The basics of climate change explained for non scientists ~ Hugh Holland


Scientists have shown that a growing layer of greenhouse gasses (including CO2 from burning fossil fuels) is collecting in the atmosphere, acting as a greenhouse and trapping an increasing amount of heat from the sun. When white glaciers and white polar ice that normally reflect heat are melted, they expose dark surfaces that absorb more heat, and both the warming and the melting are accelerated.

Effect on weather

The polar vortex is a mass of low-pressure cold air swirling like a whirlpool (vortex) above the earth’s poles. (It is about 1,000 km in diameter)

Natural convection tries to push the rotating mass of high-pressure hot air from the equator towards the poles, thereby constraining the polar vortex to their normal north and south polar locations.

The interface between the rotating masses of cold and warm air is called the jet stream.

Rapid polar warming is reducing the temperature differential between the poles and the equator, thereby destabilizing the jet stream and causing the polar vortex to intermittently push masses of cold polar air to mid-continent, followed by bursts of warm equatorial air moving toward the poles.

These increasingly erratic oscillating cold-warm cycles produce the following results:

  • Shifts in the timing of precipitation:
    • Colder / wetter winter and spring seasons
    • Hotter / dryer summer and fall seasons
  • Accumulation of snow and ice in winter, resulting in irregular water flows and more spring flooding
  • More violent storms and hurricanes resulting from more extreme temperature differentials at the oscillating cold-warm interfaces

Effect on Oceans

80 per cent of the extra trapped heat is absorbed in the waters that cover 70 per cent of the earth’s surface, resulting in thermal expansion that raises sea levels.  According to the US National Ocean Service, sea levels have risen 2.6 inches in 21 years, but that rate of rise will increase exponentially as more ice melts and more dark surfaces are exposed.  This will make low-lying coastal and inland areas (including 1,000 inhabited islands, eight of the world’s 10 largest cities and 40 per cent of the US population) more vulnerable to storm surges, large-scale flooding, soil erosion and damage to all types of infrastructure.

Effect of and on People

The world’s leading climate scientists have been ringing alarm bells for 30 years. But climate change is complex, so it takes time and effort to understand it.  Every year is different, so erratic patterns of occurrence have made climate change hard to prove and easy to ignore and deny. But rapidly increasing evidence is now making the picture much clearer.

The world is trapped in a classic dilemma. We will not achieve emissions targets and curb climate change with half measures. We need to implement every feasible management tool and technical solution to conserve energy and to rapidly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but not before fossil fuels can be replaced by clean energy sources.  A world of eight billion people simply cannot function without energy.

People like to complain about the cost of energy, but average families now spend more on their digital devices than on energy. We could survive without the internet. We cannot survive without energy.

It is easy to blame the politicians, but we the voters allow them to hoodwink us with attempts to differentiate themselves from other parties. For 30 years, the NDP and the Greens have spread irrational faith in wind and solar power which can help but will never replace coal, and they have spread irrational fear of nuclear power which is the only clean, safe and reliable source of energy that can replace coal.

In my view, the federal Liberals have the most realistic balance between the environment and the economy. It will take the world a few more decades to replace oil, so the current government is working to get the needed pipelines built – – but in the most environmentally responsible manner. The current review should result in approval of the Trans-Mountain pipeline by the end of June.  The universal carbon tax engages all end consumers in both energy conservation and the shift to clean energy.

The Conservative’s approach at both the provincial and federal levels is to put the entire burden on industry. That is equivalent to punishing farmers when people eat too much of the wrong food. With the Conservative’s approach, both energy conservation and the shift to clean energy will ultimately take longer, cost more, and will indeed make Canadian industry less competitive with the US.

So far, Ford’s environment plan consists of a list of disconnected ideas with few specifics and little thought as to how one idea will impact others. For example, increaing the speed limit will mean 11 per cent more fuel consumption and emissions (Aerodynamic drag increases dramatically with speed). The fight will start as soon as the government picks which industries will carry the burden.  Why has Andrew Scheer not revealed his environmental plan?  Like Ford, he will reveal it just before voting day with the hopes that he can defeat the Liberals with distractions on other issues.

The only thing that matters to the Trump administration is money and the stock market.  China is the biggest source of carbon emissions, but they are also more advanced in the shift to electric vehicles along with a widespread network of universal charging stations.

Climate scientists are now telling us we have 12 years (three election cycles) to act if we want the next generation to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change.  It’s time to replace petty self-serving politics with serious national and international cooperation and action to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Arguing that the other guy should start first is as futile as arguing for the best deck chair on the Titanic.  Yes, we will have to pay more now because of foot-dragging for the last 30 years, but you won’t like the alternative.

