God and Disneyworld

Does God have it in for Disney World? It would seem so. The last time three hurricanes hit Florida in one month was…well, never. With three more storms now swirling around in the Mid-Atlantic, the obvious question is: “what the hell is going on with our weather?”

Given what we know about climate change and hurricanes, it looks like we might be in for more of the same. Simply put, hurricanes are heat engines. When tropical ocean temperatures heat up due to human induced climate change, hurricanes have more fuel and can become much more powerful.

Research from the US National Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that climate change may result in a 12% increase in hurricane intensity and a 28% increase in rainfall from future hurricanes. The recent catastrophes in the Caribbean appear consistent with these scientific projections. Perhaps the future is now.

The average number of intense (category 3 or higher) hurricanes in the south Atlantic is 2.5 per year. Halfway into the hurricane season we have already seen five such storms and counting. Devastation from storms this year and associated flooding now stretches from Venezuela to Pennsylvania

Besides the tragic loss of life, the sheer expense of all these hurricanes is adding up. The insured losses from Charlie, Frances and Ivan will collectively ring in at over $20 billion US. This is hardly pocket change, especially considering that insured losses are typically about half the actual property damage.

There is a certain irony in all these hurricanes pounding Florida. Governor Jeb Bush, like his brother in the White House, does not support the Kyoto Accord, and has urged the US government to “not sign or ratify any agreement that would result in serious harm to the US economy”. Yet Florida – the fourth most populous state in the union -- is a veritable theme park of the economic perils of climate change.

Ninety five percent of Florida’s 16 million people live on the coast – a bad place to be when sea levels are predicated to rise as much as two feet in the next fifty years. Some low-lying mangroves are predicted to retreat almost 20 kilometres miles inland. Coral reefs in Florida Keys are already being bleached bone white due to warming ocean temperatures. This is not good news for the Florida tourism industry, which is worth $47 billion US annually.

The 3 million seniors that live in Florida might be less inclined to do so when summer humidex-corrected temperatures rise by almost 14 degrees Celsius. Increasing incidence of tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and encephalitis will not sweeten the pot either. Florida Seniors contribute $70 billion to the state economy each year.

Increasingly destructive hurricanes are a central part of the climate change ensemble in store for the Sunshine State. The battering Florida has taken so far this year is a wake up call to the violent climate tempest that we are stirring up. One decent size hurricane packs a truly wrathful amount of power – over 200 times the collective electricity-generating capacity of the entire human race. The splintered buildings left in Ivan’s wake are a stark warning of what the future may hold.

The response from government officials to this looming global crisis has hardly been heroic. The Chair of the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. blandly stated earlier this year: “I'm becoming more and more convinced...that global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people and the world.”

Smug words from compromised politicians will not help us. Such climate change deniers seem ever more offensive in light of the increasing environmental casualties around the world.

Here in Canada, the upcoming Throne Speech will reveal how Paul Martin intends to implement the now long-in-the-tooth Kyoto Accord. He has a real opportunity to take a much more visionary path than our neighbors to the south and begin to chart a truly sustainable course for Canada.

One thing is certain. If we and our elected political leaders choose to ignore climate change, we will have to answer to a higher power – an increasingly violent planet.

Does God hate Disney World? As always, it is difficult to figure out what is on God’s mind. Mother Nature, on the other hand – she might be trying to make a point.

Published in August 2004 in the National Post


In praise of expensive gas

As gas prices loft into the stratosphere, likely never to come down, we can expect much indignant outrage about how this will end the world as we know it. Let’s hope it will.

Our long addiction to cheap oil has cost us dearly in terms of health, global security, human rights and a changing climate. Given our lack of self-restraint, maybe we should see expensive gas is a godsend rather than a calamity.

First, let’s remember that fuel prices will likely continue to rise and there is nothing we can do about it. Public proclamations aside, OPEC members are quietly admitting that they have little excess production capacity. Major oil companies such as Shell have recently had to “revise” their reserve figures. Couple this with ballooning demand in China and it all adds up to a simple fact: we are finally running out of cheap oil.

Like a drunk on a bender, it may not be welcome news that our favorite liquid is in short supply. There will be a hangover no doubt, but we should think about the benefits of kicking the habit. We may realize that our addiction has cost us far more than we realized.

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) estimates that provincial air pollution from burning fossil fuels causes 43 million sick days, 13,000 hospital visits, 9,800 hospital visits, and 1,900 premature deaths each year. Asthma, bronchitis, and congestive heart failure all are made worse by smog, estimated by the OMA to cost the provincial economy a staggering $12 billion each year and rising. Let’s not forget car crashes, which cost the Ontario economy $9.1 billion each year, and cause 1,000 deaths and almost 90,000 injuries.

