The most important thing out of Durban to understand is that we have not yet succeeded in moving the world away from a dangerous trajectory towards well above two degrees of global warming.
In Durban, the political space has been kept alive for further negotiations, but without political will leading to a big increase in mitigation action from developed countries, and investment to support such action in the larger developing countries, global temperatures will continue to rise, moving the world from increasingly frequent extreme climatic events towards tipping points and catastrophe.
The period between now and 2020 is a crucial time for action. To raise our chances of stabilising the climate (i.e. preventing a temperature rise of more than 2°C), climate science indicates that 2020 is the latest date by which emissions must have peaked and begun to decline. A legally binding agreement requiring emissions cuts from all countries before 2020 is doubtful, and thus a disaster waiting to unfold.
An increase in global temperatures of 4°C is potentially a death sentence for many countries in Africa, many Small Island States, and the poor and vulnerable worldwide.
The negotiations on adaptation were aimed at following up the agreement in Cancun last year to establish the Adaptation Framework. Agreement was reached in Durban on four elements of this:
1. Guidance on the Preparation of National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) was agreed. This is for least developed countries and other developing countries who wish. NAPs were agreed to be country driven, participatory and gender‐sensitive, and fit in with other national planning and development strategies, hence the guidance is not prescriptive. The agreement last year indicated that funding would be provided to meet the cost of plan preparation, and later, implementation. In Durban, all that was agreed was that an existing fund, the Least Developed countries Fund, may now also support National Adaptation Plans. This fund was established to support an earlier set of plans for least developed countries (National Adaptation Programmes of Action, (NAPAs)), which were actually defined as short term projects.
The main problems with this are that this fund, managed by the GEF, has been very slow to disburse funds to countries, and developed countries are requested to support NAP preparation, either in bilateral arrangements or through making contributions to the LDC Fund. Until long term finance is agreed, and flowing into the Green Climate Fund, the outlook for adequate support for adaptation is bleak.
2. Establishment of an Adaptation Committee was agreed. The Adaptation Committee will be the overall advisory body to the COP that will oversee all of the different adaptation activities under the UNFCCC. Its remit will be to ensure effective sharing of information on good practice in adaptation and coordination between the various regional and UN bodies that work on adaptation, as well as with other centres and networks. The Committee will have scope to organise workshops, commission reports, and establish expert groups, to assist in its work.
The Committee’s composition has been agreed, and will have a developing country majority, and while governments nominate the members, they are encouraged to nominate people with relevant expertise. The committee is encouraged to involve civil society and other relevant bodies in its work, and the meetings will be open to observers. The work programme for the first three years of the committee is to be drawn up during 2012 for approval by COP 18.
3. Agreement was reached on Loss and Damage due to Climate Change. This is related to the impacts of extreme weather events and slow onset events, and how to manage the risk associated with them. A work programme during 2012 will hold workshops and prepare reports for consideration at COP 18. This agreement was a stronger outcome than we expected.
4. Agreement on two further years of knowledge sharing and capacity building programme on understanding the impacts of climate change, and adaptation. There will be workshops on water, climate impacts and adaptation, and on ecosystem‐based adaptation. Support will be developed on national adaptation planning. The two year programme is to be undertaken with close involvement of partner organisations, who are invited to share their ideas for further activities within the programme, and to offer support to meet the needs of governments.
Technology & Adaptation
Decisions on technology were linked with decisions on adaptation, since access to knowledge and technologies is vital for enabling adaptation. This led to the establishment of the Technology Executive Committee, and the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN). Key roles of the CTCN include:
- Identifying currently available climate friendly technologies for mitigation and adaptation that meet their key low‐carbon and climate‐resilient development needs; and
- Facilitating adaptation and the deployment of currently available technologies to meet local needs and circumstances. An open tender process will be invited for hosting the Climate Technology Centre in 2012.
The Road Ahead
All of these fairly positive decisions have to be seen against the backdrop of postponement of strong and binding emissions targets on developed countries, and a lack of commitment on finance after the end of 2012. In this context, adaptation will become extremely difficult for many communities, and poorer countries will struggle to develop and implement programmes to help protect their people.
Rachel Berger is the Practical Action Climate Change Policy Advisor, DEW Point Development Resource Centre, United Kingdom. The news item has been reproduced with the kind permission of DEW Point.
by Stan Hirst
Just one month ago the federal general elections in Canada put the Conservative Party firmly in power. Responses to the election outcome amongst environmental groups and environmentally-concerned individuals across the country ranged from disappointment to dismay to a number of other reactions, most of them negative.
The reason is not hard to discern. Conservatives in Canada are perceived as having an awful environmental track record. For the recent election, the Conservative Party‘s election platform contained not one word about environment. By contrast, the opposition Liberal Party promised to create clean energy jobs, invest in clean energy and energy efficiency, create a cap-and-trade system for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and to protect Canada’s air, oceans, waterways, forests and Arctic resources. The New Democratic Party’s platform proposed a shift away from fossil-fuel dependence, underlined the compatibility of environmental health and economic growth, and promised to develop green energy industries.
The future doesn’t seem to bode much better. The background documents for the June 2011 Conservative National Convention, at which future policy was set, contained just one short statement on an environmental topic, i.e. “we believe that an effective international emissions reduction regime on climate change must be truly global and must include binding targets for all the world’s major emitters, including China and the United States”.
Is this disconnect between conservatism and environmental consciousness in Canada typical of all conservatives or conservative governments? Consider the following statements from south of the 49th parallel.
- I do not intend that our natural resources should be exploited by the few against the interests of the many.
- The only trouble with capitalism is capitalists – they are too damn greedy.
- As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.
- The basic causes of our environmental troubles are complex and deeply embedded. They include: our past tendency to emphasize quantitative growth at the expense of qualitative growth; the failure of our economy to provide full accounting for the social costs of environmental pollution; the failure to take environmental factors into account as a normal and necessary part of our planning and decision making; the inadequacy of our institutions for dealing with problems that cut across traditional political boundaries; our dependence on conveniences, without regard for their impact on the environment; and more fundamentally, our failure to perceive the environment as a totality and to understand and to recognize the fundamental interdependence of all its parts, including man himself.
