Across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Victoria, a brownish haze clings to the Olympic Peninsula’s shore. There are reports of ash raining from the sky in Vancouver, Salt Spring Island and Nanaimo. The sun was a reddish-brown color in Qualicum Beach. There are severe wildfires along the West Coast, from Alaska to California. There may be more than drought behind the fires: Is this Climate Change?
“Climate change is producing hotter, drier conditions in the American West, which contribute to more large wildfires and longer wildfire seasons,” a 2014 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists concludes.
Some of the statistics:
“The western wildfire season has grown from five months, on average, in the 1970s to seven months today. The annual number of large wildfires has increased by more than 75 percent.
“The expense of fighting wildfires and protecting life and property from harm is nearly four times greater than it was 30 years ago and has exceeded $1 billion every year since 2000 (in 2012 dollars).”
What was once called California’s drought now extends from Mexico to Alaska.
So far, this has not translated into fire damage, though statistics on the Cal Fire website show more fires than at any other period during the drought.
Yet, as Cal Fire Captain Kendall Bortisser told NBC news, “The danger is always there. We’re not getting the rains, the fuels are dry, they’re volatile.”
Season starts early in Washington and Oregon
This is the second year of drought for Oregon, and it has now reached Washington state. Seattle, where the LA Times quips, “the sun does not appear before July 5,” has just gone through the hottest June on record.
The National Interagency Fire Center identified Washington and Oregon as two of the three U.S. states where, “the majority of the wildfire activity remains…” Fire season started “three to five weeks ahead of schedule” in the Pacific Northwest and many believe this is going to be the pattern for years to come.
“This is a stress test for 2070. We’re being tested now with the warmth and lack of snowpack that will be typical at the end of the century. How do we get through it?” asked Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington.
Alaska smashes records
There is a new record in Alaska. The previous one was set in June 2004, when 216 fires consumed 1,153,257.9 acres. On June 29, the folks at Alaska Wildland Fire information posted that 399 fires had already burned some 1,600,000 acres in 2015.
“In the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the country, with average temperatures up by nearly 3°F.” they wrote on Climate Central.
[quote]Alaska’s wildfire season is about 40 percent longer now than it was in the 1950s. The first wildfires start earlier in the year, and the last wildfires are burning longer into the fall. Overall, the wildfire season has increased more than 35 days and is now more than three months long, running from May through early August.
Rising temperatures across Alaska have been concurrent with the rise in the number and size of Alaskan wildfires. Years with the hottest May to July temperatures also tend to be years with the most fires, and the greatest area burned.[/quote]
BC’s firefighting budget already blown
According to the Globe and Mail British Columbia has just gone through the warmest winter and spring since 1948. Sierra Club BC says there hasn’t been a Spring this dry since 1937, and there is no rain in sight. A Level 4 drought rating, the highest on the scale, is in effect for southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
The province’s firefighting budget is already spent. This is not a problem in and of itself, because the province deliberately keeps the budget low to avoid trapping money that could be used elsewhere. Yet there are currently 184 active wildfires and 9 evacuation orders in effect. A provincial fire information officer told the Globe and Mail, “The fire activity we’ve been seeing and the fires of note, we usually see that in July-August, not May-June.”
Dr. Michael Brauer, professor in UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, said the fires are starting early this year. He hasn’t seen any quite as intense as yesterday, or early this morning, since Burns Bog was on fire a decade ago.
Smoke on the water
Driving home from a family gathering in Victoria on Sunday, I could not help but notice that the haze extended for hundreds of miles up the east coast of Vancouver Island, hiding the mainland from view. It grew stronger as we proceeded North.
There was a faint trace of smoke in the air at Heriot Bay, on Quadra Island. The stench became pervasive on Cortes Island, where it would otherwise be possible to mistake the incoming haze for fog.
There was a faint trace of smoke in the air at Heriot Bay, on Quadra Island.
The smell was much stronger by 4:30, when we returned to Cortes Island. A number of residents have confirmed that the smoke thickened around supper time. Two kayakers said they could no longer see across Squirrel Cove.
Dr Brauer explained yesterday in terms of two events. The Sechelt fire “looked pretty dramatic, but the air quality measurements at ground level were quite low. Then, late in the afternoon, around 4:00, is when things got really bad. I haven’t confirmed this, but it sounds like that is from fires near Pemberton.”
Someone traveling from Victoria to the Lower Mainland said the smoke didn’t seem to get bad until they got onto the ferry. Then it seemed like a thick fog on the ocean’s surface. It persisted as they drove to the Surrey-Langley border.
Haze could persist
As of 5 am on Monday morning, July 6, 2015, Environment Canada was predicting “widespread smoke” for the Lower Mainland, Greater Victoria, eastern Vancouver Island.
Later that morning, air quality advisories were “continued for Metro Vancouver, Greater Victoria as well as east and Inland Vancouver Island.”
The wind changed direction again later in the morning morning, and “appears to be clearing things out” of the Lower Mainland.
“There are fires in Washington state that may impact us if we keep having the wind come from this direction. Probably not today, but perhaps by tomorrow. Right now, the Lower Mainland is surrounded by fires on at least three sides, so even though this smoke might clear out we could get hit with some other smoke,” said Dr. Brauer.
Is this climate change?
Dr. Brauer does not believe you can “tie one event to Climate Change. We have evidence over the last twenty years, or so, that the climate has warmed and we are seeing fires start earlier and the fire season last longer.”
Sierra Club BC was much more assertive in their press release today, “With most of the summer still to come and no rain in sight, there have already been 843 fires, and 129,028 hectares burned. Climate and conservation scientists are predicting hotter, dryer conditions for British Columbia over the coming decades, with massive consequences for our forests.”
Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years, humans for somewhere around 150,000. But in my brief lifetime — less than 80 years — human populations have exploded exponentially, from two billion to more than seven billion. In that short time, we’ve created consumer societies and decimated the planet’s natural systems, used up resources, filled oceans with plastic and pollution, altered water cycles, and upset the Earth’s carbon cycle, disrupting global climate systems.
