The Many Misconceptions Regarding Climate Change

The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” ~Sydney J. Harris

Wow, it’s disheartening to see how many people truly don’t understand climate change but still post comments on various websites. My last blog addressed the cover story in last week’s Maclean’s magazine, Canada’s national newsmagazine. The article, entitled “The Canadian WInter the Never Was” addressed the fact that this past winter was Canada’s warmest and driest in the last 65 years, suggesting global warming may well be real.

Not surprisingly, many responses to the article were posted online including some to an poll regarding what readers thought about the article and the facts behind it. It was amazing how many people think they understand the facts but don’t. I felt the need to clear up some of the most blatant errors and thought it might be useful to to address the more common mistakes here. Hopefully I can clarify some information for those who don’t believe the changes our planet is experiencing are related to human activities, or who simply don’t understand the facts:

1. Global warming is global, not regional; you can’t look to some warmer region here as proof of global warming in the same way you can’t look to some colder region there and claim it as evidence against. It’s the global temperature that’s increasing on average, so never mind what’s happening in someone’s backyard, because that just does’t matter. The Maclean’s article was interesting and provocative because it reflected changes seen across the country, not simply one little corner of it. Indeed, northern latitudes are predicted to be most susceptible to climate change. This fits with the observation that Canada’s average temperature has increased more than the global average. But a cold winter next year won’t be proof that global warming isn’t real. What one city, one province or state, one country or even one continent experiences doesn’t count as proof. It’s what the whole planet is experiencing.

2. Orbital tilt as some describe it—more properly referred to as orbital “forcings” which aren’t only “tilt” or axis, but also changes in obliquity and precession that our planet experiences—don’t explain what we’re observing either. They help explain previous ice ages; i.e. changes that took thousands of years to occur, but not those that take only a few decades, such as what we’re observing now.

3. The sun hasn’t been more active lately and can’t explain what we’re observing. In fact, the last sunspot cycle was the lowest in the last 200 years, reaching the lowest point in 2008-9 which has been described as a “deep solar minimum.” This is one of the reasons global warming has received more attention in the last 15 years—less solar output yet hotter temperatures than usual in spite of it. If the last sunspot cycle had been average or—I shudder to think—more active than usual, we’d be in much deeper trouble than we are at present. This recent solar minimum helps explain why temperatures were rather stable over the last decade rather than continuing to climb, something deniers and skeptics often refer to as evidence that climate models are wrong or that global warming isn’t real.

4. Carbon dioxide levels are only one thing that contributes to global temperature change. Other factors include:
a) Orbital forcings as described above, but these take millennia to manifest, not decades.
b) Increased particulate matter in the atmosphere such as volcanic activity which helps screen out the sun’s rays and cool the planet ( a cool 1991 after Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption in the Philiipines is a good example).
c) The higher the greenhouse gas levels, the higher the temperature because these effectively insulate the planet.
d) And the El-Nino Southern Oscillation plays a part although that’s still more regional than global.

The only observation that adequately explains a change in such a short time span as we’ve observed is the increase in greenhouse gas emissions from human activities such as combustion of fossil fuels, deforestation, and increasing agriculture. That’s why 98% of the world’s climate scientists say that the culprit is us.

It seems unfathomable to me that some can’t believe 7 billion people spewing 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year isn’t going to cause a problem. Physics tells us these greenhouse gas molecules will absorb infrared radiation and trap heat. This is science people, not opinion.

Clearly we need to educate people better, but as long as there are those with loud voices who have a vested interest in sticking with business-as-usual, we’re not likely to change enough people’s minds. Daniel Patrick Moynihan stated it very eloquently: “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

I’ve done my best to help by writing a book on the subject with the goal of explaining the facts so that those with an open mind can learn the truth for themselves. Now if we can only find more people with open minds…

Where Did Canada's Winter Go?