- We are now facing hard choices in our energy policy. Future generations — my children and grandchildren, along with yours — will have to live with the decisions we make today. And so it is time for us to make some tough and — hopefully — smart choices regarding our energy use and production before it is too late.
All penned and uttered by democrats and green-tinged radicals, right? Wrong. All spoken by hard-core Republican conservatives – Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and John McCain.
Or maybe the disconnect between conservatism and environmental consciousness in Canada now typifies the attitudes of mainstem right-wing parties struggling to deal with 21st century environments? A quick check around the globe suggests that this isn’t true either.
The British Tories, the party of Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher, are today in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The Conservative 2011 programme declares that Britain needs to protect the environment for future generations, make the economy more environmentally sustainable, and that much more needs to be done to support the farming industry, protect biodiversity and encourage sustainable food production.
The governing German party, the Christian Democratic Union, declares in its manifesto that its policies are based on the Christian view of Man and his responsibility before God, and then goes on to state that the objective of an ecological and social market economy, as they see it, is to achieve a synthesis of economy, social justice and ecology. Amongst a host of economic and policy actions cited as a basis for this synthesis, the CDU include the need for ecological elements in tax legislation, environmental levies, compensation schemes, certification and liability regulations, and the cutting edge concept, at least by current Canadian standards, of rewarding environmentally sensitive actions by using market incentives and linking costs to environmental damage to establish ecologically realistic prices.
Flipping to the other side of the globe, we find the most conservative party in Australia, the rural-based National Party of Australia, outlining its 2011 environmental platform by supporting targets for greenhouse gas emissions, proposing direct action plans to reduce emissions through soil carbon sequestration and use of bio-char, revegetation of marginal land, clean coal technology, carbon capture and the use of algae, and encouraging public participation in voluntary carbon markets involving individuals, communities, agriculture and business, and strong state support to non-petroleum based fuels. Pretty radical stuff all around.
So why are Canadian conservatives not up there with the rest of the conservative world in addressing urgent environmental issues?
Conservatives believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional values and a strong national defence. Thus, conservative policies generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems. By contrast, those of more liberal persuasion believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity, equality for all, alleviation of social ills and the protection of civil liberties and individual and human rights. So liberal policies generally emphasize the need for the government to solve problems.
Looking at energy through this type of filter, we might see that Canadian conservatives consider fossil fuels to be good sources of energy (which they are of course in Canada) and, since they are abundant, their exploitation should be promoted and increased both on land and at sea. Increased domestic production by large corporations would lead to lower domestic prices plus huge incomes from the two biggest gulpers of energy on the planet – the U.S. to our south and the ever-burgeoning Chinese economy just across the Pacific. Canadian conservatives might feel that wind, solar and biomass will never provide comparable levels of plentiful, affordable and, above all, profitable sources of power. The opposing liberal view points, i.e. that oil is a diminishing resource, that other sources of energy must be explored, that government must produce a national plan for all energy resources, and must subsidize alternative energy research and production don’t play well in Canada because fossil fuels generally are not diminishing resources. They may be getting more difficult and expensive to recover, but that is just part of the ongoing and traditional challenge for private enterprise.
Looking at climate change through the same filter would surely lead a market-conscious conservative to conclude that since global warming is caused primarily by an increased production of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels, which Canada produces, and burns, in prolific quantities, the combating of climate change needs to involve realistic pricing of fossil fuel extraction and use through carbon taxation and firm regulation, through reduction in fossil fuel use by a plethora of measures to increase energy supply from renewable sources, and by a shift in consciousness towards regarding earth as an ecosystem, and not as a supply depot. All of this is missing from the current conservative platform, who sees it all as just raising taxes, increasing prices, losing jobs and impacting on individual freedoms. A prevalent conservative approach to dealing with climate change is to deny that it is happening at all.
Climate change presents a very difficult problem for Canadian conservatives. The root cause of the problem is burgeoning greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use around the globe. Once upon a time the major contributors of greenhouse gases to the global climate were North America and western Europe. Now they’re increasingly being put out by the Asian industrial powers, and Canada contributes to their impacts by selling them oil and coal. And while the causes of climate change are global, the impacts – storms, droughts, rising sea levels, disappearing glaciers, changing weather patterns – will be felt globally as well. The items in the classic conservative toolkit – personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional values and empowerment of the individual to solve problems – have not thus far dealt well with the root causes of climate change. Maybe they’ll deal better with the consequences.
First point – the global climate is changing. Not many people dispute that any more. The mean global temperature has risen by 0.8°C over the past century, and the ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. Within the past century many significant climate changes have been measured and reported, including increases in the frequency of heat waves in the U.S., an increasing proportion of precipitation coming in the form of intense, flood-inducing events, an increase in tropical cyclone intensity in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico, a huge decrease in the seasonal extent of Arctic sea ice, and a big jump in the rate at which glaciers are melting.
The rates of change seem to be accelerating and most of the profound secondary changes are negative. Dr James Hansen, the NASA scientist who first drew international attention to the impending climate disaster, testified way back in 1988 that Earth had entered a long-term warming trend. Today the effects of global warming on the extremes of the global water cycle – stronger droughts and forest fires on the one hand, and heavier rains and floods on the other – have become more evident in Australia, Europe, North America, Africa and Asia.
Second point – the causal factors of climate change are now very well known. Earth is surrounded by a relatively thin layer of greenhouse gases – water vapour, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide – which act as a thermal blanket. About half the incoming solar radiation passes through the atmosphere to the Earth’s surface where some is absorbed and the remainder reflected back into the atmosphere. Substantial amounts of the energy absorbed are again radiated outward in the form of infrared heat. These contribute further to the warming of the atmosphere.
