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Think Tanks and Climate Change

In this age of instant information, you might think complicated issues would be easy to understand. The opposite is true. Browsing through environmental headlines on the Web can often be a roller coaster of good news and bad, of uplifting progress and abject hopelessness. It is difficult to sort out the opposing views — and the biases of self-interested people — from objective statistics and honest analysis.

This week’s big environmental news revolved around the climate change conference in Nairobi. A UN assessment compiled by a global network of 2,000 scientists concluded that climate change proof is growing and strongly urges governments around the world to take effective action.

Canada’s environment minister, in somewhat pointless attendance at the conference, took her lumps as Canada was harshly and justly criticized by others for its poor recent performance on climate change. When one of the world’s richest and most liberal-thinking countries cannot look beyond its own short-sighted interests to solve a serious global problem, why should other countries?

Minister Ambrose, apparently forgetting that the last federal election is long over, further embarassed Canadians by turning an international forum into an opportunity for petty partisan politicking by attacking the environmental policies of the former Liberal government. Ambrose should realize that Canadians no longer care what our last government did two years ago: tell us what you, as the environment minister of our current government, are going to do now to solve these problems.

Meanwhile, in a somewhat trivial yet alarming example of how urgent climate change has become, a number of winter sports are now threatened by a lack of places with sufficiently cold climates to support them. Many of the world’s famous ski hills in Europe, for example, are finding themselves no longer suitable to host winter sporting events. Their glaciers are melting and areas of regular snowfall are being pushed to ever higher altitudes.

However, even as awareness of climate change seems to be growing at a global level, the reality has yet to sink in for most individuals. As I feared, as the recent drop in gas prices has caused SUV sales to skyrocket again as people realize that they can continue to wrap themselves in big comfy blankets of steel, consequences to the rest of the world be damned. In a bizarre example of the inner conflict SUV drivers must feel, many apparently also keep hybrid cars in their garages.

A “think tank” in the US has jumped on this opportunity, releasing a reassuring report that oil supplies are fine, thank you and peak oil is centuries away. The reality of Peak Oil will never be known until well after the fact, and I suspect that truth is somewhere between those who claim the peak was five years ago and those who claim it is 150 years from now.

Regardless, I have to wonder at the wisdom of encouraging people to continue the sort of wasteful oil consumption we’ve become accustomed to. Even if — and this is a big if — oil doesn’t peak for another few decades, should we not learn from debacles of the past and beginning preparing now? Does anyone remember Y2K? Today many of us are like the computer programmers of the 70s and 80s, who acted as if the year 2000 was lifetimes away while happily programming computers with two-digit dates that assumed it would always be the 20th century.

Perhaps it is the dire consequences of climate change that causes people to retreat into fear, to develop an apocalyptic sense of helplessness and throw in the towel. People see themselves as helpless victims rather than active participants that can change the outcome. Instead of banding together to solve the problem, many seem all too quick to take the easy way out and devolve into self protection mode. If the world is going to hell in a handbasket, they rationalize, it makes sense to wrap yourself in steel box with wheels, take what you can get, and look out for number one.

The problem is, that attitude will virtually guarantee disaster for everyone.

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