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.