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Global warming, it seems to me, suffers from bad branding. For many people, a warmer Earth sounds more habitable, a good place to get a tan. But the phrase "climate change" is too general, too tepid. There is no sense of consequence.
At the Athabasca, our guide — without editorializing — put what's happening in terms that are strikingly simple. Only two and a half percent of the world's water is fresh water. Of that, 70 percent is stored in glaciers, icecaps and "permanent" snow. If we look at "warming" as a fresh water crisis then climate change takes on greater urgency. Sea level rise we can deal with. But if unabated climate change eliminates key sources of water for drinking, farming, fishing and power generation, now that's a huge problem. The melting of the Athabasca highlights this for us Cascadians because these mountains are the headwaters for the Columbia and Fraser River tributaries and other systems. Our economy is absolutely dependent on Rocky Mountain ice.
Alberta's economy, unsurprisingly, has some built-in contradictions.The province makes big money both from the glaciers and from oil. It is widely regarded as the Texas of Canada and there is no shortage of SUVs on the road, to say the least. Many of the people we met there were connected in one way or another to the energy industry. No wonder. The scale and impact of the business is mind boggling. In the next 25 years, oil sands revenues are expected to generate $350 billion in royalties for the province and $122 billion in tax revenues.
At the same time, the Canadian Rockies and their glaciers are critical to a nearly $8 billion annual tourism economy. And the province is investing in it too. The Alberta tourism promotion budget for 2014 is estimated at more than $56 million. In other words, they take tourism very seriously. People come from all over the world to see the Rockies and relish the wilderness, the scenery, the skiing. The questions then: To what degree are their energy and tourism futures at odds? Can the people of Alberta have their glaciers and greenhouse gases too, and if so, for how long?
Strange as it was to rumble onto a glacier in a giant ice terrain vehicle, I would recommend that excursion to everyone who makes it up to Banff or Jasper. You might enjoy it simply because it's exhilarating fun, albeit a bit politically incorrect, as most fun is. But it is also eye-opening in terms of what's at stake. You get a close-up look at a diminishing resource — glaciers are a kind of endangered species central to our entire way of life. You get a glimpse of a comparatively hidden aspect of a key element that makes the region tick. After the glacier excursion, you'll probably come away more committed to — or at least conscious of — trying to sort out our critical climate dilemma. Think of it as a beautiful outing that provides a cold slap in the face about global warming.
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