The costs associated with climate change are also adding up. Climate related disasters rose by 10% between 2002 and 2003, totaling over $60 billion. The heat wave in Europe last summer killed an incredible 20,000 people. Swiss Re, one of the largest re-insurance companies in the world announced last month that it expects that weather disasters to climb to $150 billion per year in the next ten years. As much as we love our cars, as they say: there’s no free lunch.

And then there’s the ugly business of securing foreign oil supplies. An obvious case in point is the clumsy and tragic intervention in Iraq that now seems likely to sow the seeds of war and hatred for generations. Over 700 Americans have been killed and probably around 10,000 Iraqi civilians – the US is not counting. The monetary cost is a staggering $113 billion and counting.

Here at home many of our civil liberties are being sacrificed on the altar of the so-called “war on terror”. This nebulous conflict has sprouted directly from our dependence on foreign oil and is eroding many of the constitutional protections that define our free and open society.

Given the long list of externalized costs, a dollar a litre seems dangerously cheap for this popular poison. Our oil addiction has cost us dearly yet there seems very little hope that we can kick the habit on our own.

That point was made abundantly clear recently by US Senator James Inhofe, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. At an international climate change conference last year he made a brazen statement typical of an addict in denial: “I'm becoming more and more convinced... that global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people and the world.”

Hmmm… Who to believe? The leading climate scientists in the world, or a senator from an oil-producing state in an election year?

Rising fuel prices will succeed where moral suasion has failed. In fact, they already have. Sales of the automotive monstrosity, the Hummer H2 have fallen 24% in the first four months of this year. I can think of no better index of an improving planet.

Higher costs will also foster much needed interest, innovation and investment in conservation and alternative technologies. Some oil companies may turn their massive resources to developing these clean energy alternatives rather than choosing to go down with their ship. A study by Shell International found that renewable sources could supply 50% of the worlds energy needs by 2050.

Such investment would be money well spent here in BC, which has been estimated by the World Energy Congress as having the greatest potential for wind power in the world. This ignored potential is particularly galling given that Canada currently produces less than 0.1% of its electricity from wind power compared with 20% in Denmark.

Our governments need to play an important role in this transformation by bringing in smart subsidies and progressive tax shifting that favour conservation and innovation, but there is a long way to go. The Canadian government still provides $5.9 billion in annual subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. Such “perverse” subsidies contribute to our substance abuse problem by ensuring that Canada and the US have the lowest energy prices in the G8.

There are some obvious places to start our recovery. The federal government could shift gasoline tax revenue to public transit, increase green infrastructure investment in cities, and expand investment in renewable energy – the fastest growing source of energy in the world.

Many of these changes are detailed in an excellent report “Sustainability Within a Generation – A New Vision For Canada” produced recently by the David Suzuki Foundation. Courageous vision seems to be a commodity sorely lacking in Canadian politics. In lieu of their own ideas, our election bound politicians would do well to crib shamelessly from this fine document.

Canada has an opportunity to become a leader in alternative technologies that will sprout from the ashes of our oil economy. A cleaner and safer world awaits if we have to vision to embrace the future rather than cling to the past.

Change will come, and we should welcome it. When it comes to cheap oil, the developed world has been like a bad drunk on a bender. Thank God the booze is running out.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. Published in the Toronto Star, May 2004


Rex Murphy is Stupid

Perhaps the most disheartening part of being an “environmentalist” are times when otherwise intelligent and insightful people take contrary positions that can only be summed up by such dowdy words as “stupid”. Such garish vernacular could only enrage the likes of Rex Murphy, but he has it coming.

His piece of April 24th (“Praise the green god from whom all blessings flow”) is sadly typical of many that seem to hold to view that environmentalists are some kind of doomsday cult holed up in sanctimonious intellectual bunkers awaiting the end-times.

The view from our side of the fence is somewhat more mundane. Imagine yourself doing dishes at a loud but rather uninteresting party. Occasionally drunken revelers will stumble into the kitchen with more dishes, tell you how grateful they are you are doing righteous work on behalf of us all, get another beer from the fridge and head back to the dance floor.

Most of us so-called environmentalists are over worked, burned out, underpaid (if at all) and occasionally wondering why the hell we bother. What keeps us going is not some irrational religious belief that we are right and everyone else is wrong. It is the very rational and not particularly happy knowledge that to do nothing would be irresponsible, if not suicidal.

This is not opportunistic hyperbole; it is based on our best emerging knowledge to date. For instance, a study published last year in the prominent journal Science showed that global commercial fish stocks have declined 90% in the last 50 years. Another study published this January in Nature predicted that by 2050, we may lose 25% of all land plants and animals due to climate change. The list goes on. These are not well-compensated pseudo scientists shilling on behalf of industry, but leading researchers publishing in world’s most prestigious scientific journals.