Hugh Holland is a retired engineering and manufacturing executive now living in Huntsville, Ontario.

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  1. Jim Alexander on

    Well written Hugh except for your political biases.
    If and I agree, the only significant solution to energy production is nuclear, wouldn’t it be better for both governments to spend our money and their time, convincing the population that nuclear is the correct way forward?
    Much better use of time and resources than encouraging folks who can’t afford a new vehicle anyway, to spend $600+/year buying a more fuel efficient vehicle? Consider the effect of $1.30/L gas on folks who make $14/ hour and must drive to work: it has created significant monthly hardship. I suggest you do a sample budget for such a family to see for yourself.
    If I could suggest, use your considerable analytical skills to determine who exactly by income and education level, will pay the cost of this carbon tax? Consider those in rural Ontario who have no choice but to heat with oil.
    If I can suggest, keep writing, just stay politically neutral. Your political biases detract from your message for the 40% of us who voted for Ford and will vote for the PC’s.
    your friend

    • Hugh Holland on

      Jim, thanks for your comments. Regarding political bias, let me say that over the years I have voted mostly Conservative but also Liberal. The thing I find most troubling is that some folks consider themselves married to one party and are therefore willfully blind to good ideas coming from others. That is true political bias. So, I have become a radical centrist. I support what I perceive to be the best ideas on what I perceive to be the most pressing issues of the day. Right now, I believe that finding a workable balance between climate change and the economy is the most pressing issue both globally and in Canada. I don’t want our grandchildren and your grandchildren to have to keep constantly moving to try to find a liveable climate because our generation did not respond adequately to climate change. And I believe the Liberals have the most realistic approach to solving that equation. Maybe the Conservatives will come up with something better before election day, but we don’t know because they haven’t told us what they would do. I promise to keep an open mind.

      Regarding affordability, everyone has already received an advance rebate of the carbon tax on their 2018 federal income tax return. So, we will be perpetually ahead of the game. The idea of the carbon tax is to motivate the entire population to think often about energy conservation and clean energy. Industry only makes what we consumers will buy, so they have limited control. If we consumers do not respond and we ask industry to bear the entire burden, it will ultimately cost more for all of us, it will take much longer, and we will likely fail.

      • Jim Alexander on

        What about the basic idea of starting now to switch Canadian public opinion to support nuclear versus hydrocarbon reduction? The Canada’s actions on the latter will have no affect on the big users: China, India and USA.

        • Hugh Holland on

          Jim we need to do both. The Canadian government and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission have approved development of advanced ultra-safe small modular molten salt reactors by Terrestrial Energy of Oakville Ontario (Google it). The US department of energy is helping to fund Terrestrial and some US developers of advanced nuclear. SNC -Lavalin is building advanced Gen IV CANDU reactors in China as well as refurbishing the Darlington and Bruce reactors here in Ontario.

          We need to reduce coal use because it is the biggest source of CO2 emissions and it is also a silent killer to millions with respiratory diseases in China and elsewhere. And we need to reduce our use of oil and gas for two reasons: to reduce the CO2 causing global warming and because we will deplete PROVEN global reserves of both oil and gas in about 50 years. Canada holds the world’s 3rd largest PROVEN reserves of oil that others will need as smaller PROVEN reserves (eg USA, China, India and Russia) are depleted in 20 years or less. Alberta can install advanced nuclear to replace coal-fired electricity and use the free surplus heat to replace gas heat for in-situ oil extraction that is the main source of emissions from the oil sands. So they could kill two birds with one stone.

          By getting consumers serious about reducing our dependence on oil and gas now, we can preserve some of it for the most difficult to replace applications down the road. If we run out before we can replace, we will really be in trouble.

          I know there are lots of people denying climate change and saying we have endless supplies of oil and gas. But more are saying they are wrong. There is no downside to being prudent, and there is a lot of upside to being prudent. So why not be prudent?

  2. Lesley Hastie on

    Climate change is the most critically important issue facing us and our planet. Thank you for this very clear explanation of the reasons for and effects of climate change. As Canadians face these realities they will change their mindset, re-examine their own energy use and push governments to take the necessary actions to keep the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. We can do it.

