Dec 302016
 

By Brian Kahn at CLIMATE CENTRAL  –  Published: December 28th, 2016
This year is likely to remembered as a turning point for climate change. It’s the year the impacts of rising carbon pollution became impossible to ignore. The world is overheating and vast swaths of the planet have suffered the consequences. At the same time, it’s also a year where world leaders crafted and agreed on a number of plans to try to turn the tide of carbon pollution and move toward a clean energy future. It’s clear 2016 was a year where planetary peril and human hope stood out in stark contrast. Here are the 10 most important climate milestones of the year.

The world struck an airline carbon pollution deal

The friendly skies got slightly friendlier. Air travel counts for about 7 percent of carbon emissions globally. That number will need to come down in the coming decades, and the International Civil Aviation Organization, the world’s governing body for airlines, put a plan in place to start that transition. The plan, which was signed off on by 191 countries, is focused on letting airlines buy credits that will help fund renewable energy projects to offset airplane emissions. It isn’t a perfect solution since it doesn’t directly reduce carbon pollution from air travel, but it’s a first step for an industry that will have to find novel, carbon-free ways to produce the fuel needed to fly you home for Christmas vacation.

An extremely potent greenhouse gas is also on its way out

Hydrofluorocarbons are the chemicals in your air conditioner that help keep you cool in the summer (and the food in your refrigerator cool year round). Ironically, they’re also a greenhouse gas that’s thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere. Reducing them is critical to keep the planet from heating up much more and in October, international negotiators struck a deal to do phase out hydrofluorocarbons. Countries still have to ratify the agreement — and it could face a major roadblock in the U.S. Senate — in order for it to take effect, but if approved, it will provide strong targets and a timetable to find replacement chemicals to keep you cool in a warming world.

July was the hottest month ever recorded. Then August tied it

The Arctic had a crazy heat wave this winter, but the planet as a whole really roasted through July and August. The summer is usually the warmest time of the year by dint of the fact that there’s more land in the northern hemisphere. But this summer was something else. July was the hottest month ever recorded, and it was followed by an August — usually a bit cooler than July — that was just as scorching. Those epically hot months helped set this year up for record heat (but more on that in a bit).

Arctic sea ice got weird. Really weird

The Arctic was probably the weirdest place on the planet this year. It had a record-low peak for sea ice in the winter and dwindled to its second-lowest extent on record. The Northwest Passage also opened in August, allowing a luxury cruise ship to pass through. Those milestones themselves are a disconcerting harbinger of a warming world, but November brought an even more bizarre event. Normally it’s a time when night blankets the region and temperatures generally plummet to allow the rapid growth of ice. But a veritable heat wave ratcheted temperatures 27°F above normal in November, hitting pause on ice growth and even causing ice loss for a few days. December has seen a similar warm spell that scientists have found would be virtually impossible if it wasn’t for climate change. The Arctic is the most rapidly warming region on the planet and 2016 served as a reminder that the region is being dramatically reshaped by that warming.

Divestment and clean energy investments each hit a record

Climate change is a huge, pressing economic issue as countries will have to rejigger their economies to run on renewables and not fossil fuels. Investors are attacking that switch at both ends, and 2016 stands out for the record pace at which they’re doing it. On the fossil fuel side, investors representing $5.2 trillion in assets have agreed to divest from fossil fuels. That includes massive financial firms, pension funds, cities and regional governments, and a host of wealthy individuals. Not bad for a movement that only got its start in 2011. On the flip side, a report showed that investors poured $288 billion into new renewable projects in 2015, also a record. That’s helping install 500,000 solar panels a day around the world and ensuring that 70 percent of all money invested into energy generation is going to renewables.

The Great Barrier Reef was decimated by warm waters

Coral has had a rough go of it around the world for the past three years. El Niño coupled with climate change has caused a massive coral bleaching event around the globe. Nowhere have the impacts been more stark than the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Up to 93 percent of the reef was rocked by coral bleaching as record-warm waters essentially boiled coral to death. A third of the reef — including some of the most protected areas — are now dead. Researchers found that climate change made the record heat up to 175 times more likely, offering a glimpse into the dystopian future reefs face. A 1.5°C rise in the global average temperature would essentially mean game over for corals around the world.

The world breached the 1.5°C climate threshold

So about 1.5°C. It’s a threshold that’s crucial for low-lying island states to continue their existence (to say nothing of Miami or other coastal cities). Passing it would mean essentially issuing a death sentence for these places, corals and Arctic sea ice and other places around the world. The globe got its first glimpse of 1.5°C in February and March this year. Climate change, riding on the back of a super El Niño, helped crank the global average temperature to 1.63°C above normal in February and 1.54°C above normal in March compared to pre-industrial times. While the abnormal heat has since subsided a bit, it’s likely that 1.5°C will be breached again and again in the coming years and could become normal by 2025-30.

Carbon dioxide hit 400 ppm. Permanently

Scientists measure carbon dioxide in parts per million and in 2016, and it hit a not-so-nice round number at the Earth’s marquee carbon observatory: 400 ppm. Despite the seasonal ebb and flow, there wasn’t a single week where carbon dioxide levels dipped below 400 ppm. It’s the first time on record that’s happened. Because carbon pollution continues to rise, the world isn’t going to see carbon dioxide dip below 400 ppm again in our lifetimes (and likely a lot longer than that). Carbon dioxide also breached the 400 ppm threshold in Antarctica, the first time that’s happened in human history (and likely a lot longer). And in a report that was published this year, the World Meteorological Organization revealed that carbon dioxide passed the 400 ppm milestone globally in 2015. So yeah, 400 ppm was kind of a thing this year.

The Paris Agreement got real

The world got together to deliver the Paris Agreement in 2015, but the rubber really hit the road in 2016. Nearly 120 countries have ratified the agreement, putting it into force on Nov. 4. That includes big carbon pollution emitters like China, the U.S. and the European Union, and tiny ones like Mongolia, the Cook Islands and Sierra Leone. While there’s concern that President-elect Trump could pull the U.S. out of the agreement, signatories have stressed that they’ll go forward to meet their pledges regardless. With the rubber on the road, the next step is to get the wheels spinning.

It was the hottest year on record. Again

In case it wasn’t clear, the clearest sign of climate change is heat. And this year had lots of it. Hot Arctic, hot summer, hot water, and so it’s only fitting that the biggest climate milestone of the year (in a year that itself is a milestone) is record heat. Of course, that was the biggest story in 2014. And 2015 for that matter. This year marks the third year in a row of record-setting heat, an unprecedented run. It’s a reminder that we’ve entered a new era, where our actions have changed the world we call home. We also have the ability to decide what comes next.

 

Sep 152016
 

Looking back at the summer of 2016, two words come immediately come to mind: drought and heat. August was a whopping 3.7 C warmer than the 1971-2000 average, while as of this week, September is about 3 C above normal temperatures. As for precipitation, July only saw one-third of normal rainfall. Precipitation was heavier in August but still only about half of what our region usually receives.

Drought - August 2016 - Drew-Monkman

Drought – August 2016 – Drew-Monkman

The combination of drought and intense heat was hard on our flora and fauna. Entire fields turned a ubiquitous brown, which meant that butterflies struggled to find nectar and healthy plants to lay eggs on. Monarchs may have been especially hard hit as only a handful of sightings were reported over most of the summer. Numbers have increased somewhat in recent weeks, however. On September 5, for example, I had three monarchs visiting my garden together. According to Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, the continent-wide data to this point suggest that this year will be a repeat of 2014 with a significant decline in both migration and overwintering numbers.

The drought has also resulted in a number of trees changing colour and/or shedding leaves much earlier than usual. Oaks growing in the thin soils northern Peterborough County have suffered with many trees turning a sickly shade of brown. Most should be able to recover, however, as long as precipitation levels return to normal this fall and over the coming winter and spring.

The drought has also been hard on birds and other animals as fewer young have been able to survive. A lack of nuts and berries, for example, is proving difficult for bears, which may result in more conflicts with humans as they search for food. Lower water levels and increased water temperatures have been hard on fish, too, especially cold-water species like brook trout. As water levels dropped in wetlands, frogs were more vulnerable to predators such as herons and raccoons, while some turtles were forced to roam widely afield in search of appropriate habitat. It’s likely that many did not survive the journey.

In other news this summer, a new species of butterfly was recorded for Peterborough County. On June 21, Jerry Ball and Ken Morrison found a female pipevine swallowtail on Sandy Lake Road, off Highway 46 north of Havelock. This species is usually restricted to the Carolinian zone of southwestern Ontario. With climate change, more and more butterflies are extending their range northward. The giant swallowtail is a well-known example.

The common loons that nested on the Otonabee River, just north of Lock 25, appear to have been successful in raising their two young. On August 19, Dave Milsom observed and photographed the two juvenile loons with an adult. The young loons were constantly flapping their wings in preparation for their first flight.

There was also encouraging news regarding chimney swifts, a species at risk in Ontario. In a citizen science monitoring program known as Swift Watch, Dan Williams observed 123 swifts entering a chimney behind Wildrock on Charlotte Street. On June 6, Ariel Lenske saw 83 birds fly into the same roost, where they spend the night.

Finally, Loggerhead Marsh, located on Ireland Drive in west-end Peterborough, has just been classified as a provincially significant wetland. This designation normally means that no structures can be built within a 120 m buffer zone bordering the wetland. This is welcome news for such a rich and easily accessible nature-viewing destination.

As the autumn equinox quickly approaches, here is a list of events in nature that are typical of fall in the Kawarthas. If the mild weather continues, however, some events may occur later than usual. Not surprisingly, this has become the norm as climate change tightens its grip.

Late September

  • Fall songbird migration is in full swing. Migrants such as warblers are often in mixed flocks with chickadees and can be coaxed in for close-up views by using “pishing”. To see and hear this birding technique in action, go to http://bit.ly/2cpznE8
  • Broad-winged hawks migrate south over the Kawarthas in mid-September, especially on sunny days with cumulous clouds and northwest winds. Watch for high-altitude “kettles”, which is a group of hawks soaring and circling in the sky. For your best chance of seeing this phenomenon, consider a trip to Cranberry Marsh, located on Halls Road at the Lynde Shores Conservation Area in Whitby. Expert hawk watchers are on hand each day. Thousands of broad-wings pass over this area in mid-month every year.
  • Peterborough Field Naturalists hold their Sunday Morning Nature Walks this month and next. Meet at the Riverview Park and Zoo parking lot at 8 am and bring binoculars. For more information, go to peterboroughnature.org
  • As the goldenrods begin to fade, asters take centre stage. The white flowers of heath and calico asters, along with the purple and mauve blossoms of New England and heart-leaved asters provide much of the show. Visit ontariowildflowers.com for tips on identifying these beautiful but under appreciated plants.

    A Monarch butterfly drinks nectar from a New England Aster - Tim Dyson

    A Monarch butterfly drinks nectar from a New England Aster – Tim Dyson

  • Listen for the constant calling of blue jays and the metronome-like “chuck-chuck…” call of chipmunks. The call is often given in response to danger such as the presence of a hawk. Chipmunk numbers are high this year, partly because of a strong acorn crop last fall, which allowed most of these small squirrels to overwinter successfully and have large litters.

October

  • Fall colours in the Kawarthas usually peak early in the month. However, because of the hot, dry weather this summer, leaf colour is expected to be more muted than usual. County Roads 620 and 504 around Chandos Lake east of Apsley makes for a great colour drive.
  • Sparrow migration takes centre stage, making October one of the busiest times of the year for backyard feeders. Scatter millet or finch mix on the ground to attract dark-eyed juncos and both white-throated and white-crowned sparrows.
  • On October 12, Mike McMurtry, a recently retired ecologist from the Natural Heritage Information Centre, will be speaking to the Peterborough Field Naturalists on “Learning the Plants of the Kawarthas”. The talk will provide tips for identification and conclude with a quiz. The presentation begins at 7:30 pm at the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre on Pioneer Road. Everyone is welcome.
  • Fall is a great time to find salamanders. The red-backed, which is almost worm-like in appearance, is usually the most common. Look carefully under flat rocks, old boards, and logs in damp wooded areas and around cottages.

    Red-backed Salamander - Drew Monkman

    Red-backed Salamander – Drew Monkman

  • A tide of yellow spreads across the landscape in mid- through late October. The colour is supplied courtesy of trembling and bigtooth aspens, balsam poplar, silver maple, white birch, and, at month’s end, tamarack.
  • As ducks move southward, consider a visit to the Lakefield sewage lagoons, which are located on County Road 33, just south of Lakefield. Just be careful to avoid blocking the gate when you park. Goldeneye, buffleheads, scaup and mergansers are often present in large numbers. If you have a spotting scope, be sure to take it along.

    Common Goldeneye male - Karl Egressy

    Common Goldeneye male – Karl Egressy

  • If you find a Halloween bat in your house, it is probably a big brown. This species often overwinters in buildings. Little browns, on the other hand, choose caves and abandoned mines as winter quarters. Their population is in a free-fall because of White Nose Syndrome. Big browns are less susceptible to the disease.
  • The first northern finches usually start turning up in late October. To learn which species to expect this fall and winter, Google “winter finch forecast 2016-2017”. The forecast, compiled by Ron Pittaway, is usually available online by early October.

November

  • Oaks, tamaracks and silver maples are about the only native deciduous trees that still retain foliage in early November. The brownish-orange to burgundy leaves of red oaks stand out with particular prominence. At a glance, you can see just how common oaks are in many areas of the Kawarthas.

    Oak leaves - Evolution has made them deeply lobed and leathery. (Drew Monkman)

    Oak leaves – Evolution has made them deeply lobed and leathery. (Drew Monkman)

  • We return to Standard Time on November 5th and turn our clocks back one hour. Sunrise on the 5th is at 7:56 am and sunset at 5:57 pm for a total of only 10 hours of daylight. Compare this to the 15 1/2 hours we enjoyed back in June!
  • The red berries of wetland species like winterberry holly and high-bush cranberry provide some much needed November colour.
  • Most of our loons and robins head south this month. However, small numbers of robins regularly overwinter in the Kawarthas. Their numbers should be particularly high this year, thanks to a plentiful wild grape crop. Grapes are a staple food for winter robins.

    Riverbank (Wild) Grape - Drew Monkman

    Riverbank (Wild) Grape – Drew Monkman

  • Ball-like swellings known as galls are easy to see on the stems of goldenrods. If you open the gall with a knife, you will find the small, white larva of the goldenrod gall fly inside. In the spring, it will emerge as an adult fly.
  • Damp, decomposing leaves on the forest floor scent the November air.
  • With the onset of cold temperatures, wood frogs, gray treefrogs, chorus frogs, and spring peepers take shelter in the leaf litter of the forest floor and literally become small blocks of amphibian ice. Glycerol, acting as an antifreeze, inhibits freezing within the frogs’ cells.

I would like to thank Martin and Kathy Parker, Tim Dyson, Cathy Dueck and Jacob Rodenburg for having done such an admirable job filling in for me this summer. We are fortunate in the Kawarthas to have so many people with extensive knowledge of the natural world.

 

Feb 042016
 

As much as news reports of dying sequoia trees in California, disappearing seabird colonies in Iceland, and lifeless coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean are disturbing, these impacts of climate change are still far-removed from our everyday experience. We, of course, don’t live in these far-flung places; we live in Peterborough or Lakefield, on Chemong Lake, or maybe in the Cavan Hills. For most of us, many of the consequences of a changing climate have yet to be felt personally. However, it’s only a matter of time. The impacts won’t only be on our financial and physical well-being. They will be deeply emotional, as well.

White Pines  at Pioneer Park in Peterborough - Peter Beales

White Pines at Pioneer Park in Peterborough – Peter Beales

A part of our identity and sense of well-being merges with the places we call home, spend our summers, our visit regularly. We feel an emotional connection to the landscapes that surround us, the plants and animals that are our neighbours and the rhythm of the seasons. For those of us of a certain age, we hold fond memories shaped by myriad springs, summers, falls and winters. We have a strong sense of “how this time of year ought to be.” The memory of what the weather was once like is intimately linked to events in our lives. This, in turn, provides a sense of how things are changing. Rather than picking strawberries in early July, we now pick them in June; a birthday which used to coincide with blooming lilacs now lines up with the first primrose; a backyard rink which was once a rite of December is now relegated to mid-winter – or not possible at all.

Little Brown Bat with White Nose Syndrome - Wikimedia

Little Brown Bat with White Nose Syndrome – Wikimedia

I frequently hear stories about the sadness brought on by the decline of much-loved species or the degradation of cherished habitats that had become part of people’s lives. When this happens, there is often a deep sense of loss, whether it is the result of climate change, urban development, invasive species or any number of other causes. This emotional impact of a degraded natural world goes under-reported but is very real. Here are just a few stories I have heard personally. I would be interested in hearing yours, too.

·         The cottager on Salmon Lake who, for 50 years, enjoyed a daily ritual of sitting on the dock in the evening, a coffee in hand, watching the bats twist and turn as they hunted insects over the lake. The bats are no more, replaced by nostalgia and sadness.