Welcome to the Anthropocene
Our impacts on this small blue planet have been so rapid, widespread and profound that many scientists call this the Anthropocene Epoch. Much of it has coincided with the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels, which showed great promise when I was a child. They were abundant and we didn’t understand the consequences of recklessly burning them. Cars were designed to use lots of gas and propel oil industry profits, not to conserve energy. Factories were built to create products and increase distribution efficiencies.
No longer confined to growing food and providing agricultural services, people moved to cities and, freed from the constraints of limited access to resources, grew rapidly in number, dramatically increasing consumption.
Because our technological prowess has grown faster than our knowledge, wisdom and foresight, much of what we’ve created is now crashing down around us — battered by pollution, ecosystem collapse, species extinction, resource scarcity, inequality, climate change and overpopulation.
Pope steps up to the plate
Pope Francis recently put humanity’s situation in context — and offered hope for the future. Regardless of how you feel about religion or the Catholic Church, or even some ideas in the Pope’s encyclical, there’s no denying it contains a powerful, scientifically and morally valid call for radical change that will reach an audience far beyond the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
In his June 18 address, the Pope called on the world — not just Catholics — to recognize the need for change in the face of ecological crises such as human-caused global warming and the failure of growth-fuelled market economics to facilitate human survival, happiness and prosperity. He declared:
[quote]Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.[/quote]
Calling out the ‘obstructionists’
In his wide-ranging address, Pope Francis spoke about pollution, climate change, water, biodiversity, inequality, poverty, economics, consumerism and spirituality. “The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world,” he said. “The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now.”
He also called out those stalling or preventing action to confront environmental problems, especially global warming: “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.”
Cry of the earth, cry of the poor
Connecting the dots between environmental degradation and inequality, he urged people to “integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
Although parts of the address are bleak, the Pope argued that open conversation and changes in thinking, acting and governing could bring about positive change, even for the economy: “Productive diversification offers the fullest possibilities to human ingenuity to create and innovate, while at the same time protecting the environment and creating more sources of employment.”
And, he noted:
[quote]Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning.[/quote]
Change is in the air
The Pope joins a diverse global chorus of people calling for changes in our destructive lifestyle to confront crises such as climate change and the ever-growing gap between poor and rich.
These expanding and increasingly urgent calls to confront our hubris for the sake of humanity’s future represent a necessary shift in a way of thinking that has propelled us along what is, after all, just a recent and brief destructive course in our history. As Pope Francis said, “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.”
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that human-caused climate change is already responsible for 150,000 deaths annually. If we continue our current trajectories of “business as usual” as our response to climate change, the WHO expects that between 2030 and 2050 climate change will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year.
According to the WHO, the yearly death rate will include, “38 000 due to heat exposure in elderly people, 48 000 due to diarrhoea, 60 000 due to malaria, and 95 000 due to childhood under nutrition.”
Once “tipping points” occur, non-linear changes will emerge, and the death toll will be much higher.
The unprecedented, lethal threats identified by Griffin are these:
Droughts and wild fires
Sea level rise
Fresh water shortage
Reservoirs in the sky
A closer examination of just one of these threats shows how they are inter-related:
Author Lester Brown explains in “Rising Temperatures Melting Away Global Food Security” that we are losing our “Reservoirs In The Sky” – glaciers and snowpack – and that these reservoirs are melting in all the world’s major mountain ranges.
Melting glaciers and snowpack deliver less water for drinking and agriculture. Once these “reservoirs in the sky” – also called “natural water towers” and “frozen water towers”- are degraded and disappear, food scarcity and drought impacts are amplified. In the winter of 2015, for example, California’s Sierra Nevada snowpack was measured at 25% of its average depth.
“Deglaciation” also contributes to sea level rise and regional hydrological changes. In Western Canada and elsewhere, for example, it impacts freshwater fisheries; once the glaciers are gone, the fisheries will become extinct.
Disappearing water drives instability
Since deglaciation impacts food and water security, it also contributes to desertification, and this in turn creates “climate refugees”, as people are forced to leave for more habitable locations. A report by the Environmental Justice Foundation claims that, “on average, 27 million people are displaced by climate and weather-related disasters each year.”
Increased scarcities of food and water, and the growing displacement of peoples due to climate change – and de-glaciation – will likely be casual factors of so-called “water wars” as well.
Radical change: our only hope
Our collective response to catastrophic, human-caused climate change, is inadequate on many levels. Griffin argues that our failures and challenges are also “unprecedented”. He shows that the status quo/business-as-usual approach to climate change will accelerate catastrophic consequences, that a “wait and see” attitude would be even more cataclysmic, and that the only reasonable approach is radical change.
Radical change means full scale societal mobilization and the rapid decarbonisation of the economy, all with a view to reducing the global temperature increase by less than 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, since we literally face the real prospect of human extinction if we do not radically change our approach now.
Critical failures that must be addressed
Griffin identifies the following unprecedented challenges and failures that are currently preventing radical change:
Climate change denial
As with the iteration of unprecedented lethal threats, the aforementioned list of challenges and failures share intersecting trajectories as they meet, overlap, and create common ground. Consequently, a closer examination of one failure sheds light with others as well.
The industry of Climate Change/Global Warming Denial, for example, is closely linked to, and sometimes a causative element of, the other challenges and failures.
The denial industry
Despite the fact that the scientific debate is closed, and the scientific consensus is that humans cause global warming, the Climate Change Denial Industry spends vast quantities of money to promote unreasonable doubt about this scientific fact.
ExxonMobil, for example, launders money through organizations, foundations, think tanks etc. to create unreasonable doubt about human-caused global warming.
Increasingly, money is being laundered through Donors Trust. A Greenpeace analysis reveals that Donors Trust has laundered $146 million in climate denial funding from 2002 to 2011.
Corporate media also amplifies disinformation. One particularly effective strategy is a technique called “false balance.” Editors will “balance” science-based global warming articles with articles that deny global warming, with the effect that readers become confused and doubt the scientific reality of human-caused global warming.
Politicians invariably exploit the fabricated confusion and endorse policies that serve the narrow interests of Big Oil. An extreme example of this is the Tea Party movement.
