Global Warming!

        Several years ago, commentators referred to Global Warming as "a possibility, according to some scientists". Many politicians had not accepted the idea, and for most ordinary people, the topic was either one to be dismissed as some vague threat for the future (along the lines of the sun burning out) or as the basis of wishes about warmer summers and shorter winters.

        Well, the future is now! Commentators refer to global warming as an established scientific fact. Many politicians have recognized the same, as witness the recent decision taken by New England governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers to sign an accord by which all of them agreed to work toward very specific targets to reduce greenhouse emissions, first to ten percent less than 1990 levels by the end of the next few years, and secondly, by a much larger percentage within the lifetime of young adults today.

        The fact of global warming is now accepted by all but a few politicians (unfortunately inculding the most powerful of them all) and by some leaders in industry, who stand to lose financially by any curtailment of their activities. In fact, there is general concensus that we are now experiencing it and that the best we can do is to take actions to delay the long term consequences of runaway heat buildup in the atmosphere. The City of Charlottetown, for example, has accepted the fact that it will have to deal with rising sea levels over the next fifty to one hundred years, which threaten current waterfront properties. It has also decided to curtail future development on the waterfront, at least until a solid strategy can be developed to handle water levels which could be as much as two meters higher than those currently experienced.

        Citizens of Sackville have been warned that a similiar fate awaits them. The historic dikes on the Tantramar will not hold back the seas of fifty years from now; they may not hold back an extreme storm surge right now, or ten years from now. The people of Shediac, Cap Pele and other towns and villages along Northumberland Strait are dealing with the reality now; each winter more of their waterfront properties disappear into the strait.

        Further north, Inuit people are reporting that fall begins several weeks later now than it did ten years ago, and summer begins correspondingly earlier. Most startlingly, scientists have realized that the huge icecap off Ward Hunt Island, off the northern tip of Ellesmere Island and the most northerly piece of land on the planet, has lost more than ninty percent of its mass - within the past ten years! There is now open water in the Arctic where there has not been for hundreds of years.

        We know that the planet has been warming and then chilling in cyclic patterns for millenia. It could be argued that, after all, this is part of the normal process of planetary life. And so it is. However there are two significant differences about this cycle that we cannot ignore. One of them is that, according to the geological record, there has never been a movement toward planetary warming that has happened so quickly. This is, it is very evident, because of the massive human contribution to the process.

        The second difference can be stated very simply. At the time of the last Ice Age (which is the end result of all previous global warming cycles - and a topic for another column), total population on the planet was in the order of about 20 000 000 people; the projected population in another fifty years will be in the order of 15 000 000 000, or approximately 750 TIMES as many people to try to feed in the face of almost unimaginable terrestrial change.The usual strategy followed by species to survive these cycles of heat and cold has been to migrate. The huge numbers of humans which will be affected (are being affected now) preclude any realistic idea of migration; the rapidity of the change causes the same problems for other species.

        I want to pursue several of these ideas further next month. For now, I want to close by stating that I do not think that the situation is hopeless, merely desperate.

        This article appeared in the Campbellton Tribune, in Mike's "Grains of Sand" column. It is reproduced with Mike's permission.

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