Climate Change: Is the Science Sound?
Special Report to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario
Submitted by Gord Miller, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario
November 19, 2002
As the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), I have the mandate to release special reports on matters of particular urgency. In the past couple of months, I have become convinced that the question of the scientific evidence regarding climate change has become a matter of urgency for Ontario legislators and the Ontario public.
We are currently immersed in a national debate on the appropriate response to climate change – a debate in which Ontario, with a large population, a strong manufacturing base and major greenhouse gas emissions, has a key role to play. Recently there have been numerous assertions in the media that there is little scientific basis for climate change, and that “go-slow” or even “business-as-usual” approaches are therefore appropriate.
There are also opposing voices, from all points on the political spectrum, which are urging speedy reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. For example, a recent editorial in the business weekly The Economist argued that climate change is a key reason to call for an energy revolution. “The most sensible way for governments to tackle this genuine (but long-term) problem is to send a powerful signal that the world must move towards a low-carbon future,” the editorial stated.
The controversy about climate change science is fundamental to the policy process. If the science is not credible, then there is no basis for enacting policy change. But if the science is sound, then our society will face significant consequences by sticking to a business-as-usual course, and we must, at a minimum, factor those consequences into our economic, social and environmental planning. The ongoing questions about the strength of the scientific evidence seem to be having a paralyzing effect on many policymakers in both public and private sectors. They are, on the one hand, prevented by time pressures from delving deeply into the many technical issues, yet on the other hand, are deluged daily by new findings, arguments, points and counterpoints. It is very hard to make good decisions in such a context.
I hope that the report that I am releasing today will help to provide some clarity, and help Ontario policymakers move to the next stage of the debate. This special report reviews the key scientific issues regarding climate change, and offers an opinion as to the strength of these arguments. While I do not want to prejudge what Ontario’s policy response to climate change should be in advance of a government decision, I do think it is vital for me to review and report on the science for the benefit of the members of the Ontario Legislative Assembly and the Ontario public.
My report focuses on the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their Third Assessment Report, published in 2001 (the 2001 IPCC Report). The IPCC is a body of scientists from around the world, convened in 1988 by the United Nations jointly under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The mandate of the IPCC is to provide policymakers with an objective assessment of the scientific and technical information available about climate change, its environmental and socio-economic impacts, and possible options for response. Many hundreds of scientists from around the world (including Canada) participate in the preparation and review of IPCC reports. These reports represent the definitive work of the scientific community on the science of global climate change and human impacts. The IPCC has published assessments in 1990, 1995, and, most recently, in 2001, each assessment being the culmination of an enormous body of research over the previous five years.
My report also refers to several recent publications of the U.S. National Research Council on this subject, particularly the Council’s June 2001 report. This report was commissioned by the Administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which requested the Council’s advice on climate change science, as well as an independent critique of the findings of the IPCC.
In the pages that follow, I have tried to summarize the most recent findings of the IPCC, as well as the key debates and uncertainties around the scientific evidence regarding climate change. I have also appended a longer technical appendix, which provides more detail and extensive references regarding the same issues.