03 July 2008

Will gas prices defeat our efforts to combat global warming?

In former British PM Tony Blair's report to the G8 Hokkaido summit Breaking the Climate Deadlock, he claims, "Most people no longer need persuading that the changing climate poses a serious risk to humankind. ... There is now agreement that we should shift our economies away from carbon dependence. Again, most people agree that a framework for national and international action is needed to incentivise, encourage and oblige such a radical shift."

Far be it from me to question Tony Blair, but do most people agree action is needed for a "radical shift"? According to a recent Strategic Counsel poll, when asked what the most important issue facing them today is, Canadians rated the environment number three, dropping from number one last year. It is now topped by concern over the economy and, no surprise, gas prices. Only one per cent of Americans named the environment as their most important issue. These numbers suggest that North Americans are willing to sacrifice to combat global warming right up to the point where they have to get out of their cars. And they aren't alone. Europe, which has shown a much more enlightened approach to climate change, has been racked with protests against higher gas prices, as have other parts of the world.

As for our leaders -- not much recognition for the need of a radical shift there. Ed Stelmach, premier of Canada's pollution province, dreams the dream of carbon sequestration while emissions steadily increase. Prime Minister Harper attacks Stephane Dion's plan for a carbon tax entirely on economic terms while coming up with no coherent plan of his own. And in the United States, the world's major polluter, the current president continues to suppress evidence of the crisis.

Our leaders may not even understand the problem. It isn't, as many think, a greenhouse gas effect. It is, as the scientists are trying to tell us, a runaway greenhouse gas effect. Global warming is progressing geometrically, not linearly. As the Earth warms, other phenomena kick in which add to the warming. For example, as the Arctic Ocean ice cover shrinks due to warming, we lose a major reflector. Instead of being reflected back into space, sunlight is absorbed by the darker ocean, warming it further. The same effect occurs on land as the the snow cover declines each year. And warming up the north will melt the permafrost, releasing billions of tonnes of methane, a greenhouse gas over 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide. And so it goes.

Tony Blair says in his report, "If we are not radical enough in altering the nature of our economic growth, we will not avoid potential catastrophe to the climate." Well said. But then he adds, "If we are not realistic enough in setting a framework to get there, we will fail to achieve agreement." I fear our political and business leaders, and perhaps even more importantly a gas price-obsessed population, have a concept of "realistic" that lacks the urgency scientists have recognized. The truth may be, as Al Gore would say, just too inconvenient. After all, business leaders' first priority is profit, political leaders' first priority is winning the next election, and the public's first priority seems to be the price of gas. Only scientists' first priority is the truth. They, however, are not the ones with the power.

No comments:

Post a Comment