One for the Planet

Today, it turns out, is Blog Action Day, where bloggers around the world are encouraged to blog on the environment. And it turns out that as a climber, I have an interest in the environment because of what I've seen in the mountains.

It's easy not to care about the environment. For most of us, environmental issues don't affect our day to day lives. In some places, if you go on about "the environment", people look at you like some kind of kook. Growing up in the 70's, there were lots of environmentalists around making noise, but in general they were treated like a bunch of weirdos. In my upbringing, there was a certain stigma attached to environmental issues. You still encounter this today even in young people. A lot of people just don't want to be worried about the environment.

I just posted a bunch of photos from my last trip to the Canadian Rockies. I started doing technical mountaineering in the Rockies in the mid-90's, starting with Mt. Temple, Mt. Edith, and Mt. Athabasca in 1997. Several years ago I went back to Mt. Athabasca with a group of friends. Although the route was familiar, I was really confused by how much steeper and more difficult the glacier seemed to be. I couldn't be sure if the route itself had changed, or if my memory was incorrect. I just couldn't imagine the mountain environment changing that much.

In recent years my climbing trips to the Rockies have confirmed what a lot of people have been saying... the mountain environment is really changing. The glaciers are melting like crazy, and a lot of the routes we used to climb are now either more difficult, too dangerous, or just plain gone. In this regard, mountaineers have a unique perspective on climate change.

1973

2006

Its not easy to find good photo documentation of glacial recession online (they don't tend to make good marketing material for the tourism industry). But you won't find any mountaineers who doubt global warming, glacial recession, and the drastic changes that are occurring high in the alpine, away from the view of city dwellers. Year after year, as we return to the Rockies, the same phrases... "It's just incredible", or "I can't believe it"... echo around as we stare at the remnants of glaciers and ice fields where only a few years earlier we had led troupes of novice climbers for a beginners day. Ice fields which now even the most experienced climbers in our group wouldn't try to climb.

Seeing these drastic changes first hand really drove home to me that the mountain climate and environment is absolutely changing. The Melting Mountains project aims to raise awareness of changes in the mountain environment. Reinhold Messner put it, “From the changes I have seen, it’s clear that climate change is a huge threat to the mountains. We need to act now and protect them for the future.”

The changing mountain environment impacts a lot more than just the climbing routes of mountaineers. The Columbia Icefields are the hydrographic apex of North America, feeding rivers that run into three oceans. They represent the largest accumulation of snow and ice south of the arctic circle and are a vital source of water for the continent. Unfortunately the rate at which they're disappearing is plain to see if you visit there often enough, and if the current rate of recession continues, the eight major glaciers that extend from this incredible spot could be gone in our lifetime.

This brings me to a more serious and insidious side effect of change in the mountain environment -- water. In some corporate and government circles, water has been referred to as "the new oil". Water shortage is no longer confined to far-away drought-stricken third world countries. And even as news of water shortages and the global water crisis grows, corporations are fighting to gain control of this precious resource that most of us take for granted.

"The wars of the next century will be about water." - Ismail Serageldin, vice president of the World Bank

In a special report entitled "Blue Gold: The global water crisis and the commodification of the world's water supply", issued by the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), Council of Canadians National Chairperson Maude Barlow describes the global water crisis, the push to commodify and commercialize it, and urges governments and citizens to act to save the world's water resources.

More recently, it has been developed into a book entitled Blue Gold - The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water (2003), followed by Blue Covenant - The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water (2007).

Maybe reading books and reports isn't your thing, and you're looking for something simple you can start doing right away. Here it is:

Stop drinking bottled water.

There are so many reasons not to drink bottled water. Even the United Church has called for a ban on bottled water. The Polaris Institute website is a good place to start researching water issues, but here is a list of 7 good reasons to stop drinking bottled water and turn on the tap.
  1. Bottled water costs over six hundred times more than tap water. Bottled water costs up to $11.00 a gallon in the supermarket when most municipal water supplies cost less than one cent per gallon.
  2. Bottled water is not as safe as tap water. Tap water has much stricter quality standards than bottled water.
  3. Bottled water causes pollution. 1.5 million tonnes of garbage results from plastic bottles every year. Between 80 - 90% of water bottles end up in landfills, in the ocean, and in our food. A vast swath of the Pacific, twice the size of Texas, is full of a plastic stew that is entering the food chain.
  4. Bottled water depletes local water resources. Excessive water extraction leads to local water resource depletion. For every gallon of bottled water, two gallons are wasted in the bottling process.
  5. Bottled water is bad for the environment. Plastic water bottle production uses up to 47 million gallons of oil a year, enough to fuel 100,000 cars or remove 1 billion pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
  6. Bottled water is not pure spring water. Much bottled water is nothing more than bottled tap water (ie. Aquafina and Dasani).
  7. Bottled water is bad for your health. Xenoestrogens leached from plastic water bottles are associated with medical problems including infertility and breast cancer (manufacturers know this, so bottles are marked 'Do not refill').
A good alternative to drinking bottled water is to buy a stainless steel bottle to carry tap water. Its versatile, hard-wearing, and it looks good and shows you are in the know. Bottled water is out.

Its a small step we can all take, mountaineers or not.

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