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Greening Up — What Is the Best Available Science?

Throughout history the Earth’s climate has changed. But now – according to the National Space and Aeronautics Administration (NASA)– climate emergency evidence is compelling.

“What we need is for our politicians and the people in power start to listen to the current, best available science.” – Greta Thunberg, age 16

“We cannot leave it to young people to fight this fight for their future by themselves.” – Jane Fonda, age 81

The word science comes from the Latin scientia meaning knowledge, especially knowledge based on verifiable and reproducible data.

Ten years ago, Britain’s Science Council published what it claimed was the first “official definition of science”.

Here’s what it came up with:

"Science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence."

Science involvesobservation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena as it builds and organizes knowledge.

Mechanisms such as peer review and repeatability of findings are used to try to ensure the validity of scientific advances.

But as English comedian and writer John Oliver explained in his 2016 segment on science, “there is no reward for being the second person to discover something in science, there is no Nobel Prize for fact-checking.”

"Is science bullshit?" Oliver asked. "No, but there is a lot of bullshit currently masquerading as science." To make that point crystal clear, Oliver listed a number of studies with conflicting results about the effects of coffee.

"In just the last few months, we've seen studies about coffee that claim it may reverse the effects of liver damage, help prevent colon cancer, decrease the risk of endometrial cancer, and increase the risk of miscarriage," Oliver said. "Coffee today is like God in the Old Testament: It will either save you or kill you, depending on how much you believe in its magical powers."

Oliver plays a Today Show segment discussing the disagreement among various study results which prompts weatherman Al Rokerto say “I think the way to live your life is you find the study that sounds best to you and you go with that.”

“No, no, no, no,” Oliver responds, adding that it is dangerous to think of science as something à la carte and “if you don’t like one study, another will be along soon.”

“Since when did scientific evidence become a reason to shy away from ecological action just because it wasn't popular?” – Timothy Morton, age 51

As actor Alan Alda writes in his short essay Things Are Either True or False, “One of the major ways the public comes to mistrust science is when they feel that scientists can't make up their minds.”

This leads some people to think of science as just another belief system.

Science has been wrongly imagined as a search for the ultimate truth. In reality, it is the best tool we have for answering questions about the natural world. It isn’t perfect, but it is a self-correcting discipline as it is most often scientists themselves who catch errors and correct them.

There is no absolute certainty in science, there is simply probability.

When it comes to climate change, it is impossible for scientists to have all the data on either the positive or the negative impacts of rising levels of carbon dioxide on agriculture, health and local temperatures.

Scientists take the data they have and suggest that certain scenarios are more probable than others. The higher the probability, the more certain scientists are their predictions will come to pass based on the data.

As Nobel Prize-winning scientist George Wald said in his 1970 Massey Lectures, “The point of the whole enterprise is to achieve understanding. Facts are only the raw material of science.”

“It’s really clear to me that you can’t hang onto something longer than its time. Ideas lose certain freshness, ideas have a shelf life, and sometimes they have to be replaced by other ideas.” – Alan Alda, age 83

So let’s do as Alda recommends in his essay and give the idea that things are either true or false a rest.

Many individuals feel themselves to be the centre of their own universe. This can lead them to believe that nature is something separate that we can affect without being affected: that we can exploit and use up without paying a price.

This scientific fact explains why humans have been called “destroyers of the Earth”: since the advent of agriculture, approximately 12,000 years ago, humans have wiped out 83 percent of all wild mammals and half of all plants.

Let’s not judge the rigor and honesty of the scientists who have spent their lives painstakingly researching all aspects of the world’s climate.

Let’s instead put together some observations, ask some questions, and use the scientific methodto make some predictions as logical consequences.

This exercise doesn’t rely on what you know or what you think is right or wrong. It just asks that you put aside who you are by virtue of your cultural or political identities.

In other words, keep an open mind.

“Who we are has never been more incompatible with who we need to be. What we have become is the greatest threat to ourselves and the planet.” – John F. Schumaker, age 70

The news cycle in 2019 has been filled with a series disturbing observations of severe weather disasters.  In Australia, bushfires have burnt through 1.65 millionhectares of land, killing six people and destroying more than 600 homes.

