21. July 2011 · 21 comments · Categories: advocacy

Whew, it’s hot out there today. Toronto was the hottest place in Canada this afternoon. The humidex hit 51. Environment Canada tells me that above 45 is dangerous, and around 54 means “heatstroke imminent”. I just stepped outside to see what it’s like and … it’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before. My better half has forbidden me from cycling home in this, so I’m pondering what to do next. This feels like a taste of “Our future on a hotter planet”. So, some idle thoughts…

To many people, living comfortable middle class lives in North America, climate change is some vague distant threat that will mainly affect the poor in other parts of the world. So it’s easy to dismiss, no matter how agitated the scientists get. If you follow this line of thinking, it quickly becomes clear why responses to climate change divide cleanly along political lines:

  • If you care a lot about fairness and equity, climate change is an urgent, massive problem, because millions (maybe even billions) of poor people will suffer, die, or become refugees as the climate changes.
  • On the other hand, if you’re comfortable with a world in which there are massive inequalities, where some people live rich lavish lifestyles while others starve to death, then climate change is a minor distraction. After all, famines in undeveloped countries are really nothing new, and we in the west are rich enough to adapt (Or are we?).

The dominant political ideology in the west (certainly in the English-speaking countries) is that such inequality is not just acceptable, but necessary. So it’s hardly surprising that right wing politicians dismiss climate change as irrelevant. No amount of science education will change the mind of people who believe, fundamentally, that they have no obligation to people who are less fortunate than themselves. As long as they believe that they are wealthy enough that climate change won’t affect them, that is.

But doesn’t a heatwave in a Canadian (!) city that makes it dangerous to be outside change things completely? We Canadians are used to the cold. We know how to dress up, and we embrace winter through a variety of winter sports. You can’t embrace extreme heat in the same way. If the body cannot cool down, you die. No matter how rich you are.

If people start to understand that this will be the new normal, it changes the issue from a question of equity to a question of health. Our elderly relatives are at risk first. And small children. But even a healthy adult can’t avoid heat stress if the body cannot cool down enough. What’s unusual about this heatwave (and the one that hit Europe in 2003) is that it doesn’t cool down much overnight. And nighttime temperatures are rising even faster than daytime temperatures. That’s a massive threat to public health, especially in cities.

And with that thought, how am I going to get home?


  1. Welcome to Texas. Of course, our buses, rare that they are, are cooled.

    Allow me to recommend the virtues of ice. Get a very large cup of ice and a little water. Take it with you on public transportation if you can’t get a ride in an air conditioned car.

    I actually think clothing with embedded ice packs designed in will eventually show up.

    (With warm regards from cool, pleasant Vancouver.)

  2. I don’t know if it’s easy to convince people about the need for equity. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. I just don’t know. I think it’s important. I do think that it’s easy to ignore things that are far away, but hard to ignore things that are in your face.

    I did bike around Toronto yesterday (was there for ISSTA, and rode my folding bike around. It can be hard to bring a folding bike onto a Via train, by the way.) It was really hot. Fortunately I didn’t need to ride too far—from the waterfront to U of T. I did take a couple of breaks given the heat. It was pretty much like a sauna.

  3. Hi Steve:
    This is my first visit to your site. I followed a link here from Dr. Curry’s blog, and found your analysis of the need for V&V in climate models interesting.
    I am somewhat disturbed by this however:

    “If you care a lot about fairness and equity, climate change is an urgent, massive problem, because millions (maybe even billions) of poor people will suffer, die, or become refugees as the climate changes.
    On the other hand, if you’re comfortable with a world in which there are massive inequalities, where some people live rich lavish lifestyles while others starve to death, then climate change is a minor distraction. After all, famines in undeveloped countries are really nothing new, and we in the west are rich enough to adapt (Or are we?).”

    Are these intended to be exactly the same? Where is the real world alternative? I have reread this 10 times now, and can still not follow the logic. I would like to offer a, in my opinion, better real world choice:

    If you care a lot about fairness and equity, energy poverty is an urgent, massive problem, because millions (maybe even billions) of poor people will suffer, die, or become refugees as the climate changes and they do not have the resources to deal with it.

    On the other hand, if you’re comfortable with a world in which there are massive inequalities, where some people live rich lavish lifestyles while others starve to death, then energy poverty is a minor distraction. In point of fact we can make it worse by focusing our attention on Climate Change! After all, famines in undeveloped countries are really nothing new, and we in the west are rich in energy enough to adapt.

