V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Young, urban and green

Published in Sun Media, February, 2007.

CLIMATE CHANGE: PART 1 of 5: Young, urban and green

Chris Sukornyk is a recent convert.

Just three years ago, he drove the congested streets of Toronto in his SUV V8. Climate change was not foremost in his mind when he went grocery shopping, nor did he lose sleep over his daily energy consumption.

But after the birth of his two children, the 30-year-old father switched his family's gas guzzler for a Smart car and hybrid Prius because he wants them to "have a future."

You could call Sukornyk the urbanite everyman: He didn't make drastic changes to his lifestyle like foregoing his car to bike 50 km a day to and from work. He does the little things like switching the lights in his house to fluorescent bulbs. He hasn't yet changed his energy provider to a renewable alternative, but is considering it.

"I don't know if there was an epiphany. I was leading an average life ... you can't go cold turkey."

Along with the gradual metamorphosis, Sukornyk also decided to tap into the emerging green market, combining his business acumen with his newfound consciousness to create fivelimes.com, a website that profiles thousands of eco-friendly products and services.

Sukornyk belongs to the young, urban generation that's just crossed the social tipping point. Last year, for example, The New Oxford American Dictionary crowned the word "carbon neutral" as the word of the year.

It's a testament of the times: The buzz word carbon neutral involves calculating one's carbon emissions -- driving, flying, energy consumption at home -- and reducing them where possible. To arrive at a zero balance and become carbon neutral then involves cancelling out remaining emissions by purchasing offsets, or investing in green projects.

Environmentalism has been described as the new religion, a global movement that has given both the God-fearing and the godless a new conviction.

In Al Gore's now-ubiquitous and Oscar-nominated documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, the crusader of environmentalism describes the situation as a "moral issue."

According to recent polls, Canadians are onside with the former U.S. vice president. In a TNS Canadian Facts survey released last month, one-third of the 1,009 respondents polled said global warming was their biggest concern, compared to 8% who cited war and 5% who said the conflict in Afghanistan ranked as their number one priority.

The survey also found that eight in 10 Canadians believe in the science of global warming despite skeptics who question whether or not it's man-made, citing flawed computer models and natural variability.

Pundits like George Monbiot, columnist with the Guardian newspaper in the U.K., have exposed some of the scientific bodies and citizens' groups that call global warming "junk science" as being funded by the world's largest publicly owned oil company, ExxonMobil.

In January, the Union of Concerned Scientists accused the oil company of spending nearly $16 million from 1998 to 2005 to fund 43 advocacy groups charged with the task of debunking climate change science.

One of the most prolific skeptics with a large reading audience is Steven Milloy, who writes a weekly column, Junk Science, for Fox News. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and wrote for the Cato Institute, both of which have been funded by ExxonMobil.

Sandwiched between the UCS report and the release of the long-anticipated findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Exxon announced it stopped funding the Competitive Enterprise Institute in 2006 as well as other skeptics groups.

The Greenpeace website ExxonSecrets.org lists 124 organizations that have taken money from the company or work closely with it. The groups boast impressive names like the Centre for the Study of Carbon Dioxide, lending them an air of legitimacy as academic bodies, Monbiot writes.

The strategy employed by the oil company has often been likened to the tobacco industry when it tried to cast doubt on evidence that smoking causes lung cancer, enlisting scientists to portray the risk as an unfounded fear.

After untangling the web of big shot players, Monbiot connects the dots in his book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, and finds that one of the biggest disseminators of climate change skepticism also worked for a coalition that worked to discredit research that smoking caused cancer.

In 1997, Milloy was appointed executive director of the now-defunct Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, or TASSC, created by the world's largest tobacco firm, Philip Morris.

Not long after releasing the scathing report on Exxon, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report complaining about political interference. Of the 279 scientists who responded to a UCS survey, more than half said they've been pressured to dampen evidence on global warming from federal officials. They cited 435 incidents.

But it's not just global warming advocates who say they've been bullied into silence. Dissenters who dare to speak out against global warming complain of grant funds disappearing and being shunned by their peers, cowed into silence.

In 2005, London's Telegraph newspaper reported that two of the world's leading scientific journals , Science and Nature, refused to publish papers challenging the science around man-made climate change.

But Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a New York City-based media watchdog group, charges journalists have mistakenly courted controversy where science finds consensus when it comes to global warming.

Telling "both" sides of the story in science can lead to informational bias, say Jules and Maxwell Boycoff in their 2004 article.

