing fiscal uncertainty, and its powerful central bank is contemplating easing up on its extraordinary stimulus efforts, with potentially global ramifications.”

As things stand, the IMF “foresees the world economy increasing by about 2.9 per cent in 2013 and 3.6 per cent in 2014. That is down from 5.4 per cent in 2007, before the global recession hit.”

If its predictions pan out, a few will be spared, thanks to their impenetrable cocoons of wealth and privilege. But most can expect lower standards of living, fewer good jobs, higher costs and increasing poverty and homelessness.

Meanwhile, over in Washington, D.C., legislators are twiddling their thumbs.

“The federal government shutdown and looming deadline to raise the debt ceiling have merged into one major problem on Capitol Hill, though neither issue has a resolution in sight as the government shutdown heads into its second week,” CBS News reports. “Democrats and Republicans (have) dug further into their respective positions: Republicans are calling on Democrats to negotiate over a short-term spending bill and a debt-ceiling increase, and President Obama says he is ready to negotiate over any topic – once the Republicans pass legislation to re-open the government and raise the U.S. borrowing limit without any conditions.”

All of which prompted Laurence Booth of the University of Toronto’s esteemed Rotman School of Management to tell the Toronto Star, “Any sane person obviously believes the U.S. isn’t going to default. That would cause an earthquake in financial markets around the globe.”

Of course, once upon a time, any sane person obviously believed that climate change could very well spell the end of the world – at least, as we know it.

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Climate science’s vaporous certainties

Ooops! Are my windmills suddenly blowing hot air?

Ooops! Are my windmills suddenly blowing hot air?

 

Mother Nature abhors a pigeon hole. Just when we think we’ve labelled and tagged her and put her to bed for the night, she flies the coop, leaving us with the uneasy feeling that when it comes to the vagaries of creation we don’t actually know as much as we thought we did.

That proposition must be dawning in the minds of several scientists these days as they prepare to receive the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fifth report on global warming. Conventional wisdom would expect the document to confirm the inexorable, upward rise of global temperature as a result, in large part, to manmade sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Conventional wisdom would be wrong.

Instead, according to information leaked to the world’s media, the report will likely observe that the planet’s average surface temperature has held pretty much steadily since the turn of the century and that increases in the near-to-medium-term will probably not be as dramatic as was once predicted back in 2007, when Al Gore and co. snagged a Nobel Peace Prize for playing the environment’s Cassandra.

It is, to say the least, an inconvenient truth. Or, as IPCC member Shang-Ping Xie, a California-based oceanographer, told the Los Angeles Times last week, “It’s contentious. The stakes have been raised by various people, especially the skeptics.”

So, what went wrong? The broad consensus is: Nobody knows.

Some criticize the IPCC for its bloody-minded swagger over the past several years. Judith Curry, a Georgia Institute of Technology climatologist – who was herself a panel assessor – told the LA Times, “All other things being equal, adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will have a warming effect on the planet. However, all things are never equal, and what we are seeing is natural climate variability dominating over human impact.”

Others insist that anthropogenic warming is still extant. It’s just on vacation. Meanwhile, researchers, including Xie, are floating a theory that the Pacific Ocean – the world’s largest body of water – has been sucking the heat out of the atmosphere and storing it presumably until such time as it belches it back out.

Evidence for this phenomenon apparently shows up in average sea levels, which are continuing to rise. Quoting one climate scientist, the LA Times writes that this proves  “that greenhouse gases are continuing to heat the planet. . .(because). . .as ocean water warms, it expands and drives sea levels higher.”

Still, if we can’t reliably predict how the climate will behave, we have no such difficulty anticipating the opprobrium among the world’s chattering skeptics. A virtual tidal wave of “I-told-you-so” now threatens to drown what remains of the science.

“Too many people have too much invested in perpetuating this fiction,” Cal Thomas of the Tribune Content Agency writes, without actually commenting on the latest IPCC report. “Billions of dollars and other currencies have been diverted into ‘green’ projects in a Chicken Little attempt to stop the sky from falling. The BBC reports it as fact in virtually every story it does on the environment. Ditto the American media. Most media ignore evidence that counters climate change proponents.

“Former Vice President Al Gore has made a personal fortune promoting the cult of global warming, a cult being partially defined as a belief system that ignores proof contrary to its beliefs. Perhaps the climate change counter-revolutionaries should adopt the yo-yo as their symbol and send Gore and his apostles a box of them.”