·         The farmer in Ennismore who, since childhood, was kept company every spring and summer by the chatter and coming and going of dozens of swallows nesting in the barn. The barn has turned eerily silent in recent years.

·         The angler who laments the drastic decline in brook trout in local creeks, and how trout fishing in the spring was once such a part of his life.

·         The golfer who mourns the passing of the towering, graceful American elms that were once the signature tree of the Peterborough Golf and Country Club.

·         The Stony Lake cottager who still carries the emotional pain of seeing her giant white pines blown down in a single storm.

·         The Trent student who did intensive research on local bumblebees in the 1980s. When he returned to the same research sites in 2013, he was unable to find any of the bumblebee species that had once been so common. In a letter to the editor of this paper, he wrote, “To me, the woods and glades of beautiful places like Jackson Park now fill me with an aching sense of loss and despair. Little did I know that my thesis studies would be more epitaph than ecology. What have we done?”

Common Eastern Bumble Bee nectaring - by Margot Hughes

Common Eastern Bumble Bee nectaring –  Margot Hughes

These feelings now have a name – solastalgia. It is the pain or anguish caused by the loss of solace from a loved environment because of its degradation. It is being felt all over the world, especially among indigenous peoples. Researchers interviewed 120 native people in Labrador in what is called the Inuit Mental Health Adaptation to Climate Change project. The North Labrador Coast is one of the fastest-warming areas in the world. Wildlife and vegetation patterns have changed, and sea ice  forms later in the fall and breaks up earlier in the spring. People reported sadness and even depression about not being able to travel on the ice to reach hunting grounds as early or late in the year as they used to.

How are scientists feeling?

It is revealing to hear the emotional reaction of climate scientists themselves to a warming world. These people aren’t robots in white lab coats. They are mothers, fathers and grandparents who see the impacts and feel the emotional effects of climate change first-hand. Here are some testimonies taken from a website called isthishowyoufeel.com

·         “I feel frustrated that I cannot even convince those closest to me that we, as a society, are being irresponsible, and that our children and grandchildren will pay the price. Don’t we feel compassion for the life we are signing them up for?” Anna Harper, Research Fellow, University of Exeter

·         “I am a scientist mostly focussed on studying how human activities are destroying coral reefs. On coral reefs, climate change effects are hugely obvious and very depressing. Huge swaths of coral have died due to heat stress, and it will continue unless drastic changes occur.” Dr. Jessica Carilli, UMass, Boston.

·         “How do I feel about climate change? I feel afraid for my grand children and for my family. It  keeps me awake at night. I am frustrated with complacency. Parents who would leap between a bear and a child live in ignorance, confusion, or at best, fear. Leap into the climate debate, mom and dad. Still, I feel excitement that we can fix this. We have the plans, policies and technology. We can have great lives with clean, safe, renewable energy. Please help! Get involved. Demand action on climate at all political levels.” Dr. James Byrne, University of Lethbridge

·         “My overwhelming emotion is anger; anger that is fuelled not so much by ignorance, but by greed and profiteering at the expense of future generations… I am speaking as a father of a seven year-old girl who loves animals and nature in general. As a biologist, I see irrefutable evidence every day that human-driven climate disruption will turn out to be one of the main drivers of the Anthropocene mass extinction event now well under way.” Professor Corey Bradshaw, University of Adelaide

·         “I’m lucky to have been a marine biologist for the last 20 years. I look at my underwater photos of amazing coral reefs, diverse fish and baby turtles hatching and I feel very sad that my son, his friends and their children may never see the amazing things I have seen.” Dr. Jennie Mallela, Australian National University

·         “I will keep doing my work. I will keep shouting in my own little way. I will be optimistic that we will do something about this, collectively. I live in hope that the climate changes on the graphs that I stare into every day won’t be as bad as my data tells me, because we worked together to find a solution. All I can hope is that people share my optimism and convert it into action.” Dr Ailie Gallant, Monash University.

Barn Swallow - Karl Egressy

Barn Swallow – Karl Egressy

Everywhere we look, climate change predictions are being confirmed. If you believe in science – humankind’s best way of discovering what’s true – you have to believe that forecasts for the coming years will prove true, as well. Yes, it’s difficult to think beyond the present moment  and the many worries and stresses of everyday life. However, we can’t put our heads in the sand. Even meeting Canada’s timid commitments under Stephen Harper to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030  will be difficult to achieve. The bottom line is that we will have to accept paying a great deal more for fossil fuels, if we are to usher in an age of renewable energy. At this late date, it’s the only way forward. Let’s encourage our politicians to adopt an aggressive and quickly increasing price on carbon.

 

Jan 232016
 

When I turned on CBC radio Monday morning, the first thing I heard was that the price of gasoline in London had dropped to less than 85 cents a litre. A quick check on ontariogasprices.com showed Costco in Peterborough selling gas at 86.9 cents. The near-universal reaction seems to be one of sheer delight, yet you might think that with all the attention climate change has received in recent months, more people would be expressing unease. In other words, why aren’t more of us connecting the dots and realizing that low gas prices mean more driving and, as we are now seeing, the increased popularity of larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles? The result, of course, is higher greenhouse gas emissions. The transportation sector accounts for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.

Petro Canada fuel pump -Wikimedia

Petro Canada fuel pump -Wikimedia

What’s wrong with the scenario? It’s not as if climate change hasn’t already touched our lives, at least for those paying attention. The outright balmy month of December 2015 was by far the warmest on record across the entire province. The mean temperature in Peterborough was an astounding 7.0 C above the 1981-2010 normal of -4.4 C and 7.9 C above the 1971 – 2000 normal of -5.3 C. This shatters the previous record, set in 2006, which was 4.6 C above normal. Yes, an exceptionally strong El Nino is being blamed, but most climatologists see climate change as setting the stage for El Nino’s intensity.

Whenever I write or Tweet on climate change in the Kawarthas, the amount of feedback I receive is limited. Other than the knee-jerk reaction from a couple of climate change deniers, the comments – or, in the case of Twitter, reTweets – are surprisingly few. As an active member of “For Our Grandchildren”, a local group that organizes events to educate and draw attention to the need for climate action, the attendance at many of our events has been disappointing, especially on the part of younger people. Two exceptions, however, were the excellent turnouts at an all-candidates meeting held during the federal election and a letter-writing event held just before the Paris climate conference.

Temperature anomoly showing cold NE North America on Feb. 16, 2015

Temperature anomoly showing cold NE North America on Feb. 16, 2015

Not a priority

What explains the lack of public engagement? A survey done last September by Dr. Erick Lachapelle, an assistant professor of political science at the Université de Montréal, is instructive. He has been doing similar surveys since 2011 and has found that climate change is not yet a priority issue for Canadians. Some of the key findings include: nearly half of us remain either uninformed or misinformed; a significant minority express uncertainty or doubt about the causes; more than half feel climate change will harm them only a little or not at all, and that it’s more of a problem for future generations; there is little understanding of policy tools like cap & trade; and, although most Canadians want more action on climate change, a majority remain unwilling to pay large sums to reduce emissions and increase the use of renewables. For example, only 14% would be willing to pay $250 or more per year to help the transition to a decarbonized economy. Lachapelle points out that even paying $250 per year is far below what the real cost would be. The take-away message seems to be “someone else should pay”.

Why the ambivalence?

In an interview on CBC Radio’s “Quirks and Quarks” (Dec. 12, 2015), Dr. Lachapelle was asked to explain these findings. He pointed out that climate change is a complicated, technical problem that requires a lot of motivation and time to be truly informed. Media coverage until recently has been sporadic (we rarely even hear about it on weather reports!), and for 10 years the Harper government never signalled to Canadians that climate change is an important issue. Lachapelle went on to say that humans tend to base their opinions on personal experience and are wired for short-term, immediate risks. Despite some glaring weather extremes like this past December, the winters of 2014 and 2015, and March 2012, most of us aren’t yet seeing huge changes in our day to day experience of the climate. It’s therefore easy to ignore risks in the future. Lachapelle added that once we accept the fact that humans are the primary cause of rising temperatures, the onus is on us to do something about the problem. Many people are unwilling to take this next step and to support paying the required costs.

Opossum on Johnston Drive, south of Peterborough - Mary Beth Aspinall - Feb. 2014

Opossum on Johnston Drive, south of Peterborough – Mary Beth Aspinall – Feb. 2014

To this list, I would add that humans are very susceptible to “shifting baseline syndrome”. When change happens gradually – as in the case of a changing climate – we hardly notice it. Because of our general disconnection from nature, many of us lack clear reference points as to how things used to be. This leads to an acceptance of degraded natural ecosystems and strange weather patterns as somehow “normal”. Very few of us are aware of the “canary in the coal mine” changes that are already occurring in the Kawarthas. We are already seeing changes in the dates of events (e.g., earlier flowering of plants, earlier return of some spring migrants); the arrival of warm-climate species from the south (e.g., opossum, giant swallowtail butterfly); more rapid growth and range expansion of plants that thrive on higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere (e.g., poison ivy, ragweed, dog-strangling vine); and a pattern of more extreme weather events.

Christmas eve 2015 on Maple Crescent, Peterborough - Drew Monkman

Christmas Eve 2015 on Maple Crescent, Peterborough – Drew Monkman

What now?

How do we get past this ambivalence? More information about the causes will only take us so far. People filter information through their personal worldview and will interpret the same scientific findings differently in order to make it fit with how they think. For instance, accepting that climate change is a significant problem implies that government will have to play a greater role in solving the problem (i.e., take more of our money and establish more rules and regulations). People who are against greater government involvement in our lives are therefore likely to downplay scientific findings or even extreme weather. “I remember other green, mild Christmases. This isn’t anything abnormal,” is the kind of comment I heard a lot this holiday season.

Asked what can be done to make Canadians more attentive to this issue, Lachapelle highlighted the importance of framing climate change as something that is already affecting public health and security. He also talked about communicating and demonstrating the economic opportunities that will be created by transitioning away from a carbon-based economy. “I think this is an area where we need governments to lead and once it’s on the agenda… people will follow. We may be getting this leadership now, but only time will tell.”

Renewable energy: Wind turbines in St. Joseph, Manitoba - Wikimedia

Renewable energy: Wind turbines in St. Joseph, Manitoba – Wikimedia

When it comes to the health impacts of climate change, emotional distress is going to become a huge problem as we are forced to cope emotionally and financially with more extreme weather. There will also be a loss of sense of place as valued natural environments – the lake and landscape around the family cottage, for example – are degraded, much-loved species disappear and seasonal rituals like a backyard rink become a thing of the past. More about this in my next column. For now, let’s try to be a bit less jubilant about those low gas prices.

 

Jan 162016
 

Inside the Paris Climate Agreement: Hope or Hype? 

By Brian Tokar (Dec. 30, 2015)

It has become a predictable pattern at the annual UN climate conferences for participants to describe the outcome in widely divergent ways. This was first apparent after the high-profile Copenhagen conference in 2009, when a four-page non-agreement was praised by diplomats, but denounced by well-known critics as a “sham,” a “farce,” and a mere face-saver. UN insiders proclaimed the divisive 2013 Warsaw climate conference a success, even though global South delegates and most civil society observers had staged an angry walk-out a day prior to its scheduled conclusion.

So it was no surprise when this happened again on December 12th in Paris. Francois Hollande praised the Paris Agreement as “ambitious,” “binding,” and “universal.” Ban Ki-moon said it ushers in a “new era of global cooperation,” and UN climate convention executive secretary Christiana Figueres described it as “an agreement of solidarity with the most vulnerable.” Barack Obama waxed triumphant and proclaimed the outcome a testament to American leadership in diplomacy and technology.

Source: CounterPunch  Continue reading

Dec 262015
 

At the pussy willow patch on Xmas eve, I spotted four or five emerging pussy willows way high up in the bushes and saw a dead American Toad on Route 100 in N. Russell. It was a very large one. Lots of blooming dandelions in North Russell (in addition to those spotted earlier in Dec.). And, interestingly, spinach and lettuce coming up in my garden. Actually picked a few tiny bits to add to salad–it’s tough and bitter but so cool that I’m eating fresh out of the garden on Xmas. I’m concerned about the sizes of the some of the buds on trees–including silver, red and sugar maples, and elderberry.I also saw tens of thousands of Snow Geese, American Toad singingwith a few Canada Geese mixed in, at the N. Russell Quarry Lake on Xmas Eve.   Candice Vetter

As I was leaving home yesterday morning, I heard an American Robin constantly singing as if on territory looking for a mate. Very odd for December 25th.  Bruce Ripley, Amherstview, ON

Took a walk along the back field of the Glenhaven cemetary in Glenburnie this afternoon with the dog, saw a whole bunch of yellow dandelion flowers in the mowed grass along the edge of field and road. Most were closed up, about 10 were open. I stopped counting at 72. I looked to see if anything else were blooming, but didn’t find any other species.  Rose-Marie Behr

Spring Peepers were calling intermittently after 10:00 pm on 23 December in the Downers Corners Wetland, Peterborough.  Eric Snyder

Winter robin (Liane Edwards)

Winter robin (Liane Edwards)

Dandelions

Dandelions

Spring Peeper - John Urquhart

Spring Peeper – John Urquhart

Dec 242015
 

Although winter’s official start was three days ago, you certainly wouldn’t know it. Peterborough has experienced unprecedented warmth this month with temperatures averaging an amazing 9 C above normal. (Note: December ended up being 7.8 C above normal – the warmest ever recorded for Peterborough and the Kawarthas.) Not surprisingly, many plants and animals don’t seem to know it’s winter, either. Skunks and raccoons, which usually sleep  most of the winter, remain active; moths, ladybugs, midges, mosquitoes, and woolly bear caterpillars can still be found; ducks that are usually long gone by now continue to linger; and I’ve even come across the odd dandelion, yarrow and goldenrod in bloom. There was also a report from eastern Ontario of a wild turkey nest full of eggs. Unseasonably warm weather is also occurring across the United Kingdom where daffodils are blooming as far north as Northern Ireland. In fact, December temperatures in London have been warmer than July’s.

The question, of course, is why this is happening. According to Dave Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada, an exceptionally strong El Nino is mostly to blame. Speaking to CHEX TV, Phillips said, “Water (in the Pacific Ocean) has to be a half-degree warmer than usual for several months to be declared an El Nino. Right now, it is 3.1 degrees warmer than normal. It’s a hot tub!” Axel Timmerman of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu predicts that this year’s El Niño will only grow in intensity, likely becoming the strongest ever.That energy has to go somewhere, and during an El Niño winter it spreads warmth and humidity eastward. Monsoons and trade winds are also disrupted, which causes severe storms, droughts, floods and food shortages like those that Africa is now facing. Many scientists are convinced that climate change, too, is playing a role in setting the larger stage for such a strong El Nino.

Christmas Eve 2015 - Drew Monkman

Christmas Eve 2015 – Drew Monkman

Despite all, Environment Canada assures us that colder weather will eventually arrive. As a reminder of what to watch for in nature, here are some mileposts of the winter months.  If the warmth and lack of snow continue, however, abnormal occurrences such as those we’ve been seeing are certain to persist. Who knows? Tulips in February?

JANUARY

·          In the first week of January, sunrise is later than at any other time of the year. In fact, the sun doesn’t peak over the horizon until 7:49 a.m. Compare this to June 20 when the sun rises at 5:29 a.m.

·         Watch for ruffed grouse at dawn and dusk along tree-lined country roads. The birds often appear in silhouette as they feed on buds such as those of trembling aspen.

·         Small numbers of common goldeneyes and common mergansers can be seen all winter long on the Otonabee River, at Young’s Point and at Gannon Narrows.

·         White-tailed deer shed their antlers between late-December and early March. Antlers are temporary projections of bone, which are grown and discarded each year.

·         Coyotes are quite vocal during their January to March mating season. The young are born 60-63 days later, usually in a ground den.

Eastern Coyote on Otonabee River - Tom Northey.

Eastern Coyote on Otonabee River – Tom Northey.

·         Bass lie dormant under logs, weeds or rocks until the light and warmth of spring restore their energy and appetite.

·         If you’re walking in the woods, you’ll notice that some of the smaller trees have retained many of their leaves. These are usually beech, oak, or ironwood.

·         Honeybees are the only insects to maintain an elevated body temperature all winter. They accomplish this by clustering together in a thick ball within the hive, vibrating their wings to provide heat and eating stored honey for the necessary energy.

·         Barred owls sometimes show up in rural backyards and prey on feeder birds or mice and voles that attracted at night by fallen seeds.

Northern Barred Owl - Tim Dyson - NBR - 051214

Northern Barred Owl – Tim Dyson – NBR – 051214

·         The cones of red and white pine drop to the ground all winter long. The seeds, however, were released in the fall.

·         In late January, black bears give birth to cubs no larger than chipmunks. Generally, two cubs are born, although there are sometimes as many as four or five.

