Looking for leadership in climate change battle

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World leaders met in Germany earlier this month to discuss, among other issues, the problem of global warming and how to deal with it. Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, wants to cut green house gas emissions by fifty per cent by the year 2050. The Canadian government has a plan to cut Canada's emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 and in half by 2050. Two questions arise. First, is a fifty per cent reduction enough, and second, is the Canadian plan, as according to the Liberal opposition, a sham that will allow emissions to continue rising? If the answer to the first question is no, then the second one is irrelevant since neither Merkel's plan nor Harper's policy would amount to more than smoke and mirrors.

The problem with green house gas emissions and their role in global warming is not the percentage of emissions compared from one year to the next, but the overall volume of emissions compared to those when the planet was relatively stable. Leaders need to be setting emission targets based on absolute volume of output, not on a flaky, percentage based formula.

The earth has regular orbital cycles that affect the warming and cooling of the planet and a natural rising and lowering of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. According to some scientific studies the latest peak warm period in this cycle was reached about 10,000 years ago and the planet began entering its cooling phase. At this point we should be seeing the beginning of a new glaciation, but instead we are witnessing the disappearance of glaciers and a continued rising trend in the temperature.

The break in the cycle can be traced back 8,000 years to the dawn of agriculture and the growth of the human population on the planet. Agriculture and technological advances make it possible to support more humans, while at the same time increasing the output of greenhouse gasses. More humans make it possible for even more agriculture and technological advances which in turn.... and so on. A perfect analogy for this process is cancer in a body gone out of control.

A limited amount of global warming may not necessarily be a bad thing. For the first several thousand years the cooling trend was only slowed, and then stabilized above the glaciation threshold. The world was neither too hot nor too cold. Then came the Industrial Revolution which brought massive development and made it possible to support for a short period of time far more people than the planet has long term resources for. The boom in both the ability to create greenhouse gasses and the exploding population that contribute to each other have sent us climbing way above our natural level towards temperatures at the peak of the warm period. Temperatures that instead of stabilizing our ability to sustain ourselves on the planet are putting our existence at risk through changing patterns of climate and ecological resources.

Talking about cutting emissions a certain percentage of a given benchmark fails to address the issue. A twenty, fifty, or sixty per cent reduction in emissions that are about three times more than what they should be is still not enough. Governments should be working on a more robust plan of action to stabilize the climate and repair the ecosystem. They should be setting reduction goals in finite numbers and implementing policies to achieve them.

One should also keep in mind that climate change and global warming are not the root of our problem, but symptoms of it. Although the development of technology has allowed humans to put more demand upon the ecosystem, it is the demand, not the technology that is the real culprit. And as technological innovations allow us to temporarily support more humans and the number of humans expand to that which can be supported, even more demand is being made. This would be fine if we lived in a world with endless space and resources, but both are finite, and all growth, sooner or later, becomes fatal just like uncontrollable cancer.

Any plan to halt destructive climate change and repair the ecosystem will certainly benefit from technology, as we can always find ways to better utilize our resources. But better utilization also means using less overall until we reach a point where we are not using them faster than they can be replaced. Real change must also include plans for reducing system wide total demand which means either reducing the number of people that there are to make demands, or portioning out smaller and smaller amounts to everybody until we reach a point where the size of the amounts will not support us regardless of the technology.

Climate change and greenhouse gas emissions are but the tip of the ice berg of a much bigger problem facing our society in the coming years. The question is, do we have leaders up to the challenge?

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