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Photo by User Minesweeper From the Wikimedia Commons

I’m going to put myself on the line here. Today, I’m going to say something that strikes at the heart of many of the issues I’ve been talking about up until now (i.e. energy/offshore oil drilling, global climate change). What is that ‘something’ you may ask? Well, it is…the car is evil. There, I’ve said it. To repeat with even greater emphasis and for more cathartic effect: The Car Is Evil, THE CAR IS EVIL.

Why do I choose to bring the subject up now, after so many months of blogging? Well, let’s just say I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion recently about cars. The conversation, before I joined in (or you could say, before I decided to ‘rant’), focused mainly on the technical aspects of cars. That is, how we could make them better, such as by making them electrically-powered and so on.

Now I know that the individuals participating in this conversation had the best of intentions. They were concerned about the problems of global climate change and air pollution that accompany the use of the internal combustion engine. As you likely can guess, I do not disagree with either of these issues. In fact, I am very worried about the effects that a burgeoning demand for the automobile in places like China will have on the world’s climate and air quality.

However, solving the technical issues with the automobile will not be a sufficient antidote. The automobile is at the root of many additional woes that techno fixes to its build alone will not address. Some of you may be aware of what these are. Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, I will lay them out here.

To begin and of perhaps greatest concern, the automobile eats at the hearts of our communities. How does it do this? Well, by providing, or at least giving the impression of providing, a swift getaway from our neighbourhoods/ workplaces/etc. and by insulating drivers and passengers from those who pass them on the course of their travels. In doing so, the automobile effectively facilitates the creation of ‘islands of nowhere’. I say islands of nowhere, for what else could these places be, if we are so eager to get away from them?

There is a second point, closely related to the first one. Thanks to the automobile that enables long-distance travel, we have seen the proliferation of centralized, mega “Super” centres, schools, community centres, industrial parks, and such. This is concerning because they are, for the most part, not easily accessible except by automobile. I say not easily accessible because in some situations mass transit can be taken, albeit not without a considerable investment of time and effort.

What happens in the process? Well, customers are diverted away from local businesses (which add greatly to the soul of communities), children must travel miles away for their education (rather than take the far more healthy option of walking and cycling), parents (i.e. ‘soccer moms’) are forced to spend hours in the car to transport their children to activities, and workers often must travel great distances to their places of employment (with a resultant loss in productivity, due to fewer hours potentially worked and the toll that traveling places on worker health).

There are other problems as well. Consider the dangers of navigating, often at high speeds, busy streets and roads, with often equally frustrated and impatient drivers. There is also the sense of boredom and isolation that can occur for those that cannot drive the automobile, like children and certain portions of the elderly and the disabled.

Last but not least, many harmful environmental impacts are associated with the logistics of  making automobile travel feasible. This includes 1) the pollution from mining and processing of materials that go into the creation of the car (even if most of the material is reclaimed, there is still some that is typically not); 2) how the roads must be constructed with materials largely gathered from oil and aggregate (i.e. gravel) extraction, both of which being activities fraught with environmental problems; and 3) the detrimental effects to wildlife, as expressways cut through precious natural areas, parking lots cover more greenspace, and hazardous roadways prevent the safe crossing of many creatures.

There. Now, I’ve said my piece. And feel much the better for it. Now I know that I along with many who are like-minded will undoubtedly continue needing to use the automobile on occasion, until the proper infrastructure and support network is built up. However, as we are now in a situation when our addiction to oil and its use by the automobile is coming under increasing fire, the time for a thorough dialogue on these matters has come. Let us hope we make the right choices.

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Dr. Stephen H. Schneider

Copyright Joi Ito. From flickr.

I’m sorry to report that leading climatologist Dr. Stephen H. Schneider has died yesterday. His death, reported by the New York Times, is tragic news for those concerned about global climate change. A long-time advocate on the need for action on climate change, his death is perhaps particularly saddening now, at a time when opposing camps on global climate change (as well as other problems associated with fossil fuel use) appear to be becoming increasingly polarized. (Only earlier this month, Schneider and other climate scientists reported receiving hate mail for their stance on the issue.)

Schneider was the editor of a journal called Climatic Change as well as author and co-author of numerous scientific papers. He was also the writer of several books including Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate. His work attests to his careful observation of the scientific basis for climate change, while at the same time relentless drive to raise the issue in the public sphere.

Schneider is reported to have died of a heart attack. He recently visited the city of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada in May, and had been hoping to return in the fall. The torch now falls to other climatologists to continue the struggle that he undertook. Let us wish them the very best in their efforts.

