Tag Archives: climate change

Fiscal, climate cliffs lead us to the same place

Sitting at a café in Washington, D.C., surrounded by local newspapers and watching a news channel on a wall-mounted television, you’d never know there was an international climate conference being held 11,000 kilometres away.

The talk here is fiscal cliff. There could be a 24-hour channel dedicated to it.

The talk in Doha, Qatar, is climate cliff. Try getting a 24-hour news channel to make more than a brief mention of it.

Indeed, much of what coverage there has been is about the irony of holding the 18th United Nations Climate Change Conference in a country with the world’s largest greenhouse-gas footprint, and in an oil-rich region expected to get pummeled severely by climate change.

The Middle East is already one of the hottest spots on the planet, so the added average rise of 2 degrees C expected by 2050 will make the heat that much more oppressive. It doesn’t get much rain to begin with, but it is expected to get even less over the years. Sand storms are likely to become more frequent and destructive.

And fresh water? Qatar is already one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, with underground aquifers expected to be depleted within two or three decades.

People need to drink. Crops need watering. Lacking drinking water and food, folks start to get angry. As if the Middle East wasn’t volatile enough.

“For a region that is already vulnerable to many non-climate stresses, climate change and its potential physical and socioeconomic impacts are likely to exacerbate this vulnerability, leading to large scale instability,” according to a 2010 U.N. report on the Middle East and North Africa.

“Climate change is likely to act as a risk multiplier, aggravating water scarcity. Water scarcity on the other hand threatens food security by reducing agricultural productivity, as well as hindering human health and economic development.”

So what does Qatar and its neighbours see as the short-term solution to the water crisis? They have grand plans to use more solar and nuclear power, but the reality is that they’re burning more fossil fuels – a combination of oil and natural gas – to power the large-scale desalination facilities needed to turn sea water into water for irrigating crops or drinking.

In other words, the rising need for water desalination because of the impacts of climate change is leading to more use of the fossil fuels that spew heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That’s what one could call a positive feedback loop.

Saudi Arabia is arguably the worst offender on this front, as Canadian economist and author Jeff Rubin likes to point out. In his latest book, The End of Growth, he writes that the Saudis currently burn more than three million barrels of oil daily to meet their own energy needs, and nearly half – yes, half—of that oil is used for facilities that take salt out of seawater.

And let’s not forget all that salt has to go somewhere. Right now, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others are dumping the salt back into the Persian Gulf. It’s estimated that Qatar alone by 2020 could be dumping the equivalent of 4,600 shipping containers full of pure salt back into Gulf waters – daily – increasing brine concentrations in an already stressed body of water.

Of course, the Middle East isn’t the only region that’s challenged. It’s why these annual U.N. climate conferences have increasingly drawn more business interest over the years.

Tackling problems like pollution, greenhouse-gas emissions and water scarcity will require hundreds of billions of dollars in capital, and most governments are tapped out.

The private sector is being looked to both as the source and funder of energy-efficient, low-carbon solutions. It’s why healing the climate is a massive economic opportunity, or as U.K. billionaire Richard Branson likes to say: “Saving the world is good for business.”

And big business should be at the table. According to a report from the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute, there are 80,000 transnational corporations worldwide but 40 per cent of their total value is represented by just 147 of them – or one-fifth of 1 per cent.

These same companies want certainty, which is why more than 100 of the world’s largest corporations – including Shell, Swiss Re, Unilever and Statoil – have used the Doha conference to call on all governments to get on with creating a global price on carbon.

These same companies are also increasingly realizing that the natural world around them – what are often called ecological services, from an economic perspective – make their existence possible.

“They are not islands: corporations operate within a vast economic system that includes a multitude of players and variables,” the authors of the Worldwatch report emphasized. “Any vision of a sustainable future must include full recognition of the role that transnational corporations play in shaping the planet’s human and ecological destiny.”

Technology won’t solve all of our problems. It goes hand-in-hand with changes in behaviour. In many cases, whether talking about countries or businesses or consumers, it comes down to simply wasting less and being smarter about how we make and consume “stuff.”

Strangely enough, this all ties directly to the fiscal cliff issue, as wasting less, being smarter, embracing efficiency and improving productivity all help sustain economic prosperity. Failing to do all of this only pushes us that much closer to the edge of both cliffs.

The climate cliff and fiscal cliff ultimately lead us to the same place. One is Butch Cassidy; the other is the Sundance Kid. They both take the plunge together. Ignoring one to focus on the other is pointless, really, whether you’re sitting in Doha, Washington or Ottawa.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

International Energy Agency says current pace of clean energy development won’t cut it to avoid worst of climate impacts

My latest Clean Break column:

Tyler Hamilton

Climate-change skeptics like to call environmentalists “alarmists” because of their call for urgent action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The skeptics say the science is too uncertain, that there’s no rush to act, and those who argue otherwise are sanctimonious lefties out of touch with reality.