Third point – humanity has drastically changed global climatic dynamics by adding huge amounts of CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere. Activities such as deforestation, land use changes and the burning of fossil fuels have increased atmospheric CO2 by a third since the Industrial Revolution began. Decomposition of wastes in landfills, burgeoning agriculture, especially rice cultivation, and huge populations of burping and manure-producing domestic livestock have boosted the amounts of methane in the atmosphere by a factor of three since the industrial revolution. Methane is twenty times more active than CO2 in atmospheric heat retention.
The atmospheric concentration of CO2 measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii is a good indicator of where we are now globally in respect of atmospheric change. Back in 1959 when the data collection programme was initiated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the CO2 level was measured at 316 parts per million (ppm) and the annual increase was less than 1 ppm. Today the level is over 392 ppm and the annual increases are 2.2 ppm and getting larger all the time.
James Hansen and his climate scientist colleagues concluded that we have either reached, or are very close to, a set of climate “tipping points”. That means that climatic changes are now at a point where the feedbacks from changes spur even larger and more rapid further changes. Hansen cites Arctic sea ice as a good example of this. Global warming has initiated faster sea ice melt and has exposed darker ocean surfaces that absorb more sunlight which leads to more melting of ice. As a result, and without any additional greenhouse gases, the Arctic could soon be ice-free in the summer. The western Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are vulnerable to even small additional warming – once disintegration gets well under way it will become unstoppable.
Pause for reality check – not only is climatic change a reality, it is progressing at an accelerating rate, the negative consequence are getting greater, and the likelihood of us managing to slow or reverse the negative trends are getting smaller.
Fourth point – James Hansen and his fellow climate scientists looked at the atmospheric CO2 levels, then at the changes in climate which were occurring, and came up with the recommendation that a CO2 level of 350 ppm (last recorded back in 1987) was pretty much the upper allowable limit if massive climatic related adverse effects were to be avoided. The number 350 has a certain appealing ring to it, and has been widely adapted by environmental organizations such as Bill McKibben’s 350.org as a universal target for citizen and government action on carbon emissions. The protagonists are quite aware that the present global atmospheric CO2 level has already overshot that target by more than 40 ppm, but they argue, convincingly, that a reversal is absolutely essential to safeguard our long-term global future.
Fifth point – and now we’re at the crux of the problem. How on Earth, or anywhere else for that matter, do we get anywhere close to reducing the rate at which atmospheric CO2 increases in future, never mind actually reversing the trend towards 350 ppm?
We think of Earth’s carbon reservoirs as being great fields of coal and petroleum compounds, which are more or less stable until we dig them up and burn them. But the globe’s biggest carbon reservoirs are in the atmosphere, the ocean, living ecosystems and soils, and are highly dynamic. They all exchange CO2 with the atmosphere, they both absorb it (oceans) and assimilate it (ecosystems), and they release it (oceans) or respire it (ecosystems). The critical point is that anthropogenic carbon emitted into the atmosphere is not destroyed but adds to the stockpile and is redistributed among the other carbon reservoirs. The turnover times range from years or decades (living plants) to millennia (the deep sea, soil). The bottom line is that any carbon released into the atmosphere is going to be around for a long, long time. Up to 1000 years in fact.
Sixth point – so how do we get from our present scene of 390 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere and impending climate doom to something closer to 350 ppm and a more stable climate scenario? Straight answer – we cannot. We simply don’t have that option.
Seventh point – the absolutely best case scenario for reduction of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere would be an immediate halt to all activities leading to anthropogenic carbon emissions. Park all motor vehicles, no more home heating, no coal-fired power plants, no burning of natural gas, no aircraft flying overhead, shoot and bury 90% of all domestic livestock. Just shut down all of human civilization. No more anthropogenic carbon emissions. Would this sacrifice bring the CO2 level down in a hurry?
Dr Susan Solomon and her colleagues at NOAA, with the help of their sophisticate computer models have addressed that very question. They ran a coupled climate–carbon cycle model which has components representing the dynamic ocean, the atmospheric energy–moisture interaction, and interactive sub-models of marine and terrestrial carbon cycles. The model reveals, sadly for us, that climate change is largely irreversible for 1000 years after all carbon emissions cease. The drop in radiative forcing of atmospheric CO2 (i.e. the extent to which CO2 causes atmospheric warming) is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the oceans. So atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years. And the natural interactive processes between the atmosphere, ocean and ecosystems would carry on. Atmospheric CO2 concentration would eventually drop back to 350 ppm by about 2060 and then flatten out to near 300 ppm for the rest of the 1000 years.
Eighth point – I haven’t noticed any great urges on the part of ourselves to go and huddle in caves and gnaw on pine nuts and raw fish (no wood-burning allowed) to make this scenario work, so what is more likely?
Global carbon emissions from fossil fuel use were 6.2 billion tonnes back in 1990 when global CO2 was near 355 ppm. The 2010 estimate is 8.5 billion tonnes. That’s a 38 % increase over the levels used to formulate the Kyoto Agreement. The annual growth rate of emissions derived from fossil fuels is now about 3.5%, an almost four-fold increase from the 0.9% per year for the 1990-1999 period. Carbon emissions from land-use change (i.e. mainly deforestation) in 2007 (in just that one year) were estimated at 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon. The biggest increase in emissions has taken place in developing countries, largely in China and India, while developed countries have been growing slower. The largest regional shift has been that China passed the U.S. in 2006 to become the largest CO2 emitter, and India will soon overtake Russia to become the third largest emitter. Currently, more than half of the global emissions come from less developed countries. Developing countries with 80% of the world’s population still account for only 20% of the cumulative emissions since 1751. There is nowhere for these rates to go, other than up.
When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced their Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, they diplomatically tried to hedge their bets. So they churned out 40 different scenarios based on emissions scenarios for the decade 2000-2010 which encompassed the full range of uncertainties related to future carbon emissions, demographic, social and economic inputs and possible future technological developments. The model predictions were correspondingly wide, ranging from “best” to “worst” in terms of atmospheric CO2 levels and changes in the associated climatic driving forces. Now it has become apparent that the actual emissions growth rate for 2000-2007 has exceeded the highest forecasted growth rates for 2000-2010 in their emissions scenarios.
