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11 December 2012

The PICS Climate News Scan is a weekly summary of the major climate-change related science, technology, and policy advances of direct relevance to the BC provincial and the Canadian federal governments and more generally to businesses and civil society. The News Scan focuses on cutting edge climate issues and solutions gathered by the fellows and faculty of ISIS, a research centre at the UBC Sauder School of Business, in partnership with the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS). Access to some referenced articles may require a journal subscription or purchase of the article, and appropriate links are provided for this purpose. To provide content feedback and/or suggestions, please email picsscan@uvic.ca.

Authors: Chanda Brietzke, Justin Bull, Liz Ferris, James Noble, Sarah Thomas
Editors: Neil Thomson (ISIS), James Tansey (ISIS), Jessica Worsley (PICS), Tom Pedersen (PICS)

Research Theme I: The low carbon emissions economy

Forestry protection slowed by rift between developed and developing countries

December 2, 2012.  At the United Nations climate conference in Doha last week, countries were attempting to design a global system to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from deforestation, an activity that accounts for nearly 20 percent of global emissions.  Nevertheless, disagreement between wealthy investor countries and poorer forested countries threatens to block a deal among the 194 nations. At the heart of the matter is a dispute on how to verify emission cuts achieved through projects that reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD). The rich nations that pay for the projects want emissions reductions to be independently verified through an international group, but developing nations, citing sovereignty issues, want to conduct the verification processes themselves. Without an agreement on verification procedures, several billion dollars of finance per year from developed countries may not be forthcoming. If the Doha summit fails to resolve this issue, discussions will be delayed until a gathering in Bonn, Germany next June, leaving investors without a clear forest emissions financing system for at least another six months.

The stable and credible value of British Columbia’s forestry carbon offsets, both at home and on the international market, rests on the province’s reputation for sustainable forest management and climate action. BC’s robust offset standards provide investors with a significant advantage in a world where many offsets are far less accurately quantified, making them less credible. To guide forest carbon accounting and the management of offset projects, BC has developed its own forest carbon offset protocol. The protocol is tailored to BC’s forest stock with rigorous criteria to ensure that forest carbon projects meet or exceed international standards. These foundations and the ongoing implementation of the BC Forest Stewardship Action Plan for Climate Change Adaptation provide a useful model for global forest carbon negotiations. 

Research Theme II: Sustainable communities

Unprecedented sea level rise

November 29, 2012. A recent article highlights evidence of extreme sea level rise in the Northern Atlantic Ocean with one of the consequence being significant contributions to the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. “Live” data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggests sea level rise near the Mid-Atlantic States to have been on the order of 30 mm this year. Despite being a hotspot for sea level rise, this is the highest annual rise on record for the region and is notable when compared to the average of 1.7 mm/year since 1992. Only partially due to the five-year cycle of the North Atlantic Oscillation, “further investigations will be needed to understand why the jump was so large.” Meanwhile, global sea level rise is far outpacing the predictions of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with implications for the Mid-Atlantic States and low-lying regions elsewhere being potentially severe.

From east to west to north, sea level rise is a concern for coastal communities all across Canada. Warming leads to thermal expansion that causes sea level to rise, an effect compounded by the flow of fresh water into the sea from melting continental glaciers and ice caps. In 2008, the BC Ministry of Environment released a report predicting that sea levels in BC communities will rise roughly one metre by 2100 and half a metre by the year 2050. In addition to causing a loss of property and coastal infrastructure due to erosion, this sea level rise could impact wildlife habitat and contaminate coastal aquifers with saltwater. In some areas of the province – like the Gulf Islands – the progressive intrusion of salt water into local aquifers threatens the supply of drinking water. Dealing with such impacts in the face of ongoing sea level rise will demand increased promotion of resiliency through conservation schemes in regions where groundwater supplies are being threatened and implementation of engineered defenses in other areas. Moreover, managed retreat from the shoreline – a concept based on recognition that some low-lying coastal areas in BC will become increasingly unlivable – may become a key planning option in coming decades.

Research Theme III: Resilient ecosystems

Climate is changing fisheries: is BC prepared?

November 30, 2012. The ocean’s fisheries make an important contribution to economies worldwide and there will be wide-ranging impacts when the productivity of these ecosystems is affected by climate change. A new study published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society suggests that tropical regions will experience significant declines in fish production, while some coastal areas at higher latitudes can expect massive increases. The research did not predict outputs for individual species or species diversity, but took a more simplistic approach. Researchers used regional factors like temperature to discern the extent of primary production in the form of phytoplankton to be expected in different areas of the world’s oceans. With changes in potential fish production strongly related to changes in phytoplankton production, they were then able to predict the abundance of the larger, predatory fish that are of interest to human populations.