For them it’s drill baby, drill.

It’s a convenient way of dismissing bad news, which is why it’s important when traditionally conservative organizations like the International Energy Agency weigh in on the issue with their own call for accelerated action.

This week, the Paris-based agency with an oil-soaked history said the world, if it has any hope of keeping the average rise in global temperatures to below 2 degrees C, needs to double its rate of spending on clean-energy infrastructure between now and 2020.

It goes on to say that if controlling carbon emissions is truly a priority, the world needs to spend $36 trillion (U.S.) between now and 2050 on low-carbon technologies, on top of the $100 trillion or so needed under a business-as-usual scenario.

“This is the equivalent of $130 per person every year,” said the agency, pointing out that the spending should be considered an investment rather than an expense. “Every additional dollar invested can generate three dollars in future fuel savings by 2050.”

The clean energy technologies we require already exist, the agency’s executive director, Maria van der Hoeven, pointed out. Offshore wind power, concentrated solar power and carbon capture and storage were cited by the agency as the technologies with the most potential but the least traction.

“It’s there and we’re not using it,” she lamented, at the same time urging governments to wake up to the “dangers” of complacency. “The evidence of climate change, if anything, has gotten stronger. At the same time, it has fallen further down the political agenda.”

The fact investment is nowhere near what’s needed is reason for concern, she added. On our current investment path, global carbon dioxide emissions are likely to nearly double by 2050.

“Are we on track to reach out 2-degree goal? No, we aren’t,” she said bluntly. “Our ongoing failure to realize the full potential of clean energy technology and tapping energy efficiency is alarming.”

It bears emphasizing: these are not the words of Greenpeace or Al Gore or David Suzuki; these are the words of a 38-year-old international organization whose original mandate, and the reason for its creation, was to monitor and manage global oil markets in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis.

The International Energy Agency has until the past few years placed energy security and economic development well ahead of environmental protection, and it has been repeatedly accused of having a fossil-fuel bias while underestimating the potential of renewable energy.

But these days it’s singing a different tune. Fatih Birol, the agency’s chief economist, has been quite frank over the past three years about what lies ahead. Commenting on global CO2 emissions data last month, Birol said the trend is “perfectly in line” with a temperature increase of 6 degrees C by 2050. That, he added, “would have devastating consequences for the planet.”

Alarmist, granola-munching tree hugger!

Perhaps this puts into perspective why so many environmental groups and members of the general public are concerned about projects such as the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway oil pipeline projects.

The companies behind them aren’t investing billions of dollars for infrastructure that will only be needed temporarily. They expect a payback, and that means keeping the infrastructure flowing with oil at high capacity for at least the next half century. The same thinking applies to coal-fired power plants built today.

“Fossil fuels remain dominant and demand continues to grow, locking in high-carbon infrastructure,” according to the energy agency. “The investments made today will determine the energy system that is in place in 2050.”

That’s what many people are worried about, and not just environmentalists. They know that the decisions we make today will have a profound impact on the quality of life of our children and their children tomorrow.

Some, including certain federal cabinet ministers, may deem that radical. Most common sense folk would call it risk management.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

National Academy of Sciences blames media for climate confusion

Here’s a nice little nugget from a recent report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (hat tip to Joe Romm):

Most people rely on secondary sources for information, especially the mass media; and some of these sources are affected by concerted campaigns against policies to limit CO2 emissions, which promote beliefs about climate change that are not well-supported by scientific evidence. U.S. media coverage sometimes presents aspects of climate change that are uncontroversial among the research community as being matters of serious scientific debate. Such factors likely play a role in the increasing polarization of public beliefs about climate change, along lines of political ideology, that has been observed in the United States.

The 50 “most prolific” writers on climate change in 2010, including me? Globe and Mail, meanwhile, let’s coverage fall by half

I was surprised to find myself on a list from Daily Climate that ranks those journalists around the world who best covered climate change issues in 2010. My inclusion was based on stories I wrote for the Toronto Star, and according to the list I wrote 35 stories for the year, giving me a rank of 46th — far from leader Andrew Revkin, environmental blogger/reporter extraordinaire from the New York Times, who topped the list with 146 stories. Frankly, I don’t feel I cover climate change enough, and I wonder if my blog posts were mistakenly included. I’m not an environmental reporter per se, though my focus on green energy and clean technologies obviously gives me grounds to write frequently about a broad range of environmental issues, including climate change, which occupies my mind daily. I’m happy to be on the list, but what’s disappointing is the overall results, as reporting dropped 22 per cent in 2010 compared to 2009. Daily Climate, however, singled out the New York Times, Reuters, Associated Press and the London Guardian for keeping most active on the issue. At the same time, other papers have dropped the ball, including Canada’s Globe and Mail, which let its coverage fall by 51 per cent. Shame.

