Part 2: Addressing the challenge of the Climate Crisis

“If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.”

James Hansen, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies

Canada was once a leader in addressing climate change. During a Toronto heat wave in 1988, we hosted the first-ever international scientific conference on climate change, “Our Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security.” The consensus statement from the assembled scientists was “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment, whose ultimate consequences could be second only to global nuclear war.”

When the Kyoto agreement was signed, Canada committed to reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 6% below 1990 levels during the period 2008-2012.

Due to government inaction, our emissions during the Kyoto commitment period of 2008-2012 were about 30% higher than we promised. Meanwhile, other countries, such as Germany, Sweden, and England, have achieved double-digit emissions reductions since signing onto the Kyoto Protocol.

Canada could have met the Kyoto target. In fact, a plan was put in place in spring of 2005 that would have resulted in reductions just shy of the goal. But that plan was killed within the first few weeks after Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006.

Globally, emissions have risen along the line of the business as usual (BAU) trajectory model produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). If it is not mitigated, this BAU growth in GHGs will increase global average temperature up to 4.5 degrees C over pre-Industrial Revolution by the year 2100. Scientists place that level of warming as leading to catastrophic levels of climatic disruption.

Currently, with less than a degree of global average temperature increase, glaciers are melting, threatening global water supplies. Polar ice is receding at an alarming rate and what remains is spongy and vulnerable, so many climate scientists now expect Arctic ice to disappear many decades ahead of when they believed just a few short years ago. Sea levels are rising, leading to evacuations of people from low-lying island nations and increasing the threats of storm damage due to tidal surges in coastal areas. Storm intensities with higher precipitation are increasing. Coral reefs are dying. Tropical storms are intensifying. The Amazon is drying out and becoming a tinderbox. Many areas are experiencing unprecedented heat waves and droughts. Conflict in places like Syria is exacerbated by climate-induced drought, and heralds the arrival of resource wars fueled by the climate crisis.

The situation is getting worse. As the ice melts in the Arctic, less sunlight is reflected and the ocean heats up more quickly. This accelerates the melting of permafrost, releasing ancient deposits of methane (a GHG more than twenty times as powerful as carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere. These events are driven by what are called ‘positive feedback loops.’ They are serious because they threaten to eventually overtake any human efforts in the future to reduce emissions. 

The oceans are slowly absorbing some of the increased atmospheric carbon, but this causes ocean acidification, which harms many of the organisms in the food chain on which our fisheries depend. We are already experiencing loss of commercial scallop and oyster production due to ocean acidification.

It is estimated that climate change now claims the lives of over 315 000 people annually and is expected to create 700 million environmental refugees by mid-century. If unchecked, it will reduce the Earth’s human carrying capacity to less than a billion by century’s end. Less than a tenth of humanity may survive unless we act now.

Canadians have already felt the impacts from coast to coast to coast: more floods and fires, droughts and water shortages, heat waves and smoggy days, hurricanes, catastrophic wind and ice storms shutting down communities, insect infestations killing millions of hectares of trees.

The permafrost from Siberia to the Mackenzie Valley is melting. As it melts, whole villages face the need to relocate, and caribou sink in the mud as they try to migrate. The glaciers, whether in the Alps, the Rockies, the Yukon, or the Andes, are all in rapid retreat.

The intensity of hurricanes is increasing. While some hurricane specialists are not yet convinced, increasingly research at MIT and Princeton demonstrates that the energy packed in the hurricane’s punch has increased by 50-80% from 1950 to 2003. Warmer waters in the ocean lead to more severe hurricanes. In the fall of 2003, Hurricane Juan was the first full force tropical hurricane ever to slam into Nova Scotia. Formerly, cooler ocean water to our south would have downgraded Juan to a tropical storm, but, with warmer ocean surface waters, it hit Nova Scotia as a tropical hurricane.

Scientists are increasingly talking about climate change as being less a dial, than a switch. What is described in the literature as “non-linear perturbations” can be translated as ‘nasty shocks’ or sudden and abrupt climate catastrophes.

A number of scientists have determined that the risk of ‘tipping point events’ – the loss of the Gulf Stream, the collapse of the Western Antarctic Ice Shelf, and the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet – is increased if global average temperature goes up by two degrees C above the pre-Industrial Revolution temperature. This, they estimate, could happen if concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere were to increase to somewhere between 400 to 450 ppm. We are now closing in on 400 ppm, up from 275 ppm in the 1800s, and now it is rising at three ppm per year. And yet, our government resists shifting to a low-carbon economy. Many other countries have begun to make this shift successfully.

