December 2006: Global Warming, Global Wording

Most government "action" on climate change just rhetoric
December 1, 2006

There is historical precedent for re-naming the purported Clean Air Act devised by the federal Conservative government. It should be called the Clean Air Procrastination Act.

We start by going back to Confucius, who spoke of the need for the “rectification of names.”

“Obscurity of thought and insincere inaccuracy” seemed to him national calamities. As he explained, a prince who did not act in all respects as a prince should not be called a prince. Likewise, a father who was not fatherly should not be called “father,” and a son who was unfilial should not be called a “son.” People might then be stirred to reform abuses too often covered with words.

There is no question that the Harper government’s proposed Clean Air Act is a cynical misnomer, an empty act of procrastination. Its purpose is to further delay the urgent action that is required.

A second insight was provided by Charles Dickens in Little Dorrit, in 1857: “The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest jam tart... Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was before-hand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving HOW NOT TO DO IT... It is true that, from the moment when a general election was over, every returned man who had been raving on the hustings because it hadn’t been done, and who had been asking the friends of the honourable gentlemen in the opposite interest on pain of impeachment to tell him why it hadn’t been done, and who was pledging himself that it should be done, began to devise how it was not to be done.”

It is obvious that nothing has changed, even though inaction is now threatening the survival of our species. We have reached the limit of our state of denial. It is a tragedy that governments are firmly in the grasp of corporate powers who think of themselves as “élitist.” If that word was rectified, as Confucius recommended, it would rise no higher categorically than the terms “autocratic,” “irresponsible,” or even “demented.”

A Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, won one of the first Nobel prizes in chemistry by putting together these facts: 1) every year people were burning large quantities of coal, firewood, and oil; 2) each year that the burning increased, these fuels injected millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and 3) carbon dioxide is a principal greenhouse gas. In April, 1896, Arrhenius explained the problem in the pages of the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine: “We are evaporating our coal mines into the air,” spewing out so much carbon dioxide that it must be causing “a change in the transparency of the atmosphere... Eventually the atmosphere will heat the planet to levels beyond all human experience.”

His article was predicted that doubling the carbon dioxide in the air would cause mean Earth temperate to rise between 5 and 6 degrees Celsius. The accuracy of this prediction was verified by computer modelling in the 1960s.

Dr. George Woodwell, Director of Woods Hole Research Centre, an expert on carbon storage in vegetation, recommended in a scientific publication in 1973 that three things should be done at once to slow down global warming: reduce consumption of fossil fuels by 50%; stop all deforestation; and re-forest 2 million square kilometers in order to store about a billion tons of carbon annually. He went on to say that not one of these steps would be adequate to stop global warming, but they would be a good start.

A vast pollution problem has also resulted from intensive use of aircraft. At any given time there are more than 30,000 airplanes in flight, adding enormously to air pollution. George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian about a proposed wind farm in Cambria, noted that, by replacing energy generation from power stations burning fossil fuel, this wind farm will reduce carbon dioxide emission by 178,000 tonnes a year.

“This is impressive, until you discover that a single jumbo jet flying from London to Miami and back every day releases the climate-change equivalent of 520,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. One daily connection between Britain and Florida costs three giant wind farms.”

Economist Lester Brown, in his book, Plan B 2.0, warns that we may have to choose between sharply reducing our flying and driving or making the planet uninhabitable.

Climatologists also put much of the global warming blame on governments that, far from doing anything to curb industrial pollution, continue to subsidize and support the worst smokestack industries. Instead of imposing tough anti-pollution measures, they leave it to their “Departments of Circumlocution” to invent bogus “Clean Air Acts.” Dickens, if he were still with us, could write a book about it.

(Bob Harrington lives in British Columbia. His most recent book is The Soul Solution.)