David Staples , Canwest News ServicePublished: Monday, November 24, 2008
EDMONTON - When it comes to guilty pleasures, there is a new one in Canada - walking out the door on a winter morning and instead of shivering in bitter cold, basking in unusually warm and pleasant weather.
The negative effects of global warming have been well-documented by activist politicians and scientists such as Al Gore and David Suzuki, but the positive effects have so far received less attention.
But a group of global-warming experts, made up mainly of university economists and anthropologists, is pushing the notion that global warming might not be an unmitigated disaster, especially for certain northerly regions, such as Canada, Russia and Scandinavia.
Leading the charge is Robert Mendelsohn, an economics professor at Yale University, who says the benefits of global warming for Canada - from a longer growing season to the opening up of shipping through the Northwest Passage - will outweigh the negative effects.
"You're lucky because you're a northern-latitude country, Mendelsohn says. "If you add it all up, it's a good thing for Canada."
Such benefits could well make Canadians feel ambivalent about taking measures to stop global warming, says economist Thomas Gale Moore, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute in California.
"When it comes down to doing something about global warming, it quickly turns out to be kind of expensive and certain people . . . would look out and say, 'Wow, global warming, that's going to be nice. I don't want to spend any money stopping that.' "
Of course, not all countries will benefit from the warmer, wetter world of global warming, Mendelsohn says. Poor counties will especially struggle, as they lack the resources to adapt.
But, on the whole, moderate climate change of an additional two degrees will likely be beneficial for the world, says Benny Peiser, an anthropologist at John Moores University in Liverpool, England.
For countries like Canada and Russia, though, even more dramatic warming wouldn't be a problem, Peiser says. "They could cope with that kind of increase, though other regions might struggle."
Grave concerns about human health, and even human extinction, have been put forward in the global warming debate. British scientist James Lovelock, who predicts a rise of eight degrees in temperate areas and five degrees in the tropics this century, says the tropics will become scrub and desert, leading to unparalleled human suffering: "Before this century is over, billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable."
But Peiser considers Lovelock to be alarmist and expects the rise in temperature to follow the current slow upward trend, which will prove beneficial to human health. "Unless there is a very significant and dramatic increase in the warming, the benefits will outweigh the problems."
Humankind's affinity for warmer weather is ancient and rational, says Peiser, an expert on how past civilizations have handled natural disasters. The world's temperature has fluctuated in the past and civilizations have struggled to adapt, but the big problem has always been global cooling. "In periods of warming you always had thriving societies, and the periods that were troubling for societies were the cold periods, obviously because that's when agriculture suffers."
The Little Ice Age in Europe, which is believed to have lasted from 1300 to the mid-1800s, was a terrible time for European societies, with recurrent crop failure and starvation, Peiser says. But over the last 150 years, there's been a warming of 0.7 or 0.8 degrees, a moderate increase.
"By in large we've had fantastic progress in economic development and social development. . . . It's been extremely beneficial."
The link between warm weather and good times is so ingrained that in the 1970s, when scientists started to raise alarms about a new global cooling and a new ice age, economists such as Moore shared in the alarm. It struck him as odd, then, when only a few years later grave concerns started to be expressed about global warming, as all kinds of benefits are associated with warmer climate.
Warmer temperatures will mean more tourists for Canada, reports Richard Tol of the Economic and Social Research Institute in Ireland. The optimal annual average temperature for a tourist destination is now found in cities like Barcelona and Atlanta. Canada will see a 220-per-cent increase in tourists this century, followed by Russia at 174 per cent, Tol told USA Today.
Winter sports, such as skiing, won't be hit hard in Canada in the short term as in the U.S. - in fact, business will shift north to Canadian resorts with more snow, Mendelsohn said. "Eventually it will catch up to your own resorts, and then it will be bad."
In the long run, though, increased tourism in the summer will more than make up for any loss to winter ski resorts, Mendelsohn says.
When it's warm out, people tend to be healthier, Moore says, pointing out that diseases like the flu strike hardest in winter, not summer. A British study says that an increase of two degrees over the next 50 years will increase heat-related deaths by 2,000 in Britain, but would cut cold-related deaths by 20,000, Peiser says.
