Is climate change as bad as we thought? It's worse.

Dianne Saxe, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), has just released her 2016 climate report. Chapter 1 is a brilliant summary of the science behind climate change, with a focus on how it will impact Ontario. Saxe pulls no punches. Her report contains a graphic asking, "Is it as bad as we thought?" The answer: "It's worse."

For some time, there have been rumblings in the scientific community that politicians, the media and reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are understating the degree to which the Earth is in trouble from climate change. 

This could be seen as "soft" denial: a desire to avoid causing alarm to the general public by downplaying evidence of accelerating global warming and climate disruption -- not to mention the increasingly dim prospects for reversing these trends. This "soft" denial is reinforced by the "hard" denial of far-right politicians and news outlets.

Many still hope that the global consensus and pledges for national action that emerged from last December's Paris climate summit can somehow "prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system" (the stated goal of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). But even as president-elect Trump appoints his climate change-denying senior advisers, scientists report that runaway climate change is already happening.

Major news outlets are sounding the alarm

Mainstream media outlets are starting to share the news. The headline of a recent Washington Post article says "The North Pole is an insane 36 degrees warmer than normal as winter descends." Scientists are stunned by the magnitude of this deviation from past climate norms, as warm air keeps flooding into the high Arctic. But don't be fooled into thinking this means a warm winter in Canada. Even as the Arctic Ocean stubbornly resists winter, extreme cold has prevailed over Siberia and could spread to North America. This represents an ever-more chaotic climate. 

Another example is a must-read New Yorker article entitled "Greenland is melting," by Elizabeth Kolbert, winner of the 2015 non-fiction Pulitzer Prize for The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Kolbert describes in great detail what scientists working in Greenland are witnessing: "The shrinking of the country's ice sheet is triggering feedback loops that accelerate the global crisis. The floodgates may already be open." 

Or consider this Weather Network headline: "Game over? Will global warming be even worse than we think?" The article cites a new study that says, "within the 21st century, global mean temperatures will very likely exceed maximum levels reconstructed for the last 784,000 years." This time period includes the last eight cycles of glacial advance and retreat. The authors predict a five-degree Celsius average global temperature increase by the end of this century, far beyond the two-degree Celsius danger threshold in the Paris climate agreement.

The new ECO report points out that "[g]reenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for many years, building up a thicker and thicker carbon blanket." The Earth's oceans and land areas will take time to fully respond to the current 400 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This is a level not experienced in at least the past 800,000 years, and perhaps even 15 million years. Huge disruptions to the climate system are "locked in" and the worst is yet to come.

The worst-case scenario is apocalyptic

Evolution has prepared humans to react to and deal with an immediate, visible crisis, but not with a crisis that has a built-in lag period. We can choose to ignore the many warning signs of climate change -- melting glaciers and sea ice, violent storms, rising seas, unprecedented droughts and floods -- but the ultimate price we pay just keeps getting higher and higher. 

How bad could it get? Scientists aren't talking about complete human extinction, are they?

Sorry, but they are indeed. This may be the first you've heard of "euxinia" (pronounced "yuke-zenia"), but basically, this involves a planet devoid of higher life forms that depend on oxygen, oceans choked with rotting organic matter and bacteria spewing out toxic hydrogen sulfide. This happened during past mass extinctions, notably the biggest of all at the end of the Permian Period, 252 million years ago. 

One study published this year says "exacerbation of anoxic "dead" zones is already progressing in modern oceanic environments, and this is likely to increase…" Another study says "[g]lobal warming triggered by the massive release of carbon dioxide may be catastrophic, but the release of methane from hydrate may be apocalyptic." Authors of the latter study add that "[t]he end Permian holds an important lesson for humanity regarding the issue it faces today with greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, and climate change."

Can we avoid a worst-case mass extinction scenario? Analyses of burned boned fragments from a South African cave by University of Toronto professor Michael Chazan and co-workers indicate that our ancestors learned to use fire at least one million years ago. This served us well through numerous glacial cycles. But we now seem to have lost the ability to control fire (in the form of burning fossil fuels). This may be our downfall.

Breaking the addiction

So what now? Should we embrace a final fossil fuel blow-out and party until it's over? Or do we take Ms. Saxe's advice: "If we act now, there is still time to protect much of what we love."

There are many near-term reasons not to continue on a course that means farewell to planet Earth. Take economics: the ECO report says "Climate change will cost Ontarians serious amounts of money." It warns that Ontario's public pension plans have a very high degree of exposure to fossil fuel investments. This is risky, now that the costs of extracting, transporting and burning fossil fuels (fracking, tar sands, pipelines, coal-fired power plants, etc.) exceed costs of developing renewable alternatives. Wiser investors have already reacted. 

Take health: an ongoing failure to break our addiction to fossil-fuelled transport may be a major contributor to a current massive epidemic of dementia, as our brains become loaded with tiny magnetic iron particles linked to Alzheimer's disease. 

Catherine McKenna, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, recently announced that Canada will phase out coal-fired electricity generation by 2030. Her press release says this "will significantly improve the air quality and the health of Canadians," and lead to a reduced GHG emission equivalent to "taking 1.3 million cars off the road."

If the minister really wants to improve the health of Canadians, it's time to get serious about taking cars off the road.

Are we all deniers?

For those who care about the fate of other species with which we share this planet, the 2016 Living Planet Report contains sobering news of rapid and widespread population declines. Greenhouse-gas-fuelled ocean warming will almost certainly eliminate a huge proportion of the world's coral reefs, as seen with the extraordinary bleaching of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Vanishing life forms and cheap air travel are spurring a wave of "last-chance tourism." Researchers who interviewed visitors to Churchill, Manitoba to view polar bears concluded that tourists "perceive climate change to be negatively impacting polar bears but do not necessarily understand how they themselves contribute to GHG emissions."

With members of the general public seemingly unable to grasp the urgency of climate change, or their role in causing it, scientists are proposing increasingly desperate geo-engineering measures. The leading candidate currently promoted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- to devote huge land areas to biomass production, burn the biomass, and pump the carbon dioxide underground -- would devastate native ecosystems. Injecting sulfate particles into the atmosphere in an attempt to reduce solar radiation reaching the Earth's surface would have unpredictable side effects on precipitation, and amounts to treating a symptom (rising temperatures) rather than a cause (rising atmospheric greenhouse gases). Donald Trump hasn't even taken office yet, so we can hardly blame him for climate change (except his own lifestyle and his fleet of aircraft). If he succeeds in muzzling or firing U.S. climate scientists he would only be following in the footsteps of Canada's former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Donald Trump is essentially running a side-show, albeit one that seems endlessly fascinating to the media and the general public. We need to refocus our attention. Time is running out.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: Joe Brusky/flickr

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