ACT Executive Director Deborah Harford featured in Globe & Mail

A new Globe & Mail article, ‘Academics launch unique approaches to climate change,’ featuring an interview with ACT Executive Director Deborah Harford, highlights ACT as Canada’s only university organization addressing the policy aspects of climate change.

“We need to reduce our emissions and show other nations how that can be done – but also plan for the inevitable effects of warming, which span everything from health risks such as the spread to tropical diseases, to impacts of extreme weather and increased storms, to problems with our crop and water supplies,” says Harford. “It’s about increasing resilience and learning how to think about everything in new ways.”

The article notes that the challenges of dealing with climate change also present the opportunity to be creative when making smart adaptation choices, in order to benefit both the environment and economy.

“All you need is conviction and the right kind of information and you can make a difference. You can affect the future if you have the courage of your convictions,” Harford adds.

Link to the full article here.


What’s the connection between potholes and penguins?

Recent criticism that Canada’s municipal leaders are wasting time discussing issues that are “a little far afield from matters of city hall”, at an upcoming leader’s conference in Whistler, BC is missing the point.

The keynote speaker for the conference, Jean Lemaire, Quebecois biologist and oceanographer, will make a presentation on the impacts of climate change on the endangered ecosystem of Antarctica, the “last unspoiled continent on the planet.”

Some claim the conference’s agenda should focus on more important issues such as mending pothole-ridden roads. But the fact is climate change is inextricably linked to these municipal matters.

Many municipal problems – including infrastructure damage such as road surfaces buckling in extreme heat or collapsing in heavy rainstorms and producing problems such as potholes, at the very least – are caused or exacerbated by the increase in extreme weather events we can expect to see as a result of climate change.

Not to mention other serious municipal concerns such as sea-level rise affecting ports and waterfront property; health risks such as the migration of tropical disease; and widespread impacts on biodiversity – including the spread of pests like the mountain pine beetle currently partly responsible for the extremely elevated fire risk in areas such as 100 Mile House, BC.

So before we dismiss those pesky penguins in the Antarctic as a niche interest, it may be good to recognize them as an indicator that our municipal potholes are likely going to get worse if we don’t take action to adapt to, and mitigate, the consequences of climate change we’re already experiencing.

ACT’s second report – on Extreme Weather Events, authored by Dr. Gordon McBean of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction – is scheduled for release in early September.


Unusually dry spring increases BC firefighting costs by double

An unusually dry spring in BC has caused firefighting costs to nearly double in comparison to the same period last year, with the BC forest service reporting 368 wildfires between April 1 and May 30 compared to 280 in 2008.

The problem isn’t cheap: fighting the fires has cost the province $5.93 million fighting them so far, compared to $3.29 million for the same period last year.

Former 100 Mile House Mayor Donna Barnett attended ACT’s Biodiversity conference in the spring of 2008, and presented on the hazards that trees killed by the Mountain Pine Beetle pose to communities like 100 Mile House, including vulnerability to wildfire.

The ripple effects of this climate change-forced, devastating infestation are being strongly felt through issues such as disruption of the forestry industry, and the increased risk of wildfire due to changing precipitation patterns and higher temperatures combining to cause tinderbox conditions.

ACT publishes its second set of policy recommendations – on Extreme Weather – in September 2009.


Unforeseen consequences of climate change: land rising as Alaska’s glaciers melt

Global climate disruption is causing unforeseen impacts in Juneau, Alaska: As warming temperatures cause glaciers to melt at an unprecedented rate, land that is being relieved of billions of tons of weight is ascending so quickly that rising sea levels cannot keep pace.

Residents of affected areas along the coastline have observed waterfront property change rapidly, as land has risen as much as 10 feet in little more than 200 years, according to a 2007 report “Climate Change: Predicted Impacts on Juneau,” by Dr. Eran Hood, a hydrologist at the University of Alaska Southeast. Scientists predict that further warming and melting could cause the land to rise more than three feet by 2100.

