Conservation Corner: Global Warming – Why has it been ignored for so long?


Conservation corner (fall 2006)

By Neal Klassen, BCWWA “Watermark” contributor

Scientists have been tracking CO2 emissions since the mid 1960s and, in 1969, the following quote appeared in New Scientist: “For some years now, carbon dioxide has been under suspicion as a potential cause of major climatic alteration on a global scale.”

Think about it. That was almost 40 years ago. Pierre Trudeau was in his first term as Prime Minister, W.A.C. Bennett was still Premier of BC, and The Beatles were still together. So, why is real dialogue and real action on global warming just getting started?

Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, suggests it is because the human brain evolved to respond to threats that have four features – features that the global warming lacks.

First, as social mammals, our brains are highly specialized for thinking about others. Our brains developed an obsession with all things human, so we respond best to threats posed by other humans.

Second, global warming does not violate our moral sensibilities. Gilbert says that moral emotions are the brain’s call to action and he suggests (somewhat facetiously) that, if climate change were caused by the practice of eating kittens, millions of protestors would be massing in the streets.

Third, we see global warming as a threat to our future, not to our present. Humans evolved to respond to clear and present danger, but the brain’s ability to predict the timing and location of dangers before they occur is still a developing skill.

The fourth reason is that the brain tends to ignore gradual changes. The human brain is extremely sensitive to sudden changes in light, sound, temperature, etc., but if the rate of change is slow enough, the change will often go undetected.

For water suppliers, the effect of global warming is uncertain. In the Okanagan, some believe we will have a longer growing season and more rain than snow in winter. Without the snow pack as a natural reservoir, we may see a greater demand for water, but less of it to go around.

I wonder how many of us include global warming in our long-term water management plans. Depending on what happens, severe water conservation measures may become critical – and it may happen sooner than we think.

I am very interested in hearing from water purveyors who are considering global warming in their plans. Send me an email at


Originally published in the Fall  2006 issue of Watermark Magazine, the official publication of the British Columbia Water & Waste Association (BCWWA).