Just before leaving for Paris, the Canadian government, like many others, stated that “science” was “telling us” that climate change was “one of the greatest threats of our time”.
The scientific evidence is clear: climate change is one of the greatest threats of our time. The Government of Canada recognizes that global temperature increases must be limited to at most two degrees Celsius, and Canada’s way forward on climate change is being informed by what the science is telling us.
The Canadian government posted up a briefing by “renowned climate scientists Dr. Gregory Flato (Environment Canada) and Mr. Alain Bourque (Ouranos)” to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Cabinet Ministers, and provincial and territorial Premiers – see here.
I was particularly interested in their argument on how the “threat” to Canada manifested itself. How exactly does “science” show that a modest increase of temperature would severely damage Canada?
Too often, expositions of supposed climate damage amount to little more than loud assertions that the science is settled, with occasional interjections of “Look, polar bear!!” (to modify a phrase from And Then There’s Physics). The Flato and Bourque presentation is in this tradition. Its exposition of damages consists of only a few slides accompanied by very short explanatory text.
In today’s post, I will parse the first such slide and will try to parse other slides in future posts.
“How a Changing Climate Can Impact Canada”
As part of their attempt to show a “changing climate can impact across Canada”, Flato and Bourque presented a slide containing six pictures: a lopsided building purporting to illustrate “loss of permafrost”, a forest fire across a lake, a somewhat geometrically abstract of cracked earth, children playing in fountains, a culvert washout on a secondary highway and ocean waves crashing on a small town. The slide is shown in full below, together with the covering text from the presentation webpage (in italics below).
This image shows current examples of how a changing climate can impact across Canada. In Canada’s North, there is a picture of a lopsided building, which illustrates how warming permafrost is affecting building foundations. From West to East, other images depict forest fires, drought, infrastructure failure, heat waves and storm surges
In the past, from time to time, it’s been amusing to track down original images used to supposedly enliven institutional presentations. Readers may recall the photoshopped polar bear used in the illustration of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences petition led by Peter Gleick. (Gleick will be familiar to readers as the former Chairman of the AGU Ethics Committee, who was involved in the forgery of Heartland documents.
The “Lopsided Building”
Proceeding counterclockwise from 12 o’clock. The lopsided building is the former Third Avenue Hotel, built cheaply and quickly during the Klondike Gold Rush. The facade at the front is false, as shown in the view at right. The Canadian government picture is from Alaska Photoworld here, which says that the “damaged building in Dawson City shows what can happen when the warm interior of a building causes the permafrost underneath to thaw”. In other words, nothing to do with climatic melting of permafrost, as claimed by the Canadian government. One commenter below says that the building is south of the permafrost line and that its tilt is more likely due to poor construction rather than permafrost melt in any event.
The tilt of the building occurred long before recent Arctic warming. In the collection of the University of Iowa (see here), there is a 1988 photograph showing that the building was already in its present disrepair – which had undoubtedly occurred long before that. The building was of cheap construction in the first place; it looks like the building has been abandoned for many years and, to that extent, the owner of the building incurred little damage from the subsidence. To the extent that the photo is intended to show that changes in permafrost create risk of building subsidence, it seems to me that modern building practices could engineer the issue relatively economically.
Earlier in the presentation (under the caption “Impacts have been observed globally…”, they stated that “climate change has had a minor contribution to impacts on wildfires” – a phenomenon that existed long before European settlement in North America.
Despite already telling Trudeau and the premiers that climate change has had a “minor contribution to impacts on wildfires”, a picture of a family somewhat placidly watching a wildfire across Lake Okanagan in the large 2003 fire (see here h/t George Applegate ) was included in the Flato montage.
I wasn’t able to track the provenance of this specific wildfire picture. If anyone can locate the original provenance of this or the other pictures, I’d be interested.
