Expired · 29th September 2010
Unless most of the world's scientists are entirely wrong – which is extremely unlikely – we are sliding toward a climate crisis that may already be unstoppable. Meanwhile, Canada's federal government procrastinates, evades and, in some cases, actually obstructs environmental action to mitigate this looming threat.
The government that is most able to initiate, influence and direct national environmental policy is worse than negligent. It has silenced civil-servant scientists, forbidding them to speak publicly without prior political approval. It has subverted Canada's Environmental Assessment Act by attaching crippling legislation to the Budget Implementation Act, a sleazy strategy that essentially eliminates parliamentary debate on crucially important legislation. It has reduced funding to environmental programs and research. It has conspired to scuttle international agreements that would have officially started the long process of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. It has illegally withdrawn from previous such agreements. It has refused to enact carbon taxes or cap-and-trade legislation. Indeed, it behaves as if Canada were exempt from the environmental forces reshaping our planet.
Meanwhile, Canadians – like much of the world – have experienced a summer of such extreme weather that climatologists are left with few descriptive words except "unprecedented" and "extraordinary". These scientists have undoubtedly joined the swelling ranks of the exasperated, those people who have noted the seemingly ideological blindness of Canada's government to the reality of climate change.
A recent survey by the Pembina Institute found that 69 percent of Canadians think its government is doing "a poor job". When coupled with related findings that 79 percent believe Canada should have some kind of a carbon tax, then the public's concern is clearly focused on the climate change issue. Such a conclusion is supported by the independent initiatives of many towns, cities and provinces, and the heroic efforts of multitudes of environmental groups across the country. The public is convinced that climate change is occurring and it expects corrective action.
Granted, the science is not definitive. But science is never absolutely definitive about anything. This is the nature of science. However, the evidence of a warming planet is now so overwhelmingly apparent that the only plausible explanation for federal inaction is either denial, negligence, ineptitude, political cowardice or a grossly inaccurate reading of both public opinion and scientific findings.
The fundamental science of climate change is clear and beyond debate. Add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and the escape of radiant energy into space goes down so temperatures on the planet go up. From a pre-industrial CO2 level of 280 parts per million, atmospheric levels have risen to 389 ppm last year and to 393 ppm this year. Thanks to the obstructive influence of countries like Canada, CO2 levels are actually accelerating upward rather than decreasing, thus locking us into warming conditions that will last for centuries.
Meanwhile, the disruptive effects of CO2 are confirmed by other measurements. (See last week's column, Unmistakable Warming, on the State of the Climate, a report on 10 primary global indicators by more than 300 scientists from 160 research groups in 48 countries.) Climatologists reckon we should keep atmospheric CO2 levels at about 350 ppm to maintain "normal" climate conditions. In simplest terms, compare 350 to 393 and upward to gauge the situation in which we find ourselves. Given a response lag of decades before the full effects of rising CO2 levels are actually felt, we are conducting an uncontrolled global experiment with consequences which we can only vaguely anticipate. No wonder people are responding to governmental inaction with exasperation, a constrained response that is still devoid of overt anger and fear.
During the last few years, science has shifted climate change from the unthinkable to the plausible and then to the probable. We are now staring at the inevitable. This transition in awareness has occurred slowly and reluctantly because no one wants to reach such a profoundly unsettling conclusion. But mounting circumstantial evidence eventually becomes overwhelming. Global climate change has now become a virtual certainty for mainstream scientists and common knowledge for the lay public – except for a dwindling minority of deniers whose inadvertent role as critics has been to refine the science and clarify its conclusions.
Sadly – nay, tragically – Canada's federal government is much less useful. Its role is now comparable to the Flat Earth Society. Since ineptitude is an unlikely explanation for its inaction, then it must lack the bravery to do what circumstances now demand of it. Its power is paralyzed and its cowardice becomes farce. Its leadership is so frozen behind ideology and survival stratagems that it cannot act substantially. In a perversion of political opportunity, the leader is transformed into a follower of himself, so fixated on control that meaningful movement is impossible.
Rather than denial and suppression from its federal government, Canadians need a national dialogue on climate change, an open conversation that will define the challenge, focus public awareness, devise a strategy, and then initiate legislation on this unfolding crisis. Leaders are supposed to assess, plan, consolidate support and then lead. Anything less just creates confusion, frustration and exasperation, not to mention a monumental waste of creative and purposeful energy that could otherwise be directed at solving a looming challenge of epochal importance.