Climate change confusion and what we can do about it

Memorial University climatologist Joel Finnis answers questions from The Independent about climate change denial, how the future looks for both Newfoundland and Labrador in a warming world, fossil fuel divestment, and whether or not “ethical” oil development is possible.

2015 is supposed to be the year world takes action on climate change, a problem so big that indeed global cooperation is the only thing that can adequately address it. In December world leaders will meet in Paris, France for the annual Conference of Parties (COP) climate summit, which, given the urgency of the situation, needs to render an adequate, binding strategy to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere recently reached 400 parts per million and is projected to continue rising according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — a trend and concentration that will make sustaining the current human population and much life on the planet difficult or impossible. Increasingly, people around the world are becoming aware of the urgency of the situation and are taking direct action as a result of governments’ failures to address the climate crisis.

In April Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Paul Davis met with other provincial and territorial leaders in Quebec City to discuss potential plans for provinces and territories to take action on climate change since the federal government under Stephen Harper is not. Outside in the streets of the Quebec capital, upward of 25,000 people marched and demanded climate justice.

Little came from the talks though. Davis told The Independent that while the government has specific goals for GHG emission reductions, and while it acknowledges global warming is already posing significant challenges to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and will cost the province increasingly to mitigate as climate change is exacerbated, the province has a duty to continue extracting and supplying fossil fuels.

Moreover, the province and Memorial University are actively positioning themselves to be leaders in the Arctic Oil Frontier, despite the fact scientists are warning opening up the Arctic to oil drilling would mean game over for the climate.

Warming and acidifying ocean waters due to climate change also pose a significant threat to local fisheries and are already affecting shrimp populations and, subsequently, jobs in the fishery.

In 2013 Memorial University climatologist Joel Finnis wrote a research-based report for the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, in which he projects heavy precipitation events will intensify—most significantly on the Island—while Labrador will continue warming rapidly.

In light of the recent climate change denial spectacle instigated by the head of this province’s Public Utilities Board, Andy Wells, and given the provincial media’s limited coverage of the world’s—including Newfoundland and Labrador—most pressing issue, The Independent put some relevant questions to Dr. Finnis via email. Here are his responses…

Q&A with MUN climatologist Joel Finnis

On Andy Wells and climate change denial…

JUSTIN BRAKE: The Telegram recently published a letter to the editor from Andy Wells that was laden with false claims about climate science, including the outright denial that anthropogenic climate change exists. Can you address some of the claims Wells made in that letter? Should Andy Wells, or any person who denies the existence of anthropogenic climate change, be the Chair and CEO of our province’s Public Utilities Board, given the board’s mandate?

JOEL FINNIS: I think Dr. [Michael] Mann did an excellent job addressing Mr. Wells’ climate claims as a whole; and it’s fairly easy to find detailed responses to the rest on scientist-run climate websites like Real Climate or Skeptical Science. But it’s worth repeating that Mann’s ‘Hockey Stick’ has been corroborated with new evidence and deeper analysis. Similarly, the idea that global warming stopped in 1998 simply doesn’t stand up to available evidence; as a decade, 2000-2009 was much warmer than any decade in the prior century, and observations since 2010 show we’re on track to break new records this decade. What Wells and similar skeptics call a ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’ is really just a reduction in the rate of warming — but that warming does continue. This highlights the fact that many open questions surround climate change, it’s manifestation, and it’s future impacts; however, the evidence we have available overwhelmingly points to a warming planet, with the only viable scientific explanation tied to human activity. It’s this evidence that has convinced the large majority of scientists that this is a human problem, and at this point it will take some extremely compelling evidence to shift this consensus.

In order for Andy Wells to hold a skeptical position on climate change, he must be willing to ignore this wealth of evidence and the collective expertise of the climate science community. I’d find this worrying in any public servant; I don’t expect civil servants to be experts in everything themselves, but I do expect them to effectively weigh expertise and evidence. It would be one thing if Mr. Wells acknowledged climate change is a concern, but was arguing that the costs of action are too high, or that ‘further study’ is needed before we act. I’d strongly disagree, but would at least feel that decisions were being made somewhat rationally. As it stands, I’m concerned with his approach to decision-making in any context; I just can’t understand the making decisions in the absence of evidence.

