Columnists

Ralph Surette
Climate change charges on unabated

| December 30, 2015
Photo courtesy David Baird creative commons

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For all the nations of the world to agree to anything is remarkable enough. To have them take fright and agree to pull in their belts on climate change is as unusual as having them pull together to create the United Nations and other world institutions at the end of the Second World War.

Hopefully, the Paris meeting will indeed be the turning point we’re looking for. But just as those heady post-Second World War days quickly turned to the Cold War, a hopeful statement of intentions, no matter how unusual, is the easy part in the face of reality.

For one thing, we are picking up the story after at least 20 lost years. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was at 361 parts per million as of the first UN climate change conference in Berlin in 1995. Last year, it reached 399 ppm, right at the 400 threshold that alarms scientists. After a decade of not much growth in atmospheric warming (although the oceans kept warming), last year ramped up again to be the hottest year ever, and this year is on track to beat it.

In the meantime, the carbon-pumping machine which is the world economy overwhelms advances in alternatives and efficiencies. Even if the nations cut their emissions as they hope by 2030, most, including Canada, will still be miles above where they were in 1990. Wind and solar still amount to only barely more than one per cent of global energy.

Along with national governments, cities, many business sectors (including non-American oil companies), the World Bank and other such powerful organizations, the Pentagon, the Pope and so on are are all in a state of alarm over the effects of a changing climate.

But the thrust of the Western economic engine, now globalized to include China, India and beyond, is pushing the other way. Alongside calls to control pollution are the louder calls for more economic growth, more industry, more polluting freighter-borne international trade, more tourism and — in places like Nova Scotia — more people, period.

All of this, alas, runs counter to the reality we must face. We’re still geared to what former prime minister Stephen Harper called, with regard to the oil sands, “intensity targets” — that is, processes will get more efficient and less polluting, but there’ll be more production, the net result being more actual emissions.

For all the nations of the world to agree to anything is remarkable enough. To have them take fright and agree to pull in their belts on climate change is as unusual as having them pull together to create the United Nations and other world institutions at the end of the Second World War.

Hopefully, the Paris meeting will indeed be the turning point we're looking for. But just as those heady post-Second World War days quickly turned to the Cold War, a hopeful statement of intentions, no matter how unusual, is the easy part in the face of reality.

For one thing, we are picking up the story after at least 20 lost years. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was at 361 parts per million as of the first UN climate change conference in Berlin in 1995. Last year, it reached 399 ppm, right at the 400 threshold that alarms scientists. After a decade of not much growth in atmospheric warming (although the oceans kept warming), last year ramped up again to be the hottest year ever, and this year is on track to beat it.

In the meantime, the carbon-pumping machine which is the world economy overwhelms advances in alternatives and efficiencies. Even if the nations cut their emissions as they hope by 2030, most, including Canada, will still be miles above where they were in 1990. Wind and solar still amount to only barely more than one per cent of global energy.

Along with national governments, cities, many business sectors (including non-American oil companies), the World Bank and other such powerful organizations, the Pentagon, the Pope and so on are are all in a state of alarm over the effects of a changing climate.

But the thrust of the Western economic engine, now globalized to include China, India and beyond, is pushing the other way. Alongside calls to control pollution are the louder calls for more economic growth, more industry, more polluting freighter-borne international trade, more tourism and -- in places like Nova Scotia -- more people, period.

All of this, alas, runs counter to the reality we must face. We're still geared to what former prime minister Stephen Harper called, with regard to the oil sands, "intensity targets"-- that is, processes will get more efficient and less polluting, but there'll be more production, the net result being more actual emissions.

Climate change -- a multi-generational issue with little day-to-day effect, unless you're in the eye of the storm -- remains low-priority on opinion polls everywhere. At ground level, most people seem to realize that the climate has gone wonky, but the attitude is fatalism -- hoping that the next deluge, hurricane, drought or whatever hits somewhere else.

As long as doing something about it is not a cultural imperative worldwide, as long as it is fiercely resisted by entrenched political and industrial interests, reversing the juggernaut will be extremely daunting. The one thing that, by general agreement of economists of all stripes, would do most good -- carbon taxes --is fiercely resisted in most places, notably at the nub of the matter, the United States, where ignorance is cultivated as virtue within the Republican Party (whose leaders immediately denounced the Paris agreement).

Already, in that somewhere else, the extreme challenge is to adapt. The deserts are galloping forward in the central Eurasian plain, the sub-Sahara, the Middle East (aggravating the rush to cities and consequent political destabilization), parts of Australia, California, and elsewhere, and there's a desperate search to find new crops tolerant to heat. Low-lying cities (and Pacific islands) are contemplating the hideously expensive business of protecting themselves against rising seas. Every superstorm raises the ante on the cost of new infrastructure.

Meanwhile, we keep doing more of what we're doing — driving, flying, sprawling our suburbs, building houses too big, chewing up forest and so on, mostly with wild abandon sprinkled with token conservation. If we can't change that, we'll keep taking bigger and bigger blows until, like people already fleeing the advancing deserts, our way of life starts to crumble.

Some park their hopes in invention and technology, which is what has brought us to where we are to begin with. Alone, however, it's a double-edged sword. Without a reformed spirit of conservation to go with it, new techno-magical solutions are just an illusion to keep the party going.

The classic case has already occurred. After oil prices rose during the OPEC oil crisis of the early 1970s, cars became some 30 per cent more efficient — but the number of cars on the road worldwide doubled, undermining the very purpose of more efficiency. Some 15 years ago, I was watching a television program that was making that very point along with my late father, who was uneducated but keen on world affairs. "The whole thing seems rigged to beat itself," he commented drily. I'm still wondering about that.

Ralph Surette is a freelance journalist in Yarmouth County. This column was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

Photo: David Baird, creative commons

 

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