It is clearly in our own best interests to show our one and only planet more respect. Yet we seem to continue to sass off to Mother Nature even as we are led by the hand towards the woodshed. The global ecosystem is already beginning to paddle our collective bottoms yet the response from our national governments is neither visionary nor courageous.

The Canadian government still indiscriminately licences destructive and wasteful fishing technology in spite of mounting scientific evidence that such gear-types are contributing to global fisheries collapse. The US government has chosen to opt out of the Kyoto Agreement and seems fully committed to an oil and gas-based economy. Consumers continue to purchase some of the most fuel inefficient vehicles ever made while hybrid cars are both available and affordable.

As for the seal hunt, this has been a favorite straw-man of anti-environmentalists for years. The seal hunt is an animal rights issue, not an environmental issue. Population estimates vary but harp seals are certainly in no immediate danger of extinction. It is much more illustrative to consider another high-profile issue from Mr. Murphy’s homeland: the tragic destruction of the once legendary cod stocks.

Cod were the backbone of the Newfoundland economy for generations and supported a 400 year-old sustainable fishery. In the short span of about 40 years, this almost unimaginably abundant resource was decimated by destructive new fishing technology and incompetent management by our federal government. Incredibly, Newfoundland cod stocks were quietly listed as an endangered species last year.

This ecological catastrophe was an economic and social disaster as well. Over 40,000 jobs were permanently lost, $4 billion dollars of federal aid money was spent, and thousands of Newfoundlanders were forced to leave their communities in search of work elsewhere - impoverishing a rich and unique culture.

When we kill the golden goose, it is ultimately ourselves we harm. We ignore such plain and tragic lessons at our peril.

Most environmentalists would dearly love to be doing something else. Being the harbingers of bad news is not particularly fun, nor rewarding. But rather than assail the messenger, consider instead that we might be trying to say something very important. Bad news can be an opportunity and perhaps we should see the increasing imperatives to change our lifestyle as an opportunity to increase our happiness, not just our affluence.

Rex, you are an otherwise insightful and intelligent commentator. But on this particular issue, it must be stated plainly: you are being stupid.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.


Why go to Mars?

Sometimes there’s nothing like a good long trip to make you realize that there is no place like home. Take Mars for instance. Having traveled over 450 million kilometers, the two rovers that NASA has sent there have sent back photos that seem in comparison the anything on earth, well… boring.

Not surprisingly, NASA seems more enthusiastic about these rather dreary vistas, using words like: “Amazing!” “Mind-blowing!” “Eye-popping!”

Eye-popping?? That’s a little much. The Martian rovers are working well and finding many interesting things but perhaps the biggest discovery they’ve made is how incredibly beautiful our own planet is in comparison to the lifeless monotony of Mars.

Let’s turn the situation around. Suppose some hypothetical Martians sent a lander to Earth. Assuming it didn’t get immediately trampled by a passing animal or human, virtually every single place it might alight it would find bristling with tenacious life– every drop in the ocean, every thimbleful of soil, every puff of air.

Life defines Earth and in many important ways, our planet seems to behave like a single organism. The regulation of atmospheric gases, global temperatures and ocean chemistry are all mediated in part by life, in impossibly complex ways that we are only beginning to understand. With climate change breathing down our necks, figuring out how this planet works is not merely an academic exercise.

So why all the fuss to go to Mars and look and look for life there, when we haven’t come close to cataloguing all the life on our own beautiful planet? It is currently estimated that we have identified as little as 1.5% of all the species on Earth. At the current pokey rate, we might finish documenting all the life here in about 500 years.

The problem is that species are vanishing on Earth at a disconcerting rate – and almost all before we even have a chance to identify them. The current rate of extinction due to human factors is about 1000 times above what is considered “normal” in the geologic record. Scientists now fear that this shocking loss of species may increase by another factor of ten as climate change kicks in, resulting in the loss of one quarter of all land plants and animals by 2050.

The irony is that we currently spending far more money exploring for life on other planets that we do on our own. The annual budget of NASA is over $15 billion – many times more than what we are spending looking for life in our own backyard.

Now word comes from President Bush that the US government is committing a further $12 billion towards eventually putting a man on Mars. Apart from the fact that this budget reallocation will result in the much loved Hubble Space Telescope falling from the sky, how much would that money accomplish here on Earth?

The All Species Foundation estimates that we could document all the life on the planet in as little as 25 years. Cost estimates for this mammoth task range up to a mere $2 billion per year – only slightly more than 10% of NASA’s annual budget.

We literally have no idea what we could find in the astounding profusion of life on Earth. Unknown insects, plants, fish, birds, mammals, literally hundreds of millions of them are waiting to be discovered. Apart from better knowing and loving our beautiful home, there are also very pragmatic reasons for wanting to have a better look around.

