What's the Evidence for Global Warming?

New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.” —John Locke

I follow a number of blogs on global warming and the climate crisis. It’s interesting how there are so many skeptics out there who simply dismiss the science. This is usually out of a lack of understanding—something I try to help minimize in my book. But much of it falls into the category of conspiracy theory rather than ignorance of the facts. Examples cited include such concepts as scientists misleading the public because there’s money to be had by bamboozling everyone on the issue. (This argument implies that there’s nothing to be gained by the naysayers, particularly those who support the coal and oil industries, by trying to maintain business-as-usual—other than the billions of dollars generated by continuing to use fossil fuels.) When I read these comments, as a physician, I can’t help but look back to a similar group of naysayers—the tobacco industry and its lobbyists—arguing once upon a time that cigarette tobacco didn’t cause cancer, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Conspiracy theories are exciting and intriguing, which is why there are so many of them out there. JFK’s assassination is much harder to accept if it was simply a solitary crazed gunman who did it. The tragedy we now refer to as 9/11 is easier for some to understand if there were government officials who knew it was going to happen ahead of time because, again, crazed killers who can so easily get away with such a tragedy seems unfathomable. Even the OJ trial jurors acknowledged that the evidence was clearly indicative that he committed the murders. That’s why the only plausible explanation to them was that the evidence against him had to have been planted.

An overwhelming majority of scientists acknowledge that global warming is real. These individuals went into their chosen professions because they wanted to know the truth. They didn’t do it for the money because, truth be told, there isn’t a lot of money in publishing such research. (Certainly nowhere near the amount of money available to executives in the industries connected to fossil fuels!) Here’s what today’s scientists working at the National Climatic Data Center, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have discovered:

  1. Global surface temperatures over both land and sea have been steadily increasing. Precise measurements taken over the last century have proven an increase in global temperature by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (almost one degree Celsius). The twenty hottest years on record have all occurred since 1981. The ten hottest on record have all occurred in the last twelve years.
  2. Sea levels are rising. Over the last century, the rate of rise of the oceans has been about 1.7 mm per year, and the rate has been increasing. In the last twenty years, the rate has been 3.5 mm per year, more than double what the average has been for the last hundred years. This isn’t hard to understand when you think of all the melting ice from Greenland, Antarctica, and all of the world’s glaciers that are adding to the oceans’ water content. And it’s not just more water added: warmer oceans also expand.
  3. The snow cover in northern hemispheres is decreasing. The amount of snow cover has steadily diminished over the last forty years.
  4. Glaciers are retreating. You would be hard-pressed to find a glacier on the planet that hasn’t been losing its mass of ice, let alone maintaining a steady state. Increasing global temperatures are the only reasonable way to explain this consistent finding.
  5. Climate extremes are increasing. A great measure of climate change is the increase in extreme weather phenomena, such as we have been observing. More hurricanes, floods and droughts are all easily explained by the climate crisis. Because of the maldistribution of water from these extreme phenomena, we don’t only observe increases in flooding in certain territories, but increased drought in other regions as well. A very dangerous corollary to this will be increased famine.

The reality of our plight is that greenhouse gas emissions have correlated far too closely with the increase in global temperatures to be mere coincidence. And although there are other factors that have played a part in climate change throughout our planet’s history—changes in the sun’s energy output and orbital forcings which are subtle changes in our planet’s orbit around the sun—none of them can adequately explain what has already been observed over the last few decades.

The simple truth is as follows: global warming is real; climate change is already happening; and human activities explain the bulk of this change because of increased greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s time that we take responsibility for what we’ve been doing for the last couple of hundred years, ever since the Industrial Revolution began. If we want to continue to live the quality of life to which we’ve become accustomed, then we’d better find alternate sources of energy to provide those creature comforts. Otherwise our comforts are going to be short-lived, and future generations are going to be left wondering, “What the heck were we thinking?”

Where Will We Be if Global Warming Continues?

