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Climate change

Into the gathering haze

By David Wilson

Every year about this time we make a car trip that is more a rite of passage than a journey from here to there. Laden with kids, supplies and a dog beside herself with joy, we set out on the first trip of the season to the family cottage. We can never be certain the road into the place will be passable or the cottage itself in one piece after the battering of winter. But everything always seems to be fine. The place bursts alive as we pull open the drapes and the sun comes pouring in for the first time in months. If we're lucky we'll witness the ice breaking up on the lake. When they were younger the kids would arm themselves with sticks and bash away at the remaining ice like freed prisoners avenging a cruel tormenter.

The first trip to the cottage draws a final line between the grinding eternity of late winter and the giddy promise of early spring. From that day forward we go whenever we can, no matter how vile the traffic or threatening the weather. The end always justifies the means.

But every so often it occurs to me that there's something wrong with our cottage habit. It'll be hot and smoggy and we'll be crawling along in 16 lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic. I look over the horizon and imagine the same vista -- the toxic haze, the sickly sunlight bouncing off billions of tonnes of steel and glass and asphalt -- played out on a thousand freeways in a thousand other cities, and get the queasy feeling that a day of reckoning cannot be far away. Some day, all this backing and forthing is going to have to stop. Either I'll make the call or -- more likely -- someone or something will make it for me.

It probably should have happened already. Mine is one of about 600 million cars in the world today. Every one of them spews the energy- trapping contaminants blamed for an alarming rise in the earth's temperature -- the greenhouse effect -- that appears to have begun about the time I was born in the mid-1950s. Fossil-fuel-powered mobility and affluence have defined my generation; if the scientists are right -- and more of them are singing the same sombre tune -- my kids' generation, and their kids', will be defined by calamities of biblical proportions: plagues, pestilence, rising sea levels, expanding deserts, famines, killer storms, mass population displacement -- all caused by a jump of just a couple of degrees in the earth's average temperature. Some future Christmas it may be warm enough for them to sip drinks on the dock, but something tells me they won't be in much of a mood to celebrate.

Last year was by no means a banner cottage year -- at one point in mid- July we counted 10 straight days of rain -- but it was nevertheless the fourth-warmest year recorded since scientists started keeping track of such things in the late 1800s. Three of the warmest years ever recorded have occurred in a seven-year stretch that started in 1998. In mid-February, NASA warned there were signs 2005 could be the hottest year yet. The American space agency cited two reasons: a weak El Nino, the well-known but little-understood spread of warm water over the tropical Pacific Ocean, and the greenhouse effect. NASA said its analysis showed the earth's surface is now absorbing more sun- energy than it is reflecting back into space. A few days later, a panel of oceanographers told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that their computer modeling had irrefutably pinpointed human activity as the reason for a rise in ocean temperatures over the last 40 years.

A little less than a month before the Kyoto Protocol came into effect this winter, requiring Canada and 34 other industrialized nations to cut their greenhouse emissions, a blue-ribbon Anglo-American- Australian task force on climate change warned that "an ecological time-bomb is ticking away." Global warming was approaching the point of no return, they said, after which its ill effects will be irreversible. "World leaders need to recognize that climate change is the single-most important long-term issue that the planet faces," said co-chair Stephen Byers.

His comments were significant because Byers is a close confidant of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Blair is under mounting pressure to bring the United States on side in the effort to halt global warming. The Americans, who produce one-quarter of all greenhouse emissions, refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, citing the damage it would cause to its fossil-fuel-hungry economy, and pointing to grey areas in the science of global warming -- for example the role of natural phenomena such as solar activity, and unexplained climate shifts that predate the modern world's addiction to fossil fuels.

It's rather like the Americans are using the legal principle of reasonable doubt to rationalize their position on the science of planetary survival. I wish they'd admit that the science is reasonably certain and join the rest of the world in committing to Kyoto and whatever succeeds it. The world's other big polluters -- China, Russia, Japan, the Europeans and India -- have all signed on.

Though not subject to Kyoto's letter of the law, China, with its surging economy, booming population and reputation for environmental recklessness, has significantly cut its emissions since the mid-1990s, while the U.S. has allowed its to grow by at least five percent.

As odious as American anti-Kyoto rhetoric often is, we Canadians shouldn't ride too proudly on our high horse. Per capita, we're the fourth-largest greenhouse gas-producing nation in the industrialized world. We may have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but we still have no concrete plan for meeting our obligations.

The fact is, we're in the same boat as the Americans: undoing the damage we're causing to the atmosphere requires social, economic and political change on a revolutionary scale. If we're serious about global warming we simply cannot go on living the way we are. That's what the Americans are balking at when they reject initiatives like Kyoto. They're being honest about it; I'm not sure we are.

Big, polluting industries have to do their part, but ultimately the calculus of global warming reduces to individuals and ethical choices. Are we willing to make sacrifices for the greater good? Questions like this are a lot easier to ask than answer, but they're the kinds of questions churches and people of faith deal with all the time.

For me, the issue inevitably leads back to the cottage. Later this month, congregations will mark Earth Day Sunday, but I fully expect to be cottage-bound, full of anticipation and shadowed by one of the big environmental questions of our time: Am I willing to throw away my car keys and turn my back on the place forever? The weight of the evidence says I must, sooner rather than later. My heart says no. So the bottom line is maybe. I wonder how many more maybes the planet can handle.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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