This seemingly grassroots movement endorses policies that align with Big Oil interests – low taxation, high profits, de-regulation. Evidence suggests, moreover, that it was created with a view to make it appear like a grassroots movement, when it was actually fabricated by Big Oil to serve Big Profits rather than the interests of those who support the party. The term used to describe the process is “Astroturfing” (i.e. fake grass roots).
In terms of morality and religious propriety, the use of deceit and subversion to advance a civilization-killing agenda is repulsive.
[quote]Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.[/quote]
What is to be done
The complexities of “What is to be done?” to confront our dire circumstances can be reduced to three momentous actions.
First, we need a mass mobilization of people prepared to respond to the global warming emergency. Second, we need to transition immediately and completely to clean energy. And finally, we need to abolish dirty energy.
David Ray Griffin’s extraordinarily comprehensive and well-researched book, Unprecedented, should serve as a foundational guide for our needed mobilization.
Despite Canada’s total lack of leadership in the green economy, a number of key global developments are grounds for optimism heading into the Paris UN conference on climate change.
Global emissions plateau in 2014
In a pleasant surprise for the planet at large, according to the International Energy Agency, global emissions reached a plateau in 2014.
Most importantly, this is not a onetime aberration, but rather an indication that the cumulative impacts of the growing numbers of measures to address climate change in China, Europe and the US are collectively bringing about transformative change. Other key nations such as Japan, India and Brazil have also begun a process that will engender a transformative migration to a green economy.
A case in point: in just 2014 China’s new installations of wind and solar capacity amounted to 34 gigawatts (GW – a billion watts) of new electrical generating capacity, bringing the total installed capacity of wind and solar energy in that country to 114.8 GW and 28 GW respectively. In other words, China’s new clean energy installations added in 2014 represent nearly 3 times BC Hydro’s entire installed capacity of 12 GW and more than 70% of the total electricity capacity of Hydro-Quebec, 46.3 GW – but China installed all of this new capacity in one year!
And China promises to do even better in 2015. So optimistic is China on accelerating the pace of new installations of renewables that its National Energy Administration has raised its target for new solar installations in 2015 to 17.8 GW, up from the original target of 15 GW.
Projections for China’s new wind installations in 2015 are such that as much as 20 GW of capacity may be added.
That said, there may be caveat to China’s impressive clean energy projections in that it is not sure if past trends will continue with respect to increases in transmission capacity, lagging behind new wind and solar farm developments.
It is conceivable that India will exceed its targets as clean energy companies have spoken of total commitments of 266 GW of new renewable installations by 2022.
Equally impressive is that the aforementioned goals of India will bring jobs and electricity to regions that either have no electricity or unreliable/unsteady electricity supplies. It is estimated that the solar and wind targets will generate one million and 183,000 jobs respectively, thereby providing boosts to impoverished communities by addressing energy and job deficits concurrently. To-date, approximately 70,000 jobs are attributable to the country’s solar and wind sectors.
Elsewhere in Asia, Japan’s post-Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear crisis, which led to the shutting down of 54 nuclear plants and the scrapping of plans to build 14 new nuclear facilities, initially meant a spike in fossil fuel imports, but this was followed by a boom in the renewables sector – supported by the central government.
US #2 on Green Economy, despite Republicans
As for the US, one may be inclined to conclude that the Republicans have put a damper on the progress of non-hydro renewables – yet 47% of new electrical power capacity added in 2014 came from non-hydro renewables. Republicans haven’t succeeded in stopping the Obama administration from doing what it can within existing constraints.
Firstly, there is the question of what contributed to the US having become the world’s number two investor in the green economy after China. The answer begins with the 2009 to 2011 period, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – when the US government laid the foundations for a green economy with a $70 Billion investment.
By contrast, Canadian green tech innovators and manufacturers face an unfavourably uneven playing field for participation in the high-growth, high-job creation, competitive global green economy – by virtue of the near total absence of Government of Canada support.
Clean Transportation: California and China lead the way
According to a UBS study, by 2020, customer-side renewable energy production (e.g. solar roof panels), energy storage and electric vehicle charging station technologies – combined with an electric vehicle in the driveway – would offer consumers a 7% return every year with a 6 to 8 year capital payback. The payback would be greater in jurisdictions such as California, which now offers incentives for energy consumers to install combinations of these technologies on their respective properties.
For California and China, the future for zero and low emission vehicles has already arrived. Each has a long list of policies, including aggressive eco-vehicle government procurement targets, subsidies for consumers, support for manufacturing/innovation, generous funding for electric vehicle charging stations all across these jurisdictions and requirements for new/recent buildings to be designed to accommodate ev charging stations.
Meanwhile, in 2016, the new US corporate average fuel economy standards will kick in, requiring that each manufacturer present in the US market achieve an average of 6.2L/100km based on cars sold in that year and 8.2L/100km for trucks. These standards, which are identical in Canada, get incrementally more stringent, reaching a mandatory average of 4.3L/100km for cars by 2025.
However, while these US vehicle standards constitute progress, appearances are somewhat deceiving for two reasons. First, the new standards will allow for the skewing of corporate average fuel economy results by leaving wiggle room in the form of fuel economy by category/size of vehicles sold (based on wheelbase length and track width). Second, the standards include higher consumption allowances for SUVs, considered to be trucks. Together, these factors could translate into higher average consumption/vehicles sold by a given manufacturer than the above-mentioned targets suggest.
The collapse of the Big Oil business model
While the cumulative impacts of the climate action measures are the backdrop for the International Energy Agency numbers on the plateau in GHG emission levels in 2014, another game-changing phenomenon is also occurring: the collapse of the business model of the oil industry.
This model is based on: 1) demand for fossil fuels continuing to climb; 2) oil prices remaining high enough to justify continued investments in expensive-to-extract unconventional sources such as the tar sands, offshore and shale sources; 3) high oil prices justifying the pumping out of greater volumes of conventional oil to further increase profits; and 4) the growing concern about climate change failing to affect the bottom line.
