Photo: The baffling response to Arctic climate change

With Arctic ice melting, Australia on fire and increasing droughts, floods and extreme weather throughout the world, it’s past time to get serious about global warming. (Credit: Nick Russill via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.

The Arctic may seem like a distant place, just as the most extreme consequences of our wasteful use of fossil fuels may appear to be in some distant future. Both are closer than most of us realize.

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The Arctic is a focal point for some of the most profound impacts of climate change. One of the world's top ice experts, Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University, calls the situation a "global disaster", suggesting ice is disappearing faster than predicted and could be gone within as few as four years.

"The main cause is simply global warming: as the climate has warmed there has been less ice growth during the winter and more ice melt during the summer," he told the U.K.'s Guardian.

Over the past 30 years, permanent Arctic sea ice has shrunk to half its previous area and thickness. As it diminishes, global warming accelerates. This is due to a number of factors, including release of the potent greenhouse gas methane trapped under nearby permafrost, and because ice reflects the sun's energy whereas oceans absorb it.

With all we know about climate change and what's happening in the Arctic, you'd think our leaders would be marshalling resources to at least slow it down. Instead, industry and governments are eyeing new opportunities to mine Arctic fossil fuels. Factoring in threats to the numerous species of Arctic creatures — including fish, seabirds, marine mammals such as whales and seals, and polar bears — makes such an approach even more incomprehensible.

Royal Dutch Shell has been preparing to drill in the Arctic, spending $4.5 billion on operations and lease purchases. But its record shows how risky this is. First, a spill containment dome failed a routine safety test and was crushed by underwater pressure. More recently, a drilling rig, which was being towed to Seattle so Shell could avoid paying some Alaskan taxes, broke free during a storm and ran aground on an island in the Gulf of Alaska. The disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 showed how dangerous ocean drilling can be even in relatively calm waters and how bogus the claims of the industry are that it can contain or even clean up a spill.

Responding to climate change and vanishing Arctic ice by gearing up to drill for the stuff at the root of the problem is insane. Unfortunately, many fossil fuel companies and governments are engaged in a mad rush to get as much oil and gas out of the ground — no matter how difficult — while there's still a market. The ever-increasing devastation of climate change means we will eventually have to leave much of it where it is — or at the very least, substantially slow the pace of extraction and use the resource more wisely — if we want to survive and be healthy as a species.

In Ecuador, knowing that exploiting the country's massive oil reserves will fuel climate change and cause massive environmental destruction in one of the world's most biologically diverse rainforests, leaders are taking a different approach. The government plans to leave oil fields in Yasuni National Park untouched if other countries help compensate for some of the lost revenue. So far only about $300 million has been raised toward the $3.6 billion over 13 years that the government believes would make up for half the oil's value, but the idea is gaining momentum.

The Guardian notes the money won't go to government but will be "held in trust funds and administered by the UN Development Programme working with a board made up of indigenous peoples, local communities, academics and others."

Ivonne Baki, head of the negotiating committee of the Yasuní-Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini, told the Guardian Ecuador does not want to become overly dependent on oil. "Oil countries are cursed," she said. "Developing countries depend on it so much that they do not develop anything else. It breeds corruption and the poor pay the price."

With Arctic ice melting, Australia on fire and increasing droughts, floods and extreme weather throughout the world, it's past time to get serious about global warming. It remains to be seen if a plan like Ecuador's will work, but surely a developed country like Canada can at least learn that wastefully exploiting precious resources as quickly as possible isn't the only option.

January 31, 2013

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Jul 05, 2013
10:28 AM

I live in Nanaimo. We have a dam here that has stood for about, or just slightly over, 100 years. It’s called Colliery Dam,.. it’s surrounded by a lovely forest with huge trees. Now and the city wants to break down the dam and rebuild it next year, but to look more akin to a river with sidewalks,.. not an estuary where birds from eagles to sparrows and all manner of wildlife drink the clear water.

