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Climate shift clock ticks

Sometimes a scientific study so exhaustive, so authoritative and so alarming arrives in the public discourse that it simply cannot be ignored.

And sometimes the timing and content of such a study merely confirms what should be evident to any thinking person anywhere on this planet.

Such is the case with The National Climate Assessment, a draft of which was released in Washington on Friday and was open for public comment beginning on Monday, 1,000 dispiriting pages distilling the work of more than 300 scientists and experts.

It is the largest study of the real-time effects of climate change ever released in the U.S., but it should be required reading worldwide, particularly in Ottawa where the Stephen Harper government has made this country infamous for its formal repudiation of the Kyoto accord.

The Conservatives’ incremental approach, tinkering at the edges of greenhouse gas reductions and its economy-before-environment mindset means that a huge bill for its inaction, and the inaction of previous governments, is coming our way.

“Climate change is already affecting the American people,” the report states.

“Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and Arctic sea ice are melting. These changes are part of the pattern of global climate change, which is primarily driven by human activity.”

Such reports are usually met with official yawns in Ottawa, but there can be no denying that 2013 is already — two weeks in — the year of extreme weather.

It is true that single extreme weather events cannot automatically be blamed on climate change, but it also is unassailably true that climate scientists have been telling us for years that global warming will lead to extreme weather.

So this study is really just confirming the obvious.

Since the calendar turned, we have seen record heat in Australia, where temperatures soared beyond 50C, sparking wildfires that left thousands of hectares of scorched forests and farmlands in its wake.

Britain has endured record rainfall.

A New York Times roundup published on Friday pointed out China is enduring its coldest winter in three decades, Brazil is in the grips of record heat and parts of eastern Russia saw temperatures drop to -50C.

Texas is in the middle of a drought that began in 2010, the third-worst in the history of the state, leading to water restrictions and billions of dollars lost in agriculture production.

Over the weekend, residents of San Diego, Calif., awoke to frost while the greater Toronto area basked in freakish springlike temperatures in the middle of January. Similar warmth has surprised much of Alberta this week.

The year just ended was the hottest in the U.S. ever, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

All of this is crucial to Canada, where extreme weather so far includes monster blizzards and Torontonians sitting on patios in mid-winter.

It will almost certainly get more serious and there will be tabs for destruction and relocation like the $51-billion aid package before the U.S. Congress for rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy.

The report and the real-time evidence is also important to Canadians because they are being led by a government that is tying its climate change policies to Washington’s actions and Barack Obama has now identified climate change as one of his three priorities for his second term.

Ottawa is in lockstep with U.S. emissions-cut targets and fuel efficiency standards, but if Obama finds climate change ambition, it could push the Harper government where it is not anxious to go.

Obama has acknowledged there is no consensus for action in Washington, but environmentalists — and much of the world — will be watching for a call to action in his State of the Union address next month.

His final determination on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Alberta bitumen to the U.S. Gulf Coast, will also be a sign of his commitment to the “priority.”

The White House Office of Science and Technology twice stressed in a Friday response that the climate assessment report is a scientific study, not a policy document. But the study is loaded with warnings of sweltering heat, hotter nights taking a toll on livestock, huge ocean swells, blackouts, health risks and mass transit failures.

When the Conservatives killed the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy last year, Environment Minister Peter Kent said it was no longer needed because there was plenty of independent climate change information on the Internet.

If that’s the case, Kent should go to the website.

Tim Harper is a syndicated national affairs writer for the Toronto Star.



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