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By Norm Wagenaar

This piece is inspired by a conversation I had with More Living publisher Bonnie McQueen about the great environmental challenge of our time, climate change.

Bonnie was pessimistic about our prospects based on dire predictions about the outcome of unchecked climate change. I am more optimistic, if only because I think we’ve been asking all the wrong questions.

The basics

With nearly seven billion humans on this planet we’re putting unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide and other ‘greenhouse gases’ into the atmosphere as we burn fuel to grow and cook food, run our factories, heat our homes, get around, and do all the other things humans do.

Putting more of these greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is like putting more insulation into your attic. Less heat escapes and temperatures go up—with the current science predicting a rise of two to four degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

As a result we can expect polar ice and glaciers to melt, oceans to rise 20 to 80 centimeters, and changes in weather patterns including more droughts and storms. We can also expect oceans to become more acidic because of a chemical reaction with the increased amounts of carbon in the atmosphere. Another effect will be shifts in vegetation and animal habitat as some areas get warmer.

These issues should demand our attention and best efforts. But a big part of our effort will involve adapting to change. Remember, even in the best case scenario, global temperatures are still expected increase about two degrees.

So I want to suggest that, before we do anything more about climate change, we need to decide what kind of world we want our efforts to bring about—anything else is like going to war without an exit plan, and we know how that turns out.

A strategy for climate change

I’ll suggest the world we want will have diverse and healthy ecosystems, clean air, and clean water. And I’ll argue that climate change efforts have failed—as evidenced by the breakdown of the 1997 Kyoto protocol and last year’s Copenhagen talks—precisely because they’ve had no such clear goals.

Or, as stated by the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente on Nov. 26, "Now that global warming has stopped sucking all the oxygen out of the room, some of those who care about the planet will turn to other—and more pressing—problems."

In my view the most pressing environmental problem we face is loss of species diversity, with about 20 per cent of the globe’s plants and animals at varying risk of extinction. In most cases the causes so far have little or nothing to do with global warming and everything to do with other issues: deforestation, agricultural practices, urban development, pollution from a bunch of sources, overharvesting, diseases and invasive pests transported from one part of the world to another.

The climate change campaigners have not always been forthright on these issues. I recently borrowed a copy of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth from the library. It showed photos of the dried-up Aral Sea in the former USSR and polar bears floating on melting icebergs as examples of what we face as the climate warms.

But the Aral Sea disappeared because the Soviets took too much water from it to irrigate industrial agriculture. As for polar bears, the World Wildlife Foundation reports that six of Canada’s 13 populations are at low risk of decline, five are at risk, and for two there’s no estimate. We know some polar bears are having a tough time because changes in sea ice are affecting their ability to hunt. We also know polar bear hunting is still legal in Canada. Type www.polarhunting.net into your browser and enjoy a website suggesting you "…thrill to the chase of the Arctic’s greatest trophy animal, the Polar Bear!" If polar bears are in trouble, maybe our first action should be to stop shooting them.

The BC situation

Here in ‘Supernatural BC’ climate change has driven much of the environmental agenda. We have a ‘carbon tax’—apparently meant to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by making it more costly to burn fossil fuels, a ‘hydrogen highway’ from Vancouver to Whistler so we can fill up on hydrogen—a fuel which produces no emissions other than water, and a government committed to ‘clean and renewable energy.’

But we’ve missed the mark widely on other environmental issues. For instance, it took our federal government, vilified for its reluctance to support global climate change efforts, to stop the Prosperity Mine in northern BC. This project, with the blessing of the BC government, would have dumped toxic tailings into a pristine lake with a self-sustaining trout population.

Need another example of BC’s pretzel logic on the environment? How about the destruction of Nesters wetland in Whistler, which provided habitat for rare and endangered species? The wetland was cleared to build a hydrogen station for the 2010 Olympics, touted as the greenest games ever. And do you know anyone who drives a hydrogen vehicle?

Destroying rain forests for biofuels

BC is not alone in making bad decisions based on good intentions—or good politics. Indonesia and Malaysia, for instance, are the world’s two leading producers of palm oil, used to produce biodiesel, among other products. Global demand for biodiesel, a renewable fuel source which in theory reduces greenhouse gas emissions, is expected to double in the next ten years. Indonesia and Malaysia are cutting down rain forests to make room for palm oil plantations; at current rates of deforestation, nearly all of their rain forest will be destroyed by 2022.

So consider this. Transportation contributes about 13 per cent of the globe’s greenhouse gases, while deforestation contributes about 18 per cent—old growth forests lock up massive amounts of carbon and are among the world’s most diverse ecosystems. Clearly the solution involves saving forests, not destroying them to grow feedstock for biofuels.

I think we’ve come up with such distorted approaches to the climate change issue because we don’t understand natural systems; how they work and the benefits they provide. Why else would BC ride the climate change bandwagon but have no endangered species legislation? Why else would US President Barack Obama’s administration endorse carbon credit trading, in which industries will have to pay to for pollution, but continue to persuade states to change laws protecting gray wolves?

Understanding ecosystems

If we are to adopt healthy ecosystems as both a strategy and a goal of our climate change efforts, we have to understand nature the way First Nations people did: as if our lives depended on it. This will mean re-examining old prejudices.

For instance, studies in Yellowstone Park showed the reintroduction of wolves had a positive effect on water quality. How? The presence of wolves led their prey, elk, to spend less time near rivers and more time in the open, where they could more easily escape predation. Fewer elk by the rivers meant more plant growth which brought more songbirds, more insects to feed fish, stabilized streambanks and increased the beaver population.

In the southwestern United States prairie dogs were once hunted as pests. Now they’re recognized as keystone species, altering their habitat in ways that benefit other animals including ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls, bison and the critically-endangered black-footed ferret. According to the Audubon Guide blog, "The dogs’ range management activities include suppressing woody vegetation, cultivating tasty and nutritious forbs, recycling nutrients from their underground latrines, and providing protected nest and den sites in landscapes where shelter is normally scarce. Their elaborate burrow systems also significantly enhance recharge of aquifers essential for irrigated agriculture and other human activities."

Understanding such natural relationships will be critical to our ability to adapt to climate change. I am optimistic we can do this because I know nature is resilient and humans, dumb as we are sometimes, can rise to great challenges. I have walked forests in Eastern Canada alive with flowing water, birds and animals where 70 years ago, there was only blowing sand and the broken dreams of farmers who cut the great forests and cleared the land, only to see the soils vanish, the rivers dry up, and the animals disappear. These forests were replanted at great effort and require continued management to enhance their biodiversity; hindsight tells us they should never have been cut in the first place.

Our priorities

Here in British Columbia, Canada’s most biologically-diverse province, we have about 1600 species at risk and, as mentioned, no endangered species legislation to protect those species or their habitats. This, along with protecting the old-growth forest we have left, should be our top environmental priority. Forget the hydrogen highway.

As individuals our first task—and it’s a pleasant one—should be to get outside and learn as much as we can about the plants and animals we see, how they interact, how they coexist for mutual benefit even when one is predator and the other prey.

Put away the literature about the hybrid car you’re thinking of buying, stop reading about the latest compromised climate change talks. Instead, join a group restoring fish habitat, take a walk with your local naturalist club or, even better, find a quiet place by a field, forest, wetland or ocean, and sit and watch for an entire afternoon.

You’ll be amazed by what you’ll see, and how much better you’ll feel. Then, get active. If we are to respond to the challenge of climate change we will need to protect habitat, migration routes and wilderness corridors, remove unnecessary dams and other impediments to fish travel, and reintroduce species. I think it’ll be a lot of fun.