The resulting changes are leading to a number of complex ecological and environmental challenges. Falling water tables are causing salmon streams and wetlands to dry out. Shifting property boundaries are instigating arguments among residents over who owns the exposed land, and how it should be used. Glacial melt waters carrying sediment have silted up channels that were once navigable by wildlife, recreational boaters, and kayakers.

Mayor Bruce Botelho of Juneau convened a special panel of experts in 2007 to discuss the impacts of rebounding land in the region. Discussion is still ongoing as to how best manage the changing coastal landscape.


Climate change #1 health risk of 21st century

A new report by University College London and The Lancet, dubbed the ‘Stern Report for Health’, warns that we have seriously underestimated health risks associated with global climate disruption.

“The big message of this report is that climate change is a health issue affecting billions of people, not just an environmental issue about polar bears and deforestation,” says Professor Anthony Costello of the UCL Institute for Global Health, and lead author of the report. “The impacts will be felt not just in the UK, but all around the world – and not just in some distant future but in our lifetimes and those of our children.”

According to the report, tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are likely to migrate as temperatures increase. Extreme weather events, similar to the 2003 heat wave that caused over 70,000 deaths in Europe, will occur more frequently.

Costello states there is an urgent need for health to play a larger role in the climate change debate, and calls for a major overhaul of global health systems to ensure infrastructure is prepared to cope with the coming impacts.

He also notes that ‘rich nations’ are not as prepared to handle extreme weather events as we might think; for instance, many hospital facilities in industrialized countries lack experience in managing outbreaks of tropical diseases like malaria.

The report also highlights health benefits associated with a low-carbon lifestyle, which can “reduce obesity, heart and lung disease, diabetes and stress”, and says this is a concept governments should do more to promote.

“We must develop win–win situations whereby we mitigate and adapt to climate change and at the same time significantly improve human health and wellbeing,” says Costello.

BC’s carbon tax was recently rated the most effective climate policy of its kind in Canada. Though the policy was criticized for lacking national reach, and is only environmentally effective in the medium turn, it still managed to score 22 points higher than the next best policy – hailing from Quebec.

ACT’s mandate features development of understanding around the combination of adaptation and mitigation. Our third session – on energy production and distribution in the low carbon economy – kicks off in the fall of 2009. ACT is also planning a Health session.


Food security study warns of climate change impact on global food supply

A new study of the effects of climate change on global agriculture, published by University of Washington climate researcher David Battisti in the journal Science, voices concerns about a global, “perpetual food crisis.” The study shows that climate disruption may cause massive, simultaneous crop failures in many regions as early as 2040.

Findings based on IPPC climate modeling suggest that the worst heat waves and floods of the past are likely to become more frequent events. According to the study, these weather pattern changes could affect yields by 20 to 40%, with disastrous consequences – particularly in the tropics and subtropics where many people are already malnourished.

“For me, this is the strongest argument that either you have to do something about global warming or you need to actually figure out how you’re going to deal with these kind of permanent reductions in yield,” Dr. Battisti said, warning that climate change’s effect on agriculture is likely to be an even larger threat to humanity than the potential submerging of coastal cities due to melting Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

Battisti notes that one way to prevent crop failure would be to breed varieties better able to withstand higher temperatures, but warns this could take decades. It’s clear that we should consider a variety of adaptation methods that will be complementary with the agriculture industry’s current practices.

ACT’s fifth session, Crop and Food Supply, will look at the fact that steady increases in summer temperatures, combined with shifting hydrological regimes, are already causing crops to fail in many countries, threatening well-being and economies on a massive scale. In Canada, planting practices from wheat to wine are already shifting, with some areas becoming less hospitable and others opening up. The session will combine current research with the findings from the Biodiversity, Extreme Events, Energy and Water sessions to explore policies and practices that will assist us to adapt food production methods now and in the long-term.


700 square kilometers of ice calves off Antarctic ice shelf

An iceberg the size of New York City has broken off the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Satellite data shows that approximately 700 square kilometers separated from the shelf and shattered into hundreds of icebergs.

The Wilkins Shelf, stable for most of the last century, began retreating in the 1990s.
The trend has been widely blamed on climate change caused by heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels in cars, factories and power plants, according to David Vaughan, a British Antarctic Survey scientist.