John Allemang at Globe and Mail also celebrates a Canada that benefits from the suffering of others

Obviously Globe and Mail feature writer John Allemang was trying to have fun with this piece — though I’m not sure anyone found it funny — and intended to be controversial. He’s not a climate-change denier, though he could be a denier of human-caused climate change — it’s unclear. What is clear is that he’s joining a club of navel-gazing Canadians who are climate-change embracers, a group of folks who see (quite inaccurately, I should say) their own position in the world and their own fortune rising at the expense of others. Climate change will make Canada warmer, they say. It will open up economic opportunities, including oil and gas exploration and tourism in the north. As Hollywood dries up and burns the movie industry will relocate to Vancouver and Toronto. Disney has opened polar bear parks in the north. Ontario’s wine industry is thriving. We’re getting rich by selling water to the thirsty U.S. southwest. What’s there to complain about?

” Canada in 2050 isn’t utopia – not yet, though we’re working on it. With that said, I think you’d find it  pretty incredible,” he writes. “There are no votes in despair, no profits in pessimism. The future, sad to report, turns out to be happy-faced. And remember what they say, or what they will say once you start coming to terms with your good luck: The 21st century belongs to Canada.”

Right. Thanks for the pep talk, John. Now can we get back to reality?

I took issue with this approach when the Sun’s Lorrie Goldstein wrote a column that reviewed, with a kind of glee, the conclusions of a new book by UCLA professor Laurence Smith. You can read my responses to Goldstein’s column here. He mentioned the same things: how climate change will open up the north and its abundance of natural resources, including oil and minerals; how Canada’s oil resources will lead the world; how the population will explode; how Canada’s major cities will become world power capitals; how we can get rich by selling our fresh water; how crops will likely flourish; and how tourism will open up in the north.

This rosy outlook painted by Allemang and Goldstein, via his “review” of a press release of Smith’s book The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future, conveniently ignores the major problems we’ll experience. Disease and sudden infestation of our crops and forests, which will not have enough time to adapt; a flood of climate refugees that will collapse our already overstressed social and healthcare system; rising pollution that will make our “fresh” water less fresh; forest fires like we saw in Russia this summer… and the list goes on. They also seem to praise rapid population growth as a good thing, and put Canada’s own wealth ahead of its moral obligations to the rest of the world. They also ignore that the situation, while potentially lucrative for a select group in 2050, isn’t sustainable. If we just continue on a path of business-as-usual any benefits experienced by Canada over the coming decades will disappear just as fast as they came. Is it really sustainable to believe, like that freakyTwilight Zone expisode, that we can just keep heading north to avoid all the bad stuff? Eventually, folks, we run out of north. Sounds like fun, eh? Something to celebrate, eh? Another note: we live on an interdependent planet in an era of hyperglobalization. When dominoes fall they all fall. See recent global recession. See Jared Diamond’s Collapse. And do we believe we can adapt without any pain, regardless of where we are on the planet, in just a few decades? Get real.

I’m all for adaptation, because I know that regardless of what actions we take we’ve already passed a point of no return and temperatures will rise. The question is by how much, and what can we do from now until then to minimize that rise. So yes, let’s adapt, but not at the expense of mitigation. Allemang and Goldstein seem to think that mitigation is pointless: bring on climate change! That’s very easy to say from a newsroom armchair.

I had an e-mail exchange with Goldstein after my earlier post. He didn’t like my treatment of his column because I made it seem like it represented his own conclusions, when in fact what he was doing was reviewing a book and laying out the conclusions of a respected climate-change expert from UCLA. “Logically, you should have been much more concerned that these are the views of a credible Arctic scientist, and climate change expert, who is also concerned about the negative impacts of climate change,” Goldstein wrote me.

He was right — I was sloppy in that earlier blog post and made the necessary changes to clarify it. What I also did was contact Prof. Smith to get his thoughts on some of the columns and stories being written in Canada that celebrate the benefits climate change will bring the north, and which use his book as the basis for the celebration. Here’s what Smith wrote back:

The handful of ‘benefits’ accrued by a small fraction of the world will be overwhelmingly exceeded by negative impacts in the rest of the world. I’m already alarmed by the angle being seized by some Canadian papers, i.e. “great! this is all good for Canada!” I hope this perception fades quickly next week, when the book comes out and people actually read it.  I argue strongly against coal development globally, and Alberta’s tar sands specifically, for example. The book maintains a neutral/scientific tone throughout and I always point out both sides of an issue, but end it with a moral argument about the role of societal choice… it is my sincerest hope that people get the message and realize the goal of this book is to avert it biggest conclusions, not to justify them. Far from encouraging “northern development,” it is my sincere hope that this book will challenge people to think harder about the long term negative impacts of our current trajectories, and motivate real action to avert many of the terrible outcomes it projects.

So yes, I guess the glasses are rose-coloured when you’re looking only at the roses. Turn your head slightly to the left or right and, well, those roses begin to wilt.