JUSTIN BRAKE: Climate change denial is fairly prevalent though. Only a few years ago I took a course at Memorial University in which a geologist taught us about the “deep time” geological history of the Earth, and that climate change occurs naturally and in cycles. We were told humans are having no significant impact on climate change. This was, and maybe still is, being taught at the same university where you teach. And a lot of people I’ve spoken with both in and outside the academic community hold this view — that climate change occurs naturally and so there’s little or nothing we can do. Does it concern you that university students may still be graduating with the understanding that anthropogenic climate change either does not exist or is not a significant problem? How can post-secondary institutions more adequately address the urgency of climate change?

JOEL FINNIS: This idea is relatively common in certain areas, and I can see its appeal; compared to something like an ice age, humans and our impact can feel fairly insignificant. And it’s true that the climate system experiences many natural cycles, ranging from short-term things like El Nino events straight through cycles of glaciation. But the existence of natural cycles doesn’t mean humans can’t influence climate, and people who make these ‘deep time’ arguments underestimate the impact human industry has had; we are rapidly undoing a life-driven change in climate and atmospheric composition.

 I’m less concerned that students might be leaving MUN without a clear understanding of climate change, and more concerned that they might leave without the critical thinking skills necessary to address false claims by skeptics. — Dr. Joel Finnis

Before the appearance of life on Earth, the atmosphere was much richer in carbon dioxide; gradually, photosynthesis has sequestered this greenhouse gas in fossil fuels. The ice ages that are a piece of our relatively recent geological history are partly a consequence of this change. But there is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there was prior to the current period of glacial cycles; we’ve pushed the atmosphere back to a state it hasn’t seen in at least 3 million years – and perhaps not for 15 million. We’ve made this change in roughly 150 years. It’s realizations like this that have led to the definition of a new geological epoch, dominated by human influence — the ‘anthropocene’. Our species is now effectively a geological force.

I’m less concerned that students might be leaving MUN without a clear understanding of climate change, and more concerned that they might leave without the critical thinking skills necessary to address false claims by skeptics. As university educators, we’re doing our job properly when our students can take this sort of claim, weigh input from various sources, and properly evaluate it’s credibility; and I’d like to think our graduates can weigh the unpublished opinion of one geology professor against the consensus of the climate research community.

On climate change and the media…

JUSTIN BRAKE: Ninety-seven per cent of the world’s climate scientists agree humans are very likely the cause of current global warming, which poses unprecedented challenges for us in our communities and more broadly as the species that’s not only causing the problem, but also holds the solutions. Many media critics argue the mainstream and corporate media are complicit in downplaying the urgency of the climate crisis, of facilitating the widespread underappreciation of climate change. They say climate change should be regularly the top story in the news, on the front page of the papers, and at the forefront of our collective consciousness. But it’s not. What are your thoughts on how well the media is handling communicating the climate science, and the importance of it, to the masses? And how could the newsmedia do a better job of covering climate change?

JOEL FINNIS: I understand it’s a difficult topic to cover, given that the impact of climate change is so gradual that serious impacts won’t be felt for some time. When we discuss climate change in these terms, there’s not enough urgency to be of interest to the press. So sometimes we see environmental advocates, scientists, or the media draw connections between specific events or catastrophes and climate change — often with very limited evidence, and in ways that leave the discussion open to easy criticism from skeptics. You see some of this in Andy Wells’ letter, where he states that extreme storms haven’t become more frequent globally — which isn’t one of the IPCC’s confident expectations for a warmer planet, but is something media treatments linking hurricanes like Katrina, Sandy, or Igor lead the public to expect.

 Another problem is the media’s approach to balanced reporting, in which opposing positions on controversial issues are given equal space in news pieces.  — Dr. Joel Finnis

I wish I knew how to address our inability to consider and address long-term problems in media and political circles, but unfortunately it remains difficult to compete for attention with short-term shocks (whether environmental, economic, etc.) — so I’m sure we’ll continue to see these tenuous connections being made.

Another problem is the media’s approach to balanced reporting, in which opposing positions on controversial issues are given equal space in news pieces. The problem here is that the vast majority of climatologists involved in active climate research are presented as roughly equal to the small minority of climate scientists taking a skeptical position — or, more often, to scientists in other fields (geology, etc.) who have never published on the subject. With Andy Wells and Michael Mann in The Telegram, we have a politician contrasted against a scientist — but their points are given roughly the same space in the paper. It gives the false impression that there’s a raging scientific debate over this issue, when in reality there’s no compelling research being published that contradicts the climate consensus, because the evidence just isn’t there. Many media outlets are starting to realize this, and are reducing their point/counterpoint treatments of climate science; but as the recent Telegram exchange shows, it still occurs.

