"If political issues have recognized tipping points, where one day the problem doesn't matter and the next it's seemingly at the top of everyone's mind, there is little doubt we're in the midst of one now on global warming and the environment," The Globe's environment reporter Martin Mittelstaedt wrote Saturday in The Globe as we kicked off our year-long coverage of climate change with his article Welcome to the new climate.
"This tipping point has arrived quickly and convincingly," he wrote.
"Its impact is apparent at the top ranks of the government, in the Prime Minister's Office. Stephen Harper, never a global-warming cultist, has got religion. He and his ministers have blanketed the country with a flurry of green initiatives over the past month.
"But the effect is also being felt on the street. When Canadians look out the window these days, they say they're seeing global warming. An overwhelming 78 per cent of respondents to a new Globe poll . . . say they've personally noticed climate change. The same number fear it is going to harm future generations. And nearly as many 73 per cent say the warming is due to human activity and isn't a natural phenomenon."
The questions now are simple: Should we take action to slow down global warming and maybe eventually reverse it? If so, what will be the social and economic costs?
Mr. Mittelstaedt kindly agreed to join us Monday to answer questions from readers. Your questions and Mr. Mittelstaedt's replies appear at the bottom of this page.
Martin Mittelstaedt has covered the environment, politics, and business for The Globe and Mail since starting at the paper in 1980. He opened the paper's New York bureau, covering Wall Street and U.S. financial news from 1986 to 1990. He also was at Queen's Park during the tumultuous days of the Rae and Harris governments. He has covered the environment since the late 1990s, and has written extensively on global warming, toxic chemicals, pollution, pesticides, and nuclear safety.
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Rebecca Dube, globeandmail.com: Welcome everyone, and thanks for joining us today for this discussion on global warming. There are lots of reader questions for Mr. Mittelstaedt, so we'll get right to it.
Peter Crossman from Canada writes: Why was the concern about CO2 induced global warming not originally championed by climatologists coming forward as a group under the banner of their professional associations? This function is precisely what professionals form associations for. Why have they still not come forward (after almost 20 years) as a group under the banner of their professional organizations?
Martin Mittelstaedt: Many climate scientists and their professional associations are involved in the climate debate. Please see this link. This is the website of the American Meteorological Society. The link has information on the association backing climate change concerns.
Dan Weaver from Toronto Canada writes: Hi. Climate change is a long-term issue by nature -- once emitted, gases remain 10s to 10000s of years in the atmosphere, with a cause-effect timeframe far exceeding the length of an elected politicial office holder. How do you think we can resolve short-term-thinking politicians with our need for long-term environmental sustainability? Economically speaking, how might approaches to sustainability look? (I'll define 'sustainability' at a benchmarked CO2/ect level wherein climate change exists though is containable without major flooding/temperature change/ect - say ~ double pre-industrialization CO2?)
Martin Mittelstaedt: Mr. Weaver, those are tough questions to answer in brief. One of my colleagues dealt with the first issue in today's paper, and gave as good as explanation as any. Anne McIlroy, our science writer, interviewed Dr. Gordon McBean, one of the country's top climate scientists. A few years back, he gave a briefing to the federal cabinet on climate change. One minister asked what's in it for us between now and the next election, and Dr. McBean replied by saving there was nothing in it for the government. But then he added that we've got to do this for our grandchildren. I think politicians have to have the courage to say that we, as a society, need to do certain things, even though the benefits will be reaped by future generations. I also think citizens will have to reward those politicians for their courage.
My reading of the current science is that we're ultimately facing a cut in emissions of C02 and other greenhouse gases of about 90 per cent, and would have to do it well before we get a doubling of pre industrial levels of greenhouse gases.
That economy is going to driven, or powered by a combination of high renewable usage, some nuclear, and high levels of CO2 capture and storage. Whenever humans have switched from one type of fuel to another, it has been associated with economic growth, and I don't think this switch to a lower carbon future will be any different.
Gail Cooper from Toronto writes: Hello Martin. Some people are calling for a carbon tax to reduce our demand for fossil fuels. This would unfairly affect the poor, as the rich could carry on with their extravagant lives as usual. Others such as George Monbiot, author of Heat: How to Keep the Planet from Burning, propose a rationing system, whereby everyone would be allocated the same carbon copnsumption quota a year, much like the rationing measures imposed during the Second World War. What is your view of such a proposal? Is this the solution to global warming? Kind regards, Gail
Martin Mittelstaedt: I would accept either proposal because I think they're both good.
