Take Time To Renew Your Spirit

Climate change is not an isolated environmental issue. It touches every part of our lives: peace, security, human rights, poverty, hunger, health, mass migration and economics. If we are to preserve the planet for future generations, we must reach 350ppm – the most important number on earth. Otherwise, we will reach the point of no return.

~ Bianca Jagger

We Ignore the Voices from Canada’s Rapidly Changing Arctic At Our Peril

Yesterday the documentary Arctic Re-Imagined aired on CBC Radio’s “The Current”. In it, journalist Chris Wodskou explores what it means for Canada to be an Arctic nation in a time of dramatic climate changes in the far north.

One of the voices featured in the half-hour documentary is that of  Zacharias Kunuk, award-winning director whose films include Atarnarjuat: The Fast Runner. Kunuk was born in Kapuivik in Nunavut, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Here are some of his reflections, from Arctic Re-Imagined, on the changes that are happening in real-time for the Inuit who inhabit the far north:

“The ice used to be so thick in springtime when we were hunting for seals. Now, it’s like everything is a month early and a month later in fall before freeze-up.”

“We used to have a lot of multi-year ice. Now we only have first year ice; the heat – what we’re noticing – most of the hunters think it’s coming from the sea. What the elders are noticing the most is the sun doesn’t rise where it used to.”

This change in the appearance of the sun is an unexpected aspect of climate change. When air that is warmer than before blankets a still-cold landscape there are changes in the refraction of the sun’s rays, bending the sun’s light in different ways.  Keep in mind that the high Arctic is plunged into darkness when the sun disappears in December and only starts to reappear weeks later in the middle of January. With only an hour or so of “day glow” each day, the Inuit are keenly appreciative and aware of the sun when it does appear.

“…In the second week of January the sun starts to arrive over the horizon . And the elders noticed, because they are always observing the environment, they’ve noticed  that it had shifted to the right from where it used to rise. They are saying the sun is a lot higher in the summertime…”

“Even in the high Arctic one of the hunters was telling me in the 1950s they used to have one hour of day glow in the winter. Now they have two hours. So you think the world really tilted.”

“We still use the old techniques [of predicting weather], and add new ones. Climate change…well, you notice it. We have to adapt to it, have to change our routes, our travel routes.”

“We are already noticing this last summer due to climate change there’s more fresh water on top of the salt water. Because in the summertime when we shoot seals they float and we just pick them up.  For the past two years, we’ve been noticing seals that we shoot have been sinking when they’re not supposed to…”

To listen to the entire documentary, click here and scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on “Listen to Part 3”.  Click here for Canadian Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s message on 350.org, and here to read the Inuit Call to Global Leaders: Act Now on Climate Change (give the pdf a few minutes to load).

Click here for actions you can take to make a difference on climate change.

Inuksuk Point (Inuksugalait, “where there are many Inuksuit“), Foxe Peninsula (Baffin Island), Nunavut, Canada. Photo by Ansgar Walk

We Ignore the Warning Lesson of Haiti’s Environmental Destruction At Our Peril

We are used to hearing that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Recently, Haiti’s devastating earthquake has focused the world’s attention on this beleaguered nation and its long-suffering people.  Yet rarely do we hear that at one point in its history, Haiti was the wealthiest colony in the New World. The coffers of its colonizer, France,  swelled with the riches extracted from Haitian sugar cane and coffee plantations.

So how have things gone so wrong for this country? Years of economic and political chaos in Haiti have led to environmental devastation and crushing poverty. The two are inextricably linked.  But it doesn’t have to be this way. Haiti

Haitian Deforestation visible at the border with the DR

shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic (DR).  The DR was colonized by the Spanish, and luckily for the population of the DR, the Spanish were more focused on extracting gold from Mexico than developing sugar cane and coffee plantations in the Dominican.  Haiti, which was three quarters covered with forests when Europeans first came,  is now 99% deforested. In contrast, the Dominican Republic remains one third covered in forests.  Haiti’s lack of trees contributes to mud slides, flooding, and soil erosion that greatly increase the suffering of the Haitian population during natural disasters like hurricanes and tropical storms which hit the island regularly. Their neighbours in the Dominican Republic generally suffer far fewer deaths during these disasters.  Reforestation efforts in Haiti are hampered by the widespread poverty and lack of alternate fuel sources;  without other alternates, desperately poor people cut down any trees that have been planted to use in heating and cooking.