    This creates a clear choice, as opposed to two negative choices.

    With Regards,
    Roy Weiler

  4. @Roy: With respect, I suspect you’re using the term “energy poverty” as a plot device, much in the same way that wands are used in Harry Potter. I think you’re offering a version of the Lomborg fallacy, which offers a false dichotomy between spending on third world development versus spending on climate change mitigation.

    The problem with your framing is that “energy proverty” does not begin to explain why large numbers of the world population live in poverty. For that you have to include imperialism, corruption, neo-colonialism, and so on. Second, the earth cannot support energy equality for all six billion people at the level currently enjoyed by the west via fossil fuels. Third, whatever problems there are in the third world now with poverty, climate change makes them all dramatically worse.

    I think you completely missed the point of my post: if you think the rich in the developed counties can spend their way out of the effects of climate change, then you really don’t understand climate change.

  5. Energy poverty is real … but somehow those against any action on climate do not propose to halve their gasoline usage so that some African farmers can have a little. The real poor of the world don’t have tractors or gasoline, and I rather doubt they are ever going to get much. About the only way some will ever see a tractor is if we can knock the cost of solar cells way down (that’s at least in progress) and develop cheap, higher-density batteries (hard work). Peak Oil will actually change their lives less than it does the developed world.

    As for Lomborg, see this, his argument in Cool It! was a much more sophisticated variant on false dichotomy.

  6. Pete Dunkelberg

    Welcome to the new normal. Not every summer yet, but in view of accumulating ocean heat and ongoing CO2 buildup, start adapting your physiology.

    Energy? Solar can be installed and used anywhere and everywhere if we would bother. Along with batteries it works well in remote villages and even on individual huts. It can power your car (if you can afford to buy a new electric car). The price is falling too fast to track.
    Energy addiction can be overcome. Buildings can be designed to need much less. Those who farm without tractors will have topsoil when ours is gone.

    John, you have a mysterious non-linking link.

  7. Pete Dunkelberg

    Steve: “…if you think the rich in the developed counties can spend their way out of the effects of climate change, then you really don’t understand climate change.”

    That one’s a keeper.

  8. let me try again: Lomborg and Playing the Long Game @ ThingsBreak. Again, miore sophisciated than the usual false dichotomy, good enough to confuse some savvy people.

  9. Get ready for kudzu, too, according to UToronto researchers, on its way to lower Ontario.

  10. Even after I saw An Inconvenient Truth, I don’t think I quite fell into either of those categories. I thought climate change was a problem that was going to happen far away, in the distant future. Shortly afterwards, however, I realized that all the trees are dying off, at an accelerating rate. This observation distressed me greatly, and I thought it was from climate change – from warming, and less consistent precipitation.

    So I learned all I could about climate change and realized that what with positive feedbacks we are going to drive many species to extinction and possibly ourselves – at the very least, civilization as we have known it in this era of abundant fossil fuel will come to a horrific end.

    Eventually though it has become clear that although climate change will eventually kill off the trees, that is not what is doing it now, because annual plants and young trees being watered in nurseries and even aquatic plants have the identical symptoms of damaged foliage that lead to chlorosis, stunted growth, increased susceptibility to insects, disease and fungus – and ultimately death. So it’s the “other” greenhouse gases emitted from burning fuel that are killing trees – nitrous oxides, methane and peroxyacetyl nitrate. The inexorably rising level of background tropospheric ozone is toxic to all living things.

    Whether it has reached a point where it is intolerable to vegetation or is being exacerbated by some newly introduced factor such as biofuel emissions or leaking gas from fracking, I can’t say. I keep hoping someone will figure it out before there are no viable seeds left.

    Money will be of very little use when the ecosystem collapses. Perhaps it might be useful to point this out to the Ignorers – that and ocean acidification, which is going to destroy most life in the sea.

    I haven’t noticed many scientists being “agitated” although I wish I did.

  11. Gail – You’ll need to cite some solid evidence to support your conclusion that rising levels of other GHGs, esp tropospheric ozone, are increasingly destroying trees. I’m as skeptical as the mods at RealClimate on this.

