Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you, members of the committee, for the opportunity to make a presentation to this group on what I think is a very important subject, certainly very important for our society.
The Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society is a major non-governmental organization and it is the national society of individuals and organizations dedicated to advancing atmospheric and oceanic sciences and the related environmental disciplines in this country. We serve the interests of meteorologists, climatologists, oceanographers, limnologists, hydrologists, and cryospheric scientists throughout Canada, and indeed we have members internationally as well. We represent Canadian scientists carrying out research on the atmosphere, the oceans, and related environmental issues, including, of course, climate change. We have more than 800 members from Canada's major research centres, universities, private corporations, and government institutes. We think we're uniquely positioned to provide expert advice on the issue of climate change science.
We had a major scientific conference in Toronto last year at the beginning of June, and as a result of that conference we issued a position statement on climate change. The points I'm going to make this morning are essentially based on that statement, with a few additional wrinkles added to deal with developments since then. I'm going to talk about the state of the climate and climate science, I'll talk a bit about the link to air pollution, and I'll talk about the urgency of dealing with the greenhouse gas issue.
Climate change is happening now, both in Canada and around the world. As you've just heard, most of this change is attributable to human activities that have released greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, but there are others, into the atmosphere in increasing amounts since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The effect of these additional greenhouse gases on the global heat balance is well known, it's basic physics, and it's now clearly detectable on continental and global scales.
The removal processes for carbon dioxide are relatively slow, and it eventually becomes fairly evenly mixed throughout the atmosphere. The mean lifetime for carbon dioxide is measured in decades to centuries. Once you put it into the atmosphere, it doesn't go away. This means that it takes a long time for the atmospheric burden of excess carbon dioxide to respond to changes in emissions. It takes a long time to build up and a long time to decline. It also means that the effects of carbon dioxide emissions are not local, but inevitably they will be felt globally. So it's quite different from other forms of so-called air pollution.
Another characteristic of the climate system is that the ocean component, because the earth is roughly 70% ocean, dominates climate processes, and it's the time scale of the oceans that dominates the time scale of climate change. The ocean has a very long response time to changes in the energy balance, because of its enormous heat capacity. So the climate system takes even longer to respond to changes in emissions than the CO2 content of the atmosphere. There are lags and lags. The changes in global temperature that are apparent today are the result of the accumulating burden of anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over many previous decades. It's not the result of what we're doing today, it's the accumulated burden. That's why there's an urgency to do something about it.
I want to say a few words about the link to air pollution. Human activities that release carbon dioxide, mostly the combustion of fossil fuels, also release other substances such as oxides of nitrogen and sulphur that lead to air pollution, with both direct and indirect effects on the health of ecosystems and human beings and other animals. These substances have a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere; you can measure it in hours to days. Their effects are mostly local and are quickly reversed if you reduce emissions. They're relatively easy to deal with on a short time scale. Carbon dioxide is not.
Measures to reduce the emissions of substances that lead to this kind of air pollution will not result in the reduction of emissions of carbon dioxide unless they involve reducing the combustion of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is the inevitable chemical product of the combustion of carbon-containing fuels. You can't get away from it. Unless you capture it before release to the atmosphere, such combustion inevitably leads to an increase in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. If emissions of carbon dioxide continue to increase, they will lead to an increasing rate of buildup of carbon dioxide levels in the global atmosphere.
Even if emissions were to stabilize at current levels, carbon dioxide would continue to increase in the atmosphere and it would result in an increasing effect on global climate. We can't just stabilize and say we're okay. The climate is going to continue to react with past emissions, and current emissions are sufficient to keep the content rising. So even if emissions were to suddenly decrease to pre-industrial levels, the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, and hence the climate, would take decades to centuries to return to pre-industrial conditions. Again, there's a long time lag in these things. That's why we think we need to take immediate action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, to mitigate future climate change, and we must prepare for adapting to the climate change that has already been set in place by past emissions.
As just a few words on the climate convention and Kyoto Protocol, we advocate a coordinated global response to climate change. We urge all governments to work together toward a single international agreement to address it, as was recognized in the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The convention's Kyoto Protocol is an important first step towards reducing the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. However, the scientific evidence dictates that in order to stabilize the climate, global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions need to go far beyond those mandated under the Kyoto Protocol. We recognize the challenge of implementing the current agreement. Nonetheless, we urge Canada to contribute effectively.
It is to be noted as well that Canada has other obligations under articles 4, 5, and 6 of the climate convention and article 10 of the Kyoto Protocol regarding research on climate and systematic observations related to the climate system. We're not holding up our end of that either.
Canada has no choice but to adapt to present and future climate change, and we need a national adaptation strategy in order to do that. Further research is critical for making more accurate predictions of future climate on seasonal, decadal, and century time scales, for defining our options, for reducing the effects of climate change, and for understanding and dealing with its impacts specifically on Canada. Although it is a global problem, it affects different parts of the world unequally. Canada, and Canada's north, is one of the areas of the globe most affected by climate change, and we need to understand that better. We need more research, we need more data, and we need to support those activities.
That ends my presentation, Mr. Chair.