We’re in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone’s arguing over where they’re going to sit.” —David Suzuki

Make no mistake: global warming is going to continue. It’s not so much a matter of if, but rather how quickly it’s going to happen, and just how bad it’s going to get. Dr. Nathan Gillett at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modeling and Analysis of Environment Canada has made projections for the next thousand years based on information about where we are at present, and the warming trends we’ve observed over the last few decades that are going to continue. Even if our global emissions dropped to zero tomorrow, according to Gillett, global temperatures are going to climb even further. I always use the analogy that greenhouse gases are like blankets we add when we’re trying to warm up on a cold winter’s night. Once we’re a little too warm, we can’t simply stop adding blankets—the equivalent of dropping our emissions to zero—we have to remove some blankets to get to a more comfortable temperature. So the real question is how much global warming is going to increase since we’re still adding blankets, and what are we going to do to minimize the damage?

There are so many detrimental effects our planet is going to face in the future, thanks to our combustion of fossil fuels, agriculture and livestock, and the emissions that result from those activities. Here are five of the most serious consequences we can anticipate facing:

  1. Coastal Flooding. Glaciers are melting all over the world and ice shelves are breaking off of the Antarctic continent. Both of these add content to the oceans, whether as water or ice. Just like adding either water or ice to a glass that’s half-full, the water level in the glass is going to rise. In addition, warmer global temperatures lead to an expanding ocean volume, because warmer water expands compared with colder water. Since two-thirds of our planet’s largest cities are coastal, this means a lot of people are going to be affected by this outcome. This isn’t the same as a seasonal flood that will clear away with time; this is a permanent rise in sea level. How easy will it be to live and work in New York City when it’s permanently under feet of water? This will be a slow and gradual change, but it will also be a permanent one.
  2. Extreme Weather. Warmer air masses can hold more moisture. That’s why we’ve been seeing more tornados, typhoons and hurricanes over the last few years. Hotter air is more dynamic, and with greater moisture to hold onto and eventually dump, all of these severe forms of weather are going to increase in frequency. And a corollary to this is an increase in severe snow storms as well. This one often seems a little counter-intuitive, and anytime there’s a severe snowstorm, many use it as evidence that global warming is a myth. But since warmer air masses can hold onto more moisture, and those air masses sometimes travel into colder latitudes, that moisture won’t always precipitate as rain but can also fall as snow. Also, if a cold air mass moves over an open body of water which hasn’t yet frozen due to global warming, more moisture will be picked up and dumped as snow elsewhere. Where I live—about an hour north of Toronto—I get to experience this every time a cold air mass moves from the north-west over Georgian Bay.
  3. Spread of Disease. A lot of infectious diseases are spread by vectors. Vectors are modes of transmission but they don’t actually get the disease they’re carrying. Malaria has the mosquito as its vector. Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever both have ticks spreading their disease. Many of these vectors live in climates that are best suited to them, but as global temperatures increase, their territories are going to expand. Over 250 million people are affected by malaria every year, and that number is going to climb with global warming.
  4. Ocean Acidification. One of the reasons the amount of carbon dioxide hasn’t climbed further than the current level of 392 parts per million is because Earth’s oceans—which account for almost three-quarters of our planet’s surface—are able to absorb much of it. The vast amount of water on our planet serves as a sink for much of the carbon dioxide we add, keeping it out to the atmosphere. However, that also comes at a substantial cost. Carbon dioxide dissolves in water and becomes carbonic acid, responsible for the fizz in all of our carbonated beverages. Adding an acid to our oceans is slowly changing its pH, a measure of acidity. This increase in acidity will affect species that form shells for their protection, such as shellfish and lobster, threatening them with possible extinction. An increase in ocean acidity is already affecting much of our planet’s coral reefs, bleaching them and killing the tiny organisms that make up their structure. This has even broader implications because so many animals are interdependent on coral reefs, with more than 4000 species using them to live and breed.
  5. Increased drought and famine. Although much of the impact from climate change and its effects on water is related to the increase in storms and coastal flooding described above, one thing a lot of people don’t realize is that there is an associated change in the distribution of water on the planet overall. Some areas get too much water, but some aren’t getting enough, leading to increased drought and the hardships of famine that go along with it. This maldistribution has been seen in the last few decades in both North America and Australia, where parts of those regions have greater rainfall per year while other parts have much less compared with fifty years ago. Fresh water will become a scarce commodity, likely more valuable than petroleum is today, with competition and possibly even war over this precious resource.

