Posts Tagged ‘global warming’


The Polluters: the Making of Our chemically Altered Environment by Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter. Oxford University Press 2010.

The Polluters is a history of industrial pollution in America from the early days of industry in the 18th century to the changing times of the 1960s and 70s. On page 3 of the book, the authors write:

Wastes were a problem from the earliest days of chemical manufacturing. But the American chemical industry of the nineteenth century lagged far behind its European competitors, and the emissions from its factories drew little notice beyond their immediate surroundings. …As pollution worsened and new problems emerged in the course of the 1920s and 1930s, scientists and the public increasingly saw the need for control and demanded action.

Leaders of the industry recognized the need for cleanup, but they were allergic to government oversight. Chemical companies insisted on doing things themselves, at their own pace, with their own means, and they gathered their forces for the fight to keep the government out. An armament of methods was developed to fend off outside pressure. One of the industry’s common tactics can be summed up as “spill, study, and stall.” When outside pressure to do something about pollution became strong, a study of the problem would be launched as an alternative to expensive action. The study would be carried out by the polluters themselves or, if it was feared that a blatantly self-serving study would lack credibility, under their influence.

…When study could not be avoided, friendly researchers would offer a predetermined conclusion. They would cherry-pick data, design experiments to give a desired answer, or sometimes offer reassurances backed by nothing more than the sheer force of assertion. The exercise of political, financial, and public relations muscle would turn this into “authoritative science,” often in the face of criticism from scientists of much greater attainment.

That, in a few paragraphs, sums up the contents of the following 170 pages. The authors go on to examine various examples and follow the seesawing attempts of assorted individuals to bring industry to heal and curb the unfettered polluting of the nation’s air, water and groundwater resources. Across the years, thousands of new synthetic compounds were developed and released into the environment without testing. Chemicals were treated as safe until proven otherwise, often by some catastrophic event. It was deemed that industry had a right to use available air and water as simple conduits for waste disposal unless there were prior claims for their use. The natural world itself, on the other hand, had no rights whatsoever.

It seemed to me that few stories can be more readily divided into “good guys” and “bad guys”. Not that the authors attempt anything but a balanced report, but the facts speak for themselves. For most of the period under study, industrial leaders found friends in high places, men who were happy to do their bidding. These men condemned to death countless unknown workers and citizens who they failed to protect, often turning a blind eye to clear and readily available scientific evidence showing the dangers of pollutants.

Public concern and awareness rose after the 1962 release of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the first Earth Day in April 1970, and highly visible incidents such as the Love Canal scandal. The Clean Air Amendments of 1970 were signed into law. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. The Environmental Protection Agency was created. And a Superfund was established to identify and clean up America’s most polluted hot spots in 1980.

However, those hopeful steps of the 1970s have not been sustained. In fact, there have been giant steps backwards. In 2005 Congress, at the behest of then Vice President Dick Cheney, a former CEO of gas driller Halliburton, exempted fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Here in Canada, Stephen Harper and his Conservatives have been making giant strides backwards, undoing years of small victories in environmental protection so that corporations may once again pollute unfettered. Even when regulations are in place, polluters are not prosecuted. A recent report showed that Alberta is enforcing fewer than one per cent of potential environmental violations in its open-pit mines.

Even more depressing is the fact that climate change was under discussion in the 1950s. Evidence of rising temperatures had begun to accumulate and by the 60s, prediction of increasing temperatures again appeared in leading scientific publications. Here we are, half a century on, and we have chosen to saddle ourselves, through apathy and fraudulent election practices, with an ineffectual, backwards government that fails to look to the future and refuses to address the inconvenient truth of climate change. The authors note:

The emission of greenhouse gases goes on, protected with the time-honored techniques of toothless laws and twisted science. The tactic of spill, study, and stall, now approaching its centenary, is still in use. Well-funded institutes continue to paste a veneer of scientific research onto political propaganda. Hard truths are countered with convenient but unlikely hopes.

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Here, as across much of the continent, it has been hot, hot, hot and dry, dry, dry. In fact, from July 1st last year until June 30th this year, the weather has been both the warmest and the driest ever recorded during any previous July to June period in the Ottawa region. Our poor little river is no longer flowing. It has been reduced to a series of puddles interrupted by dry river bed.


Here, as elsewhere, there is talk of farmers losing crops. As climate change takes hold, we can expect plenty more of the same. Dave Phillips, Environment Canada senior climatologist, notes ‘Canada is not the Great White North that it used to be.’ If only Conservative denial of the problem could halt climate change, we’d be in good shape, but their strategy doesn’t seem to be working.


Still, my garden has been performing well, in spite of the drought. As you can seem in this overview of the main garden, it is mainly the grass pathways that are suffering. That’s not because the garden is well-watered. I don’t water anything except new plants still settling in. The rest are mostly on their own. When I do water, I use buckets or a watering can so that I can deliver water directly to the root area, rather than broadcasting water with a sprinkler.


Here’s my secret weapon. Mulch, and lots of it. I purchase it in bulk from a local tree service, shredded branches. The mulch both keeps down weeds and helps the soil retain moisture so it isn’t baked dry by the sun.

As I write this, there are thunderstorms in the forecast. Exciting! Last week, we had one single storm. It brought a 45 minute downpour of rain. What a blessing! I stood outside on the porch and enjoyed the rain as the garden sighed with relief.


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It’s hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, March arrived liked a lion in a flurry of snow. There is no sign of snow now, and the first day of Spring was one for the record books. While the normal average temperature for this time of year is 4 degrees C, yesterday it soared to 25 degrees C (77F). Unheard of! But what a beautiful, perfect day.


