In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

A refreshing take from Minister Kent

Posted 10/7/2011 by Grant Mitchell

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This week Minister Peter Kent, Environment Canada, made a very informed and thoughtful appearance before the Senate Energy and Environment Committee. This was the most explicit acknowledgement of climate change I have heard from the government. It illustrates to me that people from all sides of the political spectrum have looked into the science of climate change and found it sufficient cause for action on the climate change problem.  

What follows is an extract from a Senate Energy and Environment Committee meeting.  It is extracted only for the sake of brevity; no additional edits have been made to the transcripts. You can read the full, official transcripts here.

Mr. Kent: The science is complicated and there are many opinions, some of them opposite, some of them convergent, on the exact measurement.

When I was first appointed by the Prime Minister to move over to Environment Canada, during one of our briefings our scientists presented a great supercomputer just outside Montreal airport that is responsible for all of our daily forecasting and extreme weather warnings and so forth; but in its free time, for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, it did modelling that went back in recorded history in terms of warming, in terms of climate changes. They broke out two pictures. Without the industrial revolution, would the world have been warmer? There was a definite trend line that shows that warming and cooling are part of the cycles of the millennia for this planet; but when you add in the impact of the industrial revolution and the centuries since, the years since, that line goes up quite sharply and quite persuasively.

Our chief forecaster is reluctant to draw direct lines between increased extreme weather in terms of attributing all that we see to climate change. It is certainly different from my childhood, from what I remember, and I am sure what you remember, in terms of some of the extremes we are seeing today. I do not know if we can attribute earthquakes to climate change, but certainly there is powerful evidence that mankind and civilization have impacted our earthbound species like the caribou — and I just had to, under a court order, present a woodland caribou recovery plan. The CFCs that we are emitting around the world do play a significant role. They are in the stratosphere; they are in the atmosphere; they are being linked to this Ontario-sized hole in the Arctic ozone.

I am persuaded that, if nothing else, by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions in just the coal-fired sector alone, where we are reducing 99 per cent of the mercury emissions that are pumped out over Canada every year, we reducing nitrogen and sulphur oxides. We are making the air healthier for Canadians. I am persuaded that what we are doing is right. It is responsible. Whether or not we can keep to 2 degrees, the warming that the United Nations has set as a target, whether or not all of the large emitters in our lifetime will actually eliminate emissions — and you are quite right, Senator Dickson's point that you cannot say often enough that Canada contributes only 2 per cent of the annual greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere — I am persuaded that we do need to do this and that in doing it, we not only make this country healthier, cleaner and better but we do exercise that moral leadership and it gives us the right to lobby the large emitters to do the right thing as well.

Senator Brown: I do not disagree with what we are doing in terms of trying to stop pollution, no matter what kind of pollution it is or where it is. I agree with that and have for a long time. What bothers me is that we call everything climate change.

Mr. Kent: Our scientists do not. I know the media does.

Senator Brown: Can you come out with a percentage, is what I am trying to ask. Is it 10 per cent of our problems with the calamities we have had in North America or is it 50 per cent or 90 per cent? What is causing this climate change? Are GHGs doing all of that or are we having some extraordinary climate changes that have nothing to do with GHGs?

Mr. Kent: GHGs and other pollutants, I think, open forest fires, volcanoes; those have been around for thousands of years. When I saw the modelling that the supercomputer cranked out, there was no question that we, civilization, have had a significant impact on our atmosphere.

When I was a young journalist back in the 1980s at The Journal, I had the honour of producing, writing and reporting a mini-documentary on The Journal on the then theoretic concept of global warming. Many of the questions at the end of that program are still valid questions among scientists today, but I think there is consensus among scientists that there is a reality called climate change, and that whatever disagreement there might be on magnitude or percentages, as you ask, that is argued and debated. There was a report out by the CERN Institute several months ago on sunspots, but I think that we are contributing and that we do have effective mitigation measures that we can and should take.

Senator Brown: I agree with the pollution side of it. I would like to know how much is caused by CO2. I have seen so many things happen this year that I cannot buy that it is 100 per cent caused by CO2.

Mr. Kent: That is why we need more science, more analysis and more study. We are living in the blink of an eye in terms of eternity. This will not be solved today or tomorrow.

The Chair: Thank you, Senator Brown. Those questions you asked are excellent ones and they are very much the type of questions that are on the minds of the people in our audience out there amongst Canadians.

It has a lot to do, as the minister has so thoughtfully pointed out, with nomenclature and with how this data in the science is described.

You have been very generous with your time, Minister. You have been patient with us all and very thoughtful. You are the first Conservative minister or representative of any kind who has ever come here to put a smile on my colleague Senator Mitchell's face. The fact is that we are not denying the realities that are out there. You have expressed it in a way that is very palatable and understandable. I want to record to show that.

Senator Mitchell: From a minister in your position in this government, it was very refreshing. Thank you very much. It was very powerful.

Mr. Kent: It is an honour. With regard to Senator Brown's last question, at some point I should make my withdrawal and allow the experts at Environment Canada to answer more fulsomely that sort of question.

