Thursday, July 2, 2009

Climate and the Media

The Globe and Mail reports that the Canadian prairies are probably in for some severe drought--lasting more than a year. First they say this is cyclical--the North Saskatchewan River was dry in the 1790s.

“When you look at a thousand-year record, we've been pretty lucky since the West was settled,” said Dave Sauchyn, a University of Regina geography professor and research co-ordinator for the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative. “We've had quite a favourable climate, largely avoiding the extremely dry conditions we've seen in the past.”

Dr. Sauchyn put together the thousand-year record of prairie water levels using tree rings. Judging by the rings, the prairie climate could easily plunge into an extended drought similar to that of the 1790s, when the North Saskatchewan River went dry.

Referring to a timeframe of only a few hundred years, extreme drought is not the exception here, it is more like the rule. If it comes about now, there will be no need to refer to unique phenomena of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, such as a sharp increase in man-made CO2, to explain it. Maybe the North Saskatchewan goes dry every two hundred years or so, in which case it is overdue. But wait:

Then, of course, the scientist who is being quoted is asked about global warming--if it means anything, a phenomenon that came about uniquely in the twentieth century.

Climate models suggest that history may soon repeat. The region has experienced the two driest seasons on record – the last one coming in 2001-2002 at a $5.8-billion hit to the national economy – all inside the past 10 years.

“We can't possibly say with any certainty that this is a sign of global warming, but it's entirely consistent with global climate model projections,” said Dr. Sauchyn. “All this means is it's highly probable we haven't seen the worst of it yet.”

Ah yes, the driest on record--but meaningful records only go back 150 years at most, most of them less than that. So the good old 1790s disappear--they're not on the record--and today's drought suddenly seems like something unprecedented, that could lead to even worse things in the future. Is there any mechanism that we know of that could turn a mere drought, itself fairly common, into a true long-lasting disaster? Of course there is: a computer model from IPCC.

I should add: Dr. Sauchyn indicates that the twentieth century was neither unusually hot, nor unusually dry, in the twentieth century--the time when everyone agrees man-made CO2 spiked sharply upward. Instead it was unusually rainy and fertile--not catastrophically rainy, not a disaster ... oh never mind.

Recently, there was coverage in the Star of the heat and drought in India. Here the order of paragraphs was more consistent with propaganda about global warming. The emphasis was on the uniqueness of what was happening, as if it were unprecedented. Then:

Sanjay Kaul, president of People's Action, a conglomerate of resident welfare associations, says it's no surprise Delhi is so ill-equipped to deal with the hot temperatures.

While the city is accustomed to ovenlike weather – past heat waves were so bad, there were reports of birds dropping dead from trees – the influx of migrants has been too much for the city to handle.

"It's shameful," he says. "The government can go out to all the slums and make sure these people are able to vote for them, but they aren't able to make sure they have water? We have spent millions of dollars to hold the Commonwealth Games next year, an 11-day event, but over the past decade we have not built a single new electricity plant in Delhi?"

Finally, a bit more detail:

Yesterday, rain arrived in parts of Delhi, but Kaul says it's not enough.

"We just can't keep going year to year telling people to wait for the monsoon," he says. "For centuries, this city's builders knew enough to construct with high ceilings and courtyards, building to the east, away from the afternoon sun.

"But now, we have a city where government lets builders build floor upon floor and cut down the little green cover we have left. It's not going to get better."

So there may be nothing new or unprecedented about the heat or drought, in themselves, at all. What is clearly new is the sheer increase of population in one city, poor building practices that do not fit the local climate, and the destruction of green cover that formerly provided shade. And of course, Mr. Kaur favours building more electricity plants--dare I say, even if they burn fossil fuels?--not fewer.

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