Energy policies need attention

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will soon release its fifth report summarizing the latest science on climate change. A new IPCC report is kind of a big deal, so let’s look ahead to its expected findings and the response it’s likely to provoke.

Based on improvements in climate modeling since its last report was published in 2007, the IPCC is expected to conclude (again) that global temperatures are climbing, oceans are acidifying, Artic ice is melting (but much faster than previously predicted), dangerous methane emissions are escalating (ditto) and sea levels are rising.But even more importantly, the IPCC’s report will likely affirm with overwhelming confidence that these calamitous changes are largely being caused by human beings.

As MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel explains, we can’t accurately model the Earth’s climate over the last 30 years without accounting for our sulfate aerosol and greenhouse gas emissions. Welcome to the Anthropocene: a brand new geologic epoch marked by human beings’ undeniable impacts on the planet’s biosphere.

Now, undeniable is a strong word. Never mind that yet another survey recently revealed that 97 per cent of climate scientists believe that global warming is occurring and that human beings are the primary culprits. There’s still a small professional cabal of climate change deniers and obstructionists.

Just last year, for instance, Fox News pronounced global warming “over” and claimed (erroneously) that temperatures haven’t risen for 16 years. Would that it were true!

Those same deniers — virtually none of whom is actually a scientist — will assuredly jump on the IPCC’s recently leaked citation of an “observed reduction in surface warming.”

But they will also undoubtedly fail to mention that the IPCC scientists believe that this recent reduction is just a blip reflecting naturally induced climate variability, caused perhaps by a temporary, random cooling of the Pacific Ocean’s surface.

Nor will they mention that Arctic sea ice reached a record low in 2007, and then promptly broke its own record in 2012. Or that overall oceanic warming hasn’t skipped a beat.

As a preemptive strike against the climate change deniers, — the U.S. environmental campaign dedicated to building a “global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis” — has launched a new petition ( urging the World Meteorological Organization to name hurricanes after climate change “deniers and obstructionists.”

Granted, the campaign is first-rate political satire, but timely it’s not. It’s more like an environmental Maginot Line, the strategically disastrous concrete fortifications built by the French during the run-up to the Second World War to prevent a German invasion from the east based on France’s experience in the First World War. Of course, the Germans outflanked the Maginot Line and invaded France via Belgium, giving rise to the adage that generals always fight the last war.

Fighting climate change denial is fighting the last war. Just as no reasonable person would reject the medical advice of 97 out of 100 doctors, there is no reasonable argument that we’re not responsible for rapidly warming and jeopardizing our planet. The front has moved from denial of climate change to skepticism over climate policy. The deniers now throw their hands in the air and proclaim, without proving, that nothing can be done for the environment without crippling the economy.

We need to change the conversation, and soon, while we can still can. As the authors of a new study in the prestigious journal Science report, as temperatures rise, tempers flare. In a meta-analysis of 60 academic studies from all over the world, the authors concluded that episodes of extreme climate such as higher temperatures and extreme rainfall make people more violent toward one another, which is hardly conducive to having a constructive chat about how to fix the Earth’s climate. A great economy won’t be so great if we’re all dead.

OK, but what’s to be done? Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet, be it technological or political. But there’s also no denying that meaningfully addressing global climate change means changing how we produce and consume energy.

And to do that, we have to somehow solve the knotty political problem of our governments’ dependence on the fossil fuels industry — which, in return for its irrepressible lobbying, is subsidized by governments to the tune of $600 million to $1 trillion each year and is permitted to impose the public health and environmental costs of extracting and burning fossil fuels onto the public.
The situation soon to be summarized once again by the IPCC calls for rapid, systemic change on a global level. That means devising and demanding new energy policies.

That’s the conversation we need to have now.

Jason MacLean

Published in the bi-weekly column, Sustainability Matters, The Chronicle-Journal, Thunder Bay, Monday, September 9, 2013

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