Climate Roundup: 40 per cent of Canadians polled think climate science is ‘unclear’

By Tyler Hamilton - Published on Sep 28, 2016
Rising sea levels and intense storm surges are reducing the landmass of Lennox Island, P.E.I. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

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It’s tough for politicians to move forward on meaningful climate action when a substantial portion of the population doesn’t really see the point. Last week, during Science Literacy Week, the Ontario Science Centre released the results of an online Leger poll that asked, among other things, whether Canadians thought the science of climate change was “unclear or unsettled.” The good news: 85 per cent of the nearly 1,600 respondents thought they understood the basics of climate science. Unfortunately, 40 per cent said they believed that science to be unclear. “This survey indicates that we should not be complacent about the state of science literacy in Canada,” said Maurice Bitran, CEO and chief science officer at Ontario Science Centre.

Premier’s mandate letters call for EV boost

Tackling climate change means using more clean electricity and using less dirty fuel, which is precisely why the province has been encouraging electric vehicle use as part of its climate plan. Last week, Premier Kathleen Wynne sent mandate letters to her ministers that put some of that plan in motion.

In her letter to Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca, Wynne said she wants an annual review of the province’s electric vehicle incentive program, continued expansion of charging infrastructure throughout the province, and electric school bus projects launched in “at least” five communities. She also instructed Minister of Energy Glenn Thibeault to establish a free overnight charging program for residential customers starting in 2017. That program is expected to last for four years.

Five Canadian communities feeling climate change effects

CBC Radio’s Day 6 recently finished airing its “Facing the Change” series, which profiles five communities that are already feeling the effects of climate change. It starts with Lennox Island off the coast of P.E.I., and looks at how rising sea level and more intense storm surges are literally washing the community away. The series then moves on to Toronto, where a month’s worth of rain fell during a single day in 2013 and caused record flooding. This is followed by a look at wildfires in northern Saskatchewan, and then a return to rising sea levels, this time in Richmond, B.C., where residents along the waterfront worry about their homes. The final installment takes listeners to Old Crow, Yukon, where rapidly rising temperatures are causing winter roads to crumble and are putting public safety at risk.

Vancouver goes where Ontario dare not

Ontario, in an early draft of its climate plan, reportedly hinted it would eventually ban natural gas in all new buildings. After harsh backlash the province quickly backed away. But Vancouver, Canada’s fourth-largest city, is giving it a shot. Its city council voted recently on a plan to phase out the use of conventional natural gas for all new residential and business buildings by 2030, and to eliminate the use of natural gas for space heating by 2050. This will be achieved by switching heating systems to clean electricity, dramatically boosting building efficiency, and displacing natural gas in the system with renewable natural gas sourced from landfills, wastewater treatment plants and farms. There has been an outcry, of course, particularly from the restaurant industry, but so far Vancouver is sticking to its guns. If it doesn’t buckle under pressure, the city’s plan to reduce emissions from new buildings by 70 per cent by 2020 and 100 per cent by 2030 would be a North American first.

Any reduction in emissions from natural gas use in Vancouver, however, could be undone by the federal government’s approval Tuesday of the controversial Pacific Northwest LNG project planned for B.C.’s northwest coast. The $36 billion liquefied natural gas project, if built, is expected to boost B.C.’s total emissions by more than eight per cent, according to an early assessment. “Approving this project is inconsistent with the federal government’s commitments to lead on climate change,” said Merran Smith, executive director of Clean Energy Canada.

The Big Picture: How climate change is transforming Canada’s forests

The federal Ministry of Natural Resources released its annual state of the forests report, and discussion of climate change is front and centre this year. Canada’s changing climate is increasing the number of large fires, the frequency and intensity of droughts, and spurring outbreaks of invasive insects such as pine beetles and budworms. It’s also shifting the pattern of tree diseases, which has led to a rise in the premature death of otherwise healthy tree species. For forests, it’s a matter of adapt or die. “Species composition, average age, geographic range and growth rates are all likely to change over the coming decades,” the report concludes. “This makes adaptation by the forest sector — such as planting drought-tolerant species — more important than ever.”

As far as forest fires go, the report says most areas of Canada are expected to see “at least a twofold increase” in annual area burned. “This means that the average age of the country’s forests is likely to decline in some areas, with increases in the number of young trees regenerating in burned-out areas.” Species distribution will shift, and the rate of growth for some species will change. “The rate of climate change is projected to be 10 to 100 times faster than the ability of tree species to migrate,” the report finds. How forests respond will also affect their surroundings. Certain types of vegetation and wildlife will be able to adapt and some will be forced to migrate, while others could die off.

Research Spotlight: Mixed messages about future warming

The internet got thrown into a tizzy last week when a study from Stanford University — or, more precisely, a poorly articulated abstract and sensational press release headline — seemed to suggest there is already enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to warm the surface of the planet by up to 7 C over the next few millennia. That, of course, is a very nasty increase that would make certain geographies completely uninhabitable.

Fortunately, the climate science community stepped in to reassure the public that the Earth is not destined to become an over-browned marshmallow.

“This is simply wrong,” Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told the news site Gizmodo. “The actual committed warming is only 0.5 to perhaps 1 [degree Celsius] — and nothing in the study changes that.”

Carolyn Snyder, author of the Stanford study, wasn’t entirely wrong. She based that 7 C number on the past relationship between carbon dioxide levels and temperature over the past two million years, and simply cast that observation forward. The problem is we don’t know to what degree carbon dioxide alone was responsible for past temperature changes. So while there’s a clear and interesting correlation, Schmidt and others say there’s no evidence of causation.

That said, we’re still not in a good place. A new study from the University Ecological Fund to be publicly released on Thursday says that based on current climate actions we’re on course to exceed 2 C of warming by 2050.

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