The recent Arctic Impact Climate Assessment warned of major effects on humans, plants and animals and national economies from rapid Arctic warming. But what are nations with Arctic territory doing about it? Will the economics and politics of curbing greenhouse gases take precedence over science? On today's OnPoint, University of Western Ontario professor Gordon McBean, lead author of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, talks about Arctic warming and the outlook for international action.
Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. Our guest today is Dr. Gordon McBean, a leading climate scientist and professor at Western Ontario University. Also with us is Brian Stempeck, climate change reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire. Dr. McBean, thank you for being here.
Gordon McBean: Pleasure to be here.
Colin Sullivan: There's been a lot of press attention in the past few days of possible, at allegations that the White House is letting politics trump science in its analysis of climate change. How big a problem do you think this is, specifically with the United States government under the Bush administration?
Gordon McBean: Well, it's certainly an issue of concern globally, because although the United States is a very large emitter, I guess the largest emitter of carbon dioxide gases which are causing greenhouse change, the unwillingness of the government to support actions to reduce those emissions is a major concern internationally.
Colin Sullivan: Do you think it's a problem elsewhere or is this a problem you just see localized in the United States, from your perspective?
Gordon McBean: Well, climate change is a global issue and if we don't work on it globally together then we can't address the issue.
Brian Stempeck: How much do you see though, I mean a lot of people talk about this whole debate of how politics is getting involved in science and you clearly have charges about the White House editing their reports, but you can make the opposite charge as well. Earlier this week we had the national academies come out from about 10 different countries and say, "Hey, well, Tony Blair, while you're visiting with President Bush we're going to go ahead and attack President Bush on climate change." Can't you make the charge really either way that both sides are kind of using politics in this debate?
Gordon McBean: Well, in the end all responses to these will be political decisions in the end. I mean I fully support what the academy said. Their timing is more political than their statement perhaps. The statement that they may, which was supported by the Canadian Academy of Scientists, of which I am a member, is one that I think is supportive of what the vast majority of the scientific community would say. The words they used, I think, were appropriate words in this case in terms of the statement of the scientific issues, the description of the need for response strategies, the addressing of the consequences of climate change and I don't think that is a political statement in a sense. The decision as to perhaps how to do it and when to do it is clearly part of a policy judgment that the academies had to make collectively and decide when to release such a report.
Brian Stempeck: When you look at what the White House is doing though, with The New York Times story about, talking about some of these memos that were edited. We've heard allegations like this in the past as well. Does that hurt the United States' standing with other countries, with Canadian leaders, with European leaders? I mean there's already distance between them because of the Kyoto Protocol, but does this just widen the gulf between them?
Gordon McBean: Yeah, well I don't think any government would feel that it is appropriate to have the science, the scientific statements, modified by a political process. I was a senior bureaucrat in the Canadian government. I was responsible for climate science for six years in the Canadian government, and my view was that we should be able to state what we think are the scientific views, but it is appropriate in the end for a political decision to be made as to how you respond to those, but not to, let's say, edit the science.
Colin Sullivan: Did you ever feel that politicians were interfering, since you were a Canadian bureaucrat, in your own research when you were part of the government?
Gordon McBean: Well I don't think they interfered with the research in the sense of changing words, but they certainly made view their opinions as to what were the important topics to do research on, which is appropriate in a sense. And I would say that in the end science is only one of the factors in decision making at this kind of level. I mean the Canadian decisions to sign and ratify the Kyoto Protocol were based on a mix of science, judgments and policy to considerations as to how Canada wished to position itself nationally and internationally.
Colin Sullivan: If we could take a step back, you were the lead author of a landmark study that talked about the effects of global warming in the Arctic. Could you just tell for our viewers, what were some of your key findings in that assessment?
Gordon McBean: Well, first of all this was a report commissioned by the Arctic Council of which the United States and seven other countries are members. It was formally requested by governments, so we were responding to that request. The report, which has been basically released fairly recently, formally released last November, says that the Arctic climate system is changing and it is changing more dramatically and rapidly than perhaps we might earlier have thought. The warming in the northwest parts of North America, Alaska and the northwestern parts of Canada, is very pronounced. The Arctic is warming at a rate almost twice as fast as the global mean temperature, over the last few decades. This is having very demonstrable impacts within the Arctic community and we involved in this, in a way that is a traditionally done in what you would call science studies, we involved the Inuit communities of the North, from all of the countries around, as participants in our discussions. You know you hear when you talk to an elder from the northern parts of Canada or Alaska how they have seen in their 50 years of hunting experience how things have really changed, very much and we've documented evidence on the reduction in sea ice by perhaps 20 percent over the last few decades. The projections ahead indicating a potentially ice free Arctic in the summertime.
