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Climate change, existential risk should be at the centre of political debate in Canada

By David Crane       

Climate change represents an unprecedented moral responsibility for one generation to commit to major societal change for the benefit of future generations. Politicians should get on that.

Floods in Gatineau, Que., pictured in the spring 2017. Reflecting the seriousness of the climate risks, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will host a climate action summit in New York on Sept. 23, calling on national leaders to come up with plans to increase their 2015 Paris emission reduction targets to take effect next year, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade and to net zero emissions by 2050. It is clear that the commitments Canada and other countries made in 2015 are not enough. The Hill Times file photograph
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TORONTO—Climate change is creeping up on us, year by year. We are now living in the fifth consecutive year of what will be the hottest five-year period humans have ever recorded, with July the hottest month ever recorded. And we can expect even higher temperatures in the future. According to some studies, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is already the highest for the past 800,000 years and is continuing to grow.

Despite all the evidence around us of climate change, what will it take for us to seriously recognize that climate change is such a real and urgent threat to the future survival of a healthy and secure human society it must be addressed in a much more effective way, even if that means major changes in how we live and what things cost, if we are to avoid a future catastrophe?

And when will we reach the point when we recognize that this existential risk should be at the centre of political debate in Canada—that climate change represents an unprecedented moral responsibility for one generation to commit to major societal change for the benefit of future generations?

Today, we live in a confused political environment where our political parties say they want to deal with climate change. But they also want to continue Canada as a country heavily dependent on fossil fuel production—especially oil. They don’t acknowledge this as a contradiction. Yet the world that must move to net zero emissions of the greenhouse gases as quickly as possible, which means sharply reducing our use of fossil fuels.

Homes, pictured in the spring 2017 flooding in Gatineau, Que., just across the river from Ottawa. The Hill Times file photograph

We need to ask ourselves what would it mean to live in a city where temperatures could rise to 50C, so hot (it is the temperature at which human cells start to cook) people could not work outdoors or perhaps even go outside in daylight hours and heat waves overload our infrastructure. Or where drought imperils food production and threatens water supplies. Or where melting ice in the Arctic and Antarctic bring on rising sea levels that flood coastal cities.

Or where human health is challenged by the migration of pests, fungi, viruses and the like, bringing on new diseases that could become pandemics. Or where regions of the world become less and less habitable, leading to mass migrations of climate refugees, overwhelming the capacity of other states to receive these migrants. Or where the competition for food and water becomes so intense that national security is threatened.

Reflecting the seriousness of the climate risks, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will host a climate action summit in New York on Sept. 23, calling on national leaders to come up with plans to increase their 2015 Paris emission reduction targets to take effect next year, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade and to net zero emissions by 2050. It is clear that the commitments Canada and other countries made in 2015 are not enough.

We know not to expect anything from a morally bankrupt Trump administration, which has the support of coal and oil companies and a significant portion of the American population. But barely days before our federal election, will the Trudeau government make new commitments and would Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives support him?

A Constance Bay home just outside of Ottawa, pictured April 30, 2019. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The urgency is not hard to understand. This summer has seen a record-setting heat wave across Europe, with temperatures in France and the Netherlands rising above 40C. Forest fires have raged in Siberia and Alaska. Sea ice and permafrost are melting at a rapid rate in the Arctic and Antarctic. The most northerly inhabited place in the world—a Canadian military base in Nunavut, recorded a record-high temperature of 21C in mid-July compared to an average of 7C at that time of year. Greenland dumped 197 billion tons of its ice sheet into the North Atlantic in July, a record.

A just-released report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that rising temperatures threaten the world’s future ability feed itself. Exploitation of the world’s land and water resources, as global population continues to grow (projected to increase from 7.6 billion now to 9.3 billion by 2050), is occurring at an unprecedented rate, the report says, and climate change may only make the situation much worse. Floods, droughts and extreme weather events represent significant threats to world food supplies.

Rising temperatures not only reduce crop yields; they also lower the nutritional value of foods. And climate change is already having an impact, not only by lowering crop yields but by taking land out of production by erosion, rising seas and desertification.

For some time opponents of action on climate change argued that the economic cost would be too high, with carbon-intensive businesses and jobs at risk. But it should now be clear that the cost of not acting is now even higher—and that the greater the delay in serious actions, the higher the eventual cost. We really cannot afford to wait. The upside is that by moving to a low-carbon world we could not only have a cleaner and healthier environment but lifestyles and technologies that reflect a more human scale. In not acting we face a more authoritarian and brutal world of potential conflict and closed borders.

As Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Society warns, “this is not science fiction. It is the reality of climate change. It is happening now and it will worsen in the future without important climate action.”

David Crane can be reached at crane@interlog.com.

The Hill Times 

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