FEBRUARY

·         We begin the month with about 9 ¾ hours of daylight and end with 11, a gain of about 75 minutes. The lengthening days are most notable in the afternoon.

·         Groundhog Day, February 2, marks the mid-point of winter. However, our groundhogs won’t see their shadow – or light of day, for that matter – until mid-March at the earliest. In case you were wondering, no animal or plant behaviour can portend upcoming weather beyond a few hours.

·         Although tentative at first, bird song returns in February as pair bonds are established or renewed. Black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, and white-breasted nuthatches are several of the birds that usually start singing this month.

·         Gray squirrels mate in January or February and can often be seen streaming by in treetop chases as a group of males chases a half-terrorized female. Amazing acrobatics are usually part of the show.

·         Lake trout eggs hatch in February but the fry remain in the lake bottom for about six weeks and survive on energy stored in their yolk sac.

·         The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place February 12-15. This citizen science event engages bird watchers of all levels of expertise to create a real-time snapshot of the whereabouts and relative abundance of birds in mid-winter. Anyone can participate. Go to www.birdcount.org for details.

Common Redpoll - male - Tim Dyson

Male Common Redpoll – a species often recorded on the Great Backyard Bird Count – Tim Dyson

·         Watch for river otters in winter around areas of flowing water. Their trough-like, snow-slide trails are often seen on embankments or even flat ground.

·         Late February is courtship time for ravens. Males engage in aerial nuptial displays, diving and twisting like corkscrews over Canadian Shield country.

·         The male common goldeneye puts on an elaborate courtship display in late winter. He thrusts his head forward and then moves it back towards his rump. With his bill pointing skyward, he utters a squeaky call.

·         On mild, sunny, late winter days, check the snow along the edge of woodland trails for snow fleas. What looks like spilled pepper may begin to jump around right before your eyes!

·         Testosterone-charged male skunks roll out of their dens any time from mid-February to early March and go on nocturnal prowls looking for females. The smell of a skunk on a damp, late winter night is a time-honoured sign of “pre-spring.”

·         By month’s end, spring has sprung for overwintering monarchs in the mountains of Mexico. As lengthening days trigger the final development of the butterflies’ reproductive system, male monarchs begin zealously courting females. In December, the monarch population was estimated to be four times larger than last year’s. Great news!

 

MARCH

·          Duck numbers increase as buffleheads and hooded mergansers start arriving.

Male Hooded Merganser (Karl Egressy)

Male Hooded Merganser (Karl Egressy)

·         House sparrows are already laying claim to nest boxes. The male will often perch on the box and call repeatedly to claim real estate and attract a mate.

·         Chipmunks make their first appearance above ground since late fall. They did remain somewhat active all winter, however, making repeated trips to their underground storehouses for food.

·         The buds of lilac, red-berried elder, red maple, and silver maple swell this month and are much more noticeable.

·         The furry catkins of pussy willows and aspens poke through bud scales and become a time-honoured sign of spring’s imminent arrival.

·         By mid-March, the first northward-bound turkey vultures are usually seen. Each year, a particularly reliable group of these birds lingers for a week or more in the west end of Peterborough.

·         The first songbirds, too, usually return by mid-month. In the city, the most notable new arrivals are robins and grackles. In rural areas, watch for red-winged blackbirds perched high in wetland trees.

·         For anyone paying attention, the increase in bird song is hard to miss. If you don’t already know the voices of common songsters, this is a great time to start learning them. Go to allaboutbirds.org, enter the name of the species, and click on the Sound tab.

·         The spring equinox occurs on March 20 as the sun shines directly on the equator. Both the moon and sun rise due east and set due west. Day and night are nearly equal in duration. For the next six months, we can enjoy days that are longer than nights.

 

Dec 242015
 

From the ‘Have we screwed this planet up or what!’ department

On Christmas Eve day at about 11:00am Margo and I watched a frog cross the highway in front of us on County Road 28 near Fraserville. It appeared to have dodged a stream of vehicles or is squished into the treads of a snow tire. We couldn’t find a body so no species id.

I suspect folks are reporting lots of other weird things given this mild weather.

Al Sippel & Margo Tant

 

Dec 132015
 

Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, PUBLISHED

The world came together. More than 20 years after world leaders first tried hammering out an accord to tackle climate change, representatives of 195 nations on Saturday adopted a landmark agreement that seeks to scale back greenhouse gases and trigger a momentous shift away from coal, oil, and natural gas. “It’s rare to have an opportunity in a lifetime to change the world,” French President Francois Hollande told the delegates Saturday, before the final decision came at about 7:30 p.m. (Central European Time). After the agreement was reached, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared, “What was once unthinkable, is now unstoppable.”

Two weeks of marathon deal-making, which started with high hopes, ended with a surprisingly ambitious pact. Its 31 pages commit wealthier nations to provide billions of dollars to poor countries to battle rising seas and extreme weather, and called on every nation to begin a rapid transition toward clean energy. It remains to be seen how well nations will follow through on these pledges – and whether the newly aggressive goals can be achieved. But as a blueprint for the future, diplomats were clearly proud of their efforts, and even many skeptical climate activists praised the unexpected boldness of portions of the agreement. “Countries have united around a historic agreement that marks a turning point in the climate crisis,” said Jennifer Morgan, international climate expert with the World Resources Institute.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore added, “Years from now, our grandchildren will reflect on humanity’s moral courage to solve the climate crisis and they will look to December 12, 2015, as the day when the community of nations finally made the decision to act.”

Here are highlights of the deal–some surprises, some snubs, what it means, and where it takes us:

SURPRISES

1.5 Degrees

Aside from the fact that there’s an agreement at all, perhaps nothing was more unexpected than the ambitiousness of its goal: Negotiators came to Paris with a mission to stop the rise of greenhouse gases before they cause irreversible harm to the planet. Countries previously had set a target of limiting warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. But the new accord commits the planet to limiting global temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees Celsius.” And it adds that nations will do so while also “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.”

Read the entire article

Dec 122015
 

Source: By Haydn Watters, CBC News Posted: Dec 12, 2015 3:01 PM ET

After lengthy overnight negotiations and two weeks of touch-and-go discussions, delegates at the UN climate talks in Paris have adopted a climate-change pact. The final text of the Paris Agreement — considered to be the world’s first universal climate agreement — is 31 pages long. While the plenary session agreed upon the final draft Saturday afternoon, it now must be ratified.

Read the agreement

Here are five of the agreement’s key points.

1. Limit temperature rise ‘well below’ 2 C
The agreement includes a commitment to keep the rise in global temperatures “well below” 2 C compared to pre-industrial times, while striving to limit them even more, to 1.5 degrees. Canadian officials agreed to this lower amount earlier this week, saying they would support a long-term goal of limiting rising average temperatures to within 1.5 C of pre-industrial levels. Scientists consider 2 C the threshold to limit potentially catastrophic climate change.

2. First universal climate agreement
It’s the world’s first comprehensive climate agreement, with all countries expected to pitch in. The previous emissions treaty, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, only included rich countries.​ Canada signed on to Kyoto, but later backed out in 2011. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius presented the agreement’s final draft on Saturday, noting that it is legally binding.
3. Helping poorer nations
The deal also calls on developed nations to give $100 billion annually to developing countries by 2020. This would help these poorer countries combat climate change and foster greener economies. The agreement promotes universal access to sustainable energy in developing countries, particularly in Africa. It says this can be accomplished through greater use of renewable energy. In his appearance at the summit last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to helping poorer nations cope with global warming. In November, the Canadian government promised to spend $2.65 billion over five years to help developing countries reduce their emissions and adapt to climate change.

4. Publishing greenhouse gas reduction targets
Countries will be tasked with preparing, maintaining and publishing their own greenhouse gas reduction targets. The agreement says these targets should be greater than the current ones and “reflect [the] highest possible amibition.” These targets will be reviewed and revised every five years starting in 2023. The agreement also says that each country should strive to drive down their carbon output “as soon as possible.”

5. Carbon neutral by 2050?

The deal sets the goal of a carbon-neutral world sometime after 2050 but before 2100. This means a commitment to limiting the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally. Scientists believe the world will have to stop emitting greenhouse gases altogether in the next half-century in order to achieve this goal.

Dec 102015
 

When it comes to climate change, the main take-away is that it is real. That being said, efforts by climate change deniers (at least one of whom regularly submits letters to this paper) to convince people that the science on human-caused climate change is far from settled have been quite successful. As the Paris Climate Change Conference concludes and Canada prepares to firm up its greenhouse gas reduction commitments, I think it is important to understand just how outrageous, illogical and dangerously irresponsible climate change denial actually is.

Because almost none of us are climate scientists ourselves, we have to put our trust in experts in order to reach an informed position. This is not only true for climate change but for all scientific issues. Granted, coming to an informed position can be difficult, since much of science truly is unsettled. Such is often the case in medicine, for example, or with regard to the health benefits or dangers of different foods. It is also where science finds itself right now with regard to the identity of our direct hominid ancestors; what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, and how life itself began. All of this means that the only responsible position is to say, “We don’t know for sure” or “the jury is still out.” In addition, it is the very nature of science that nothing is ever 100 percent settled. New research is always revising the details.

Kintigh coal-fired Generating Station - Somerset, New York - Wikimedia

Kintigh coal-fired power plant – Somerset, New York – Wikimedia

Scientific Consensus

For me, the whole issue on what to believe – with a high measure of confidence – comes down to the strength of the scientific consensus. By definition, a consensus is based upon evidence. It is arrived at by relevant experts in the field using the scientific method to determine what it true, and using this same method to try to disprove the findings of their colleagues – if they can. It’s what scientists do, it’s how they make a name for themselves, and it is how the body of scientific knowledge advances. When the evidence is weak, conflicting or preliminary, opinions proliferate, such as in the examples given previously. If the evidence is convincing enough, however, there is a tendency for the scientific community to come together with a near-single opinion, at least about the big picture. In other words, when you get enough evidence, a consensus emerges. Such is the case now with respect to everything from plate tectonics and the germ theory of disease to evolution by natural selection and that cigarettes cause cancer. It is also the case with human-caused climate change. Climate science has followed exactly the same rigorous, peer-reviewed process that arrived at these other scientific truths.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body that evaluates climate change science, there is a 97% consensus among climate scientists that human-caused climate change is real. Equally compelling, these scientists are 95% confident in this conclusion. A scientific consensus does not get much higher than this. Remember, too, that these scientists are working all over the world, do not necessarily share the same motivations, are often highly competitive, and have every motivation to disprove each other’s findings – in the name of what is true. This makes the consensus even more compelling.

Some science deniers, be they on the left or the right of the political spectrum, seem to believe that mainstream science (or the government or large corporations) can just “manufacture” a scientific consensus and keep the real findings secret. This, of course, is conspiracy thinking. Some liberals, for example, blame big corporations for conspiring to hide the truth about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Likewise, some conservatives blame government, government-funded scientists, and intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for conspiring to hide the truth, fudge the data and be dishonest about human-caused climate change. The idea that organizations could unscrupulously manufacture data – that its members could be in cahoots with each other over all of this time without the truth getting out – is preposterous. Every country and national scientific association on the planet would have to be in on this together.

 Settled Science

Deniers often ridicule the use of the term “settled science” when it comes to climate change. This is an unfortunate expression because it leads to confusion. What settled science refers to is that “we’re ready to act upon this information (based on the high quality of evidence) and make decisions.” It doesn’t mean that the science stops and/or that science is no longer open to new evidence. It simply a recognition that there is no significant, legitimate controversy about the central idea. If you know any climate change deniers, agnostics or people who downplay the risks, ask them if  it would be responsible NOT to act and start limiting greenhouse gas emissions when science is 95% sure of the cause? We make decisions to act all the time in science and medicine when our level of certainty is well below that. To use an analogy, if we were 40% sure that an asteroid was on course to slam into Earth, would we wait until we were 100% sure before planning a course of action? Of course, not. We would probably act at 10%.

It is no longer incumbent upon climate scientists to produce more and more evidence that humans are the main cause of climate change. They have met their burden of proof. There is no real debate occurring in the scientific community about the legitimacy of the evidence. If there was, the story would be all over the mainstream news, and some scientist(s) would become famous in the process. Rather, it is now incumbent upon deniers to produce an equal amount of valid science that the 97 percent of climatologists are mistaken. And we aren’t just talking about a technical error here or there, a case of exaggeration, or an inappropriate email. Deniers need to show the world a mountain of peer-reviewed data. The evidence for human-made climate change, like evolution, is at a point now where it cannot be wrong; it can only be incomplete. There is simply no other big picture explanation for all of the evidence that exists. Improvements in our understanding of the details will certainly occur, but it is nearly impossible that the fundamentals as understood in 2015 are wrong.

Al Gore upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 - Wikimedia

Al Gore upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 – Wikimedia

Al Gore was right when he wrote that the truth about climate change is inconvenient. In fact, it is the perfect storm of environmental problems and solutions will be difficult, controversial and costly. We will have to be open to many different technologies – maybe even geoengineering and expanded use of nuclear power. That being said, the science is the science. This trumps ideological interests, political interests, and the interests of corporations. Yes, there is a role for healthy scepticism of scientific findings when the evidence is weak or preliminary, but not when an overwhelming scientific consensus exists and when the future of civilisation as we know it hangs in the balance.

 

Sep 122015
 

September 10, 2015
Written by: Anne Meador and John Zangas

Source: DC Media Group
The repercussions of climate disruption are still not being acknowledged fully, warned climatologist Dr. James Hansen, addressing an audience of Baby Boomer and Greatest Generation climate activists on September 9.

“We’ve now got an emergency,” he told about 150 “elder activists” at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, DC, who were participating in Grandparents Climate Action Day.

Hansen–formerly NASA’s head climate scientist, now Adjunct Professor at Columbia University–is probably best known for bringing definitive evidence of global warming to Congress in testimony in 1988. In July of this year, he released a report with sixteen co-authors studying glacier melt in Greenland and Antarctica. Unlike previous models, the new report takes into account some feedback loops which may be hastening the loss of ice sheet mass far faster than anticipated.

Time is running out to transition to renewable energy, Hansen said, yet the most “relevant” people in power aren’t aware of the situation’s gravity. “Even people who go around saying, ‘We have a planet in peril,’ don’t get it. Until we’re aware of our future, we can’t deal with it.”

 James Hansen

James Hansen

Mass species extinction, extreme weather events, dry spells and fires are climate change impacts which are happening now. A warmer atmosphere and warmer oceans can lead to stronger storms, he explained. Superstorm Sandy, for example, remained a hurricane all the way up the Eastern seaboard to New York because Atlantic waters were abnormally warm.

“Amplifying impacts” and feedback loops will accelerate the changes, according to Hansen. “It will happen faster than you think,” he said. If major coastal cities become “dysfunctional” because of sea level rise, as he believes is possible, the global economy could be in peril of collapse.

It is therefore imperative to stop using coal, oil and gas as energy sources now. “We’ve already burned as much as we can afford,” he said. Fossil fuels already burned will continue to have impacts, because the climate system “has inertia.” “We’ve only felt the warming for half of the gases that are up there,” he said.

The use of fossil fuels is still on the rise in spite of the dangers, he said, because governments subsidize them and don’t make companies bear the real costs to society. The only viable way to make the price of fossil fuels “honest,” in his opinion, is to implement a “fee and dividend” system.

While Hansen denounced “unfettered capitalism”and “scary” trade agreements in the works, he believes government regulation can steer captains of industry onto the right path. “We’ve got to make the system work for us,” he said. “If you properly harness the market, it will work for you.”

He gave an example of incentives and tax breaks for solar panels, which he has on his own home, and how he contributes electricity to the grid. Yet one audience member took issue with a corruption-free scenario. “Come to Virginia, I dare you!” he said. (In Virginia, where Dominion Virginia Power has a stranglehold on state politics, “standby” fees and other barriers stifle solar panel installation by individuals.)
Hansen, a grandparent himself, was the keynote speaker at Grandparents Climate Action Day, an event to mobilize elder activists and promote a policy agenda aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Hansen believes elders possess resources and wisdom which, combined with the zeal of youth, can help find solutions to climate change. “Older people have a lot of clout, a lot of votes, and time,” he said. With more older people getting involved, there will be more pressure to make needed changes.

Fellow speaker John Sorensen, co-founder of the Conscious Elders Network, echoed this point. The 80 million elders in the U.S.–25% of the population–are living longer and healthier lives with more time and resources to devote to activism.

Hansen is supporting a lawsuit in which 21 young people are suing the U.S. government. (One of the plaintiffs is his granddaughter Sophie.) The lawsuit alleges that the federal government knew decades ago that burning fossil fuels and climate were linked, but continued on the same course anyway.

In his testimony for Youth v. Obama, Hansen said, “In my opinion, this lawsuit is made necessary by the at-best schizophrenic, if not suicidal, nature of U.S. climate and energy policy.”

The judiciary, he believes, is the only viable recourse left for the younger generation, “because the courts will be less under the thumb of the fossil fuel industry.”