Ninth point – so the most likely future outcomes (by the end of the century) are those at the top end of the scale outputted by the computer models (diagram above). That is to say our grandchildren will be looking at CO2 levels above 900 ppm, mean global temperature rises of 5 or 6 degrees C over what they are today, and an average sea level rise above 0.5 metres. Plus all the storms, cyclones, droughts, floods, vanishing shorelines, water wars and famines that might creep in along the way.
The end – CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and future temperatures are just numbers, and pretty much the only things that computer models can output. We will have to estimate the extent of global human misery by ourselves.
Those of us who watched “Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands” on The Nature of Things at the end of January  are legitimately concerned by this question. The Kelly and Schindler publication in the prestigious scientific journal PNAS  provided evidence that mining the Athabasca Oil Sands has increased the levels of carcinogens in the environment downstream of the industry, and it follows that more carcinogens in the environment could mean a higher risk of developing cancer for the exposed population.
Demonstrating that the Oil Sands have caused an increase in cancer incidence is another matter. This is largely because cancer is so prevalent; one in three of us can expect to develop cancer over a lifetime and one in five may die from it. According to the 2010 Canadian Cancer Statistics , the incidence rates for all cancers have not changed much across Canada in thirty years, and the current incidence of cancer in Alberta is somewhat lower than that in the Atlantic Provinces. Rates of incidence for all cancers between 2004-2006 in the Northern Lights Regional Authority, which includes the small town of Fort Chippewyan downstream of the Oil Sands development, are lower or equal to the Alberta provincial average . However, in 2009, The Alberta Health Services presented a comprehensive study of cancer incidence in the Fort Chipewyan residents between 1995 and 2006, concluding that there was an increase in cancer incidence (51 cases observed with 39 expected in about 1200 individuals); this included two cases of a very rare form of bile duct cancer . With so few total cases, caution was correctly placed on the interpretation of this observation and whether the increase could be attributed to the Oil Sands chemicals alone. Nonetheless, continued monitoring of this population was advised because of the unexpected cancer incidence.
What we really need are answers to more difficult questions: Can the current cancer risk be considered “acceptable”, as suggested by the 2010 Royal Society report on the Oil Sands , are all reasonable efforts being made to mitigate the risk, and will prompt regulatory action be taken when the risk is no longer considered acceptable (if it currently is)? These are not simple questions to answer because first we need to know:
- The chemical nature of the toxins from the tar sands industry (there are potentially dozens, each with its own distribution within the environment). Unfortunately, it is not possible to know pre-industry levels of these chemicals, and the adequacy and credibility of results obtained by the industry-supported regional aquatic monitoring program (RAMP) have come under serious question .
- Which chemicals have been tested and classified as human carcinogens. Ideally, any interactions between different chemicals that may affect cancer risk should also be known.
- The doses of carcinogens delivered to the population (including information on the concentration, duration of exposure, and route of exposure). Ideally, biomonitoring of individuals (for example, in hair or urine) should also be performed where warranted by higher levels in the environment.
- Regulations concerning exposure limits for each carcinogen, and whether these limits have been approached or exceeded downstream of the Oil Sands industry
- The number of individuals exposed to the carcinogens in order to estimate the number of excess cancer cases that can be expected, and the significance one can place on this estimate
- What has been done, and what can be done, to mitigate the risks of developing cancer
Taking the position that no increase in cancer risk is acceptable fails to acknowledge the many risks to our health that we accept each day, including risks of developing cancer from lifestyle choices. The government sets limits on the levels of known carcinogens in the environment, but these limits are often meant to be “as low as reasonably achievable” and therefore are typically greater than zero. For ionizing radiation, perhaps the best understood carcinogen (and my own area of expertise), the current dose limit is 1 mSv per year for the general public. Yet a single medical imaging procedure can deliver ten times that dose, and the natural background dose (which is highly variable from one place to another) averages three times higher [8,9]. To put these amounts into perspective, exposure to 1 mSv would be expected to produce five extra cancer deaths in 100,000 people . It would be impossible to demonstrate a statistically-significant increase in cancer incidence by exposure of small numbers of individuals to 1 or even 10 mSv per year, yet we are still able to estimate the probability for a large population provided we know the exposure.
It often comes back to risk versus benefit. We all find it easier to accept risk when it is our choice to make, but First Nations and others who make their homes downstream of the Oil Sands may not have that option. Both risks and benefits need to be shared fairly, and that is not often the case.
Dozens of toxic chemicals are emitted and distributed during the mining and processing of the Oil Sands. Arsenic is a known human carcinogen, yet a 2006 report prepared by Cantox Environmental for Alberta Health and Wellness concluded that there was a negligible risk of cancer from exposure to inorganic arsenic in the Woods Buffalo region of Alberta that contains the Oil Sands . Although the levels of arsenic used for those cancer risk estimates were provided by the Oil Sands industry, in independently-funded studies, arsenic levels were rising in that area but did not exceed the regulatory limit [2,12]. However, seven of twelve other toxic metals exceeded guidelines for the protection of aquatic life by 5 -300 fold . Heavy metals, including cadmium and mercury, are considered ‘possible’ human carcinogens, a different designation that limits what can be said about the risk for developing cancer.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) include known human carcinogens that are found downstream of the Oil Sands. Twenty-six out of twenty-eight measured PAHs showed, on average, a six fold increase in concentration downstream compared to upstream . Canada Health and Welfare and the World Health Organization recommend drinking water levels for total PAHs of 0.2 mg/L, and for the most carcinogenic PAH, benzo(a)pyrene, the limit is set at 0.01 mg/L. The estimated lifetime risk associated with the ingestion of drinking water containing 0.01 µg/L benzo[a]pyrene is considered “essentially negligible” by Health Canada, and 1 in 100,000 by the World Health Organization . In a study conducted in 2007 by Timoney , concentrations of PAHs near the Oil Sands varied greatly, but at times exceed guidelines suggesting potential danger to exposed individuals. Perhaps we should be asking, “How dangerous is the exposure to PAHs from the tar sands industry relative to smoking cigarettes or living in an urban environment? How rapidly are levels increasing downstream of the Oil Sands? What are the peak levels as well as average levels?” Answering these questions requires a reliable environmental monitoring program which is currently lacking.