    Above that increase the accelerating feedbacks of more warming , less reflective ice, causing even more warming will have dire and unpredictable effects on sea levels (and swelling Immigration to Canada from flooded lands). Changes in climate will bring more droughts,, fires, and floods, with global impacts on the environment, water supplies and food. As Gwynne Dyer said in his series “Climate Wars” (CBC radio ‘Ideas’) he could envisage a war between India and Pakistan as the Himalayan glaciers continue to shrink. Less glacial melt means less water in the major rivers shared by these two nuclear nations and critically that means less water for the millions of farmers on both sides of the border whose livelihood (and lives) rely on these rivers.

    Arguably a global temperature increase of 4% would make our planet uninhabitable.

    As you state, Hugh, this is urgent. After 30 years of inaction we have only 12 years to make big changes. The cost of effective action pales by comparison with the cost of doing nothing. It is a frightening scenario but we have the tools and the time to make the necessary difference if we act now. There is so much we can do.

    To find out how climate change will affect Muskoka, and what we can do to plan for it and reduce its impacts, come to the Active Living Centre, on Saturday June 14, 1-4pm. Details to follow.

  3. Jim Logagianes on

    You would need a 80% reduction in Federal spending to offset the cost of this proposal on every day Canadians. If you think that we can absorb all these increases without offsetting the current cost of government, I think your sadly mistaken.Taxation costs in Canada are increasing at a feverish pace. We pay more now in taxes than we do for necessities,food,clothing and shelter. All our industries are leaving because of the cost of doing business in Canada. We subsidize money laundering around the world with our poorly valued currency. When energy poverty comes to Canada will the rest of the world get on board?
    A vast country with a small population that is dependent on transportation would have to make drastic changes to have any measurable effect on the environment.Our standard of living will diminish considerably if we try to go it alone. Hugh, only a concerted effort by every industrialized nation in the world will address this problem. Can you say energy poverty , I knew you could.

    • Hugh Holland on

      Jim, you are correct that only a concerted effort by every industrialized nation will solve the climate change problem; and that includes Canada. The latest reports show the Canadian economy doing quite well and energy conservation and the shift to clean energy both offer tremendous opportunities to do even better. Yes we are a cold country with a small and widely distributed population that drives up both our per capita energy consumption and emissions. But there is a long list of things we can do better. All it takes is the will to do it.

  4. Jim Logagianes on

    The litigation costs accumulating over every administration in Ottawa is staggering. Using the courts to make all decisions at the federal level creates a burden that continues to increase.
    The savings from and 80% reduction in the Federal Government could be distributed equally among all the Provinces and Territories. This would increase revenues at the provincial level and allow each to implement their own environmental plans. It would also eliminate duplication once and for all. Only a reduction in Government will help offset the cost of addressing global warming. What do Canadians want a cleaner environment or more politicians. Changing the way we are governed may be the most cost effective way for Canada to meet their reduction targets and survive as a nation. Anyone who thinks we can leave everything as it is and achieve any success in this matter,is ignoring reality.

  5. I’m no scientist or even very well educated if schooling is all that counts I’m just an old man that has been around a lot of years and seen the changes first hand. The first part of this talks about the white ice reflecting heat.This seems wrong to me as I always figured white absorbed heat and black reflected it. Now maybe this is why the ice is melting faster One thing I do know that is never mentioned is if pollution is putting a blanket over the earth then it’s no wonder things are getting warmer because we produce a lot more heat now than we did just a short 50 or a 100 years ago. Every home no matter how well insulated gives off some heat and every new hwy or parking lot produces twice the heat that a wet land or field of grass produces winter or summer not to mention all the heat that escapes every time the big automatic door open in our big stores in winter so if there is a blanket over earth and we heat more down here it’s like turning up the thermostat in our home it gets warmer. Now there are a lot of opinions on how to fix it but no good answer yet as I see it Taxes do nothing but make us poorer.

  6. Don McCormick on

    Hugh and responders to Hughs article;
    Thanks for that very clear and concise analysis of the causes and effects of climate change. Thanks also to the responders for their respectful and thought-provoking views. Out of all of this it seems clear to me that thoughtful people are acknowledging that we really do have a climate change problem and that it represents a clear threat to life on this planet as we currently know it. I am dumbfounded that some of our political leaders still deny his to be the case. It is also clear that that only a global and multi-faceted approach to the problem has any hope of success. This is not an issue with which to play politics. I am frustrated that Andrew Scheer and Doug Ford are not presenting us with their own well thought out program to combat climate change. Instead they seem intent on playing party politics by opposing any attempts by our current government to deal with the problem. And, in case you dismiss this as political bias you need to know that I have, in my political life, voted for every party at some point choosing the party and candidate who presents the most thoughtful program based on sound knowledge and rational thought and the larger perspective

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