Fort McMurray: The Horror

I can’t joke about it. I can’t relish in the fact that the city dedicated to the most carbon-intense fuel on our planet is most likely burning because of the very problem the combustion of fossil fuels creates. All I can think is that my fellow Canadians are suffering. People like my high school friend Ed. Or my former nanny Deb. People who left their communities for better job opportunities elsewhere in our country.

In case you hadn’t heard, Fort McMurray is going down in flames due to wild fires that ar burning out of control. More than 80,000 residents have been displaced, and it is the most expensive insurable event that Canada has ever faced, far surpassing the Alberta floods that happened a few years ago. Most of the time we tend to think about climate change affecting groups who are so far removed from us that it’s almost convenient to ignore. But when climate change affects your own back yard, you tend to take notice.

Behold, 80,000 Canadians evacuated from a small Canadian community dedicated to the procurement of fossil fuels.

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Climate Scientists: “We’re Not F**king With You!”

“If somebody throws a piano off the roof, I don’t care what Sarah Palin tells you, get out of the way because it’s coming down on your head!”
—Jimmy Kimmel, using gravity as an analogy and pointing out that ignoring 97 percent of scientists about climate change may not be a wise move

This video was just posted this week by Jimmy Kimmel. It’s over seven minutes long, more than I usually post. But this is so worth it. Please give it a watch. You’ll laugh. You’ll cringe. But more than anything you’ll be impressed at how well a late-night talk show host does at explaining why there is such a divide on this issue when the facts are so clear.

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Christmas Island Has Lost Its Coral Reef

“Coral reefs represent some of the world’s most spectacular beauty spots, but they are also the foundation of marine life: without them many of the sea’s most exquisite species will not survive.”
—Sheherazade Goldsmith

We’ve known for a long time that coral reefs are at great risk from warming oceans. Just last month the Australian government raised the Great Barrier Reef’s threat level to the highest level possible.

But it turns out this past year’s El Niño has truly been to blame for the death of coral reefs on Christmas Island, according to a biologist from the University of Victoria in British Columbia. According to Julia Baum who has visited these coral reefs before in 2009:

It looked like a ghost town. The structure is still there, all the buildings are still standing but there is no one home. Meaning all the corals are dead. The coral has already died, moved past the bleaching phase and is covered by bright algae.

Baum recently returned from an expedition as part of a larger team that assessed the coral reefs near Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean. The team found that only five percent of the corals were alive after the many long months of intense heat from the recent El Niño, the hottest our planet has ever recorded.

Coral bleaching indicates that corals are sick. The algae that give them their colour have left them, in this case because of the high temperatures they’ve been exposed to. In the case of Christmas Island, the location just happened to be in the bullseye of the recent El Niño our planet has experienced so the water temperatures didn’t drop quickly enough or low enough to allow the corals to survive. In other words, they simply starved to death.

The sad reality is that coral reefs can’t simply come back to life. And it’s more than a matter of divers losing some colourful vistas to behold. Many fish populations rely on corals for their food and living habitats. Who knows what wide sweeping repercussions losing our coral reefs will have? Christmas Island is just the first one to fall, but others are coming soon and the Great Barrier Reef is certainly not immune. Chances are that the effects on our planet that result from the loss of our coral reefs is bigger than anyone currently appreciates.

And climate change skeptics and deniers might want to blame El Niño on this one arguing that it’s not a part of climate change, but there’s a reason this has been the strongest El Niño we’ve ever recorded. Climate change has led to stronger and longer-lasting El Niños than we’ve ever seen according to climate scientists.

So there’s no easy out here. We’re losing our coral reefs around the planet as Christmas Island has just proven. Time will tell what effect this will have on us all, but we have no one to blame but ourselves.

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David Suzuki: Nonstop Growth is Population Suicide

I just got to see Dr. David Suzuki speak in person when he was at Georgian College on Earth Day, in fact the first Earth Day he hadn’t spent in British Columbia in many years so we all felt honoured and privileged to hear his inspiring words on such an important day.

One of the key messages Dr. Suzuki passed along was one I’ve cared about as well: namely that our economy is something we invented and can change to suit our needs. (Think: the failure of communism in the Soviet Union.) The environment is something on which we depend, and that provides us the necessities of life such as air, water, and food ultimately powered by photosynthesis, the ultimate in solar energy. And yet we constantly try to make the environment bend to our needs to preserve the economy we invented, so often polluting the air, water, and soil in the process. Corporations too conveniently ignore these issues as “externalities.”

In follow up to this point, Dr. Suzuki addressed the main focus of the economy, namely growth. Nonstop growth can’t work with finite resources. To illustrate that point, he referred to the nonstop growth our own population has been experiencing. When Dr. Suzuki was born, he mentioned there were only about two billion people on Earth. In the span of one lifetime our planet’s population has more than doubled.