"When the issue is of a political or social nature, fairness ... is a fundamental check on biased reporting," they write. "But this canon causes problems when it is applied to issues of science. It seems to demand that journalists present competing points of view on a scientific question as though they had equal scientific weight, when they actually do not."

In the TNS poll, 80% of Canadians agreed global warming commanded more media attention compared to a year ago.

But how committed are Canadians to the cause nouveau? Though respondents said they're willing to recycle and replace their light bulbs, when it came down to more onerous changes like taking public transportation, one-third of respondents scoffed saying they couldn't do it.

Individuals in Canada are responsible for about 20% of greenhouse gases in the country. Industry polluters are responsible for 50% of emissions.

On average, each Canadian emits more than five tonnes of carbon dioxide a year -- enough to fill five Olympic-size swimming pools and five times that of a person in China and 17 times more than India, according to the Earth Policy Institute.

Though Canada contributes 2.1% of the world's carbon emissions, our per person emissions rival those of the U.S., which accounts for 21% of all global emissions and pumps the most carbon into the atmosphere.

So the question we pose is this: In light of the global shift towards environmentalism, are Canadians prepared to make the changes needed to become carbon neutral and green?

Or will we cry bloody murder when gasoline prices shoot past $1 per litre, and refuse to pay the premium attached to carbon expensive products?

There's a fast-rolling inertia in the green movement that will require Canadians to understand the mechanics of Kyoto, the cap and trade system, sustainability and our footprint.

Canada's total greenhouse gas emissions reached about 758 megatonnes of greenhouse gases in 2004, 35% above the Kyoto target to be achieved by 2012.

In the next few days, Sun Media will deconstruct the Kyoto protocol in a scaled-down version and show how every Canadian may well one day engage in the scheme themselves, trading credits and tracking our emissions -- kind of like calorie counting.

Whether or not Canadians are ready for that kind of weight loss challenge remains to be seen.

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  • Greenland's icecap has been breaking off and slipping into the ocean twice as fast as it was only five years ago. The breakaway ice is having an affect on key ocean currents and is also linked to a rise in sea level, which is currently going up at the rate of about three millimetres per year.
  • Because of climate change, biologists have found that mosquitoes delay their winter dormancy nine days later than their predecessors to increase their chances for survival.
  • Katrina, the third-strongest hurricane to hit the U.S., tore her way across the north-central Gulf Coast in August 2005. The category 5 storm, with winds over 250 km/h, killed over 1,800 people and caused $81.2 billion in damages.
  • Belize Barrier Reef -- the world's second-largest coral reef and home to thousands of marine species -- is already well on the way to being irreparably damaged. Rising ocean levels, growing storm activity and "bleaching" -- when increasingly warm or acidic waters stunt coral growth -- could cause eventual death.
  • In 2003, Argentina suffered the worst flooding to hit the area since 1573.
  • Arctic sea ice shrank to a record, possibly century-long low in 2002 and suggested ice coverage has reached a point from which it may not recover.
  • The water level of the Great Lakes is declining. Milder, wetter winters, coupled with hot, stormy summers, will lead to more run-off and less water accumulating in the lakes over time.
  • Record heat waves have been recorded in Paris with temperatures peaking over 40oC. Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands have also been hit hard with high temperatures.
  • Lake Issykkul, the largest freshwater body in Kyrgyzstan, has risen nearly 12 centimetres a year since 1999, the result of melting glaciers on the nearby Kungei Alatoo mountain range.
  • A rare cold snap struck Southeast Asia last month, killing at least 260 people. Hardest-hit was Bangladesh, where 134 people died from cold and exposure to icy winds blowing in from Siberia. Temperatures in the northern regions dipped as low as 5oC.
  • Scorching conditions in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh killed over 1,000 people in May 2002. Temperatures rose higher than 51oC in some areas.
  • The Great Barrier Reef could become extinct over the next three or four decades if global temperatures rise by two to four degrees and stay in that range.
  • Farms, families and livestock have been devastated and whole villages abandoned due to a continuous drought in Australia.
  • More than 80% of the Furtwangler Glacier on Kilimanjaro has disappeared and the entire cap is expected to be gone by 2020. This loss will mean a significant reduction in freshwater run-off.
  • Hotter than usual summers have led to many major wild fires in South Africa
  • Sources: Graphic News, CBC, CNN

Part one of a five-part Sun Media series examining our changing climate and its effects.

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