“There is little doubt that these changes are the result of atmospheric warming,” said Vaughn. “The retreat of Wilkins Ice Shelf is the latest and the largest of its kind.” He adds, “Eight separate ice shelves along the Antarctic Peninsula have shown signs of retreat over the last few decades.”

Scientists estimate the Wilkins Shelf will lose some 3,370 square kilometers more — an area larger than Rhode Island, or two-thirds the size of Luxembourg – over the next few weeks. Researchers believe the shelf was held in place by an ice bridge linking Charcot Island to the Antarctic mainland, which disintegrated on April 5th having lost two large chunks last year.

This disintegration of monumental amounts of ancient ice is yet another indication that we must reduce our emissions as fast as we can, emphasizing the need to phase out the energy sources that produce them. However, along with the development and implementation of new, clean energy technologies, we must be mindful that climate change will continue to impact essential infrastructure, and may also compromise the very energy sources we switch to.

Hydro power, for instance, is vulnerable to major shifts in hydrological regimes predicted by climate models, and already being experienced in many places.

ACT’s upcoming Energy session will look at the pressure to reduce emissions and the need to adapt energy generation and distribution methods to climate impacts.


BC’s carbon tax leads the way on Canadian climate policy

Sustainable Prosperity, a think tank based at the University of Ottawa, has rated British Columbia’s carbon tax the most effective climate policy of its kind in Canada.

The group’s findings, which slammed the BC NDP’s alternative to the current carbon tax policy as the weakest solution in Canada, also acknowledge that the BC government must take further steps in order to achieve eight key principals it has identified that are key to making carbon pricing effective in fighting climate change.

According to Sustainable Prosperity, a fully effective carbon pricing plan must be comprehensive, nation-wide, simple and readily implemented, transparent and accountable, complemented by other measures, environmentally effective, ultimately comparable to carbon prices in other countries, and predictable but adaptable.

BC’s plan fell short in two areas by the findings’ standards: the policy lacks national reach, and is only environmentally effective in the medium turn. But it’s a start, and a good one at that! In comparison to other provinces, BC beat out second place Quebec by 22 points, with Alberta trailing in last place.

ACT’s upcoming Energy session, from September 2009-February 2010, will look at the urgent need for new standards and solutions for BC’s energy sector in light of climate change impacts and economic stresses, as the pressure to reduce emissions and the need to adapt energy generation and distribution methods to climate impacts create new opportunities as well as challenges.

The session, made possible by BC Hydro and Plutonic Power, will also emphasize the importance of partnering mitigation with adaptation strategies, and will explore the emergence and influence of a global low carbon economy.


Hurricane Katrina lawsuit highlights need for infrastructure adaptation

A lawsuit in the United States has highlighted the importance of adapting infrastructure to deal with the effects of extreme weather events such as storms. Last week, six plaintiffs in New Orleans filed a civil lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers, stating that a channel they had constructed adjacent to the city exacerbated the impact of Hurricane Katrina on dwellings in the vicinity.

‘MR-GO’, otherwise known as ‘Mister Go’, is a 122 km-long channel that provides a shortcut between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans’s inner harbour. After much criticism for its negative environmental effects, such as erosion and alleged increased storm surge during Katrina, the channel was recently closed to ship traffic.

A geological expert, testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs, claims that Mister Go was responsible for “one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of the United States.”

As the four-week court case unfolds, homeowners from areas similarly affected by Katrina look on anxiously; a ruling in the favour of the six plaintiffs could open up a platform for 400,000 other parties who have also filed negligence claims against the government for devastation caused by the hurricane.

ACT’s second set of policy findings – on adaptation measures for extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina – is scheduled for release mid-May 2009.


EPA declares ‘compelling and overwhelming’ scientific evidence GHGs are harmful to humans

In a groundbreaking announcement this week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that carbon dioxide and five other heat-trapping gasses are pollutants that endanger public health and welfare, stating that the science supporting the findings was “compelling and overwhelming.”

