Apegga1c.gif (2007 bytes) The PEGG
April, 1999
Page 1 Climate Change A Ring of Truth
Or a Reign of Error?

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By Norma Ramage

The PEGG begins a three-part series of articles on policies and initiatives prompted by the climate change debate.

In January, Canadian soldiers were called in to dig Toronto's downtown out from under a record snowfall. The series of blizzards, the worst in Ontario's history, came on the heels of other Canadian "weird weather" events: the Quebec ice storm of 1998 and the floods in Manitoba in 1997 and Saguenay, Quebec, in 1996. It's no wonder that Canadians began to ponder the questions of global warming and climate change and whether our weather really is getting worse?

Since the mid-1970s, scientists have warned that manmade greenhouse gases (see accompanying article on page 13) released into the Earth's atmosphere are trapping heat, resulting in global warming and the potential for widespread climate change. The issue of climate change moved front and centre in 1988 with the formation of the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of 2,500 scientists from around the world. Aided by computer models, the IPCC concluded in 1995 that "the balance of evidence . . . suggests that there is discernible human influence on global climate." Since then, the group has warned that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow, sea levels could rise by 15 to 95 cm. by 2100, and the Earth's temperature could increase between one and three degrees Celsius during the next century.

In Canada, computer models used by scientists at the Centre for Climate Modeling and Analysis in Victoria, suggest we can expect storms like the one that buried Toronto to become increasingly common.

It's because of predictions like these that 160 industrialized and developing nations met in Kyoto, Japan in December, 1997. Forty industrialized countries signed the legally binding Kyoto Protocol agreeing to reduce their collective emissions 5.3 per cent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012. Canada went further and committed to reducing emissions to six per cent. Canada's implementation plan is being co-ordinated through the National Climate Change Secretariat. The secretariat involves federal, provincial and territorial governments and relies on input by a long list of participants from industry and environmental interest groups.

A Sensible Response?

Surely this was a sensible response to what could be an environmental catastrophe in the making? Why then did the Protocol elicit cries of protest not only from Canadian industry but from various provincial governments, most notably Alberta's? Why isn't everybody lending support to achieving the Kyoto targets? Why are there dissenting voices, not only among affected industries such as oil and gas, coal and utilities, but also in the scientific community?

There are two main reasons. First, not all believe there is sufficient evidence to support the IPCC's conclusions. Second, many people that believe that turning back the clock to 1990 is impossible, or that the economic and sociological consequences of doing so would be too severe.

Opposition to the IPCC's conclusions range from disagreement with the accuracy of its computer modeling to claims of junk science motivated by the scramble for funding. Moderate dissenters like John Emsley, a chemist at London's Imperial College of Science and Technology, believe more research is needed before the world makes a painful and costly attempt to kick its fossil fuel habit.

Outspoken critics like Jim Buckee, president and CEO of Calgary-based Talisman Energy Inc., put it more bluntly: "It's all bullshit. The science is unproved and it's my feeling that you should get the science right before you impose stringent measures. If you find 8,000 scientists who say global warming is happening, I'll find 8,000 who say it isn't."

Some scientists believe that the increase in global temperatures is still within the range of natural variations Earth has experienced over millions of years. Others say they are part of a long-term pattern of temperature and climate variations that may be caused by changes in solar radiation resulting from the wobble in the Earth's orbit. Still others downplay the problem by suggesting Earth's oceans will be able to absorb most of the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels.

Measurable Facts

Although there is a lot scientists don't know, they have two measurable facts to work with, says Robert Hornung, based in Ottawa as climate change program director for the Pembina Institute. "It's a fact that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased. It's also a fact that in the last 100 years the global temperature has increased 1/2 a degree Celsius, and that in Canada that average temperature has increased one degree over the same period."

But are those two facts related, is one cause and the other effect? Ian Hutcheon, P.Geol., PhD, a professor at the University of Calgary, believes we just don't know. "We have lots of pieces of the puzzle, but we don't know whether piece A is in the right spot or what its effect is on piece B."

However, suggests Dr. Hutcheon, it may be time to move beyond arguments about the science. "The question of whether CO2 in the atmosphere is causing global warning isn't the issue because with the information we have now, we could never prove it. The question is can we afford to ignore the possibility? Likely not."

Mr. Hornung says the debate has moved into the political arena. It is governments, he believes, that will have to provide the tax incentives to encourage industry to find ways of reducing emissions, and the research dollars to fund new science. "We now have a national consultation process in Canada, and I think most of the participants in that process are trying to be constructive," says Mr. Hornung. " After all the time, effort and resources being spent by those involved in the National Climate Change Secretariat, I think there will be significant pressure on the federal government to actually do something at the end of it."

Alberta Responds

In Alberta, the government's initial cries of outrage over Kyoto have become more muted. Premier Ralph Klein has established a committee on climate change and the government's October 1998 strategy paper acknowledges the risk posed by greenhouse gases and commits Alberta to "precautionary measures" involving "prudent costs" to reduce growth in emissions. However, critics say the strategy is stronger on principles than concrete action. The paper also stops short of endorsing the Kyoto targets.

The response of Alberta's oil and gas industry is also low-key. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), which represents 170 upstream energy companies, has chosen to make its arguments to the federal government rather than fight a public relations battle it feels it can't win. Chris Peirce, CAPP's vice president of strategic planning, puts it this way: "It's not for us to debate the science of climate change. Our expertise is in oil and gas and we wouldn't be accepted as a neutral voice."

CAPP feels the Kyoto targets -- which translate into a 30-per-cent reduction in emissions -- are not achievable, says Mr. Peirce, adding "We will concentrate on measures that can make our industry more energy efficient and see what results we get from that."

Are Targets Attainable?

Dr. Hutcheon also doubts whether the Kyoto targets can be reached. "The goals are unrealistic because we can't take the world's population level back to 1990." Dr. Hutcheon prefers an incremental approach, because "after all, finding greater efficiency in how you do things is never negative." But he wonders if Canadians have the will to step back from their technological world and make the lifestyle sacrifices involved in reducing emissions.

Robert Hornung, however, feels that reaching Kyoto's targets may not involve much sacrifice. "I would argue we could make those changes without pain by finding efficiencies in industry and in the technology we already have." And while he recognizes that in the long-term more dramatic changes will be necessary, Mr. Hornung is hopeful Canadians can be persuaded to make them. "To do that, you don't talk about climate change science. You draw links between emission and other pollution and air quality issues. That allows us to draw links to health and that's something we know Canadians are concerned about."


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