This week, the cover story in Maclean’s magazine, Canada’s national news magazine is entitled “The Canadian Winter that Never Was.” Written by Cathy Gulli with Gabriela Perdomo, it’s a good review of some interesting statistics and how global warming will impact on Canada’s climate, even its very identity. For example, this past winter Canada experienced temperatures 3.6 degree Celsius higher than average, and 18 per cent less precipitation. It turns out this winter was the third warmest and second driest in 65 years, with the combination of higher temperatures and decreased precipitation particularly telling. Of course, the trend toward higher temperatures has been noted for decades and is one of the many pieces of evidence to support global warming but the lack of precipitation on top of it is even more of a concern. As much as skeptics and deniers would like to look to other reasons for these findings, there are no other plausible explanations for it—no increase in solar irradiance, no change in Earth’s orbit around the sun, and no decrease in atmospheric particles. Human activities are doing it with combustion of fossil fuels, deforestation and agriculture all contributing to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Thirty billion tons of carbon dioxide alone are being added to our atmosphere each year.

Increasing attention is being given to this issue as each month goes by and I for one welcome it. I care enough about this topic to have written a book about it, Comprehending the Climate Crisis, trying to ensure people are educated on the facts so that they will care too. Any article, especially a cover story in a magazine with a large circulation such as Maclean’s helps bring this information to light.

But the most important aspect to focus on here is the trend over time and not one particularly warm and dry winter. Isolated occurrences can be used by those on both sides of this issue: a harsh snowstorm is “proof” to the deniers that global warming is a myth, just as a warmer and drier winter might be considered proof to some of those on the side which believes the majority of scientists are right. The trend, however, is the better indicator of what the science predicts: that steadily increasing greenhouse gas emissions from various human activities over many decades are the main culprit in the observed trend of global warming.

Canada is being affected more by than the global average as northern latitudes are more susceptible to these climate changes. Milder winters may be nice for the hardy Canadians who don’t care to ski, and a better northwest passage may be economically beneficial. But we must never fail to see the bigger picture: that in years to come, future generations all over the world are going to suffer terribly because of this problem. Coastal flooding, more extreme weather such as hurricanes and droughts, extension of vectors causing diseases like malaria; all of these are going to be realities for our children and grandchildren to cope with.

I’m a proud Canadian, but I can see past the potential effects climate change will have on our national identity. What’s most important at this point is to consider ourselves citizens of planet Earth, and realize the much worse devastation our global home will face, and not just in our own backyard.


Who to Believe: Ancient Religious Texts or Today's Scientists?

A new book by the Republican senator from Oklahoma James Inhofe is entitled “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.” Its basic premise is a common one heard today from some of the more extreme climate change deniers and skeptics: that God and the Bible tell us we’re safe and sound doing business-as-usual without fear of harming the planet or its climate. A frequently asked question is: how can we as a species affect the climate of an entire planet? (Never mind that more than 7 billion people are spewing over 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide—a known greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere every year. As Inhofe points out by quoting his not-so-scientific source Genesis 8:22, “as long as the earth remains there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.” All the proof we need that God will look after us, no matter what we do to the planet.

This kind of thinking is always scary to someone like me. And when I say “someone like me,” I mean someone who believes in science and facts. It’s tough to take. I had a religious upbringing and I understand why many who are raised that way remain devout to the principles that religion teaches. (Believing in the principles is generally more reasonable, however, than believing in the facts from these ancient texts, I would argue.) But it’s difficult when people hold so tightly to small snippets of a book written thousands of years ago by people who had no understanding of science, and continue to ignore the contradictory facts we’ve learned since those words were written. The Bible has been proven wrong many times already: the sun doesn’t orbit the Earth, our planet has existed for almost 5 billion years not 5 thousand, and our species exists thanks to evolution, not a magical being that snapped his fingers and said “abra cadabra.”

One huge problem with taking such small quotes from the BIble and holding onto them literally is that it ignores its many other quotes that are clearly misplaced in today’s society. If we’re going to accept Genesis 8:22 as proof that God will look after the climate for us, then what about selling our daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7), owning slaves of our own as long as they come from neighbouring countries (Leviticus 25:44), or the fact that we’re supposed to put people to death who work on the Sabbath Day (Exodus 35:2)? People like James Inhofe who hold onto the small portions of the BIble that serve their personal agendas have to address the larger portions that are so much more clearly outdated as well.