Until recently, this business model worked like a charm, with Exxon earning $32.6B in 2013, more than any company other than Apple. Well as it turns out, all of the above elements of the business model have hit a wall.
Demand not Rising at the Expected Pace
Not only do China, the US, the EU and India have policies which are lessening the current dependence on fossil fuels, but they all also have policies that will increasingly reduce this dependence. As indicated above, even India, once thought to be a major vector for increased demand in fossil fuels, has targets to change the economic/energy/job paradigm in favour of locally-produced renewable energy.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, 2015 global oil demand had originally been projected to be 103.2 million barrels/day, but this number has been adjusted to 93.1 million barrels/day, thereby undermining the viability of unconventional investments. True, economic slowdowns are also affecting demand, but the shift to clean energy and eventually clean transportation can only increase with time.
Evidently, global actions on climate change are starting to have an impact on Big Oil’s bottom line.
Low oil prices lead to stranded assets, dangerous debt
It now appears that the price of oil might not rise for a long time to come. Low prices cannot sustain the development of tar sands, shale and offshore oil.
As for the Big Oil premise that concern about climate change would not translate into social change, it requires an extraordinary amount of denial to ignore the emerging paradigm change entailing: 1) the decline in growth of fossil fuels; and 2) political trends favouring more stringent policies in support of the green economy.
Meanwhile, back home, Trudeau and Harper remain wedded to the resource-based export economy, with trade deals to support this dated economic development paradigm. This while our potential customers for increased resource exports are working hard on reducing their fossil fuel dependencies.
On the provincial front, Ontario and Quebec’s participation in the cap and trade (C&T) Western Climate Initiative (WCI), along with California, is helpful, but is also purposely a smoke screen. This is to say that these standalone measures are equivalent to suggesting that one can end poverty with a single policy item. The same can be said of BC’s carbon tax.
In effect, what both BC and Quebec have in common is that their current governments are committed to a resource economy, and are totally indifferent to and/or ignorant of the green economy model. Yet, on a global scale, the green economy is currently, and will be, offering the best economic development strategies of our time, as measured in both jobs and economic growth.
To this effect, Quebec is cutting all the environmental impact corners and investing large sums of public funds to sort out the potential of – and requirements for – the development and commercialization of shale gas and oil, plus offshore oil. This despite the aforementioned $200 billion in debt of the US shale sector and, more generally, the demise of the Big Oil business model.
Quite the contrast with the third C&T participant, California, with its hefty sets of policy packages to migrate California to a green economy. Even a partial list of the state’s policies on zero-emission vehicles is incredibly long!
With oil prices plunging from more than $100 a barrel last summer to below $50 now, the consequences of a petro-fuelled economy are hitting home — especially in Alberta, where experts forecast a recession. The province’s projected budget surplus has turned into a $500-million deficit on top of a $12-billion debt, with predicted revenue losses of $11 billion or more over the next three or four years if prices stay low or continue to drop as expected.
It’s absurd that a lower price on a single commodity could have such a profound economic impact, but that’s what happens when you put all your eggs in one basket and fail to plan for such contingencies. With a population and oil-and-gas production profile similar to Alberta, Europe’s largest petroleum producer, Norway, is also feeling the impacts. But much higher taxes on industry, majority state ownership of the country’s largest oil-and-gas company and an approximately $900-billion sovereign wealth fund built from oil revenues are cushioning the fall.
Lower oil prices = more driving
Some see low fuel prices as good news, but there are many downsides. With driving becoming less costly, more cars and trucks could be on the road, which is good for the auto industry but bad in terms of pollution, climate change and traffic accidents. And because the price of oil is now lower than the cost to extract oil sands bitumen, the industry is starting to put the brakes on rapid expansion plans — bad news for workers and businesses in Fort McMurray and those heavily invested in the industry but good news for the planet.
Most oil and gas must be left in the ground
Recent research shows most of Canada’s oil sands bitumen — as well as all Arctic oil and gas, most of Canada’s coal and some conventional oil and gas — must be left in the ground if the world is to avoid a global temperature increase of more than 2 C above pre-industrial levels, the internationally agreed-upon threshold for limiting catastrophic impacts of global warming. The report, by researchers at University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Resources and published in the journal Nature, concludes a third of the world’s oil reserves, half of gas reserves and more than 80 per cent of coal reserves must not be burned before 2050.
The study also found that carbon capture and storage, touted as one way to continue exploiting and burning fossil fuels, is too new, expensive and limited to make enough of a difference by 2050.
Study co-author Paul Ekins told National Geographic that putting hundreds of billions of dollars into fossil fuel exploration and development is “deeply irrational” economic behaviour. “What would be ideal,” he said, would be to “use the opportunity of this fall in the oil price to start instituting a global carbon tax, which would take some of the volatility out of the prices.” Removing fossil fuel subsidies would also help.
Hottest year on record…again
John Stone, a Canadian scientist and lead author on the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, told CBC the UCL study “is another wake-up call to snap us out of our denial of climate change.”
With 2014 confirmed as the hottest year on record, and 13 of the hottest 15 years having occurred since 2000, we can’t afford to ignore the consequences. According to researchers, the odds that natural variability is causing today’s climate change are less than one in 27 million!
It’s astounding that, in the face of such overwhelming evidence from scientists worldwide, people continue to deny the problem exists or that humans are responsible and can or should do anything about it.
Clean tech good for economy and environment
It’s especially irresponsible when energy conservation and cleaner fuel alternatives offer so many economic benefits, including job creation, greater stability and reduced health-care costs. As world leaders prepare for the UN climate summit later this year, we must look at the recent market meltdown as an opportunity to shift away from fossil fuels. It’ll be much easier and less costly to get on with it now than to wait until we’re left with few choices.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.
The pressure is building to reduce global carbon emissions. At each meeting of the United Nations’ Conference of the Parties (COP), the urgency becomes more palpable.
The Lima meeting of COP 20 in December, 2014, failed to reach the preliminary commitments necessary for the binding international agreements expected at the COP 21 meeting in Paris in December, 2015. France is getting nervous because its reputation will be sullied if the Paris COP is a failure — French President Francois Holland made this very clear to Prime Minister Stephen Harper during an autumn 2014 visit to Ottawa.