Simply demonstrating that the amount of any one carcinogen is lower than government mandated limits fails to acknowledge the possible interactions between different chemicals. Co-exposure of fish to arsenic and benzo(a)pyrene can increase rates of genotoxicity eight to eighteen times above rates observed after exposure to either carcinogen alone . Currently, there is little if any information on additive or multiplicative risks of cancer from exposure to several carcinogens, so the possibility is largely ignored in assigning ‘safe’ limits.
With known carcinogens being distributed over a large region of Alberta, reducing exposure and subsequent risk should be an industry priority. In the 1970s, stack precipitators were instrumental in reducing airborne particulates, but subsequent industry expansion means that overall levels are now similar to those measured before precipitators were installed . Levels will continue to rise in coming years if no efforts are made to further reduce emissions. Tailings ponds should not leak as they do now , and they should be guarded against storm damage. River water flow should be monitored so that it is adequate to dilute particulates, and climate change effects and usage effects on river flow should be taken into consideration for future expansion. Technology should be developed to recover toxic heavy metals.
What is needed to make this happen is a world-class, government-sponsored environmental monitoring system that can keep pace with the oil sands developments, is transparent but informative to the public, and examines a full range of potential environmental effects. Water testing should be as good if not better than the air quality measurements now provided by the Woods Buffalo Environmental Association, a multi-stakeholder group that publishes readouts on their web site from more than a dozen sites in the Oil Sands region . Information on levels of carcinogens present in plants, animals and people living in the region are also needed.
A special review panel recently convened by the Alberta Government has already concluded that more stringent oversight of environmental contamination in the Athabasca Oil Sands is necessary . Their full report is due in June 2011, but recognizing that the current monitoring program is flawed and doing something about it are two separate things. Maximum toxic contaminant levels need to be set, and not just for water, but also for soil, sediment, plant and animal life. There should be recognition that adhering to these levels may mean curtailing expansion at some future point. The pressure to accomplish these goals must come from many directions, and should not rest exclusively on the inhabitants of Northern Alberta.
Coming back to the question, is there a cancer threat from the Oil Sands, the answer is yes, because the levels of known carcinogens in the regions downstream of the industry have increased. Have these increases actually caused cancer? Perhaps, but the available data do not support an unequivocal conclusion. Cancer is too prevalent, and the number of exposed individuals is too small to be sure. Does this mean that there is no reason for concern, at least at present? Absolutely not. Cancer can take many years to develop and levels of carcinogens from the industry continue to increase. Until a reliable monitoring system is in place, we will have insufficient information to base estimates of cancer risk.
The Oil Sands industry has the opportunity and the responsibility to mitigate these risks, but we have a responsibility to understand these risks in relation to others we encounter in our daily lives. Hall, in an earlier edition of his book  examined the chances of dying from a radiation-induced cancer in relation to the risk of dying from smoking cigarettes or driving a given number of highway miles. I’ve used his analogy to compare PAH-induced cancer with these risks. If drinking water containing 0.01 mg/L benzo(a)pyrene causes one additional fatal cancer in 100,000 people, this would be equivalent to the risk of dying from smoking 73 cigarettes or driving 178 miles. This doesn’t sound too bad until we remember that we are also exposed to many carcinogens not only in drinking water but in the air we breathe and the food we eat. One of those chemicals is arsenic. The risk of dying from cancer by drinking water containing 0.01 mg/L arsenic (the government mandated limit) is equivalent to the risk of dying by smoking 1500 cigarettes or driving 3500 miles. If you’re wondering why maximum allowable arsenic levels are so high, it’s partly because of the difficulties in estimating both exposure and risk from cancer caused by arsenic. However, Health Canada also states that their regulation represents “the lowest level of arsenic in drinking water that can be technically achieved at reasonable cost” , which is even more reason for close monitoring of the carcinogens produced by the Oil Sands industry.
1. Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands. Documentary film aired Jan 27 and Feb 12, 2011 on CBC-TV. http://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/natureofthings/2011/tippingpoint/
- Kelly, EN, Schindler, DW, Hodson PV, Short JW, Radmanovich, R. Oil Sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107: 16178–16183 2010.
- Canadian Cancer Society’s Steering Committee: Canadian Cancer Statistics 2010, Toronto: Canadian Cancer Society, 2010. http://www.cancer.ca/canada-wide/about%20cancer/cancer%20statistics/~/media/CCS/Canada%20wide/Files%20List/English%20files%20heading/pdf%20not%20in%20publications%20section/Canadian20Cancer20Statistics2020102020English.ashx
- Alberta Health Services, Report on Cancer Statistics in Alberta, 2009. http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/poph/hi-poph-surv-cancer-cancer-in-alberta-2009.pdf
- Alberta Cancer Board, Report on the Incidence of Cancer in Fort Chipewyan, 1995-2006 http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/rls/ne-rls-2009-02-06-fort-chipewyan-study.pdf
- Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel, Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry, December, 2010. http://www.rsc.ca/documents/expert/RSC%20report%20complete%20secured%209Mb.pdf
- Main, C. 2010 Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program Scientific Review http://www.ramp-alberta.org/UserFiles/File/RAMP%202010%20Scientific%20Peer%20Review%20Report.pdf
- The 2007 Recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection. ICRP #103; Wrixon, AD. New ICRP recommendations. Journal of Radiological Protection, 28:161-168, 2008. http://iopscience.iop.org/0952-4746/28/2/R02/pdf/jrp8_2_R02.pdf
- Hall EJ and Giaccia, AJ, Radiobiology for the Radiologist, Sixth Edition, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, 2006.
