Do We Really Need Another Book on Global Warming?

All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Second it is opposed. Third it is accepted as being self evident.” —Arthur Schopenhauer

A question I’m often asked by the media when I’m interviewed about my book is the title of this post: Do we really need another book on global warming? Journalists refer to the many books that can be found in stores or on the internet, and mention former Vice President Al Gore and Dr. David Suzuki by name, and wonder whether I have anything further to add to what’s already been said on the subject.

I have great respect for both Mr. Gore and Dr. Suzuki, and they have helped educate and inspire me in my pursuit to understand the climate crisis fully. But I don’t believe I’m in the majority here. Most people I encounter seem either unconvinced and skeptical, or they believe there’s a problem but aren’t motivated to do very much about it. When I ask around to those who fall into the unconvinced and skeptical category, sometimes the answer comes back that they don’t completely trust a former politician in the case of Mr. Gore, or a liberal-minded scientist with a PhD in the case of Dr. Suzuki. The concern they express is that these individuals have a hidden agenda, and that filters are needed to properly interpret what they have to say. It disappoints me to hear such responses because I believe these men to be honest in their motives, and that they are simply trying to open people’s eyes to the situation our planet is facing.

My attitude about having added another book on global warming to the shelves is simple, and I can best explain it by way of analogy. Many of my patients are smokers who would love to quit if they could. There are many methods they can use if they want to try: quitting cold turkey, acupuncture, hypnosis, and laser therapy are all available options. Then there are the medications they can take, such as nicotine supplements (patch, gum, lozenge, etc…), Wellbutrin, and Champix (Chantix in the US). Yet despite so many options, most smokers are unsuccessful in their attempts to quit and stay quit. If the vast majority who attempted to quit were successful, I would argue that another method to help smokers end their addiction would be unnecessary. But since most available methods aren’t successful, I’ll gladly welcome the next new method that comes along, and I’d never suggest that we don’t need it simply because of the lack of success we’ve achieved thus far.

I apply that same line of thinking to my having written another book on the climate crisis. If the majority of people in the world believed that the problems our planet is facing are real, and especially what problems it will be facing in the generations to come, and were all making major efforts to help minimize their emissions, then I would argue another book on the subject isn’t necessary. But that’s not the case. We need as many methods as possible to educate the public on this very important issue that we’re all facing. Ignoring the facts won’t make the problem go away. Education and understanding are the keys to reaching solutions.

If some people aren’t going to be convinced by former Mr. Gore because he was a politician, or because he’s a member of one particular political party instead of another—even though he has already won a Nobel Peace Prize honouring his efforts—that can’t be helped. And if others can’t be convinced by what Dr. Suzuki has to say, even though he has dedicated decades to environmental issues and to educating the public about them, what can be done to change that? If you mistrust someone because of a hidden agenda, whether real or perceived, it’s very difficult to eliminate that lack of trust from the equation.

The book I wrote, “Comprehending the Climate Crisis,” speaks to a different demographic. I wrote the book I wish I could have read first when I started to dedicate serious effort to understanding the problem. My book is written for people who are open to learning the facts, who want to understand the whole picture in its context and not only listen to the brief soundbites they hear from the media on a daily basis. It’s written for the average citizen who doesn’t necessarily know all of the pertinent science but wants to understand the problem more thoroughly. Obviously my method of education won’t appeal to everyone just like Mr. Gore’s and Dr. Suzuki’s methods don’t appeal to everyone, but I believe that every little bit helps, and the more people who become educated on the facts surrounding global warming and the climate crisis, the more people who will actually begin to do something about it.

I look forward to the day when another book on the climate crisis will truly be redundant because it will be preaching to a vast choir of people making a difference. But until that day comes, if some people out there won’t listen to the politician or the PhD, perhaps they’ll listen to the doctor.