    Here’s a simple rule of thumb: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. That is to say, if you choose to argue against a well-established consensus, the onus is on you to do more than nitpick and/or cite isolated studies; you have to do a lot more work to marshall your evidence, both in critiquing the dominant view, and in developing an alternative.

    If the established consensus is strongly grounded in science, then you need to be equally scientific in attempting to counter it. If the consensus is more like a set of assumptions or (unfounded) beliefs, then you still have to do due diligence to show the evidence does not support them. In your case, it’s quite plausible that you’re right about what’s causing widespread damage to trees. (But see John’s link above on Kudzu. Invasive species seem to fit much better with the evidence than your hypothesis. Why are they wrong?) You’re going to have to think like a scientist to convince others – which means you have to figure out what’s wrong with the chains of evidence used by those proffering alternate theories, and you have to provide a strong chain of evidence to support your own. It actually sounds like a great research project…

    BTW If you want to see agitated scientists, go to a conference like the AGU fall meeting, and chat to some of the climate scientists over coffee…

  12. @Steve
    It is pretty clear given the extensive expansion of the middle class in China and India, that the Third world populations are rapidly becoming Second World and will eventually move into First World Status. There is already talk of China surpassing the USA as the economic powerhouse of the world. Given that we cannot even balance our budget or stop spending ridiculous amounts of money on useless tasks, this may very well be an accurate assessment.

    Why are these countries moving out of the dark ages? Economics. They are producing goods and services cheaper then other countries, so they are in demand. People who move past subsistence level(they have jobs and live in cities now), want more for themselves and their children then the generation before. In the case of China this would include; cars, meat, and luxuries. None of these things are possible without access to cheap energy(Solar powered container ships?). Why else would “China became the world’s largest energy consumer (18% of the total) since its consumption surged by 8% during 2009 (from 4% in 2008).” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_energy_consumption

    So how does this play out in the real world? Let us make some comparisons. In 1936 North America experienced the most extreme heat wave in modern times.
    The death toll was more then 5000. For the heat wave of 2011 how many deaths so far? 22. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-14252768
    Why the difference? My argument, access to energy. With AC we can survive these things better then in the past! If the energy was not cheap, we could not afford to run those AC’s. 75 years, big difference. I wish to argue here, that living in the 1930’s was the same or worse then living in a third world country now.

    In 2004 there was a tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed 230,000 people (est), but let us look at just 168,000 (est) dead in Indonesia. The tsunami was similar in wave height and magnitude to the tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011. Death toll in Japan, 25,000. The topography of Indonesia and Japan are similar, so what is the real difference? In Japan, a modern country with access to large economic resources and cheap energy, people did not die from not being rescued. In Indonesia it took weeks and months before help could reach the affected areas.

    Energy poverty is a “plot device”? This is not a novel I am writing, this is the real world. With Google and a little studying you could find many more examples of the ones I have cited above.

    The poverty of the world has been declining. The most recent study I can find ATM is from The World Bank.
    The relevant statistics are:
    1.4 billion people live at this poverty line or below
    This is more than the previous estimate of 984 million with the older measure of a $1 a day in 2004
    In 1981, the estimated number of poor was also revised upward, from 1.5 billion to 1.9 billion
    It is obvious from history that technology and cheap energy play a large hand in making these things happen (i.e. China, India and the USA).

    Why is this the case? Well let us look at hurricane deaths in the USA.
    Why are deaths decreasing as property losses increase? More and more people in the US are moving to the coasts, building more expensive housing. So we have more expensive houses, with more people living near the coasts. Draw your own conclusion.

    The bottom line. People with resources are more able to deal with natural disasters on their own, then those who have not. If the climate is going to change in a negative way in the future, we need to give all the people of the world access to the resources they need to deal with those problems. Solar and wind cannot reliably replace coal, natural gas, oil, or nuclear power plants. The truth is, any action that makes those energy production facilities more expensive, are committing the poor of the world to an awful fate.

    Roy Weiler

  13. @Roy: Nobody’s going to dispute that being wealthy makes a huge difference in the ability to survive through heatwaves. But you’ve missed the point entirely. A few cherry-picked stats about death rates in current disasters compared to those in the 20th C don’t tell you much about the future. The earth has only warmed around 0.8 deg C since pre-industrial times. Because the planet takes a long time to reach equilibrium, we’re owed at least another degree based on past emissions alone. Future emissions scenarios take us either to the 2-3 deg level (with extremely aggressive mitigation strategies), to 5-6 deg on the business-as-usual path (which is the one you seem to be advocating – burn as much fossil fuel as we can to make more people energy-rich). And we’re talking a non-linear system here, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that 2 degrees of warming only produces double the impact of 1 degree.