With the Kyoto Protocol expired and without a binding replacement agreement from subsequent COP meetings in Cancun, Copenhagen and Durban, the default position has been for individual countries, provinces and communities to do the best they can to reduce emissions. This approach has been helpful but not sufficient. Almost all of Canada’s reduced emissions have come from provincial initiatives, not federal. Most other countries have been unable to meet their voluntary reduction targets.
Economy decoupling from fossil fuels…slowly
Meanwhile, international agencies have been carefully charting carbon emissions for hopeful signs. But these signs are rare. In 2012, for example, the increase in carbon emissions of 1.4% was less than the increase in GDP of 3.4%, indicating that the world economy is beginning to decouple from fossil fuels by becoming more efficient. In 2013, carbon emissions crept up by 2.3% while GDP rose by 3.3%.
In 2014, emissions rose by 2.5% while GDP increased by 3.3%. If climate change is going to be slowed and reversed, however, total global emissions must not just trail GDP but must be reduced by a yearly average of at least 2.5% until all emissions reach zero on or before 2100. Any delays now will mean steeper future reductions.
Efficiency not enough
Two lessons are to be learned from these statistics. First, efficiency alone in a world of expanding GDP is unlikely to bring about sufficient carbon emission reductions. And second, although the accomplishment of efficiency is mostly symbolic, it is nonetheless important. Every factory that uses less energy reduces emissions. The same is true for every new car that burns less fuel, and for every LED bulb that replaces an incandescent one. Statistics confirm that every individual choice, no matter how small, contributes to measurable environmental benefits.
But time is crucial and the numbers are daunting. Global yearly carbon dioxide emissions are now, as of the beginning of 2015, about 37 gigatonnes. To translate this number into slightly more approachable terms, this is 37,000 million tonnes. The wisps of smoke drifting up from a hunter-gatherer’s cooking fire or from a solitary country cottage makes our planet seem very large. But 37,000,000,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide is a declaration that our fires have grown sufficiently large to influence the planet we occupy. So we should not be surprised if our emissions are changing climate, acidifying oceans, melting ice caps, raising sea levels, driving species to extinction.
These consequences are being confirmed with sobering statistics:
Six months ago, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measured the world’s average temperature at a new record of 16.2°C, 1.3°C higher than than the 20th century average. The 10 hottest years since 1880 occurred in the 15 years between 1998 and 2013; none occurred before 1880.
The pre-human extinction rate for species was 0.1 per million per annum; the present rate is somewhere between 100 and 1,000, a rate that is 1,000 to 10,000 times normal.
For centuries prior to 1800 sea level rise was essentially zero; from 1900 to 2000 it was 1.7 mm per year; from 1990 to 2013 it increased to 3 mm. The total sea level rise by 2100 is expected to be about 0.5 m. But many variables could increase this number. Earth’s average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are expected to reach 400 ppm sometime in 2015. The last time concentrations were this high, about 3 million years ago, sea levels stabilized at about 10 metres above present levels. This suggests sea level rise will be continuous for centuries, presenting colossal challenges for coastal cities, settlements and agriculture.
The importance of reducing carbon dioxide emissions continues to increase exponentially. This means that 2015 will be an even more crucial year for taking corrective action. The longer we procrastinate, the more radical and difficult must be our future reduction measures.
If our inclination to inaction continues, we may reach a time when the problem of climate change is unstoppable and unsolvable. Unfortunately, we don’t know when this time will occur. We may have already reached and passed it. But we can be virtually certain that continued delays will only make the challenges and the consequences increasingly difficult — for our climate, for our oceans, for innumerable species, and for civilization as we know it. Whether 2015 becomes a year for optimism remains uncertain.
The heroic efforts of Who-ville to negotiate enough binding greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions to prevent Earth’s average global temperature from rising above a critical 2°C were held in Lima, Peru, this December. Whether the Climate Christmas event, called the 20th Conference of the Parties, would actually receive a real present was uncertain.
Saint Nick and his reindeer are no longer predictable. Global warming is melting the Arctic ice so the North Pole’s workshops, cozy cottage, reindeer barns and good-and-bad lists have been thrown into disarray. The elves and the entire Christmas gift operation may have sunk into the mush of last summer’s melt.
And even if a real present arrived, it might be stolen by a Grinch. As everyone knows, they do not like Christmas presents, especially the kind that reduce GHGs. And this is precisely what happened. No real present arrived. Each country’s binding reductions were stolen and replaced by vague promises of “intended nationally determined commitments”.
Public marches, leaders refuse to lead
Ban Ki-moon, the enthusiastic and ever-hopeful Secretary General of Who-ville, prepared for the Climate Christmas event by organizing a special September Climate Leaders’ Summit meeting in New York, hoping to excite enough enthusiasm for Lima that the real present would arrive even before the COP 21 meeting in Paris in 2015. Over 300,000 people marched in New York to support greenhouse gas reductions, and the leaders of about 125 countries attended the city’s UN negotiations. Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, did not attend. Instead, he just went to its banquet.
Emissions controls for oil and gas sector “crazy”
Indeed, Canada’s Prime Minister is proving to be somewhat of a Climate Grinch. His government, having abandoned its legally binding Kyoto GHG obligations, will not even be able to meet its 2005 emission reduction commitments for 2020. Mr. Harper has been promising since 2006 to place emission regulations on Alberta’s oil and gas industry — the country’s fastest growing source of GHG — but has yet to do so. And now, since the price of oil has dropped below $60 per barrel, he says emission controls would be economic insanity — he hasn’t explained why he didn’t implement the controls during the previous 8 years.
Stephen Harper: Climate Grinch
Indeed, the Prime Minister says as little as possible about climate change. Jeffrey Simpson, writing in Who-ville’sGlobe and Mail (Nov. 15/14), gives a very credible argument for Mr. Harper to be designated a Climate Grinch:
• First, writes Simpson, the Prime Minister is “distinctly uncomfortable when forced to discuss [climate change].” This is one of the most obvious clinical characteristics of the Grinch Syndrome. Abject silence hides the repressed resentment, frustration and defiance seething within. Even the most oblique reference to climate change — merely a mention of carbon dioxide emissions, global warming, extreme weather or sea level rise — gives credibility to a scientific certainty that the Grinch believes to be a contrived fiction of the imagination.