Haiti’s environmental destruction serves as a warning lesson to others that the destruction of our natural environment comes with a price that future generations will bear. It underscores

Tar Sands Tailings Pond. Photo by David Dodge, Pembina Institute

the need to follow and strengthen environmental regulations – not undercut them.  For example, the Canadian province of Alberta is currently flush with oil money at great expense to its natural environment. The Alberta tar sands are the “dirtiest project on earth” according to the Council of Canadians.  George Monbiot, a British author and environmental activist, describes the oil sands this way:

Canada is developing the world’s second largest reserve of oil. Did I say oil? It’s actually a filthy mixture of bitumen, sand, heavy metals and toxic organic chemicals. The tar sands, most of which occur in Alberta, are being extracted by the biggest opencast mining operation on earth. An area the size of England, of pristine forests and marshes, will be dug up, unless the Canadians can stop this madness. Already it looks like a scene from the end of the world: the strip-miners are creating a churned black hell on an unimaginable scale.

To extract oil from this mess, it needs to be heated and washed. Three barrels of water are used to process one barrel of oil. The contaminated water is held in vast tailing ponds, some of which are so toxic that the tar companies employ people to scoop dead birds off the surface. Most are unlined. They leak organic poisons, arsenic and mercury into the rivers. The First Nations people living downstream have developed a range of exotic cancers and auto-immune diseases.

Refining tar sands requires two to three times as much energy as refining crude oil. The companies exploiting them burn enough natural gas to heat six million homes. Alberta’s tar sands operation is the world’s biggest single industrial source of carbon emissions. By 2020, if the current growth continues, it will produce more greenhouse gases than Ireland or Denmark. Already, thanks in part to the tar mining, Canadians have almost the highest per capita emissions on earth, and the stripping of Alberta has scarcely begun.

While Haitians’ environmental situation has been caused by centuries of economic and political chaos, Canadians know better.  In the 21st century, none of us can claim with integrity that we don’t know that there is a price to be paid when we wantonly destroy the environment for short-term material gain.  We live in a stable democratic country, one of the richest in the world.  Canada can do better. Send your elected representatives the message that Canadians choose the path of long-term economic and environmental stability for ourselves and future generations.

To learn more about the Alberta tar sands, watch this video from the Council of Canadians, and then go here to sign their petition telling Canadian leaders to stop this madness. The Alberta-based Pembina Institute’s  Oil Sands Watch is a good place to get more information about the tar sands.


New $7 Billion Wind and Solar Energy Investment in Ontario Announced

The province of Ontario announced yesterday that a deal has been struck with a Korean consortium, led by Samsung, for a multi-billion dollar investment in solar and wind projects around the province.  The hope is that the deal will also bring new manufacturing jobs to the province, which has been badly hit by the downturn in the auto sector. Premier Dalton McGuinty stated:

With this step, Ontario is becoming the place to be for green energy manufacturing in North America.”

The project is not without its detractors (click here and here for more information). One of their complaints is that the deal gives Samsung an unfair advantage over local wind and solar producers. But the deal is in line with the province’s new Green Energy and Green Economy Act (GEA) which, according to Renewable Energy World:

takes a two-pronged approach to creating a green economy. The first is to bring more renewables to the province and the second is the creation of more energy efficiency measures to help conserve energy. The bill also includes measures that the ministry hopes will foster a new green economy for Ontario by giving organizations and local communities such as First Nations and Métis communities more opportunities to develop distributed renewable energy generation projects.

To read more about the GEA and the feed-in tariff (FIT) program that the province introduced in 2009, check out this article by The Star’s Energy and Technology columnist Tyler Hamilton.

It is exciting to see my home province  move boldly in the direction of a “green economy”. It is the future. Some governments and leaders have the foresight to realize which way the economic wind is blowing, and their citizens will reap the benefits in the years to come.  Unfortunately, the Canadian federal government hasn’t yet joined the 21st century, and it still putting all of its “eggs” in the fossil fuel “basket”. And all Canadians are going to pay the price – both in an unstable climate and in a unsustainable economy.

We Don’t Want To Believe What We Know

“We don’t want to believe what we know,” says Yann Arthus-Bertrand. The French photographer and  filmmaker, who has spent years traveling the world documenting its wonders, is convinced of the importance of sustainable development. His message, through his photographic projects,  is that each and every individual should take note that we are all personally responsible for the future of our planet.

His latest project is the movie Home. The movie website states:

We are living in exceptional times. Scientists tell us that we have 10 years to change the way we live, avert the depletion of natural resources and the catastrophic evolution of the Earth’s climate.

The stakes are high for us and our children. Everyone should take part in the effort, and HOME has been conceived to take a message of mobilization out to every human being.