    If you have a magic wand that can quickly raise the income levels of the billions of people around the world who can’t afford airconditioned houses and airconditioned cars, then very large numbers of them, probably in the billions, will die over the next few decades from the effects of climate change. To believe that economic development, based on expanded fossil fuel use, can avoid this is to engage in magical thinking.

    But we’re back to a fundamental problem here. You clearly do not understand the impacts of climate change. I don’t see any way that human civilization can survive the 5-6 degree rise that would result if we follow your suggestions to exploit fossil fuels to the max. I suggest you read “Climate Wars” by Gwynne Dyer – that might help you understand what’s at stake.

  14. Wow Steve:
    I do not have a magic wand that can wave away the idea of a 5-6 degree (Celsius?) rise in temperatures. I am not even sure where that figure comes from. In all honesty, if we used “fossil fuels to the max” we would run out of them quickly perhaps, and the levels of temperature increase you offer would be seriously mitigated. In fact I would suggest that comparable technologies might be developed in that 40-50 year time frame without taxing everyone to death.
    I find it odd you would say “You clearly do not understand the impacts of climate change.” I do know what can happen and I am not worried, it has all happened before in much greater magnitudes and yet here we are. I appreciate you allowing me to post on your blog. In parting I would ask that you read this from John Stossel, so that perhaps you can learn about the real world economics. Cap and Trade or any other “carbon (dioxide)” schemes can only fail, as most government control does:


    Thank you

    Roy Weiler

  15. @Steve
    I have thought on this a bit further, and am curious as to why you would accuse me of cherry picking? The examples I offered, I consider to be representative and not cherry picked at all. As I stated. Google and some research into history would provide many more examples. I would then ask, what examples you might provide that are not cherry picked? An example of a modern, technologically advanced country, with access to cheap energy being more deeply affected by a natural disaster then a poor country.


  16. @Roy: The 5-6 degree figure comes from the IPCC assessments (along with just about every other scientific assessment since the late 70s). If you haven’t read these assessments, then no wonder you’re not worried – you don’t know what you ought to be worried about. Admittedly, the IPCC reports are long and rather technical. Perhaps these might be a better place to start:

    The comment that “it has all happened before” is rather revealing. I don’t think you’ve thought that through. The current global temperatures are as high as it has ever been since the human species evolved. You have to go back to the PETM to find temperatures as high as 5-6 degrees warmer, when the sea levels were more than 100 meters higher than today (goodbye all costal cities). I’d read up a little on what life was like on planet earth during the PETM before you get blasé about how well human civilization can adapt.

    And before you claim that peak oil/coal/gas will save us, try crunching the numbers. I already did:

    The article by Stossel is ideological twaddle. Show me an economic model that takes into account the flooding of every coastal city in the world, along with the migration of billions of climate refugees from subtropics, and lost of the majority of the world’s fresh water supplies, and I might pay attention. Your free market ideology is irrelevant if you don’t have a liveable planet to house it. The irony is, if we wait much longer to deal with climate change, we’ll need the biggest government intervention ever in the history of humanity to fix things. If you really care about the size of governments, you ought to be doing everything possible now to avoid climate disaster.

  17. @Steve
    Now I see the problem, when I read the IPCC report I did not make the assumption that only the highest possible model run predictions would be true. This explains the 5-6 degree Celsius figure you are using. Assuming only that as a possibility, I can see why you would be so greatly alarmed! Thankfully my assessment of the current literature leads me to the conclusion it will likely be at least half of that, possibly even lower.
    I find little of substance in Mann’s “Paleoclimate Implications for Human-Made Climate Change”. He continues to build on his earlier nonsense. Perhaps in 20 years we can redo his studies and see how accurate they are. His use of smoothed proxies is untested in the real world and appears to bear little resemblance to reality. Have you looked at the original proxies? They are so noisy that smoothing them together cannot tell you very much. It is difficult to find the science in his climate science, but you like his work so it is a case of agree to disagree I think. Perhaps you have a source other then Mann?
    This statement is interesting based upon your earlier comments concerning the scope of the coming “climate disaster”:
    “The irony is, if we wait much longer to deal with climate change, we’ll need the biggest government intervention ever in the history of humanity to fix things.”
    Under the scenario you outline there will not be a government of any kind to deal with changes in the climate. Governments come and go, but humans will remain or not. I find the irony in free markets giving us such a quality of life that you and I have the time and resources to be able to muse about unimportant things like “climate disaster”, and not worry about where our next meal is coming from.
    Your numbers on peak oil/coal/gas are very interesting, thank you for the link. It could even be worse then you indicate as new technologies seem to be making more of these assets recoverable as technology moves forward! It will be interesting to see if we do truly have the ability to change the climate by preventing the next ice age.