Photo by John Zangas
“Young people have all these rights that are guaranteed by the constitution, and that’s what we’re asking the courts to look at, and I think this may be our best chance to force the government to do its job,” he said.

Most of the elders participating in Grandparents Climate Action Day probably won’t live to see the worst effects of climate change, yet they were eager to learn about the earth future generations will inherit. One participant explained her reason for being there. After working with children for her whole career, she realized that “all of it mean[s] nothing if we don’t have a livable planet.”

Jul 202015
 

source:  New York Times
By SABRINA TAVERNISE

JULY 13, 2015

Is climate change a serious threat to human health?

Simple logic would suggest the answer is yes, a point that the Obama administration is using to build support for the president’s effort to make climate change a centerpiece of his final months in office.

A White House report listed deepening risks. Asthma will worsen, heat-related deaths will rise, and the number and traveling range of insects carrying diseases once confined to the tropics will increase.

But the bullet points convey a certainty that many scientists say does not yet exist. Scientists agree that evidence is growing that warmer weather is having an effect on health, but they say it is only one part of an immensely complex set of forces that are influencing health.

For example, scientists note that global travel and trade, not climate change, brought the first cases of chikungunya, a mosquito-borne tropical disease, to Florida.
Temperatures may be rising, but overall deaths from heat are not, in part because the march of progress has helped people adapt — air conditioning is more ubiquitous, for example, and the treatment of heart disease, a major risk for heat-related mortality, has improved.
The resurgence of forests in the eastern United States and the subsequent increase in the deer population have helped drive a sharp growth in ticks and Lyme disease. But the increase in the prevalence of the illness in the United States has little to do with the climate, federal health experts say.

“There’s a lot of evidence showing that extreme weather can hurt people, but what we don’t know is whether those effects are getting worse,” said Patrick L. Kinney, director of the Columbia University Climate and Health Program, adding that scientists don’t have the long-term data needed to pinpoint how climate change is affecting health.

Still, climate change is a contributing factor. Ragweed now blooms about two to three weeks longer in the north central United States than it did a few decades ago, extending sneezing and watery eyes further into the fall, according to research led by Lewis H. Ziska, a plant scientist at the United States Department of Agriculture.

The Asian tiger mosquito, which came to the southern United States from Japan in the 1980s, likely in a shipment of used tires, has recently spread as far north as Connecticut, an encroachment scientists have connected to rising temperatures, said Dina Fonseca, an entomology professor at Rutgers University.

Mary H. Hayden, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., who studies climate and health, said of dengue fever, a tropical disease carried by mosquitoes: “I don’t think we can dismiss the role of climate. But can we say there is a direct causal link? No, we can’t. It’s more complex than that.”

The science is in its infancy. Data on insects, pollen counts and diseases in developing countries is often patchy. Many studies show associations, meaning two things are happening at the same time, but it is not clear that one is causing the other. Some experts compare it to the state of science in the early days of understanding smoking’s effect on lung cancer.
Evidence is accumulating, however. In 2000, the first National Climate Assessment, a government document weaving together the best evidence on climate change, had just 21 pages on health. The most recent assessment included a special section on health that filled more than 400 pages.

Two peer-reviewed British journals — Philosophical Transactions B and The Lancet — have dedicated many pages to the topic this year. Europeans, unburdened by the level of political controversy over climate change in the United States, often give more conclusive interpretations of the science.

“We are in a far more certain place now,” said Nick Watts of the University College London Institute for Global Health and a co-author of the Lancet analysis. “We feel very comfortable talking about direct effects of climate change on health.”

The climate’s effect on health is generally less pronounced in wealthier countries like the United States, where so many people are protected from the elements in their homes. A study comparing Laredo, Tex., and a city just across the border in Mexico found the incidence of dengue fever was far higher in Mexico, even though the mosquitoes that carry it were more abundant in Texas. Researchers attributed the Texan advantage to economics — air conditioning and windows that shut — not climate.

But climate change is affecting health in developed countries, too. In Canada, the tick population has exploded in recent years, with 13 areas where ticks were living and reproducing locally, up from just two in 1997. Researchers have found that some areas have become warmer, and thus more suitable for ticks. Warmer weather allows more immature ticks to survive into adulthood, expanding the population.

“The areas that are suitable for ticks to colonize are changing,” said Patrick Leighton, an assistant professor of veterinary epidemiology at the University of Montreal.

Insects like ticks and mosquitoes cannot regulate their own body temperatures, so their breeding, feeding and life cycles are extremely sensitive to temperatures. Canada now has about 700 locally acquired cases of Lyme disease a year, up from about 40 cases 15 years ago. Nearly all past infections used to happen outside Canada. Now most are acquired locally.

“This whole Lyme disease issue has gone from theory to reality for us,” said Dr. Nick Ogden, a senior scientist for the Public Health Agency of Canada. “Now the ticks are really moving in.”

But Lyme disease is also an example of just how difficult it is to draw broad conclusions about how climate change affects health. The disease is also moving south, with large sections of Virginia and parts of North Carolina now inundated with ticks that carry the disease. But that pattern appears to have little to do with climate.

Dr. C. Ben Beard, associate director for climate change at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said reforestation in the eastern United States and the expanding populations of deer and people appear to be factors.
“Climate is probably not driving the southward expansion,” he said. In general, the temperature effects of climate change on ticks are more significant in northern climates, he said.

Heat has caused hundreds of deaths in Pakistan recently, with victims concentrated among older adults and people who spend a lot of time outside, like the homeless. Scientists say it is all but impossible to tie a specific weather event to climate change but say with increasing certainty that temperatures are rising.

But even heat is complicated. A recent review of heat mortality in the United States found that the rate of heat-related deaths declined by more than half from 1987 to 2005. The researchers concluded that the population had become more resilient to heat over time, which might have resulted in part from the increased use of heat warning systems by cities and improvements in medical treatment for conditions that are risk factors for heat mortality.

A study in The Lancet in May analyzed 74 million deaths from 1985 to 2012 in more than 10 countries, including the United States, and found that about 8 percent of the deaths had been caused by abnormal temperatures. Of those, the rate of death from cold — more than 7 percent — far outnumbered that from heat, about 0.42 percent.

Health risks from climate change are fundamentally local. The dangers of heat are greater in New Delhi than in New York, not only because it is hotter in the Indian city, but because fewer people have electricity, sturdy houses and modern medical care. That makes drawing broad conclusions tricky. But it does not mean the risks are not there. As Dr. Kinney noted, “if we wait for the health evidence to be ironclad, it may well be too late.”

Jun 192015
 

source: The Guardian 

The pope links the destruction of the environment with the exploitation
of the poor. The world should pay attention

Last modified on Friday 19 June 2015 00.00 BST

Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si’, is the most
astonishing and perhaps the most ambitious papal document of the past
100 years, since it is addressed not just to Catholics, or Christians,
but to everyone on earth. It sets out a programme for change that is
rooted in human needs but it makes the radical claim that these needs
are not primarily greedy and selfish ones.

We need nature, he says, and we need each other. Our need for
mutuality, and for giving, is just as real as the selfish aspects of
our characters; the need for awe and stillness in front of nature is
just as profound as any other human need. The care of nature and the
care of the poor are aspects of the same ethical commandment, and if we
neglect either one we cannot find peace. The environment, in the pope’s
use of the word, is not something out there: nature as opposed to the
human world. The term describes the relationship between nature and
humans, who are inextricably linked and part of each other. It is that
relationship that must be set right.

Starting from that premise, he launches a ferocious attack on what he
sees as the false and treacherous appetites of capitalism and on the
consumerist view of human nature. For Francis, there is a vital
distinction between human needs, which are limited but non-negotiable,
and appetites, which are potentially unlimited, and which can always be
traded for other satisfactions without ever quite giving us what we
most deeply want. The poor, he says, have their needs denied, while the
rich have their appetites indulged. The environmental crisis links
these two aspects of the problem.

This criticism attacks both kinds of defenders of the present world
order: the deniers and the optimists. The document is absolutely
unequivocal in backing the overwhelming scientific consensus that
anthropogenic global warming is a clear and present danger. It blasts
the use of fossil fuels and demands that these be phased out in favour
of renewable energy. But it is also explicitly opposed to the idea that
we can rely on purely technological solutions to ecological problems.
This may be the most explicit break with the liberal and broadly
optimistic consensus of the consuming world. There will never be a
technological fix for the problem of unrestrained appetite, the pope
claims, because this is a moral problem, which demands a moral
solution, a turn towards sobriety and self-restraint and away from the
intoxications of consumerism.

In this he is drawing partly on the tradition of Catholic social
teaching, and partly on moral thinking popular in the 1960s, when moral
philosophers were first grappling with the implications of nuclear
weapons and the sense that humankind had not grown up but reached its
toddler stage, where the capacity for destruction far outweighed our
capacity for judgment.

Once again we find that we possess the power to destroy the planet and
most of the multicellular life on it, but this time there is no
argument from enlightened self-interest that is as clear as the
argument against nuclear warfare was in the days of the cold war. The
balance of terror no longer exists in the same form as it did when the
use of nuclear weapons would be punished by nuclear retaliation: the
poor world will now pay for the crimes of the rich, and our children
and grandchildren must pay for their parents’ self-indulgence. This is
what he means by an “ecological debt”. The sometimes apocalyptic tone,
with the threats of resource wars as well as the more obvious forms of
ecological catastrophe, arises from the sense that this debt must at
some time be terribly repaid.

Will anyone listen? The pope is scathing, and rightly so, about the
lack of action that has followed high-minded declarations in the past.
Why should this time be different? The answer, not entirely reassuring,
is that we cannot go on as we are. Self-interest alone will not avert
the catastrophe. Without a moral and imaginative structure that links
our wellbeing to that of others, so that their suffering feels as
urgent as ours, or is at least measured on the same scales, we will
render our planet uninhabitable. The pope is trying to change our
understanding of human nature. Many people will disagree with his
understanding. But he is right that no smaller change will do.

Jun 182015
 

source: The Climate Group
18 June 2015

LONDON: Mark Kenber, CEO of The Climate Group, today welcomed the Pope’s encyclical on climate change, saying it would hugely build momentum to deliver a strong global climate deal at COP21 later this year.

“Pope Francis, one of the most influential leaders in the world, is stating that acting now on climate change has to be at the top of the list of priorities for all world leaders,” he says. “This is a hugely significant development: this is the first time the Catholic church has put such critical importance on urgent action on climate change, and puts real pressure on policymakers and business leaders to deliver at COP21.

“The driver to this intervention is that, while all of us will suffer the impacts of runaway climate change, it is the poor and the most vulnerable who will face the most devastating disruption and climate-related disasters. However what it does is mobilise 1.2 billion Catholics around the world into climate activists at a time when there is concern about the need to really raise ambition at the Paris climate talks later this year. The significance of this should not be understated.”

Climate change is primarily caused by human activity and is one of the biggest challenges for humanity, Pope Francis writes in his much-awaited encyclical released today, the first to be completely devoted to such a topic. “faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet,” he writes.

The document, addressed to every bishop and therefore to every Catholic in the world, is a fervent appeal from the Pope to take action to safeguard the environment, “our common house”, which “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.”

CALL TO ACTION
The document is a clear recognition of the anthropogenic cause of climate change. “A number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity,” the Pope writes in his encyclical.

“It would hardly be helpful to describe symptoms without acknowledging the human origins of the ecological crisis,” he adds. The point is particularly important for US politics, where many Republican members of Congress must try to conciliate their skepticism toward climate change with their asserted devotion to Catholicism.

The Pope is well aware economic, social and cultural oppositions are making preventing climate disruption a difficult task, stressing: “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity”.

To address this problem, he suggests humanity must “recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it”.

GLOBAL CONSENSUS
Climate change impacts “will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption,” warns the pontiff. “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us”.

This is why Pope Franis calls for “global consensus” ahead of the important climate talks in Paris later this year, to tackle what he defines “the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries”. The pontiff specifically points out the need for “developing renewable and less polluting forms of energy, encouraging a more efficient use of energy, promoting a better management of marine and forest resources, and ensuring universal access to drinking water”.

Pope Francis says an international climate agreement is necessary, not least for the sake of future generations. “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” he asks. “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”

GLOBAL RESPONSIBILITY
Focused on the need for a transition to cleaner energy and greater collaboration between countries as key to a robust global climate deal, he writes: “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay”.

Tackling climate change implies “common and differentiated responsibilities,” writes the pontiff, recalling a term used in the climate negotiations to indicate that richer countries – which have historically polluted more than the developing ones – must restate such imbalance. “Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries,” writes Pope Francis, “it compels us to to consider an ethics of international relations.

A true ‘ecological debt’ exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time”.

For this reason, poor countries “They are likewise bound to develop less polluting forms of energy production, but to do so they require the help of countries which have experienced great growth at the cost of the ongoing pollution of the planet. Taking advantage of abundant solar energy will require the establishment of mechanisms and subsidies which allow developing countries access to technology transfer, technical assistance and financial resources”.

COSTS AND BENEFITS
Interestingly, the Pope points out that in doing so “the costs of this would be low, compared to the risks of climate change,” a statement that echoes last year’s New Economy Report. However, the pontiff is critical toward ‘carbon credits’, which in his opinion “can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide,” because “it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors”.

Therefore, “there is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced,” says the Pope, “for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy”.

Outlining that there is more than one ray of hope he writes: “Some countries have made considerable progress, although it is far from constituting a significant proportion [of the global energy mix].

Investments have also been made in means of production and transportation which consume less energy and require fewer raw materials, as well as in methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency. But these good practices are still far from widespread”.

We have just “one world with a common plan one world”, affirms the Pope in the encyclical. “The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change”.

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, comments: “Pope Francis’ encyclical underscores the moral imperative for urgent action on climate change to lift the planet’s most vulnerable populations, protect development, and spur responsible growth. This clarion call should guide the world towards a strong and durable universal climate agreement in Paris at the end of this year. Coupled with the economic imperative, the moral imperative leaves no doubt that we must act on climate change now”.

Jun 172015
 

I would be interested in knowing if people have been noticing more and bigger Poison Ivy plants in recent years. This is certainly my experience. Not only do larger areas seem to be covered by this native plant, but the plants themselves seem to be much larger. In many places, they are knee-height or higher. I was speaking with a man today who says his property on Lake Katchewanooka is now covered in Poison Ivy and that going into the woods during the summer is out of the question. I have noticed a growing abundance of the plant, too, along the Bridgenorth Trail, Trans-Canada Trail, Northumerland Forest, etc.  Studies have shown that Poison Ivy responds positively to increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere (we are now at a record 400 ppm) and that this may explain the more rapid growth . The oil that causes the rash is more potent than ever before, too. This article may be of interest.

Drew Monkman

Poison Ivy (3 leaflets, shiny, droop down, often asymmetrical)  - Drew Monkman

Poison Ivy (3 leaflets)  – Drew Monkman

Poison Ivy - always a longer stem on middle leaflet; leaflets often asymmetrical; shiny; usually droop down a little - Drew Monkman

Poison Ivy – always a longer stem on middle leaflet; leaflets often asymmetrical; shiny; usually droop down a little – Drew Monkman

 

Jun 132015
 

Source: CBS News

By Bianca Seidman  June 9, 2015

Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac plants are becoming larger and stronger, a trend that’s been developing over recent years, according to researchers. That may be a combination of the plant’s nature to cause more severe reactions over time and the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a result of global warming.

A substance in the plants called urushiol oil is to blame for the notorious itchy rash that develops in people who touch it. According to the U.S. Forest Service, 70 to 85 percent of people exposed to urushiol oil in poison ivy and its cousins will experience an allergic reaction. Unlike other allergies that people may outgrow, sensitivity to this oil gets worse with each additional exposure.

Though urushiol oil starts penetrating the skin immediately, people may not recognize the danger and may continue touching the plant and spreading the oil, since the allergic rash often doesn’t appear for 12 to 24 hours.

Poison Ivy (3 leaflets, shiny, droop down, often asymmetrical)  - Drew Monkman

Poison Ivy (3 leaflets, shiny, droop down, often asymmetrical) – Drew Monkman

“It’s becoming more prevalent. Climate change, warmer temperatures, carbon dioxide rising — in fact, carbon dioxide levels are expected to double by the end of the century. It tells the plants to grow bigger leaves. And the oil itself, that causes poison ivy rash, is more powerful and supercharged,” Dr. Clifford Bassett, an allergist and assistant clinical professor at NYU School of Medicine, told “CBS This Morning”The first step in prevention is to recognize the poisonous plants, which have distinctive qualities. Many varieties of poison ivy and poison oak have branches with three leaves, hence the popular phrase, “leaves of three, let them be.” But the rule isn’t foolproof: the leaves sometimes grow in larger clusters. Poison sumac may have clusters of 7 to 13 leaves. The leaves often have black spots which look like paint splatters, caused by blobs of oil that leak out become oxidized in the air and turn black.

Poison ivy grows in every one of the lower 48 states except California. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the best protection is to avoid contact with the plants; don’t try to remove or burn them because the oil can cause lung irritation if inhaled.

