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Welcome to the new climate

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Paris is forecast to be unseasonably warm next Friday. The current long-term prediction is 8 degrees, significantly above the historic high for early February of closer to 5. And it is expected to be raining for a third day in a row at a time of year when precipitation is supposed to be at its lowest in the French capital.

Perfect weather, then, to welcome the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest report on our warming planet, a document that will be released to much fanfare in Paris, and which by all advance accounts will lay to waste any remaining doubts that human activity is causing the globe to warm at an unprecedented rate.

And perfect timing, too, as it falls at a moment when the world, including Canada, has undergone a massive shift on climate change.

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.

Here in Canada, where only a year ago the environment was a blip on the radar screens of pollsters, the issue has suddenly emerged as the most important one facing the country, according to polling conducted for The Globe and Mail and CTV.

As first reported Friday, the environment was cited as the top issue by 26 per cent of respondents in polling conducted in mid-January, supplanting the perennial favourite, health care, now the No. 2 issue, at 18 per cent. The shift amounts to the equivalent of a public-opinion earthquake — last May the environment was on the minds of a mere 3 per cent of Canadians.

What is more, Canadians feel so passionately about the topic that they say they don't want half-measures. The Globe's polling has found support for an array of tough actions against global warming: 56 per cent even say they would support rationing the amount of fossil fuels an individual can use each year.

This tipping point has arrived quickly and convincingly.

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 the Globe poll, nearly four out of five people, 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 change has been apparent in the reception environmental activists are receiving. John Bennett heads Climate Action Network Canada and has long been used to feeling as welcome as a telemarketer ringing at dinner time. But no longer. “I've never experienced it like this in terms of the public interest,” he says.

The same political shift is being felt in Washington, where the cherry blossoms were months early and a newly aroused Democrat-controlled Congress now has more than a dozen climate-change laws before it. On Tuesday, the former climate-change-skeptic-in-chief, President George W. Bush, used his State of the Union speech to call for reductions in gasoline consumption to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and slow global warming, something he now considers a “serious challenge.”

The same day in Hollywood, An Inconvenient Truth, former U.S. vice-president Al Gore's influential documentary on climate change, received two Oscar nominations.

In the snow-starved Alps last week, world leaders gathered in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum annual meeting, the yearly get-together of 2,400 rich and powerful people, and were greeted by an agenda that included 17 sessions on climate change.

If the momentum on the environment seems large now, it's likely to be unstoppable as 2007 progresses.

One reason is that the current year stands a good chance of going down as the hottest since modern recordkeeping began in the 1850s. Britain's Met Office, the government weather forecaster, says the year is likely to be the hottest ever, eclipsing the previous record set in 1998, due to rising greenhouse-gas concentrations and the El Nino condition warming the Pacific Ocean.

Then there's the IPCC report, the anticipated release of which has to get some of the credit for spurring the Harper government to make a series of major announcements on climate change this month. But it's not the biggest reason: It is all but certain there will be a federal election this year, and climate change is looming large as a ballot-box issue.

Then, at the end of the year, in Bali, Indonesia, the world's environment ministers will attempt to develop a new plan for controlling greenhouse-gas emissions after the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012. Kyoto and its obligation to cut greenhouse gases goes into effect next year, and currently there is nothing to replace it, even though the scientific evidence on climate change is more compelling now than when the protocol was negotiated in 1997.

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