Wednesday, August 15, 2007

One Degree of Desperation (Or, What if NASA's James Hansen is Right Again?)

NASA scientist James Hansen's 1988 warnings about climate change have proved to be largely correct ( The IPCC has recently estimated relatively slow sea level rise this century (18–59 cm, with a midrange of 20–43 cm). But Hansen suggests in a scientific paper that 5 meters per century would be a more realistic estimate. He add in the same paper that
"The threat of a large sea level change is a principal element in our argument (Hansen et al 2006a, 2006b, 2007) that the global community must aim to keep additional global warming less than 1 °C above the 2000 temperature, and even 1 °C may be too great. In turn, this implies a CO2 limit of about 450 ppm, or less" [emphasis added]. [1]
Or else, it's "Goodbye Miami", as New Scientist says on a recent cover. Their map of Florida in 2007 and 2107 would come as a shock to the many Canadians who are familiar with South Florida's sunny shores. It gets worse: as Michael Le Page points out,
"Without mega-engineering projects to protect them, a 5-metre rise would inundate large parts of many cities - including New York, London, Sydney, Vancouver, Mumbai and Tokyo - and leave surrounding areas vulnerable to storm surges. In Florida, Louisiana, the Netherlands, Bangladesh and elsewhere, whole regions and cities may vanish. China's economic powerhouse, Shanghai, has an average elevation of just 4 metres" (New Scientist, "If sea level rises by 5 metres..." [near bottom of page; emphasis added]).
For the devastating effects on Canada's Maritime Provinces, see my previous blog post.

Hansen and his co-authors write in another recent scientific paper [2]:
"With GHGs continuing to increase, the planetary energy imbalance provides ample energy to melt ice corresponding to several metres of sea level per century


"The gravest threat we foresee starts with surface melt on West Antarctica and interaction among positive feedbacks leading to catastrophic ice loss.


Our concern that BAU [Business As Usual] GHG scenarios would cause large sea-level rise this century (Hansen 2005) differs from estimates of IPCC (2001, 2007), which foresees little or no contribution to twenty-first century sea-level rise from Greenland and Antarctica. However, the IPCC analyses and projections do not well account for the nonlinear physics of wet ice sheet disintegration, ice streams and eroding ice shelves, nor are they consistent with the palaeoclimate evidence we have presented for the absence of discernable lag between ice sheet forcing and sea-level rise.

"The best chance for averting ice sheet disintegration seems to be intense simultaneous efforts to reduce both CO2 emissions and non-CO2 climate forcings. As mentioned above, there are multiple benefits from such actions. However, even with such actions, it is probable that the dangerous level of atmospheric GHGs will be passed, at least temporarily. We have presented evidence (Hansen
et al. 2006b) that the dangerous level of CO2 can be no more than approximately 450 ppm. Our present discussion, including the conclusion that slow feedbacks (ice, vegetation and GHG) can come into play on century time-scales or sooner, makes it probable that the dangerous level is even lower.

"Present knowledge does not permit accurate specification of the dangerous level of human-made GHGs. However, it is much lower than has commonly been assumed. If we have not already passed the dangerous level, the energy infrastructure in place ensures that we will pass it within several decades" [bolding added; italics in original].
Among other things, Hansen and his co-authors have a plan to save the Earth:
"...a feasible strategy for planetary rescue almost surely requires a means of extracting GHGs from the air. Development of CO2 capture at power plants, with below-ground CO2 sequestration, may be a critical element. Injection of the CO2 well beneath the ocean floor assures its stability (House et al. 2006). If the power plant fuel is derived from biomass, such as cellulosic fibres... grown without excessive fertilization that produces N2O or other offsetting GHG emissions, it will provide continuing drawdown of atmospheric CO2" [2] [bolding added].
In other words:
  • Take more CO2 out of the air than we are putting in.
  • Use biomass fuels to remove CO2 from the air.
  • Don't let the CO2 from the biomass go back into the air, for a new crop of plants to absorb (the conventional biofuels cycle). We don't want the CO2 to be released at all, as that would provide no net reduction.
  • Instead, sequester the CO2 at source, right from the power plant.
  • Put it below the ocean floor, where it would be safe forever.
Sadly, world leaders had been giving up even on the IPCC's milder recommended target of holding the warming at 2 degrees C. How would they react to Hansen's target of 1 degree C or less? George Monbiot thinks that if people understood the implications, there would be a massive movement to demand immediate action, but he notes that most people go about their business as if there is no prominent scientist predicting a major planetary disaster.

On the other hand, some environmentalists are sceptical about CO2 sequestration and storage, and an international convention may regulate any materials stored in or under the ocean.

But what if there's even a 10% chance that Hansen is right about the potential damage if we do not follow his proposals? Multiply that 10% chance by the forecast amount of damage, and you still get an awesome risk!

