42 years of science journalism — and one big story
Bob McDonald looks back on the biggest story of his career — climate change
CBC Radio turned 82 this week, and for more than half of that time, it has employed this science journalist. And throughout those four decades, one story has persisted and evolved — climate change.
In 1976, I was asked to do a documentary for CBC Radio's Ideas. It was part of a series called "Climate: Running Hot and Cold." At that time there was a debate in scientific community about whether the Earth was going to warm up or get colder in the future.
On one side was the idea that our planet has been through multiple ice ages, with warm periods between them that were roughly 10,000 years long. We have been living in a warm period for longer than that, so we are overdue for another super cold snap.
On the other side of the debate were a group of climate scientists who explained the concept of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, that are added to the atmosphere by human industrial activity. The gases allow sunlight to pass though and warm the ground, but trap the heat rising up from the ground, preventing it from radiating back out into space.
The scientists predicted that as more of these gases were spewed into the air, they would upset the Earth's natural cycle and the next ice age would be deferred.
That was 1976.
Of course, since then, the predictions of climate warming have all come true, usually in a more serious way than was originally thought. Carbon emissions have continued to rise, along with the global average temperature. Ice has disappeared from the Arctic Ocean faster than predicted, tropical storms have become more intense, coral reefs have bleached, and a new study released just this week shows that the oceans have absorbed 60 per cent more heat energy than previously thought just since 1991.
While the scientific evidence for climate change has piled up in the last four decades, so has opposition. Much of it has been funded by those who stand to lose the most — namely fossil fuel companies and the industries that burn those fuels.
Clever campaigns of denial have been waged. Climate scientists have been subjected to an onslaught of harassment. False claims and misinformation have cast doubt in the public mind and convinced politicians to move slowly, if at all. The low point might be that the man who is now the President of the United States once suggested climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese to gain a competitive edge.
Meanwhile, despite the campaign of denial, the Earth's climate — indeed, the entire ecosystem of the planet — has continued to change at an ever increasing rate. And it is that rate of change that concerns scientists the most.
The Earth naturally goes through cycles of warm and cold, but human activity has pressed down on the accelerator, so changes that would normally take millennia are happening in decades. These rapid changes are too fast for many species of plant and animal to adapt, giving rise to an extinction rate that hasn't been seen since the dinosaurs disappeared. Of course, these extinctions often have other contributing factors, like habitat loss and pollution, also caused by human activity.
From the perspective of an aging science journalist, this journey to a warmer world sometimes seems catastrophic, but thankfully, there is hope. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which was established in 1988, gathers hundreds of scientists from more than 50 countries together to come up with regular reports of the state of the Earth's changing climate.
These reports show stronger and stronger evidence that climate change is real and serious. The UN also holds international summits that bring world leaders together to agree to make positive change, such as the latest Paris Agreement, although many argue that is still not enough.
Meanwhile, science continues to explore new, clean ways of capturing energy, and using that energy without compromising the climate. A new generation of young researchers is in the labs working on new technologies, while others are out in the field monitoring the changes to the environment. It is their future at stake and they know it.
More importantly, climate change is finally becoming a reality in the public mind. The devastation from more powerful hurricanes, bigger forest fires, droughts and record breaking heat waves top the news. More and more people are accepting that the scientists who have been waving a red flag for the last 40 years have been right all along. Hopefully, that realization will sway votes in elections and translate into real political action.
The question now is, can we take our collective foot off the climate change accelerator over the next four or five decades and avoid the prospect of a scorched Earth?
It is my hope that the next generation of science journalists will be reporting on positive changes that will take place in the future rather than the negative ones we've been tracking for the last four decades.