• Second, the core of his Conservative Party is still filled with climate change deniers, so Mr. Harper maintains and entrenches his political support by cultivating and projecting his Climate Grinch personality. A man and a party heavily invested in the economics of an oil and gas industry will perceive any overt communication about climate change as a threat to be avoided at every opportunity.
• Third, “Mr. Harper doesn’t like being pressured.” And the world community — Ban Ki-moon in particular — is certainly pressuring Canada because of its appalling climate record. Like pushing a long and recalcitrant rope, a Climate Grinch just bunches into indignant and obstinate knots when pressured.
• Fourth, Mr. Harper doesn’t believe in climate deals; they haven’t worked in the past and they won’t work in the future, so participating in them is just a waste of time. He has his own messianic plans for Who-ville. A Climate Grinch believes in the unquestionable wisdom of the free-market economy, not in some vague and pagan illusion of humanity living in a state of sustainable harmony with nature.
• And fifth, the only good climate deal is one in which every nation in the world joins under equally ambitious conditions, a stipulation so extreme and disconnected from political realities as to be conspicuously obstructionist.
Visions of pipelines
A Climate Grinch is happiest when party loyalties are not violated, when political support is not threatened, when economic plans are not disturbed, when heated pipelines are humming a yuletide carol of flowing bitumen, and when fossil-fuelled lights are blazing atop every plastic Christmas tree in the whole world.
So the PM has sent his Minister of the Environment, Leona Aglukkaq, to the Lima Climate Christmas event with instructions to set no new targets and make no commitments. She is to make only a token request to reduce the emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), those potent GHG chemicals that were supposed to replace the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were wrecking the planet’s ozone layer. Since the HFC’s represent a mere 1 percent of Canada’s emissions, the symbolic gesture will neither disturb Canada’s oil and gas corporations, the generous funding they give to the Conservative Party, nor the visions of pipelines dancing in their heads.
Grinches, however, are not dissuaded from their opinions or diverted from their objectives by the sentimental drivel of grandiose global hopes. They say what they mean and they mean what they say, all with a heart “that is two sizes too small.”
The carbon emission numbers are disquieting. Despite the 2009 pledge of multiple nations to reduce the release of their greenhouse gases so that global average temperatures do not rise by more that 2°C, the total tonnage of carbon dioxide keeps going up. The chief scientist for the United Nations Environment Program, Joseph Alcamo, issued a November 2014 climate report that calculated the emissions for all such gases, including methane, must peak by 2030 at 42 billion tonnes per year and then fall to zero by the end of the century if the 2°C target is to be met.
Long way to go
The likelihood of reaching this target is getting more and more remote. According to the UN report, all indications are that emissions will continue to rise until 2050, at which time they will be 15 to 19 billion tonnes per year above the 42 billion tonnes ceiling. This means that by 2050, 20 years after emissions should have peaked and started to decline, another 300 to 380 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases will have been added to the biosphere — plus, of course, the approximately 17 billion tonnes that should have been reduced from the 42 billion for the period between 2030 and 2050.
The prospects for keeping the global average temperature rise below 2°C is now looking bleak. Granger Morgan, a climate scientist from America’s Carnegie Mellon University, noted that keeping to this target given today’s circumstances “is akin to a 60-year old man who resolves to be 25 years old next year. It ain’t gonna happen, but it’s time to get really serious about achieving what we can.” As some scientists have already considered, this would mean abandoning the 2°C target.
2°C: a compromise from the get-go
But the 2°C target was chosen as a realistic balance between two uncomfortable alternatives, what Dr. John Holdren, former Science and Technology advisor to US President Obama, describes as “the best we can do, while being the worst we can tolerate.” Abandoning the target would offer only a temporary relief in the pressure to reduce emissions, thereby creating the opportunity for further procrastination, increasing the difficulty of meeting future reductions, and raising the threat of environmental damage.
Alberta now appears as an anachronistic petro-state enthusiastically drilling and digging toward the edge of ecological doom. Even the vague emission reductions recently agreed to in bi-lateral discussions between the United States and China are not going to change significantly the global carbon calculations. The US intends to reduce its 2005 emissions by 28% by 2025 (about 2 billion tonnes), while China has agreed to reach unspecified maximum emissions by 2030. But something is better than nothing, and the agreement by the world’s top two emitters is bringing hope that the December 2015 climate talks in Paris will be able to reach legally binding agreements on carbon reductions.
Mark Carney climate chorus
Hope, of course, comes coupled with pressure as impatience for action escalates through frustration toward desperation. Cracks are appearing in the facade of pretending. One of the most surprising examples came from Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of Canada who is now the governor of the Bank of England. At an October World Bank seminar, he repeated the brooding reality that first received publicity two years ago.
The world’s known fossil fuel reserves were then estimated to represent 2,795 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions if burned, of which only 565 billion tonnes could be burned if global temperatures were to be kept below the 2°C target. In Carney’s judgment:
[quote]The vast majority of [these] reserves are unburnable, [so will have to be considered as] “stranded assets”.[/quote]
Signs of hope
Other signs of hope mark the laborious struggle to control global greenhouse gas emissions as it becomes attached to local concerns. More carbon emissions accounts for one of the essential objections to the movement of Alberta’s tar sands bitumen through Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline to Kitimat.
Similarly, it’s one of the reasons why 126 people — including children, grandmothers and university professors — chose to be arrested in Burnaby for protesting Kinder-Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline proposal. Concerns about greenhouse gas emissions are connected to the shipment of American coal through Vancouver and Texada Island. The global has become inseparable from the local.
Canada stands in way of climate progress
This is the context in which Canada’s government has been thwarting emission controls while promoting its oil and gas policies. Fossil fuels simply do not — and cannot — have a significant future in any equation that is going to provide an optimistic option for our unfolding energy needs. Continuing to disregard the nearly invincible wall of peer-reviewed climate science would almost certainly be disastrous.
