March 29, 2007

Challenges of climate change

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.

Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.

Continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century that would very likely be larger than those observed during the 20th century.

Those are the main findings outlined by more than 2,500 scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in their most recent report, released Feb. 2.

These findings should put to rest the arguments about human-induced climate change. Unfortunately, there are still people who deny or are skeptical of the fact that human beings are altering the environment of the Earth for the worse.

It is undeniable that since the start of the Industrial Revolution various human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels, have resulted in the release of large volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

These gases have altered the Earth's atmosphere, resulting in the warming of the climate with serious implications for life on our planet. Some of the repercussions of human-induced climate change include:

  • Higher sea levels, causing flooding in low-lying, often densely populated, coastal regions. Some of the world's most productive agricultural lands also are in areas that are at increased risk of flooding due to rising sea levels.

  • Increased rates of disease outbreaks due to a warmer climate.

  • Potential increase in the frequency and magnitude of severe weather events, such as forest fires, droughts, storms and hurricanes.

  • Adverse effects on human health.

  • Loss of biological diversity.

    All these outcomes will result in loss of life, creation of environmental refugees, food and water shortages, substantial damage to property, the loss of agricultural productivity and land, and stress on already overburdened health-care systems.

    In addition, climate change will have adverse effects on the recreation and tourism industry. The closing of ski resorts due to warmer temperatures and lack of snow is a prime example. Canada is not immune from the negative consequences of climate change. In fact, as a northern country, the Canadian environment is more sensitive to changes in the climate.

    All this will have negative impacts on the economy. Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, recently quantified the damage climate change would have on the world economy if we don't take prompt action to reduce emissions.

    According to Stern, inaction will result in at least a 5 per cent loss in global Gross Domestic Product per year due to the "overall costs and risks of climate change," and perhaps as much as 20 per cent. In contrast, the cost of action on climate change "can be limited to around 1 per cent of global GDP" per year. Clearly, the economic advantages of taking action right now on climate change outweigh those of inaction.

    Given this scenario, the scaremongering of the Conservative government regarding the economic costs of Canada's commitments to fight climate change and unofficially pulling Canada out of the legally binding Kyoto Protocol are not helpful.

    Similarly, cancelling proven environmental programs while frantically throwing money in all directions for political gain in anticipation of an election, without any concrete plan, will not do the job. Moreover, such tactics on such an important issue are not expected from the Prime Minister of Canada.

    Action on climate change requires conviction, passion, determination and a well-devised action plan. Canada can lead the way with an effective strategy that works at local, national and international levels and includes both adaptation to an already changing climate and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

    Climate change is the most pressing and momentous environmental issue facing the world. Action to confront it should not wait for the skeptics to come on board. We have an ethical and moral responsibility toward ourselves, the Earth, and our future generations to take action on climate change now before it critically compromises our ability to prosper on this planet.

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