10. Smith AH, Lopipero PA, Bates MN, Steinmaus CM. Arsenic epidemiology and drinking water standards. Science 296: 214l5-6, 2002; Kaiser J. Second Look at Arsenic Finds Higher Risk, Science 293, 2189, 2001; Arsenic in drinking water. National Academy Press, 2001 Update. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10194&page=203
11. Report prepared by Cantox Environmental for Alberta Health and Wellness. Assessment of the Potential Lifetime Cancer Risks Associated with Exposure to Inorganic Arsenic among Indigenous People living in the Wood Buffalo Region of Alberta, 2007.
12. Timoney, KP and Lee P. Does the Alberta Tar Sands industry polute? The Scientific evidence. The Open Conservation Biology Journal 3:65-81, 2009.
13. Kelly EN, Short JW, Schindler, DW, Hodson PV, Ma M, Kwan AK, and Fortin, BL. Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and its tributaries. PNAS 106:22346-22351, 2009.
14. Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, Province of British Columbia. Ambient water quality criteria for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wat/wq/BCguidelines/pahs/index.html#TopOfPage
15. Timoney, KP. A study of water and sediment quality as related to public heath issues, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. A report conducted on behalf of the Nunee Heath Board Society, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. http://energy.probeinternational.org/system/files/timoney-fortchipwater-111107.pdf
16. Maier A, Schumann BL, Chang X, Talaska G, Puga A. Arsenic co-exposure potentiates benzo(a)pyrene genotoxicity. Mutation Research, 517: 101-11, 2002.
17. Wood Buffalo Environmental Association Website: http://wbea.org/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/
18. Jones, J. (Reuters) Water checks deficient at Canada Oil Sands: Report, March 10, 2011 http://solveclimate.com/news/20110310/water-checks-deficient-canada-oil-sands-report
19. Health Canada Environmental and Workplace Health, Arsenic, Application of the Guideline. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/pubs/water-eau/arsenic/application-eng.php
The other elders may drive me from the village with brooms and pitchforks when they read my confession. But the truth must out. I am, alas, a sceptic.
I am sceptical, as well as skeptical, that my beloved Earth is going to self-destruct on 31 December 2012. I think it’s more likely the Mayans ran out of wild fig bark on which they were drawing their calendars. I am sceptical that I am by nature diplomatic, charming and easygoing because Jupiter was hanging out with Venus in the Fourth House of the night sky right about the time I came into the world seventy-odd years ago. I am sceptical that the people responsible for the multi-billion dollar homeopathic remedy business have never learned to spell the words p-l-a-c-e-b-o and g-u-l-l-i-b-i-l-i-t-y. And all this scepticism flies in the teeth of the billions of people worldwide who buy into this stuff.
We sceptics are in good company. Albert Einstein was one. In 1933 he famously stated that black holes do not and cannot exist. He couldn’t see one and couldn’t find the rationale for them in his famous equations. Today his successors have no such problems and not only think they have identified nearly 30 black hole candidates in the Milky Way galaxy but are now getting the proof that the holes behave in the relativistic way that Einstein’s theories predict.
But I’m concerned that we genuine sceptics are being given a bad name by all these so-called climate change and global warming sceptics out there.
We need to address a few issues to sort out these guys in the black hats. Firstly, what exactly is a sceptic? What is climate? And what is climate change and what does it entail?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sceptic as one who maintains a doubting attitude with reference to some particular question or statement. Michael Schermer, the entertaining editor of Skeptic magazine enlarges the concept thus: “Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method that involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. All facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity”.
And what is ‘climate’ and how does it differ from ‘weather’?
Weather is the state of the atmosphere at any given moment to the extent that it is hot or cold, wet or dry, calm or stormy, clear or cloudy. The way the concept is used in daily life refers to day-to-day temperature and precipitation activity. By contrast climate is the term for the average atmospheric conditions over longer periods of time. The difference between the two creates major confusion for many. “How the heck can it be global warming when we’re having record snowfalls in eastern Canada?”
Which leads us to the obvious next question – what is the evidence for climate change?
Lots of prestigious institutions keep honest meteorological data and report their findings. At the national level, Environment Canada reports that the national average temperature for 2010 was 3.0°C above normal, which makes it the warmest year on record since nationwide records began in 1948. The previous warmest year was 1998, 2.5°C above normal. Four Canadian climate regions (Arctic Tundra, Arctic Mountains and Fiords, North-eastern Forest and Atlantic Canada) experienced their warmest year on record in 2010, and for six other climate regions the year was amongst 10 warmest recorded. Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan were the only parts of the country with close to normal temperatures. Environment Canada’s national temperature departures table shows that of the ten warmest years, four have occurred within the last decade, and 13 of the last 20 years are listed among the 20 warmest.
At the international level, the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia has global land and marine surface temperature data dating back to 1850. The Unit reports that the years 2003, 2005 and 2010 have been the warmest on record. The mean global temperature has risen by 0.8°C over the past century. The World Meteorological Organization reports that the ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has carefully summarized all the salient indicators of climate change occurring within the past century. These include:
- heat waves – the frequency of heat waves in the U.S. has risen steadily since 1970, and the area within the U.S. experiencing heat waves has increased;
- average precipitation has increased since 1901 at an average rate of more than 6 percent per century in the U.S. and nearly 2 percent per century worldwide;
- heavy precipitation – in recent years, a higher percentage of precipitation in the U.S. has come in the form of intense single-day events; eight of the top 10 years for extreme one-day precipitation events have occurred since 1990;
- tropical cyclone intensity in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico has risen noticeably over the past 20 years; six of the 10 most active hurricane seasons have occurred since the mid-1990s; this increase is closely related to variations in sea surface temperature in the tropical Atlantic;
- Arctic sea ice – September 2007 had the lowest ice coverage of any year on record, followed by 2008 and 2009; the extent of Arctic sea ice in 2009 was 24 percent below the 1979 to 2000 historical average;
- glaciers around the world have generally shrunk since the 1960s, and the rate at which glaciers are melting has accelerated over the last decade; overall, glaciers worldwide have lost more than 8000 km3 of water since 1960;
- lakes in the northern U.S. are freezing later and thawing earlier than they did in the 1800s and early 1900s; the length of time that lakes stay frozen has decreased at an average rate of one to two days per decade;
- snow cover over North America has generally decreased since 1972 (although there has been much year-to-year variability); snow covered an average of 8 million km2 of North America during the years 2000 to 2008, compared with 8.8 million km2 during the 1970s.