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Flame of light

Flame of light. Often used as a symbol of hope. Photo provided courtesy of fotomoments.

This past Sunday I gave a talk on global climate change at a church in Hamilton. The question came up afterward, why we should even bother, given the magnitude of the problem? In other words, is there any reason to hope that we can address this issue? This blog post will attempt to answer this question in realistic terms.

Is there Really Such a Thing as Global Climate Change?

I realize that I may be “putting the cart before the horse”, so to speak, as many people feel the jury is still out as to whether global climate change is actually a problem. If you are one of these people, I urge you to read books such as Australian Tim Flannery’s Now or Never or Canadian Andrew Weaver’s Keeping Our Cool. Other great sources of information are the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, or the Pembina Institute’s Climate Change Program (Not to blow my own horn, but you can also send me a request to give a talk on the subject, as I have been doing at various secular and non-secular venues.)

Reasons to Hope We Can Address the Issue

But to return to the question of why we should even bother, I feel there are many reasons of late to feel that climate change is something that can be addressed. These include:

  1. The recent passing of private-members Bill C-311, the Climate Change Accountability Act, on May 5th. The legislation calls for greenhouse gases to be cut 25 and 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 2050 respectively. Out of interest, the bill narrowly passed third reading with a vote of 149 to 136.
  2. The fact that Ontario has created Canada‘s first feed-in tariff program for renewable energy. Introduced on October 1, 2009, this program is called MicroFIT. Homeowners who are small energy producers will be reimbursed 80¢/kWh for installing solar photovoltaic cells in their homes. Reimbursement is also available for producing other renewable energy, ranging from that produced by wind, biogas and waterpower.
  3. How the United States (U.S.) National Academy Of Sciences has released on their website a series of reports on climate change this past Friday. In one of the reports, “Advancing the Science of Climate Change”, the conclusion is made that “a strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.”

While I would not want to say it is exactly hopeful, given the devastating tragedy that caused it, one cannot help be heartened by witnessing the strong public outcry over the BP oil “spill”. As proof, just visit the Boycott BP Facebook group, which has over 100 thousand fans, to realize the extent of anger about this disaster.

A Measure of Realism

While I have listed many reasons to be hopeful, there are no doubt many reasons to be a bit dubious. I lay out below some of the reasons why.

Climate Change Accountability Act (Bill C-311)

Whether Bill C-311 actually gets passed still remains to be seen. It was originally tabled in October 2006 in the Canadian House of Commons as Bill C-377 by the New Democratic Party (NDP). However, parliament was dissolved before it achieved royal assent.

MicroFIT Program

In an ideal world, people will recognize the wonderful benefits of the MicroFIT program and take advantage of it. However, one needs to be cognizant that the program will not last forever. There are those that oppose the program and will do their best to see it cancelled.

A prime example is an article generated by Don MacKinnon, President of the Power Workers’ Union in a special information feature this past May 13th in The Globe and Mail. With the headline, “Ontario’s green energy policies are not sustainable”, the article criticizes the government for spending money on wind and solar power. It also asserts that “Nuclear can provide the clean, cost-effective, base-load power that Ontario needs.”

Climate Change Research

With regard to the developments surrounding climate change research in the U.S., undoubtedly this sets a positive tone for working towards addressing the issue (much more favourably than, for instance, the situation during the previous presidency of George W. Bush). However, while the public is angry about the effects of oil today, how long this will last remains to be seen. It is no secret that the American way of life is heavily dependent upon fossil fuels and any activity that obstructs this may be viewed unfavourably.

As for Canada, whether we follow suit on the research front remains to be seen. In 2007, the Harper government shut down the Canadian Climate Impacts and Adaptation Research Network (C-CIARN), whose mandate was to promote and encourage research on climate change impacts and adaptation. While there is some research going on in Canada about climate change, it seems to be quite limited. For evidence, just review Canada’s action on climate change as outlined by Environment Canada. Nowhere in this is there any mention of climate change research.

This is a serious concern, for, without a solid understanding of the impact of global climate change in Canada, knowing how to respond appropriately is difficult. To borrow a phrase that I have heard used in a different context, it is like driving down a winding country road in the fog without the lights on. It just doesn’t make sense, does it?

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My aim in writing this blog post has been to provide a measure of optimism about what is happening regarding global climate change. At the same time, I have attempted to reveal how much work remains to be done.

So…let the politicians know of your support for initiatives aimed at addressing climate change. And try to take advantage of the MicroFIT program while it lasts. Only by doing so will the gains that have been achieved be maintained and built upon.

As always, I am hopeful, while at the same time realistic about the challenges the future holds in store.

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