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Climate-change scoffers have seen their day

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Climate-change scoffers are now as rare as defenders of the invasion of Iraq.

Reasonable people, in Canada and abroad, can differ over the means to combat the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that produce climatic changes, but only a dwindling few now deny changes are occurring — and that more will occur, with mostly negative effects.

Reasonable people, too, can differ over the severity and effects of climate change. Even the best scientific evidence, asked to predict climate patterns decades from now, contains large margins for uncertainty. There will always be anomalies and outlying events. The scoffers immediately seize these to debunk the entire theory of climate change.

But these are anomalies, as in, the extreme northeastern corner of Canada has been getting colder. Yes, but the rest of the country has been getting warmer, especially the much larger area of the northwest and west. Or, one glacier in the Arctic is growing (in the northeast corner), whereas glaciers everywhere else in Canada are receding. The anomalies, in other words, make good copy but they are swamped by the pattern.

Next week, the fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the distillation of the work of about 2,000 scientists, might bring more precision to previous forecasts. Even so, there will be a margin for uncertainty, although there will be no doubt about the general direction of the climate.

The planet has been warming, especially in the past 50 years, largely from human activities, notably the burning of fossil fuels for heat, electricity and transportation. If current trends continue unchecked, the warming will intensify with consequences everywhere, including Canada.

In Canada, the remaining scoffers use a variety of arguments to debunk the reality of climate change, starting with alarming forecasts of economic costs. These have been the business community's hardy favourites for 20 years. The scoffers are right: There will be short-term economic costs, depending on the imposition on business to change practices. What business scoffers almost never do is assess the costs of the alternative: doing nothing or very little.

There are costs from acting, and costs from not acting. By not acting, we mean essentially what Canada has done for two decades: rely on voluntarism and normal improvements in energy efficiency.

Under this approach, some industries, mostly in manufacturing and services — chemicals, construction, metals — have reduced emissions as sound business practice; in other industries — utilities, petroleum and related products, transportation — emissions have soared. Consumers, too, have not changed habits, despite futile government blandishments and incentives.

This approach, therefore, has resulted in a roughly 30-per-cent increase in Canadian emissions since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997. That record is among the very worst in the industrialized world. Knowing this, the scoffers shift to the 2-per-cent argument. It goes like this. Canada only produces 2 per cent of the world's emissions, so why should we impose burdens on ourselves when our contribution is so small?

By this logic, Canada would roll up the oceans and nestle into a comfortable, but rather parochial existence. Why give foreign aid when Canada's contribution can't really eradicate disease and poverty? Why be in Afghanistan when we have only 2,500 troops to contribute? Why participate in many international institutions when there are so many other, larger and more powerful countries?

Yes, insist the scoffers, but even if we did our share, it would mean so little in saving the atmosphere. This is the classic argument that leads to the tragedy of the commons.

If no one person, institution or country contributes enough to be identified as principally responsible for degrading a commons, such as the atmosphere or oceans or a grazing pasture, then no action will be taken by anyone. And the commons will keep getting degraded. Canadians, of all people, saw the tragedy of the commons at work — or at least every Newfoundlander did. Nobody wanted to take responsibility for the decline of the northern cod stocks. Every interest pointed fingers at other interests. Every interest said their take of fish was not the source of the problem. They would keep fishing until other fishing interests changed their ways. Until the stocks disappeared, and everyone suffered.

But, say the scoffers, what about, China, India, Brazil and George W. Bush's United States? None of these countries are in the Kyoto Protocol that Canada ratified. Why should we impose burdens on ourselves when they do not? To which, in one sense, the answer is: If Canada and other likeminded countries do not impose burdens on themselves, what suasion could they conceivably muster on others to follow an example? And, after all, most of the greenhouse-gas buildup occurred during the post-Industrial Revolution period, from which a handful of European and North American countries disproportionately benefited.

This scoffer's argument is a variation of the tragedy of the commons: Some countries are acting, but unless and until every country acts, then we should do nothing. Or at least the bare minimum.

The scoffers have had — and continue to have — a field day with the ineptitude and hypocrisy of most governments in Canada.

Governments have often talked from both sides of their mouth. They have spent — wasted — billions of dollars on ineffective programs. They have watched governments talk big and act small. They have observed governments running from the tools almost every economist has suggested might allow progress against emissions.

This argument of the scoffers is not really about ineffective means — for there are many more effective ones at hand — but about ends. The scoffers fundamentally do not believe climate change is a problem, except in a kind of polite-conversation fashion, because the science is too uncertain, the effects too unknown, the changes too diffuse.

A few have studied the matter carefully, and lean against the weight of worldwide scientific opinion. Others just enjoy the sport of being contrary. Not much is going to change their views or their sport.

As with the defenders of Iraq, their numbers are in sharp decline.

jsimpson@globeandmail.com

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