Part 2: Averting Climate Catastrophe

Part 2: Averting Climate Catastrophe

“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 are second only to global nuclear war.”

When the Kyoto agreement was signed, Canada committed to reducing its 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 are expected to be 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.

Globally, emissions have risen faster than any of the models produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with alarming results. 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 Darfur 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 greenhouse gas more than twenty times as powerful as carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere. 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.

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 firestorms, 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 2 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 at 389 ppm now, up from 275 ppm in the 1800s, and now it is rising at 3 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 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.”

Canadian negotiators in Copenhagen in 2009 proposed reductions of just 2% below 1990 levels, and a month later, in January 2010, announced the new Canadian target of 3% above 1990 levels. This is not just failing to meet our Kyoto commitments a decade too late, it is promising to continue in the wrong direction. In an effort to confuse, the Harper government routinely expresses this new target as 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.

While the rhetoric of the current government remains framed around US efforts in a strongly related continental economy, when the US 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. It's also untrue because the Obama Administration is acting to meet the target they have set. Canada is not.

The 25-40% emissions reduction range is likely insufficient. It is based on a stabilization target of 450 ppm of atmospheric CO2. Based on recently observed trends, a 350 ppm goal is now being embraced by climatologists and is becoming the new scientific consensus. To achieve this new goal, we would have to either virtually eliminate carbon emissions this decade, or set on a slightly less aggressive trajectory now and hope for technology that can reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to emerge in the future.

The international agreements which were concluded in Cancun, Mexico in December 2010, agreed to by the Harper government, acknowledged that the 2 degree targeted limit to increased global temperature may well be too high, and that the commitments made by countries to date to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fall far short of what would be required to reach even this inadequate goal.

The coming decade will largely determine the type of planet we will have at century's end and for millennia thereafter. 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 2020, and to 85% reduction below 1990 by 2040 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” 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 low-carbon economy, the better off we will be.

We must implement policies that make it possible to meet the greenhouse gas 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