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spacer October 2007
Commentary

"The devil is the details." This aphorism crops up regularly in our increasingly interconnected and complex world. But if there is one topic that is a veritable Beelzebub's banquet, it has got to be climate change.

By definition, the issue is as wide as the horizons and holds the potential to profoundly impact all of humankind for generations to come. And as important as that sounds, the implications tax human intuition.

So far, the response has been all over the map. One refrain goes, "If they can't reliably tell me what the weather will be like next week, why should I believe predictions about what will happen in 50 years?" Another group believes the whole thing is an elaborate hoax propagated by the Dr. Evil of lefty do-gooders, George Soros, in a nefarious scheme to undermine the economic system.

In the other corner, we have a recent article from the The Canadian, "Canada's new socially progressive and cross-cultural national newspaper," which suggests that the death toll from global warming will number 4.5 billion by 2012.

Gadzooks! If about two-thirds of us are going to be wiped out in the next five years, the only logical thing to do is to sharply accelerate the consumption of really, really good wine and go down quaffing in wild orgies. Orgies of wine, that is.

As we're contrarians, people might expect us to go with the naysayers on this one and deny that today's climate change is anything but the normal machinations of Mother Nature evolving as she does. But the tangible evidence of climate change, as opposed to a mere run of unruly weather, keeps piling up.

The news is filled with a litany of river ice breaking up earlier and the retreat of glaciers and pack ice, while many species are extending their ranges into new territory northward and to higher elevations.

Even the darn mosquitoes now emerge earlier and hang around later in fall. What it adds up to is that the new environmental conditions will have an impact on both life and death.

As a topic of discussion, global warming is about as polarizing as child-rearing. Everyone has an opinion (including many who don't even have kids) and there are a bevy of experts offering new parents conflicting advice. In these confusing circumstances, the Aristotelian maxim that virtue can be found in the middle ground is mighty attractive.

Where the climate is concerned, if there is a sensible mean between don't-spare-the-rod disciplinarians and little hooligans running amok, it is probably best represented by the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This organization was formed in 1990, collating an interdisciplinary effort of roughly 2,500 scientists from 130 countries.

Major reports were prepared in 1995 and 2001; a fourth was published in April of this year. While common ground has been a moving target, a rough consensus on a variety of points is emerging.

First of all, the IPCC now characterizes global warming as "unequivocal." There are important regional differences, but overall the verdict is that the average global temperature has risen by 0.74 degrees Celsius over the past century. There is also agreement that a lot of the warming is connected -- directly or indirectly -- to human activity.

It is expected that warming will continue for a long time, even under the most optimistic mitigation scenario. That is because relatively high concentrations of greenhouse gases already exist and are bound to be added to, though perhaps at a lesser rate.

Of course, manmade changes are piggybacking on natural shifts, so any discussion of climate models necessarily includes the com ponent gears of the global system: Milankovitch orbital cycles, freshwater pulses, volcanoes, solar radiation variability, ocean currents, tidal fluctuations and a myriad of other factors.

As climate researchers grapple with what can be expected in future decades, they are also intensively probing the past. Geologists have long known that the earth has gone through extreme changes in climate: at times, the Arctic was a balmy 23 degrees Celsius; at others, the entire planet was a huge Popsicle.

Even during the past 100,000 years -- not much more than a blink of the eye in the grand scheme of geologic time -- the climate has seesawed; our part of the world was pounded again and again by sheets of ice kilometres thick, with warm periods of respite in between. That is why our current geological age, the Holocene, which began some 11,500 years ago, is called an "interglacial."

The history of our species, then, has been marked by the constant need to adapt to the vagaries of climate. Traditionally, these transformations were thought to occur gradually over centuries, but there is a growing body of evidence from ice cores, lake sediments, tree rings and pollen distribution that climate change has frequently been abrupt, as the planet shifted from one temperature level to the next. This has led to a greater understanding of the context in which today's rapid alterations are occurring.

Eugene Linden, author of the fascinating book The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather and the Destructions of Civilizations, calls climate a "serial killer" that stalked many early civilizations and was a critical factor in their downfall.

It also makes clear that one culture's bane can be another's opportunity, as rain belts shift or as growing seasons vary, as happened during the Medieval Warm Period, when Vikings fanned out through northern waters, establishing colonies in Greenland and a beachhead in Newfoundland.