The effects of increased summer heat can be handled with more air conditioning. "As long as economies grow and living standards rise, then people will be less vulnerable to whatever the temperature is," Peiser says. "Canada won't really have a lot of problems. The main problems will be in developing or underdeveloped countries that even today have problems with high cold or high temperatures."
In his work, Mendelsohn and his colleagues look at economic impacts of global warming, but focus mostly on agriculture, because this is the realm most affected by global warming. "With agriculture we think that's going to be a big benefit for Canada," Mendelsohn says.
No new farm land is suddenly going to be developed - so no peach orchards in Yellowknife - but the current agricultural belt will get warmed up and become more productive. Some high-value crops, like corn and soybeans, that can mainly be grown in the U.S., will be grown more commonly in Canada, Mendelsohn says.
"The more the temperature rises, the bigger the benefits will be (for agriculture). As far as Canada is concerned, over the next century whether it's a two-degree rise or a five-degree rise, it's probably going to be beneficial."
Forests will become more productive, Mendelsohn says. The northern forests will expand into the tundra and the southern forests will grow better. The types of trees in different regions will change. Fire and disease might well take out old forests, but Mendelsohn says forestry companies can also be allowed to go in and take out at-risk trees. "Rather than let it be destroyed naturally, you harvest it into the marketplace and then just let the natural systems replace what should be there next."
As for the downside for agriculture, in tropical countries agriculture will decline just as the agricultural production in Canada increases. Tropical countries won't have enough water to maintain current production. Farmers there already grow crops that can barely survive hot and dry conditions. "If it gets any hotter, they basically are out of business," Mendelsohn says.
It's crucial to note that while overall precipitation is predicted to go up in Canada, that precipitation will come in winter, not in summer during the growing season, says geographer David Sauchyn, a professor at the University of Regina, who recently led a federal government study on the impacts of climate change on the prairies.
There will be opportunities for Canadian farmers, Sauchyn says, but only if they can take advantage of the increased summer heat and winter precipitation. Canada is a rich, skilled and technological country, but the federal and provincial governments will still have to follow the right policies, especially when it comes to water conservation. "The problem is that governments, provincial and federal, have shown thus far little political will to develop policy and programs to make those adaptations," Sauchyn says.
Mendelsohn's optimistic outlook for Canada is based on average annual rises in temperature and precipitation, but this overlooks how things might be in exceptionally dry and hot years, Sauchyn says.
Any gains that come from an increased growing season in some years could be wiped out by a lengthy drought, Sauchyn says.
"A shift in the distribution of water from season to season and from year to year and from basin to basin, is by far the most challenging scenario under climate change."
With global warming, the ocean level will also rise, but this shouldn't be a big issue in Canada, because most of the country's coastal areas are uninhabited, and it won't be significant if some of that land is claimed by the ocean, Mendelsohn says. Populated areas will fight back by building higher. "It turns out not to be a big issue. The land is extremely valuable and people will defend it."
Things will be more difficult, though, in impoverished and low-lying areas like Bangladesh. It will be more cost effective to try to help such areas to adapt than it will be to bring in costly measures to try to rapidly end global warming, Moore says.
If Canadians conclude that global warming is a benefit, the issue will present a moral challenge, says philosophy professor Nathan Kowalsky of the University of Alberta. "Even though it's in our personal interest to perpetuate climate change, it might be better on whole to actually say, 'No, we should actually try to mitigate this right now.' . . . It's wrong for us to create global warming so that we get benefits and it basically floods other countries."
Mendelsohn agrees: "If Canada is a well-meaning member of the world community, Canadians might want to stop (global warming) because it's bad for the world.
"It's important that we start trying to control greenhouse gases . . . Eventually it's going to get too warm. Damages will far exceed the benefits."
In the end, civilization won't be brought down by global warming, Mendelsohn believes. "There's an enormous amount of adaptations we can undertake. And at least the stuff that is going to happen this century, we will be able to adapt to it.
"I'm not saying that climate change is a non-issue. It is an issue and it is going to cause damages. It's just that it's not the calamity that people say. People exaggerate how bad it is."