Amongst other threats, the agency identified effects of rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and the other gases that include increased drought, more heavy downpours and flooding, more frequent and intense heat waves and wildfires, a steeper than anticipated rise in sea levels, more intense storms, and harm to water resources, agriculture, wildlife and ecosystems – findings that further highlight the urgent need for adaptation planning to build resilience and adaptive capacity for communities who will be, and are already, feeling the effects of a shifting climate.

EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson said: “This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations. Fortunately, it follows President Obama’s call for a low-carbon economy and strong leadership in Congress on clean energy and climate legislation.”

ACT’s first set of policy findings – on biodiversity – includes recommendations for building resilience against climate change impacts for ecosystems. ACT’s second set of policy findings, on Extreme Weather Events, is due for release late spring 2009.


Canada’s security and climate change: Harper government missing the mark?

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is failing to grasp the security risks that climate change threatens for Canadians, according to a recent article by Margaret Purdy, research associate in the Centre of International Relations at the University of British Columbia, and Leanne Smythe, PhD candidate in political science at UBC, published in the Toronto Star.

The severity and frequency of climate change-related events such as storms, flooding, droughts, and pest infestations will have “dramatic social, economic and international relations repercussions,” according to Purdy and Smythe, and “could strain – if not overwhelm – our emergency preparedness, disaster response, critical infrastructure protection, public health, law enforcement and military capacities.”

In comparison, our neighbours to the south appear to be developing a better grasp of the effects of climate change on national security. During his first week in office, Obama warned that unchecked climate change “could result in violent conflict, terrible storms, shrinking coastlines and irreversible catastrophe;” and has surrounded himself with advisors who speak candidly about climate change in security terms.

Purdy and Smythe propose that Canada could assume a global leadership role by undertaking serious assessment of how the changing climate will impact our national security, public safety and international security interests over the next 30 years. And that “Ottawa could do what no other government has yet done – use a country-specific risk assessment as the basis for developing a national adaptation and preparedness strategy.”

But they’d better hurry – the UK, a country already far ahead of many others on both mitigation and adaptation planning, has recently mandated a national risk assessment to be repeated every three years that considers climate change as a principal risk factor. Now that’s action!

ACT’s second set of policy findings – on Extreme Weather Events, which includes recommendations for emergency preparedness and public safety policy – is due for release late spring 2009.


2009 the “crunch year” for global forestry planning

The world’s forests are key to reducing the damaging effects of climate change caused by humans, but if leaders attending a key UN summit in December do not find a way to halt deforestation, it could be too late.

Head of climate change research for Earthwatch Dr. Dan Bebbe warns, “This year is the crunch time for forests and climate change. We are hoping for big things from the Copenhagen climate summit at the end of 2009.”

“Unless we tackle the question of forests as a mitigation method for climate change,” he adds, “then we will really have lost the battle to keep greenhouse gas concentrations below levels that many people would consider to be dangerous.”

As ACT’s climate change adaptation and biodiversity report suggests, it’s time we began valuing forests in terms of ecosystem goods and services rather than traditional market returns. A recent report by Swedish businessman Johan Eliasch proposes paying developing nations not to deforest land, thus providing aid while preserving vital carbon sinks and biodiversity.

Such a scheme could reduce deforestation rates by up to 75% by 2030, Mr Eliasch concludes; an important development, given that old growth tropical forest removal – trees being felled or burned to convert fertile land into arable farmland – currently accounts for almost 20% of human-caused CO2 emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol, a controversial international initiative that sets binding targets for reducing GHG emissions, is due to expire in 2012, and member countries must design an effective follow-up. Global forestry practices were not included in Kyoto, and must now find their place within the broader solution, according to Gro Harlem Brundtland, the UN secretary general’s climate change envoy.

ACT’s first set of policy recommendations on climate change adaptation and biodiversity are available on our website.


Back to the roots: will the food revolution gain more attention with a new US administration?

