Ignoring warming: no big whoop or deaf, blind march to ruin?

by Nathan Raine

provinceA recent UN report says 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded. Sounds alarming. But what does the average Saskatchewanian think about this?

“It was?” asks Drew, 28.

“Well, considering the winter we had this last year, I find that really hard to believe, ha ha,” says Sarah, 40-ish.

“That’s kind of scary”, says Christina, 24. “[But] to be honest, when you’re from Saskatchewan, it’s not something you really have to think about.”

“I didn’t know but that doesn’t surprise me,” says Thomas, 27. “Isn’t this, like, the direction we’re headed?”

“Yeah, fuckin’-A! Let’s get more of that warm weather!” squeals Doug (who didn’t give his age).

Those were a few on-the-street reactions to the Dec. 3 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change, which reviewed work by scientists from all over the planet. The IPCC report clearly states 2014 is the hottest year ever recorded due to record highs in global sea temperatures ultimately caused by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

But despite perpetual warnings and (seemingly) general recognition among average folk of the damaging effects of global warming, there seems to be, oh, just a leedle beet of divide between the acknowledgment of climate change and an actual, invested interest in doing something about it.

What the hell?

“Most people are still in denial, delusion and distraction,” says Saskatchewan-based writer, naturalist and activist Trevor Herriot. “They’re not ready to face the reality of climate change, despite natural disasters like flooding, huge massive storms on the eastern seaboard and droughts in the southwestern part of the continent.

But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t pay attention.

“It’s causing mayhem,” Herriot says. “I think farmers are starting to think more about climate change, but not enough people are willing to face the facts. Human beings can only take so much truth. Climate change is a hard one to swallow.”

The fact is, not only is 2014 the hottest year recorded going back to the 1700s, but 14 of the last 15 years have been the warmest in the last 150. The effect on glaciers has been particularly dramatic, as about 90 per cent of glaciers are shrinking worldwide — and doing so even faster than experts predicted.

“Most of the models were overly optimistic about how fast the glaciers would melt,” says John Pomeroy, a professor of hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan and Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change. “What they missed is [that] several years ago, when glaciers started melting, the bed of the glacier lubricates and then they start flowing more quickly as well. So the combination is really a disaster, and there’s no sign of things slowing down in that regard.”

But who cares, right? It’s still freakin’ cold here in Saskatchewan, so we’ve got nothing to worry about.

“In Saskatchewan, you have to realize that [going] back to 1999, in the span of 15 years, you see [both] the driest period and the wettest period in Saskatchewan’s history. So we’re already seeing more climate extremes,” Pomeroy says. “The drought from ‘99 to ‘04 was the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history, until the flood in Alberta in 2013 hit. So we’re in an era of climate extremes.”

That flood in Alberta cost the province a reported six billion dollars. On the other side of things, California is currently experiencing a drought that scientists believe is its worst in over 1200 years, and it’s sending food prices climbing around the world.

As for those unbearably cold Saskatchewan winters you’re dreading? Well, there could be plenty more, says Pomeroy.

“A number of studies have shown that because of the warming Arctic, the jet-stream sits in place for a longer period of time. So it’s possible to for us to get the polar vortex that we had last winter, very cold air, sitting over Saskatchewan. Or we could get very wet periods. It’s also possible to get a drought and extreme heat waves,” he says.

But will such disasters make us really pay attention? Probably not, says Herriot.

“If we do have a drought, that won’t wake people up. They’ll just think we’re having a hot, muggy summer,” he says. “It’s going to take more for people to become aware, and that’s the role of government. But we’re not getting any leadership from our governments on climate change.”

A climate summit attended by many of the world’s leaders/offenders took place in Peru this December. The United States and China have recently made promises to reduce their emissions (by what Pomeroy calls an inadequate amount).

As for Canada? Pomeroy says we’re taking climate change very seriously… in all the wrong ways.

“Our government is taking it very seriously: they’re working hard to ensure we’re not committed to reducing greenhouse gases at all, because it would affect the economies in Western Canada, especially the oil sands and the oil industry,” he says. “These summit meetings have been going on for a couple of decades and countries like Canada, and a few others, have obstructed them or made promises with no intention of keeping them.”

One need look no further than the tarsands for an example of our country blindly putting short-term economics above all environmental concerns, Herriot says.

“There’s a lot of folks that are just happy riding the wave of prosperity. Oil prices were going up high so everything was going on tickety-boo,” says Herriot. “If you’re in the oil industry, or making an income off of some enterprise that is somehow related or serves the oil and gas industry, you don’t want to think about climate change. That hurts your bottom line, and how many vacations you can take every year. So people here in Saskatchewan, by and large, don’t want to think about climate change.”

But whether our future brings more frigid winters or hot muggy summers, the only thing perfectly clear is that the effects of climate change are something we can’t just brush off anymore.

“It’s the world we’re in right now,” says Pomeroy. “As scientists, we see what’s occurring and the implications are horrifying. And yet we see a society that’s deceived itself and is basically saying, ‘Okay, we’ll carry on like this.’ So right now we’re on a path for self-destruction.”

Shrug on, Saskatchewan.