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David Suzuki: The Realities of a Warming World

Climate

My hometown, Vancouver, is in a rainforest, so we celebrate sunny days. People I talk to are enjoying the recent warm, dry weather, but they invariably add, “This isn't normal”—especially with all the smoke from nearby forest fires.

With no mountain snowpack and almost no spring rain, rivers, creeks and reservoirs are at levels typically not seen until fall. Parks are brown. Blueberries, strawberries and other crops have arrived weeks earlier than usual. Wildfires are burning here and throughout Western Canada. Meanwhile, normally dry Kamloops has had record flooding, as has Toronto. Manitoba has been hit with several tornadoes and golf-ball-sized hail.

Unusual weather is everywhere. California is in its fourth year of severe drought. Temperatures in Spain, Portugal, India and Pakistan have reached record levels, sparking wildfires and causing thousands of deaths and heat-related ailments. Heavy rains, flooding and an unusually high number of tornadoes have caused extensive damage and loss of life in Texas, Oklahoma and Mexico.

The likely causes are complex: a stuck jet stream, the Pacific El Niño, natural variation and climate change. Even though it’s difficult to link all events directly to global warming, climate scientists have warned for years that we can expect these kinds of extremes to continue and worsen as the world warms. Some hypothesize that the strange behaviours of this year’s jet stream and El Niño are related to climate change, with shrinking Arctic sea ice affecting the former.

Several recent studies indicate a clear connection between increasing extreme weather and climate change. One, by climatologists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, looked at rising global atmospheric and sea-surface temperatures, which have increased water vapour in the atmosphere by about five per cent since the 1950s. According to the paper, published in Nature Climate Change, “This has fuelled larger storms, and in the case of hurricanes and typhoons, ones that ride atop oceans that are 19 centimetres higher than they were in the early 1900s. That sea-level rise increases the height of waves and tidal surges as storms make landfall.”

A Stanford University study found, “accumulation of heat in the atmosphere can account for much of the increase in extreme high temperatures, as well as an average decrease in cold extremes, across parts of North America, Europe and Asia,” but also concluded the influence of human activity on atmospheric circulation, another factor in climate change, is not well understood.

Earth is clearly experiencing more frequent extreme weather than in the past, and we can expect it to get worse as we burn more coal, oil and gas and pump more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This can have profound and costly impacts on everything from agriculture to infrastructure, not to mention human health and life.

As Pope Francis pointed out, climate change and social justice are intricately connected: “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.”

That’s why so many people from Canada and around the world are calling for action as government leaders prepare for December’s UN climate summit in Paris: religious leaders including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama; global organizations like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, International Energy Agency and World Health Organization; businesses from Microsoft to Ikea to General Motors; and millions of people like those who marched for “Jobs, Justice and the Climate” in Toronto on July 5. All know the future of humanity depends on rapidly shifting the way we obtain and use energy.

Even though many world leaders recognize the problem, the recent G-7 agreement to decarbonize our energy by the end of the century is a horrifying joke. None of today’s politicians making the commitment will be alive to bear the responsibility for achieving the target, and the time frame doesn’t address the urgent need to begin huge reductions in fossil fuel use immediately.

Governments at the provincial, state and municipal levels have led the way in finding solutions. Now it’s time for national leaders to finally demonstrate real courage and foresight as they gear up for the Paris summit later this year.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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