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Andrew Weaver


The Latest Proof of Global Warming? Adios Summer Sea Ice

Posted: 09/09/2012 1:31 am

This past week is one to remember. On the positive side, Summer Mortimer and Benoit Huot continued their impressive medal haul at the 2012 London Paralympics. But more negatively, the federal Tories were up to more of their tricks putting fossil fuel interests ahead of pretty much everything else.

During this past week Arctic sea ice retreated to all-time lows, shattering the previous record set in 2007 by an area roughly the size of (ironically) Alberta. In a bizarre response, cruise ships are now bringing tourists through the inside passage to check things out, and our federal Minister of Natural Resources is in Vancouver trying to convince British Columbians that the proposed Kinder Morgan and Enbridge pipeline projects are a good thing.

Summer sea ice is nearly half of what it used to be just a couple of decades ago. And it is almost certainly committed to melting away in its entirety during the summer as a consequence of existing levels of greenhouse gases. But it gets worse.

On September 9, Andrew MacDougall, Chris Avis and I published a paper in the international journal Nature Geoscience. In it we quantify the magnitude of the permafrost carbon feedback to global warming that had been hitherto unaccounted for in previous assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The news is not good.

Instrumental records have clearly revealed that the world is about 0.8°C warmer than it was during pre-industrial times. Numerous studies have also indicated that as a consequence of existing levels of greenhouse gases, we have a commitment to an additional future global warming of between 0.6 and 0.7°C. Our analysis points out that the permafrost carbon feedback adds to this another 0.4 to 0.8°C warming. Taken together, the planet is committed to between 1.8 and 2.3°C of future global warming -- even if emissions reductions programs start to get implemented.

Canadians are concerned. Opinion poll after opinion poll reveals a high level of willingness within Canada to introduce policies to combat global warming. And the government repeatedly assures us that they get this.

For example, in June 2007 Prime Minister Steven Harper told world leaders that climate change was "perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity today," and that "we owe it to future generations to do whatever we can to address this world problem." This oft-repeated mantra is exactly what Canadians want to hear from their elected governments. The federal government apparently understands the seriousness of the issue and so wants to do something about it. But when you scratch below the surface, it doesn't take long to find out how vacant and cynical these statements are.

Coming back to this past week, the much-anticipated new and improved federal regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired electricity plants leaked out. To no one's surprise, they are significantly weakened from what we had been told to expect. This one is particularly personal. Over the last year, the Tories frequently touted our study published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change in February as evidence that the global warming potential of the Alberta tar sands resource is small relative to coal. What they failed to explain was that our overarching conclusion was that as a society, we live or die by our consumption of coal.

So here we now have a government willingly and knowingly committing future generations to ecological collapse and untold climate-related catastrophes. It's fully "knowing" since they have read, and selectively quoted from, our study on the warming potential of coal. It's "willing" because despite this, they are introducing policies that will ensure we have coal-fired electricity plants spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for decades to come. Will future generations hold these ideologues in Ottawa accountable for their actions? I certainly hope so.

And as the Arctic sea ice breaks new records, the federal government responds with its fourth headline-grabbing, yet issue-distracting, search for the missing Franklin ship in five years. Quietly, it sets in place countrywide medieval-style book-burnings as it shuts down and destroys the collections contained in scientific libraries at its federal laboratories across the nation. At the same time, we find out the feds are planning to build a multi-million dollar "world class" Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) in Cambridge Bay. But don't kid yourself; this has nothing to do with science.

In science you first ask a question that you want to address and then you put together the tools, instruments and programs to try and answer it. This is precisely what was done by Environment Canada in 1993 under the Mulroney government's progressive Green Plan. The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Eureka, formally known as the Arctic Stratospheric Ozone Observatory, was built to monitor, study and report on the status of the Earth's protective Arctic ozone layer. It was situated on Ellesmere Island, about 1,100 km from the North Pole for scientific reasons. Yet just when the ozone hole reaches record levels, the Tories shut down funding for PEARL. Gone is Canada's ability to monitor the Arctic ozone hole. And gone is the investment of tens of millions of dollars of Canadian taxpayer funding.

Instead, the Tories offer up a facility in search of science to justify its existence. There are no scientific questions driving this agenda. The establishment of CHARS is all about enforcing sovereignty in the North to pave the way for enhanced resource extraction, particularly in the oil and gas sector. Sure, there will be opportunists in the scientific community who will take advantage of the facility if it's built, just like barnacles will find and latch onto a new ship brought into a harbour. But the real question is: when will the federal government come clean with its agenda?

So as we move into the autumn of the second year under the Harper regime, the war on science and the environment continues. Is there no one left in the Conservative Party willing to stand up to this short-sighted and one-dimensional view of the world? Apparently not.