It isn’t too hard to realize that all of the above—coastal flooding, extreme weather, the spread of disease, the acidification of our oceans and increased drought and famine—are going to cost us dearly. And not just with the obvious increase in death and disease, but also the costs associated with recovering from every natural disaster we’re going to be facing, and the costs of trying to cope with these new realities. I can easily imagine wars over fresh water, just as there have been many wars in regions of the planet rich in other resources.

For this simple reason, we all have to do what we can to minimize our carbon footprint. Global warming is going to continue, but that doesn’t mean we should carry on with business-as-usual. We can fight this problem every step of the way, and do our best to prevent these predictions from reaching such dire levels. Please do your part to help.

Commitment to a Better World

A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” —Margaret Mead

Before I started to write the book Comprehending the Climate Crisis, I struggled with how I could best help tackle global warming and make a difference. I made sure I had educated myself by reading a number of articles and books on the topic and came to the conclusion that if most people could be exposed to the facts as I had been, they would also be convinced that this was an important issue worthy of action. They would want to take up arms and join in the fight like I wanted to.

Because of my career in cardiology, I’ve met a number of politicians over the years. Trying to accomplish smoking bans and having Automatic External Defibrillators placed in public buildings requires some measure of political action. This takes place at the municipal, provincial, and federal level, so I have had dealings with all three levels of government. Some of these politicians have even become personal friends. So when one member of parliament I know learned that I was interested in trying to make a difference in climate change, he helped arrange a meeting for me with the federal Minister of the Environment, the Hon. Jim Prentice at that time. Most meetings with cabinet ministers are very brief although they can still be fruitful. One ten-minute conversation with a Minister of the Environment prior to Mr. Prentice exposed me to Bullfrog Power. That discussion ultimately helped me and my family to make some important changes that led to us becoming carbon-neutral. But the meeting with Mr. Prentice was going to be different. Instead of hundreds of attendees with each having only a few minutes of chat, it was going to be limited to a dozen participants for cocktails followed by dinner. And it was going to take place in my own home!

This meeting changed my life. While most of those present were business folks, I was one of only two physicians. I told the cabinet minister that I thought the government had to start making efforts to educate the Canadian people about the issues better. Canada produces some of the dirtiest oil on the planet in the Alberta tar sands, and I suggested that the government needed to tell Canadians why we were doing that. I also urged him to consider a broad-based education campaign, similar to what had already been done for issues related to health and diet through Health Canada. At the end of the night I thanked him for his time, gave him my business card and told him that he could call on me if he ever thought I might be helpful to him, because I wanted to do my part to contribute.

The call came about a month later. I was invited to submit my CV for the Sustainable Development Advisory Council (SDAC). This was a panel of 26 participants from across the country who were going to provide policy advice to the Minister of the Environment. This information was then be submitted as a report to the House of Commons.

Ultimately, my participation didn’t achieve what I had originally hoped for because the advice we offered was related to process rather than content, and there wasn’t a particular forum within SDAC that allowed me to push for the education of the population that I felt was so desperately needed. But I got to connect to a lot of interesting people whose careers were related to the environment and who knew a lot more about the issues than I did. And I learned a lot about sustainable development.

Ultimately, SDAC gave me a number of useful contacts which I still maintain to this day. In fact, it ultimately led to my decision to write Comprehending the Climate Crisis and take this issue head-on myself. My book is by no means a government publication, but I wrote it with the intent of being impartial, factual, and dedicated to teaching average citizens so they would become motivated and would want to make a difference themselves.

