The Cassandras of climate change
“Climate change Cassandras” is a phrase you often hear these days. Some tiresome doomsayer brings up climate change every time a shale gas find makes natural gas cheaper, a giant offshore oilfield is discovered or a big new pipeline is proposed.
As the word is typically used, “Cassandra” means someone who is ceaselessly moaning and complaining about something really good, like the guest at your barbecue who brings up cattle flatulence and its impact on global warming when you slap the steaks on the grill.
But, as I learned in Western Civ 12 at FH Collins, the original Cassandra was actually right. It’s just she was doomed never to be listened to, thanks to a nasty curse from Apollo.
She was merely a contrarian nuisance to King Priam and the men of Troy. They ignored her suggestion to leave the Trojan Horse outside the gates. Her city was destroyed and its people enslaved. Cassandra herself ended up as the sex slave of Greek King Agamemnon until his wife had enough of the arrangement and did her in.
Too bad she wasn’t alive in 2007. It wouldn’t have mattered if no one listened to her, since she could have made billions shorting mortgage-backed securities.
Anyway, climate change scientists currently share a few similarities with Cassandra in her pre-Trojan Horse days. I’m not enough of a scientist to know if they are right or not, but they’ve certainly annoyed a lot of people with their strongly held views.
Despite the continuing research on climate change, the last few years have seen the climate change topic slip in public interest. We are bored of watching Al Gore climb his ladder during his Inconvenient Truth presentations and point out how high the CO2 levels are getting. No one can remember which city the last giant United Nations climate change conference was in. If climate change makes the top slot on the nightly news, it is often because someone has accused climate scientists of fudging their data.
Instead, the stories are about giant shale gas discoveries, surging oil sands output and drilling in the Arctic. Just last month, in fact, Apache Corp announced it thinks it has found one of the world’s largest shale-gas fields just south of the Yukon border. It might hold up to 48 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to Reuters. Some think there is so much gas it could supply the entire United States for two years.
A few years ago, some people were hoping that economics and CO2 emission reduction would work together. As we moved towards “peak oil,” fossil fuel prices would keep climbing and people would switch naturally over time to relatively cheaper renewables. Cheap shale gas and rapidly improving cost efficiency in the oil sands have killed that idea.
The Yukon, for example, is thinking of building a natural gas power plant as our power use grows faster than our hydro capacity. In other places, solar panel factories have folded and various renewable power projects been put on hold.
However, just because you’re seeing less media coverage of climate change doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. In fact, carbon emissions keep going up, and the scenarios put forth by serious climate scientists keep getting scarier.
The Economist recently ran a special on the Arctic, noting that the ice cap is melting much faster than predicted even just a few years ago. The Economist reports that climate models a few years ago forecast that the Arctic might be ice-free in the summer by the 22nd century. More recent research suggests 2037 or even earlier. If Greenland’s ice melts, it will raise sea levels by around 7.5 metres and flood places like London, Mumbai and Skagway.
Global commentator Gwynne Dyer visited the Yukon last year and talked grimly about the potential for “climate wars” as countries run short of water and food.
Even more scarily, Cassandras at the Stockholm Resilience Centre wrote a paper in Nature talking about “boundary conditions.” This is the idea that humans might push a crucial environmental variable so far that large parts of the planet could be rendered unlivable, with possibly fatal results for homo sapiens.
Meanwhile, lots of Canadians are hoping the Cassandras are wrong and that the climate wobbles scientists are measuring are just caused by sunspots or something. Or that adjusting to climate change won’t be too painful.
We had better hope the optimists are right. It doesn’t look like the world’s 180 governments are going to come up with an effective climate change plan any time soon.
The old books tell us that Aeneas and a few others survived the fall of Troy, sailing away to found a new city. You won’t be lucky enough to have a rocket ship and space colony waiting if the Cassandras are right this time too.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.