The great climate debate

The great climate debate McGill University

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McGill Reporter
December 8, 2005 - Volume 38 Number 08
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 38: 2005-2006 > December 8, 2005 > The great climate debate

The great climate debate

How can we address climate change?

December in Montreal, and people are talking about "hockey stick graphs" — which have nothing to do with the Montreal Canadiens but instead map climate, population and CO2 emissions over the past millennium. Each shows a long steady line and, in the last century, a rapid increase, just like a hockey stick lying flat, with the blade pointing up. Many of the people discussing the hockey stick graphs are participating in the United Nations Climate Change Conference, hosted in Montreal from November 28 to December 9 — but the issues around climate change had an early airing on November 24 at the inaugural Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium: Climate Change and Energy. The symposium, which drew over 400 people to the ballroom of the New Residence Hall at 3625 Parc, was sponsored by the Faculty of Science and the Global Environmental and Climate Change Centre (GEC3), with the support of the Trottier Family Foundation.

The event featured short presentations and a discussion by four internationally renowned scientists, followed by audience questions. And while the four agreed that global warming was real and that "business as usual" would lead to catastrophe, there was vast disagreement over what steps to take in response.

"Can we continue with our current level of economic growth — which is necessary for poorer countries as well — while stabilizing and phasing out greenhouse gas emissions?" asked Martin Hoffert, Professor Emeritus in Physics from New York University, who used the hockey stick graphs to illustrate the problem. British leader Tony Blair has proposed holding climate change to within 2 degrees Celsius, which seems a modest goal until we realize that the average global climate during the ice age was a mere 3-5 degrees colder than today. "We are facing a Herculean problem," says Hoffert.

Identifying himself as a "technological optimist" who believes that we can invent ways to solve the climate problems, he argued that current technologies must be supplanted by creative and sustainable approaches to generating energy, including wind, solar, geothermal and tidal power. But if these energy sources are to grow from their current one percent market share to the 30 percent or more necessary to keep warming within Blair's target, new ways of collecting, storing and distributing energy are needed.

But what to do in the meantime? Neobojsa Nakicenovic, Professor of Energy Economics at the University of Vienna, laid out a pragmatic, graduated plan. Over the next decade, change must be behavioral, addressing waste and efficiency issues. The following 20 to 30 years, however, must witness the development and application of new, emissions-free technologies and energy sources. In the longer term, the inevitable post-fossil-fuel era will require an entirely new paradigm of energy creation, distribution and consumption. It will also demand a more egalitarian distribution of energy resources. "Many impoverished areas have very little energy consumption," he noted. "We cannot ask them to cut back."

According to Romney Duffey, Chief Scientist at Atomic Energy Canada, the new energy paradigm should feature nuclear energy front and centre. Recent developments of technology in nuclear energy have created safer and more efficient reactors, he stressed. "Efficiency and conservation will slow climate change but not stop it," he said, arguing that nuclear power represents an emissions-free source and noting that China has developed plans to build 15 to 20 new reactors. Canada currently has fifteen reactors.

The final speaker, Amory Lovins, founder and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), participated via a video connection from his Colorado office, noting that he had saved energy by sending only electrons to the symposium, rather than his entire body. And indeed, energy efficiency — and cost savings — formed the basis of Lovins's argument. "I too am a technological optimist," he claimed, "but I believe we have already invented the technologies we need to address climate change." The RMI works with corporations, including BP, DuPont and Wal-Mart, to help them save money by using energy wisely. In one example, Lovins cites a production plant that saved 92 percent of the energy costs of a heat circulation loop by switching from long crooked pipes to short straight ones. "It's Victorian engineering rediscovered," he said of his approach.

Since climate change is a social and political as well as a scientific problem, the final word went to Quebec's Minister of Sustainable Development, the Environment and Parks, Thomas Mulcair, who noted that Quebec, stretching from the Arctic to the American border, is a living lab for climate change. One recent discovery in the lab we call home involves the disturbing weakening of permafrost, an issue with important ecological and economic consequences. Mulcair has since announced that Quebec will strive to reduce its current emissions by 20 percent by 2015.

How Quebec will do this remains in question. As the symposium demonstrated, the problem has no easy solution. The event, expected to be the first of an annual series, was organized by Charles Lin, director of the GEC3 and a professor in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. It was moderated by Nigel Roulet, Director of the McGill School of the Environment.

*article edited for accuracy

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