I  have a difficult time understanding people like James Inhofe, or Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum who is equally as trusting in these ancient stories instead of what the brightest scientists have been telling us about the laws of nature. They claim that the liberal left—those who argue that we have to do what we can to fight against climate change—have their own hidden agenda and are misleading everyone. It seems especially hypocritical when Inhofe received over 1.3 million dollars in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry. Seems like a perfect example of symbiosis: one group gets political support to make billions of dollars, and the other gets money to use toward their political agendas. Truly, neither group has to believe in any part of the Bible to achieve what they want, but if it’s a convenient means to an end, then hey, why not?

For those who believe in religion and the Bible, I would like to point out that even if God created the heavens and the earth, that doesn’t mean the men who tried to document the story thousands of years ago got it all correct. And belief in a God doesn’t mean that God will look after us if we’re stupid and foolish. The best set of rules a God could come up with are the laws of science. If we ignore them, I truly believe that any Supreme Being watching from above will let us destroy ourselves rather than intervene. He’s proven too many times in the past that intervention isn’t His style when it comes to human nature. It’s up to us and no one else.

The End of Outdoor Hockey in Canada?

People have their own particular reasons why they think global warming is bad. Some are altruistic and others are more personal. Whatever reasons speak to individuals, if it motivates them to make a difference in reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions, then those reasons are definitely worthwhile.

In Canada, we’re dealing with a real dilemma. In Alberta, we’re sitting on the world’s largest source of bitumen, a tarry type of coal that’s not quite as efficient as anthracite because it isn’t quite as pure in carbon. But with a lot of processing, it can be refined and used for petroleum. Since the world is so heavily addicted to oil—indeed, it’s the backbone of the global economy and the entire world depends on it at present—then the energy required to make it marketable is still deemed economically worthwhile.

Of course, the dilemma is that at present, this type of fossil fuel is considered the dirtiest on the planet. Much dirtier than oil from the Middle East, or even from offshore drilling sources. The devastation to the environment, and the amount of carbon dioxide generated per barrel of oil, is hard to ignore.

The consequences of global warming are well known, and you don’t have to look hard to find descriptions of what we can expect in the generations to come: melting ice caps, coastal flooding, acidification of the oceans, an increase in extreme weather, expansion of disease vectors, and the list goes on. In my book Comprehending the Climate Crisis, Chapter 5 is dedicated to outlining what the world can anticipate if we continue on with business-as-usual.

But a new study from professors at McGill and Concordia Universities has pointed out a new devastating consequence of global warming that has heretofore received little attention: the end of outdoor hockey as we know it. Americans may not think about it much because their hockey is typically played in large indoor stadiums, often in cities with outdoor temperatures that would never allow a game played on ice. But in Canada, hockey is traditionally an outdoor sport. It’s part of our culture. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Canadian hockey star in the NHL who didn’t grow up playing outdoor hockey.

The study looked at outdoor rink seasons over the last 50 years and demonstrated that they are generally opening anywhere from one to three weeks later in the season than they did a half century ago. Regions of the country that have been most affected by climate change are the prairies, parts of British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. In fact, winter temperatures in Canada have increased by 2.5 degrees Celsius since 1950, three times the global average during the same time period.

Granted, I think that most of the consequences arising from global warming are more significant to the planet than Canadians losing an aspect of their national pastime—they can also move to playing exclusively inside indoor stadiums like the Americans do—but this particular aspect of the climate crisis may speak a little more to Canadians than some of the others.

Not every Canadian cares about the environmental destruction from the oil sands in Alberta, but hurt the chances of kids playing hockey in the neighbourhood rink and maybe it will become personal enough for some to sit up and take notice.

It’s well known in Canada that our Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a huge hockey fan. In fact, he’s been writing a book on the subject. Of course, it’s also his responsibility to do right for the country economically, especially on the heels of a global recession. Developing Alberta’s oil sands has generally followed the philosophy of doing what’s right for the economy of today rather than the environment of tomorrow. I wonder if this new study will lead some Canadians—perhaps even the Prime Minister himself—to give that attitude a second thought.

