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2010-12-17

Climate change skepticism and the contemplative cruiser




Ask sailors about global warming/climate change and count the number of sailors you've asked and add one. That's about the number of contrasting viewpoints you'll get.

I have never owned a car and choose to live downtown as a consequence. Or, perhaps because I get to see the tense, often angry faces of car drivers from my perch atop my bicycle, maybe I should say "as a benefit". I've made no secret that not owning a car has freed up what I figure is $6,000-$8,000/year for activities such as sailing. I'm not rich (in the First World, anyway); I couldn't have a sailboat in the water and one a-building on land if I also drove.

But I don't feel particularly virtuous about it. As a teen, I owned and drove with pleasure smoky little two-stroke mopeds as close to the 60 km/h speed limit for them as I could get away with. I in fact got a ticket once...for speeding...downhill.

I also don't hesitate to fire up either my woodchipper or my chainsaw in twice-yearly tamings of the abandoned woodlot I call my backyard.

I certainly wouldn't mind a car on those days when I'm moving vast sailbags or batteries to and from the boats. If they made a diesel/electric hybrid Honda Element or Nissan Cube, I would be sorely tempted, because basically I need a wheeled box to carry heavy and bulky "stuff" short distances. I essentially have two sets of tools (Boat and Garage) just to dodge towing 40 kilo tool chests in one of the several wheeled carts I have for my bicycle.

Still, with a waistline at least as old as my head, I derive physical benefit in the form of exercise via towing metal lumps hither and sometimes yon. I also get to experience what the heated garage types often do not: plenty of time in the open and frequently windy, damp and/or scorching air. Combine that with even the local sailing (not exactly a trackless vista, but still decent enough to see weather advancing rapidly), and I would say I get to look at the weather more than most, but less than, say, the average forest ranger or mountain guide.

I accept that in my lifetime, the climate is showing signs of change. I would say that the predictability of the climate, in terms of historical trends, is lessening and "unseasonable" weather (whether colder or hotter or wetter or drier than in, say, the midddle part of the 20th century) is increasing.

I don't know the reasons. I do know that we live in a country (Canada) where we are quite profligate in our use of fossil energy and also in which some of the more notable climate change events occur (such as permafrost thawing and the opening of the Northwest Passage). I also accept that "change" in this sense could include this sense of a widening of such historical norms and a lessening of the predictability of seasonal weather trends.

I am also a sailor planning a world cruise starting in a couple of years. It would be injudicious, to say the least, to disregard the role of climate change in our planned journey. My pilot books are established on these principles: that over some 200 years of data recording (mostly by the U.S. and U.K navies), it has been possible to discern patterns that exceed raw chance in terms of what sort of sailing weather one might expect in given areas in given months.

So while I encourage a healthy and indeed scientific skepticism over the causes (and by inference, the range of possible solutions) of climate change, I don't reject the premise that burning fossil fuels created over millions of years in a handful of decades, or widespread deforestation in favour of farting cattle has had a measurable effect on the planetary climate.

It would be surprising if it hadn't, given that we are pretty clear on what a single large volcano can do as a matter of historical record: Bugger up the summers for a few years.

I have been visiting a very popular blog of late that is critical of a lot of the current climate change science....and rightly so, I think. There's a lot of alarmism and conclusions drawn from too little data on what are, after all, extremely complex systems in which the effect of human activity is only a part, and to an as-yet unknown ratio. But while I do not accept nor encourage the sort of evangelical self-hatred of all man's works that some "greens" espouse, neither do I believe that the viewpoint of those who posit that "all climate change science is bunk; let's all hop in the SUV and drive slowly!" is particularly helpful, either. It's clear that at least some "deniers" have an interest in continuing to live carbon-profligate lives, and the consequences be damned as long as there's gas for the monster truck and propane for the hot tub. Some of the posters have a bullying tone I don't find helpful. Others are clearly still upset that The X-Files was cancelled.

And yet one of the reasons to go cruising in this decade is the rather disturbing notion that the next decade will see some potential locations either turned into sandbars, or the site of climate-change-fuelled civil unrest, or both. Last chance to see, and so on.

I welcome future illumination. Preferably with a warm, white LED, of course.