The Chair: I have three questioners left. First, Senator Raine is not a regular member of the committee but she is extremely interested in the subject. She studies it. I get emails almost on a weekly or daily basis about this very subject of the science. It is a case of do we as a government believe in it? I think you will be getting a question now from Senator Raine.

Senator Raine: Thank you for having me and letting me speak.

I have to admit that what I read tells me that there is not a consensus among scientists. There are many different points of view and different kinds of research happening out there. One of the things that I am starting to see now is quite a few studies showing that we may be heading into a period of global cooling, which would maybe be a lot more problematic for Canada than global warming. Our country is on the cool side.

When your scientists are looking at all of these studies, especially when dealing with computer models, we all know that climate science is very complicated and complex. Depending on what you plug in, it will affect what comes out.

How open are the ministry of the environment scientists to the skeptic's point of view on global warming and greenhouse gas issues?

Mr. Kent: That is a good question. It is a question that a lot of Canadians and folks around the world are asking and arguing about. To specifically answer your question I would defer to our scientists to give those explanations.

There is no top-down influencing of decisions. As you know from the occasional leaks from the department, there is a fairly broad body of opinion and suggestions on how to proceed. It is accommodated.

I have only worked in two departments in government, but I must say Environment Canada is very open in terms of both the science and the leadership of our officials. With regard to the scientific response to your question, I would leave that to my scientists.

Senator Raine: Of course. Like Senator Brown, I fully appreciate what we have been going through the last few years in terms of dealing with pollution. On the greenhouse gas side of it, I am not so sure.

The one thing I keep coming up against is this whole dichotomy between media and scientists. Al Gore is not a scientist; he is media. The agenda has been a bit tipped on the fear-mongering from the media versus real science. Congratulations to this Senate committee, because that is the way they are looking at this issue.

Mr. Kent: I certainly agree with you with regard to Al Gore.

I would just say, in a day of fragmented media industry and fragmented advertising dollars, sensation sells better than the straight goods, which can sometimes be dull and incremental. I think there has been a significant amount of irresponsible reporting and distortion on both sides: those who would shut down all development absolutely in the interests of protecting the environment and the climate; and extremists on the other end, those who advocate exactly the opposite.

What we have to do, as I said in Question Period again today, is balance our interests in maintaining the best environment, the cleanest air and water that we can with a sustainable economy that generates jobs and all of those things that make this the great society that it is.

When you ask if I believe, I believe because the Prime Minister's signature is on the Copenhagen Accord. That accord says climate change exists and will be addressed.

(Senator Peterson asks a question about carbon capture and storage, and then Deputy Minister Paul Boothe continues, on the initiation from the Minister of the Environment to discuss climate change science )

Paul Boothe, Deputy Minister, Environment Canada:

Thank you. Maybe I could address both Senator Brown's and Senator Raine's questions together.

The first thing I would say is that there are a lot of things that people attribute to climate change that climate change models do not predict. In talking with our climate change scientists, none of them are saying that Icelandic volcanic eruptions are climate change. Actually, our senior meteorologist weather forecaster, Dave Phillips, who is well known, most of the time when people ask, "Dave, is that climate change?" he will say, "No, it is just crazy weather."

Recognizing that, the other thing that I think our scientists would want me to say is that climate change is not coming; it is here. If you need to be convinced about this, just go to the Arctic. The whole idea of measuring temperatures over an entire globe is pretty difficult. The global rise in temperature is still less than one degree centigrade, as best as they can measure. In the Arctic, it is three times that.

For example, I was in Pangnirtung on Baffin Island a couple of summers ago, and melting permafrost washed out the town's only bridge that separated it from its services. When you only get one shipment a year and you have to order a year ahead, this is a big problem. If you go to Inuvik, you will see that all the houses are starting to tilt over as the permafrost melts.

Climate change is here right now. There is still debate about this, but we have seen a rise in temperatures on the Prairies and in B.C. The pine beetle has cost millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

Our sense is that you have to take a prudent approach to this. It has been said a number of times that we are only 2 per cent of global emissions, and that is absolutely true. However, when Minister Kent goes to international climate change meetings, we sit between Brazil and China. One of the things the Chinese ambassador would say is that, sure, we have bigger emissions than you, but you have 22 tonnes per person and we have 5 or 6 tonnes per person.

There are different ways, and different countries have different perspectives on who is really responsible for this problem.

Some of our scientists, as you know, shared in the big Nobel Prize that went to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and we are very proud of that. Basically, their research is submitted to peer-reviewed journals. They have to defend themselves in the scientific community and they have to be open to all the different kinds of criticisms in order to get their publications in top journals. As the minister knows, our scientists have published in the top journals in the world. Environment Canada is the largest producer of environmental science in the world outside of the U.S. It is bigger than both Europe and Australia.

Therefore, we want to maintain that strong science. We want them to have an open mind. The minister and I rely on their advice. They are not saying it is the Icelandic volcanoes, but they are saying that it is real, and that is the best science that we have to work on. That is what we base our advice to the minister and the government on.

 

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