Would you consider playing Russian roulette? It’s the deadly game dramatized in the Oscar-winning film The Deer Hunter, in which contestants spun the cylinder on a six-shooter revolver containing only one bullet, pointed it at their heads, and pulled the trigger, betting that with five chances out of six that nothing would happen. Those are good odds, but what if there were five bullets and only one empty chamber?
In the climate game, the odds are becoming increasingly stacked against betting on the idea that prevailing theories of climate change are some kind of hoax. The latest IPCC Report on climate expresses a 95 per cent confidence level that anthropogenic climate change is real and that fossil fuel combustion is the major cause. At 95 per cent there are five bullets in the gun.
Although governments and industry have deliberately and fraudulently attempted to undercut the findings of climate science to lower public concern, natural climate variability and variations in warming effects (size and frequency of wildfires, floods and storms, arctic ice melt, movement in plant and animal ranges) are all indicating a warming planet, and scientific climate computer models that show human cause are becoming more reliable and accurate.
What was uncertainty about future damage is now being offset by present costs. Only recently an early season wildfire has burned over 250 square miles of Alaska, forcing the evacuation of over a thousand buildings. Canada’s Department of Natural Resources has revealed that forest fires are an increasing threat in Western Canada—“big dollars.”
In the last decade Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy were the two most costly storms in US history, with estimates for Sandy at $68 billion and for Katrina even higher. In Canada, flood relief costs for the worst natural disaster in Alberta history, the Calgary floods, top $6 billion. Numerous credible climate and economic models predict that such financial impacts will only rise in frequency and size.
We must mitigate the damage already built into the global system and limit further assaults on the natural cycles that have regulated our biome (within a consistent range) over the past ten thousand years. Established carbon industries and their compliant governments are serious obstacles to mitigation, however.
Carbon industries now argue that natural gas is a transition fuel from dirty coal, oil and their derivatives (higher in carbon), but recent studies suggest that fracking for gas with wells’ associated leakage (up to nearly eight per cent in some studies) and the fact that methane is over 20 times more powerful and dangerous as a greenhouse gas than CO2 make the climate impact of natural gas “at least 20 per cent greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon.” But BC’s Liberals back fracked gas as the cornerstone of B.C.’s economy over the next hundred years, making a mockery of any carbon-trading scheme or carbon tax they might endorse.
A political joke runs that “robbing Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul.” Now robbing future generations (Peter) to pay for our energy and lifestyle demands today (Paul) is getting unqualified support from both our Federal and Provincial governments.
Many technologies, both proven and on the fringe, offer cleaner solutions to our energy demands. Molten salt thorium reactors and solar wind energy towers show much promise. Solar technology is virtually exploding into prominence in the US, with huge gains in residential and utility-scale solar installations. In Texas there are now more solar workers than ranchers! Will Canada follow suit? As these newer, cleaner energy sources come on stream, they can power the construction of further renewables.
But vested interests in carbon technology won’t go down without a fight. They’ll promise the world: non-polluting double-hulled unsinkable tankers, state of the art cleanup techniques, and decades of tax revenue (not to mention “jobs, jobs, jobs.”) They’ll deliver (though will not publicize) a global average of 20 oil spills per day, oil and gas train derailments, and toxic earth, air and water.
The six-shooter is in our hands, and we keep spinning the cylinder. “Click!” (Lucky!) If real progress is about innovation, carbon is on the way out. Let’s not invest too much sentiment in its messy decline, but rather look to a cleaner renewable future.
Al Lehmann is a retired English teacher living in Terrace, B.C.