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Reflecting back

2006 has been something of a grim year in many respects, but if nothing else perhaps it will be remembered as the year that climate change finally landed in the media and became a topic of discussion for many people. While doubters still linger and the bickering continues, gradually things seem to be shifting away from the “is it real” argument and toward the “what do we do about it” argument. There is still lots to be worried about, but it’s a start.

The steady rise of the climate change issue into public conscience began in 2005 with the series of harsh hurricanes in the US. While nothing quite so dramatic happened in 2006, real evidence of the affects of a warmer climate did continue to materialize.

Study after study predicted bad outcomes for climate change, including dire impacts on the economy, which helped puncture one of the main tools of climate change skeptics — the threat that doing something will cost too much. It turns out that doing nothing will cost us, too. Medical journals, meanwhile, point out the potential health risks climate change will bring to humans.

The Chinese government has concluded that climate change is real and needs to be planned for. The US government has made no such admission, yet, but has just added polar bears to the official endangered species list, which some see as a roundabout admission that climate change is real.

Many parts of the northeastern US and Canada are setting records for lack of snowfall this winter. Businesses in Canada and the US that rely on snow for their livelihoods are suffering. Ski hills across North America are mainly green, and in many cases it’s even too warm to make snow artificially.

Meanwhile, Europe is experiencing its warmest winter in 1,300 years, hurting the skiing economy while boosting that of British Columbia. Along with Colorado, the Rocky Mountain area seems to be the only place on the planet that’s getting any of the white stuff. But this weather is also abnormal; Canada’s normally warm west coast was hammered by a barrage of weather disasters this year, including droughts, water shortages, power outages, snowstorms, massive winds, and flooding, much of this so intense that it broke long-standing records.

In the Canadian arctic, it has just been confirmed that a giant, ancient ice shelf has broken free and is now drifting — an ominous sign of melting ice caps.

In parts of the US, bears are not hibernating and birds are not migrating. Some birds in Europe are also staying put, and in some cases are beginning to nest already, thinking it is spring.

Grapes for Ontario’s famous ice wines may not be harvested this year, because the making of ice wine requires, well, ice.

Am I claiming that all these phenomena are a direct result of climate change? Of course not. Certainly many other factors exist, including El Niño and (apparently) something called an anticyclone located over Greenland. How these various factors interact makes linking any particular event to climate change a risky business. But does that mean climate change is false, or should be ignored? Of course not.

The most alarming fact is that so many small changes put together and averaged across years and decades are showing a blatant trend. When temperature records are broken nearly annually and natural events that have occurred for eons are suddenly interrupted, it only makes sense to take note, and try to figure out what has changed. Right now, the most likely culprit for these changes is us, and the tons of greenhouse gases we have been pumping into the atmosphere for the last century, a timeframe that conveniently matches with the beginning of our wonky weather patterns.

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