Blog

A lecture by Dr Barry Smit one of Canada’s leading experts on climate change

By: Parrys Raines, Category: Science, Date: 14 Jun 2010

I recently attended a lecture by Dr Barry Smit at the University of Wollongong. Dr Smit is a Professor of Geography and the Canada Chair in Global Environmental Change at the University of Guelph, Canada. Dr Smit served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and was also a co-recipient of the Noble Peace Price 2007.

Prof Barry Smith and Parry Raines

Judy Raines © Judy Raines

This was the first university lecture I had been too and I have to say I really enjoyed it. Dr Smit spoke about the similarities between Australia and Canada in regards to how climate change is affecting our countries. He spoke about the IPCC and why there is a lot of negativity about the report. He spoke about mitigation and adaptation of climate change, the Copenhagen Accord and the Stern Report. It was a long lecture and I have tried to summarise what I think were important.

Dr Smits lecture was titled Facts and Fantasy in the Science and Politics of Climate change. He started the lecture by singing the Beetles song “Let it Be” but changed the lyrics with the main message being “can adaption help us?, let us see”.

Dr Smit then went onto to explain that climate change is an environmental issue but it is also an economic, social and political issue. He explained about natural disasters, how different countries cope with these disasters and how some countries pay a higher price and that price is human life. He said that climate change is an unnatural disaster because human activity is impacting on the climate and that climate change is making natural disasters un unnatural because of the interaction of human activity. He spoke about the different gases building up in the atmosphere and the consequences of this.

He also spoke about the Arctic and how the Arctic has contracted a lot over the last two decades. By the year 2050 the IPCC states there will be an ice free passage through the Arctic but in fact this will happen in five to ten years time. It is happening faster than the IPCC had predicted. He went onto explain how the animals in the region in particular Polar Bears have to adapt to the change in this ecosystem.

Dr Smit then gave an example of how climate change was affecting the Pine Forest industry in British Colombia (BC), Canada. The Mountain Pine Beetle eats through pine trees and has spread north because of warmer temperature. 80% of the pine forest is now decimated. The winters are not cold enough and with warmer temperatures the beetles are not only surviving but reproducing more and for longer periods. This sector of BC has been affected environmentally as the eco system has changed and the community has suffered economically because the sustainable timber is been eaten by the beetles. People have to move because there are no jobs to support their families.

However, Dr Smit also explained how some communities can benefit from warmer temperatures that come with climate change and one of these areas seeing some positive results is the Canadian wine industry.

Dr Smit spoke about the consequences of not having enough water for agriculture. This is a big issue for farmers and our farmers already know what it feels like not to have water for long periods of time. He said farmers will have to adapt as the climate will not return to what it was decade ago. In other parts of the world it has a greater impact and it is more than just an inconvenience. These poorer countries are pushing hard in the international negotiations to have action taken.

On the topic of the IPCC I thought what said was interesting and for me it was good to hear from a scientist that has had hands on experience with the IPCC. Dr Smit said that the IPCC looks at the ecological, economic and social impacts of the climate change. Climate change is a global common as all countries emit greenhouse gases that affect the climate. Its job is to assess all the scientific literature and not do the science but summarise it. It has two objectives, one is to make sure all the information in the report is scientifically based and two is to express it in an easy way for all political leaders to understand it. Once the scientific document is completed the international negotiations can talk about ways to address the problems. Dr Smit says that the IPCC document is the most thoroughly reviewed document ever, yet some people have found flaws in it. The IPCC document does have some errors but most of the errors were that predications are happening faster that what was stated in the document.

What are the options to deal with climate change and the inconsistencies of the IPCC document? Dr Smit says mitigation of climate change by reducing net greenhouse gas emissions. Try to get all countries to negotiate to take action. The Copenhagen Accord is an agreement and is no more than the original framework done in 1992. This accord does not represent a big step forward in dealing with climate change. Dr Smit pointed out a really important finding from the Stern Report and that is that Nicholas Stern says that to tackle climate change it would cost 1% of global GDP but to do nothing would cost 5 to 10% of global GDP. So from an economic point of view it makes sense to act on climate change.

Dr Smit believes that adaptation within communities will help to reduce vulnerability to changes in climate.

During discussions it was pointed out that scientist may not be great communicators. If this is the case then maybe we need communication bridge builders such as psychologist and marketing people to help with making the scientific data more easily understood and then solutions shared among the general public. It is my belief that once people understand they start to care and once people care they are more likely to action.

During question time a member of the audience made a really important point and that is things need to be made easier for consumers to change their habits. The example was given how CFC’s were removed from products so this made it very easy for consumers not to buy products with CFC in them. With the combination of education, smarter way of doing things and smarter manufacturing we can tackle the issues that come with climate change. One big fact that is needed and I think is missing is political will without it we are putting our planet at risk.

Dr Smit did say he believes this political will come about but not until there has been more devastating disasters, then political leaders will react.

What I have learnt from listening to discussions about climate change is that the truth sometimes doesn’t win and it doesn’t win for all sorts of reasons.

Remember “Habits made today will help life tomorrow.”