Is it time for both politicians and environmentalists to start taking his latest research very seriously?


[1] James Hansen, 2007. Scientific reticence and sea level rise, Environ. Res. Lett. 2 (April-June 2007) 024002, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/2/2/024002 (via

[2] James Hansen et al, 2007. Climate Change and Trace Gases. Philiosophical Transactions of the Royal Society - A. Vol 365, pp 1925-1954. doi: 10.1098/rsta.2007.2052. [PDF] screen pages 25-26 of 30 (via

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Improve Democracy in Ontario -- On October 10, 2007, Support Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) Voting!

We interrupt the Climate Change posts for an important message: Ontarians have a unique opportunity to improve their democracy (and incidentally, help save the Planet, too). On Provincial Election Day, October 10, 2007, Ontarians can vote "YES" on a Referendum question to add Proportional Representation to the electoral system.

The traditional voting system (known as "first past the post") has resulted in too many minority Governments (in terms of popular support for the governing party) that call themselves "majorities" (because they end up with a majority of the seats in the Legislature). [UPDATE August 19, 2007: See charts of percent popular vote vs. percent seats in the Legislature in recent elections ( "Resources" - links under "Electronic Press Kit" near bottom of page).] Moreover, smaller parties with a strong but spread-out support base can't get a seat in the Legislature (unless their supporters all move into one or a few ridings :-) This is deeply undemocratic, and it over-emphasizes local (even parochial) concerns over Province-wide (even Planet-wide) issues.

Speaking of Parties promoting Planet-wide issues, a recent poll has put the Green Party of Ontario at 11% support ( [PDF] via But this Party is very unlikely to get even one seat under the current system. If a recession hits and saving the planet returns to the back-burner for larger political parties (like it did in the 1990s), having the Green Party in the Legislature would help ensure that the issue does not vanish completely. For these reasons, a system that would give the Green party a voice would be a vast improvement for democracy -- and for the Planet.

A bit of background:

"After months of learning, consulting and deliberating, the province’s first Citizens’ Assembly decided to recommend a new electoral system for Ontario: Mixed Member Proportional [MMP]." ( "How We Got Here")

"A Mixed Member Proportional system combines members elected in local districts and members elected for the whole province from party lists to serve as Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs) in the legislature.This combination produces proportional election results that better reflect the wishes of voters." ( "The Recommendation")
This is known as "one person, two votes". You would vote for a local representative, and for a Party. The two don't have to be aligned, giving you great flexibility.

As a bonus, there would be no more need for "strategic voting"! Many Ontarians have voted for one large Party to try to block another large Party, despite really wanting to vote for a third (smaller) Party. Under MMP, you could vote for a local representative from the larger Party (for example), and still vote for the smaller Party to help them get Proportional seats.

Under the proposal, the 90 traditional, locally-elected representatives would still predominate. But 39 representatives would be assigned by Party. For any Party with at least 3% of the popular vote, the formula would bring the percentage of seats in the Legislature to the percentage of the popular vote. (See "How the New System Works" for more details.)

Also, check out the Vote for MMP web site, which is published by "is a multi-partisan citizens’ campaign to support the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)" ( "About Us").

If you have a blog, help spread the word by adding a "Vote for MMP" button from

(We are not members or affiliates of any of the above organizations. We are expressing our support as individuals.)

Most importantly, if you are eligible to vote, make sure that you come out on October 10, 2007 and vote "YES" for MMP!

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Warm Water Algae 1, Ontario Nuclear Reactor 0 -- A Sign of Things to Come

I wrote in this blog recently about the trouble that some nuclear power stations abroad are having with staying on. Their cooling water intake is heating up as the climate changes. Well, we now have a Canadian example. A nuclear reactor in Pickering, Ontario, has had to close down recently because its cooling water intake was blocked by algae -- whose growth had been spurred by warming Lake Ontario waters (Toronto Star).

More ominously, the Star says in the same story that

"OPG [Ontario Power Generation], in the environmental assessment report it recently filed to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in relation to the possible refurbishment of Pickering B, said climate change and rising lake temperature could lead to increased algae and zebra mussel growth.

"'Temporary reactor power reductions could be required,' the company said.

"'None of the potential effects associated with climate change are expected to pose any risk to workers, members of the public or the environment.'"

Even if the last statement were true (and that's a big "if"!), wasn't nuclear power supposed to be a great energy option to help fight climate change, according to this technology's proponents?

Even building reactors on bigger, colder lakes farther north might not solve the problem. In Lake Superior,

"...the average water temperature has surged 4.5 degrees [Fahrenheit] since 1979, significantly above the 2.7-degree rise in the region's air temperature during the same period" (AP/Yahoo! News via
Once again, it's hard to avoid the question, if nuclear technology is this vulnerable to climate change, then how can we count on it?