In Europe, CBS news reported that the Veneto regional council chambers on the Grand Canal in Venice began to flood just moments after some council members rejected measures to tackle climate change. Venice – a UNESCO World Heritage site – sits on a tidal lagoon just above sea level, which causes the city's streets and sidewalks to get wet at high tide. But during November’s flood, the water peaked more than six feet above the usual level.

On the North American continent, wildfires dominated the extreme weather news as Alaska endured more than 200 firesconsuming more than a million hectares while in California over 200,000 people had to be evacuatedto escape flames fueled by a three-year drought and hurricane force winds.

This kind of severe weather comes with a high cost – the Insurance Bureau of Canada says the financial costs of climate change to insurers and taxpayers reached $1.9 billion in 2018.

Globally, insurance giant Swiss Re estimatedtotal economic losses from natural and man-made catastrophes in 2018 declined to USD $155 billion from USD $350 billion in 2017. Global insured losses are estimated to be around USD $79 billion, higher than the annual average of the previous 10 years.

“The only power on earth capable of saving the human race is human, the means of doing so the learning that we are one with nature, not superior to or separate from.” – Lewis Lapham, age 84

The Amazon and the Cerrado regions of Brazil, rich in unique animal and plant species, were deliberately set ablaze this summer to make way for soy and livestock farming, the flames generating worldwide outrage at the destruction while smoke darkened the skies above Sao Paulo more than 3,000 kilometres away.

The Amazon, which covers 5.5 million square kilometres, is often referred to as the "lungs of the planet" because the forest produces 20 percent of the oxygen in our planet's atmosphere.

The intensity of wildfires throughout the world is rising, causing them to create their own weather. Akin to a thunderstorm, pyrocumulonimbus bushfires– commonly called firestorms – are so ferocious they become almost impossible to fight.

Fire historian Stephen Pyne, emeritus professor at Arizona State University, coined the term Pyrocene to describe a unique time in history when human use of fire, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, and the attendant climate change combine to create hell on Earth.

“But fire, the great shape-shifter, is fast morphing beyond our grasp,” Pyne writes in his essay Winter Isn’t Coming, Prepare for the Pyrocene.

“I’m very urgent because it’s a time bomb and it’s going to explode. Do I have an affinity for time bombs? No. But if I have that emergency situation, of course I am going to act.” – Jamie Margolin, age 17

Flooding, fires, and extreme weather dominate today’s news and we must ask why?

Throughout history the Earth’s climate has changed. But now – according to the National Space and Aeronautics Administration (NASA)– climate emergency evidence is compelling.

Global temperatures have been rising (the planet's average surface temperature has risen about 0.9 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.

The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean showing warming of more than 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.

The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. Data from NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost an average of 286 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016, while Antarctica lost about 127 billion tons of ice per year during the same time period. The rate of Antarctica ice mass loss has tripled in the last decade.

“Yes, we are at a dark moment in our history, but we are the light that can bring change.” – Isra Hirsi, age 16

Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.

Satellite observations reveal that the amount of spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased over the past five decades and that the snow is melting earlier.

Global sea level rose about 8 inches in the last century. The rate in the last two decades, however, is nearly double that of the last century and is accelerating slightly every year.

Both the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over the last several decades.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30 percent. This increase is the result of humans emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and hence more being absorbed into the oceans. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the upper layer of the oceans is increasing by about 2 billion tons per year.

The sum total of the last eight paragraphs is evidence that something untoward is going on and that we should be concerned. As the opening sentence of David Wallace-Wells book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming states: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.”

“The older generation messed things up. We are doing the clean up.” – Vanessa Nakate, age 22

In the forward to the recently issued WMO Statement on the State of the Climate 2018, the Petteri Taalas, Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization writes:

“Key findings of this Statement include the striking consecutive record warming recorded from 2015 through 2018, the continuous upward trend in the atmospheric concentration of the major greenhouse gases, the increasing rate of sea-level rise and the loss of sea ice in both northern and southern polar regions.”

In a statement Taalas released in September, he said: “To stop a global temperature increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the level of ambition needs to be tripled. And to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees, it needs to be multiplied by five.”

Recently more than 11,000 scientists warned humanity faces “untold suffering due to the climate crisis” unless society undergoes major transformations.

“The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity,” said the scientists.

