When the Americans decided to send a man to the moon they searched tirelessly for a location that could duplicate the barren, lifeless topography they imagined made up the lunar surface. In the end they decided on Sudbury, Ontario: a small, friendly city anchored in the uncompromising granite of the Canadian Shield, a few hundred miles north of the US border.
Sudbury is a ‘hardrock town’, a mining community perched atop a honeycomb of shafts from which the International Nickel Company (INCO) has dragged thousands of tons of nickel ore over the past 50 years. INCO built the town, but it also destroyed the local environment. The hills all around are stripped of the original coniferous forest; the land is blasted and forlorn, pockmarked with settling pools and scarred by slag heaps, the result of decades of deadly chemicals being pumped into the air from company smokestacks.
When outrage over acid rain – not to mention the effect of Inco’s pollution on the health of local residents – began to hit home more than a decade ago, the company reacted by building a ‘superstack’, a monumental chimney which towers over the town. The superstack was offered as a solution. But it was a typically self-interested and short-sighted one. It did help clear the local air, but only at the expense of the thick forest and isolated communities several hundred miles to the north-east. Out of sight, Out of mind.
Sudbury is an extreme but not unusual example of industrial society’s disregard for the natural environment. The reality is that you can find dozens of Sudburys around the world. From Teplice in eastern Czechoslovakia to Palembang in south Sumatra, scores of other INCOs have used the atmosphere as a dumping ground for toxic discharges.
Over the past 200 years we have operated under the assumption that the environment is infinitely forgiving: the seas are deep enough, the sky big enough and the soil resilient enough to absorb whatever toxic garbage we produce.
No longer. The last half of the 1980s changed all that; suddenly people were frightened that damage to the global environment was spinning out of control. A number of startling revelations set that fear in motion. The most shocking was scientific confirmation that human-made chemicals (chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs) had torn a hole the size of the US in the ozone layer over the Antarctic. When the ozone layer is damaged more ultraviolet radiation reaches the earth’s surface, boosting skin cancers and potentially disrupting the food chain.
There were other signals. Coincidentally, one of the clearest took place in the summer of 1988 just a three-hour drive south of Sudbury. What started as a routine international meeting of 300 scientists, government officials, climatologists and activists in Toronto turned into an urgent call for action on the threat of global warming and climate change.
‘Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to global nuclear war,’ said the conference summary statement. ‘Far-reaching impacts will be caused by global warming… as a result of the continued growth in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The best predictions available indicate potentially severe economic and social dislocation for present and future generations, which will worsen international tensions and increase risk of conflicts between and within nations. It is imperative to act now.’1
Living in North America that summer it was difficult not to be convinced. The heat was unremitting from early June to late September; the centre of the continent baked, crops shrivelled, forest fires raged, fresh-water supplies dwindled and both Canadian and US grain harvests were well below average. A portent of the future, said climatologists: the ‘greenhouse effect’ was no longer science fiction.
Despite the Toronto conference’s sobering message few people yet understood the full implications of global warming. And fewer still were asking the tough questions about how to stop it. Those who did were often dismissed as wailing Cassandras or gloomy pessimists. That’s because global warming is caused by nothing less than our whole way of life; as such it is a radical challenge to three centuries of conventional wisdom about the necessity for economic growth.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s backtrack for a moment and try to get a grip on some of the basic concepts. (If this is familiar territory jump down a few paragraphs.) The greenhouse effect is not a new phenomenon. Scientists have known for centuries that a layer of gases naturally surrounds the earth like an insulating blanket, trapping the reflected energy of the sun and preventing it from escaping into space. That is what makes the earth warm enough for people, plants and animals. However, recent human activity has boosted concentrations of greenhouse gases and enhanced their heat-trapping ability. The main culprit is carbon dioxide (C02), which scientists estimate accounts for nearly half of global warming. CO2 is released from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and from clearing and burning forests.
There are other important greenhouse gases too and they cannot be ignored – CFCs for example may account for 25 per cent of global warming in the next century if their production is not scaled back. But carbon dioxide is the pivotal one. The UN International Panel on Climatic Change now says that CO2 levels could double within 40 years if present rates of fossil-fuel burning and deforestation continue. That could mean an average temperature increase of between two and four degrees centigrade and a sea-level rise of perhaps a foot by 2050.
No-one knows for certain how local weather will change as a result of this warming. But one thing is clear – it will be no picnic. Indications are that the earth will be warmer than at any time since the start of the last ice age nearly 100,000 years ago. But there’s one major difference. This temperature increase will take place not over thousands of years, but over decades. And it is the speed of the change which makes the precise impact so difficult to predict.
The most sophisticated computerized climate models, in the US and Britain, agree that weather around the world will become more erratic and more extreme. In general, temperatures will rise more towards the poles than at the equator. Overall rainfall will also increase as higher temperatures boost evaporation from the seas. But the distribution of precipitation will shift. Some areas will become wetter, others will be drier. In middle latitudes, climate zones will march pole-wards. Saskatchewan may become like Kansas, southern England like southern France. In tropical and sub-tropical parts of the Third World warming will be less but the impact on a relatively stable climate will be greater. Tropical storms and droughts could both increase. The pattern of the monsoons may shift.
Global warming will also cause ocean levels to rise – though not, as popular wisdom has it, due to the Antarctic ice cap melting. If this catastrophe occurs it will not be for at least another century. Instead sea levels will rise simply because water expands as it warms. People living in low-lying coastal regions from New York and London to Jakarta and Dacca will be in danger. The world’s great river deltas, home to millions in Asia and Latin America and containing some of the Third World’s richest food-growing land, could become brackish graveyards.2
But there are also hidden factors which scientists call ‘feedback mechanisms’. No-one knows quite how they will interact with the changing climate. Here’s one example: plants and animals adapt to climate change over centuries. At the current estimate of half a degree centigrade of warming per decade, vegetation may not keep up. Climatologist James Hansen of the US space agency NASA predicts climate zones will shift toward the poles by 50 to 75 kilometres a year – faster than trees can naturally migrate. Species that find themselves in an unfamiliar environment will die. The 1,000-kilometre-wide strip of coniferous forest running through Canada, the USSR and Scandinavia could be cut by half, setting in motion a chain reaction. Millions of dying and diseased trees would soon lead to massive forest fires, releasing tons of CO2 and further boosting global warming.3
There are dozens of other possible ‘feedback mechanisms’. Higher temperatures will fuel condensation and increase cloudiness, which may actually damp down global warming. Others, like the ‘albedo’ effect, will do the opposite. The ‘albedo effect’ is the amount of solar energy reflected by surface. As northern ice and snow melts and the darker sea and land pokes through, more heat will be absorbed, adding inexorably to the global temperature increase.
Scientists continue to tinker away with their computer models, but the bare-bones facts are clear. Even if we were to magically stop all greenhouse-gas emissions tomorrow the impact on global climate would continue for decades.
Delay, any delay, will simply make the problem worse. Yet delay, like denial, is an all-too-human trait. The fact is that some of us are doing quite well the way things are. We in the developed world have built our prosperity on 150 years of cheap fossil fuels. Oil fires our cars and powers our industry, coal generates our electricity and indirectly runs our TVs, dishwashers and VCRs. Gas heats our water and warms our homes and factories. Our material progress has been linked to energy consumption. Today 75 per cent of all the world’s energy is consumed by a quarter of the world’s population.4 The average rich-world resident adds about 3.2 tons of CO2 yearly to the atmosphere, more than four times the level added by each Third World citizen.