Degrees of Change: The Good, the Bad and the Blind Spot

There’s been plenty of media coverage of the Degrees of Change report just released by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. The report predicts impacts on Canadian regions, with an economic focus.

Climate change: Is this what the future will look like? – National Post

Study seeks silver lining in climate change’s clouds — Globe and Mail

Don’t accentuate the positive on climate change – Globe and Mail

Global warming will vastly change Canada: study – CTV

How a 2-degree climate change would hit Canada — CBC

Both the report and the coverage it has generated are certainly interesting. There’s a little bad and a lot of good. But I think what’s may be most important is what’s been left out.

The Bad

The news media has always struggled with climate change reporting, in part because of the tendency to report both sides of the story, even if one “side” is consensus opinion of the credible components of the scientific institution and the other “side” is a slim minority of tangentially expert corporate-linked reactionaries. Any report that includes positive as well as negative predictions will inevitably play hard into that journalistic norm. So it’s not surprising that some of the coverage is giving as much weight to the potential positives impacts as to the negatives, regardless of their actual proportionality.

The Good

That said, there is so much that is good about this report, and the coverage.

Climate change is a global phenomenon to be sure, but the effects will be felt in highly regionally specific ways. This report gets that aspect very right, and that’s great to see.

By giving the issue a fresh framing, I think it will help nudge folks towards considering climate change as an actual impending event, rather than another political scuffle. Advocating for preparation for both the positive and the negative impacts will motivate people to think about preparation at all, and we’ve been sorely lacking a Canadian focus on the adaptation term of the prevention/mitigation/adaptation equation.

(As a rather lurid example of that, Canada just announced the specific allocation of our $400 million Copenhagen commitment to international climate change aid, and the adaptation portion — arguably the most important, in the context of aid to developing nations — works out to an even 5%.)

Even better, I suspect that people aren’t just going to be scared of the predicted negative impacts, they’re going to be scared of the positive changes as well. I just don’t think people like any kind of large scale lifestyle-affecting change at all. Especially the kind of small-c conservative folks who haven’t been much interested in climate change so far.

But let’s suppose that some people do get excited about the possible benefits to their region. People who want to log spruce trees in the north, or fish more cod, or (yes) golf in places they haven’t before, will see those benefits mostly just as pleasing possibilities. They’ll have relatively few resources to fight for them, given that they aren’t currently making money logging spruce fishing cod or selling tee times. But the people whose lives are currently tied to farming in places that will desertify, or cutting trees in places that are in danger of losing them to beetle kill, have a lot of skin in the game and are relatively likely to get politically involved. So I don’t mind a degree of focus on positive possibilities.

Areas at Risk of Desertification by 2050, National Post adapted from NRTEE

Also, it’s just true: there will be some positive outcomes somewhere. True facts deserve coverage regardless.

The Blind Spot

The problem I have with this report – or at least with the report as I understand it from the media – is that it leaves out some of the most important economic and ecological impacts that climate change will bring. Irregularity, cascades, thresholds, extremes. All the stuff that can’t be specifically predicted, but will happen anyway.

The climate system, and the regional ecologies that exist under it, are the way they are because of millienia of co-adaptive evolution. If the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation conflicted with the south atlantic thermohaline circulation, one or the other would have collapsed long ago. If the conifer forests of interior BC were vulnerable to infestation by beetles that could survive interior BC winters, then the forests (and, in turn, the beetles) would have had their distribution scaled back already.

The danger is that if you start forcing some of the controlling variables — such as average temperature — those cycles start to wobble, degrade, and generally bang around like an unbalanced washing machine.

current conveyor belt
The thermohaline circulation. Adapted from Alexandre Van de Sande.

On the weather side, extreme temperatures will start showing up, both at the high end and the low end. The timing of weather events will get less predictable. The general trend will (in most places) be towards higher temperatures, but the thermometer will probably sawtooth nuttily on the way there. That counts if you’re planting crops, investing in tourist infrastructure, or building your house in a flood plain.

Then there’s the biological side. Sudden species explosions have been rarer in real life than in mathematical models because any given species has evolved in a matrix of other predator and prey relationships, buffering extreme swings and selecting for calmly persistent dynamics. When temperature thresholds shift suddenly and new species move into environments where they don’t have established ecological relationships, those constraints fall away, possibly leading to outbreaks of any number of possible species — benign, nuetral or downright pestilential.

The poster child for that movement has been the colossal arrival of pine beetles in interior BC. Climate change wasn’t sufficient on it’s own to induce an industry-tanking biological outbreak, it also required the presence of single-age stands of trees, among other factors. But it did indeed require warmer winters for the beetles to survive, and when those ducks got in a row, problems happened. With more climate change we can anticipate more aligned ducks, more problems.

Could we possibly have predicted the pine beetle outbreak? Probably not, but it still happened, and it still had (and has) a massive economic impact. The Degrees of Change report, for all that I find good in it, doesn’t pretend to include those unpredictabilities or the economic impacts they would generate, despite that they will impinge directly on it’s stated goal of predicting ecological and economic outcomes. I’m not sure how it could. And yet those unpredictables will be all too real. When contemplating our economic and ecological future, we should be looking for ways to keep that in mind.

Further Kicking of Under-Appreciated Dog When It’s Down

Me and Sherwin are sparring over the value and democratic character of those disappearing newspapers. We’re pretty much not talking to each other because of it, which is sad, because he’s like, one of my best friends ever. Still, he’s wrong so what am I supposed to do? And now Jesse Brown has turned on me as well.

You’ll miss those newspapers when they’re gone, I swear to god. All of you.

Good News About Good News

I find this article powerfully heartening for a number of reasons. And since it’s good news, I’m inclined to share it with you now:

Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s AwesomeJohn Tierny, New York Times