Climate Change and Energy: Time for a Reality Check


2 February 2015

Thank you very much, Dr. Brown, Dr. MacDonald (President), and Minister Delorey who is here. I'm very pleased that he is here, Minister of the Environment in Nova Scotia. And of course, Allan J. MacEachen. I know he is there because I had the pleasure of sitting with him at dinner. It is really an honour to be invited to participate in this lecture series. And especially because I have great admiration, great memories, great friendship for Allan J. MacEachen, who from the time I entered politics until the time I left, was always there to give me advice on very sensitive issues and wisdom and experience which were so necessary to someone coming into politics for the first time as I did in 1978. I learned an enormous amount from Allan MacEachen and I think that probably all the colleagues in the Liberal Party that I dealt with felt the same way and still feel the same way. And he had a way of getting things done also for his riding of Cape Breton, as you know. I think it was pretty profitable for old Cape Breton, Allan J. MacEachen Inc. He was very, very effective in arguing when he was President of the Treasury Board. I asked him this evening, as a matter of fact, about the heavy water plants. You know there were heavy water plants in Port Hawkesbury and in Glace Bay, as I recall. And because, essentially, there was an embargo on India because of their experimentation with nuclear weapons and so no heavy water was going there, but we were producing heavy water. And we continued to produce heavy water and store heavy water. And Allan MacEachen, of course, thought this was very important for his constituents - providing good, well-paying jobs as it did. But, of course, the cost-cutters in the Treasury Board put the heavy water plants almost at the top of the priority list for cuts. I hope not all you young people will endure what so many of us endured. I don't think I have been in any organization in my adult life - politics, universities, the OECD - where the job is not cutting. That would have been wonderful to have been around in the days when the issue was having to spend this money. In any case, that's what happened in Ottawa. The heavy water plants were on the top of the list. Now, I can't tell you if this story is true or not, but it certainly made the circuits in Ottawa. One day there was a meeting to look at some of these cuts and Allan MacEachen showed up and he was very much respected, Deputy Prime Minister, and I'm not sure if he was Minister of Finance at that moment or Minister of External Affairs, but it doesn't matter because the story is a very good story I thought. They brought a young scientist in to talk about the heavy water plants and the production of heavy water. And allegedly, Allan, you'll get a chance to defend yourself if this is wrong, after he finished and explained about the stockpile, Allan MacEachen said, “I have one question to ask you young man.” “Yes, minister.” “Does heavy water spoil?” And he said, well no, no it doesn't spoil. “That's my only question. Thank you.” Well, heavy water doesn't spoil, so why not stockpile it? And I also learned from another good Nova Scotian, Peter Nicholson, who advised me quite recently of how significant that heavy water has become although the plants have been shut. The heavy water apparently is being used in the neutrino experiments in Sudbury, without which they could not take place. So, the heavy water turned out to have an important role after all, in our global scientific context.

Now, we are going to talk about a bit of a global scientific context tonight. It is not a happy story that I am going to discuss with you but it is a very important one. And I hope that afterward, we have an opportunity to exchange some views and questions because I have my views and I'm not saying they are necessarily correct but they have been developed over quite a number of years in looking at the issue of climate change and global warming. It was John Maynard Keynes's who advised us to, “always examine the present in light of the past for the purposes of the future.” And that exercise is very, very important in many areas by the way, one we should all remember. But it is especially important, I find, today in the context of climate change and global warming. The challenge of global warming has been described by many people as the greatest challenge of the 21st century. Our second set of remarks by the Secretary of State John Kerry, that he made just at the latter part of last year, I think it was probably at the Lima Conference, COP-20. Those of you who are not familiar with it, although many of you will be, he said that all nations have to respond to climate change, "the greatest challenge to our generation." He placed it above poverty and above terrorism. The science is screaming at us, he said. Ask any kid in school, they understand what a greenhouse is, how it works, why we call it the greenhouse effect. They get it. Now last year, the former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg chaired a non-partisan commission on climate change as it would affect the United States. Now, they were concentrated on the United States but it has broad applications, certainly to Canada. Here's just an excerpt; I'll just read you an excerpt to give you some idea of the gravity. Paulson was on this committee as well and it was non-partisan. The report was called Risky Business. The report rejects climate impacts on scales as small as individual countries. It paints a grim picture of economic loss. "Our economy is vulnerable to a growing number of these, from climate change, including from seas that will rise, from heat waves, and it will continue to cause deaths. It will continue to reduce labour productivity and strain power grids." Now listen to these numbers they put forward. "By mid-century, $66 billion to $106 billion worth of coastal property will likely be below sea level. There is a 5% chance that by 2100 the losses will reach $700 billion with average annual losses from rising oceans of $42 billion to $108 billion along the eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico." Now this is of particular interest to Nova Scotia and not only to say personally for me also. I happen to - my wife and I - have a property on the South Shore of Nova Scotia at sea-level. In any case, that's just an aside. I just wanted to let you know I have some local context here. Extreme heat, especially the Southwest and upper Mid-west, and on and on the report goes. So really, it is indeed a risky business.

