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Environment

Vancouver, Stanley Park, and the Politics of Global Warming

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We had a great panel discussion last night. Except for the fact that the moderator confused me with the other Chris Mooney at the outset, I really got a lot out of it. One thing that I learned, however, troubled me. On December 15, 2006, Vancouver's Stanley Park got hit by a powerful windstorm (technically an extratropical cyclone or winter storm) which caused tremendous destruction, felling a large number of trees and damaging a sea wall. I saw the aftermath of the storm myself (see image above), and it's really quite stunning. However, it seems to have been exploited for political reasons. Shortly after the storm, Federal Environment Minister John Baird was on the scene to draw a global warming connection, citing the year's warm winter weather and the recent storm destruction and calling it a "wake up call" and "another reason why we have to act on climate change." The global warming issue has come on very strong in Canada in recent months, rising to the top of the public's agenda. It's my understanding, from talking to folks here, that the devastation of Stanley Park--followed by dramatic media images of the destruction--is one reason why. Now, to be sure, Canadians should be exercised about global warming. So should we all. But it seems to me that the devastation of Stanley Park should not be used as a reason or justification. First of all, as has been repeated ad nauseum, it's impossible to link a single weather event to global warming. Furthermore, unlike hurricanes or tropical cyclones--which are expected to intensify in a warmer world--the picture for extratropical cyclones under climate change is more complicated. Hurricanes feed off of warm oceans, but extratropical storms draw their energy from the clash between warm tropical and cold polar air, which means climate change could affect them very differently. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, MIT's Richard Lindzen has pointed out--in an argument that Real Climate's Raypierre described as Lindzen's "only valid 'point'" on that occasion--that as global warming should decrease the pole-to-equator temperature gradient, it should also lead to "less excitation of extratropical storms." (One complicating factor is that these storms should also dump more precipitation due to more water vapor in the atmosphere under global warming.) And there's another problem when it comes to using individual weather events, however extreme, to mobilize people around global warming. When this subject came up on the panel last night, Hadi Dowlatabadi--UBC Professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability--pointed out (if I remember correctly) that it's dangerous to tell the public that they should make sacrifices to curtail global warming and thereby stave off storm destruction. What happens if people do make sacrifices, and then due to the whimsicality of weather, they get hit by another devastating storm anyway? Isn't this then setting the stage for members of the public to turn around and say, I want my SUV back? (I'm embellishing, but at least as I recall, this was Dowlatabi's argument). At this point, I added that it's also just plain intellectually indefensible to suggest that global warming caused an individual event. There are many reasons for dealing with global warming, which means we have the option of citing the strong ones rather than the weaker, more problematic ones. And that's what we should do--both because it's a good political strategy, and because it's more honest. In any event, the panel was a success and I hope to be able to post some YouTube clips of it soon enough. (One of my jokes flopped--always a risk with these sorts of things--so you'll get to watch me bomb.) I do another panel tonight, and then it's back to D.C......

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