Fixing the world’s broken thermostat

Here’s your weekly Science Matters column by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola.

Fixing the world’s broken thermostat

There has been a lot of talk in Canada lately about the need to develop
technological innovations that address global warming. After all, since
humans cause global warming by burning too much fossil fuels such as
coal, oil and gas, as well as destroying natural ecosystems that absorb
and store carbon, it’s up to us to fix it.

Of
course, replacing traditional sources of energy that we’ve come to rely
on so heavily Is no easy feat. It requires big effort.

But
here’s the good part: most of the technologies needed to usher in a
clean and sustainable future are already available. Even better, many
of these technologies are being developed right here in Canada.

By
supporting innovative solutions, we can phase out the older polluting
forms of generating energy that contribute to global warming and thus
create a cleaner world. These innovations will create new jobs and
boost our economy.

For too long the environment and economy have
been treated as two separate solitudes. But they aren’t. We can protect
and conserve the environment and have a vibrant economy.

But first, bear with me for a little climate change 101.


In
order to put reasonable, practical solutions in place, we have to
understand how global warming works. Not all scientists agree on when
certain things will happen, but most scientists agree on the basic
mechanism that is warming our planet.

It’s really pretty simple.

Heat
from the sun comes down through the earth’s atmosphere, and some of it
bounces back into space. The atmosphere acts like a cozy blanket,
thanks to certain atmospheric gases that act as a layer of insulation
to hold some of the heat.

But, over the last several
centuries, as the Industrial Revolution has taken place, humans are
burning more and more fossil fuels to meet our energy needs. Thanks to
our cars and factories, we’ve released more of these heat-trapping
gases than the biosphere can reabsorb so they build up and thicken the
heat-trapping blanket of insulation around the Earth. Human land use
practices, such as the destruction of tropical rainforests, also
release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The heat builds up, the
globe warms, and the atmospheric balance that keeps the climate stable
is disrupted.

Global warming is more about a mechanism that gets
destabilized and broken, like a thermostat that goes haywire. It
doesn’t work the way it should, and this results in extreme weather
effects around the globe. As we now know, according to the UN’s
blue-ribbon panel of scientists who studied global warming, it’s
happening right now. Ten of the warmest years on record have occurred
since 1980.

Scientists have been closely observing the results
of this thickening blanket and corresponding rise in global
temperatures. The effects are impossible to ignore: rapidly melting
glaciers and ice caps, warmer temperatures, stronger storms, and even
the migration of tropical diseases, animals, and plants into temperate
regions.

The loss of Canada’s boreal wilderness? The
disappearance of Canadian icons such as the polar bear and caribou?
Scientists tell us that this could very well happen if global warming
continues unabated due to personal and political inaction to seriously
tackle the problem.

There is broad agreement that global warming
results in more negative consequences than positive ones. So the best
course is to make practical choices that reduce the drivers of climate
change. We all need to meet the challenge directly to ensure against
the worst outcomes. And we can do this through innovative technology.

This
brings me back to my original point. We don’t have to wait for some
brilliant inventor to create an earth-shattering technological wonder.
Using technology that exists right now, we could accomplish a lot of
things.

Several years ago, the David Suzuki Foundation released
Power Shift that showed with technology already available, Canada could
reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50% over thirty years.
The key point was to make a start.

For example, we could
significantly increase the average fuel efficiency of today’s
automobiles, one of the world’s major sources of heat-trapping gases.
In fact, there is already a great deal of momentum around the world. In
Japan, auto makers are required to improve the fuel efficiency of their
vehicles by 20 percent by 2015. And California’s Republican governor
made history by passing some of the toughest vehicle standards in the
U.S.

Together, we can make Canada a global warming
problem-solver, not a problem-maker. Existing examples of legislation
and technology are right in front of us. The clock is ticking… What
are we going to choose?

Take David Suzuki’s Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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