The toe of the Salmon Glacier in Northern British Columbia

Richard Bello on Climate Change

June 23, 2012

Much of our information on climate change tends to come by way of one media source or another. We rarely, if ever, get a chance to meet the scientists and hear directly from them about their work and the challenges they face.

On a recent trip to Manitoba I met Richard Bello. He is a climatologist in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto where he’s been doing research on greenhouse gas exchange from the peatlands and ponds of the Hudson Bay Lowlands. When we met he was traveling with some of his students to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre – a scientific research station located near Manitoba’s northern border with Nunavut. Bello was instrumental in developing the centre and has served on its executive committee and board for the last 30 years.

In this interview Bello talks about climate disruption, the changes taking place in the Arctic, methane gas, and how the current Canadian government’s obsession with accelerated fossil fuel extraction is impeding the work of his colleagues – and is harming the planet.


ZADA: Where does the world stand at the moment in terms of the ‘climate change’ phenomenon?

BELLO: The compilation of all peer research that’s been done indicates that there’s no way of accounting for the global warming that we’re observing right now except by attributing it to human causes. There’s no natural fluctuations or mysterious unknown cause we can identify that’s responsible for the changes we’re seeing other than human beings. The vast consensus is that humankind is responsible. And we’re actually past that question now. There are many unknowns about the planet, but in terms of this controversy: is the planet warming? Yes. Are we responsible? Yes. And that’s the end of the story right there.

There are vested interests that don’t like that conclusion. There’s been an attempt by those interests to question the conclusions that came out of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And mostly they’re attempts to mislead the public into thinking that continuing in our ways is perfectly acceptable and that humankind isn’t responsible for the climate warming. It’s a bit disheartening to think there are certain segments of society that cling so tightly to traditional ways of doing things and are unwilling to change.

But we do need to change. The climate is altering and we’ve been causing those shifts. If we don’t want those changes to get to the point where it’s so serious that we can’t cope, we’re going to have to quickly reign back the causes – which are primarily the burning of fossil fuels. Full stop. To a lesser degree it’s also land use change. But primarily it’s the burning of fossil fuels.

ZADA: What are some of the trends that you’ve been observing in the climate? 

BELLO: Sea ice is disappearing dramatically and much faster than we ever anticipated. Glaciers are disappearing. Sea levels are rising. Temperatures are increasing. The extremes are occurring more frequently and they’re more extreme than they were in the past. It’s virtually impossible to claim that the system is not heating up.

We’ve known for about a century that there’s a host of factors that control our climate that are beyond our control. These are the effects of astronomical phenomenon. For instance, you have the orbit of the Earth around the sun. There’s a host of local effects we have no control over like volcanic eruptions that can affect the earth’s climate. But the trends that we’re seeing now are due to the increasing levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Those gasses are preventing the heat from escaping into space. They’re not allowing the earth to cool itself down. And it’s really as simple as that.

On average it’s getting warmer everywhere. But there is certain variability from year-to-year. One location may be getting warmer faster than another. In fact, one area may be cooling down. The oceans are actually soaking up most of our heat. The atmosphere on any given year may heat up, or cool down, globally, but the ocean just keeps on heating up. I think there’s no escaping the fact that the long-term trends will continue as long as we keep adding methane and carbon dioxide to our atmosphere faster than we remove it. Volcanic eruptions that happen periodically may slightly cool things now and again. But the earth will continue to get hotter and hotter on average.

ZADA: Many Canadians dislike their harsh winter. So the idea of a warmer climate appeals to a lot of people. How do you respond to people who say they’d welcome a warmer climate?

BELLO: I’m looking forward to global warming too because the winters are too cold. Seriously, there are a lot of reasons we should care. Our eco-systems have developed around coldness occurring in the winter, and warmness occurring in the summer. If we remove the coldness in the winter, the eco-systems will respond in turn.

