By Michael Jessen
It's a simple thing we all take for granted -- the ability to stand outside at night and gaze at the stars on a summer night. If you're in the Arctic or Antarctica, you may have to wear a parka, but you can still do it.
Standing outside at night pondering the universe is something that can only be done on Earth thanks to a complex interaction of gases called the greenhouse effect. If you stood on a planet like Mars, which has almost no atmosphere and no greenhouse effect, the sun would keep you warm during the day at 36º Celsius (98º Fahrenheit), but at night, when the temperature fell to -123º C (-189º F), well you'd freeze your butt off!
Earth's atmosphere contains just the right mix of gases that trap the sun's heat, giving us the ideal conditions for human civilization to thrive. It is composed of 77% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.9% argon, 1% water vapor, and 0.3% trace gases [CO2 275 parts per million (PPM), methane 700 parts per billion, nitrous oxide 275 parts per billion]. Water vapor, CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide all trap the Earth's heat as it is reflected back into the coldness of space. Without this greenhouse effect, Earth's average temperature would be -18º C (0º F) and fresh garden tomatoes, lettuce, raspberries, and apples just wouldn't grow.
CO2 is the gas that makes the biggest difference. In the past 400,000 years, CO2 levels have only fallen below 200 PPM on four occasions and each time an ice age occurred as Earth's surface temperature fell by about 5º C. In all those years, CO2 levels never exceeded 298 PPM and Earth's surface temperature never varied more than 3º C above today's.
By 2000, CO levels had reached 370 PPM, the highest in 20 million years and temperatures records were falling. Forget that a few days ago 90 BC communities recorded their lowest maximum temperatures for August 4th, the evidence points to the Earth getting hotter. A lot hotter.
The first six months of the year have been the second warmest ever and average global temperatures in 2002 could be the highest ever recorded, British weather experts said on August 2. "Globally 2002 is likely to be warmer than 2001, and may even break the record set in 1998," said Briony Horton, the Meteorological Office's climate research scientist.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body that advises governments on long-term climatic variations, blames global warming -- caused by rising emissions of those greenhouse gases which trap heat in the atmosphere -- for the rise in temperatures. "We agree with them," a Met Office spokesman told Reuters News Agency. "Since 1970 there has been a marked trend in the rise of global temperatures. The actual rise prior to 1970 was partly man-made and partly due to natural effects. But since 1970 scientists are in fairly general agreement that warming can be attributed to man's polluting activities."
The Met Office said global temperatures were 0.57º C (1.03º F) higher than the long term average of about 15º C (59º F) in the period from January to June. In the nearly 150 years since recording began, only in 1998 has the difference been higher, 0.6º C (1.08º F), and that was caused by the influence of the El Nino weather phenomenon. The figures also showed that the northern hemisphere had enjoyed its warmest ever half year, with temperatures 0.73º C (1.31º F) above the long term average.
Of the ten warmest years on record since 1860, eight have occurred since 1990. Temperatures are predicted to go higher. In their 2001 report, the IPCC (an elite panel of 2,500 global scientists) revised their estimates upward and said they expected the global temperature to rise by 1.4º to 5.8º C (2.5º to 10.4º F) by 2100. This global warming has been strongly linked with greenhouse gas emissions from human activities such as the burning of more and more fossil fuels -- coal, oil, and gas. As we add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, we magnify the greenhouse effect.
The predicted results are already coming true. Earlier this year the Larsen B ice shelf collapsed during Antarctica's summer and a giant iceberg formed from the southern continent's Ross Ice Shelf. There is record drought throughout much of Canada and the United States this summer. Many in Africa are starving. Tropical diseases like dengue fever and the West Nile virus are spreading. Insurance companies paid out $608 billion in losses from natural disasters (many weather-related) in the 1990s, more than three times the claims in the 1980s and more than the previous four decades combined. There has been increased precipitation and floods worldwide and both forest fires and insect damage to trees are increasing. The glaciers are melting, the oceans are warming, sea levels are rising, and spring is coming earlier.
Scientists say there is only a 1-in-20 chance that the current string of high temperatures is the result of natural variation. Think their equipment is faulty? At the NASA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey, they use a Cray C90 Supercomputer with the power of 256 top-notch Pentium personal computers, capable of performing 15 billion operations a second. They have proven to be generally accurate to within 10%.
So as we sit by our summer bonfires looking up at the stars as Earth hurtles through space and knowing we are privileged to lead the lives we do, how much do we want to gamble that the scientists might be wrong? Are we willing to risk our children's and grandchildren's lives? Are we willing to leave the decision to politicians who are being asked to render a verdict on behalf of voters not yet born?
That decision is the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty negotiated in 1997 in Japan. It committed industrial countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by five percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Canada agreed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) by six per cent between 2008 and 2012. The government of Canada has announced initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 23.7 million tonnes before 2010 which is a four per cent decrease. The plan is expected to cost $425 million. Figures released by Ottawa in September 2000 show Canada's greenhouse gas emissions were 13 per cent higher in 1998 than in 1990 but the figures also show a drop in the amount of additional emissions created in Canada each year. According to The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Canada needs to reduce emissions by 33 million tonnes by 2010 to fulfill its Kyoto target.