Europe’s Cold Snap: A Different Climate Crisis

Those of us living in North America have been experiencing some unprecedented weather this winter. You’ve probably heard about records being broken all over the continent. There’s no doubt that we’ve been having some unseasonably warm temperatures the last few months, and the forecast suggests this isn’t going to stop anytime soon. As a case in point: I’m writing this on February 6, 2012; today much of Ontario broke records reaching a high of 7 degrees Celsius (about 45 degrees Fahrenheit). According to Environment Canada, the previous record was in 2005 and was about 1.5 degrees Celsius cooler.

All of this warm weather seems to support the concept of global warming, but one always has to be careful to avoid making the mistake of equating weather with climate. , For example, every time there’s a huge snowstorm, skeptics claim it as evidence that global warming is a myth. Of course, the irony in that argument is that global warming predicts worse snowstorms for a few different reasons:

  1. Since warmer air masses can hold onto more moisture, they can precipitate more snow as they travel into cooler latitudes.
  2. As lakes freeze later during the warmer winter months arising from global warming, air masses are able to pick up more moisture as they move the still-open water and subsequently dump that moisture as snow somewhere else.

Living in Canada, most of the people I interact with live in North America and are all experiencing similar warmer

winters than usual, just like I am. But this isn’t the same all over the world right now. You’ve probably heard about what’s been happening in Europe this past week and it’s much different weather than what we have going on back home. A friend of mine from high school is currently living in Florence, Italy and she’s certainly noticed the recent bitter cold that isn’t usually experienced in Tuscany.

Cold Weather

Photo From "The Atlantic"

The unseasonably cold temperatures in Europe this past week have been quite devastating. Eastern Europe has been hit particularly hard: 29 people have died in Poland; 131 people have frozen to death in the Ukraine alone with more than 1500 people hospitalized, according to their news agency Ukrinform. All told, more than 300 deaths have been attributed to the cold weather across the continent. Unfortunately, these numbers are expected to climb.

But this colder weather has since been moving west and isn’t just confined to Eastern Europe anymore; it’s affecting most of the continent now. Romans woke up to snow for the first time in more than a quarter century. Heathrow airport officials anticipated canceling 30 percent of their flights due to the winter weather this past weekend. And just as there doesn’t seem to be any end to the warmer weather North America is getting, Europe’s cold spell doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon either.

So does North America’s warmer weather mean global warming is real? Does Europe’s colder weather argue against it? The truth is that both of these extremes are consistent with the climate crisis related to increased greenhouse gas emissions associated with human activities such as the combustion of fossil fuels, burning down forests, and the cultivation of agriculture and livestock. Some parts of the planet can expect warmer weather—Canada has always been anticipated to move toward milder temperatures—but others can expect the mercury to move in the other direction. Some experts have even predicted that in years to come, Europe may become the new Arctic.

We see the same problem of extremes with water on the planet as well: while some regions experience severe floods, others experience severe droughts. These extremes have even been observed within the same nations. For example, the drought observed in Texas and southwestern Arizona is in stark contrast to the floods experienced along the Mississippi River. Likewise in Australia, a harsh decade-long drought has been occurring in the Loveday swamps in the southern part of the country, but Queensland to the west has been suffering terrible flooding.

Climate science is complicated with many factors playing a part. This is one of the reasons it’s been so hard to predict what changes are going to occur as a result of global warming in the decades to come. The computer models thus far have never been able to incorporate all of the many variables that play a part in the overall equation. One thing has been clear, however: all of the predictions made in decades past have underestimated the severity of the problem we’re experiencing today.

It has always been known that parts of Europe might achieve colder temperatures, particularly the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, while much of the world would become warmer. I’ll give one possible reason why this is so. As the Arctic ice cap has been gradually melting over the last few decades, this water has been added to the world’s oceans, particularly the Atlantic. But what many people don’t realize is that most of the ice cap is made up of fresh water because as salt water freezes, most of the salt is expelled through a process known as brine rejection. Thus, when it melts there’s a lot of fresh water that’s released. The science predicts that this extra supply of fresh water runs the risk of slowing down the Gulf Stream, possibly even stopping it altogether.