I learned a few valuable lessons from my time on SDAC, and I think they can apply to most people who wish to tackle big issues and make a difference:

  1. If you offer your services and talents in a sincere manner to people who can effect change and influence outcomes, they may be able to help you down the line.
  2. Even if the path you are taking doesn’t immediately accomplish your goals, it can often be steered in that direction if you take charge of your own destiny.
  3. Time spent participating in areas you are passionate about, where you want to contribute and make a difference, is never wasted. You will always gain something from it that can help you later.

I think we should all ask ourselves how we’d like to change the world and make it better, particularly in ways that don’t benefit us personally in a true spirit of altruism. Then we need to figure out how we can apply the talents we have to making that difference. And we have to be patient; despite having zeal and enthusiasm, the wheels of change turn even slower than the wheels of bureaucracy, I’ve learned!

Take the time to figure out how you can best tackle the problems you care about with your particular talents, and make sure you ultimately leave this world having made a difference.

How Being a Cardiologist Helps Me Explain the Climate Crisis

When people learn that I’ve written a book on global warming, usually the first question I get is “Why would a cardiologist do that?” There are a number of factors that play a part in the answer, but I’ll outline the three most important.

Skills in explaining difficult topics in simple terms
There are a number of complicated diseases in cardiology that require skill to explain to the general public. For example, patients often wonder why heart attacks come out of the blue when these people seemed completely healthy just before the heart attack occurred. (As in, “I can’t believe it, I just had lunch with him yesterday and he was fine.”) If I told them the reason is due to the rupture of an unstable atherosclerotic plaque that was likely less than 50% stenosed, most people would look at me like I’m speaking another language—which in one sense of the word I suppose I am. But if instead I use an analogy and describe an atherosclerotic plaque as being similar to a big mound of porridge in an artery wall that’s only held in place by a thin layer of Saran Wrap capable of breaking at any moment, they understand..

StethoscopeUsing analogies like that in my practice every time I explain a diagnosis or the pathology associated with it, I’ve realized that I’m pretty good at explaining some complex issues in terms that are simple enough to understand, but don’t lose the essence of what needs to be understood. Applying those skills to something outside of cardiology is easy for me as well, as long as I understand the topic I’m trying to explain. That brings me to my next point…

Broad understanding of the science involved
A career in cardiology, as well as most branches of medicine, requires a good comprehension of science in general. On a daily basis, I need to understand physics, chemistry, biology, pharmacology, pathology, anatomy and physiology. And that’s just in my career. I love all science so in my spare time I’m frequently reading about astronomy, cosmology, evolution, geology, and environmental studies.

To understand climate change and global warming requires a broad understanding of a variety of branches of science. Since I already have a good grasp of many of those areas and am a science geek learning about even other branches, it hasn’t been too difficult for me to grasp the essence of everything surrounding climate change. Still, why would I pursue any of these efforts in the first place? That brings me to…

The goal of promoting healthy living
I’ve said it before—and if you follow this blog regularly you’ll get this from me again—but physicians have a duty to care for the public; not just those who step foot in our offices. Dedicating some of my time into educating the public about the threat of climate change and global warming is not much different than a physician trying to educate the public about the importance of smoking bans, or the need for cyclists to wear helmets. One little difference here is that most of the lives I’m hoping to benefit are going to be from future generations. But make no mistake, the biggest threats from climate change will be to health with substantial increases in death and disease. If it’s not from flooding in one region, it’s from drought in another. If it’s not from more severe hurricanes and tornadoes in the summer, it’s more severe snow storms in the winter. The people who will be most susceptible to the increase in heat and humidity we’ll be seeing are those with heart and lung problems—the very patients I see in my office.

To me, it’s always been clear why I would try to educate the public about climate change and global warming, but since people ask, now you know!