Almost every country in Europe as well as Japan, Mexico and other large developing nations have adopted it and final adoption is underway in Russia, New Zealand and elsewhere. On behalf of the United States, President George Bush has rejected the Kyoto accord and Prime Minister John Howard of Australia chose World Environment Day this year to say he was following Dubya's lead. (Of course the United States just happens to be the world's largest consumer of oil and Australia just happens to be the world's largest coal exporter.) With Alberta Premier Ralph Klein firmly opposed to ratification of the protocol, Canada continues to sit on the fence, one of the last remaining industrialized nations to ratify. (Well we know Ralph wouldn't want anything to interfere with the millions his province earns from the Alberta Tar Sands, never mind that these projects are Canada's biggest contributor to our country's greenhouse gas emissions.)
It's time to put the heat on our political leaders. The uncertainty surrounding an issue like climate change is no excuse for inaction. The risks are too high, the threats too many, the possibilities too profound. Without a ratified Kyoto Protocol, we are risking life itself and the choice to look up at the stars and imagine a better world.
ONE GREEN STEP - On average, each Canadian emits about 22.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, one of the highest emission rates in the world. Sit down and write a short letter to Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Mail it postage free to House of Commons, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A6. Send it by fax to (613) 941-6900 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you can, send a copy to your local Member of Parliament. If you don't want to write, send him a copy of this column and say you agree with it. You can also send a fax to the Prime Minister and your Premier online at www.davidsuzuki.org, the web site of the David Suzuki Foundation. You've probably seen their pamphlet "How Hot Does It Have To Get Before They Finally Adopt Kyoto?" If you need more convincing, read the recent analysis (available at www.davidsuzuki.org) published by the David Suzuki Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund which demonstrates that energy-efficient technologies and renewable energy would allow Canada's economy to keep growing, create 52,000 new jobs, and put more money in consumers' pockets because of reduced energy use.
The following is an excerpt from the July/August 2002 issue of EcoNews which you can find at www.earthfuture.com/econews/. "Offset Your Carbon Emissions. Tally up the kilometres you travel by car or air, and make a commitment to repay your summer carbon debt to our children’s future. One litre of gas releases 2.5 kg of CO2; flying is about equivalent to driving, per person - http://www.chooseclimate.org/flying. To neutralize your carbon debt, you could buy compact fluorescent lightbulbs and give them away to a family which would not otherwise be able to afford them. One 15 watt compact fluorescent lightbulb will prevent 396 kg of CO2 from natural gas from being released over its 7-year lifetime. If efficient electricity displaces gas-fired energy from the Burrard thermal plant in Vancouver, you’ll need to give away one 15w lightbulb ($8 - $15 from IKEA or Home Depot) for every 158 litres of gas that your car uses. At 8 litres/100km, that’s one lightbulb for every 2,000 kilometres. For a year’s driving (14,000 km), you’ll need to give away 7 lightbulbs. A return flight from Victoria to Toronto, releasing 2475 kg of CO2, will need 6 lightbulbs." A local charity will doubtless find a good home for your donated lightbulbs.
RESOURCES - "Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change" won authors Guy Dauncey (from Victoria) and Patrick Mazza, and their publishing house New Society Publishers (headquartered on Gabriola Island), the coveted Nautilus Award at the May 2002 New York Book Expo. The annual award recognizes books that make an exceptional contribution to promoting conscious living and positive social change. "Stormy Weather provides a sweeping vision of the issues and comprehensive practical solutions. A must-read for anyone who wants a cleaner, healthier planet," says James Hansen, Director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (www.giss.nasa.gov). Buy this book, it is invaluable. Or you can check out the book's web site at www.earthfuture.com/stormyweather. Ross Gelbspan is the author of "The Heat Is On" (Second Edition, 1998) issued by Perseus Publishing. He is also one of the people behind the web site www.heatisonline.org which can steer you to many more excellent climate related web sites, articles, and books. Alberta's Pembina Institute has a megasite of success stories, interactive tools and resources on actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at www.climatechangesolutions.com. Just like "Stormy Weather," it has solutions tailored to schools, individuals and families, municipal governments, industries, agriculture, and small and medium sized businesses. The Top 100 Climate Sites are at www.100topclimatesites.com/Climate/fossilfuel/100/35k. The Daily Planet's Climate Change News is at www.cnie.org/News/climatenews.htm. The Canadian government web site on climate change is at www.climatechange.gc.ca/. Grist Magazine, a project of the Earth Day Network (www.earthday.net) has a special issue on climate change at www.gristmagazine.com/maindish/powershift073102.asp?source=daily. According to a new study by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, U.S. coastal and marine ecosystems will become increasingly challenged in the next century by the potential impacts of climate change. Based on current projections for climate change in the next century, The Pew Center report, "Coastal and Marine Ecosystems and Global Climate Change: Potential Effects on U.S. Resources," (www.pewclimate.org/projects/marine_e.cfm) explores the hazards climate change will pose to delicate marine life. In Canada, Natural Resources Canada is warning global warming will be a big threat to the country's supply of fresh water over the coming century. The warning is detailed in the paper "Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation: A Canadian Perspective" that provides a review of the recent Canadian impacts and adaptation research (post-1997) and also highlights results from research funded by the Impacts and Adaptation component of the Climate Change Action Fund. Sector-specific chapters will be posted on the web site http://adaptation.nrcan.gc.ca/perspective.asp over the next three months. The final report will be available early in 2003.
Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at Michael@zerowaste.ca. His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at www.zerowaste.ca.
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