Now this year, that's why I selected this topic, this is 2015 as we all know. It is seen as a ‘make or break’ year in this battle to bring global warming under control. There is a UN, a United Nation's Paris Summit scheduled for December, where as many as 190 world leaders plus ministers and experts will descend on Paris in the hope of achieving a binding international agreement to control greenhouse gas effects. And this summit is largely seen as a last ditch attempt to do what we failed to do for over 40 years. And that's why this summit this year is more critical than the one I attended, for example, in Copenhagen back in 2009. Now I do hope that the minister here will be able to attend that Paris Summit as well because you know, especially in Canada in particular, the provinces have absolutely critical roles to play and can actually put pressure on the system, I think, which is extremely important. Now, most knowledgeable observers recognise that time is running out for the collective global community to put greenhouse gas emissions on a downward trend, sufficient to prevent the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere, to less than 450 parts per million (ppm). Now there is broad scientific consensus - including the studies of the international climate summit - that the CO2 atmospheric concentrations at that level, at 450 ppm, could mean a 2°C increase in mean global temperatures above pre-industrial levels, with disastrous global climate consequences.

Now many of you may know of this but I will give you some of it anyway. Why is the focus on CO2 so important? Well, because unlike other greenhouse gases, and there are a number: there's water vapor, there's methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and CO2. But amongst all of those, CO2 is the only one with an atmospheric life which can even exceed 100 years. Now this means that the CO2 emitted in massive amounts from coal burning thermal plants and factories in the 1920s inhabits the atmosphere today and contributes to the greenhouse effect. It does so by trapping the warmth from the sun’s rays which reach the earth under this GHG (greenhouse gas) blanket, thereby raising the mean or average global temperature of the earth’s surface. So CO2 is seen as the main villain in creating this problem because of its longevity in the atmosphere. But methane, which has a much shorter life span, atmospheric life span, can also play a significant role in this sequence because it is a more potent GHG. Professor Granger Morgan, with whom I have worked on a number of issues at the Carnegie Mellon University, has likened this phenomena to a bathtub with a large in floor faucet but a small drain. The CO2 comes in, stays, and only gradually is it absorbed into the seas, forest and vegetation over many years. Of course, much of the warmth generated by the sun’s rays was always trapped in our atmosphere which kept the earth at a certain temperature. Now this is said to be about 57°F. We invented this so called ‘Goldilocks Zone’ - not too hot, not too cold - this environment which we are now searching for elsewhere in the universe, as you've read about different exploration of the planets and which one having the Goldilocks Zone are likely to exist. But with this incredible increase in GHG emissions since the beginning of the industrial revolution (which is roughly 1780 A.D.) more of the warmth generated by the sun’s rays is trapped because of the greenhouse effect. Now the summary, the present paralysis that we have internationally, illustrates our incapacity to come to grips with global warming. And this is, in fact, of course, on climate change, which provides weather aberrations which we witness on a daily bases across the planet. The world meteorological organization (WMO), which is also a UN agency, reported to the UN meeting in Lima just last December, the following: they said the provisional information for 2014 means 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century. That's our century. There is no standstill in global warming. What we saw in 2014 is consistent with what we expect from a changing climate. What is particularly unusual - these are posted on the chair by the way - and alarming this year are the high temperatures of vast areas of the ocean's surface, including in the Northern hemisphere. And they go on to say basically, that the record high greenhouse gas emissions are committing the planet to a much more uncertain and inhospitable future. That's the present.