Outdoor workers should exercise extra care around wooded areas, including learning to identify the plants and wearing protective clothing when near possible growth. There is also a barrier lotion called IvyBlock that contains the only FDA-approved drug to prevent rash from poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac, known as bentoquatam.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) created this video explaining how poison ivy looks and works.

A more rare and dangerous poisonous plant which is also found in the Northeast, called wild parsnip, can cause rashes that leave scarring and blindness if its oil comes in contact with eyes.

If the oil from a poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac or related plants touches the skin, remove the oil as quickly as possible to minimize harm. The U.S. Forest Service recommends cleaning the skin with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol within 10 minutes. Some experts warn that using soap can can actually lift the urushiol oil and spread it around the skin.

Also wash clothes, shoes, gardening tools, even pets — anything that could have come in contact with the plants or their oils. The oil can remain active on surfaces and cause allergic reactions even years later.

Calamine lotion, antihistamine creams and hydrocortisone can help relieve itching if a rash develops. If a large rash spreads over 10 percent or more of the body, see a doctor.

© 2015 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Note: We do not have Poison Oak or Poison Sumac in the Kawarthas – D.M.

 

 

 

 

Jun 122015
 

Source: The Globe and Mail (Toronto, ON)

June 9, 2015
It’s quite the thought: a “decarbonized” world by the end of century. No more fossil fuels being burned 85 years hence? No more reliance on internal combustion to move goods and people across oceans? Hard to imagine.

Yet that’s the commitment the G7 announced Tuesday. “Urgent and concrete action is needed to address climate change,” the leaders, Prime Minister Harper included, said in their closing declaration. “Deep cuts in global greenhouse-gas emissions are required with a decarbonization of the global economy over the course of this century.”

The declaration includes a commitment to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions by 40 to 70 per cent by 2050, compared with 2010 levels. But it’s the “decarbonization” that is eye-catching. It is supremely ambitious, but also somewhat obvious. If global warming is real (it is), then over time the economy must dramatically cut emissions, and maybe even move to zero emissions, to limit the damage of climate change.

But there is more required than a simple declaration. As Mr. Harper said, “Nobody’s going to start to shut down their industries or turn off the lights. We’ve simply got to find a way to create lower-carbon-emitting sources of energy – and that work is ongoing.”

Ongoing, but burdened by the reality of the moment. With new oil reserves being discovered and exploited, and the price falling, there is little incentive for companies and consumers to develop and use new, low-emissions technologies, or to change behaviour in ways that reduce carbon output. The incentive will have to come from governments willing to impose carbon taxes on companies and consumers, thereby raising the price of carbon. Those carbon-tax revenues can then be used to lower other taxes, rather than to simply line the coffers of government. Stephen Harper is right to worry about the second possibility, but wrong to reject the first.

British Columbia’s carbon tax is the best Canadian example of how to do it right, with higher taxes on pollution paying for lower taxes on everything else. It appears, so far, to have led to lower carbon emissions without harming economic growth. Mr. Harper appears to loathe carbon-pricing schemes, but a world safe from climate change’s worst outcomes won’t happen without government action. The best way to do that is with an idea that is as conservative as can be: Put a price on carbon, and let the market figure out the rest.

May 222015
 

Huffington Post
Posted: 05/21/2015
by Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E.

Elders around the world may be our best hope for solving the “super wicked” problem of climate change. Short-term thinking created our current climate predicament. Despite warnings and predictions from the scientific community, the developed world spewed greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Given that problems, solutions, costs, and benefits play out over time frames spanning generations, the situation calls for intergenerational climate-change activism.

Why would seniors enlist in the crusade? They have a long view due to the number of years they have already lived, during which many have witnessed changes in the climate. Many also have passion to protect their children and grandchildren. Halfdan Wiik of Norwegian Grandparents Climate Campaign says, “For me, it’s all about love and optimism. Elders of today have lived our lives in a world of great changes, for good and for bad. We know it can be changed once more.”

Elders often work with a sense of urgency, realizing that they may have relatively few years left in which to leave their legacy. And generally speaking — and with countless exceptions — compared with younger people, elders often have more free time, financial resources, wisdom, experience, economic and political clout, sense of connection to nature, and freedom from worries about job security, mortgages, and dependents.

In the 1960s and early ’70s, many of today’s elders successfully demanded an end to the Vietnam War, expanded the civil rights movement, and created the modern environmental movement. From these experiences, they learned how to create change.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben calls on baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) to rally once again. “Now is the boomers’ chance to reclaim their better, bolder natures and to end their run as it began,” he writes. Baby boomers began reaching retirement age in 2011. Retired boomers represent a huge, untapped resource that grows by 10,000 people every day in the U.S. alone. Baby boomers wield enormous power, constituting 36 percent of the U.S. electorate and accounting for half of all U.S. consumer spending.

Ron Pevny, director of the Center for Conscious Eldering and author of Conscious Living, Conscious Aging, highlights not only the growing demographics but also the number of retirement years in people’s life spans. “The paradigm for retirement is changing, with many people seeing this new life chapter as a time for both savoring newfound freedom and being strongly engaged with the community. They are feeling a strong need for purpose as they contemplate how to live fulfilling lives in their later years,” he remarks.

Philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore suggests that elders may have a moral imperative to act on climate change. She writes: “Retired people often feel that, since they’ve worked all their lives, the world owes them a rest. That’s outrageous. Old age is precisely when we need to pay the world back. Yes, we have worked hard, but our successes depended on a stable climate, temperate weather, abundant food, cheap fuel, and a sturdy government — all advantages that our children and grandchildren will not have if we don’t act…. We’ve got to remember that the next generation will have to live in whatever is left of the world after we get done with it.”

Throughout human history and in many cultures, elders have insisted on attention to the needs of succeeding generations. Numerous elders groups taking on climate change have recently formed — many just within the past few years — and their memberships are growing.

Elders Climate Action (ECA) pushes for change in energy policy, advocating for “carbon fee and dividend” legislation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan. ECA also supports 350.org’s campaign for divestment from fossil fuel stocks. ECA is organizing a national event in Washington, D.C., in September 2015 at which elders will rally and then deliver their message to members of Congress and government agencies. ECA is creating local working groups around the U.S. to continue work on federal as well as local climate legislation.
Gray is Green, an environmental education, advocacy, and action organization for older adults, monitors and communicates climate change information. Among its climate change-related projects, it educates retirement communities about ways they can reduce their carbon footprint.
Elder Activists works for a sustainable and just world, participating in climate change study groups, rallies, and marches.
100 Grannies works on an array of environmental issues, highlighting the topic of climate change in rallies, marches, workshops, lectures, and film festivals.
FiftyOverFifty.org uses the power of peaceful civil disobedience to push for climate solutions.
Stay Cool for Grandkids, centered in the San Diego, California, area, focuses on local climate change-related issues, promoting smart transportation, development of a local climate action plan, open space preservation, and planning for sea level rise. Activities include letter-writing campaigns, workshops, and lectures.

Several organizations have the specific goal of bringing elders’ groups together. The Conscious Elders Network (CEN) is comprised of action teams that meet together monthly. In addition, CEN is building a web-based network to coordinate and promote other elders groups. The CEN website includes descriptions of elders organizations and a common calendar that lists their courses, retreats, and other events. CEN’s Intergenerational Connections action team works to bring elders and youngers together to address critical issues of our time, including climate change, by teaming up and learning from each other. The Conscious Aging Alliance is another growing network of elders organizations.

 

Norwegian Grandparents Climate Campaign at a demonstration in 2012 in front of Parliament. At these monthly events, participants hold signs with messages such as "The Children's Climate - Our Business" and "Statoil Out of Tar Sands," hand out leaflets, and collect petition signatures (http://www.besteforeldreaksjonen.no/).

Norwegian Grandparents Climate Campaign at a demonstration in 2012 in front of Parliament. At these monthly events, participants hold signs with messages such as “The Children’s Climate – Our Business” and “Statoil Out of Tar Sands,” hand out leaflets, and collect petition signatures (http://www.besteforeldreaksjonen.no/).

Elders groups are addressing climate change in the developed world outside the U.S., too: The Elders, an independent group of global leaders chaired by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, work together for peace and human rights. They call for visionary leadership to set the world on a course for a carbon-neutral future. This includes a robust, universal, and legally binding agreement on climate change in 2015, in which every country commits to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Norwegian Grandparents Climate Change Campaign (NGCC) pushes for Norwegian climate legislation, enforcement of existing laws, cessation of new licenses for drilling in the Arctic, and withdrawal of Statoil (Norway’s state-owned oil company) from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. NGCC participated in the People’s Climate March, pushes for divestment from fossil fuels, and works closely with youngers — for example ECO-Agents, a children’s environmental organization. Elders and youngers write joint letters of protest to government officials, go together to Parliament to speak, meet in schools, and attend rallies and march together.
The United Kingdom’s Grandparents Climate Action lobbies Parliament; participates in rallies and marches for climate action; attends fossil fuel divestment meetings at churches, universities, and local governments; hands out postcards; puts up posters; and edits One Million Climate Jobs booklets for international trade union conferences.
Other organizations include Grandparents for a Safe Earth in the U.K, For Our Grandchildren in Canada, Suzuki Elders in Canada, BoomerWarrior in Canada, Grands-Parents pour le Climat in Switzerland, Grands-Parents pour le Climat in France, the European Network of Green Seniors, and Knitting Nannas in Australia.
Indigenous elders from around the world have been sounding the alarm for some time, and many say they have lost faith in the U.N. climate talks. Climate change is dramatically changing the ecosystems in which many of them live. The Indigenous Elders and Medicine Peoples Council made this formal statement in September 2014 at the United Nations Climate Summit: “We are all responsible and we are all capable of creating a new path forward with new sources of energy that do not harm the people or the Earth. We are obligated to all take action now to protect what is left of the Sacredness of Life. We can no longer wait for solutions from governmental and corporate leaders. We must all take action and responsibility to restore a healthy relationship with each other and Mother Earth. Each of us is put here in this time and this place to personally decide the future of humankind. Did you think the Creator would create unnecessary people in a time of such terrible danger? Know that you yourself are essential to this World. Believe that! Understand both the blessing and the burden of that.”

Inuits assembled at an Elders Conference on Climate Change to discuss how the climate has changed, its possible future effects, and what can be done about the situation.
The International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, a “global alliance of prayer, education, and healing for our Mother Earth, all her inhabitants, all the children, and for the next seven generations to come,” works on climate change and other issues.
Other international and Native American groups and gatherings involving elders working on climate change include Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change 2009, Global Center for Indigenous Leadership and Lifeways, Wisdom of the Elders, First Stewards Inc., Olohana Foundation, and Native Peoples – Native Homelands Climate Change Workshop.
With its scope, interdependencies, uncertainties, and conflicts, climate change is a big problem that will span many generations. Westerners of all ages who are alive today have benefited from the petroleum party, so youngers share responsibility for the climate. Furthermore, the severity of the problem demands that all segments of the population must act. Climate change presents an opportunity for environmental crusaders of all ages to work together, learn from one another, and help create a carbon-neutral future.

Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook or find more information or sign up for updates on her website.

May 212015
 

Published on Wednesday, May 20 2015

Toronto Star
In the PR trade, it’s known as “dump and run.” If you have bad news, or at least something you hope won’t get too much attention, put it out when people are looking in another direction. The Friday before a long weekend will do nicely.
So it was that the Harper government chose last Friday, hours before the Victoria Day weekend, to release Canada’s new target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in advance of a crucial international climate summit set for December.
And no wonder. The plan to fight climate change that Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced is, if anything, a step backward from Ottawa’s previous promises. It’s also less ambitious than the targets put out so far by other major industrialized countries. Instead of leading on this vital issue, Canada under the Harper government seems content once again to drag its heels.
Here’s how bad the plan that Aglukkaq called “fair and ambitious” really is:
Canada is now promising to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by the year 2030. That’s actually less ambitious than targets set out by Ottawa back in 2009 at another climate summit in Copenhagen. It puts Canada behind both the United States and the European Union. The U.S. is committed to reducing emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025. (By comparison, Canada’s new goal would cut emissions by just 23.5 per cent over the same period.) The EU is even more ambitious: it has pledged to reduce emissions by 40 per cent below 1990 levels.
Canada has abandoned its pledge to “harmonize” climate policies with the United States. For years, the Harper government insisted that Canada should move in lock-step with the U.S. in order to have a uniform, continental approach to combating climate change. But now Washington has announced more aggressive policies, and suddenly Ottawa no longer wants to keep up.
As Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, wrote in the Star last month: “The reality seems to be that harmonization has just been an excuse the federal government used to justify doing nothing, and then quickly abandoned as soon as it meant doing something.”
Ottawa’s new plan does not address the most controversial source of emissions in Canada: Alberta’s oilsands. In addition to the 30-per-cent-by-2030 target, Aglukkaq said Canada will match proposed U.S. regulations to crack down on emissions from three sectors: methane produced by hydraulic “fracking”; power plants that run on natural gas; and makers of chemicals and nitrogen fertilizer. Conspicuously absent from the list is the oilsands, which are expected to produce most of the future growth in Canada’s climate-threatening emissions. Harper has said it would be “crazy” to impose new burdens on the oil sector while prices are low, but it’s a missed opportunity to begin long-delayed change there.
Instead of meeting the new target by actually cutting emissions, Canada seems to be moving toward buying international credits to offset future growth. Previously that was just a possibility, dismissed as a useless gesture by Conservative ministers. But cabinet documents obtained by CBC News now say explicitly that Canada should purchase credits to “counterbalance increasing emissions from the oilsands.”
Fortunately, there is some good news. Despite the lack of national leadership, Canada is getting serious about addressing climate change. But that’s happening despite Ottawa, not because of it. To their credit, major provinces are going ahead on their own and imposing a price on carbon emissions. Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, which together account for 70 per cent of the country’s economy, have announced carbon-pricing schemes and ambitious plans to reduce emissions. Federal leadership would be preferable, but with its feeble announcement last week the Harper government is making it clearer than ever that the provinces should not wait to take action.

Feb 222015
 

Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis) (1)
– Reported Feb 20, 2015 15:21 by Luke Berg
– Otonabee River b/w Peterborough and Lakefield, Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
Checklist:
– Comments: “New arrival, but not unexpected, with the freezing up of many water bodies. Female just south of Lakefield.”

Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena) (1) CONFIRMED
– Reported Feb 21, 2015 13:30 by Matthew Tobey
– Trent U Waterfront, Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
Checklist:
– Comments: “Great Lakes frozen, moving to inland open waters”

Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) (2) CONFIRMED
– Reported Feb 21, 2015 15:30 by Martin Parker
– Peterborough–Millennium Park, Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
Checklist:
– Comments: “male and female plumage bird — actively diving — Great Lakes now frozen”

Red-breasted Merganser on Otonabee -Tom Northey

Red-breasted Merganser on Otonabee -Tom Northey

Red-necked Grebe. The grebe in the lower right is in winter plumage.

Red-necked Grebe. The grebe in the lower right is in winter plumage.

 Long-tailed-Duck - DJ McPhail Mar.22 2014 Little Lake


Long-tailed-Duck – DJ McPhail Mar.22 2014 Little Lake

Jan 222015
 

Running is an odd activity.  To non-enthusiasts, it is a mix of monotony and self-inflicted pain.  Yet, in Canada, many adults list running as their favourite participation sport – more than soccer, softball, hunting, fishing, aerobics, or tennis.  Strange pleasures, it seems, are found on the trails and treadmills of this country.

I run – sometimes.  To be honest, my pace is much closer to a plod.  On top of the soreness and stiffness, I can recount incidents of slipping on ice, blisters, dog bites, overheating, and freezing.   Oh joy.  This is the gift of experience:  a long list of excuses for not lacing up the shoes.  Not today.

I’ve also discovered something more detestable than running:  Not running.  Indeed, many of us have mixed feelings about exercising and other personal resolutions.  Think of our good intentions for healthy eating, giving up smoking, doing homework, or saving for retirement.  Time is the nub of the problem.  Workout or diet, anyone?  The discomfort is assured, obvious, and immediate.  The upside, if any, appears somewhere down a long and uncertain road.  The pains, the gains are doled out at different times – weeks, months, even years apart.

For many, this calculation is way too easy.  Impulse wins out.  But when the time horizon reaches decades or centuries, the computations become prickly.  What is the value of something distant?  The answer is pivotal to the future – and not just your future.  Especially not yours.

ENTER DISCOUNT WORLD

A choice experiment is one way to get a handle on people’s preferences and how they change with time.  Start with a straightforward question.

Q1. Which do you choose: $100 now OR $100 one year from now?

That’s a snap.  Almost everybody would pocket the instant cash for some very simple reasons.  We are mortal beings and there’s some doubt about that future payment.  Even though $100 hasn’t changed, what has changed is our perception of $100, coloured by time.  A benefit delayed is a benefit diminished.

Let’s change up the numbers.  Another question.