The City engineers have declared the Dam unsafe, yet over the 100 years there’s nary a crack in the old cement structure. [Cement hardens to it’s peak at 100 years or so,.. and replacing it with newer cement structures that will take a 100 years to it’s maximum,.. in essence be a green structure,.. which is more apt to fault.

The argument is put forwards by the City that it will cause a disaster downstream if an earthquake shatters the Dam in it’s present shape. I believe that the City is making a huge mistake with removal and retailoring by this landscape alteration,.. which will cause more destruction within this beautiful park and it’s faithful long time historical Dam.

We need your help, support and comments for public review that so many of us who are supporting the idea of keeping the Dam the way it is can stand solidly against disturbing this beautiful place and badly needed Dam for the drier times ahead. Thanks in advance for your support. David Wick

Feb 18, 2013
3:40 PM

There is considerable concern about the icecaps melting and that the reflective properties of ‘white’ being lost and as a consequence more light (energy/heat) being absorbed by the Earth and thus being one more factor adding to global warming. Has anyone thought of asphalt shingles on homes being made ‘white’ rather than the dark colours that they are to provide less heat absorption? I would guess that within 20 years nearly all of the roofs in North America would need replacing. This may sound trivial, but I only mean it as one minor item to be added to a list of many, many measures to try and curtail global warming.

I also have thought that the tractor-trailers hauling good across North America could have solar panels attached to the roofs of the trailers to generate some power and lessen the gas usage of the tractors. Just a thought!

Jack Connolly

Feb 11, 2013
3:03 PM

NO to nuclear power!! No to hydro electric(flooded valleys and ruined fish habitat). NO to wind turbines(count the millions of dead birds that hit the propellers) NO to coal fired power plants.LNG? NO FRACKING WAY!! Solar power? IF you have several million hectares, and reliable sun light every day (OOPS, we live in Canada) Methane? God no, that’s the worst GHG. Bio diesel? Still produces carbon dioxide. Burn wood? That.s just funny. See a pattern here? Yea, me too. Some people are hard wired to find problems,and they are very good at that. Not so good at finding solutions though. The people who are hard wired to find solutions, are busy finding solutions. It would be very refreshing to see some solutions here for a change,instead of the constant badgering of the people and companies that make our lives so comfortable. SOLUTIONS please.

Feb 07, 2013
10:33 AM

I don’t think anything will change, industry led by psychopaths will continue to destroy life for profit and westerners will continue to be made more comfortable by that explotation and death for a little while longer. Then the food riots in the west will start, after a few more years of drought, people will be emotionally and intellectually unprepared and will start frantically running around try to “do somthing about it”. What they do will only make things worse, and anyway, it will be much much too late by then, as it is now. During the chaos, the military and technological state, which has been building in plain site under the guise of “security”, will steamroll everyone under.

Feb 03, 2013
3:24 PM

Until you and others acknowledge China’s 1000 new coal-burning electric power plants last year, nobody will take you, or the problem, seriously.

Feb 03, 2013
6:03 AM

I am happy to hear about the change in approach that is happening in Ecuador…These kinds of alternatives are the kind that people need to know, and at a time like this can be referred to specifically in our demands for Canada to maintain the land and waters… I would like to see these alternative solutions in the mainstream media, much more often.

Feb 02, 2013
3:08 PM

I am so sorry Mother Earth for what we’ve done and are doing. It’s like we despise you and yet you are our home. Forgive us.

Feb 01, 2013
5:08 PM

I wholeheartedly support Suzuki’s sentiment!

Feb 01, 2013
12:06 PM

Oil is looking more and more like a curse rather than a blessing.

Bolstering of oil based economies by “developed nations like Canada” sacrifices the types of economic opportunities and benefits that countries like Ecuador who choose the other path will discover and develop if they receive cooperation and support.

Every little element of labor and capital spent traveling down the dead end road is an unrecoverable loss to our future. Our children and grandchildren will not be able to eat oil money to survive in a dead environment or burn it to stay warm for any length of time. Opportunity cost is something every economist and business person knows about.

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