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Climate Change is Here

March 8, 2014

I was recently at a Nature Manitoba meeting that featured a presentation by Danny Blair, the Associate Dean of Science at the University of Winnipeg.  His talk on climate change brought it to my attention with information about climate in general and the effects right here in Manitoba.  His thesis is that weather averages from the past no longer predict future weather.  This is because both the averages and the extremes are changing as a result of global warming.  The cause of climate change is our addition of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.  A PDF of the slides from his presentation is available at the U of W web site.

In the course of his presentation, he gave us a great deal of evidence that climate change is happening now, and that it is caused by man’s activities on earth.  He began by telling us about extreme weather events that have been happening, in recent years, all over the world.  Our prolonged cold spell this winter is likely one of them.  Addition of heat to the world’s weather system is the cause of these extremes.  He also demonstrated to us that the global climate was slowly warming, based on long-term data from many places in the world.  Just like in a detective story, he revealed the culprit: carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses that man has added to the atmosphere over the past hundred years.  There’s no doubt that atmospheric carbon dioxide has been increasing recently, and no doubt that our activities are the cause of this increase.

Climate change is unfortunately easy to deny.  It requires predicting the future, something that people have often done very badly.  Climate models are about all we have to rely on.  How do we know that they are accurate?  As well, climate is something that’s hidden from most of us.  Weather is what we see every day.  How can we be serious about global warming when we are in the midst of one of the coldest winters on record?  The cause too can be disputed, just like the cause of evolution can be disputed.  Even if we agree that our carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, how can we be sure that it’s the cause of global warming?

Climate change is even easier to ignore.  Where I live, the warming may only be two degrees per century.  That doesn’t seem like much.  We may actually benefit from a warmer climate.  Of course, other parts of the world will be harmed by global warming.  Any changes that we must make to slow global warming will be painful.  They will be expensive.  We will have to give up some of our favourite activities.  Besides, we only make a minor contribution to greenhouse gasses.  Somebody else, someplace else in the world can make the changes instead of us.  Maybe we’ll even be saved by a miracle, at least a scientific miracle like fusion power or hydrogen fuel.  Who can tell what the future may bring?

A couple of summers ago, I went on a trip to southern Utah.  We went there mostly to see the canyons, but I was struck by the expanses of desert in between them.  Often the only vegetation was scattered clumps of sage and creosote bush.  I thought that nothing could survive there until I saw cattle grazing.  It was open range with very large ranches.  With no streams or ponds, the ranchers had to haul water for the cattle.  On one route, we drove past a huge coal-fired generating station with transmission lines running in all directions.  There’s nothing worse than coal for producing carbon dioxide.  Try telling the people of that area that they can’t do that any more, that they can’t live there anymore.

So, what can we do, the people of this province, to alleviate climate change?  Certainly we must reduce carbon dioxide emissions.  Manitoba is fortunate in having abundant hydro-electric power and easily available natural gas.  Still, there’s emissions from automobiles and other forms of transportation as well as from heating homes and other buildings during our long winter.  We must make all of these more efficient.  We certainly have to phase out coal burning and switch from oil and gasoline to natural gas and electric power.  We also must encourage other provinces and countries to do the same.  After all, we are all in this together.  All the people of this earth are in this together.

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