The hit on poor people by a carbon tax could be offset through income taxes, by giving low earners rebates. What is good about carbon taxes is that they force people to figure out the best way to reduce emissions, rather than having the reductions dictated by government.
But I also like the egalitarian aspects of giving everyone a CO2 limit. The idea that we're all in this together and the idea of social solidarity would outweigh the negatives -- that there would have to be more planning and administration than through a carbon tax.
I think both of the proposals are among the solutions to global warming. But I think there will have to be more. If people are limited in the amount of carbon they can emit, for instance, they'll need access to better public transit. That is something that will need political action.
As well, only about 25 per cent of emissions come from individuals. The rest are from industries. So there will have to be measures to reduce these emissions.
Victor Chwieros from Calgary writes: When ever the government tries to "fix" things, it often fails, and in some situations makes the problem worse. How can the free markets be used to resolve our environmental problems?
Martin Mittelstaedt: Victor, the way that free markets could be harnessed to deal with climate change would be to have the full environmental cost of using fossil fuels embedded in the price of the fuel or in activities, such as deforestation, that release global warming gases. Currently, these costs are socialized, or deferred to future generations.
I know that setting the price of an environmental harm is a difficult task. How do you price, for example, reduced polar bear numbers due to global warming? How do you price today the effect of rising sea levels a few decades from now when we do not know for sure how much seas will rise?
But I think rough estimations of the harmful impacts are possible, and therefore rough estimates of the new fuel prices needed to mitigate them. The good thing about having environmental costs included in prices is that users would have accurate prices for the first time. Because prices would be higher, they'd have far more incentive to conserve. It wouldn't be government telling them how to conserve. People are very resourceful and would figure out ways to economize.
Paul Nichols from Arnprior, Canada writes: Regarding Edward Greenspon's article, "The environment will be the single most important issue of 2007" -- about time, some might say. Too late, say others. In Europe, however, action has been underway re climate change for some time now and while there have been mistakes made by the EU they are at least making an effort, achieving small reductions. By contrast our emissions continue to climb. How have the Europeans managed to maintain sufficient long-term support for reduction efforts when Canada cannot even get started?
Martin Mittelstaedt: You are very right. The Europeans have been ahead of us by many years on the importance of this issue.
One difference between Europe and North America is that groups opposing the science of global warming have never had much traction in Europe. I think in Canada we've suffered from a bit of the spill over effect of living next to the U.S., where industries have financed effective PR campaigns against the science of climate change.
Some European also have managed to achieve large reductions in emissions rather easily. The UK, for instance, achieved big cuts by switching some of its electricity production from dirty coal to natural gas. Germany has also pioneered wind and solar energy.
One of our problems is that our politicians have been unwilling to really attack the climate change issue for domestic reasons. Although some provinces, such as Manitoba and Quebec, stand to benefit from controls on greenhouse gases, Alberta might be a big loser, given its oil reserves.
That said, I think Canadians are catching on rapidly to environmental issues. I've been covering the environment beat for a number of years at The Globe and have never had so much reader feedback and interest in stories as I've experienced over the last little while.
Dave Medich from Windsor, Canada writes:Hello, Martin. My question: Do you think the 'fear' and 'paranoia' this issue is generating may have a negative effect on our children who are being bombarded from all sides? I'm a little concerned how it will affect their emotional health. Thank you.
Martin Mittelstaedt: I have two kids who are old enough to understand the issues. I tell them that adults have been quite stupid for a long time, failing to address an issue that could present them with huge challenges. But I also say that there's lots to be done, lots of solutions out there, both on an individual and societal level, and that is hopeful. I've always found that hope is more powerful than fear or despair.