Go Vegetarian to Help Stop Global Warming!

The meat industry generates 18% of all Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions -- more than the transport sector, i.e. more than cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships combined! (UN FAO Report, via In fact, a study has shown that eating just 1 kg of beef causes as many Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions as driving a European car for 250 km, or lighting a 100-watt bulb for 20 days (New Scientist). According to another study, a single person going vegan can save as much GHG per year as a driver switching to a hybrid car (New Scientist). Many households still (thankfully) have more people than cars, so the emission savings per household going vegetarian can be even greater! Also, unlike a new car, going vegetarian can save you money right away (Vegetarian Journal). It can also help you to stay healthy -- and it's the clear moral choice.

The ethical argument is simple, and it's actually related to the health argument: most people would agree that needlessly harming other people or animals for your own pleasure is wrong. For humans, eating meat is unneccesary. Meat-eating is obviously harmful to animals, it wastes crops that could be used to feed people, and it harms the planet. Therefore, eating meat is simply wrong.

First, let's bust the biggest myth about vegetarianism, the notion that you have to eat meat or fish to stay healthy. In fact, this is not necessary:

"It is the position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases"

(American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada, "Vegetarian Diets", June 2003 [emphasis added]; consult with your physician before changing your diet -- see below).

Therefore, for most people, meat-eating a luxury, not a necessity. Some luxuries, like getting a nice massage, are virtually pollution-free, and they harm nobody. But meat-eating is a luxury that definitely harms animals and the planet. Pound-for-pound, calorie-for-calorie, and nutrient-for-nutrient, a vegetarian diet results in less waste and pollution than a meat-based one. For example:

"Animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than production of plant protein while yielding animal protein that is only 1.4 times more nutritious for humans than the comparable amount of plant protein, according to the Cornell ecologist's analysis."

(Cornell Science News, 1997, "U.S. could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat, Cornell ecologist advises animal scientists. Future water and energy shortages predicted to change face of American agriculture" [emphasis added].)

In fact, getting enough protein on a vegetarian diet is easy (see vegetarian nutrition and cooking links below).

GHG emissions from fossil fuels are just part of the harm. Meat production also wastes enormous quantities of water:

"According to the USDA, growing the crops necessary to feed farmed animals requires nearly half of the United States' water supply and 80% of its agricultural land" (Wikipedia).

Meat production endangers drinking water quality, as well. Remember the Walkerton Tragedy in Ontario, Canada? The official report said that

“The primary, if not the only, source of the [E. coli] contamination was manure that had been spread on a farm near Well 5. The owner of this farm followed proper practices and should not be faulted” (CBC).
But would the tragedy have happened without any animal farming? Meat production can even make it lethal to eat vegetables that are grown nearby (remember the California Spinach tragedy in 2006?).

A needless luxury that harms the planet, causes the death and suffering of millions of animals every year, wastes land and crops that could feed people, and may even harm your own health simply must be unethical.

If you'd been following vegetarian literature, you might be wondering why I haven't even mentioned the livestock-methane connection. Others may wonder why I've ignored the religious angle. I think that these arguments are either conditional or unnecessary. Livestock farming produces an estimated 37% of human-released methane (LEAD [PDF p. 6 of 19, printout p. 271]), a very potent greenhouse gas (Wikipedia). But changing animal feed may reduce or eliminate this effect in the future (e.g. Reuters/USA Today via Green Car Congress). This might reduce the meat industry's GHG emissions, but even completely "methane-free" meat would not change any of the other points above, which I think are sufficient on their own. Many world religions happen to preach that vegetarianism is either mandatory or desirable (Wikipedia). But even if you're a "radical atheist" like Douglas Adams (interview), I think that you would find the case for vegetarianism to be compelling on its own terms.

In case you're wondering, we became lacto-ovo vegetarians in 1989-90, and we have gradually moved to a mostly vegan diet (Wikipedia). Our health is good, and the animal-related ethical considerations are the same as ever. Our daughter is growing up healthy, strong, bright, caring -- and vegetarian. Meanwhile, the number of environmental reasons supporting our choice keeps increasing.

Here's an idea: read up on vegetarian nutrition and cooking. Consult your physician -- in fact, have a full check-up. Discuss your plans with your physician. Make sure that you're getting enough physical activity. Now, try going without meat for a day. Then try a week. Then a month. Then three months. At any time, consult your physician if you have any health concerns or questions. Have regular check-ups. Look at your bank account. Look at yourself in the mirror.

If you still decide to go back to eating meat after a year, I'd love to know why. If the objective reason is your own health, then you would have something like a "necessity defence" (Merriam Webster/FindLaw). I suspect that this would be fairly rare. Otherwise, what would be your excuse?