    Roy Weiler

  18. Roy: I’m not sure you did read the IPCC report. If you did, I would hope you realise you don’t get to pick which model run prediction “would be true” based on your gut feel. The IPCC projections are based on different future energy use and economic development scenarios. The development path you’ve been advocating corresponds to the A1FI scenario, which isn’t even included on most of the IPCC figures, because nobody seriously believes the world will follow it. But it’s the one that will take us to more than 6 degrees by the end of the century:
    More importantly, note that 6 degrees isn’t the end of the warming. That’s just what we would get this century. Look how sharply it’s still rising when they ended the century long runs. The point is not that you get to choose these projections based on wishful thinking. The world gets to choose which path it follows depending on how we make use (or not!) of fossil fuels over the next few decades.

    Not sure why you think Mann’s work is relevant to this discussion. I’ve seen a couple of Mann’s talks, but I’m not that familiar with his work. It’s not relevant to the IPCC modeling work, and there’s plenty of other paleo-climate work that doesn’t use Mann’s techniques. You can’t critique the IPCC assessment by slaying strawmen.

    I’m left with the impression that you’ve made your mind up based on reading a few critiques of Mann’s work, along with some knee-jerk reaction to proposed climate policies, without really any appreciation for how the scientific assessment are done. Unfortunately, I think you’re not alone – there are plenty of other people willing to speak out against action on climate change without any real understanding of the science. I’m hoping you’re willing to read a little more deeply and fill in some of the gaps in your knowledge.

  19. One thing concerns me. Obviously the scientists are the ones with authority to determine that we are, in fact, in danger of a catastrophe due to climate change. No one else has the authority, because no one else gathers the evidence, no one else seriously studies it, no one else produces a body of evidence contrary to the consensus that doesn’t fall apart when poke it with a finger.

    Nevertheless a large number of people hold opinions which are indifferent or hostile to climate change mitigation. Again, these opinions do not proceed from any scientifically legitimate source.

    But since we do live in a society which approximates democracy, this opinion translates into policies which are indifferent or hostile to climate change mitigation. To change this, some group of people would have to either move society away from democracy to some hypothetical system which hooks up Science to Policy without the intervening step of Public Opinion, or somehow suppress, nullify, marginalize, re-educate, eliminate, (insert whatever word you want to use) the anti-mitigation view from political discourse. Do you believe in either of these methods? Do you believe in some third method?

  20. @Serhei: That’s probably one of the hardest questions of all. We’re blowing past planetary boundaries for sustainability, without any agency with the power to contain us. But to what agency should we yield such power? I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer. All the alternatives to democracy clearly suck, perhaps because power in the hands of a few inevitably corrupts them. While there are some examples of benign dictatorships in history, they don’t last long, and are soon torn apart by abuses of power.

    The optimist in me says we can do a much better job of teaching science, so that voters can be better informed of the choices when they head to the polls. The pessimist in me says that no recent election in any democratic country has established a strong evidence-based approach to evaluating candidates and the policies they offer.

    I wish I had a better answer.

  21. Pingback: Climate Change: Wealth redistribution or making the poor even poorer? « My view on climate change

  22. @Steve

    Wow Steve. There is plenty.

    First stop would be the National Crop Loss Assessment Network reports put out in 1986 –

    And California did plenty of studies after the disastrous 1984 LA Olympics in which no great athletes set records because of the ozone pollution.

    Then ask any HS bio or chem teacher about the caustic effects of ozone to just about any life form. There is no safe level of ozone exposure.

    You can ignore these facts, but the chemistry will work just the same.

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