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Tilting with windmills

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Here's the irony about Canada's two-decade, shambolic, inept, half-hearted and contradictory response to the incontrovertible fact that the planet's surface climate has, over the past 150 years, warmed: It mirrors uncertainty about the predictive ability of climate science.

In a way, the chaos of our response epitomizes the gaps in what we know. Our failure is, in fact, a direct consequence of those gaps.

More than that, the uncertain response reflects genuine confusion, among ordinary people but also among policy-makers, about what Canadians can or should do about climate change. That extends into the federal Conservative caucus: Environment Minister Peter Kent has fielded questions from his colleagues, including the prime minister, about the reliability of climate science. Derided by environmentalists as an apologist for inaction, Kent within his party has played the role of activist. But he faces an uphill fight, one increasingly reflected in public opinion.

Abacus Data late last month released a poll showing 55 per cent of Canadians are quite worried about the pollution of drinking water, rivers, lakes, reservoirs and the contamination of soil by toxic waste. But only a third of those surveyed said they worry a lot about climate change. This reflects a similar trend in the United States, measured by Gallup this past April. It seems we're really not all that concerned about climate change after all.

For a politician to utter such heresy in Canada now, as former Alberta premier Ed Stelmach noted following the Alberta provincial election, is fraught with peril. Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith lost to Conservative Alison Redford, Stelmach said, because she dared say the scientific debate around climate change is still active. In other words, it's not entirely settled.

In other words, reasonable people can disagree. Unthinkable.

This is now the most fraught economic debate we have. It underlies Ontario's controversial Green Energy Act. It underlies NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's strategic decision to hurl thunderbolts at the oilpatch. But what if much of what we generally assume about the discussion were off the mark or incomplete?

There are credible scientists who belong in neither ideological camp. They agree global warming, certainly over the past century, is incontrovertible. But they disagree on the level of certainty we can have about its causes. And they raise troubling questions about the wisdom of policy remedies based primarily on faith.

For example, Ross McKitrick, a University of Guelph professor who has delved into the economics of climate change for more than a decade, says the planet's surface temperature is indeed gradually heating up -- though the rate of warming has slowed in the past 10 years. And he allows the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may eventually be proven right in its finding carbon dioxide emitted due to fossil-fuel consumption is the cause. He also says other human activities -- including changes to the Earth's surface caused by development and long-term solar cycles -- may be a factor.

McKitrick disagrees profoundly with the notion that the science is settled. More to the point, even if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is right, he is convinced all major policy remedies proposed so far would have been ineffective, even if implemented precisely as designed.

"There's no way of fixing it by tinkering around the edges," he says. "Windmills are irrelevant. We're talking about shutting down industry and taking cars off the road."

The human toll of rolling back development -- which is unavoidable, if global CO2 emissions are to be sharply curbed -- has yet to be carefully considered, McKitrick says.

"Think of the alleviation of suffering that comes when people get electricity, access to motor vehicles, ordinary development. To stop all that from happening, it just seems to me that would be a much heavier human toll than just learning to adapt to climate change as it comes along."

Judith Curry, chairwoman of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, agrees. She posits human causes, but also other possible causes. One of her concerns is regional climate variability. "In some parts of the world, warming would be good," she says. "Think Canada, Russia, Northern China for starters. They might have more hospitable weather, longer growing seasons, a longer tourist season."

Like McKitrick, Curry contends the cost-benefit analysis -- a clear-headed comparison of the benefits of development and better infrastructure, against the benefits of lowering sea levels by perhaps two or three feet, over a century -- has yet to be done. And she argues that, rather than developing big global carbon treaties that go nowhere, Western governments ought to put more resources into advancing the science of weather forecasting to better mitigate the damage hurricanes, floods, droughts and other weather-related disasters cause, especially in the Third World.

There's more, but you get the point: Why is it, given that so much of the policy debate in our country now concerns what to do about climate change, that speaking about gaps in the science, which clearly do exist, is taboo?

Michael Den Tandt is a columnist for Postmedia News.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2012 A17

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