Thursday, October 18, 2007

Telling It as It Is

Canadian’s do not like straight talk. They don’t like straight talk about the need for a rethink of our health system with ways of further integrating private practice into the system. They don’t like to recognize that we are no longer amongst the leading peace keepers in the world. They don’t like to acknowledge that our workforce productivity is low in comparison to our major competitors. Most of all, they don’t like to acknowledge some harsh truths about the environment. A part of the Canadian psychology is denial.

Kyoto is not a strategy for saving the planet. If fully implemented, it may have a modest impact on global warming – slowing its progress for three to five years. That’s it. In part this is because climate change is part of a natural cycle, driven by a combination of factors of which green house gas emissions are just one. In part it is because the strategies to reduce emissions are not to be embraced by all.

But there are other environmental truths it is hard for people to accept. First, not all solutions are in fact solutions. Take biofuels as one example. Advocates suggest that we should replace gasoline with fuels derived from plants and woodlands. To replace ten percent of the world’s fuel supply would require so much agricultural and woodlands that it would force food prices high, impact livestock farming, increase global poverty and lead to massive disruption of the world’s agricultural economy. Further, biofuels produce greenhouse gases – in some cases the nitrous oxide is more damaging to the environment than gasoline.

Next, take energy and the call for us to replace coal fired power plants with renewable energy sources – hydro power, wind power, geothermal and solar. While increasing the portion of our energy supply from such sources may be desirable, supply from these sources will not replace non renewables as the primary source of energy in the world until new energy sources – especially fusion – become affordable on an industrial scale. For the foreseeable future, coal and natural gas will be the dominant sources of energy. Get used to it.

Third, the kind of actions Canadian’s have been encouraged to take – changing their light bulbs, turning off electrical appliances, not drinking bottled water, driving hybrid or electric cars, installing a thermostat – are all sensible things to do, but they will have little impact on climate change. Even if every Canadian did all of these things with the fervour of an Oiler’s fan in a playoff game, China’s coal fired power plants (there is a new plant opening every week and will be for the next three years) will quickly replace the emission saved.

Then there are offsets. This is where, each time you fly or heat your home, you can purchase an offset which permits someone somewhere else to do something good for the planet. This unregulated market has had its problems with some of the schemes being fraudulent, but in principle it’s a medieval idea: you could buy pardons from the Church for the sins you had committed and buy eternal redemption. Offsets are the same thing – someone somewhere else plants trees or invests in wind and solar so that you can continue to travel by air. So few people buy offsets that it is a negligible “solution” – worse, the evidence appears to suggest that this buying of pardons actually increases the volume of air travel, defeating the underlying purpose.

Finally, there is “the science”. It is often said that there is a global consensus amongst scientists that man is causing global warming. This is simply not true. What is true is that the dominant paradigm at this time amongst the scientific community is the theory of global warming in which CO2 emissions are seen as a primary (but not the only) cause. There are disputes amongst those who then look at impacts – on oceans, agriculture, and climate. There are disputes amongst those building models of climate – this is why there are so many of them, not all arriving at the same specific conclusions. There are many errors – just read the UK Court judgement about Al Gore’s film which identifies nine errors of fact in an Inconvenient Truth – and omissions. But it is a theory. There are other theories that compete with this and evidence in support of these too. This is how science works. We are still exploring the science – it is not, despite what the IPPC says, “settled”.

So when the Prime Minister says it is not possible for us to meet the Kyoto targets, he is right to do so. When he says that technology is the way forward he is right to do so. We should capture and use as much carbon, sulphur and nitrous oxide as we can and find good use for all three. We should continue to invest in fusion and fuel cells and alternative energy sources. We should challenge our best and brightest to get past Kyoto and look at new ways to provide energy and transport for our economy. But face up to it: there are no quick fixes, no magic bullets and no simple solutions to complex environmental problems.

So, fellow Canadians, Kyoto is dead. Long live the environment – it will be here long after we all are. Get used to it.

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