Indeed, decades of delays in reducing our carbon dioxide emissions is already moving us into threatening circumstances.
At this very moment humanity is writing a crucial chapter in its history. What we and our politicians decide to do about carbon emissions will likely be the single largest determinant in defining our legacy, in shaping the lives of generations to come, and in regulating the health of our planet.
All the important evidence suggests that this is not rhetorical hyperbole. Each one of us, from our prime minister, our premiers and our elected governments to every citizen will be measured by the decisions that we make in the immediate future. The numbers are clear, the calculations are disquieting, and the opportunity for avoiding a colossal tragedy is rapidly closing.
The first thing to realize about the biblical Creation story in the first two chapters of Genesis — the mythology and its earlier roots in Sumeria have shaped the fundamental thinking of Western cultures — is that a beginning also implies an ending.
This may explain our ability as a culture to be relatively unconcerned about the threat of an environmental apocalypse. The expectation of an ending is built into the way the Western mind thinks, made inevitable by the beginning that inhabits the other pole of its mythology. This is one of many ideas thoughtfully explored by Susan Murphy in her fascinating book, Minding the Earth, Mending the World: Zen and the Art of Planetary Crisis.
The original Eden, Murphy explains, was an idyllic place, existing in a suspended state of perfection where birth and death did not occur, where pain and suffering were absent, where predator and prey mingled in peace, and where the undivided wholeness of Divine Grace had not yet been broken into confusing components by Adam’s and Eve’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.
All this is lost when Adam and Eve succumb to temptation. Not only are the two sinners evicted from the Garden, but the innocence of Eden is also lost. The Fall is total. Nature’s state of suspended perfection is shattered. The thoughtless harmony of the unsullied beginning collapses. Predators now kill prey. Change and impermanence are unleashed. Pain and suffering must be endured as a punishment.
In this fallen world, the sexual urge — not that different from the temptation that lured Adam and Eve to the forbidden fruit — becomes the source of birth and then the haunting shadow of promised death. Having been cast out of Paradise, humanity must now live its numbered days in a homeless state of conscious remorse and guilt, adrift in a hostile and ruined place where its only power is to name and subdue nature while surviving as best we can. This is the situation at the end of the Old Testament.
No reprieve for Eden
The New Testament provides salvation for the fallen. God manifests in the wreckage of Eden in the form of Jesus, who promises salvation by dying for humanity’s original sin. All is forgiven in his death, resurrection and ascension. So the descendants of Adam and Eve can escape their guilt and humiliation through belief. The curse from disobedience is lifted, an eternal reprieve from death and suffering is granted, and a return to the paradise of Heaven once more guarantees the company and order of the Divine Presence.
Except this forgiveness is not granted to nature. No reprieve is offered to Eden. The birds of the air and the fishes of the sea, the beasts of the fields and the predators that devour them are not returned to their original, uncorrupted state. They remain in their fallen condition with no promise of salvation. The natural world in which humanity must live is not restored to its initial perfection but continues in its debased and spoiled form.
Saved Humanity, unredeemed world
This creates an inherent and profound dichotomy between a saved humanity and an unredeemed world. Although humanity is on Earth, it is no longer of Earth. The original oneness in Eden is not mended. Humanity’s sense of accord with nature has been expunged, first by disobedience and then by the promise of salvation. Each event has increased the disconnection, while distancing humanity from its obligation to care for Creation.
A fallen, ephemeral and chaotic nature of incessant struggle exists only to be used and abandoned on the way to humanity’s eventual salvation. The final Ending that is anticipated by the only Beginning — the inevitable Armageddon, whatever its form — will be the last cleansing of the imperfect before everything is returned to the eternally perfect.
Nature doubly victimized
Nature, therefore, is doubly victimized: first by the Fall — of which it is wholly innocent — and then by the impending apocalypse, of which it is also wholly innocent. In this story, Earth and all the marvels of Creation are only a stage upon which the human drama of sin, redemption and salvation occurs.
In the interim, between the very Beginning and the very Ending, an imperfect nature is merely present to be used by an exceptional humanity that will, by the certainty of belief and the promise of salvation, eventually escape the bonds of its sin. At the final reckoning, whatever remains of a tattered, exploited and abused nature, will be restored by the wisdom of Divine intervention. Despite the devastation, all will be fixed and all will be well.
These are not thoughts that lie close to the surface of human awareness. As with each mythology, its unspoken assumptions are mostly hidden in the secret recesses of its stories, rarely explained in their undisguised form because they are too close to the core of a culture’s identity to be articulated. Although ordinarily unnoticed, they are nonetheless so fundamental that they are responsible for shaping and directing most thought, attitudes and behaviour.
A culture’s mythology only comes to the surface of its own consciousness during times of upheaval and crisis: when circumstances become dire, when questions become profound, when doubt becomes intense, when urgency becomes fear, when the search for new meaning is forced to venture into places never before explored.
This is the situation in which Western culture now finds itself. The old mythology is stressed and failing. It is being examined, exposed and challenged in a rebuilding process that is usually long, arduous and painful. So some thinkers, such as Susan Murphy, are returning to the beginning to understand what is amiss, and how we might find a new way forward.
The Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) has a history of big talk on the environment, but, once in power, failing to deliver. Each climate change action plan has demonstrated this trend, accompanied by boastful press releases on how much money the LPC would be investing in sustainable development. Now, Justin Trudeau is showing every sign of repeating this pattern.
Liberal Party never serious about climate change
Stéphane Dion, as the former minister of the environment, introduced no comprehensive packages of legislation, fiscal measures, programs and policies to make much of a difference in addressing climate change.
As a former Government of Canada employee, I can attest, from a unique insider’s perspective, that various Dion/Liberal climate change action plans were all designed to fail, or lacking in substance to achieve stated GHG targets. Eddie Goldenberg, Chétien’s highest ranked government employee and key adviser, admitted as much in February 2007 when he revealed that the LPC had no idea how it would meet Kyoto objectives when it ratified the Kyoto Protocol.
