University of British Columbia professor Tom Pedersen gave a lecture to a small crowd at the Atrium March 2. He had just finished an interview with CBC radio on the controversies surrounding climate change and was well prepared with a presentation that hit all the right points. Global-warming deniers didn’t stand a chance.
He focused on how humans affect climate, as well as the political, social and economic consequences of climate change.
The sheer damage humans have done in the past 50 years is astonishing when put into perspective, as Pedersen did in his slide show.
“Mother nature has never changed the composition of the atmosphere like humans,” Pedersen remarked, as he put up a slide showing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. From 1960 to 2010, the levels increased from 320 parts per million to 390 ppm. Essentially, this means that the products we use, including gas, aerosols and coal, are inhibiting the earth’s ability to cool itself.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. According to Pedersen, scientists predicted the impact of CO2 in the atmosphere as early as the 1820s. Since the early 19th century, scientists have known that the atmosphere allows the Earth to retain heat and that carbon dioxide absorbs this heat. Pair those factors with humans producing excess carbon dioxide, the Earth experiences the greenhouse effect.
The last two decades have done more damage than any other period.
“The year 2010 was the warmest year since thermometers were invented,” said Pedersen. “Nineteen countries set new records.”
Not only that, but it has been the wettest year globally — and not in a good way. There is four per cent more water in the atmosphere, resulting in what Pedersen calls “episodic deluges.” Taking Pakistan as an extreme example, about 20 per cent of the country was underwater by the end of September due to deluges.
Pedersen also noted the alpine glaciers, which are retreating around the world at an alarming rate. In British Columbia, 11 per cent of the “surface area of ice” had depleted in just 20 years. In Alberta, a quarter of the ice had evaporated in that time.
“We are, as a human species, having an impact that is rapid and severe,” he said. Pedersen also acknowledged that because of the melting ice around the world, sea levels are expected to increase anywhere from 59 mm to 100 mm in the next 50 years. This will affect most of the world’s population, as most people live at or near sea-level.
The melting ice in the arctic could have the most dangerous effect of all. Glaciers that once inhibited people from crossing the Arctic Ocean by boat are disappearing. These bodies of ice act as mirrors for sunlight and heat, and as they disappear, so does the Earth’s ability to stay cool. These bodies of ice have deteriorated so much in the past five years that a sailboat can now cross the North-West passage in the Arctic Ocean.
In order to combat these trends, Pedersen suggested that the rest of Canada follow B.C.’s example of carbon-taxing. The basic idea is that the tax will increase by about five per cent a year, causing people to make gradual lifestyle changes, by actions like buying fuel efficient or electric cars. The money collected can be reinvested through infrastructure or lowering other taxes.
Pedersen also mentioned the use of ethanol-based fuels as opposed to fossil fuels. However, the corn used to make ethanol requires more water and fertilizers. This run-off is causing dead zones which deplete bodies of water of their oxygen.
This is exactly what happened in 2007 in the U.S. when the Bush Administration created the Energy Independence and Security Act. As a result, an extra 57 billion litres of water are being used every year to grow corn. Worse, the runoff pollutes the Gulf of Mexico with pesticides and harmful chemicals.
One of the most shocking facts that Pedersen displayed in his presentation was the way which grids supply energy in North America. No two provinces in Canada share their produced energy with each other. Instead, power lines run from each individual province to south of the border.
Pedersen believes that if provinces worked together, they could supply Canadians with green energy 100 per cent of the time. Currently, in Alberta 90 per cent of generated energy is produced from coal; in Saskatchewan 60 per cent of generated energy is from coal. Pedersen suggested that if British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba created a power grid based on hydroelectricity and wind power, there would be no need for coal energy.
“We are hardly scratching the surface” of potential wind power, said Pedersen. Wind blows about one third of the time, but when combined with potential hydropower, there would be no energy shortages whatsoever in Saskatchewan.
Pedersen told the audience that “political will and carbon tax” will make this carbon friendly vision a reality. His presentation made it quite clear that there is no other option; as humans we are responsible for the outcome of this planet, whether that outcome is negative or positive.