The calamities of climate change

The calamities of climate change McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 22, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 13
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > March 22, 2001 > The calamities of climate change

The calamities of climate change

It may be difficult for some Montrealers to get concerned about global warming, having endured a tough, prolonged winter. However, the issue is serious enough that a few hundred people showed up to hear climate change expert Robert Watson earlier this month. His predictions were nothing short of dire.

"We're clearly taking the world into a temperature regime that it has never seen in thousands, and perhaps millions, of years," said Watson. He added that Canada will be among the countries hardest hit, with an average temperature increase of four to eight degrees in the following decades.

Watson is the chief scientist at the Washington-based World Bank, an institution that hasn't been lauded in the past for its commitment to green causes. That the bank is starting to study climate change is a positive sign that the problem is being taken seriously at the highest levels, according to Watson.

"Without action, the earth's climate will change, and that will have adverse effects on society," he said.

The British-born scientist presented his audience with a slew of graphs, charts and diagrams along with a rapid patter of facts on greenhouse gas emissions, population studies and statistics. Many of these came from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that Watson chairs.

Though he believes that under the right circumstances we can manage global climate change, it is far too late to close the Pandora's box we have opened.

"If we stopped carbon emissions now, it would take 500 years for the atmosphere to recover to pre-industrial levels," he said.

Solutions to the problem that are regularly bandied about in the media are limited. Improved efficiency will only take us so far, he said. Even natural climate controllers, such as forests that soak up excess carbon in the atmosphere, will eventually become another problem.

"Forests currently used as carbon 'sinks' will become carbon sources," he said. "Increased temperatures lead to increased respiration and increased decomposition [both of which produce carbon]."

Canada will come out ahead with a warmer climate if the change is managed properly, according to Watson. Our farmers will have a longer growing season, and our forests will have better conditions and more fresh water. At the same time, we will have more forest fires, more floods, and more and different pests preying on our crops.

Those parts of the world that are already sensitive to climate change will fare worse. Large parts of Africa and Asia will experience more droughts, as well as more floods. Already famished regions will produce even less food.

"The developing world is more climate sensitive, and it has less capacity to adapt," said Watson, pointing out that these countries lack the resources to manage the kinds of change he predicts.

Even the United States will be hard pressed to cope. Climate change will lead to rising ocean levels that will have far-reaching effects on the coastal populations and ecology of our southern neighbour.

"You can protect the cities with sea walls. You can't protect the wetlands," said Watson as he showed a map indicating that the entire southern tip of Florida would be submerged in less than a century.

Still, Watson sees some positive signs. He pointed to the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions as an important first step. He points out that technological progress -- such as new hybrid electric-combustion cars -- has occurred faster in the last five years than anyone had predicted.

But Watson added we have a long way to go on other issues. Too many countries still subsidize polluting technologies, for instance.

"If we subsidize coal then clean sources of energy can't penetrate the market. There's a price distortion," he said.

Change to the earth's ecosystems is unavoidable according to Watson, even if the developed world were to stop its emissions entirely; as the developing world increases its industrial and economic capacity the resultant total carbon released in the atmosphere is more than sufficient to increase climate change.

"We have to work together on this problem," said Watson.

"Each nation will have to learn to control their own over-consumption."

Watson's lecture was sponsored by the McGill School of Environment and the McGill Centre for Climate and Global Change Research.

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