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General · 17th March 2012
Ray Grigg
Dr. Nina Federoff, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said at a recent gathering of the AAAS in Vancouver that she is "scared to death" about the public's declining acceptance of global warming and the growing influence of well-funded skeptics who are spreading misinformation about climate change (Times-Colonist, Feb. 27/12).

"I'm very worried," she confided to reporters, noting leaked documents from the influential Heartland Institute of Chicago that reveal it is planning a program for US public schools intended to discredit the evidence that the burning of fossil fuels is creating world-wide environmental threats.

Dr. Federoff, of course, is from America where right-wing politics and religious fundamentalism have reacted so negatively to the reason and empiricism so crucial to scientific thought. Public support for the science of climate change is waning in the US, she noted, "even as the scientific consensus has increased."

The AAAS meeting in Vancouver also provided Canadian scientists with an opportunity to voice their concern about this country's version of the American problem. They complain that Canada's federal government has been "muzzling" the scientists it employs, forcing them to vet any communication with the media through a complex process of centralized control that usually ends with no interviews at all, or with versions that are sufficiently sanitized to be politically comfortable. Dr. Andrew Weaver, Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria, has expressed exasperation with this constraint on the public's access to scientific information. While his colleague in the US, Dr. James Hansen – one of the foremost experts in the world on climate change – has even resorted to the extreme of civil disobedience to highlight his concern about government inaction and obstruction.

Although complaint and exasperation are more restrained responses than civil disobedience, they are stages on the way to being "very worried" and "scared to death". Perhaps Dr. Federoff is just being more emotionally honest than many of her colleagues, simply revealing what the habit of scientific objectivity keeps them from expressing so candidly. But is being "scared to death" a legitimate response? What does she know about climate change that would provoke such fear?

Part of her fear may stem from living in America where the debilitating effect of a strong anti-science sentiment is keeping one of the principle political and economic forces on the planet from actively joining a world-wide effort to combat global climate change. If this critically important environmental issue is to be seriously addressed, it will need America's full support. And, if the past is prelude to the future, this is not likely to happen anytime soon.

The implications are sobering given the consensus of scientific evidence about the environmental consequences of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Unless this science is fundamentally flawed, unless a technological miracle suddenly supplies massive amounts of clean energy, or unless a revolution in public opinion radically alters the disposition of global politics, the prognosis for climate normality is sobering.

Here is our present situation, as outlined by the International Energy Agency (IEA), "widely considered as one of the most conservative in outlook" (Guardian Weekly, Nov. 18/11). Global emissions already consume 80 percent of the carbon allotment calculated to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide below 450 parts per million, the concentration that scientists predict will increase global temperatures above a critical 2°C tipping point. By 2015, at least 90 percent of this allotment will be used by energy and industrial infrastructure. By 2017, it will be all used, according to the IEA's estimations, and we will have surpassed the critical 2°C tipping point (Ibid.).

Now juxtapose this assessment with the results of last December's United Nations' climate talks in Durban, South Africa. International negotiations for emission reductions will occur until 2015 and then unspecified targets – perhaps neither binding nor enforceable – will be in place by 2020.

In response to this tardy and vague objective, Fatih Birol, chief economist for the IEA, echoed Dr. Federoff's words. "The door is closing," he warned. "I am very worried – if we don't change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [level of carbon dioxide for safety]. The door will be closed forever" (Ibid.).

We the public, the people of Canada and the world, must decide if this stark assessment is real, imaginary or the fabricated concoction of some global conspiracy intent on undermining the momentum of an economic, industrial and technological system that has been materially successful beyond our imagination. And we must weigh this success against the precious little time we have to halt immeasurable environmental mayhem. Then this decision must be conveyed to our leaders, by whatever political system we have, either to effect the rapid change required to avert a crisis, or to live with the risk and continue as if the scientific assessment of our situation is faulty. It's a sobering decision.

Perhaps, in making this decision, we might each ask ourselves why Nina Federoff is "scared to death".