Colin Sullivan: Your study lays out a number of scenarios. One of them, is the melting of the Greenland ice sheet --
Gordon McBean: Yes.
Colin Sullivan: Which could cause sea levels to rise by as much as 23 feet, which is a potential nightmare scenario. How realistic is something like that?
Gordon McBean: Well I think it's very realistic. I mean these icecaps have been documented to be declining over the last few decades. There is always, of course, uncertainties in these things, but the contribution of that amount of ice to global sea level rise is substantial, as you've said. Not only does it impact the United States, the low lying areas, but many of the developing countries of the world because these impacts eventually work their way around globally.
Brian Stempeck: How do you respond though to critics who say that this report is alarmist? Here in Washington we see quite a few climate reports come out with the latest danger that's going to be coming because of global warming, why is this report different?
Gordon McBean: Well, I think we tried not to be alarmist. We tried to be factual. I was, my chapter, chapter 2, which I was the lead author on, was on the evidence for climate change in the past well, hundred years and more. That chapter and all other chapters underwent, first of all, a review process. My chapter was roughly 50 pages long. I received over 80 pages of reviewer's comments over which, we, collectively, the author team responded to. When the overview document was prepared by a writing team which included lead authors, including myself as one of the members of the team, we asked every chapter section, the lead author of every chapter actually had to sign off and say what is in that overview document is consistent with, of course, much shortened in its content.
Brian Stempeck: And how many scientists were involved in this?
Gordon McBean: Oh, there were hundreds of scientists involved.
Brian Stempeck: So this is basically work that's similar to what the intergovernmental panel on climate changes is doing? Would you liken it to that?
Gordon McBean: Yeah.
Brian Stempeck: Something that the United Nations is working on basically.
Gordon McBean: Yeah, because it's a, there are eight countries, a smaller geographical region, the number of authors is reduced, but it was very similar, in fact, in some ways went beyond the IPCC processes, one involving native peoples, indigenous peoples of the North and in the sense that we were asked by the Arctic Council to actually make policy recommendations. Now in the end, we decided as authors, lead authors and myself, that we would not, that that was done by a separate committee under the Arctic Council. But in that sense it was very similar to the IPCC.
Brian Stempeck: How do you explain your findings to people in other parts of the world? Clearly, we're seeing that a lot of the effects of the climate change are going to show up in the Arctic first and that's a major concern, but if you were trying to explain how this has relevance to people in the United States, to people in Western Europe, how do you break it down and show them the effects of what this means for those countries?
Gordon McBean: Well first of all, the Arctic is part of the global climate system. As we change the Arctic these things which we call positive feedback processes will actually amplify the global mean temperature change. As we lose sea ice we lose snow and it's reflective affects and that will result in overall a larger amount of temperature change on the globe, which has global implications even if it starts by Arctic things. The thermal haline circulation, which is this very large overturning circulation that affects the whole world's ocean and keeps Western Europe abnormally warm compared to other lands.
Brian Stempeck: This is the current that goes over the U.K., correct? That keeps the United Kingdom warm and other parts of --
Gordon McBean: Well, it doesn't go over the U.K. I mean it's an ocean current and the results from the fact that in the Labrador Sea, the Norwegian Sea, the water actually sinks to the bottom and runs down along the underside of the ocean, down the Atlantic and actually ends up some hundreds of years later in the North Pacific Ocean and it connects the global oceans. That water sinks because it is salty and, well, it gets cold, but mainly because it's salty. Near freezing water sinks depending on whether it's salty or not salty and as we get more glacial melt, more intense river runoff, we are freshening, we're making less salty the North Atlantic Ocean in those key regions. There's already evidence of that freshening and that will turn, could potentially turn off that global circulation of the ocean. You've mentioned the sea level rise question and I guess I would just raise the question as to shouldn't we as a global community worry about people on the globe, rather than our own backyard?
Colin Sullivan: But the reality is, especially in the United States, that you kind of have to sell this plan to the politicians. Now you're in Washington for a couple of days, you're going to meet with Senator John McCain, who has more of an open ear than others. Do you feel like Congress has been receptive to your study? Do you feel like people are listening in this town?