Heat from the Gulf Stream is why palm trees can be found in Cornwall at the southwestern tip of Great Britain. A slower Gulf Stream is bad for northwestern Europe because the heat from the Caribbean that is carried by this ocean current has helped define the climate for that part of the world for centuries. Without it, many Europeans will suffer much colder temperatures than they’ve been used to. Perhaps this past week is a hint of things to come.

What this all boils down to is that extreme changes in weather are a part of the climate crisis, and we can expect even more as the years progress. All of the extremes—severe hurricanes, floods, droughts, harsh snowstorms, and unseasonably high temperatures in some regions with unseasonably cold temperatures in others—are becoming the new normal. If we continue with business-as-usual with respect to our emissions, this is only going to get worse. Hopefully our species will come to its senses and make changes that will help to minimize the damage so future generations can a reasonably hospitable planet.

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?”

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.

Politics Aside: The Climate Crisis

Before I put politics aside—as the title of this blog suggests—I want to make one important distinction. I want you to appreciate the difference between a political philosophy and a political ideology. With a political philosophy, you have a group of views and theories that help guide behaviours and actions. A political philosophy will allow itself to be open to new evidence, and a new approach when experience dictates that “business as usual” isn’t working. Also, compromise is a viable option. With a political ideology, however, there is a greater chance to hold onto those principles to an unbending degree, with less likelihood to waver from those views and theories, even when common sense, evidence, or experience suggest a different approach is better. Compromise is not so much an option. I think the world would be a better place if we all tried to hold more to political philosophies rather than political ideologies.

LandscapeI can’t think of any issue where putting politics aside is more important than the environment. We don’t have to cast aside our philosophies, but we could certainly do without our ideologies. The former US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it best when he said “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” With the climate crisis, there are so many sound bites that occur throughout the various media sources on a daily basis that it’s difficult to know what’s truth and what’s not. When it comes to knowing what course of action we need to take for something like global warming, we have to look to the facts rather than hold onto the ideologies that wail us.

The five facts I list below are undisputed and without contention. Anyone who denies these facts is simply misunderstanding the science, or choosing to ignore it. The facts are as follows:

  1. Carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases. The size and configuration of these molecules, each containing different atoms within them—which sets them apart from oxygen and nitrogen—have a natural ability to absorb infrared radiation energy and, thus, increase in temperature when exposed to infrared radiation. These molecules don’t absorb energy from visible light so their temperature doesn’t increase from the sun’s light until it hits the Earth’s surface and bounces back in the form of infrared radiation. Nitrogen and oxygen molecules which make up 99 percent of our atmosphere don’t absorb energy so much from infrared radiation. But they do absorb energy from the nearby greenhouse gases with which they come in contact. The more of these greenhouse gas molecules there are in the atmosphere, the warmer our planet will become simply because of these scientific properties.
  2. Burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), burning down forests, and agriculture all add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
  3. Greenhouse gas levels have been rising consistently for the last 200 years or so, but were stable in the atmosphere for thousand of years prior. As we dump nearly many millions of metric tonnes of them per year into the atmosphere, this increase should be no surprise. Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve increased the amount of the atmosphere’s greenhouse gas concentrations by nearly 40 percent, from about 280 parts per million (ppm) to the present level of about 390 ppm, simply by doing the activities listed above in fact number 2.
  4. Global temperatures are increasing. Recorded temperatures since the 19th century and evidence looking back into our planet’s history even earlier have shown a sharp and unwavering increase in global temperatures that would be predicted from the greenhouse gases our activities have been adding. Other factors that affect global temperature such as changes in the sun’s energy output don’t explain this observation.
  5. Climate change is already happening as a result of increasing global temperatures. The increase in violent storms in both summer and winter, the increase in coastal flooding, the melting of ice at the North and South Poles as well as many of the planet’s glaciers are all, sadly, predicted when facts 1-4 are taken into consideration.

If we are to avoid extremely serious and dire consequences for our planet in the next few decades, and especially for our children and grandchildren, then we have to heed these facts, put aside our political ideologies, and make the changes that will save our planet from ourselves, and for our future.