So we honest sceptics have no issue with the evidence for global warming. Its incontrovertible. Not even Sarah Palin could refudiate it.
What about the evidence for anthropogenic inputs to global climate change? In other words, to what extent are human activities, specifically the emission of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, responsible for the global warming observed to date?
Total global green house gas emissions (expressed as carbon dioxide equivalents) are nearing 30 billion metric tonnes per year. As a result mean global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has gone from about 280 parts per million during pre-industrial times to more than 380 parts per million today. Earlier CO2 data were collected from ice-cores in eastern Antarctica and have been the subject of dispute by so-called climate sceptics, but the modern-day data come from state of the art instrumentation on Mauna Loa in Hawaii and are incontestable. From 1990 to 2008 the radiative forcing of all the greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere increased by about 26 percent, the rise in carbon dioxide concentrations accounting for approximately 80 percent of this increase.
It turns out that atmospheric CO2 is not homogeneous. Some of it contains carbon-12, the rest carbon-13 (one more neutron per atom than carbon-12). Green plants prefer carbon-12 in their photosynthetic reactions. When fossil fuels, which are derived from ancient plants, are burned, the carbon-12 is release into the atmosphere. Over time the continuous carbon-12 emissions change the atmospheric proportion of carbon-13 to carbon-12, and this proportion can be measured in corals and sea sponges. So not only have background levels of CO2 increased over the past century, they are directly linked to fossil fuel burning. And we honest sceptics are still cool with the concept.
Next question – is the extra anthropogenically-derived CO2 responsible for the observed warming trend? The so-called ‘greenhouse’ effect of CO2 is well-known, and can easily be measured in a laboratory. But it has also been measured globally over the past 30 years by satellite-mounted infrared sensors and found to be significant. Moreover, the amounts of global atmospheric downward long wave radiation over land surfaces measured from 1973 to 2008 have been examined and found to be significant in contributing to the global greenhouse effect.
The U.S. Protection Agency’s summary includes some biological indicators of long-term climate change in the U.S.:
- the average length of the growing season in the lower 48 states has increased by about two weeks since the beginning of the 20th century; a particularly large and steady increase having occurred over the last 30 years; the observed changes reflect earlier spring warming as well as later arrival of fall frosts, and the length of the growing season has increased more rapidly in the west than in the east.
- plant hardiness zones have shifted northward since 1990, reflecting higher winter temperatures in most parts of the country; large portions of several states have warmed by at least one hardiness zone;
- leaf and bloom dates of lilacs and honeysuckles in the lower 48 states are now a few days earlier than in 1900s;
- bird wintering ranges have shifted northward by an average of 56 km since 1966, with a few species shifting by several hundred kilometres; many bird species have moved their wintering grounds farther from the coast, consistent with rising inland temperatures.
So there you have it. Take all the scientific evidence available and it would be difficult indeed not to concur with the 97 out of 100 climate experts who think that humans are indeed causing global warming.
So, if the evidence satisfies the honest sceptics amongst us, i.e. those who take the time to seek out and evaluate the evidence and try their level best to come to an honest and defensible conclusions, why then is there a substantial body of opinion which holds countervailing views, i.e. that there is no warming or climate change (its all just natural variation), or that there is change but we ain’t responsible (its Mother Nature’s fault)?
That would be the subject of future postings from the Elders. It opens up the opportunity for some innovative taxonomy of climate change personalities, but I’ll leave the naming to others!
The evidence of human influences on climate change has become increasingly clear and compelling over the last several decades There is now convincing evidence that human activities such as electricity production and transportation are adding to the concentrations of greenhouse gases that are already naturally present in the atmosphere. These heat-trapping gases are now at record-high levels in the atmosphere compared with the recent and distant past.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recently published Climate Change Indicators in the United States to help the concerned public readers interpret a set of important indicators for climate change. The report presents 24 indicators, each describing trends in some way related to the causes and effects of climate change. The indicators focus primarily on the United States, but in some cases global trends are presented in order to provide context or a basis for comparison. The following is a brief summary of the report’s contents.
Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Worldwide, emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities increased by 26 percent from 1990 to 2005. Emissions of carbon dioxide, which account for nearly three-fourths of the total, increased by 31 percent over this period. The majority of the world’s emissions are associated with energy use.
Atmospheric Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases. Concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have risen substantially since the beginning of the industrial era. Almost all of this increase is attributable to human activities. Historical measurements show that the current levels of many greenhouse gases are higher than any seen in thousands of years, even after accounting for natural fluctuations.
Climate Forcing. From 1990 to 2008, the radiative forcing of all the greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere increased by about 26 percent. The rise in carbon dioxide concentrations accounts for approximately 80 percent of this increase. Radiative forcing is a way to measure how substances such as greenhouse gases affect the amount of energy that is absorbed by the atmosphere – an increase in radiative forcing leads to warming while a decrease in forcing produces cooling.
Weather and Climate
U.S. and Global Temperature. Average temperatures have risen across the lower 48 states since 1901, with an increased rate of warming over the past 30 years. Parts of the North, the West, and Alaska have seen temperatures increase the most. Seven of the top 10 warmest years on record for the lower 48 states have occurred since 1990, and the last 10 five-year periods have been the warmest five-year periods on record. Average global temperatures show a similar trend, and 2000–2009 was the warmest decade on record worldwide.