When Prime Minister Harper first formed government in 2006, he first said he had no intention of honouring Kyoto or doing anything about climate change at all. Due to pressure from Canadians, his policy didn’t change, but his rhetoric did. He claimed our targets had to change to be ‘realistic.’

In 2007, in Bali, industrialized nations agreed to negotiate emission reductions in the range of 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020. Canadian negotiators only very reluctantly agreed, and yet the Harper government immediately announced it had no intention of signing binding treaties in that range, and shortly afterwards announced that Canada’s position was not ‘made in Canada’ after all, but ‘made in the USA.’

Stephen Harper personally attended COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. Whereas in 2006, he had rejected Kyoto and set a far weaker target (a non-binding pledge to reduce greenhouse gases to 20% below 2006 levels by 2020), in Copenhagen he weakened it once more. Canada pledged to meet the same target as the US (17% GHG reductions below 2005 levels by 2020). Canada also signed on to a commitment in the non-binding Copenhagen Accord, engineered as a backroom deal by U.S. President Obama, that the efforts of the signatories were to avoid allowing global average temperatures to rise above 2 degrees global averages of the pre-Industrial Revolution global averages.

While the rhetoric of the current government remains framed around U.S. efforts in a strongly related continental economy, when the U.S. does take action on climate, the Harper government does not follow. Canada’s move to the same base year as the United States (2005) weakened our targets while the same move by the United States strengthened its targets. The rhetoric of the current government is also false because the Obama Administration has now made dramatic policy changes by executive order. The U.S. will meet its 2020 target and has made a commitment to reduce 26% below 2005 levels by 2025.

Sadly, Canada has totally missed the target. Using Environment Canada’s own figures, Canada is set to miss its Copenhagen target of 126MT reductions by 116MT. With only five years left before Harper’s pledge falls due, his administration has failed to establish any plan to meet it. It will be challenging for any government, even a majority Green government, to meet that target now.

Meanwhile, the world’s scientific body reviewing climate action, the IPCC, found that even if all Copenhagen targets were met, the avowed goal of avoiding 2 degrees would not be met.

Much more dramatic action is required. In fact, the IPCC is now calling for the world to cease using fossil fuels for energy entirely by the end of this century. The ramping up of renewable and green sources of energy is a global phenomenon.

The coming decade will largely determine the type of planet we will have at century’s end and for millennia thereafter. In December 2015, the nations of the world will meet at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The agenda for that COP is to create a treaty, encompassing all nations on earth, whose provisions are designed to avoid 2 degrees global average temperature increase.

If we act boldly and decisively to reduce our dependence on finite polluting energy, we can still deliver a planet that sustains humanity and most other life. If we fail to change existing patterns, we will almost surely usher in an era of conflict and irreversible changes. Canada must once again become a leader in global climate negotiations. It must also, for the first time, make substantial progress in reducing greenhouse gases by embracing a truly green economy.

 Canada must take the lead in global negotiations by adopting these positions on the targets we will meet:

  • An opening offer to reduce Canadian emissions 30% below 1990 levels by 2030, and to 85% reduction below 1990 by 2050 regardless of what other countries do;

  • A commitment to push for the global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that are required to achieve a target of 350 ppm to cap the maximum global temperature increase at 1.5 degrees;

  • A promise to adopt the far more aggressive emission reductions which would be required if other industrialized countries also participate;

  • A commitment to periodically reassess these targets in light of emerging scientific evidence, to adopt more aggressive targets if needed, and to push for an international system of periodic review, reassessment, and target renewal.

 Phasing out carbon emissions as quickly as possible until we become ‘carbon neutral’ by 2100 must be the overarching goal. A complete phase-out will occur eventually in any case as fossil fuels run out and the sooner we embrace a green economy, the better off we will be.

We must implement policies that make it possible to meet the GHG emissions targets to which we commit and then we must allocate the necessary resources to ensure that we actually achieve these objectives.

Finally, we must also commit to technology transfers and to provide the financing necessary to help developing countries achieve their emissions targets.

 “We are risking the ability of the human race to survive.”

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change