The result was that carbon emissions spiked as much under Chrétien and Paul Martin’s governments as they have during the Harper regime. Michael Ignatieff got it right when he said to Dion, during one of the Liberal leadership debates, that Dion failed to get the job done.
Justin Trudeau represents a continuation of this LPC legacy, as I will demonstrate. What follows is an insider’s detailed view of LPC failures on climate change – leading up to Trudeau’s positions to-date and the choices Canadians face going into the 2015 election.
Subsidizing fossil fuels and paying the polluter
Prior to the Liberal defeat, Stéphane Dion, as environment minister, introduced yet another climate change action plan, this one with a $1B Climate Fund designed for the government to purchase emission reductions from Canada’s largest emitters, in particular the fossil fuel sectors. In other words, the more one emits, the more government support one could get under the Dion plan, a pay the polluter formula — rather than the polluter pays.
And no rewards were offered for the small and medium size private firms that had already contributed, or would like to contribute, significantly to emission reductions.
Price on carbon, maybe – but it would have to be cheap
Further along the lines of subsidizing the fossil fuel sector, Chrétien made a sweetheart deal with the oil industry to the effect that in the event of a price on carbon, it would be cheap/symbolic. My guess is that Trudeau’s “endorsement” of a price on carbon is the sequel to the Chrétien model.
Ambitious targets, ambitious cheating
In keeping with the LPC greenwash tradition, during the 1999 to 2000 period, a key element of the LPC plan to meet their ambitious GHG objectives was an attempt to get UN/international approval for crediting Canada for its forests – including reforestation efforts – which absorb CO2. The Liberals referred to their forest component of the climate change action plan of the time as “carbon sinks.”
In other words, the LPC wanted to get carbon credits for doing absolutely nothing, by creating a fairly tale to give the impression that they were making progress GHG targets. Fortunately, the UN rejected the carbon sink proposal.
Yet another facet of the LPC subsidizing of the fossil fuel sector was a heavy investment in the carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) experiment in Weyburn, Saskatchewan.
The problem with CCS is that this technology 1) is so prohibitively expensive that no one would adopt CCS in the absence of major government subsidies 2) is very energy intensive consuming up to one third of total energy produced from a given generator facility and 3) offers no assurance that the carbon sequestered in former and empty wells would in fact stay there.
It is worth noting here that, prior to the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) elimination of all sustainable development innovation funds, the CPC continued the LPC tradition with more than one CPC sustainable development fund supporting CCS.
One of the CCS initiatives supported by the Conservatives, is the current Boundary Dam CCS project pertaining to one of the five coal-fired generation stations in Estevan SK, a project which received a $240M CCS subsidy from the Harper administration. For the generating station equipped with the CCS technologies, one third of the 165 MW of energy produced, or 55 MW, is dedicated to powering the CCS system, while only capturing 20% of the generator’s GHGs, falling well short of the objective to capture 90% of GHGs.
Recently, TransAlta abandoned its CCS project in Pioneer, AB after having received $800M in federal funding.
Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE)
The LPC record on the auto sector also reflects its tradition of putting the emphasis on appearances rather than getting the job done.
On this, there is the matter of the auto sector corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) – a given manufacturer’s CAFE performance for a given year is weighted by the individual sales and fuel consumption of each model, aggregated over the total vehicle sales of the manufacturer in the year in question.
During the Pierre-Elliot Trudeau reign, CAFE was approved but wasn’t presented as a law before Parliament. In its place, the elder Trudeau’s Cabinet adopted a voluntary CAFE without a government verification system in place.
Justin continues Liberal Party’s record
Justin Trudeau has chosen to continue in the LPC tradition of appearing to be committed on action on climate change, with doses of window-dressing, while ceding to powerful interests.
Furthermore, the facts on the ground are affirming that Trudeau’s characterization of Canada as a resource export economy is dated. The fossil fuel party is over. Specifically, it has become evident that non-conventional fossil fuel resources, such as the tar sands, cannot be supported by market prices. Already, Big Oil has pulled out of many non-conventional resource projects around the globe and it is now clear that long-term energy and energy-related investments favour clean energy and clean transportation, and more generally a green economy.
Of particular significance to Canada, the above-mentioned green economy initiatives of China will ultimately lead to greater energy independence, thus once again showing that Trudeau’s FIPA resource export opportunity paradigm is totally out of sync with emerging new realities. Moreover, the gap between Trudeau’s tunnel vision and China’s new paradigm will surely widen as China accelerates its migration to a green economy under their 5 year plan for the 2016-20 period.
Trudeau wrong to pan cap and trade
With respect to Trudeau’s comments against cap and trade, the empirical evidence from the longest standing existing international cap and trade scheme, the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS), proves otherwise. That is, the ETS has proven to be critical component of the EU success in meeting Kyoto Protocol objectives. More importantly, the ETS has put nearly all EU nations on track for meeting their respective 2020 targets
Lastly, though indirectly related to the green economy, another important Trudeau policy position that would have an adverse impact on Canada’s ability to go green is maintaining Canada’s corporate tax rate at 15%, the lowest in the G7. While $630B lies dormant in corporate liquidity, the low corporate tax will limit a Trudeau government’s ability to assure adequate investments of financial resources in Canada’s own migration to a green economy.
Suffice it to say that empirical evidence on the Liberals’ past, together with Justin Trudeau’s policy statements to date, clearly reveal that, for the LPC, environmental issues are primarily about political manipulation, rather than facing environmental challenges.
One cannot be serious about the environment and support the LPC.
As for subsidies for fossil fuels, at a cost of $110/tonne, they are one of the most significant barriers to our migration to a green economy. On this matter, the International Monetary Fund has estimated that in 2011 US dollars, Canadian subsidies associated with fossil fuels – including indirect costs pertaining to climate change and health – amount to $26.4B/year.
In contrast to the Trudeau Liberals, the NDP would raise the ridiculously low federal corporate tax rate of 15%.
To conclude, the only barriers stopping Canada from catching up with our competitors in the global migration to a green economy are Harper and Trudeau.
We should all keep that in mind heading into the election of 2015.