A change in the United States administration is providing hope for US food activists lobbying in support of organic and locally-grown food. The case for organically and locally grown food has fallen upon deaf ears in previous years on Capitol Hill.

wheatBut watching First Lady Michelle Obama tearing up strips of the White House lawn for a vegetable garden, and Tom Vilsack, the new secretary of agriculture take a jackhammer to a section of pavement outside his headquarters to create his own organic “people’s garden”, has given hope to advocates like Gary Hirshberg, chief executive of Stonyfield Farm Organic Yoghurt.“This has never been just about business,” he says. “We are here to change the world.”

Nutritious and sustainable food supply has long been on the agenda of food advocates, as have changes in the way the federal government oversees the nation’s food supply and farms.

The core argument for the sustainable-food movement is that America’s mass-produced and cheaply made foods are detrimental, not only to the health of the nation’s people, but also to the health of the environment. For instance, crops rely heavily on chemical fertilizers and methods of distribution that use massive amounts of fossil fuels.

But major changes in the agri-business of the US could still be years away. “The movement is not ready for prime time,” says Michael Pollan, author of the best-selling title The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley. “It’s not like we have an infrastructure with legislation ready to go.”

Last year, Congress passed a farm bill that details policy for the next five years, and farm-state legislators say they are not interested in starting over. However, organic and locally-grown food advocates hope changes in legislation will eventually incorporate efforts to combat climate change such as reducing domestic and international shipping that relies heavily on fossil fuels.

However, a further piece of the puzzle seems to be missing. Neither the current nor proposed legislation includes policy that addresses major changes in climate that have already started to impact the food system. Increasingly extreme weather, including flooding and droughts, will affect the viability of crops, as will other impacts of climate change such as the spread of pests. Sustainability planning must include policies that take these challenges, as well as new opportunities, into account, as well as the ramifications of potential responses such as increased investment in GM food designed to handle heat stress and dry conditions.

Two upcoming ACT sessions will touch on these important topics: Fresh Water Supply, which runs from February-August 2010; and Crop and Food Supply, in 2011.


Flood-prone Bangladesh receives support from Japan and Asian Development Bank (ADB)

Flood-prone Bangladesh will be receiving a technical assistance grant of $2 million USD from the Japan Special Fund from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to enhance the capacity of government agencies to cope with the effects of climate change. The report addresses topics ranging from food security, disaster preparedness in the even of extreme weather, and other issues related to climate change, in a 10-year strategy and action plan.

Bangladesh, a low-lying delta and typhoon-prone location, is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather, and projected warming trends threaten to increases the number and severity of violent tropical cyclones and storms in the region. Estimates of average sea levels rising by around 30 centimeters by 2050 would render approximately 14% of the country’s population highly vulnerable to flooding.

“This assistance will help put the country on a low carbon economic growth path, make it more climate-resilient and help strengthen its food and energy security,” said Zahir Ahmad, Project Implementation Officer for ADB’s Bangladesh mission.

The plan is slated to build up the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ and other government agencies’ adaptive capacity in dealing with complex climate change issues. It will support a number of new climate change mitigation and adaptation programs and projects, and establish initiatives designed to attract private sector business and key stakeholders to invest in clean energy projects eligible for carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism.

ACT’s second set of policy recommendations, on Extreme Weather Events, is scheduled for release mid-April 2009.


ACT policy findings presented at Pew Center for Climate Change workshop on Capitol Hill

ACT is proud to announce that Jon O’Riordan, the policy author for ACT’s first session – Climate Change Adaptation and Biodiversity – presented our findings on natural capital at a workshop of the Pew Centre for Global Climate Change held on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Jon was the only Canadian to present at the workshop.

Pew Centre for Global Climate ChangeThe Pew Center on Global Climate Change brings together business leaders, policy makers, scientists, and other experts to bring new approaches to climate change issues, working to protect the climate while sustaining important economic growth. Over the past ten years, Pew has issued over 100 reports from top-tier researchers on key climate topics including economic and environmental impacts, and domestic and international policy solutions. The Center, which distributes its reports to more than 4,000 opinion leaders throughout the world with thousands more downloaded monthly from the Center’s website, is regularly featured in major news stories from the Associated Press, Nature Magazine, The New York Times, and other media.