The pine bark beetle is a good example of an insect that’s kept under control by long duration cold spells during the winter that have essentially disappeared. There’s nothing controlling that beetle anymore. It’s worked its way across British Columbia and Alberta. It’s moving across Saskatchewan. It’ll be in Ontario and it’ll go all the way to Newfoundland. There’ll be nothing to stop it and it will wipe out entire pine forests that make up part of the boreal forest. That’s just one example. Maybe you don’t live in the boreal forest – and don’t care about it.

But having mentioned benefits – there are actually are some anticipated benefits of the climate changing. Certain crops might be more productive with the warmer temperatures. I say, “might” because we haven’t talked yet about water and the variation in floods and droughts. There may be areas that we can’t get access to at present because of the cold, which will open up to us when the weather gets warmer. So there are probably some benefits that come along with the climate warming. But overall it’s probably more bad than good. And I think we take for granted how Canada today is dependant on all four seasons.

ZADA: You mentioned water and rainfall a moment ago. Why is that important?

BELLO: One of the things that makes water different from the sun’s energy is that it’s not able to escape into space. We’re stuck with the same amount of water year after year. What does happen is that it shifts from one location to the other. Water that’s been tied up in glaciers over a long period of time is now melting.

Precipitation and evaporation are highly variable. The one thing about the projections of temperature, on the other hand, is that they’re reasonably consistent. So if we take ten different climate models and forecasts of how things are going to look like 80 years from now, they’ll be off within a fraction of a degree of each other. They’re all identical. None of them show the Earth is going to cool down.

But it’s a different story with precipitation – especially when you start looking at regional changes. Some of the models show areas getting wetter. Other models show the same region getting drier over time. Water plays a huge role in our civilization. Certainly our eco-systems and agriculture are absolutely dependent upon water. And this is probably an area of the climate models that we know less about – and are less confidant about.

ZADA: Much of your work and research takes place in the Arctic? What are the changes occurring there?

BELLO: The Arctic is warming up much faster than anywhere else on Earth. It’s partly because all the snow and ice that helps to keep the Arctic cold is beginning to recede. Snow reflects a lot of sunlight back into space. But if you can melt a little bit of that snow and create a little spot of open ocean, that area will now absorb much more sunlight. In fact the water and the ice represent the two greatest extremes in terms of sunlight absorption. So that transition from a floating ice flow to open ocean means that suddenly you have a fivefold increase in the amount of the sun’s energy that’s being absorbed. And that itself warms the entire system up.

So by burning fossil fuels and causing a little bit of snow to melt, that area will then absorb more sunlight on its own which will cause more warming, and then greater absorption of sunlight the following year, and so on. We call that a “positive feedback”. It’s a vicious circle and it keeps going faster and faster. So areas that have snow and ice are areas that are going to warm up much more rapidly than areas that don’t. And that’s going to continue until all the snow and ice is gone. And that’s the primary reason why the Arctic is warming up faster than anywhere else on the Earth at present. And the models show that this trend is going to continue for at least three or four generations into the future.

ZADA: Another topic we hear about is that of methane gas. It’s often mentioned as being an accelerator of climate change. What exactly is methane, and why is it part of this debate?

BELLO: Most people know methane by its common name: “natural gas”. We use it to heat our homes. It’s produced a couple of different ways. One way is under high pressure and heat. That’s the type of natural gas we find buried in the ground that we would extract through gas pipes and distribute to our homes.

However, the largest source of natural methane is that which is produced biogenicaly by bacteria. These bacteria thrive in oxygen-poor environments; areas that are waterlogged which air can’t penetrate. That bacteria starts eating pieces of leaves, soils, twigs and other organic matter. That produces methane. And the methane that’s produced is 20 times more effective at trapping long-wave radiation escaping into space than even carbon dioxide.