He used a brilliant analogy to explain why our species may be headed to suicide. I thought about trying to put it into words, but this video explains it so much better than I could by Dr. Suzuki himself.

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David Suzuki and Earth Day

We’re in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone’s arguing over where they’re going to sit.”
—David Suzuki

I’m proud to be Canadian. That doesn’t always mean that I’m proud of everything Canada does. But one thing it got right was David Suzuki. Although from Japanese heritage, this man is third-generation Canadian. He’s an academic with a PhD in zoology from the University of Chicago he obtained more than fifty years ago. He’s a science broadcaster, host of the long-running CBC program “The Nature of Things.” And he’s a long-time activist regarding global warming and climate change. And today—on Earth Day of all days—I get to hear him speak his message in person at Georgian College.

His efforts at educating people about climate change and global warming stem from the fact that he’s a scientist. He may not have received his PhD in climate science, but as someone who understands the principles of hypothesis, the scientific method, experimentation and interpretation of data, and publication in peer-reviewed journals, he has more than enough expertise to be qualified to speak to the issue.

One of the problems in science today is how compartmentalized it has become. Certainly in medicine we see it all the time. As an example, I’m a doctor who specialized in internal medicine and then subspecialized in cardiology. Although I stopped there, I could have gone ever further and pursued, say, electrophysiology which is the study of rhythm disorders. Beyond that, I could have decided to dedicate myself to only pacemakers and defibrillators, or ablation techniques, or rhythm medications.

The problem with learning more and more about less and less is that eventually you know everything about nothing. Since climate science is complex, I believe someone who has a broader understanding of science will often have a better appreciation of the big picture than someone who understands only the atmospheric aspects of it, or the hydrospheric, or geospheric. Dr. Suzuki’s background in zoology obviously gives him particular expertise in topics relating to the animal world, but he has a much more holistic understanding of climate change than a sub-sub-specialist ever could. People often think of the word “holistic” and its connection to an alternative branch of medicine, but its true meaning is simply a “comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.” That’s climate change and global warming, through and through.

Dr. Suzuki has understood the science behind global warming and has been warning about its dangers for decades. Like many others who understand science, he considers the evidence for global warming and its connection to human activities to be irrefutable. He is also quick to point out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assembled more than 2500 scientists from over 130 countries, coming to the conclusion that most of the global warming observed in the last half-century is due to human activities rather than other factors. (This is where phrases like “the vast majority of climate scientists around the world” comes from.) Indeed, every national academy of science around the world believes we are the main culprit for climate change, but the skeptics and deniers do a good job of growing seeds of doubt in the media.

There has even been a smear campaign against Dr. Suzuki himself; to be fair, he has garnered his own fair share of controversy, mostly borne out of frustration that progress moves too slowly toward the solutions we need. Real change requires government participation and that just hasn’t occurred enough for Suzuki’s satisfaction. (Or, indeed, for anyone’s satisfaction who believes in what the science is telling us and appreciates what we need to accomplish to stave off a global crisis in the generations to come.)

He’s also frustrated because too many people argue that global warming isn’t real. There is no doubt that climate change deniers and skeptics are out there in full force with a goal of delaying any action on climate change. Frustrating because so many of those on that side of the “debate” don’t understand the science—the main reason I wrote my book and maintain a blog on the subject. The science tends to get published in scientific journals but those aren’t easily accessible to the general public, requiring good public speakers like Dr. Suzuki to spread the message around. The skeptics and deniers typically get their information from sources that come from a well-organized campaign intent on spreading disinformation and they target the media, the general public, and policy makers rather than publish in any peer-reviewed mainstream scientific journals. Sadly, these groups are too often funded by the fossil fuel industry or other groups with a vested interest in maintaining business as usual, rather than looking to develop renewable sources of energy.

As part of his personal mission, Dr. Suzuki established The David Suzuki Foundation in 1990. Its mission is to “protect the diversity of nature and our quality of life, now and for the future. Our vision is that within a generation, Canadians act on the understanding that we are all interconnected and interdependent with nature.” (In the interests of full disclosure, I would like to point out that I was very honoured when asked to write a guest blog for one of the many blogs on the David Suzuki Foundation website, this one entitled Docs Talk. A joint effort with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, it’s dedicated to promoting knowledge and understanding about the impact of environment on health. As a cardiologist, I was invited to write about the impacts of global warming on heart health in particular. Never one to resist a good play on words, its title is “The heart of the matter on climate change.”)

Dr. Suzuki is a real hero. Not only for Canada, but for the whole world. Generations to come will be able to look back on his achievements and realize how how important he was in the efforts we made to save our planet from ourselves, and for our future.

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