I got up this morning in semi-darkness even though the sun had risen at 5:45 a.m. and the forecast was for sunny and warm. I looked out my window and couldn’t see farther than a couple of blocks. Looked as foggy as old London town. But of course it wasn’t fog, it was smoke. The worst I’ve ever seen in Calgary.
“The air quality is so poor that even those without pre-existing health conditions could experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing … It’s a potentially really dangerous situation that everyone needs to take seriously,” said Sara Hoffman, an Environment Canada meteorologist. Eighty-eight wildfires are raging across Alberta.
“We are seeing climate change in action,” according to University of Alberta Professor Mike Flannigan. Coincidentally, I recently read an informative Scientific American article on that very subject.
According to the article, global warming first “went viral” in May 1953 when Canadian physicist Gilbert Plass told a meeting of the American Geophysical Union that, “The large increase in industrial activity during the present century is discharging so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that the average temperature is rising at the rate of 1.5 degrees per century.” Plass continued to write on the subject throughout the 1950s.
Scientists already knew the Earth was warming, but the carbon dioxide connection caught the attention of the media. Newspapers and magazines around the world, including Newsweek and Time, were all over it.
Scientist John Tyndall had shown as far back as the mid-1800s that carbon dioxide trapped heat. Swedish Nobel winner Svante Arrhenius had suggested the build-up of carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels could trap so much heat that freezing winters might become a thing of the past.
So the idea has been long with us. The corporations who produce the stuff that causes it have certainly known. According to the journal Science, “The U.S. oil and gas industry’s largest trade association had likewise known since at least the 1950s, as had the coal industry since at least the 1960s, and electric utilities.”
When Gilbert Plass alerted the world, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was about 310 parts per million. Today, it’s 423 and rising.
So welcome to more and bigger fires. Instead of waking to that famous big blue Alberta sky we wake to smoke. No doubt some cynics will suggest we deserve it. We Albertans are, after all, one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters.
I just hope that, in the midst of our current election campaign, our politicians are making the connection.
One thought on “Global warming—news old and new”
As the Holocene yields to the Anthropocene humanity sails into uncharted waters. We still cling to notions that we can arrest this shift somehow but we’re not so inclined.
It’s said there are 28 trillion dollars of proven fossil energy reserves that are subscribed on the stock markets and bourses today. Governments, banks and pension funds are heavily invested in these assets. A precipitous move to unload these investments could burst the carbon bubble, taking down the global economy. No one wants to take the blame for that.
At the 2015 Paris climate summit, a reporter asked the head of the Potsdam climate institute (and personal climate adviser to both Angela Merkel and Pope Francis), Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, if it was possible to limit warming to 1.5 Celsius. He said it could be done but it would require the “induced implosion” of the fossil energy giants. Governments, he argued, would simply have to put the energy giants down. See any sign of that?
As of 2023 there is a remaining carbon budget of 380 gigatons of CO2, about 8 years at current emission rates. The longer we wait the more difficult the transition to a zero carbon planet. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency, predicts a 40% increase in coal consumption through the balance of this decade. In other words, we’re heading in the wrong direction and fast. Can you imagine Notley or Smith committing to shutting down the Athabasca bitumen mines or Trudeau downing tools on the trans-mountain pipeline?
Proven fossil fuel reserves approximate just over 46 years supply at today’s consumption rates. Proven reserves. Trillions of dollars of notional assets. Yet we can burn no more than 8 years supply. 38 years worth of unburnable fossil energy. That’s why we’re being told that the lowest-value, highest-carbon fossil fuels, coal and bitumen must be left in the ground. In Canada, whether at the federal or provincial levels, no one is listening. Meanwhile, global consumption rates just keep creeping up, year after year. Imagine what would happen to the global economy, the petro-states in particular, if we began planning to abandon that vast amount of proven reserves.
I contacted a climate scientist I know at the University of Hawaii. I asked whether we had much chance of taming climate change in all its permutations plus overpopulation and our rapacious overconsumption of our planet’s finite resources. He suggested I watch DiCaprio’s “Don’t Look Up” on Netflix. I asked if he was being facetious. He assured me he wasn’t.
So, Bill, we seem to be caught in a Thelma & Louise moment.