Q2.  Which do you choose: $100 today OR $200 one year from today?

Smaller sooner or larger later?  Studies show that most respondents still go for the fast cash – an inclination to snatch the immediate reward, even at the expense of a bigger, future reward.  This behaviour also reveals the rate at which people devalue a future reward.  Economists call it the discount rate.  A high discount rate seriously diminishes the future value; a low discount rate places the future value on par with a current one.

Welcome to Discount World.  More than just dollars are at stake here.  Many species – the passenger pigeon is the most famous example – have been harvested to extinction.  Today, around the world, over-exploitation remains the third most common reason for the decline of wildlife.  Consider the blue whale, the largest animal ever to roam the globe.  An adult blue can stretch to one-third of a football field, weigh the equivalent of 13 city buses, accelerate to 50 kilometres per hour, and live for more than a century.  Here is a fascinating creature – bigger than a yacht, faster than a yacht, more durable than a yacht.

And, in the past, more valuable than a yacht.  During the 20th century, 369,000 blue whales were taken in the Southern Ocean – the most stunning case of wildlife exploitation in history.  Propelled by steam engines, explosive harpoons and shortsightedness, harvesters pushed these whales to the brink, to less than 1% of their original numbers.  Whaling is now banned.  Ethics aside, this brush with extinction seems bizarre.  Surely a more measured pace – a sustainable harvest – would have been more profitable?

EXPRESS TAKE-OUT LINE

Think of blue whales as offshore banknotes, cashable at any time.  Choose one of the following options:  (A) Harvest these whales sustainably and indefinitely or (B) promptly liquidate the stock and re-invest elsewhere.  While a sustainable harvest looks sensible (roughly 5% annual return), a larger payoff comes from aggressively harvesting to extinction and re-investing in a higher yield, dot-com or other stock.  This is a stark and sobering conclusion.  Extinction is  entirely rational from a dispassionate, economic standpoint.

A blue whale kite soars at a festival in Sydney, Australia  – a life-size replica of the largest animal that has ever existed.  The other species in this photo has decoded its own origins, understands the plight of the blue whale, and can foresee far-future events.  Mark Metcalfe, Getty Images

A blue whale kite soars at a festival in Sydney, Australia – a life-size replica of the largest animal that has ever existed. The other species in this photo has decoded its own origins, understands the plight of the blue whale, and can foresee far-future events. Mark Metcalfe, Getty Images

A blue whale kite soars at a festival in Sydney, Australia – a life-size replica of the largest animal that has ever existed. The other species in this photo has decoded its own origins, understands the plight of the blue whale, and can foresee far-future events.

A blue whale kite soars at a festival in Sydney, Australia – a life-size replica of the largest animal that has ever existed. The other species in this photo has decoded its own origins, understands the plight of the blue whale, and can foresee far-future events.

Not surprisingly, some creatures cannot thrive in Discount World.  Large-bodied animals, like blue whales, have a “slow” lifestyle.  They are late to mature and slow to reproduce; an average mother is more than 30 years old and she gives birth to a single calf only every 2-3 years.  The financial return – how quickly the species can reproduce in the face of harvesting – is no better than 7% per year.  These biological traits are shared by countless plants and animals:  sharks, tigers, parrots, rhinoceros, elephants, chimpanzees, sturgeon, white pine and many other timber trees.  Little wonder these species are vulnerable to over-exploitation.  They are simply too slow to be included in our portfolio.

In Discount World, the economic value of wildlife in the long run can fade to zero.  It is a faulty telescope.  The tale of the blue whale is also a reminder that discounting cannot be divorced from ethics.  It is not merely a question of dollars, but sense.

OUR FUTURE SELVES

Given the choice between $100 now and $200 one year from now, many people preferred the instant reward.  Let’s introduce a subtle twist – with a surprising result.

Q3.  Which do you choose:  $100 in five years OR $200 in six years?

You see the change.  The situation has shifted to the future.  And with it, most people accept the delay and favour the larger, $200 payoff.  This answer is telling.  When we visualize our better selves, our future selves, we stress the long term.  We are more patient.  We discount less.  Time changes our perceptions of time.

Humans are intriguing creatures.  Among animals, our species is unrivalled in its capacity for language, for manufacturing and using tools – and for anticipating long-term future events.  With little effort, we can picture succeeding generations.  Answers become vivid.  Ponder some of the masterpieces of nature – the Great Barrier Reef, Great Lakes, and Great Blue Heron.  Won’t these natural treasures be as important to your great-grandchildren as they are to you?  The virologist Jonas Salk posed the key question:  Are we being good ancestors?

To be good and fair ancestors, we will need a variety of tools, including financial levers, applied with care and foresight.  These days, a growing chorus of economists and scientists is calling for a price on carbon – a simple economic instrument to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encourage alternate energy technologies, and lessen the hazards of climate change.  A new tax, even revenue neutral, may not be warmly welcomed.  But we might listen to the future – and realize there’s something far worse than a carbon tax:  No carbon tax.

Decisions, from planetary to personal, are a feature of modern life.  I’m working on a new philosophy to continue lacing up the shoes and keep running.  It’s one stride at a time, eyes firmly fixed on the horizon.

James Schaefer is Director of the Environmental & Life Sciences Graduate Program at Trent.

 

 

 

 

Oct 232014
 

For some people, the natural world can be an intimidating place. Although it might seem illogical to be afraid of a tiny creature like a spider or bat, we can’t deny that some animals do indeed elicit a fear response. With Halloween upon us, what better time to talk about fear of the natural world, be it anxiety at the sound of thunder or revulsion at the sight of a spider running across the bathroom floor.
An aversion to particular animals was almost certainly critical to the survival of early humans. As much as being too fearful would have made survival difficult, insufficient fear would have led to reckless behaviour and possibly death. In the 21st century, however, you can still have these feelings of angst and at the same time experience a deep appreciation and respect for the animal in question. Stephen Kellert, author of “Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World” says that: “While aversive emotions towards (certain) animals are typically strong, they can also be positively channeled into fascination, curiosity and exploration.” For example, a fear of snakes or wolves doesn’t have to provoke destructive behaviours.
When I was teaching, I always made of point of encouraging my students to hold or touch the many animals that visited our classroom or that we encountered outside. However, there was always the odd student who would refuse to do so. I would sometimes be a little facetious and say something like: “Did you have a bad experience with a snake once and get bitten?” Never was this the case. So, where do fears like this come from and what are we to make of them?

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake  (Joe Crowley)

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (Joe Crowley)

Snakes – Approximately one adult human in three suffers to some degree from ophiophobia, a fear of snakes. Some people are afraid of even thinking of snakes or looking at images of them. This fear may be an inherent reaction, however, and we aren’t alone in this regard. An innate fear of snakes is present even in our closely-related primate cousins, the monkeys. In one famous experiment, monkeys literally panicked when suddenly exposed to snakes, even though they had been raised in a laboratory and had never seen these reptiles before.
Snakes and early primates may have been involved in an evolutionary “arms race” of sorts. According to Lynne Isbell, an anthropologist at the University of California, the survival of early primates depended to a large extent on ways to detect and avoid snakes. Fossil and DNA evidence suggests that the snakes were already around when the first primates were evolving some 60 million years ago and were among the first serious predators our ancestors faced. Early primates were adapted to living in trees, searching for food at night and sleeping in the canopy during the day. Snakes slithering through those trees would have been a constant threat. This may explain the evolution in primates of adaptations such as a better eye for colour, detail and movement. All of these abilities would have been very important for detecting threats at close range. To keep up with primate evolution, snakes had to get better at killing their prey. This may have driven the evolution of venom, according to Isbell.

Bats – A fear of bats may simply be related to the natural startle response experienced by an unsuspecting person when a bat somehow finds itself into a house and flies about erratically looking for a quick exit. Tied to this are vague notions of these flying mammals getting caught in your hair (never happens) or that most bats have rabies, which isn’t true either. Even among sick bats submitted for rabies testing, only a tiny percentage ever test positive, and those that do are usually clumsy, disoriented, and unable to fly. We should also remember that you can only get rabies if a rabid animal bites you. Contrary to a widespread misconception, only three species of bats feed on blood – mostly livestock – and these species all live in Latin America. In fact, the majority of bats are terrified of humans and see man as a potential predator.

Little Brown Bat (with WNS) Wikimedia

Little Brown Bat (with WNS) Wikimedia

If anything, we should be afraid FOR bats, not of them. White-nose syndrome (WNS) named for a distinctive fungal growth around the muzzles and on the wings of hibernating bats, has resulted in the deaths of at least 6 million North American bats. In fact, the once-abundant Little Brown Bat is expected to go extinct in the wild. In Ontario, it is now on the list of endangered species. In the seven years since WNS first showed up, Ontario’s bat population is estimated to have dropped by over 90 per cent. This is an extinction tragedy of unprecedented proportions. You don’t have to find bats warm and cuddly to feel great sadness in the crisis they are now facing. Their disappearance is making the natural world a lonelier and less fascinating place.
Wolves – When it comes to the complicated relationship between fear and fascination for a wild animal, there are few better examples than the wolf. Wolves used to be universally reviled and many people wanted to annihilate them altogether. Yes, they may have represented a real danger to our distant ancestors. In modern times, however, wolf persecution is more closely linked to reasons such as livestock depredation. Thankfully, attitudes towards wolves have now shifted dramatically. Much of this has to do with a growing understanding of wolf biology and the huge ecological value of these animals. When wolves are behind bars in a zoo or wildlife park, however, and any element of danger has disappeared, the sense of wonder they inspire falls precipitously. That is why having healthy populations of wild wolves is so important.
Invertebrates – Bugs – to use the vernacular – seem to attract an especially widespread aversion. It’s true that a healthy respect for wasps, leeches, spiders and similar creatures is a useful trait, since it helps us to avoid pain and disease. There are certainly deeper psychological reasons, too, for a dislike of “creepy crawlies.” Their lack of feeling and reason is a probably a big part of it. As Kellert writes: “All they seem to have in common with us are vaguely familiar body parts and a passion to survive and reproduce.” Despite this innate dislike on the part of many people, it’s still possible to learn to respond to these creatures with curiosity and a sense of wonder. There is still so much we don’t know about the invertebrate world. An entire scientific career awaits curious, young researchers.

Black and Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) Wikimedia

Black and Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) Wikimedia

So, what should we be afraid of in 2014? I would argue that climate change should be near the top of any list. It’s clear that living in a highly technological society where so much of nature has been subdued has greatly reduced our fear of extreme weather. This may partly explain why we continue to engage in the dangerous behaviour of pouring ever-greater amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This is why I was so discouraged last week by the cries of joy when the cost of gasoline plummeted. Why aren’t more people joining the dots linking low fuel prices, increased consumption, increased greenhouse gas emissions and accelerated disruption of the climate? Evolution, however, never prepared us for slow-motion threats like climate change. We’re much better at reacting to something like the Ebola outbreak where the impact is immediate and dramatic.

Oct 162014
 

 

It’s mid-May 2035, and I’ve just boarded a bus outside the new downtown condominium complex where my wife and I now live. It’s never more than a 10-minute wait for comfortable, clean and convenient public transit. On this particular morning, I’m heading up to Jackson Park, which is always a good birding location in spring when warblers are migrating north. Looking out the bus window, I can’t help but notice the many ways in which Peterborough has changed in the past two decades. The city now has a fully integrated transport system comprised of walkways, cycle paths, bus lanes and car lanes. There is even talk of a possible light-rail corridor to link Peterborough to Lakefield and Bridgenorth. In fact, train travel in general has become extremely popular in recent years, mostly because it’s far less expensive than driving. Thanks to big changes in the way Peterborough has developed, car ownership is no longer the necessity it once was. In fact, most families now only own one car or simply use the local car-sharing program when other means of transportation are not an option.
Talking about cars, I’m still amazed by the number of electric and hybrid vehicles on the road. For many years now, consumers have been demanding much greater fuel efficiency, given the huge rise in the cost of gasoline because of the federal carbon tax. This has led to the popularity of smaller and lighter vehicles. Putting a price on carbon was and still is a key tool in Canada’s on-going commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by eight to ten percent a year. Canadians are keeping their fingers crossed but it now seems likely that the aggressive, worldwide action on climate change that began with the Paris Protocol of December 2015 will indeed limit the warming of the planet to under 2 C. Yes, intense storms are much more frequent than 20 or 30 years ago, but scientists are confident that the worse case scenario has been avoided.
It still seems miraculous but people all over the world finally woke up to the fact that an economy powered by fossil fuels and driven by free market ideology was leading the planet to climate chaos and suffocating any potential for climate action. A key result of this realization was a much greater willingness to accept government intervention and regulation of the economy and to support huge reinvestment in the public sphere – especially in new and updated infrastructure to withstand extreme weather events. No longer was “tax” a bad word, since well-funded government action was seen as the only way to respond to the climate threat. In Peterborough, there was also the recognition that the last thing our city should be doing in a time of climate disruption was to invest at great cost in even more roads – remember the Parkway debate way back in 2014? This, of course, would only have encouraged people to drive and pollute more with very little net gain in travelling time.

Trans-Canada Trail near Jackson Park - Drew Monkman

Trans-Canada Trail near Jackson Park – Drew Monkman

As the bus travels north on Charlotte Street, I can’t help but notice how so many of the commercial buildings and houses have changed, as well. One thing that stands out is the number of solar energy panels on the roofs. Along with wind turbines and hydroelectric power, solar provides a much greater percentage of the province’s energy needs than ever before. Although the population of Peterborough has continued to grow, all of the new housing has been provided within the existing city boundaries through intensification and redevelopment, namely rebuilding or restoring areas in a state of decline. Residential neighbourhoods are now mixed use and much higher density, thanks in part to renovations in single-family homes to create rental units and even small stores and businesses. These neighbourhoods now offer shopping, recreation opportunities and public services, all within walking distance. One housing option that’s particularly popular with Baby Boomers and Generation Xers is the large number of multi-story condominium complexes close to the Otonabee River and Little Lake. Easy access to the waterfront and to the downtown makes these condos a huge hit. People are justifiably proud that there have been no large housing developments on the city’s perimeter for over 20 years. Now, when you exit Peterborough, you immediately notice how urban development abruptly stops and farmland and natural areas begin. If there’s one word to describe the new Peterborough, it is “compact”.
Another feature that I love is that most of the new buildings, as well as the fourth and fifth floor additions on existing buildings in the downtown, are of an architectural and landscape style that respects local history, cultural heritage and even local geology and ecology. The upshot is that a sense of place permeates Peterborough. You know that you are in the Kawarthas. For people who remember how a sense of place was being lost in so much of the development in decades past, this has been a huge step forward. And nowhere is the sense of place stronger than in city’s public square, which doubles as a farmers’ market. Buying my fruit and vegetables here, I get a real sense of the wide range of cultural groups and ethnic mixes that now call our city home.
If the weather stays nice tomorrow and my aging knees and hips cooperate, I plan to ride my bike along the new greenway trails that run along both banks of the Otonabee River from the southern edge of the city up to Trent University. New side-branches link up with the Parkway Greenway in the north and Harper Park in the south. Kids love to play along the greenways, climbing trees or catching frogs in the ponds. These ribbons of green also provide migration corridors that allow birds and other wildlife to criss-cross the city safely, thereby increasing biodiversity. People are always so pleased to see wild animals close to their homes.

Parkway Trail between Hilliard Street and Cumberland Drive  - Drew Monkman

Parkway Trail between Hilliard Street and Cumberland Drive – Drew Monkman

Jackson Park
As I get off the bus at Jackson Park and walk down the hill towards the recently refurbished pagoda, I stop for a moment to watch a small flock of warblers feeding in the trees. A Red-tailed Hawk also catches my attention as it brings food to its nest in the Park’s iconic White Pines. Further ahead by the pond, a group of high school students is absorbed in a sketching activity, while seniors stroll in the warm spring sunshine. Despite its urban location, Jackson Park still provides a welcome element of solitude. It’s a place where one can escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and enjoy relative peace and quiet. People shake their heads when they think of how close we came to seeing a noisy, polluting multi-lane bridge built over the park. However, at that time it was common to underestimate the value of nature. Little did we know that even a short walk in a neighbourhood green space could make us feel so much better. Just like exercise, sleep and a proper diet, it is now common knowledge that regular exposure to nature plays a key role in our mental, spiritual and physical health. It even improves our immune system and reduces heart rate and blood pressure. In a nutshell, it enhances our sense of well-being and therefore makes us happier. We’ve also learned that idle thought – especially in conjunction with walking in a natural setting – greatly enhances creativity and problem solving. Gone is the old attitude that the destruction of green space is justified as long as it results in material benefit or economic progress and that our cities can continue to grow forever until there’s nothing of the natural world left.
Pause for thought

This foray into the future – yes, it may be naive – should at least give us pause for thought. When you mark your ballot in the municipal election on October 27, please think about how your choices fit with the values expressed in this essay. Who we choose as our municipal leaders for the next four years will have a huge impact on the kind of development Peterborough can expect. More than anything, we need more politicians who will really listen to the public, a large part of which feels ignored by the present council and let down by the democratic process. This has been a council where willingness to compromise has been largely absent, where it’s often winner take all.
Although business and administrative skills maybe useful in the politicians we elect, they are not what’s most important. We need people with vision, who are fully aware that “business as usual” is no longer an option, especially with the reality of climate change looming over our heads. We also need men and women who understand the vital importance of green space and of a development model that no longer puts the private automobile front and centre. Many such people have their names on the ballot this year. Let’s hope we elect as many of them as possible.

