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Climate for change

Andrew Raven
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 07/05) - The future of the Northwest Territories could lie in the hands of some 180 countries attending an international conference on global warming in Montreal this week, according to one observer.

The United Nations Convention on Climate Change will focus on what some are calling the most serious threat facing the world and, more immediately, the Arctic: rising temperatures.

"This is a very important (gathering)," said Doug Ritchie, a program director at the Yellowknife based environmental group Ecology North.

The Arctic has been described as a bell-weather for the rest of the planet. Research and anecdotal evidence suggest a series of complicated factors have already begun to affect the Northern climate, which could see temperatures rise between four and seven degrees in the next century.

Some of those changes include:

  • sea ice along the Beaufort Sea has receded;
  • animals that normally live below the 60th parallel have moved into the North Slave;
  • the winter road season is 40 per cent shorter than 20 years ago; and
  • the permafrost that runs under streets and houses has, in some parts, begun to thaw.

While the Northwest Territories have been able to cope with those changes, that will not be the case forever, Ritchie warned.

"As the warming continues, it could overwhelm our ability to adapt," he said.

Even a five-degree temperature shift would radically alter migratory routes, water levels and ice flows, scientists warn.

The 30 industrialized countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol entered the Montreal conference with two main tasks. The first, which was finalized last week, was to establish a measuring stick for greenhouse gas emissions during the initial phase of the accord, which runs from 2008-2012.

The second - and much harder - part will be setting emissions limits for phase two. That will be the true test of those nations' commitment. "Kyoto is a baby step," said Ritchie. "We need to make adult steps... and soon," he said in Yellowknife, Monday.

The landmark 1997 agreement committed the world's richest countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions - which trap heat near the earth's surface causing temperatures to rise - by five per cent.

Studies have shown that to avoid "catastrophic" changes to weather patterns and the environment, greenhouse gasses need to be slashed 25 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050, Ritchie said.

The danger, according some, is that once the warming trend begins, it could reach a point of no return.

During the Montreal conference, the George Bush administration has taken fire for its refusal to participate in Kyoto.

But despite the official stance from Washington, several cities and states have embraced its goals, something Ritchie said called encouraging.

"There are many positives out there," he said. "The U.S. administration is becoming increasingly isolated."