The waters off the coast of southern BC are part of the California Current, a productive upwelling region along the west coast of North America. The researchers in the above study predicted only very slight declines in the productivity of the California Current region. However, other recent research offers more complex views, suggesting that the average size of large predator fish globally will decrease as temperatures rise. Additional effects of GHG emissions and associated changes in the sea include ocean acidification and the development of mismatches in the timing of predator and prey species. Among others, these factors can contribute to alterations in community composition within an ecosystem, which may be as economically and culturally significant for BC’s fisheries as changes in overall biomass production. The authors of a new report by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) examining climate change impacts on Pacific marine ecosystems and contend that BC is not currently taking adequate measures to reduce such vulnerabilities.

Research Theme IV: Social mobilization

Hurricane Sandy not enough to convince people that climate change is real

December 12, 2012.  In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the devastating impacts of Hurricane Sandy seemed sure to become a wake-up call to many North Americans about the realities of climate change. As Business Week noted on its cover of the issue following the storm’s impact: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid”. However, research conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication shows that perceptions of the storm aren’t that straightforward. In a 2012 study examining key issues of public perception and climate change, the researchers found that people’s political opinions and pre-existing beliefs tend to shape their perceptions of a particular event. This is due to a phenomenon researchers call ‘motivated reasoning’, which means that humans will rationalize any experience to understand it in a way that stays consistent with previously held beliefs. In other words, if you don’t believe climate change is real, when you see Hurricane Sandy, you will rationalize it as being just a really big storm. ‘Motivated reasoning’ seems to be exactly what the majority of Americans are utilizing. In a December 2012 poll, 51% of respondents indicated they believe Hurricane Sandy and climate change are unrelated.

The Yale team also finds that a good way to combat ‘motivated reasoning’ is to use what they call ‘place-based strategies’ to educate the public on climate change. An example would be to have a TV meteorologist (rather than a scientist) link extreme weather events to the science of climate change on the nightly newscast. In BC, place-based strategies could be introduced fairly easily. The increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as droughts and fires, which are linked to climate change, give news media an opportunity to use existing news and weathercasts as a vehicle to educate the public about climate change. Such education will become increasingly important as politicians find themselves faced with ever more difficult decisions on how to address climate change. In Canada, the current strategy is to adapt to climate change, rather than reduce emissions. But should an educated public demand more action, emissions reductions could become a higher priority.

Research Theme V: Carbon management in BC forests

Larger and longer fires predicted for Canada’s boreal forest

December 4, 2012. Over the last seven thousand years, wildfires across the boreal forest of Canada have steadily increased in size. Researchers studying charcoal records from boreal lakes in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland & Labrador have found evidence that a shift toward larger fires is becoming the new norm. Only three percent of fires in the boreal region are considered ‘large’ – 200 hectares or more – but this proportion is expected to increase as springtime temperatures rise by three to four degrees Celsius. The warming is promoting longer fire seasons with bigger and more frequent fires. While anticipated surges in precipitation associated with northern-latitude climate change should increase winter snowpack and spring rains and offset some of the heightened fire risk, hot summers will be a major determinant of fire scale in coming decades in the boreal region of Canada.

BC is no stranger to forest fires, and the northern part of the province shares a large portion of Canada’s vast boreal forest. Fires in this region now have the potential to burn more intensely and over a greater area. Simultaneously, human settlement is encroaching on previously forested areas and the fire risk to BC communities in the north and elsewhere is expected to become more severe as the climate continues to warm. In view of this, PICS is supporting a study of the potential of forest thinning at the edges of communities to reduce fire risk while providing as a co-benefit biomass for energy production. Ongoing climatic changes are influencing BC’s forests in other ways: for example, warmer Novembers and Decembers have contributed to the epidemic Mountain Pine Beetle infestation that has now destroyed many of the pines across some 14 million hectares of interior forest stands. In the face of such multiple climate-related influences on our forests, an imperative is to strengthen our scientific understanding while simultaneously putting in place approaches – like forest thinning at community-forest interfaces – that enhance adaptation.

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Climate models overestimate CO2 absorption by plants, soils – study

Plans to export US coal to Asia through Canada draw fire