GEORGE: Why are we still arguing about climate change?



Dealing with climate change has been billed as the greatest challenge our civilization has ever faced. Some take that challenge at face value, and look for ways that both they and society at large can take steps to "decarbonize" our economy. Others are more skeptical and see no need to get all excited about changing much of anything. I think we need to put this entire conversation to rest and get on with cutting CO2 pollution.

In typical fashion the political debate quickly degenerated into extremes, complete with name calling and highly polarized positions. One side is seen as gullible, easily manipulated suckers who are being led to financial slaughter by "the new world order", Al Gore, and a cabal of 30,000+ scientists who are all seeking nothing but more grant money for another round of useless speculation. The other side is seen as oil soaked, Koch brother funded, self-deluded morons who can't see past the smoke from their diesel powered one ton pick-up trucks. Neither description has any basis in reality.

Pretty much every person in our society has a position on this issue, including the kids. Some take it on faith that the scientists are correct, some take it on faith that the scientists are wrong and have missed taking into account the sun, volcanoes, and "natural processes" in their investigations. Most of us simply don't have the time, energy, or interest to think much about it one way or another, although that is slowly changing.

The sheer volume of work in numerous fields of scientific inquiry is staggering. For a layman to get a good idea of what all of this work means is a daunting task, one that very, very few people are prepared to even attempt. So while all have an opinion, very few have an informed opinion. The sheer complexity of the issue aids the uninformed on both sides in disregarding the opinions of the other.

The arguments against effective action on controlling CO2 pollution are varied. Most revolve around conspiracy theories, unfounded scientific opinion, and manipulation of the media. The economic power of the fossil energy industry and its undue influence on our political institutions is a major stumbling block. The arguments for the status quo primarily revolve around economic and political "reasons" why scientific theories based on observations could not possibly be real.

Parallel to the impact that CO2 is having on the climate system runs another serious consequence of CO2 pollution. This consequence is easily understood, as it relies not on any complex science or difficult to comprehend theorizing, but on basic high school chemistry. As ocean water absorbs CO2, the higher concentration creates carbonic acid, H2CO3. This lowers the pH of the water, making shell formation more difficult for foraminifera and many other forms of sea life whose life cycles are an important part of the natural process of carbon sequestration and oxygen production.

Combined with warming oceans, which are thought to have led to a 40 per cent decrease in phytoplankton since 1950, acidification can lead to an increasing rate of acidification, a lowering in the rate of carbon sequestration, and a decrease in the amount of free oxygen in seawater. These are all positive feedbacks; processes where the effects lead to greater effects. We would do well to remember that 70 per cent of the oxygen we breathe comes from plant life in our oceans.

Of the three primary impacts, the lowering of the oxygen content of seawater can lead to the most serious consequences. Oxygen is the original oxidant. As a waste product of life in the early atmosphere, it caused a major extinction. A class of bacteria that cannot thrive in high concentrations of oxygen produce hydrogen sulphide. Many types of these bacteria live in the lower strata of the oceans. Their populations are kept in check by the higher oxygen concentration found in surface waters and the lack of sunlight at greater depths. In quantity, H2S can change the chemistry of seawater and ultimately the atmosphere. Needless to say, this would be very bad for "life as we know it" on planet earth.

It would be difficult to find a more serious consequence to CO2 pollution. We know that the CO2 from burning fossil fuels is the cause of increased CO2 in ocean water because the ratio of the isotopes of carbon that come from fossil energy is unique and different from the isotope found in naturally occurring carbon dioxide. The isotopes found in the increasingly acidic ocean are definitely from the burning of fossil energy.

There is no real debate about acidification and that it is human caused. The consequences are arguably greater than the consequences of anthropogenic (human caused) global warming (AGW). There is no possible economic or political argument that can be used for cover by those who are skeptical of AGW. Acidification is as self evident as the effect of chlorofluorocarbon pollution on the ozone layer, something that we successfully dealt with through collective international action over the past thirty years.

At the end of the day, CO2 pollution is simply another example of pollution. Some in our society have worked hard to lay the blame for it at the feet of consumers and their choices. In reality, it is just another flaw in our economic system. Allowing products to come to market without a complete accounting of the cost of those products leaves the clean-up and the consequences to the taxpayer. The Giant Mine in the Yukon and the current problems with improperly capped oil and gas wells in Western Canada are great examples of this.

The time for quibbling is over. It is time to act on CO2 pollution.

— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.

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