Sustainable Healthcare Real Estate: Welcome to the 21st Century

When I encourage people to try to make adjustments in life to live greener—something that benefits the planet by leading to less greenhouse gas emissions—there are a few different responses I get. There’s the response from the skeptics: “No need, business-as-usual is totally safe and fine, and economically the best option.” Then there’s the response from those who believe in the problem, but can’t bring themselves to make the changes: “What difference can I make? Do I really need to make huge changes when the rest of the planet isn’t doing their fair share?”

The further up the business ladder you move, the harder it seems to make the greener choices. Individuals have it easiest, families a little tougher, then buildings and businesses. The toughest it seems are the multinational corporations and governments, because they have so many stake-holders to keep happy, many of whom care much more about the economy of today rather than the environment of tomorrow.

That’s why I find it extremely refreshing to find a company that’s doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. DLC Equity Partners Inc., a Toronto-based developer is building the first-ever sustainable health care facility in Canada. Located in Stouffville, Ontario—about a 45 minute drive from where I work—it will provide space for general practitioners, dentists, a compound pharmacist, a walk-in clinic, and laboratory and ultrasound facilities.

That may not sound much different than many other medical arts buildings, but it’s not the occupants that will set it apart: green initiatives such as geothermal and radiant-floor heating and cooling, clean-air technology, rainwater harvesting for toilets and outdoor irrigation, LED lighting, smart-building systems, solar panels, and a Hempcrete building envelope are all part of the design. The developers are even putting in a rooftop garden.

Frank Deluca, the CEO of DCL Equity Partners Inc. felt that many new developments were embracing greener and healthier options, but not so much in medical buildings. Many of our medical facilities are found within “sick” buildings that are unhealthy to the environment and, therefore, to those who inhabit it. As Deluca describes it, “The buildings we entrust for our health and wellbeing simply aren’t meeting the mark. This motivated me to see if I could design, engineer and build a better medical office building that would embrace the kinds of green features that can contribute to health and wellbeing, and yet also be economically sustainable.”

One strong supporter for the plan is the mayor of Stouffville, Wayne Emmerson. Although any new medical building and the services it provides helps to unload some of the demands on the local hospital, Emmerson also applauds the green initiatives. “It’s one of the biggest projects we’ve ever had in our municipality involving green, sustainable buildings. It’s the way of the future. The more buildings that do this, the better off we’ll be and the better it will be for future generations.”

The project has also received attention from the Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care. Kent Waddington, its co-founder and Communications Director, has applauded Deluca and his team for using their vision to be the first in Ontario to build such a green health care facility. By demonstrating such a project can be done, on a scale that can easily be applied anywhere to any community, Waddington hopes that this project will serve as a catalyst, setting a benchmark that others will hopefully follow.

This project has made me realize that for such endeavours to be successful, a few criteria are required:

  1. There needs to be a vision of what can be done better than it’s been done before.
  2. There needs to be a champion who is prepared to take the lead and move forward, identifying obstacles and creating solutions to overcome them.
  3. Some involved might have concerns about the economic impact of choosing greener options but have to be able to see the bigger picture—that not every decision should be based on dollars alone.
  4. Support from the community, political leaders, and others who share in the vision are all helpful to achieve success.

Clearly we need to find more opportunities to move toward greener options. That doesn’t just apply to individuals and families, but also businesses, corporations, societies and governments. I applaud Frank Deluca and those at DCL Equity Partners Inc. for taking on initiatives that are clearly beneficial to our planet. I’m sad that I work too far away to be able to move my practice into this facility because I think those of us who believe in such measures need to do what we can to support them. I only hope that this project is the first of many. As Deluca puts it: “This will be the F1 of buildings from a comfort, and energy performance standpoint designed and engineered exclusively for healthcare.”

All I can say is it’s about time. The day when this sort of design is the rule rather than the exception in new building developments can’t come soon enough for me.