Tag Archives: global warming

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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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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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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How to tame a vanishing wilderness

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One item that seems conspicuously absent from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s wilderness kit, as he tromps across the Canada’s vast Arctic expanse this month, is a well-thumbed copy of Farley Mowat’s 1956 children’s classic, Two Against the North, also known in some publishing quarters as Lost in the Barrens.

The story tells the tale of a white boy, Jaime, and his Cree companion, Awasin, who overcome enormous odds to survive a season stranded on the brutal tundra. (Think Australian outback, except colder). During their sojourn, their cultural differences dissolve and heir friendship deepens. So does their respect for nature.

What’s not often mentioned in the literature reviews is that the book is also a pretty good survival guide for anyone who suddenly finds himself, say, needing to pitch a tent or light a pot of seal oil.

As the Globe and Mail reported last week, “An Inuit elder and Ranger dressed in traditional animal skins taught (Mr. Harper) how to build an inuksuk, the famous northern stone figure. They later erected a traditional animal skin shelter. Mr. Harper set up the pole inside the structure under direction from his wife, Laureen Harper. The Prime Minister was also instructed how to light a traditional carved bowl lamp – which uses seal oil – but was unable to set it afire. Mr. Harper remarked wryly: ‘I guess I’d die in the wilderness.’”

Sure, but what a way to go. Canadians’ – especially southern Canadians – love affair with their great boreal region grows more ardent in late summer, when the mug and grime of the urban landscape tests all but the most stoic, the Northern Lights crackle and dance in the imagination and the call of the wild is a primal scream.

“There is nothing worth living for but to have one’s name inscribed on the Arctic chart,” the 19th century English Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once remarked. Mr. Harper might well agree. Every summer, the glaciers continue their relentless retreat and the polar ice recedes into memory. Every summer, the prime minister is there to bear witness to both loss and opportunity, as if to say the north isn’t what it used to be and likely never will be again. But is that, he is wont to query, necessarily a bad thing?

“We recognize that the Arctic is growing more accessible to international shipping,” he said in Churchill, Manitoba, two years ago. “The various circumpolar countries are pressing claims that may conflict with our own. The global demand for northern resources is growing. . .The first and highest priority of our northern strategy is the protection of our Arctic sovereignty. And as I have said many times before, the first principle of sovereignty is to use it or lose it.”

Of course, the federal government’s commitment to the region depends on an essentially dialectical arrangement with the truth: Global warming is mostly hype, but that doesn’t mean we can’t exploit it. In this, the environment takes a back seat to geopolitics and whispering ski-doos.

“The Canadian military has been secretly test-driving a $620,000 stealth snowmobile in its quest to quietly whisk troops on clandestine operations in the Arctic,” reports The Canadian Press. “The Department of National Defence even has a nickname for its cutting-edge, covert tool: ‘Loki,’ after the ‘mythological Norse shape-shifting god.’”

The Arctic, today, is not only a proving ground for the armed forces; it is the site of previously undreamt economic development. Or, as Mr. Harper’s northern strategy declares, “From the development of world-class diamond mines and massive oil and gas reserves, to a thriving tourism industry that attracts visitors from around the globe, the enormous economic potential of the North is on the cusp of being unlocked.The Government is taking action to encourage future exploration and development by improving Northern regulatory systems and investing in critical infrastructure to attract investors and developers to the North.”

So much for the pitching of tents and the igniting of lamps. So much for the sentimentalities of the south. Soon, the brightest of the northern lights will belong to the derricks and diggers of industry.

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A cold-water wake-up call from Mother Nature

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As the flood waters in Calgary begin to abate, the question turns – as it so often does in such cases – to the issue of culpability. Who’s to blame?

Was Mother Nature having an especially bad day when she dumped more than 100 millimeters of rain in less than a day on the western city? Or was there more to the deluge than met the eye? Did we humans exacerbate the hydrological cycle through global warming and then promptly ignore the predictable consequences?

In his commentary, which appeared in major newspapers across the country last week, nationally award-winning energy writer and Calgarian Andrew Nikiforuk answers definitively. “If nothing else the city’s often arrogant elites have been reminded that the province’s Chinese-style economic growth is vulnerable to extreme events,” he notes. “A crowded and overdeveloped province of four million is nowhere near as resilient as a province of one million. . .Albertans have also learned that climate change delivers two extremes: more water when you don’t need it, and not enough water when you do. The geographically challenged have also become learned, once again, that water travels downhill and even inundates flood plains. So climate change is not a mirage. Nor is it weird science or tomorrow’s news. It is now part of the flow of daily life.”

In fact, according to a Global News report (also covered by other print and broadcast outlets), “Strategies to prevent another devastating Albertan deluge sat on the provincial government’s desk for more than half-a-dozen years. George Groeneveld headed a flood mitigation committee after record-breaking rainfall and river levels soaked the Calgary region in 2005. They were tasked with figuring out how to lessen the risk of a recurrence and spent a year coming up with 18 recommendations.”

The suggestions included ensuring the Alberta Environment “coordinate the completion of flood risk maps for the identified urban flood risk areas in the province; develop a map maintenance program to ensure that the flood risk maps are updated when appropriate; identify priority rural flood risk areas that require flood risk mapping and develop a program to prepare the maps.”

In an interview with Global News, Mr. Groeneveld said “Of course I’ve always been disappointed. . .People have very short memories with floods: Go through one good year and they start to relax again.”

The signature feature of climate change is the increasing occurrence of extreme weather events. On the East Coast, that means the number and severity of hurricanes is rising. On the Great Plains and prairies, the number of super cells producing supremely destructive tornadoes is on the upswing. It means more and longer droughts; more and deadlier wildfires; and it means more water falling from on high. Much more.

According to an item in the Calgary Herald, John Pomeroy, a Canada research chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, says the floods in the Alberta foothills has “changed changed the Rockies. . .forever. . .He says the overflowing waters have changed everything from how the landscape will handle future flooding to the animals that live in it. Pomeroy says Alberta towns and cities will need much better flood defences in the future to handle high rainfall events. He says the Bow River has swallowed so much silt from eroding banks that its status as a blue-ribbon trout stream is in doubt. Pomeroy says many of the developments that have been affected by the flooding should never have been built in the first place.”

Given the crucial role Alberta now plays in the Canadian economy, these so-called “natural disasters” are no longer local calamities; they are clear and present threats to national security.

And while it may be one thing to turn a blind eye to the science of global warming, it is quite another to reject the evidence one’s own eye gathers as the sky proceeds to fall on one’s head.

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