The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente comments more circumspectly: “When it comes to the intricacies of climate change, the science is notoriously unsettled. the only consensus that exists is the well-established fact that human activity is contributing to global warming. Beyond that, it’s all hypothesis and speculation.”

What’s more, there’s now less certainty in research circles about the deleterious effects of climate change. Some experts (though, not many) are beginning to suggest that slightly milder temperatures might actually benefit societies, especially those north of the equator.

Again, though, who’s to say?

About the only certain comfort the world’s climatologists can take from all of this is that the renewed uncertainty about the weather is not born of inexpert opinion.

They, the scientists themselves, observe nature’s fickle response to the incontrovertible facts they thought they knew.

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Here comes the sun in N.B.?

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Lost in New Brunswick’s roiling energy debates over shale gas (will hydrofracking transform us into mutant mole people?) and wind power (will the turning of turbines send us to the loony bin?) is one alternative about which you almost never hear.

You won’t find it easily in the official literature dutifully compiled by the province’s  energy and environment departments or by NB Power, now gamely justifying is disastrous investments in the Point Lepreau nuclear plant.

But it is the ubiquitous feature of every hot summer morning, every frigid winter afternoon and all the days between: the sun.

While much of Canada has been consumed, in recent years, by the thankless task of weighing the virtues and vices of its plentiful supply of fossil fuel, other nations of the world have been moving ahead with plans to increase their solar energy capacities. The reasons are as mundane and familiar as they come: improving technology and falling costs are making a solid business case for manufacturers and operators, alike.

Writing, recently, in the Huffington Post, reporter James Gerken observed, “A dramatic drop in the price of solar power technology last year helped the continued growth of renewable energy, according to a U.N.-backed report. . .Global energy-generating capacity from renewable sources rose by 115 gigawatts in 2012, compared with 105 gigawatts the previous year, the report by the Paris-based think tank REN21 showed.”

Specifically, he reported, “The drop in solar prices – fuelled by Chinese manufacturers – helped bring the overall cost of investment in renewables down 12 per cent to $244 billion from $279 billion in 2011, effectively boosting the amount of generating capacity investors can get for their money.”

Meanwhile, according to a Reuters piece last month, “New solar photovoltaic power installations in the United States totaled 723 megawatts (MW) during the first quarter, up 33 per cent over the same period in 2012. . .GTM Research and Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) forecast that during 2013, the industry will install 4.4 gigawatts (GW) of photovoltaic power facilities – enough to power about 800,000 average American homes.

“That will rise to nearly 9.2 GW annually in 2016. As the cost of solar photovoltaic panels declines, solar power is one of the fastest-growing new energy sources in the United States. ‘Installations will speed up over the next four years as projects become economically preferable to retail  power in more locations,’  said Shayle Kann, vice president of research at renewable power information company GTM, a unit of Greentech Media.”

In fact, in a recent letter to the Globe and Mail, a spokesperson for the Canadian Solar Industries Association declared, “Last year, Europe added almost all of Ontario’s current generating capacity in one year and most of it was solar.” Ian MacLellan went on to write, “The world is in the middle of a fundamental transition in our energy-based economy. It started about 20 years ago and it will take about another 20 years to complete. This transition is happening much faster than even most solar experts had predicted.”

That last statement might be a little rose-coloured. The economic forces that now make solar energy viable for many are also eminently reversible. What’s more, the biggest advances in all forms of renewable energy (including solar) appear to be taking place in developing and emerging economies, simply because these are, effectively, “greenfields” without integrated, fossil-fuel-dominated infrastructure.

Then, of course, there’s always the not-in-my-backyard syndrome, of which it is never wise to discount.

“A Devon (U.K.) councillor has branded solar farms as being like concentration camps after the latest plans to install panels in the countryside was revealed,” The Telegraph reported in April. “Julian Brazil, a Lib Dem councillor at Devon County Council, spoke out as another solar energy farm was given the green light by the council’s development management committee. He told the meeting: ‘They look horrible, not dissimilar to concentration camps. But we are told by the Planning Minister to press ahead with these.’”

Still, these problems are by no means unsurmountable. And solving them could happily preoccupy New Brunswick’s innovators (and elected officials), who are always looking for new ways to dispel the clouds that hang over the province’s economy and let in a little sunshine.

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