A McNeil from Vancouver writes: In translating the technical to the media friendly, ideas can get garbled. What confidence can we the public have in reporters and media outlets that they understand climate change well enough to convey it accurately to their audiences? After all, the subject is complex and our knowledge of it, scientific or otherwise, is vastly incomplete. … This is not a criticism of reporters in any way, merely an acknowledgement of the tension between needing articles to be interesting and easily understood and needing to be accurate. A case in point is on The Globe and Mail website, where there is a graphic titled "the science of how it happens -- Warming 101." Above the graphic is a link to "credits" which when clicked, gives us two names from the Globe and Mail staff. Are these individuals scientists? If not, what scientific source(s) can this illustration be linked to? While this is a small example, it illustrates the problem that media faces in the frenzy of covering a popular and vitally important issue. If credibility of the issue is built on the credibility of what people learn largely through media, and if skepticism is fostered by reports that can be shown to be inaccurate, then the media has a important role to play in ensuring climate change in all its complexity is taken seriously by people and their governments.
Martin Mittelstaedt: I've written a number of the articles the Globe is running about climate change. I'm a reporter at the paper, and not a scientist. I do not think reporters need to be scientists to cover science topics, just as business reporters need not be owners of companies to cover business, or political reporters be politicians to accurately cover what elected leaders do.
I think scientific experts have their role, and we in the media have as our role to try to report on their work as fairly and accurately as we can. I have found in my reporting career that almost all complicated science can be simplified in ways that the underlying ideas involved can better understood.
Cherry On the Globe from Calgary writes: Is there anything that we can do to prevent or delay the global warming? What can we do to save the wildlife in the Arctic from the global warming? In the summer time, when it is extra hot, what can we do to survive? Are there any good tips?
Martin Mittelstaedt: There are any under of good books and websites out there on ways individuals can delay global warming. In general, almost anything you do for the environment will also be good for your pocket book.
I personally do a lot of common sense things. I turn the heat down at night, ride my bike for short trips, use a wind powered clothes drier (a clothes line) and so forth.
One popular book that is now out is George Monbiot's Heat. He's a British reporter and has a lot of good information.
For a Canadian perspective, Guy Dauncey, a Victoria author, has written a good book called Stormy Weather, 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change.
Bart Jessup from Gabriola, BC writes: Dear Mr. Mittelstaedt, how is the public to separate scientific truth from political spin, when even a moment's common sense reflection reveals the political deceptions involved? For example, the Vikings settled Greenland when it was green, within recorded history, so why should we believe that motor vehicles cause global warming? Annual global volcanic activity evidently releases more CO2 than all the motor vehicles on the planet. Solar activity evidently affects climate in decades long cycles. In millenia-long time frames the planet is still emerging from the last ice age, so its CO2 levels are returning to what was normal. Scientists provide conflicting analyses of climate, while still not able to predict annual hurricane seasons accurately. Some scientists have become political activists, no longer respecting scientific standards of peer review. The UN's recent history of massive corruption leaves it without any credibility. Wouldn't a prudent person simply acknowledge that left wing politicians are using global warming as a way to attack productive citizens, and at the same time recognize that conservation is a smart and morally right thing to do for posterity?
Martin Mittelstaedt: Scientists have been looking for natural explanations for the current rise in temperatures, and haven't been able to come up with any that would account for the full extent of warming. The sun's output is up only slightly in recent time, for instance, and volcanic activity (which typically cools the climate) hasn't been able to stop the warming.
As for Greenland, my understanding on how it was named, and this might be the fault of the Ontario educational system in the 1960s, is that Greenland was deliberately named to mislead, so that settlers would be tricked into going to the place from Iceland.
Rebecca Dube, globeandmail.com: That's all the time we have for today. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions and joined us -- you sent in many thoughtful, intelligent questions and I'm sorry we couldn't get to them all. Climate change will be a big focus for The Globe this year, as Mr. Greenspon wrote in his column -- so please look for more discussions on the topic in the coming weeks and months. I also want to thank Mr. Mittelstaedt for joining us today. Martin, any closing thoughts?
Martin Mittelstaedt: In my writing on ecological themes, I've been heartened and touched by the deep concern so many people feel about the environment. I believe there is a huge reservoir of human energy and ingenuity out there to deal with this problem. I think there are far more reasons to be hopeful than pessimistic.
The Globe intends to follow the global warming issue in a big way this year, writing about the developments as they happen. There will be a lot of coverage later this week about the next report on the science of global warming, and I'd urge readers to watch for it.