A mounting list of very knowledgeable people now say, with urgency in their voices, that time is a huge factor in our being able to avert catastrophic climate change? Let’s cut to the chase.
I first taught environmental studies at the University of Waterloo in the 1970s. We have now passed the worst-case scenarios projected from the pioneering research on climate change at that time. Changes in the temperature and chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans, melting glaciers, extreme weather everywhere and environmental refugees are all on the rise.
We are clearly at the crossroads for humanity.
The warnings are piling up and we ignore them at the peril of our children and grandchildren.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just warned that we only have until 2030, just 12 years away, to stem catastrophic climate change. We have to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees C over pre-industrial levels, and we are already at one-degree warming. We all celebrated 197 countries signing the Paris Accord, but even if the targets were met, we would not avert irreversible climate change. The IPCC now says we “must take rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.
Global CO2 equivalent emissions are steadily rising, and are now over 400 parts per million (ppm), which is higher than the Earth has experienced for millions of years. Emissions will have to fall by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030 if there is to be any hope of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees C. If temperatures rise higher, we face new emissions from melting permafrost and accelerated deforestation. Much more non-human stored emissions will enter the biosphere as part of such global temperature feedback loops. And now there is further research that suggests that the oceans have heated more at existing levels of emission than previously thought. This puts ocean life and coral reefs at even greater risk. The need to move to a low-carbon society is becoming more urgent each day.
Catastrophic impacts are already staring us in the face. The World Wildlife Fund just released its Living Planet Report. There has been a 60-per-cent decline in wildlife in just one generation, since the 1970s. Mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians are all disappearing. The trend towards extinction is even worse in the oceans and rain forests. Loss of habitats and over-extraction (e.g. over-fishing) are primary reasons. The WWF is right that we are “pushing our planet to the brink.”
Most disconcerting is that 70 per cent of the world’s wilderness remains in only five countries, and Canada (along with Russia, Australia, the U.S. and Brazil) is one of them. Three countries are presently headed by ecologically hostile, authoritarian male leaders. As Canadians we now have an evolutionary obligation to stand up to protect the natural systems and biodiversity that is at risk in our midst.
Meanwhile, we are so susceptible to delusion. Collective distraction is rampant in our politics and everyday lives. Our escape into virtual realities grows as the natural systems, including the watersheds that give us all life, continue to degrade. There are many psycho-social barriers to human action to avert catastrophic climate change.
Even if we aren’t yet fully aware of the interdependence and value of all life, we should be heeding the warnings about human health. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported that 93 per cent of the 1.8 billion children on the planet are now breathing polluted air. Nine of 10 children are now “exposed to levels of fine particulate matter higher than the WHO air quality guidelines.” The WHO reported that in 2016, 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by air pollution. Nearly all children in the lower-income countries and half of the children in middle and higher-income countries breath polluted air. What we mean by quality of life needs a complete rethink.
And what are the culprits? Fossil fuel combustion, industrial processes, waste incineration and chemical agriculture along with wildfires, dust storms and volcanoes. Most of these are tied to the high-carbon economy that fuels global warming.
The threat that plastics now poses to ocean life and overall environmental health compound the global ecological crisis. And the dominant plastics which have done most of the damage are themselves produced from hydro-carbons, i.e. fossil fuels. The same thing applies to most pharmaceuticals, which are also detrimentally affecting waterways and aquatic health, and have contributed to the medicalization of trauma and all sorts of socio-economic stressors. To avert climate disaster, which will bring even more trauma to the human race, we need to start to deal directly with the causes of trauma.
All this puts the upcoming generations at growing risks. And if this knowledge about our children does not motivate us, what will?
We all have to look closely at our local situation: to think globally and act locally. Something is very wrong in my home province, Saskatchewan. We have the highest carbon footprint in all of Canada and among the highest on the planet. Our per-capita emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent (C02e) are nearly 70 metric tonnes, while Canada’s is around 20. The global average is below five. We have the greatest potential in Canada for wind and solar renewables, and yet flirt with cost-ineffective carbon capture to save coal plants and export uranium for toxic nuclear power. It is a myth that nuclear power is low carbon, when you trace the whole nuclear fuel chain, from mining to enriching to decommissioning and endless radioactive waste storage.
We use pricing to limit unhealthy consumption (e.g. of alcohol and cigarettes) and yet play political games to avoid carbon pricing. Pricing can be an effective tool to protect the environment.
Neither either the governing Saskatchewan Party nor the Opposition NDP, has yet given serious leadership that addresses the climate crisis. Both have contributed to making our economy more dependent on high-carbon resource industries. And what about the rest of us, who can hopefully still think for ourselves and see what is coming?
The future is already happening. Time is now a huge factor in our capacity to avert climate change. So, what is keeping so many people so passive and so silent?