So following Keynes's advice that we “examine the present in light of the past for the purposes of the future,” the planet faces enormous challenges if we do not want an uncertain and inhospitable future, as well as the extraordinary, enormous costs that are suggested by the Bloomberg commission. Now looking at the past, let me add a bit of historical reflection to put this current state of climate change in perspective and then we can estimate about what the future will likely hold. A Swedish scientist whose name is Svante Arrhenius, he won a Nobel Prize in 1903, he identified the impact on the atmosphere that burning coal would have as early as 1896. He believed that the ice ages were caused by fluxuations of CO2 in the atmosphere and he saw that burning coal would emit large amounts of CO2 and increase the earth's warmth. However, he estimated that it would take several thousand years to increase CO2 atmospheric concentrations by 50%. This is 1896 he had this estimate. But unfortunately those concentrations increased by 30% in the 20th century alone. So we have known of the characteristics of CO2 and its greenhouse effect on our planet for more than a century. Some people today refer to Svante Arrhenius as the father of climate change. Alarm bells were rung at a Stockholm UN environmental conference in 1972. That's over 40 years ago. Now the principal sense of this Stockholm declaration said that the discharge of toxic substances and other substances in the release of heat, in such quantities or concentrations as to exceed the capacity of the environment to render them harmless, must be halted in order to insure that serious or irreversible damage is not inflicted upon ecosystems. That conference, incidentally, was organized by Canada's Maurice Strong. Surely, there was concern then about emissions but their measurement and their impact was not yet broadly understood. The UN - which you read about all the time - International Panel on Climate Change, known as the IPCC: let me put this in context, it was only created in 1988. It continually puts the evolution of the earth's climate under examination and the expertise, I might say, of hundreds of scientific experts from across the globe. Now, there are dissenters, but very few. The consensus of the IPCC is broadly supported with some 600 to 800 scientists participating in the exercise. Well, the alarm bells grew even louder after the UN-funded report called Our Common Future. That was 1987, and especially after the UN Rio Earth Conference in 1992, which incidentally, was also organized by Canada's Maurice Strong. At Rio, mutually reducing GHG emissions was strongly addressed and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted. That's known as UNFCCC. It had the following purpose: the objective of the Treaty is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the planet system. Anthropogenic meaning caused by human activity. That's 1992 and now we're 2015. 

Annually since that date, there has been a Conference of Parties, that’s the COP, under the UNFCCC, which has regular meetings, the latest being the one I referred to which was held in Lima in December. It was intended to prepare the groundwork for the Paris Summit in December 2015. The UN had its special session after 1992 - it’s called the UNGASS, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session - where I was privileged to give an address and listen to all the impressive statements from world leaders about the importance of getting these GHG emersions under control - in 1997. That meeting was followed later that year by the UN Kyoto Conference which you all probably have heard of, where the famous Kyoto Protocol was adopted. At the time of Kyoto, in 1997, to which Canada was a signatory, CO2 concentrations were about 367 ppm. Remember, we'd like them below the benchmark of about 450 ppm; in 1997 they were literally 367 ppm. It was agreed at that conference that Annex 1 countries - these are the most developed countries in the world - would reduce their emissions during two commitment periods, on average by 5.2% below their respective 1990 levels. This target was to be achieved by 2012. During the second commitment period, 2013-2020, where we are now, countries would be committed to reduce emissions by at least 18% below the 1990 levels. Major emitters have refused to make such a binding commitment and Canada withdrew its engagement from Kyoto in 2012.  

In 1990, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was just under 360 ppm. These estimates are made by the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, basically the observatory of reference. They are now hovering today around the 400 ppm mark, and they are steadily rising. 1990 was chosen as the year of reference in Kyoto. As an example, Canada was intended to reduce its CO2 emissions by 6% below the 1990 levels. Instead, Canada has increased CO2 emissions approaching 30% above 1990 levels. Well I cite Canada, not as a partisan political player in this context at all but as someone who has some experience in the challenges of what is often referred to as a political economy. I have witnessed governments across the globe tend their policies to short term political objectives, rather than to the long term challenges such as climate change which will not have a serious voice at the next election. Listen to these comments from Prime Minister Harper at a press conference he gave with Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia, in Ottawa last year. This is what Harper said: “It is not that we don't seek to deal with climate change,” said Harper, “but we seek to deal with it in a way that will protect and enhance our ability to create jobs and growth. Not destroy jobs and growth in our governance.” Harper said that no country is going to undertake actions on climate change no matter what they say. They will not deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country. In other words, what he's telling us - and I'm not saying he's wrong - but he's telling us that the political considerations trump long term environmental concern no matter what that portends for future generations - representated here in this room by young people - when it comes to the challenge of climate change with all its negative impacts in the world: economic, social, and even demographic, with projected massive migrations a real possibility. Well the future, I must say, has a very, very weak constituency in all democracies that have this short term, basically electoral mandate.