One of the fascinating things about the north is that things grow slowly there. Things also decompose much more slowly. So when the leaves and twigs fall off those small plants and trees at the end of the year, they get permanently frozen and stored away forever instead of decomposing. This material has kept building up over time. So those high-latitude environments is where the largest stores of soil carbon are. It’s a high concentration of peat that’s built up. If you move further south to where we live in Ontario, the plants grow much faster and the de-composition is much faster too. So hardly any carbon ends up in our soils. And the same is true as you move further south towards the tropics. The decomposition there is even higher, and so again, hardly anything builds up in the soils.

So, the polar regions contain vast reservoirs of stored carbon. And they’ve built up because it’s cold and they were entombed in frozen ice and permafrost. Now that the Arctic is warming up so quickly, these soils are starting to thaw out rapidly. The carbon which, up until now has been stored permanently away, is starting to get active again. The bacteria are breaking down that material and it’s being released back into the atmosphere. And it’s not a trivial amount. The entire quantity of CO2 in those peatlands is about two-thirds of what’s in our atmosphere. So if it all decomposed and went back into our atmosphere we’d have 75% more CO2 than we have now. So that methane is actually contributing to the increases in CO2 seen with the burning of fossil fuels. And that’s another positive feedback mechanism.

One thing to realize is that all of this matters to everyone – even if you live in Bora Bora which is very far away from the Arctic. If you melt the Greenland ice sheet, it’s not just the Arctic that’s affected. The entire sea levels of the Earth will go up. It’s the same thing with the stored methane. If that carbon gets into the atmosphere, it’s the entire globe that will be impacted. Call it a kind of environmental globalization.

Now, one of two things is going to happen with regard to the northern peatlands. If the permafrost melts and the water drains away so that oxygen can get in, then that decomposition by the bacteria will produce carbon dioxide. But if the permafrost melts and the peatlands become waterlogged so that oxygen can’t get in, then it’s the methane-producing bacteria that will eat the peat and release methane into the atmosphere.

So the damage that’s going to occur to our atmosphere that’s the result of the melting of the permafrost is going to hinge on whether it’s wet or dry when the warming occurs. And it’s going to be different geographically. So a wet area could be producing 20 times more dangerous greenhouse gasses than another area that’s dry. This is where the question of water, or rainfall, becomes a very big factor.

ZADA: What’s the Canadian government doing about this?

BELLO: Well, at present, the Canadian government is trying to develop a large body of fossil fuels in the tar sands of northern Alberta. The greenhouse gasses that will be produced from that bitumen will be staggering. The CO2 generated by the complete consumption of the tar sands is often comparable to the amount of greenhouse gasses released from the decomposition of the entire peatlands.

The federal government is refusing to recognize the importance of both those sources of greenhouse gasses as a contributor to climate change. The issue of what the environment will be like for our children and grandchildren as a result of this inattention is not being addressed. It doesn’t seem to be a priority. The priority seems to be related to short-term economic development as opposed to a longer-term quality of life.

The current Prime Minister was once a climate change denier. I think he’s changed his tune and come to recognize that there’s too much scientific evidence to claim that climate change isn’t occurring and that humans aren’t responsible for it. All those linkages are there.

He’s taken the perspective that Canada shouldn’t be blamed for the world’s problems. He’s pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Accord – claiming that the targets that were set were unachievable because as a nation we got started too late on addressing emissions – under the guise of setting more realistic greenhouse gas targets. But they’ve failed to do that. So there’s really no strategy to achieve cutbacks in greenhouse gas emissions. What’s happening is hypocritical and dangerous.

I wonder at times why there isn’t a greater concern about how the rest of the world views Canada. We always took pride in the fact that we were always the honest brokers, rolling up our sleeves and helping. We didn’t cut bait and leave when the going got tough. But what we’re getting out of the current government is an attitude of: “We can’t do this – and we don’t want to do this. It’s not in our best immediate interests, and the heck with future generations”.

I find it a terribly myopic view of how we should be running the country and what our objectives should be.

ZADA: How is the work of scientists being impacted by the current government position?

