The big picture

by Karl Perrin

What do B.C. and Moscow have in common? Fire. But there’s more to consider.

I know. “Here comes another rant.” Well not exactly. I hope that we all can maintain some perspective, by seeing the bigger picture, while we endure the shocks of everyday environmental news.

While I monitor daily news, I ignore much of it, in order to stay focused on climate change, since it is a major threat and easily ignored by sensationalist media.

I respect that others focus on addictions, poverty, crime, HST, etc. and I wish them well. I support them when I can.

But those of us interested in climate change need to start shifting our attention to adaptation to climate change, while continuing our efforts to mitigate (reduce) GHG emissions by stopping Gateways and Tar Sands pipelines.

What I mean is that the goal posts are moving. Success may look like losing more slowly, but that is still success. Climate change is here, and it is here in predictable ways. The relatively stable climate of the past 10,000 years is gone, and several climate changes will accelerate. Disasters, like this year’s fires and floods will become commonplace. That is likely to cause disaster “exhaustion” unless we pace ourselves. We can expect even more difficult choices for allocation of resources in the near future.

In 1993 I read Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance. It was scary, but well grounded in the scientific consensus of the day. One issue Gore warned about was “positive feedback loops”, i.e. the “runaway” part of “runaway climate change”. For example, the albedo effect of retreating white Arctic ice leaving dark (heat absorbing) ocean, forest and bog fires releasing GHGs, thawing permafrost releasing methane, etc.

The other issue was species (and whole ecosystems) moving northward and up to higher elevations as former habitats become too hot. The interior of B.C. is burning because summers are warmer, but also, warmer winters have lead to less pest resistence, and overall, less resilience. But this warmer climate works for species from farther south, at least temporarilty.

This is exactly what happened at the end of the last ice age, when ecosystems gradually moved north following the retreat of glaciers. The differences are 1) this time the change is much faster, and 2) there are human barriers to ecosystem movement (e.g. mammals can’t spread northward if urban and agricultural barriers block their migration).

Nevertheless, that’s how we should see forest fire, for example. It clears away an untenable ecosystem, no longer appropriate to warmer temperatures, and makes room for new species from warmer areas to move north. Also with changes in wind, drought, and flood patterns, there will be movement of ecosystems in relation to temperature, precipitation, and storm changes.

While long term climate is more predictable than short term local weather, climate too may become less predictable in the future. There may be sudden (i.e., over decades) jumps in climate from one steady state to another (with lots of wobble in between). When prediction is difficult, we seem to adopt a “wait and see” attitude. All of this was laid out in Al Gore’s 1992 book and it’s now coming true.

Therefore, we (humans) have no choice but to adapt to weather and climate unlike what we have been used to. Oceans will rise, fires will blaze, species will move toward the poles or die out, and often, new life will replace old. There is still the option of hoping for an unforeseen technological miracle, and of course, prayer. But then the need to make difficult and timely decisions (e.g. stay and build a dike or move to higher ground) will remain.

Finally, I add below the website that got me thinking in this way. The Russians drained and dried their peat bogs, and now they are suffering from peat smoke. Greater Vancouver and coastal B.C. will get warmer wetter winters and warmer drier summers. How will we meet the challenges locally and globally as they continue to pile up? Yes, turn off the sensationalist TV. Don’t succumb to being overwhelmed. We still need to think and act, so we can still say to our kids, “We did our best.”

Posted by Karl Perrin

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