The drawing upon the past that I just described for you, and given the many decades of rhetoric and promises without action, how can any rational observer think or hope that more than 190 countries will come together in Paris and deliver CO2 reduction programs which will prevent CO2 levels at the 450 ppm level? But even if there were to be agreement, could they be expected to live with these commitments? History suggests not and Kyoto is an example. Will that change? Okay, will that change? Let’s look at the future and the prospects for serious progress at Paris. What are the possibilities of a major break from the process of the past and what are the probabilities? There was a great American story on sociologist and critic Lewis Mumford, no longer with us, but when looking at a particular scenario he said, "I'm a pessimist about the probabilities. I'm an optimist about the possibilities." And that's where I was over a decade ago. I was optimistic about the possibilities. But today I'm also pessimistic about the possibilities. What might have been possible a decade ago has disappeared through failure to act. A decade ago, it might have been possible to globally embrace nuclear energy but we did not. A combination of fears about proliferation and accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima have delayed the important evolution of the energy and all its benefits, specifically GHG's which it does not emit. Had the world followed France's example, where about 80% of electricity is produced by nuclear energy, we would not be faced by the apocalyptic climate change scenarios of the future. But it’s now too late given the time lag for the ‘conception to commissioning’ of the number of nuclear plants that would be necessary. A decade ago there was also the prospect of implementing a technology called carbon capture and sequestration, under the acronym CCS. This is a proven technology and basically this is where carbon does not escape from this carbon emitting sources such as thermal plants nourished by coal, oil or natural gas. It is liquefied, liquefied under pressure and then stored underground. Well, because of the combination of high cost, regulatory hurdles and objections from some NGOs, this technology has never been broadly implemented and is unlikely to be, at least over the next few decades.

In conclusion I offer you my own view of the future, not based on theoretical tomes, from well-meaning NGOs and think-tanks, but on an assessment of the global output and critique. This year in the lead up to the Paris Summit, we will see many theoretical tomes produced at great expense by others and groups showing how such reductions of CO2 are possible and how economic growth will, indeed, not suffer because of the investment in new and exciting technologies. Alternative energy technologies, wind, solar, electric cars, hydro, energy efficiencies, etc., will all be on that list. But really the only proven technology which could conceivably meet global base energy loads is not there, will not be there, and that’s nuclear, at least for most. Well, for many years I witnessed this parade of alternative energy advocates producing possible scenarios for reducing GHG emissions. The problem is that most ignore the political and economic challenges of weening our economies off fossil fuels while still meeting the enormous energy requirements of growing economies. Millions of people are seeking standards of living that so much of the western developed world has enjoyed, much admittedly at the expense of the environment. At this stage, I do not believe that any product of the Paris Summit will keep us under the 450 ppm number, never mind the 350 ppm number suggested by others, such as the very renounced and experienced US scientist Jim Hansen. The most likely future scenario is that we will have global temperatures rise beyond 2°C; that atmospheric CO2 concentrations will continue to rise and the world will be faced with the challenges of adaptation on many fronts. We have witnessed resistance to adaptation and climate change by those who believe that it is an admission that we will not be successful in curbing GHG emissions. Well, I tried unsuccessfully to put adaptation on the OECD work program nearly 15 years ago, and that was the position taken by many countries’ representatives and hence was not successful. It was too early to tell, they said, whether we are not going to be able to get emissions under control. Fortunately, there is now a growing constituency prepared to emphasize adaptation and this was demonstrated at the highest levels in Lima, which indeed was an admission that efforts in mitigation will not be sufficient. During the COP-20 meeting, which I referred to, countries elevated adaptation on to the same level as action to curb emissions, that is mitigation. So for the first time we see countries facing their reality of failure to adequately cut emissions. No doubt those who believe that achieving major reductions so as to keep atmospheric emissions under 450, will see this as a capitulation and retreat, but it really is not. It is simply a reality check, necessitated, by decades of failure to progress enough with mitigation efforts.