For this purpose, HOME needs to be free. A patron, the PPR Group, made this possible. EuropaCorp, the distributor, also pledged not to make any profit because Home is a non-profit film.

HOME has been made for you : share it! And act for the planet.

Check out the trailer for Home below. If you want to watch an entertaining and passionate 15-minute speech that Mr. Arthus-Bertrand gave at a TED Conference earlier this year, click here. To download Home in its entirety, click here.


Post-Copenhagen – What Now?

It’s been 4 days since the historic UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen ended. The general consensus among those concerned about the future of the planet, and the impact of man-made emissions on it, seems to be that Copenhagen was a failure (see my posts here and here). Grist.org’s David Roberts has written a comprehensive discussion of the conference, Copenhagen: a look back at the most striking narratives, that is worth a read. He discusses why it is significant that it was leaders, and not their negotiators, that were “up in it” the last few days of the conference. He also looks at China’s obstructive role in the process, why the UN may not be the best place to advance this cause, and the role of the U.S. Senate now. He has this to say about looking forward from here:

“What came out of Copenhagen is nothing but a faint promise. To make it something real, much less what’s needed,  will require intense pressure from civil society, elites, businesses, enlightened governments, and ordinary citizens. And guess what? If there is a robust, legally binding treaty signed in Mexico next year, with sufficient targets and timetables … intense pressure will still be required.

This will be a century-long fight. If the green movement is going to sustain itself over time, it might be wise to try to avoid the emotional roller coaster of “last chances” and “historic failures.” That’s a recipe for burnout. There will be no cathartic moment, no final breakthrough, only a war of inches won by sheer persistence and creativity.”

So, relax and enjoy the holiday season and bring in the New Year with gusto. Recharge your batteries (sustainably of course!), and don’t despair (that’s a luxury we can’t afford right now). There’s more work to be done in 2011!

Climate Change Deniers Risk Catastrophe

This guest posting was submitted to a local newspaper recently in response to an opinion piece entitled “Why Dismiss Dissent” by right-wing ideologue Peter Worthington.  While the said newspaper declined to publish it, I am happy to give it space here:

In this article, Mr. Worthington parrots the usual climate change-denying arguments and pseudo-science: Humans are too insignificant to cause climate change; carbon dioxide is our friend; climate change is a conspiracy by poor countries to dupe rich countries into giving them money; etc. What Mr. Worthington fails to do is address any of the vast body of research which shows convincingly that the earth is warming quickly and beyond normal variations. He also entirely fails to mention that virtually all reputable climate scientists from around the world and across numerous scientific disciplines agree that global warming is real and threatens humanity’s future, that it is caused by human activity and industry, and that the need to change this constitutes an emergency. While there are still some details of global warming which spark debate between serious scientists (i.e.those scientists who use their skills to look for the truth and not to promote an agenda), the basic facts have been settled. Moreover, despite Mr. Worthington’s claims, there is really no believable way in which all these diverse scientists from around the world could be conspiring to deceive the world into accepting global warming as real when it is not. And what would be the point? They don’t stand to gain anything and would actually stand to lose a great deal by lying. On the other hand, most prominent climate change deniers have either demonstrable links to organizations whom the status quo benefits (oil and coal producers, etc.) or, as with Mr. Worthington, to right-wing lobby groups who are funded by these organizations. One has to ask which group is more likely to be trying to deceive the public.

The situation is this: We are all on the Titanic speeding through the North Atlantic night. Someone has just spotted what looks like a very large iceberg dead ahead and we are bearing down on it fast. The crew begins rushing to avoid the collision but the ship owner shows up and begins shouting that we should all stop and discuss this first. Maybe the iceberg is smaller than it looks, or further away. Maybe the ship could survive the impact. Maybe the ship can turn faster than we think. Maybe turning sharply will cause some passengers to fall out of bed andsue the ship owner. We should probably just wait and see what happens.

Does this approach make ANY sense?

Mr. Worthington, given the relatively small long-term cost of changing our
greenhouse gas-emitting ways and the absolute catastrophe which awaits humanity if
scientists are right about climate change, isn’t your recommendation for continued
inaction kind of irresponsible?

Change Does Happen – 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Watching a documentary on the fall of the Berlin Wall last night, I was reminded that a united Germany is something that most of us, two decades later, take for granted.  And yet, before the wall came down,  it was hard to imagine that it ever would.

The same is true for a more sustainable world.  Once the change is made, it will be hard for any of us to remember the “old-fashioned” way of life where we recklessly used up  fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources.

If you want to see more about this historic event, CBC.ca has comprehensive coverage.