An Environment of Change

The recent article "Ontario Climate Change Action Plan on the Right Track" spurred some interesting discussion both for and against the arguments of climate change. This got me thinking about what drives us and how we process and comprehend information and compartmentalize it in a way that suits our individual perspectives.

Of course there are many perspectives on climate change with the two predominate ones being 1) climate change is not caused by mans activities, and 2) climate change is a direct result of mans activities.

But before I ride further down this trail of climate change, I want to take a pit stop and explore a different question.

The Question is "At what point is information so overwhelming or consequences so extreme or distant that one adopts alternate views or actions as a means to reach an acceptable conclusion?"

What I mean to provoke with this question is an awareness of how we deal with information. At what point do we as individuals, groups, communities, and nations reach a threshold where the volume, scale or complexity of the information just becomes overwhelming? Where we rely on someone else to "understand" and do the right thing, or try and solve the identified problem with a potentially equally complex solution. At some point we all come to a conclusion. However as the problem becomes more complex, the willingness to change perspective becomes more important.

Two historic environmental issues can help demonstrate how time changes perspective. The point being made in both these cases is that initial thoughts and final actions may or may not have resulted in directly solving the identified problem, but the actions taken can be agreed to, at the very least, reduce our impact on the overall environment. Even though these two issues have long term and complex interactions that we may not yet understand.
A Review of the Less Monumental Environmental Assaults
I want to go back to two environmental assaults that we don't hear too much about anymore to the point that anyone born after 1990 may not even recall these as significant concerns of the day.

The first is Acid Rain. This one I barely remember, but it was a big deal when first publicly identified in the 1970's. One of the easily identifiable contributors was sulfur compounds being released in the atmosphere due to combustion of coal and petroleum products. These compounds then reacted with moisture in the environment and fell back to earth as a mild sulfuric acid. Of course, these were not the only compounds being discharged, but a connection was made.

The phrase Acid Rain was murmured almost daily and the news media was flush with stories and examples of the coming wave of devastation and impacts to the environment. With these emissions peaking in 1975 to almost 3 times the levels experience in the 1950's there was what appeared to be a clear need for action...and action was taken. Sulfur removal was implemented where feasible. Low sulfur fuels were sourced or produced. Emissions were reduced. Now, I haven't followed the acid rain train for some time, but there was a real reduction in emissions, where depending on your data source, a declining trend has been occurring from 1975 to 2000. Now there seems to be a renewed upward trend since 2000 arguably as a result of global expansion of coal use in Asia.

So this leaves me with some questions:

  • The 2000 low for emissions was still twice that of 1950. Is there a tipping point for this emission where the formation of the acid is detrimental to the environment and are we still below it?
  • Have the predictions of melting stone and dying trees been reversed or do we just move onto other problems?
  • Dying lakes due to lower pH was a real concern in northern US and Canada. What has happened, have these lakes recovered, did something else change?

In the end, I really don't know personally whether this impact was directly correlated to sulfur emissions or if the environmental impacts were happening and have been reversed, or if the whole thing was made up by the media. But one thing I know for certain is that awareness and public comprehension of the real impacts of dying trees, lakes and rivers, and the erosion of our monuments, buildings and infrastructure were enough to cause industry action to reduce emissions. To me, in the end there was a shift towards increased environmental sustainability. Of course there were many who did not believe that this activity was significant to cause this kind of impact and they argued in support of unabashed progress. That the environment was not affected and had the ability to absorb mans discharges. Regardless of who is right, does it not benefit us all when noxious gases that cause respiratory and other health effects are reduced at the very least in our local environments.

The second is Ozone Depletion. The next issue that emerged as a result of chlorinated compounds primarily related to manufactured gases used for air conditioning systems. In the mid 1980's it was discovered that the ozone layer over the antarctic would have seasonal thinning. This in a zone of the atmosphere that is 30km thick! Of course if we lost the ozone layer this would mean a direct impact to humans from significantly increased exposure to damaging UV-B radiation from the sun. An international agreement was struck in 1987 (Montreal Protocol) requiring the phasing out of a list of known ozone depleting substances by 2000.

These substances where effectively reduced from 1.5 million tonnes of consumed substances in 1987 to virtually zero tonnes in 2008. A great success from the point of view of setting international goals and meeting them. So let me ask:

  • Do we know for sure what would have happened if these substances were not discontinued?
  • This was again a highly known and well covered story for many years. What has happened? Are we still not concerned that the ozone hole is still the same as it was in 1985 when alarm bells went off?

Again, in the end, are we not better off by having some very damaging and persistent chemicals out of environment. What are the indirect health affects of these products that we no longer have to address? So maybe the ozone layer has not recovered, and maybe it never will recover due the the persistence of many of these substances, but we learned something, we adjusted behaviour and I believe we are more aware of how our actions can have unintended consequences.
So How Do We Process The Scope of These Problems?
I can tell you that both these challenges had heated supporters on both sides of the argument. There was also a robust public awareness of the issues and a direct connection to how the predicted changes could impact individuals. Of course neither of these issues resulted in the end of civilization. But for certain, there was a wide spectrum of understanding of the issues at hand, and certainly this influenced the arguments and positions on the issues.

Also, there was varying degrees of understanding and acceptance of the information through the various interest groups of communities, industry, government and science. All these variables result in differing degrees of interest, understanding, impact, and accountability. Arguably, these two issues were of the scale and scope that definable actions could be identified and executed with the outcome of at the very least modifying our environmental impacts to some degree.

But what if the problem we face is too large to comprehend, or to complex to describe, or doesn't seem to have a direct impact, or is so long term to not be a concern, or can be explained by other activities etc. Unless one is able to break down the problem, there can be a tendency to minimize, rationalize or redirect the issue to a level that can be more easily understood. There is therefore a need to simplify and clarify a problem to a point that it can be communicated clearly and concisely. This definitely is possible with the topic of global warming or climate change.

Alternately we can learn more about the issue, ask questions, have an open mind and try and see the issue from many perspectives.

The issue of climate change is complex, long term, and with a multitude of variables. To help the debate it is always beneficial to be open to others point of view. So, to that end I thought it helpful to offer these two videos that both have good arguments. Take a look and let me know what you think. Let the conversation continue.