Now, having a look at the international energy agency which is also, probably, the most authoritative agency in the world on this issue because they collect statistics from every area, every government (it is also an arm of the OECD): they have a world energy outlook. This is what they project per annum in the 2014 report. They say that there will be four almost equal areas of energy production in the year 2040: "In 2040, the world energy supply next divides into four almost equal parts: Oil, Gas, Coal, and low carbon sources. This was the road, on a path of resistance, with a long term global average temperature rise of 3.6°C." So what they're telling us is that if it is business as usual, this is what we have to look forward to. Not 2° but 3.6° and we will also still be dependent on oil, gas and coal, fossil fuels which basically burn up and spew CO2.

This is a disastrous scenario for the long term if the International Panel on Climate Change predictions are correct. Remember that low carbon sources - what they're talking about - is hydro, nuclear and alternative renewable energy such as wind and solar. Later this year in the lead up to the December summit, the IAE tells us they are going to produce an analysis, a plan, of how the mitigation of emission could meet the 450 ppm target. Well I predict that once again, it will recycle the theoretical possibilities, not the political and economic probabilities. It could point to the importance of CCS (Carbon Capture Sequestration) which I just mentioned a moment ago, which is a form of geoengineering, and despite the failures to date of implementing that technology. But the IAE report may help in forcing some politicians to reexamine their short term personal political ambitions and weigh them against the collective goal of global good. Well, I doubt it, but we could hope for that, pray for it.

Let us assume for the moment that my pessimism about the capacity to implement and enforce binding agreements that will keep CO2 concentrations below 450 ppm is correct. Let us also assume for the sake of this discussion that they, the IPCC - International Panel on Climate Change - assumptions about the impact of increasing warming beyond 2°C are also correct and will be corroborated by improved modeling in future reports. Will the planet be destined to suffer more drought, loss of agricultural land, famine, torrential rain falls, massive flooding, ice storm, unbearable heat waves and forest fires, acidification of seas, a loss of marine life, rising sea levels perhaps of several metres as glaciers melt (and more if the Greenland icecaps slide to the seas) as well as the migrations of millions of people, basically, to other countries, and the spread of tropical diseases to northern countries? Well, if there's no Plan B I think the answer to that is yes. That's what we have to confront.  

Unfortunately, the only affordable Plan B that we can see at the moment would appear to be geoengineering of the planet, which has finally surfaced as a matter for serious consideration in the mainstream media. Now both The Economist and Newsweek have focused on it with a cover of Newsweek in December, headline read the following: “Science to the Rescue”. And reference was made in my introduction that I chaired the International Risk Governance Council in Geneva from 2006-2010 and we examined the pressure of engineering the atmosphere through what they called solar radiation management. A very powerful opinion piece was produced under the direction of that same Granger Morgan who is also chair of the IRGC's Scientific and Technical Committee. That concept is to lower the albedo, or the amount of sunlight that is reflected back into space, by spraying aerosols in the atmosphere. It has been and is the subject of serious study by respected scientists. It is encouraging that even the IPCC has finally recognized geoengineering as a possible lifeboat for planet earth, at least until new energy sources such as fusion or greatly enhanced solar are developed. Now here's an excerpt from Nature on that subject, "attempts to counter global warming while modifying the earth’s atmosphere have been thrust into the spotlight following last week’s report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Mentioning of geoengineering in the report summary was brief but it suggests that the controversial area is now firmly on the scientific agenda. Some climate models suggest that geoengineering may even be necessary to keep global temperature rises to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels." Now the proposal to spread aerosols is somewhat inspired by the measurable cooling of the earth after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in The Philippines in 1991. Scientists engaged in this study suggest that some testing should be done so as to have a reliable fire extinguisher on the shelf should these climate disaster scenarios start to emerge. The Economist appears to support that view that such testing is desirable. 

I do not recall anyone in any of the meetings I've been at on the subject - which are now fairly numerous - I do not recall anyone suggesting that this would be a popular idea. However, if we fail to reduce GHG emissions and watch global temperatures rise with the horrific consequences which I just described, we may have to revisit this unpopular idea. No one really wants to resort to tinkering with the climate system but if the future of the planet is at stake, there may be no choice. There should be a Plan B because, as we all know, there is no ‘Planet B.’ My hope is that the summit in Paris will be obliged to consider geoengineering if only to emphasize the importance of rapidly adopting greatly enhanced intervention measures and realistic and affordable adaptation projects. But I fear it may be too late. But if people see the prospect of geoengineering as being the only alternative, it just might inspire global leadership to make some tough decisions, even though their political futures may suffer as a consequence.

Thank you.


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