ACT Policy Author Jon O\'RiordanThe U.S. government is considering a range of near-term actions to address the risks of climate change, and the Obama administration and Congress vow to make climate legislation a top priority this year. The quickest action, however, may come from federal agencies being pressured by the courts, the states, and President Obama, to issue rules limiting CO2 emissions under existing legislative authority. The two-day workshop, which consisted of a symposium assessing the benefits of avoided climate change, followed by a moderated roundtable discussion, covered key elements of federal rulemaking in assessing the costs and benefits of proposed policies.

Drawing from the climate change economics, impacts, and risk assessment communities, the workshop considered what useful insights can be gleaned now about quantifying the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with the goal of developing practical recommendations that decision makers can employ now, and a research plan for improving related decision-making tools over time.

In addition to Jon, workshop speakers included:

Eileen Claussen, President, Pew Center
Dina Kruger, Director, EPA Climate Change Division
Janet Peace, Vice President for Market and Business Strategies, Pew Center

Panel 1 – Government Perspectives on Decision Making for Climate Change
Martha Roberts:  Incorporating the benefits of climate protection into federal rulemaking
Christopher Pyke:  A proposal to consider global warming under NEPA
Paul Watkiss:  Social cost of carbon estimates and their use in UK policy
James Lester/Joel Smith:  Previous decisions to mitigate—California, Australia, the UK

Panel 2 – Challenges for Quantifying Damages and Risks from Climate Change
Joel Smith: Dangerous climate change: an update of the IPCC reasons for concern
Mike MacCracken & Tony Janetos: Challenges to providing quantitative estimates of  the environmental and societal impacts of global warming
Kris Ebi: Societal Vulnerability and Risk
Brian O’Neill: Uncertainty and learning in climate policy

Panel 3 – Economic Analysis of the Benefits of Climate Policy
Kristen Sheeran: Limitations of IAMs for analyzing the costs and benefits of climate policy
Steve Rose: Federal policy needs for evaluating climate change impacts: Working with what you have
Gary Yohe:  An analytical framework based on the IPPC’s “iterative risk assessment” paradigm

ACT’s second set of findings – on Extreme Weather Events, by Dr. Gordon McBean and Dan Henstra – will be released on April 20th, 2009.


Carbon marketing turns competition crisp

Despite the striking similarities in their packaging and products, the UK’s Walkers crisps and North America’s Lay’s potato chips might as well be selling apples and oranges. Although both brands are owned by the PepsiCo company, Walkers has decided to add one significant detail to their packets – a label stating that 75.0 grams of carbon were emitted to produce a 34.5 gram bag of chips.

Walkers was the first major food brand to display such information, which came about as a collaboration with their parent company PepsiCo, and Carbon Trust – a UK government funded not-for-profit who’s mission it is to accelerate the move to a low carbon economy by working with organisations to reduce carbon emissions and develop commercial low carbon technologies.

The ‘carbon reduction label’ introduced in 2007 for consumer products may well be setting a precedent for future marketing plans as shoppers become increasingly concerned with buying products from companies that are environmentally sustainable and take climate change remediation seriously.

But ‘greenwash’ is also an issue that’s being taken to the fryer. Consumers are forever weary that corporations do little in terms of practical mitigation beyond the branding and marketing campaigns they roll out for new products. In order to retain the right to use the Carbon Trust label, businesses that partner with the Carbon Trust must commit to its measurement standards and to a two-year programme of carbon reduction.

Carbon Trust has also developed a “Code of Good Practices on GHG Emissions and Reductions Claims.” The code helps businesses use certified data to clearly communicate product life cycle GHG emissions, and support effective communication of the lifecycle GHG emissions of products and/or emission reductions, assessed in conformity with PAS 2050 – Carbon Trust’s official standards for evaluating carbon sustainability (known as the “Publicly Available Specification 2050” or PAS 2050).

ACT’s third session, on clean energy production and distribution, is scheduled to begin April 2009. We’ll look at the new, clean energy technologies people are coming to rely on as ways to reduce emissions, and ask, “Will climate change pose real problems for production and delivery of energy sources such as hydro and wind power?”

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