Later in the presentation, they showed a graphic entitled “Summary of number and magnitude of wildfires in British Columbia”, showing that there were more wildfires in 2012 than in 1999. This would seem to be somewhat beside the point, if climate change has only had a “minor contribution”, but nonetheless was a key point of the presentation to Trudeau.
Drying Vertisols in the Altai Mountains, Russia
The mudcracks image in the Canadian presentation (h/t Pete Holzmann for lead) was taken in the Altai mountains, Russia in August 2001 by German photographer Stefan Kühn. It is located on the German wikipedia here. Tracing further back, it is located in Kühn’s Altai 2001 portfolio here.
The prior picture in the portfolio (shown on right) shows the mudcracks in a wider perspective, one which does not show a drought, though it does show mud drying, as mud does. Mudcracks in the Altai were noted as early as the 19th century e.g. here. The phenomenon of mudcracks appears to be a widespread phenomenon associated with drying of mud, rather than drought. There is an interesting discussion of the phenomenon of mudcracks here in which it is explained that such mudcracks tend to form in “vertisols”, which have “very high water retention capacities, allowing them to hold moisture even during dry seasons: “There’s a type of soil that exists all throughout the world, known as vertisols. They are low in area globally, but they dominate arid and semi-arid regions, with 80% found in Australia, India and East Africa [Virmani et al., 1982]. They’re super useful to these environments because they have a high clay content and cation exchange capacity, making them very fertile soils, and they have very high water retention capacities, allowing them to hold moisture during the dry seasons. But they shrink and swell extensively, and can generate massive crack networks, making them very tricky to use. ”
There are dozens of such pictures
in the Google image search (see right), but all or nearly all such pictures coming from outside Canada, e.g. Mexico here. Conversely, images of drought in Canada tend to have a different appearance.
Actual pictures of drought in Canada have an entirely different appearance. For example, the two pictures below from the Canadian Encyclopedia show the effects of an actual drought in Canada in the 1930s. Had Flato and Bourque shown Trudeau and the premiers (black-and-white) pictures of actual Canadian drought, one presumes that even the politicians would have noticed that the pictures came from long ago and might have questioned the attribution to anthropogenic climate change. But Flato and Bourque precluded that option by showing them pictures of drying mud in the Altai instead.
Ironically, IPCC AR5 did not claim that drought arising from anthropogenic climate change was a “threat”, let alone a “serious threat” for Canadians. In the WG2 chapter on North America (WG2 Chapter 26), they expressly stated that it was “not possible to attribute changes in drought frequency in North America to anthropogenic climate change”. Or for flood events, for that matter, a point that I’ll return to, though they warned that other anthropogenic changes e.g. land use and urbanization, had impacts on flood magnitude and frequency.
Children Playing in a Fountain in Paris, France
To illustrate the impact of heat waves on Canada, Flato and Bourque showed an excerpt from a picture of children and teenagers playing merrily in the Trocadero Fountain in Paris, France in 2003. Perhaps Flato and Bourque chose an image from Paris rather than Canada in homage to the hosts of the forthcoming climate conference. But surely Flato and Bourque could have located an image of Canadians at the beach – they are easily accessible on Google.
It is puzzling to me why Flato and Bourque believed that this image demonstrated that “adverse impacts from climate change will far outweigh the benefits” (to borrow a phrase from Eric Wolff and his fellow critics of Matt Ridley). Or, for that matter, why Trudeau and the premiers were so troubled by this particular image. The only explanation that I can think if is that Trudeau, who is famous within Canada for his “good hair” (indeed, aside from his surname, his hair seemed to be his most obvious qualification for office), was concerned that falling water on unprotected hair could cause untold damage to their hairdos. Trudeau knows that a haircut is only worth what you pay for and he has clearly not attempted to make foolish economies on such an important issue. Trudeau must have recognized that even the most pessimistic climate scientist had not fully considered the impact of climate change on unregulated and unprotected hair care.