Fully one quarter of our prescription drugs are derived from just forty plants. Less than 1% of all flowering plants have been tested for pharmaceutical properties. Life being resourceful as it is, many bacteria have evolved resistance to our most popular antibiotics and there is an increasing need to find replacements. The best place by far to look for interesting and useful new compounds is the laboratory of life.

There is also a moral imperative. We are now living in the midst of the biggest global extinction since the end of the dinosaurs, and the reason quite frankly is us. For better or worse, we are in charge around here and the least we can do is itemize what is being lost before it is gone forever. Our children deserve at least that much.

We all love the excitement of exploring the unknown. If we want to take on a truly heroic task, let’s fully explore the marvel of life here on Earth. Completing the noble feat would a far greater accomplishment than putting a boot print on Mars. We don’t need to cast a covetous gaze at other planets – we may well be living on the most remarkable piece of real estate in the universe. Let’s have a look around.

Mitchell Anderson is freelance writer living in Vancouver. Published in the Globe and Mail, April, 2004.


The Pentagon and Greenpeace - in bed together at last

Those of us trying to raise the alarm on perils of climate change got some help from a very strange quarter recently: the Pentagon.

It seems the US military is worried about their increased workload when the global climate becomes unhinged. Last fall the Pentagon commissioned a secret report called “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security”, which lays out a possible scenario of rapid climate change, leading to widespread global war, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, mass starvation, and (incidentally) the end of Canada.

When this shocking document was leaked to the press last month, the largest war machine in the world inadvertently joined the ranks of Greenpeace in warning of the frightening consequences of ignoring our addiction to fossil fuels.

And nobody says doomsday quite like the Pentagon…

“Abrupt climate change is likely to stretch (the Earth’s ecological) carrying capacity well beyond its already precarious limits...aggressive wars are likely to be fought over food, water, and energy. Deaths from war as well as starvation and disease will decrease population size, which overtime, will re-balance with carrying capacity.”

In other words as the global ecosystem falls apart, several of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will saddle-up and go for a little ride.

Among other calamities, this remarkable document predicts that millions could die in wars over diminishing resources, much of Europe may have the climate of Siberia by 2020 and mega-droughts and famine could be widespread in large parts of Asia. Cities such as The Hague could be made uninhabitable as early as 2007 due to fierce storms that destroy coastal levees.

The authors further intone: “nations with the resources to do so may build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves…disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life”.

Canada with our abundant supply of water and energy would potentially be included within this fortress-America and cease to exist altogether. Rick Mercer would be amused to know that the demise of Canada garners one single line from the Pentagon: “the United States and Canada may become one, simplifying border controls.”

Thanks for letting us know.

The impetus for this study is the growing realization that climate change may happen far faster than we ever imagined. Conventional wisdom has been that it will be slow and if unpleasant, at least manageable. However there is an alternate and much more drastic scenario that climate change will instead happen very rapidly, and in parts of the world such as Europe, it will lead to rapid and catastrophic cooling.

Important parts of the Earth’s thermostat are only now becoming understood. For instance Northern Europe is the happy beneficiary of the Gulf Stream – an enormous ocean current that carries warm water north from the Caribbean and across the North Atlantic. Without it, Europe would have a climate much like Labrador, which shares the same latitude.

Recent troubling evidence from the geologic record shows that the Gulf Stream is not something we should take for granted. There have been episodes in the not-so-distant past where the forces driving this current crossed an unknown point of equilibrium and it simply stopped flowing within a matter of years. The fear now is that due to steady build-up of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere we are now very close to the same the tipping point. Not good.

The optics of this doomsday scenario certainly raise some awkward contradictions for George Bush and his boss Dick Cheney. The White House has all but dismissed climate change as some kind of liberal hoax. Their attentions are instead largely focused on foreign policy adventures such as the military intervention in Iraq - seen by many as a thin-veiled effort to secure foreign oil reserves. Meanwhile the pinkos over at the Pentagon are warning that long-term consequences of burning fossil fuels could pose a far graver threat to national security than terrorism. No irony in any of that.

The good news from all this is sooner we are able to dismiss the specious arguments of climate change deniers, the quicker that we can start getting serious about doing something about it. Having the Pentagon lay out a worst case scenario will carry far more weight in some circles than having environmentalists say the same thing. At the end of the day, we are all in this together.

We can still carve out a very different future than the grim predictions of famine and war. Ending our addiction to fossil fuels will not be easy, but it won’t be all hard either. Smog, childhood asthma and gridlock are all something that we could do without. We humans are enormously resourceful and there seems nothing we can’t do if really want to. Now that both Greenpeace and the Pentagon agree on something, lets get on with it.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.