As world temperatures and sea levels rise, the effects of global warming will be felt most acutely in Canada and other countries far from the equator, says a Canadian researcher and co-ordinating author of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The first stage of the UN-backed panel's authoritative report was released Friday and accompanied by a challenge, issued by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, for the world to "seize the opportunities of a low-carbon future." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called it an "alarm bell" and pledged to work to reduce emissions.
But the report drew little fanfare in Ottawa, with Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq issuing a brief written statement sticking by the government's record.
Canada is among the top emitters per capita in the G20.
A Canadian scientist and co-ordinating author of the IPCC report says it's the clearest evidence yet that global warming is occurring – and that humans are the main cause.
"Evidence for a warming climate is getting stronger and stronger, and the evidence of the influence of human activities on that climate change is getting stronger and stronger," said Gregory Flato, an Environment Canada scientist and manager of the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis. The effects of climate change are felt particularly strongly in countries like Canada, he said.
"As this report shows and previous reports have shown, climate change and warming in particular is amplified – that is, it's larger – at high latitudes. So warming over Canada is larger than the warming that has been experienced [worldwide] and it is projected to continue that way. That warming over Canada will continue to be more rapid than the global [average] warming," Dr. Flato said in an interview.
Climate change generally means wet climates will get wetter and dry climates will get drier, while oceans are expected to rise more or less uniformly worldwide, he said.
Ms. Aglukkaq's office said she wasn't available Friday to comment on the report. Her three-paragraph statement noted the government brought in vehicle-emission standards last year and is phasing out coal power, though existing coal plants will be allowed to operate for decades.
"The Government of Canada takes great pride in the work of all its scientists, who contribute every day to the assessment and advancement of science, both at home and on the international stage," said the written statement, which didn't specifically address the IPCC report's findings. The government is "standing up for Canadian jobs" with its emissions policy, it added.
The statement took aim at the previous Liberal government, for allowing emissions to rise, and at the NDP, "who want a $21-billion carbon tax."
NDP environment critic Megan Leslie admonished Ms. Aglukkaq for including partisan attacks in her office's statement. "I hope she now reads the report and starts taking real action on climate change," Ms. Leslie said in a statement.
Emissions data compiled by the World Resources Institute shows that in 2010 Canada was the 10th-biggest carbon emitter worldwide. On a per-capita basis, Canada is 17th; among the G20, Canada trails only Australia and the United States.
Canada is on track to finish well short of meeting its emission-reduction targets set out in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord by the 2020 deadline.
"With all the policies we have in place now, federally and provincially, our emissions are projected to grow. The wrong direction – up, not down," said P.J. Partington, a policy analyst with the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank. "Clearly, that's not a trajectory we want to be on, in terms of sea ice, melting permafrost, glacier loss, ocean acidification, sea level rise – all of these impacts are very serious for Canada."
DENIAL IS NO LONGER AN OPTION, UN PANEL SAYS
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of the world's top climate scientists sponsored by the United Nations, has released a 30-page synopsis of its report on the physical science of climate change. Paul Koring looks at the four main takeaways.
1. The situation is man-made – and dire
Modern human civilization burning vast reserves of fossil fuels – billions of tonnes of oil and coal – is heating the planet so it's already hotter than any time since the last ice age. With new and unprecedented certainty – a confidence level above 95 per cent, which is science-speak for near certainty – experts agree that humans are driving rapid climate change. Greenhouse-gas emissions from modern industrial activity have caused "half of the observed increase in global average surface temperatures since the 1950s," concludes the latest and most dire report yet from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal … and unprecedented over decades to millennia."
2. Weather will get more extreme
Linking weather events – Superstorm Sandy slamming the U.S. Northeast, massive flooding in Europe, raging heat igniting fires across northern Russia – to the inexorable planetary heating remains imprecise. But the frequency and severity of extreme weather in recent years points to new instabilities in the global patterns of ocean currents and atmospheric jet streams. More and worse weather extremes can be expected.
3. It will take centuries to fix,at least
Even if further greenhouse-gas emissions – notably carbon dioxide – could somehow be stopped overnight, the lingering consequences of atmospheric loadings already in place will send global temperatures higher for centuries, at least. Even couched in the dispassionate terms of science, the outlook is grim: "Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped." As much as 40 per cent of some greenhouse gases will last for 1,000 years in the atmosphere, and – even with drastic reductions – the report concludes that rising sea levels are "virtually certain" far beyond 2100 from heat already in the global system. New York City, Shanghai and dozens of other coastal cities that are home to hundreds of millions of people will need massive, expensive protections.
4. Much is still unknown or uncertain
It remains unknown whether warming will eventually undermine the vast Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, sending them sliding into the sea – although, even at vastly accelerated rates, that could take centuries. The consequences would be sea levels rising by many metres and the disruption of huge, globe-girdling ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream.
The report says the "tipping points" in Earth's complex climate system still can't be defined. But, the panel warns, attempts at geo-engineering – the stuff of science fiction like space umbrellas that block sunlight from reaching Earth to cool an overheating planet or new technologies to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequestrate it underground – may pose unfathomable risks even as they offer ways to remediate inevitable damage. Whether halting the heat will come too late for many species – from coral reefs cooked by hotter water to polar bears doomed by a lack of sea ice – is also unknown.