On how climate change is impacting Newfoundland and Labrador…

JUSTIN BRAKE: In 2013 the provincial government published a report they commissioned you to do for them. In it you pointed out that climate change will affect the Newfoundland and Labrador portions of the province differently, and that on the Island we’re going to see heavier precipitation events, while Labrador will continue warming more than other regions. Can you talk about the significance of these predictions/projections, and what questions, priorities and/or actions they should prompt us to be thinking about within the province?

(Read Finnis’ full report, “Projected Impacts of Climate Change for the Province of Newfoundland & Labrador”:

JOEL FINNIS: That project was a direct result of the province realizing that a lot of our climatological data is already out of date, despite having been collected just prior to 2001. They wanted to update this data to inform planning activities, but also factor in changes expected as a result of ongoing climate change. The idea was to give municipalities and concerned citizens a better sense of how much warmer and wetter we could be by 2050. And the provincial government is doing an excellent job of promoting the results; they’re actively encouraging stakeholders and planners to incorporate some climate change consideration into their long-term thinking. The report that was submitted is freely available, and was intended to be broad enough to assist everyone in the province vulnerable to climate impacts.

 [T]he province as a whole should be aware that heavy precipitation events are very likely to become more intense as the planet warms…  — Dr. Joel Finnis

For me, the main take-home is that the province as a whole should be aware that heavy precipitation events are very likely to become more intense as the planet warms; for example, our ‘100 year storm’, or a precipitation event so large and rare that it is exceeded roughly once a century, could recur twice as often. This has implications for flood planning, the design of drainage systems, etc. In many cases, accommodating this shift requires relatively little additional investment, but those changes reduce costs associated with these extreme events when they arrive.

The other big concern is the projected winter warming in Labrador. We’ve had a few unusually warm winters recently (2009/10 and 2010/11), during which a lack of sea ice and snow cover caused transportation issues along the Labrador coast — in places that rely on both for snowmobile travel between communities, to hunting grounds, and to wood lots. These events highlighted the impact that ongoing warming can have for people adapted to reliably cold conditions. It also serves as a reminder that warming can cause problems, even in cool places like our province — something to remember next time a snow storm or fog-chilled May weekend gets us thinking that we might enjoy a little global warming. A warming planet comes at a human cost, and we don’t need to look outside of the province to find its impacts.

On fossil fuels and divestment…

JUSTIN BRAKE: There is a fossil fuel divestment movement afoot at MUN, a university that has strong ties to the oil industry. As a climatologist at this university, what are your thoughts about the effort of students and faculty to pressure MUN to divest from the fossil fuel industry?

JOEL FINNIS: I’d be happy to see this happen; I avoid extraction-based industries in my personal investments, and am completely willing to choose sustainability over rapid growth. The recent volatility in oil prices has made me even more confident that this is a good choice; it suggests high returns on oil investments may be slowing down. More importantly, I’m very pleased to see MUN students take a strong stand and rally around this issue; it highlights their commitment to improving the state of the environment, and fosters confidence that the people of this province are willing to work to address big environmental issues.

JUSTIN BRAKE: The provincial government and the university are working closely together to facilitate the continued development of the oil and gas industry, and both have said they are working to make Newfoundland and Labrador an important player in the Arctic oil frontier. Last month, following the Quebec climate summit, Premier Paul Davis told me that while he and the government acknowledge the problems climate change will cause, and is already causing, locally, their plan is to forge full steam ahead in developing our offshore oil reserves. The argument was that as long as there is a demand for oil, Newfoundland and Labrador should be exploiting that demand for economic benefit. Considering what the IPCC is telling us — that most known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground to remain under 2 degrees warming above pre-Industrial temperatures — and considering the reality that we can’t just stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow, that we have to transition to a low-carbon economy — how can we determine whether or not continued fossil fuel development in our province is ethical? What questions should we be asking in pursuit of an answer to this?

JOEL FINNIS: This kind of question is well outside my area of professional expertise, but on a personal level I find our heavy reliance on oil income pretty worrying.

The Canadian economy is, in my mind, already excessively tied to oil, and we’ve seen the budgeting problems this presents both federally and provincially in the past year. The idea that we should exploit oil if there’s demand is also unsatisfying; it’s true that as a species we can’t just stop using oil tomorrow, and this oil has to come from somewhere. But I’d prefer to collect the resource in the most ethical manner possible, with the least environmental impact, in regions without human rights concerns.

If we can argue that our oil reserves are a strong ethical option, then we should make that the crux of our argument — not simply that we need to feed our provincial economy. I have neither the engineering nor social science expertise to make the case that Newfoundland oil is highly ethical, but I’d love to see this kind of analysis done.

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