Gordon McBean: Well, let me first of all say, I'm not an American and I don't actually visit Washington very often, so I'm only going on the basis of what I understand to be the situation and I am concerned that people are not listening as well as I would like them to be. I think my concern, quite frankly in a broader sense beyond the United States, is that we are as not yet really addressing the climate change issue globally, even in my country to the level of seriousness that which we should put to it. We're not, in our case, ratifying Kyoto, but we're not clearly necessarily going to meet the target. Some of the Europeans may or may not meet their targets. We need to have a, not just a Kyoto strategy, we need a multi-decadal long-term strategy. You referred to the intergovernmental panel on climate change, they said 50 to 60, 70 percent reduction in global emissions to stabilize the climate system. We said that. I helped write the 1990 first assessment. We said that 15 years ago and we're still talking 5 percent globally with Kyoto at the best.
Colin Sullivan: So in terms of how you attack this though, while you're in Washington, you're going to meet with McCain. I'm wondering if you've attempted to schedule any meetings with any of the skeptics, maybe the EPW chairman in the Senate, James Inhofe, who is skeptical of climate change science?
Gordon McBean: No, I have not attempted to make such meetings.
Colin Sullivan: OK, I'm also wondering, to get down to specifics, John McCain added some nuclear power provisions into his climate change bill in order to try to attract some support in the Senate. What do you think about that? Does nuclear power have to be part of the mix in order to address carbon reductions in the way that you're talking about?
Gordon McBean: Well my personal point of view is it doesn't have to be part of the mix, but I think we need to look at it seriously in the right balance of things. I don't, I'm not a person who says nuclear power is automatically wrong. I think we need to look at it pragmatically and say, that first of all, we have a lot of nuclear power. We need to understand how we can use. We need to address the environmental issues, the waste disposal issues of those things, but I don't automatically rule it out. One may want to look at it at least as an interim measure as we work towards other forms of power. Recognizing that wind and solar, and we should be putting emphasis on those, seem to be somewhat limited in their capacity at this point.
Brian Stempeck: What about working with some of the senators, such as from Alaska, Senator Murkowski or Senator Stevens, and these are lawmakers who have basically said that their state is going to be hit first by a lot of these things that you're talking about. Do they seem more receptive, is this issue starting to get more attraction with people in some of these areas that are going to be kind of the, you know, see the first effects of climate change?
Gordon McBean: Well, I think so, I hope so. All I can say is that, as I said before, I'm from Canada. The Canadian politicians in the north and I was in Iqaluit, the capital of our Northern Territory, Nunavut, a few weeks ago for the northern strategy meeting with the premiere of the province, the territory and they're very much on board. They are, unlike Alaska, which is let's say an oil producing state and presumably has, for that reason, mixed reactions to all of this. The Canadian, the Northeast Territories, Nunavut, does not produce any oil, at least not this time, but we always have these pressures and it happens in all countries. It's very much an issue of short term versus long term and how do we get people in the political process to think beyond the next, well politicians to think beyond the next election.
Brian Stempeck: One last question for you Dr. McBean, with some of the indigenous peoples that you have in the Arctic areas, there's been some suggestion that they might be filing lawsuits against the United States, against other countries. Basically saying that as we're relocated, if we have to move because our lands are going underwater or becoming less habitable, that they might have grounds for a lawsuit. Do you think that's a possibility?
Gordon McBean: I think it's a possibility. I think, I certainly know they are proposing to do such things. They've had legal advice that this is at least worth pursuing and I've, quite frankly, have been involved in some of the discussions on that. I'm not sure that they are, I mean, in my view it's part of a process of convincing and raising the profile more than trying to sue for dollars. At least hopefully that's the case. It's part of the strategy of trying to, as you say, bring it to the attention of people that this is an issue for which under a variety of international agreements or at least international questions of ethics, countries have and should have responsibilities towards the global community. And if the Inuit and the small island developing states for example, I think do have a case. They are hugely impacted and yet they've, in a sense, received none of the benefits of the use of this energy that is causing the climate to change.
Colin Sullivan: Well Dr. McBean, we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you for taking some time out of your schedule to visit us today.
Gordon McBean: You're very welcome.
Colin Sullivan: I hope you'll come back. Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint, until then I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV.
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