BELLO: Well, let me first of all say that most of the scientists in the academic community feel a responsibility to pick up the torch and become more pro-active about what’s going on in the environment given the devastation that’s been wreaked upon our colleagues that used to work for the government and have been let go.

But to answer your question – there’s so much information control coming out of the government labs now to the point where major scientific discoveries that are taking place aren’t being communicated to the public. I don’t think ‘draconian’ is too strong a word to describe the situation. It’s the type of thing we used to see back in the Cold War days when we would invite Soviet scientists to Canada. Back then they weren’t allowed to speak at all; and if they were, they would be followed around by a KGB agent. Usually somebody high up in the Politburo would come in a scientist’s place (as a reward for being a good member of the party) and give a presentation on their behalf.

I find it terrible that we have such bright people that can’t actually communicate their findings to the public, and to the world.

ZADA: What are the specific obstacles?

BELLO: There’s a gag order that’s been placed on the entire civil service by the federal government. Any work that has any policy implications, even in the smallest sense, has to be vetted through the communications department.

There is increasing evidence now that the message is being filtered, or is not being allowed out at all. If you can control the information that’s coming out, then you can control what the public’s opinions are. That’s really unacceptable and it harkens back to the day when scientific discoveries took a long time to be accepted. It’s a bit like the vigorous opposition by the Church when it wanted to control information related to how the Earth functioned back in the time of the great discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo. What we’re seeing right now is an example of that.

It often surprises me how relatively easy it was to achieve the Montreal Protocol and put into effect controls for chlorofluorocarbon emissions linked to the destruction of ozone. It seemed like almost a miracle that you got all those nations to agree. I guess it was because the manufacturing processes that had to be replaced had already been identified, and there wasn’t that much financial hardship involved.


ZADA: And perhaps the vested interests involved were not as powerful.

BELLO: Yes. And there were also alternatives to replace the chemicals that we were using to produce the refrigerants and Styrofoam cups. There were alternatives and so those businesses could continue to survive, albeit using different processes. But you could actually get an international agreement to eliminate this gas that allows dangerous radiation to reach the earth’s surface.

Now we have a situation where the effects are more calamitous and broad ranging and yet we can’t get any agreement. It’s just too easy to extract carbon for free and charge a price for it. Those who extract the carbon have nothing to do in the production of it. That carbon was generated 300 million years ago during the carboniferous period. That’s when most of it was formed – by photosynthesis, erosional and depositional processes and the build up of extreme pressures. Eventually these deposits of coal, oil, gas and hydrocarbons accumulated.

You can’t go on using fossil fuels at the rate that you’re using them and then sit there and benignly think that there’s some magic bullet that’s going to come out of nowhere and save you. Even with these yet-to-be-discovered methods to increase photosynthesis and sequester carbon, we still have a huge mismatch between the amount of time it takes to create those fuels versus the amount of time it takes to use them all.

So we really do have to seriously think about using different types of fuel. This is where the use of alternate energies comes in. And yes, they’re going to cost more upfront compared to the very little cost now (there is no cost involved in making the fossil fuel energy because it was actually made for us). Alternative energies may be more expensive but its actually more value to pay more for a solar panel or wind turbine when the long term operating costs are actually near zero. It’s better than paying very little for something like a furnace that burns fossil fuels but which forces you to pay an ever-increasing amount for the fuel as time goes on.

ZADA: What should the public be doing?

BELLO: The impact of the world economic crisis on people is very immediate and it can be very dramatic. So you can’t really fault some people for making their number one priority having enough food on the table.

The Canadian public are amongst the best educated in the world and I think the time for us to implement a carbon tax, and do it on an international scale, is coming soon. It’s the ONLY way we’ll be able to maintain our environment in a manner that allows future generations to enjoy Canada as we’re able to today. That time will come shortly. Perhaps in four years. We’ll see.

In addition to his teaching and research, Richard Bello has recently helped create York University’s climate change institute in partnership with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, the Climate Consortium for Research Action and Integration, CC-RAI.