By Peter McKenzie-Brown
“Let not men say ‘These are their reasons; they are natural;’ for, I believe, they are portentous things unto the climate that they point upon.” – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Some months ago, an American friend sent me a link to an article on climate change from the Washington Post. The compelling story described the impact of a changing climate on one island among Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine – a chain of islands off the shores of Québec, our primarily French-speaking province.
“The more than 12,000 residents of this windswept Canadian archipelago are facing a growing number of gut-wrenching choices, as extreme climate change transforms the land and water around them,” Brady Dennis wrote. The “12,000 residents of this windswept Canadian archipelago are facing a growing number of gut-wrenching choices, as extreme climate change transforms the land and water around them. Season after season, storm after storm, it is becoming clearer that the sea, which has always sustained these islands, is now their greatest threat.” He added that, like much of the rest of Canada, the Magdalen Islands, as they are known in English, have warmed 2.3o Celsius since the late 19th century – twice the global average.
The Arctic is an important and fragile ecosystem, he continued, and it’s warming at a faster rate than much of the rest of the world. Scientists are already seeing dramatic reductions in Arctic sea ice cover, particularly in the summertime. This shrinking sea ice disrupts normal ocean circulation and creates changes in climate and weather around the globe. “Season after season, storm after storm, it is becoming clearer that the sea, which has always sustained these islands, is now their greatest threat.”
I live almost 5,000 km away from the Magdalene Islands, in the Texas-sized province Alberta. I appreciated the item, and posted it on Facebook and on Microsoft’s LinkedIn, which is supposedly a social media site aimed at professionals. There were likes from Facebook, but I could never have imagined the outcome from the other social media platform.
An instructor at Canada’s online Athabasca University took the first stab at me. “BS,” he opined. I’ve forgotten his name, but his bio boasted a master’s degree. “Surely that’s academic short-hand for “beautiful story,” I replied.
Then the trolls began to swarm. Over the course of several hours, perhaps 150 chimed in. Most of them essentially said I was full of it. One invited me to visit his website, which “proved” that climate change is nonsense. What he forgot to mention was that his sorry blog asked visitors for donations.
Another person observed that every island undergoes erosion. How stupid, he implied, to suggest that the problem had to do with the loss of the sea ice that used to encase the islands most winters, shielding them from the Atlantic’s (higher) currents. The “Wa-Po” article is dumb, someone else added. The rest – I suspect, without proof, that they were this instructor’s students – mostly wrote mindless things, including jeering at my self-descriptor on LinkedIn as a “writer, author and historian.” After a while I went to bed, but in the morning, the trolls were still at work.
I went online to find out how to stop this nonsense, and remove its inanity from the site and my memory. Removing it from the platform was easy. It didn’t so easily leave my memory.
Puzzling it out
But it was so odd. The polite behaviour of Canadians is well-known. Even more so, however, is the science of climate change, which goes back two centuries. As the industrial revolution charged on, in the early 19th century, science began to speculate on ice ages and other natural changes in paleoclimate. The science of those days also began speculating on the possibility of a natural greenhouse effect.
For non-Canadian readers, it is worth putting the western province I live in, Alberta, into context. About the size of Texas, but with one sixth the population, this province is a big natural gas producer and an important supplier to North American markets of various grades of crude oil. More importantly, it also hosts the Athabasca oil sands – the largest known reservoir of crude bitumen (an ultra-heavy oil) – on the planet. In addition, we have huge bitumen deposits at Peace River and Cold Lake – a field that borders the more easterly province of Saskatchewan. Given these realities, you could say that these two oil-producing provinces have skin in the petroleum game. After all, since 1930 the western provinces have been the owners of most of the country’s vast natural resources. After serious volumes of oil production began in 1947, those governments have been taking in substantial royalties during the good times. Especially in good times, when oil prices are high, provincial coffers are full. This has become an addiction.
“Climate change is a serious threat to development everywhere,” said Rajendra Pachauri, who served as chair of a 2007 United Nations conference on the topic in the Pacific island paradise of BaliHe said – I take this from a magazine article I wrote at the time – “today, the time for doubt has passed. (We have) unequivocally affirmed the warming of our climate system and linked it directly to human activity.”
To make sure there was no doubting his message, he added that “slowing or even reversing the existing trend of global warming is the defining challenge of our age.” According to Pachauri, global warming would lead to melting ice caps and rising sea levels, the drowning of some island nations, the extinction of species, desertification of tropical forests, and more frequent and deadlier storms. The world’s media soon became focused as never before on greenhouse gases (GHG) – the emissions (mainly carbon dioxide and methane) causing Earth to warm and its climates to change.
The occasion was a United Nations conference meant to negotiate national targets for reducing greenhouse gases. The US, Canada, and Japan became villains in the piece as they argued that the targets of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol were unrealistic. To live up to that agreement would have required Canada, for example, to cut its GHG emissions by perhaps 50 per cent during the next twelve years.
The three villains complained that Kyoto required nothing from emerging economies like China and India, which were big polluters even in those days. They and others also observed that, at the time of the original Kyoto discussions, science had little understanding of the impact on global warming of tropical deforestation. Deforestation amounts to destruction of some of the vital CO2 reservoirs often called “carbon sinks.” Factor in the loss of sinks from rainforest destruction, and Brazil and Indonesia become the world’s third- and fourth-largest GHG emitters.
At the beginning of these comments, I quoted Shakespeare’s famous passage on climate change from Julius Caesar. There are no trolls in that great historical play, but before he spoke – and before Caesar’s assassination – Casca spoke of signs he has seen I encountered on that memorable evening that gave him pause. “all the sway of earth shakes like a thing unfirm,” he reported. “I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen the ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam, to be exalted with the threatening clouds.”
He continued, “but never till to-night, never till now, did I go through a tempest dropping fire. Either there is a civil strife in heaven, or else the world, too saucy with the gods, incenses them to send destruction.” If that weren’t enough, he saw a common slave hold “up his left hand, which did flame and burn like twenty torches join’d, and yet his hand, not sensible of fire, remain’d unscorch’d.”
For another minute or so, he continues in this vein, describing unworldly horrors he has seen in the streets of Rome. “They are portentous things unto the climate that they point upon,” he concludes. Today, more than ever: think wildfires in many parts of the world; record flooding in many parts of the world; and, according to many reports, heat records.