October 27, 2010

Looking for good news on climate change

As published in The Erin Advocate

It seems like everywhere you turn these days, someone is cranking the alarm, telling us that life as we know it will be ending sooner instead of later. In this era of instant news and short attention spans, it is hard to maintain a focus on complex disasters like climate change. They say it's happening fast, but it seems so slow.

Depressing news seems to trigger either a hope reflex or a total tune-out. People will seek a quick bite of "It's not going to be that bad", or settle for a forkful of "Why the heck should I care?"

I went looking for some good news on climate change, but the pickin's were slim. I heard climate change expert Don MacIver speak in Alton, at an evening sponsored by Caledon's Green T Environmental Awareness and Credit Valley Conservation (CVC).

MacIver has the ultimate credentials. He is a farmer, the mayor of Amaranth Township (near Shelburne) and a climate change scientist with Environment Canada. As a researcher with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

"The atmosphere is unforgiving," he said. "It doesn't even know we exist. But we have tickled it. We need to find out how we're going to adapt to these changes. Damaging storms will be more common and more severe."

We will need stronger buildings, bridges, roads and drainage systems, and they will have to be replaced more often. Municipalities will need plans to deal with more frequent flooding and heat waves, and be prepared for more freezing rain instead of snow.

Most municipalities are not even able to maintain existing infrastructure, so the situation seems bleak. Can we accept the idea that our standard of living has been unsustainably high, and that sacrifices will have to be made (higher taxes, lower expectations) if we want to preserve a portion of what we have had?

Canada's climate has changed significantly since the 1950s, accelerated by human activity. Temperatures have increased, especially in the winter and spring, with the annual average up 1.4 degrees. There will be more wildfires, more drought in the prairies and higher sea levels – though it will be a long time before we have a shorter drive to the ocean shore.

Since 1960, CVC and its partners have fought the change, planting 2,500 hectares of new forests in the watershed. They hope to capture an extra 5,400 tonnes of carbon per year, adding about .8 per cent to the 6.5 million tonnes our forests already store. As climate zones move north, they will have to plant the types of trees that now flourish in places like Pennsylvania.

The issues now revolve around mitigation, not on stopping or reversing climate change. "It is too late for that – we have to adapt," said MacIver, challenging people to be creative in their response to the crisis. "Climate change doesn't always have to be bad and disastrous."

The harsh realities will be in the news. More people (far away) will perish due to storms and floods. Aboriginal communities (far away) will have to abandon their traditional way of life. Entire species (far away) will be lost to extinction. Nations (far away) will go to war over scarce food and water.

On the bright side, we may get a 20 per cent longer golf season. As polar ice melts, Canada's economy may benefit from northern ports, Arctic tourism and access to more oil, gas and minerals. (No wonder the oil companies are in no rush to slow global warming.)

We live in a protected bubble here, overflowing with resources and suffering few natural disasters. But if the economies of our trading partners are devastated by climate change, our economy will be extremely vulnerable. When we get the inevitable "carbon tax", will we welcome a conserving lifestyle?

If farmers can deal with more drought and pests, maybe they can benefit from a longer growing season. If we can get used to hotter summers, maybe we will appreciate the money saved on winter heating.

Over a million people and a thousand stewardship groups are active in Canada, working to protect or restore forests and wetlands. Together with alternatives to fossil fuels, these efforts will be key to preserving a portion of our standard of living. The fact that Canada produces a small fraction of the world's greenhouse gases should not stop us from showing leadership in this area.

If the average citizen comes to feel personally threatened by changes in the climate, perhaps stewardship efforts will involve the majority of people – an act of communal defence on an increasingly inhospitable planet.