The Culvert Washout
One of the operating costs of the Canadian highway system in remote northern regions is that culverts occasionally wash out, forcing detours for a few days while the washout is repaired. I wasn’t able to spot the specific incident illustrated here, but the sort of washout is familiar. For example, CBC reported here that a somewhat larger highway washout in New Brunswick would cost $300,000 to repair and take about 30 days to repair, and, in the meantime, a 12 km detour would be required. In a similar incident in Newfoundland, CBC reported that a washout would cut off access to the rural communities of road access for Burgeo, Ramea, Grey River and Francois for six days. Most worryingly, the local member of the provincial literature “said he was told that the break provided a rough moment for a civil servant who happened upon it”. I presume that it would have been somewhat more tolerable if it had been a member of the public who had been inconvenienced, but the incident clearly escalated when it inconvenienced a civil servant.
The top picture shows waves breaking over a town that looks like it’s in the Maritimes. I located a similar picture (at right) in a news story here, which reported “wind knocking out power for several Nova Scotia homes and businesses” and that “waves also crashed over the roads in Beaver Harbour, N.B”. The news article added that “motorists in Moncton say the road conditions were less than ideal” “Big gusts of wind you can see it, a lot of rain, it kind of slows you up but besides that it’s just a nice day in the Maritimes,” said resident Andrew Jaintner.”
The lower picture on the left is from the announcement of a conference presentation in Sherbrooke, Quebec by François Morneau and Ursule Boyer- Villemaire on erosion by the St Lawrence River on the Gaspé and North Shore. The authors ask:
The figures are alarming : 69% of the coastline of the Gaspé and 60% of those in the North Shore undergo erosion. What for? What are the processes involved ? They are natural or anthropogenic climate change related ?
If the photograph in question comes from along the St Lawrence River (as appears likely), then there is an additional irony. Locations along the St Lawrence are experiencing glacial isostatic uplift: recent uplift is reported (see here Table 2) at 3.1 mm/year in Rimouski on the south Gaspe shore and 3.5 and 4.6 mm/year in Quebec City and Sept-Iles on the North Shore, resulting in negligible or even negative relative sea level rise. In Hudson Bay in the Canadian Arctic (see NASA GRACE at right), isostatic uplift is over 10 mm/year – the largest in the world. (As land rises in Canada due to isostatic rebound, it results in land subsidence along the U.S. East Coast, which accordingly experiences relative sea level rise from isostasy, quite aside from overall changes in world sea level.
If the undermined cottage is on the St Lawrence River, one may regret the damages incurred by its owner, but still cannot the attribute the damages to anthropogenic global warming. Ouranos, co-presenter Bourque’s institution, have recently published “Economic evaluation of the potential impacts of the erosion of Quebec’s maritime coasts in a context of climate change” (see here),
There are other reasons why Canada has not experienced damages from hurricane storm surge remotely commensurate to the U.S. Hurricanes dissipate and go seaward as they move north and are attentuated by the time that they affect Atlantic Canada. Second, the Canadian coasts are much less settled than the corresponding U.S. coasts. People apparently prefer warm beaches to freezing cold beaches.
Flato and Bourque evidently alarmed Trudeau and the premiers with these apocalyptic images. Using these images, “science” “tells us” that we, as Canadians, face the following “threats”:
- children playing in the Trocadero Fountain in Paris, France;
- subsidence in a long-depreciated and abandoned building from the Klondike gold rush;
- routine culvert washouts in northern highways;
- drying mud (vertisols) in the Altai Mountains of Russia
- erosion of its shoreline by the St Lawrence River in an area of isostatic uplift
- heavy weather delaying traffic in Atlantic Canadian towns.
And even though IPCC concluded in respect of wildfires and drought, that it was either “not possible” to attribute changes in magnitude or frequency to anthropogenic climate change or only a “minor contribution”, Flato and Bourque added these bogey-men to their montage.
This was not the only slide purporting to show damages in the Flato and Bourque presentation. I plan a similar post on a second slide which falls literally into the “Look, polar bear!!” tradition.