Two surprising, important and connected events took place in British Columbia in May, 2013. On Tuesday, May 14, the province’s citizens elected a majority Liberal government. Five days earlier, on Thursday, May 9, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million — the last time such a high level existed on Earth was about 3 million years ago.
The election of a Liberal majority government was a surprise to almost everyone in the province. Equally surprising was the collapse in support for the New Democrats. Public opinion polls had placed them in the lead — as they had been for months — and all but a few unrealistically optimistic Liberals expected to lose. But the voters surprised both the pundits and the parties.
The explanations for electoral wins and losses are always complicated. But a significant factor was the Liberal’s simple message, repeated endlessly, of a prosperous future promised by the exploitation of BC’s sizeable natural gas deposits. The economic prospects of compressing and exporting this fossil fuel as liquid natural gas (LNG) to an Asia hungry for energy was an irresistible temptation to voters. The further possibility of BC becoming a transit site for the export of millions of tonnes of coal and huge volumes of Alberta bitumen was also a convincing economic temptation. So the majority of the legislature’s 85 seats went to the Liberals, with a smattering of Independents and one Green Party candidate.
The distribution of votes in the province is informative. Almost every seat in the interior went to the Liberals; almost every coastal riding went to the New Democrats. In the heartland of the province, the concern seemed to be jobs and the economic development arising from resource extraction. For coastal BC, the prospect of oil tankers plying BC’s pristine waters was probably a major factor in guiding the vote — the lone Green elected candidate came from a riding most at risk due to an increase in oil tanker traffic from the proposed expansion of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline to Vancouver.
Most of the voters of British Columbia, however, didn’t seem to connect the burning of fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil and coal with rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. They couldn’t or wouldn’t understand that carbon dioxide emissions cause the planet to warm, setting in motion a cascade of complex climate problems which will likely destabilize the foundations of our modern civilization. Indeed, as voters, they essentially supported the conditions that are precipitating a global environmental crisis of a magnitude unprecedented in our existence as human beings.
Climate scientists faithfully monitoring the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide must feel that they are witnessing an impending doom. All international efforts since 1992 to cut CO2 emissions have been abject failures. Levels have risen 27 percent in 55 years, with fossil fuel consumption now increasing three time faster than in the 1960s. As for LNG, the perpetual drilling, fracking, leaking, pumping, compressing and shipping required for this product makes it about as carbon intensive as dirty coal — the use of which, incidentally, is also increasing. Consequently, the international community’s pledge to not exceed a 2°C increase in global temperature seems likely to fail. The 400 ppm is a dark reminder of this inevitability. Dr. Peter Tans of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US governmental agency that has been monitoring carbon dioxide levels at the Mauna Loa station, summarizes the significance of this historic measurement. “It symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem” (Globe and Mail, May 11/13).
Dr. Ralph Keeling, who is responsible for a similar program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, reiterates Tan’s concern. “It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds” (Ibid.).
Dr. Maureen Raymo, an earth scientist from Columbia University in the US, echoes the same concern. “It feels,” she says, “like the inevitable march toward disaster” (Ibid.).
But the 2°C is, at best, an educated guess at the temperature limit our sustaining systems can tolerate while still avoiding the feedback loops of uncontrollable warming. The strategy a high-risk gamble fraught with danger. A realistic prognosis by many scientists is that we have already set the conditions to exceed this threshold. Most climatologists expected we would reach 400 ppm — they were only surprised that we reached it so soon.
But surprises are common these days. Climate change by almost every measure is arriving sooner than the models have predicted. Extreme weather events are occurring with unexpected ferocity. Scientists aren’t the only ones surprised. Munich Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurers (they insure insurance companies), has noted a doubling in the last three decades of claims related to extreme weather. Farmers are regularly challenged by climate anomalies that make crop production uncertain.
One of the biggest surprises, however, was the electorate’s failure to incorporate all the convincing science, evidence and warnings into its thinking and voting. The greatest and most sobering disappointment of BC’s provincial election was not which parties won or lost seats, but the failure of most voters to comprehend the seriousness of the environmental challenges confronting them. If they are unable to comprehend the principles of climate science, if they are unwilling or incapable of recognizing the threats of climate change, if their imagination is not sufficient to motivate strategies of avoidance, then elections will be little more than exercises in futility.