We were just celebrating the arrival of the first Red-winged Blackbird a couple of weeks ago, but the birds have been showing up in a rush, Woodcocks and Song Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, even a Turkey Vulture, compressing the usual spring arrival season into days instead of weeks.


The pussy willows are out and the first frog chorus has filled the evening air.


Here’s a little Johnny Jump-Up, or Viola, the first flower blooming in my garden.


The torrent of spring runoff has already slackened and the little river is flowing tranquilly along its course.


On the radio, the announcer was warning people that it was still a bit early to plant seeds! The traditional planting date here is May 24th. It’s a little unsettling, to be having May weather in March. But perhaps Mousie had the right idea. After months of wearing a winter blanket, she settled right into sunbathing and soaking up the heat. It was a wonderful gift of a day, from sunrise to peaceful sunset.


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One of the most positive things about the Copenhagen climate change conference was how much attention it garnered on the world stage.  The 4th Annual Earth Hour offers another opportunity for citizens of the world to tell politicians everywhere that it is time to act.  We need positive action, not more excuses. Drop by the World Wildlife Fund website for Earth Hour Central.

It is getting harder and harder for old-style do-nothing politicians such as Stephen Harper to hide from mounting public concern. Canadians are bombarded with the government’s braggadocio TV commercials daily, telling us how “Canada’s Economic Action Plan” is helping all Canadians. Recently, the Fraser Institute, a conservative Vancouver-based think-tank weighed in, observing that the federal government’s spending spree has done little but throw Canadians collectively deeper into debt.

In a comparison of “green” or “environmentally-friendly” stimulus spending by G20 countries, Canada ranks near the bottom of the list, with a tiny 8% of stimulus spending devoted to green initiatives. Compare that to the action of more forward-thinking countries such as South Korea, where the investment of 79% of stimulus money in green projects will pay dividends to Korean citizens in the future. Mr. Harper, Canadians deserve responsible spending today to ensure a better future tomorrow.

Greenpeace billboard

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With Speed and Violence: Why scientists fear tipping points in climate change by Fred Pearce. Beacon Press, 2007

In the midst of a winter cold snap, especially while shovelling snow, it is rather pleasant to contemplate global warming. Ah, warm, sunny days replacing the misery of dressing up in umpteen layers of clothing to brave the frost. “Where is global warming when you need it?” we joke.

Increasingly, the prevailing model of climate change that envisions a gradual altering of the weather we are accustomed to is being questioned. Evidence suggests that when a tipping point is reached, climate change may instead be rapid and violent. The science of climate modelling is still young. The super-computers needed to sift through many variables have only been around for a few decades. The study of ice cores from Antarctica, records of climate trapped in the ice over thousands of years, have likewise only been recovered in recent decades. Deciphering the past and interpreting what it might mean for the future is an ongoing process. What is known, as expressed by geochemist Wally Broecker is this: “Climate is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks.”

In With Speed and Violence, Fred Pearce reviews some of the history of climate research and provides a good overview of a complex subject, with an introduction to areas of research, key scientists and researchers, facts and figures relating to important findings and discussions of implications. Topics covered include the giant whirlpool that carries water from the surface of the Arctic Ocean to the ocean floor; the melting of the world’s three great ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica; albedo, the reflectivity of the planet; aerosols; methane clathrates; brown haze from cook stoves; solar pulses; tropical glaciers; the accelerating effect of positive feedback… and much more. It’s a long list.

With Speed and Violence gave me a better understanding of the complexity and urgency of the climate change issue. One vivid image that encapsulates the alarming changes that are taking place features the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. As surface water melts, more and more water pours into the interior of the ice sheet, taking surface water to the very base of the ice. Jim Hansen, a top climate modeler and director of the NASA Goddard Institute, labeled the photograph of the phenomenon the “slippery slope to hell”.

arctic copy

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After winter days that have seen the temperature dip to -30 C and lower, it is a pleasure to enjoy a few days with the temperature hovering around 0 degrees.  How quickly the earth begins to let go of the frost.  Paths that were dug through a foot of snow are already turning muddy and puddled.


To the north of the house, the south branch of the South Nation River has been covered under a foot of snow and ice.  This morning, a narrow ribbon of open water is flooding into pools.


For the first time in many weeks, I took the horses’ blankets off so that they may enjoy the warmth of the sun and have a roll in the snow if they wish.

A mild day in February feels like Nature whispering in your ear “Don’t lose hope! Spring will come.”

While we are enjoying a much-appreciated warm spell, the heat is far from pleasant in some parts of the world. When I caught the news on the radio this morning, they were talking about a heatwave and wildfires in Australia. The southeastern Australian states have been gripped in a heatwave for the past two weeks. In the state of Victoria, temperatures reached a state record of 47 degrees Celsius. Blair Trewin, a climatologist with the National Climate Centre in Melbourne, was quoted as saying “They are the most extreme conditions that we have ever seen in historic record in parts of southeastern Australia. We are seeing an upward trend in temperatures in Australia, as elsewhere in the world.” 

I was reminded of Jared Diamond’s interesting book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, in which he examines societies as disparate as the Viking colonies of Greenland and the small communities of present-day Montana and considers how environmental degradation relates to societal decline. Diamond observes that events in Australia, water-poor and bereft of the rich soils of other continents, will foreshadow what awaits other countries on a warming planet.

My favorite quotation from Diamond’s book is about Easter Island, where inhabitants stripped their homeland of its forests, with devastating results. Diamond asks “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it? Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering!”?”

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