 

Aug 072014
 

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson, American astrophysicist and science communicator

This year’s unprecedented forest fires in the Northwest Territories, flooding in the southern prairies, drought in California and warmest May and June on record for the planet underline what climate scientists have been telling us for years: We must stop burning fossil fuels as quickly as possible or face catastrophic consequences. Among other impacts, we can expect:
* More severe storms, droughts, floods and wildfires
* The extinction of countless plants and animals
* Ocean acidification and sea level rise
* More difficulty in producing enough food to feed a growing population
* The destabilization of many nations from food and water shortages, which will increase the likelihood of conflict
Science has concluded that any increase in warming must be limited to no more than 2 C. On our current trajectory, we are looking at 4-5 C warming, which is well beyond the ability of modern civilization to manage or adapt. Staying under 2 C of warming will require the world to remain within a “carbon budget” of about one trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Since the Industrial Revolution began, we have already released about half a trillion tonnes. That means that more than half the carbon budget has already been “spent”. However, corporations and nations presently control fossil fuel reserves – including Canada’s tar sands – amounting to five times the remaining half-trillion tonnes of CO2 that we can safely emit. We are on track to burn all of these reserves within only two or three decades, thereby sending warming well over 2 C.
It should be clear by now that climate change is not just about Polar Bears or unfortunate human populations living in far-flung places. It is about the future of human civilization as we know it. But, even at this late date, far too many people are hardly paying attention to the problem or remain skeptical about the claims science is making. And yes, we should be skeptical – at least initially – about any extraordinary claims that science makes. However, continually moving the goal posts and refusing to accept something for which there is extraordinary and overwhelming evidence – and scientific consensus! – is not healthy skepticism. It’s living in denial.
Many people who deny climate science do so because of its implications. They fear that by accepting the reality of climate change, they will open the doors to massive government intervention in the market place. This is anathema to people who believe strongly in free market capitalism. Their “solution” is therefore to deny that human-induced, catastrophic climate change is real. However, you don’t get what you want by denying the reality around you. In fact, I would argue that by delaying action on climate change, government intervention in our lives is likely to become even more heavy-handed and expensive to taxpayers. One only needs to look at the degree of government intervention that has been necessary to deal with events like Hurricane Sandy, the on-going drought in California and the floods in Calgary, Toronto and southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
A carbon tax
So, what do we do? First of all, there are no solutions that will have the desired impact – and work quickly enough – as long as fossil fuels remain the cheaper option. Simple economics dictates that the market will always gravitate toward the lowest cost. Fortunately, there is also a straightforward solution: Tax carbon. If you’re like most Canadians, your immediate reaction will be “Not another tax!” However, there’s more to the equation. Revenue from the carbon tax will be refunded equitably to taxpayers, either directly by way of a cheque or by lowering other taxes. In this way, households will have the extra income to offset additional energy costs arising from the new tax.
A carbon tax is not about creating economic hardship. It is simply a way of correcting the distortion in the marketplace that gives fossil fuels a competitive advantage. This advantage is unfair because fossil fuel companies are not paying the cost of polluting the environment. Because a carbon tax represents a market-based solution to climate change, other government regulations (e.g., fuel efficiency requirements for vehicles) become largely unnecessary. Taxing carbon also means that the price of fossil fuels will reflect their real cost to the environment and to humankind.
Many economists, including a surprising number of conservatives such as Mitt Romney economic adviser Greg Mankiw, believe that the market is the best vehicle for solving the climate problem. By establishing a gradually-increasing carbon tax, renewable energy like solar and wind will become competitive with and eventually cheaper than coal, oil and gas. In this way, greenhouse gas emissions will steadily decrease. Many people would argue that nuclear energy, too, must play a key role in our energy future, at least in the short term.

PetroCanada pump

Establishing a gradually-increasing carbon tax will mean renewable energy like solar and wind will become competitive with and eventually cheaper than coal, oil and natural gas.

The B.C. experience
British Columbia implemented a carbon tax in 2008. It started at $10 per tonne of carbon and rose gradually to the current $30 per tonne. At the pump, this translates to about 7 cents per litre of gasoline. To meet the requirement that the tax be revenue-neutral, equivalent cuts have been made to other taxes. These include special tax breaks that benefit low-income and rural residents. B.C. now has the lowest personal income tax rates in Canada and one of the lowest corporate rates in North America.
As a result of the carbon tax, fossil fuel use in B.C. has dropped by 16 per cent (compared to a 3 per cent rise in the rest of Canada) and the province’s GDP has slightly outperformed the rest of Canada’s since 2008. Moreover, the carbon tax is supported by 64% of voters and has garnered global praise as a model for the world. It should also be an inspiration for the rest of Canada to follow suit.
Many people will argue that human beings are too myopic and distrustful of government – and our political system far too partisan – for even revenue-neutral taxation to be accepted on a wide scale. This argument is hard to dismiss out of hand. However, some people who are initially against a carbon tax may be swayed by the argument that such a tax represents a market solution to climate change and that you don’t need to be a traditional environmentalist to support it. We must also emphasize that, being revenue-neutral, it is not a tax hike. The argument that the economy can’t “afford” a carbon tax makes no sense either. Climate change simply comes down to physics and chemistry and has no regard for what we can or cannot afford.
Let’s remember, too, that human beings are capable of making tremendous sacrifices for their children and grandchildren’s well-being. Just think of how we work so hard to pay for higher education savings plans that won’t provide measurable benefits for years to come. This is how we should look at a carbon tax: a little bit of short-term inconvenience in adjusting to a low-carbon lifestyle in order to benefit future generations. There is one benefit, however, that would immediately accrue to all of us: a greater sense of optimism about the future. Why? Because we would be taking action. Optimism is in short supply these days, especially among young people who fear for what their lives will be like on an over-heated planet. The mental health toll of the problem should not be underestimated. Climate change-related natural disasters causing property losses and displacement from residences are already known to produce significant psychological stress, with long-lasting effects on anxiety levels and depression.
In the final analysis, agreeing to a carbon tax comes down to whether enough of us open our eyes and minds to the ominous news that science has laid at our doorstep. By rejecting or minimizing the message and choosing either business as usual or convenient half-measures, we will be condemning our children and grandchildren to a much poorer, unstable and frightening future on this planet.

 

Jun 052014
 

Regular readers of this column probably know that I consider climate change to be the biggest threat facing the natural world and civilization as we know it. Despite repeated warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that Earth is barreling straight into climate disaster – just a month ago we learned much of the West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing – the dire news has fallen largely on deaf ears. To get a sense of how little impact these reports have had, you need not look any further than the present Ontario election campaign. Anyone looking for inspiration in new and bold policies to address climate change – or even hear mention of the topic – can only be dismayed. The Progressive Conservatives have successfully framed the election as being only about jobs and the economy, and the other parties have bought right into it. It is almost as if trashing the atmosphere and causing mayhem in our weather is preferable to doing anything that might harm the economy. Yet, in some ways, it’s hard to blame the politicians. Scant pressure is coming from the public to make climate change a priority. So many of us have blinkers on, and it is far easier to live in denial.

Peterborough Flood 2004 - Janine Jones

Peterborough Flood 2004 – Janine Jones

A game changer?
However, a game changer may be in the works, this time courtesy of the United States. President Obama’s decision earlier this week to aggressively cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will almost certainly lead to pressure on Canada – and therefore on Ontario – to also take strong action. The U.S. aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power-generation industry by 30 per cent by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. According to U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Bruch Heyman, “we (Canada and the U.S.) need to continue to work together moving toward a low-carbon future, with alternative energy choices, with greater energy efficiency, and sustainable extraction of our oil and gas reserves.”
As it becomes clearer that the environment will be the centrepiece of Obama’s second term, Canada – and Ontario – will be forced to get on board, since Canadian policy traditionally has been one of matching the Americans. According to the Globe and Mail of June 3, “In Canada, the oil and gas sector is driving growth of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs)…Put in perspective, Canada’s oil and gas sector will churn out more than twice as many GHGs as the electricity sector.” It is almost inevitable now that much more stringent emission regulations in the oil and gas sector are coming.

Climate change in Ontario
Ontario has a highly-developed industrialized economy and is responsible for a large proportion of Canada’s GHG emissions. Ontario’s main sources of GHG emissions by sector (in descending order of magnitude) are transportation, industry, buildings, electricity, agriculture and waste.
On April 14th, 2014, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in North America to fully close down its coal fire power plants. The province’s electricity supply is now one of cleanest in the world, generating less than a tenth of the greenhouse gases per kWh than American states. Why is Ontario coal free? Because we replaced most of our coal-fired electricity with refurbished nuclear energy and natural gas plants – not because of renewables. Despite what some critics might say, this happened without burdening consumers with heavy bills. Ontario’s residential electricity is already less expensive than most Canadian provinces and territories, eastern US cities, and most of the developed world.
That being said, Ontario still has a major challenge to reach its GHG emission goals of 15% below 1990 levels by 2020. According to Gord Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), the province will miss its 2020 reduction target by a wide margin and “there has been a lack of bold leadership on climate change mitigation policy in Ontario.”

Who to vote for?
For those of us who believe what climate scientists are telling us and are therefore very concerned about the future – ours, our children’s and our grandchildren’s – there is the question of who to vote for in the current election. I have tried to summarize the key policies of each of the parties regarding energy and climate change. The information below comes from various sources including the parties’ websites and a questionnaire that was sent to each party by a Green Prosperity, which is a joint effort by 20 of Ontario’s leading environmental organizations to put forward an action agenda to help make Ontario a world leader in the new green economy. The PCs did not bother to fill out the questionnaire but simply directed people to read their platform. None of the parties, with the possible exception of the Greens, will commit themselves to a carbon pricing system, nor do any provide a clear plan about how to reach Ontario’s GHG emission targets by 2020.
• Liberals: First, it must be acknowledged that shutting down Ontario’s coal generation plants was the largest climate change action ever taken in North America. Many aspects of Ontario’s controversial Green Energy Act have been successful, as well. The Liberals’ election platform also has the most to say about addressing climate change. Measures include investing in better transit, providing homeowners with tools to reduce their energy needs, making sure new buildings are as energy efficient as possible and, in 2015, “reviewing progress toward meeting our 2020 Greenhouse Gas Emissions target and develop a clear plan to get there”.
• NDP: The NDP would take the HST of home hydro bills and prevent unfair price increases for natural gas consumers. The platform is silent on the nuclear question. There also seems to be an implicit rejection of further significant efforts at renewable energy development. The NDP is also offering a ‘revolving loan fund’ for household level solar installations and energy efficient retrofits. The party wants to merge four of Ontario’s hydro agencies – almost like resurrecting Ontario Hydro – which is a proposal that makes “soft” energy path proponents of conservation and renewables shudder.
• Progressive Conservatives: The PC platform seems to be all about making energy affordable. At a recent town hall meeting in Peterborough, Tim Hudak answered the question “What are you doing about climate change?” by saying he would eliminate the subsidy on wind and solar energy to reduce electricity costs for the average person. In fact, on a $100 electricity bill, the amount currently attributable to solar power in Ontario is less than 86 cents, far less than the subsidy for nuclear or gas. Clearly, the PCs are unequivocal in their rejection of renewable energy. They appear to embrace nuclear energy, hydro imports and natural gas. However, I could find nothing about climate change or energy conservation on their website. Hudak is, of course, planning to reduce the government payroll by 100,000 jobs. It’s hard to imagine how the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Natural Resources could survive these cuts and still be able to carry out their mandates. All areas of environmental protection would suffer irreparably.
• Greens: The Green Party of Ontario would abandon the Liberal’s nuclear refurbishment plans in favour of conservation and electricity imports from Quebec. They would provide grants for homeowners to invest in energy conservation. They seem to be silent on the question of further renewable energy development. According to the Green Prosperity questionnaire, the Green Party is in favour of pricing carbon.

A carbon tax?
The world is readying itself for a price on carbon pollution and, eventually, for a carbon-free economy. By placing a rising fee on carbon pollution, this would send a market signal to improve efficiencies, and for consumers to buy items such as electric cars and geothermal heat pumps powered by Ontario’s surplus of carbon-free electricity. By returning the revenue generated by the fee to Ontario residents, we would be able to invest personally in a low carbon future based on our own personal needs. As Al Slavin wrote in a letter to this paper, Ontario needs a revenue-neutral carbon tax (the taxes are returned to the taxpayer) as in British Columbia, where it reduced CO2 emissions by 17% in five years, did not hurt the economy, and has a 64% support among BC taxpayers.”
So far, none of the major political parties has offered a forceful vision for addressing climate change. However, like it or not, aggressive cuts in GHG emissions are on the way – quite possibly as a result of Obama’s initiatives. Voters need to ask themselves what political party in Ontario is best suited to manage these cuts. The last thing we want is to elect a party like the PCs that has no interest in climate or environmental matters and is home to a large number of people who don’t even accept the science of climate change. This is the kind of thinking – rampant within the Harper government, as well – that is responsible for Canada’s rock-bottom environmental ranking – 27th out of the world’s wealthiest 27 countries, according to Washington’s Center for Global Development.

Apr 032014
 

Last Sunday, my wife and I went for a long walk, finally able to enjoy some sunshine and warm temperatures. As usual, however, I couldn’t help noticing that there were no kids playing outside. Why not? Well, partly because many parents consider it too risky to let their children play outdoors and to engage with nature without adult supervision. This is simply one of numerous examples of how our sense of where real risk lies in the 21st century is out of sync with reality. If we want to learn about clear and present danger, more of us should start paying attention to climate change and especially to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that was released this past Monday.

Hooded Warbler -Wikimedia

Hooded Warbler -Wikimedia

The report states unequivocally that climate change is driving humanity and the natural world in which we are embedded toward an unprecedented level of risk and devastation. And the wild ride has only just begun – to wit the Calgary Flood of this past summer. The report predicts that the highest level of risk will first hit plants and animals, both on land and in the acidifying oceans. In other words, nature is the early-warning system – the proverbial canary in the coal mine. The report states that “Spring advancement” – the earlier occurrence of spring events, such as breeding, bud burst, breaking hibernation, flowering, migration – is being seen in hundreds of plant and animal species in many regions.” With this in mind, I thought I would remind readers of how a changing climate is already affecting the Kawarthas and what is in store for the longer term.

Happening now

• From 2010 through 2013, 40 of the 48 months (83%) in Peterborough were milder than the 1971 to 2000 average. Yes, this past winter has bucked the trend, but more about that later.

• Species that used to be restricted to extreme southern Ontario such as Virginia Opossums, Southern Flying Squirrels, Hooded Warblers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Giant Swallowtail butterflies are now seen regularly in parts of the Kawarthas.

• Southern Flying Squirrels are mating with Northern Flying Squirrels and creating hybrids.

Black fly - Wikimedia

Black fly – Wikimedia

• Short-distance migrants such as Red-winged Blackbirds are, on average, returning earlier in the spring. Some species are nesting earlier, too.

• The peak calling period of early breeding frogs (e.g., Spring Peeper, Wood Frog) is now 10-20 days earlier than in 1995.

• The peak bloom in spring wildflowers such as Trout Lily and White Trillium has been two to three weeks earlier than the traditional mid-May average in recent years.

• Black flies now reach peak numbers in late April or early May. In the 1960s, peak numbers were not until mid- to late May. Quite often, the Victoria Day Weekend was the worst.

• Tree pollen is emerging roughly two weeks earlier and has been very abundant in recent years.

• We are seeing a marked increase in invasive plant species such as Common Reed (Phragmites), Dog-strangling Vine and Garlic Mustard.

Phragmites -Drew Monkman

Phragmites -Drew Monkman

• There has been a huge decline in Monarch butterflies. Although the eradication of milkweed in the American mid-west is probably the main reason for the population crash, climate change impacts along the butterfly’s migration route and on its wintering ground have been significant.

• Gray Jays, too, are dwindling in number. This species used to be seen regularly in the northern Kawarthas. However, mild falls and winter may be leading to the spoilage of the food these birds hide for later consumption and therefore affecting their breeding success. These birds are late winter nesters.

• Waterfowl has been lingering much later into the fall and earlier winter. This is directly linked to a later freeze-up of lakes and rivers most years.

Extreme Events

     Increasingly, occurrences of extreme weather are causing unprecedented events in our flora and fauna.