Heat Waves. The frequency of heat waves in the United States decreased in the 1960s and 1970s, but has risen steadily since then. The percentage of the United States experiencing heat waves has also increased. The most severe heat waves in U.S. history remain those that occurred during the “Dust Bowl” in the 1930s, although average temperatures have increased since then.
Drought. Over the period from 2001 through 2009, roughly 30 to 60 percent of the U.S. land area experienced drought conditions at any given time. However, the data for this indicator have not been collected for long enough to determine whether droughts are increasing or decreasing over time.
U.S. and Global Precipitation. Average precipitation has increased in the United States and worldwide. Since 1901, precipitation has increased at an average rate of more than 6 percent per century in the lower 48 states and nearly 2 percent per century worldwide. However, shifting weather patterns have caused certain areas, such as Hawaii and parts of the Southwest, to experience less precipitation than they used to.
Heavy Precipitation. In recent years, a higher percentage of precipitation in the United States has come in the form of intense single-day events. Eight of the top 10 years for extreme one-day precipitation events have occurred since 1990. The occurrence of abnormally high annual precipitation totals has also increased.
Tropical Cyclone Intensity. The intensity of tropical storms in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico did not exhibit a strong long-term trend for much of the 20th century, but has risen noticeably over the past 20 years. Six of the 10 most active hurricane seasons have occurred since the mid-1990s. This increase is closely related to variations in sea surface temperature in the tropical Atlantic.
Ocean Heat. Several studies have shown that the amount of heat stored in the ocean has increased substantially since the 1950s. Ocean heat content not only determines sea surface temperature, but it also affects sea level and currents.
Sea Surface Temperature. The surface temperature of the world’s oceans increased over the 20th century. Even with some year-to-year variation, the overall increase is statistically significant, and sea surface temperatures have been higher during the past three decades than at any other time since large-scale measurement began in the late 1800s.
Sea Level. When averaged over all the world’s oceans, sea level has increased at a rate of roughly six-tenths of an inch per decade since 1870. The rate of increase has accelerated in recent years to more than an inch per decade. Changes in sea level relative to the height of the land vary widely because the land itself moves. Along the U.S. coastline, sea level has risen the most relative to the land along the Mid-Atlantic coast and parts of the Gulf Coast. Sea level has decreased relative to the land in parts of Alaska and the Northwest.
Ocean Acidity. The ocean has become more acidic over the past 20 years, and studies suggest that the ocean is substantially more acidic now than it was a few centuries ago. Rising acidity is associated with increased levels of carbon dioxide dissolved in the water. Changes in acidity can affect sensitive organisms such as corals.
Snow & Ice
Arctic Sea Ice. Part of the Arctic Ocean stays frozen year-round. The area covered by ice is typically smallest in September, after the summer melting season. September 2007 had the least ice of any year on record, followed by 2008 and 2009. The extent of Arctic sea ice in 2009 was 24 percent below the 1979 to 2000 historical average.
Glaciers. Glaciers in the United States and around the world have generally shrunk since the 1960s, and the rate at which glaciers are melting appears to have accelerated over the last decade. Overall, glaciers worldwide have lost more than 2,000 cubic miles of water since 1960, which has contributed to the observed rise in sea level.
Lake Ice. Lakes in the northern United States generally appear to be freezing later and thawing earlier than they did in the 1800s and early 1900s. The length of time that lakes stay frozen has decreased at an average rate of one to two days per decade.
Snow Cover. The portion of North America covered by snow has generally decreased since 1972, although there has been much year-to-year variability. Snow covered an average of 3.18 million square miles of North America during the years 2000 to 2008, compared with 3.43 million square miles during the 1970s.
Snowpack. Between 1950 and 2000, the depth of snow on the ground in early spring decreased at most measurement sites in the western United States and Canada. Spring snowpack declined by more than 75 percent in some areas, but increased in a few others.
Society & Ecosystems
Heat-Related Deaths. Over the past three decades, more than 6,000 deaths across the United States were caused by heat-related illness such as heat stroke. However, considerable year-to-year variability makes it difficult to determine long-term trends.
Length of Growing Season. The average length of the growing season in the lower 48 states has increased by about two weeks since the beginning of the 20th century. A particularly large and steady increase has occurred over the last 30 years. The observed changes reflect earlier spring warming as well as later arrival of fall frosts. The length of the growing season has increased more rapidly in the West than in the East.
Plant Hardiness Zones. Winter low temperatures are a major factor in determining which plants can survive in a particular area. Plant hardiness zones have shifted noticeably northward since 1990, reflecting higher winter temperatures in most parts of the country. Large portions of several states have warmed by at least one hardiness zone.
Leaf and Bloom Dates. The timing of natural events such as leaf growth and flower blooms are influenced by climate change. Observations of lilacs and honeysuckles in the lower 48 states indicate that leaf growth is now occurring a few days earlier than it did in the early 1900s. Lilacs and honeysuckles are also blooming slightly earlier than in the past, but it is difficult to determine whether this change is statistically meaningful.
Bird Wintering Ranges. Some birds shift their range or alter their migration habits to adapt to changes in temperature or other environmental conditions. Long-term studies have found that bird species in North America have shifted their wintering grounds northward by an average of 35 miles since 1966, with a few species shifting by several hundred miles. On average, bird species have also moved their wintering grounds farther from the coast, consistent with rising inland temperatures.
Global temperature (in °C) from 1900 to 2009. The black line is the annual global mean. The red line is the 10-year running mean. The grey area shows the 95% confidence interval calculated for the 50 years up to and including each year’s measurement. The graph shows an increase in mean global temperature, an increase in the confidence interval (i.e. warmer climate) and an increase in the width of the confidence interval (i.e. more variable temperatures). Data from the Hadley Centre for Climate Change, U.K. Graph constructed by Hanno Sandvik, Norwegian University of Science & Technology.