The Bad, The Ugly - and The Good

Published Monday, September 3, 2012 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

Last month, I was privileged to be among more than 800 people welcomed to San Francisco by former US Vice President Al Gore for a three-day conference on climate change. 

On the flight to the west coast, I watched the Clint Eastwood classic “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”.  Afterwards, I reflected on how that movie title relates to the climate crisis and our response to it.  There’s plenty of bad and ugly to go around, but thankfully there is also much good.

The Bad and Ugly
If you’re a student of climate change, you likely already know the bad.  Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high in 2011, fueled largely by the fast growing economies of Asia that supply much of what we westerners consume.  This past summer has been a scorcher in our part of the world.  July 2012 was the hottest July on record in the US, and drought continues to plague almost every state.  By my count of Environment Canada data, 2012 has featured just three new low temperature records across Atlantic Canada so far, versus an astounding 119 new highs.  A cluster of those new highs happened last March, bringing an early freshet and historic flood to Perth-Andover – an event perfectly consistent with what scientists forecast we can expect more of as climate change gains momentum.  Just last week, Arctic sea ice levels sunk to a new all-time low.

And ugly is a fitting word to describe the assault on the environment that has happened in Canada this year.  At a time when accurate information is needed more than ever, scientific facilities are being closed and environmental resources are being reduced.  At a time when reasonable discussion of legitimate issues is needed more than ever, words like ‘radical’ and ‘extreme’ have been used to assail environmental organizations, polarize debate and distract attention from solutions.  Not helpful.

The Good
Amid such discouraging prospects, it is heartening to learn that progressive actions and positive solutions are happening in some areas. 

For example, there is a global boom underway in renewable energy.  In 2000, it was forecast that wind turbines would generate just 2 gigawatts of power (about the combined output of Coleson Cove, Mactaquac and Belledune generating stations) in China by 2010.  Today, China generates more than 22 times that amount of wind power.  In 1999, it was forecast that wind power would generate 10 gigawatts of power in the US by 2010.  Today, wind generates more than four times that amount of electricity in the US. 

By pure coincidence, I came face to face with that wind power revolution while in California: I stumbled upon the Shiloh Wind farm near San Francisco, where sheep and cattle graze oblivious to the several hundred turbines generating 400 MW of clean, renewable electricity overhead.  The entire wind farm was constructed in just seven years.

There’s also a boom in solar energy, where installations have greatly exceeded forecasts.  The Vatican is a leader, and was recently declared the world’s most environmentally friendly state.  California offers financial incentives to encourage consumers to install solar panels.

And there is encouraging evidence to suggest that, in some areas at least, sustainability is taking root in everyday lifestyle choices.  For example, the cafe at Muir Woods near San Francisco is a showcase of sustainability.  It was constructed of sustainable materials and incorporates water saving measures throughout.  Its menu offers only local, fair trade and organic products.  Plates and cups are compostable, and whatever isn’t composted is recycled.  The cafe features prominent signage explaining its green credentials and environmental policies, so patrons are educated and can feel good about what they’re supporting.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
In the movie I watched, the bad and the ugly were eventually defeated by the good.  That’s the kind of ending our planet needs too, with today’s bad and ugly overwhelmed and crushed by a focussed, unstoppable surge of good. 
True, that will take dedication and effort from all of us – but the examples above at least suggest it’s possible.