• In mid-March 2012, we had eight days of 20 C temperatures. Frogs were calling, Mourning Doves were nesting, trees were flowering and the ice went out of the lakes. These events are typical of mid-April on an average year. Ontario lost 80% of its apple production, because the record-early blossoms on the apple trees were later killed by frost.

• April 2012 saw an unprecedented invasion of at least 300 million Red Admiral butterflies into Ontario. The butterflies arrived from Texas where unparalleled drought (climate change?) had killed all of the predatory insects. When rains finally came and wildflowers bloomed, there were no predators to reduce the number of Red Admiral caterpillars. The butterflies reproduced like never before. When spring arrived, wave came north. However, nearly all of the Red Admirals died, because their nettle host plants had not yet emerged.

Red Admiral butterflies - April 2012 - Drew Monkman

Red Admiral butterflies – April 2012 – Drew Monkman

• The summer of 2012 was maybe the worst on record for aquatic plant growth, which caused many a headache for boaters. The phenomenal plant growth was linked in part to an extremely warm summer and a record-early ice out – hence a longer growing season.

• The frigid winter of 2014 saw a complete reversal of the multi-year warming trend we’ve seen. Even March was 5.3 C cooler than average. Some climatologists believe that the intense and long-lasting cold may be linked to changes in the Jet Stream resulting from a warming Arctic. Species of ducks and grebes that we almost never see in Peterborough turned up on the Otonabee River, having been displaced from the almost entirely frozen Great Lakes. This past winter also saw an unparalleled invasion of Snowy Owls into Ontario. This has been linked to a population boom in owls in the Arctic last summer because of exceptional lemming numbers. With so much food available, Snowy Owls were raising six or more owlets instead of the usual one or two. Climate change may be an important reason why lemmings became so abundant.

Concern for the future

Here is a sample of the many changes that are being forecast for the Kawarthas in the coming decades.

• Coldwater fish species like Walleye are expected to decline substantially with increased air and water temperatures.

• Black-legged Ticks, which carry Lyme disease, are expected to have spread all over Southern Ontario by 2020. They may already be in the Kawarthas.

• Our forests will take a beating. This will be due to increased temperature, more frequent drought, competition with invasive species, greater risks from insect pests and more fungal infections.

• A changing climate is likely to favour non-native invasive animals and plants with generalized requirements over native species with more specialized needs. This will likely compound the impacts of climate change in aquatic ecosystems.

       Unfortunately, there will also be emotional distress. We can expect a huge change in how it “feels” to live in the Kawarthas. Many seasonal rituals (e.g., a backyard skating rink) are almost certain to disappear. There will also be a marked decline the quality of our experience of the natural world. With less of a sense of what to expect and what is normal, we’ll have to learn to expect the unexpected.

       Unless thousands of scientists have it all wrong, climate change is maybe the greatest known risk humanity faces. But, here’s the good news: The IPCC says that the impacts of climate change—and the costs of adaptation—will be “reduced substantially” if we drastically cut our emissions of greenhouse gases. As for me, I’ll be voting for political parties that promise to bring in a carbon tax.

 

Side-bar: Learn about Australian Nature

At the April 10 meeting of the Peterborough Field Naturalists, Paul Elliott of Trent University will make a special presentation entitled “Koalas, Kangaroos and Kookaburras”. He will be sharing stories of his encounters with the plants and animals of the Dandanong Ranges and the coastal areas of Victoria and New South Wales. The meeting is in the auditorium of the Peterborough Public Library and commences at 7:30 p.m. Everyone is welcome. For additional information contact Martin Parker, mparker19@cogeco.ca or 705 – 745 – 4750

 

 

Mar 132014
 

 

 

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson

I hope you had a chance to watch the first episode of the wonderful new science documentary series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey that aired Sunday night. It is presented by the famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and is a follow-up to the 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which was hosted by Carl Sagan. Dr. Tyson reminded us how we as human beings have come to possess such incredible knowledge about the nature of the Universe and the story of life itself. “This adventure is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adhering to a simple set of rules. Test ideas by experiment and observation. Build on those ideas that pass the test. Reject the ones that fail. Follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything. Accept those terms and the Cosmos is yours.” In my recent columns on evolution, that is what I have been trying to say: we have to respect science. Unless something better can be invented, it is our best way of knowing about the nature of reality.

Why I care

The natural world is under siege. Humans have brought about what scientists are calling the sixth great extinction. Up to 50 percent of all living species are in danger of disappearing by the end of the century – primarily because of climate change. Anti-science attitudes and religious fundamentalism are part of the reason why addressing this crisis is so difficult.

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan

It has always concerned me that creationists and other religious fundamentalists have rarely made protecting living Nature an important part of their teaching. As E.O. Wilson asks in his 2006 book “The Creation”, “do they believe that human-centered ethics and preparation for the afterlife are the only things that matter?… For those who believe this form of Christianity, the fate of ten million other life forms indeed does not matter.” What is even more disturbing, creationism now seems to have coupled itself with a rejection of climate science. The very idea of science as a way of knowing about the world is being challenged.

In his column of March 1, Jim Mason, a retired physicist, biblical creationist and speaker for Creation Ministries International, presented 12 questions “requiring answers with scientifically supported data.” I will address these questions. First, however, I would like to remind readers of the nature of this so-called “debate”.

• Creationism is the product of faith: Creationism proceeds from the account of the world as told in Genesis and expects the world to conform to that account. Consequently, the conclusion is already held to be true. Instead of citing evidence for why creationism is factual – and presenting this evidence in peer-reviewed scientific journals – creationists try to show why evolution isn’t. Science, on the other hand, doesn’t really “believe” anything in the way that religious faith does. Science looks at the totality of evidence and determines what the current most likely answer is that is consistent with that evidence. At some point, scientists pass a threshold where it would be (to paraphrase Stephen Gould) “perverse not to agree with the scientific evidence”. Like the theory of gravity and the germ theory of disease, the theory of evolution passed this threshold of evidence long ago. The objections raised against the theory of evolution do not come from scientists.

• How creationists argue: Because creationism can’t really offer competing scientific evidence, they often present what are known as ‘arguments from ignorance’, which are questions that science has not yet completely answered. The implication is that because something is not fully understood (i.e., there are gaps in our knowledge) God must be responsible for that phenomenon. We call these “God of the gaps” arguments. There are also ‘arguments from incredulity’, which imply that because something is difficult to understand or seemingly amazing – the evolution of the human eye, for example – only a supernatural force could have done it.

• The real problem: The problem creationists have with evolution is not that it challenges belief in God, because it doesn’t. Their problem is that evolution – like geology and astronomy – challenges the accuracy and authority of a literal interpretation of the Bible -especially the book of Genesis as an exact historical account. Yet, many religious people accept the theory of evolution and still maintain devoted religious lives.

 

Tiktaalik

Tiktaalik

The questions

The questions that Mason has posed all come from the Creation Ministries International website. You can find them at creation.com/question-evolution. If you wish to read a more detailed rebuttal than what I am providing, please go to rationalwiki.org/wiki/Question_Evolution Remember, however, that the answers to some of these questions involve complicated science and do not lend themselves to short answers. It is why scientists spend many years at university!

1. How did life originate? This question is irrelevant, because evolution does not claim to explain the origin of life. Abiogenesis, the natural process by which life arose from non-living matter, is not part of the theory of evolution. Still, science is getting closer and closer to answering this ‘God of the gaps” question.

2. How did DNA originate? DNA most likely evolved gradually from a simpler replicator; RNA is a probable candidate. What we have trouble grasping is the incredibly long period of time evolution has had to work with. Life has been evolving for 3.5 billion years. It would take you about 110 years to count to 3.5 billion, even if you counted day and night!

3. How could mutations create the huge volumes of information in the DNA of living things? There are many processes that increase genetic information. The most basic is that of gene duplication. Another mechanism is viral insertions – literally inserting new genetic material into a genome.

Sinosauropteryx prima feathered dinosaur plate Early Cretaceous Yixian Formation Liaoning China

Sinosauropteryx prima feathered dinosaur plate Early Cretaceous Yixian Formation Liaoning China

4. How did new biochemical pathways originate? This is basically an argument that biological structures and processes are too complex for a natural explanation to account for them. With time and proper mutations, completely new pathways do, in fact, originate.

5. How does evolution know living things weren’t designed? The claim that living things bear the hallmarks of design is, at best, a mere assertion. Complexity does not imply design; in fact, simplicity is a design goal in most designs. Historically, supernatural design has been attributed to lots of complicated things that we now know occur naturally, such as lightning, rainbows, and infectious diseases.

6. How did multi-cellular life originate? It was beneficial for single-celled organisms to work together. For instance, mitochondria, the “power sources” of cells, were once separate organisms. In a recent study by William Ratcliff and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota, single-celled yeast took less than 60 days to evolve into many-celled clusters that behaved as individuals.

7. How did sex originate? Sexual reproduction allows for evolution to occur at a much faster pace than asexual reproduction. Organisms that exchanged DNA were thus able to evolve out of situations that might have killed their asexual counterparts.

8. Why are countless millions of transitional fossils missing? They aren’t. Every fossil ever found is a link between older and newer forms. One of the most interesting is the Tiktaalik, a transitional fossil between fishes and amphibians. It is basically a fish with legs. Its “fins” have basic wrist bones and simple rays reminiscent of fingers. There are also transitional fossils between reptiles and birds, such as the feathered dinosaurs being dug up in China.

9. How did ‘living fossils’ remain unchanged? A living fossil – not a scientific term – is a species or group that has an extensive fossil record but also retains known living specimens, which show a similar appearance. It is quite possible, for example, that while living fossils have a similar exterior appearance, their internal biochemistry has changed dramatically.

10. How did blind chemistry create mind/intelligence, meaning, altruism and morality? Organisms develop from egg to full organism all the time through “blind” chemistry. Is that a problem? Also, evolution can be true regardless of the perceived moral implications. That being said, morality is actually part and parcel of evolution. It is linked to what happens when organisms live socially. Since humans are social animals and they benefit from interactions with others, natural selection – the mechanism by which evolution operates – has favoured behavior that allows us to get along better with others.

11. Where are the scientific breakthroughs due to evolution? Evolutionary concepts are applied to everything from understanding how diseases and pests evolve resistance to the drugs and pesticides to providing alternate explanations for physical and many cultural differences between different peoples. This allows us to debunk judgemental explanations that have led to conflict in the past.

12. Why is a fundamentally religious idea taught in science classes? Evolution merely describes part of nature. The fact that that part of nature is important to many people and is pursued with zeal does not make evolution a religion. If this was the case, even stamp collecting could be called a religion. Religions explain ultimate reality and the origin of life. Evolution does neither.    

                Even in 2014, denying the science of evolution – and climate change – represents a real danger to science literacy, science appreciation and to finding solutions to the environmental crisis. Let’s hope that the remaking of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos documentary will help to usher in a new respect for science and inspire us all in how amazing reality actually is. Don’t miss it next Sunday night!     

 

Mar 062014
 

By just about any measure, we have had a crazy winter, and not just in eastern North America. With near-record drought in California, unprecedented floods in England and unparalleled warmth in Alaska, it has been a winter of frightening extremes.

Jet Stream - the high-altitude river of air that circles the Northern Hemisphere  (NASA - GSFC)

Jet Stream – the high-altitude river of air that circles the Northern Hemisphere (NASA – GSFC)

Dr. Jennifer Francis, a climatologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey,  has an hypothesis as to what may be causing these conditions and why the weather patterns have hung around for so long. Her research  points to a rapidly warming Arctic – a result of climate change – as a likely culprit. Francis’s  hypothesis goes like this: The temperature difference between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes is a main driver of the Jet Stream, the river of high-altitude air that flows from west to east and rings the entire globe. The Jet Stream marks the boundary between cold, polar air to the north and warm tropical air to the south. It also determines much of our weather. The greater the temperature difference between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes, the faster the air flows and the straighter is its path across the northern hemisphere.  However, because the Arctic is warming so much faster than areas further south, this  temperature difference has decreased. This, in turn, has led to a weaker Jet Stream which is more easily deflected off its usual course. The flow of air has collapsed into a much more meandering route – think of a slow moving river – with big swings north and south. According to Francis, it has essentially become “stuck” in this new, wavy shape. In eastern North America, where the Jet Stream has plunged far southward, frigid Arctic air has been able to move much further south than usual; over Alaska,  warm weather has been able to move much further north.

Long-tailed Duck  -Wikimedia

Long-tailed Duck -Wikimedia

However, the science of attributing weather events at lower latitudes to what happens in the Arctic is still very new, and scientists are still far from a consensus as to what is actually happening. Some believe that the path of the Jet Stream can change due to natural variability. Obviously, more research is necessary.

 

Ducks and owls

While it may be too early to know if the long-lasting, frigid winter weather is a result of climate change or simply due to natural variation, we still have to cope with it, as do wild plants and animals. And, although wildlife is supremely adapted to surviving deep snow and intense cold, that doesn’t mean that getting through the winter is easy. Just ask the rarely-seen ducks and grebes on the Otonabee River. Local birders started noticing uncommon species turning up back in December and January – species that are usually restricted to the Great Lakes in winter. Red-necked Grebes, Horned Grebes, Long-tailed Ducks, White-winged Scoters and Red-breasted Mergansers all began to appear. None of these species is usually found here in winter and especially not in the numbers that we have seen.  At least four Red-necked Grebes are on the river and as many as 12 Red-breasted Mergansers.

White-winged Scoter - Wikimedia

White-winged Scoter – Wikimedia

Birders therefore wondered why these species are here. Well, we now have a plausible explanation – ice. Waterfowl have been literally “frozen out” of the Great Lakes.  As of March 4, the lakes were about 90.5 per cent ice covered. The record high is 94.7 per cent and there’s every possibility that this record could fall. Only Lake Ontario, which is about 45 per cent iced over, has resisted the trend. With the Great Lakes almost completely frozen, many waterfowl have fled inland in search of areas of open water to rest and feed. The birds that are turning up in the Kawarthas have probably arrived from Georgian Bay.  Many of the same species have been popping up on inland lakes and rivers in the eastern U.S. as well. If you want to go out and see some of these ducks yourself, take a slow drive along River Road between Peterborough and Lakefield or take a walk at Lock 19 in Peterborough. If you’re lucky, you may get  particularly close-up views of several species.

White-tailed Deer -Karl Egressy

White-tailed Deer -Karl Egressy

This winter has also seen the largest Snowy Owl invasion into northeastern North America in five decades. Many people have therefore been wondering how the owls are faring, given the ice and snow. I, too, have been concerned, especially with the freezing rain we had in January which resulted in a centimetre of hard ice on top of the snow. This makes hunting difficult for owls, because they sometimes have to break through the snow and ice to catch the rodents underneath. Well, from all accounts so far, the birds  seem to be doing quite well. According to Don Sutherland, zoologist at the Natural Heritage Information Centre here in Peterborough, raptor surveys in southern Ontario have not turned up any starving owls or hawks. “What we have noticed is that inland (away from the Great Lakes), Snowy Owls are concentrated in areas where the snow has been blown off fields and are rare or absent in areas with deeper snow cover. This is also true for Snow Buntings. Both of these species are most common in areas with low snow cover and areas of exposed earth and grasses.” Both of our local Snowies (one on County Road 19 at Chemong Road and one on Scriven Road at County Road 2) seem to be finding enough to eat. Most of their diet probably consists of Meadow Voles, which are usually the most abundant small mammals in fields.  Snowy Owls are opportunistic, however, and will eat most anything. Eastern Cottontails are very common this year, so they are undoubtedly an important prey item.

Giant Swallowtail in my garden on Sept. 8, 2013 (Drew Monkman)

Giant Swallowtail in my garden on Sept. 8, 2013 (Drew Monkman)

Questions

            Questions remain as to how this winter’s weather will have affected some of our more vulnerable species. For example, will the intense cold have killed significant numbers of southern trees (e.g., Hackberry, Sycamore, Tulip Tree)  that have been planted in parts of the Kawartha in recent years?  How will Giant Swallowtail butterflies have fared?  Will the over-wintering pupae (chrysalides) of this southern newcomer to central Ontario have fallen victim to the cold?  And what about Emerald Ash Borer larvae? Has it been cold enough to reduce the population to any extent? Although the larvae can withstand cold temperatures by producing an antifreeze compound called glycerol, they are vulnerable if it gets to -30 C. So far, though, it doesn’t look like much mortality is occurring. Ash cuttings infested with Emerald Ash Borer larvae were stored in containers outside the Great Lakes Forest Centre in Sault Ste. Marie this winter. When some of the containers were recently brought indoors, adult beetles soon emerged. Unfortunately, even temperatures way up in the Sault haven’t killed these insects. Finally, White-tailed Deer are particularly susceptible to severe winter conditions. Even during a normal winter, a deer will lose 10-20 per cent of its body weight, since winter browse is inadequate to sustain them for long. With extremely deep snow in some areas – especially north of Lake Huron – the animals are expending a lot of energy simply getting to the food. A late spring and green up could cause high levels of mortality. Fortunately, the Ministry of Natural Resources is closely monitoring the situation.