A week later, the annual Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change proclaimed that the climate crisis will determine the lifelong health of today’s children.

“Young people from different parts of the world are living in constant fear and climate anxiety, fearing the future, the uncertainty of a healthy life or a life for their children at all.” – Komal Karishma Kumar, age 26

Hugh Montgomery, a professor at University College London, who is co-chair of the Lancet Countdown, said: “Our children recognise the climate emergency, and demand action to protect them. We must listen, and respond. This year the accelerating impacts of climate change have become clearer than ever. The highest recorded temperatures in western Europe and wildfires in Siberia, Queensland, and California triggered asthma, respiratory infections and heatstroke.”

The just-issued UN Environment Programme Emissions Gap Report 2019, which compares where greenhouse gas emissions are heading, versus where they need to be, shows that emissions need to fall by 7.6 percent each year over the next decade, if the world is to get back on track towards the goal of limiting temperature rises to close to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

The report warned that even if countries meet commitments made under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world is heading for a 3.2 degrees Celsius global temperature rise over pre-industrial levels, leading to even wider-ranging and more destructive climate impacts.

The G20 Brown to Green Report 2019showed Canadahas a long way to go to meet its obligations under the Paris Accord. It indicates that instead of going down, Canada’s CO2 emissions increased by 17 percent between 1990 and 2016.

Canadians have yet to confront the reality that it’s impossible to meet global emissions targets and still fully develop the tar sands in Alberta or frack for LNG in B.C. Even Environment and Climate Change Canada admits that the tar sands are the fastest growing source of carbon in the country and last April the CBC reported that researchers – mainly from Environment Canada – discovered emissions were higher than those being reported.

“My generation doesn’t care about the politics around climate change. We just want productive discussions, realistic answers and sound policy solutions." – Benji Backer, age 21

And in B.C., the oil and gas industry is poised to double its climate pollution if they build just two of their currently planned LNG projects – LNG Canada and Kitimat LNG.

With greenhouse gas emissions of 18.9 tons of CO2 equivalent per capita compared to the G20 average of 7.5, Canada earns an “insufficient” rating by Climate Action Tracker. British Columbians emit 12.9 tCO2 each. That's more than double the global average. And Albertans emit ten times the global average – 64 tCO2 each.

Canada’s residential and commercial building emissions are far above the G20 average and in desperate need of an aggressive energy retrofit program. The country’s transport sector is the largest source of CO2 emissions – 30 percent of total emissions – and would benefit greatly from higher fuel efficiency standards.  The National Observer reported in Septemberthat Canadians drive the dirtiest cars and trucks in the world.

“Is it really too much to ask you to stop wasting time and walk the talk?” – Komal Karishma Kumar, age 26

The Great Law of the Iroquois required that all major decisions be taken with consideration of people and the land seven generations into the future. If we are to escape the environmental catastrophe that we currently find ourselves in, we must internalize the fact that our survival is inextricably tied to the planet’s health.

The current science of climate change describes a range of possible futures, which are largely dependent on the degree of action or inaction each of us takes in the face of a warming world.

We need to take responsibility for good science-based decisions; they won’t just happen naturally. We will have to choose to act and think together. We must think and act big.

Our determination to do whatever it takes to avoid the extinction of the human race must drive our ambition. Defeat is not an option.

“What we do in the next 20 years will determine the future.” – David Attenborough, age 93

Some scientists say climate change poses a “near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization.”  But the possibility is not inevitable.

Cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Utrecht are leading the world in bicycle friendliness and eliminating the impact of automobiles. Brussels is setting the example for building energy efficiency with its passive house ordinance. Chicago, Brooklyn, and Paris are showing how cities can grow food for their residents.

We are all standing at a climate crisis crossroads with three options – mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.

But as Steve Vanderheiden wrote in his essay Climate Change and Intergenerational Responsibility: “As individuals, we have only two options: accepting our responsibilities to others or acting irresponsibly.”

And that is the current best available science, complete with the voices of those who are living it.

“I have a great-granddaughter who is six months old, and I’d like to see her grow up in a safe world where people are not having to fight for water and food.” – Ruth Zalph, age 89

Michael Jessen is an ecowriter living at Longbeach near Balfour, BC. He can be reached by email at zerowaste@shaw.ca