Could this be the case again over the 30 years or so? That's a politically incorrect question, to say the least. To contemplate that some would work global warming to their advantage suggests a lack of solidarity at best, and at worst it sounds like craven exploitation of a crisis.

But, given that ongoing warming is likely to occur, it behooves our leaders to help make the best of the situation. Viewing the situation only as a crisis will help mitigate the rate of warming, but wiser heads will plan to achieve the maximum benefit from the inevitable upcoming changes.

And some people will naturally profit.

Though the effects of warming will ripple through most economic sectors, the one that is most obvious is agriculture. It is anticipated to benefit Canadian agriculture in three ways.

First, increased concentrations of carbon dioxide promote photosynthesis. Second, the growing season will elongate; on average, it has increased two days per decade since 1950. Third, the amount of precipitation is the limiting factor for crops in much of the country, and it is expected to increase by 20 percent over the upcoming few decades.

Of course, there are drawbacks as well; for example, winter rain on bare soil would promote erosion.

According to the IPCC, climate-related yield increases will be on the order of 5 to 20 percent over the next few decades. As Canadian productivity is already very high, this increase means a tremendous boost in the amount of food generated.

If this additional supply simply flooded the market and pushed prices down, its economic effect would be muted. But this is unlikely to occur, as climate change is expected to have an opposite effect in many parts of the world -- especially to competitors producing wheat and other cereals. Across a broad swath of the mid-latitudes of Asia, from Pakistan and Northern India to Iran, excessive heat and drought will substantially reduce yields.

Increased exports don't just benefit farmers. Such a boom would affect the entire food production and distribution system, from fertilizer and farm-equipment manufacturers to railways and grain terminals. Such a scenario would also accelerate the rebalancing of power from central Canada to the west.

Forests are expected to expand as well, by 10 to 20 percent, moving higher up mountains and north into the tundra. This is a potentially valuable resource, one that will also help suck up excess amounts of carbon dioxide.

The part of Canada -- unless the Russkies grab it -- with the highest potential for comprehensive change is the Arctic. Satellite images showed last month that a large part of the Arctic Ocean is ice-free. It may not be long before the fabled Northwest Passage, that elusive prize sought by waves of European explorers between the 17th and 19th centuries, is finally open to shipping for a significant portion of the year.

That would shave thousands of kilometres off the voyages of the big container ships, saving fuel and time, while taking a bite out of the Panama Canal's business.

Such a reorganization of the pattern of international shipping would require expanded infrastructure in the far north. Deep-water ports to service and police the waterway, search and rescue for stranded mariners, and the capacity to deal with the environmental fallout of the inevitable shipwrecks must all be developed. That should boost the prospects of firms that specialize in this type of construction, such as Clark Builders, Ledcor, PCL and SNC-Lavalin.

Methodologies for building at these latitudes will also have to change, as permafrost melts and undermines conventional foundations. The construction season itself will also be longer, allowing for more complex projects to be built efficiently.

Tourism to the north would also be expanded, as opportunities to see this little-known part of Canada increase. Even in the southern part of the country, tourism is expected to be promoted by a longer summer season and uncomfortably hot cities. Visits to Canada's national park system are projected to increase by 9 to 25 percent.

Ski operators, on the other hand, will be in for a tough time, as their season will be reduced in length, chairlifts will have to be built to higher elevations, where practical, and more investment in snowmaking equipment will be needed. As for snowmobilers in eastern North America, they may do better to take up bocce.

Those who closely follow the pulse of commodities and their energy bills might be focusing on their homes. For example, lower heating costs in winter will be balanced off by higher air-conditioning costs in summer; the shift in demand from fuel oil and natural gas to electricity does, nonetheless, imply an economic impact.

By a happy accident of geography, it appears that Canada is exceptionally well placed to enjoy major benefits of global warming, assuming that we are willing to take the necessary steps to adapt to the new environment. Naturally, though, there is not much choice, as it is human nature to desire not only to survive, but to thrive.

So, while others fret, we're busy stocking up on the sunscreen and cruising real-estate listings in Winnipeg. Because you never know: before long, Manitoba could supplant Miami as a major vacation hot spot.


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