Photo: UN Climate Change Flickr

While some Canadian politicians are continuing to hammer home their message that attempting to impose measures to slow climate change – like taxing polluters – only costs harried consumers, the United Nations’ latest report on global warming highlights that the cost of inaction now will be huge later – for everyone.

But the politicians’ simple who-cares-about-climate-change message gets much more coverage than the more complex news that is included in the latest UN report issued earlier this week.

For example, Ontario Premier Doug Ford took his message about climate out west last week when he joined Alberta opposition leader Jason Kenney. And it was widely reported.

Kenney described efforts to put a price on carbon as “economic masochism.” He, and his less articulate ally from Ontario, got big applause for that sort of emotionally charged, but fact-free, rhetoric at a rally in Calgary.

Environmental scientists have a much more difficult and complex message. It is not met with applause, and receives much less media attention.

Scientists cannot appeal to short-term and narrow self-interest; they must convince us to consider future threats, sometimes decades away, based on complex data from many sources and equally complex models and projections.  

The most recent scientific report on global warming – the report issued Oct. 8 by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – is a case in point. Its warnings are unambiguous and grave, but its language is nuanced and qualified.

The fact that only a few media outlets, including the CBC and the New York Times, covered the report’s dire warnings extensively is perhaps a reflection of the complexity. 

The National Post had one small story on Tuesday, focusing exclusively on the report’s warnings about climate change’s harm to agriculture. It was tucked away on an inside page of the business section.

Harm to prosperity, food security and water

The UN gave the panel, which consists of 91 scientists from 40 countries including Canada, the task of comparing the impact on the planet of an increase in temperature of 1.5°C as opposed to 2°C. The Paris Agreement of 2015 set an agreed-to target of “below 2°C” for global temperature increase this century, and an aspirational target of no more than 1.5°C. The report concludes that it would be well worth it to pursue the lower target. Indeed, it says, the planet and hundreds of millions of people will suffer grave harm if we do not.

The report details the vast scope of destruction that will be wrought by global warming. It will have a deadly impact on everything from our economic prosperity to the availability of food and water. In the words of the report:

 “Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C, and increase further with 2°C.”

The UN scientists then go on to tell us who will suffer the most severe effects as a result of a planet that grows warmer because of human activity:

“Populations at disproportionately higher risk of adverse consequences of global warming of 1.5°C and beyond include disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, some indigenous peoples, and local communities dependent on agricultural or coastal livelihoods. Regions at disproportionately higher risk include Arctic ecosystems, dryland regions, small-island developing states, and least developed countries. Poverty and disadvantages are expected to increase in some populations as global warming increases.”

There is no drama in that plain, scientific language. But there will be horror and drama for most of humanity and thousands of threatened animal and plant species if stronger and effective collective action is not taken to radically reduce the rate of global warming.

The scientists are not all doom and gloom, mind you.

They do point out that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C, compared with 2°C, could reduce the number of people both exposed to climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050.…”

Emphasis should be brought to the number cited: “several hundred million.”

Canada is a signatory to the Paris accord, but the country is not on track to reach the targeted emission reductions. Federal Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand made that fact crystal clear in her report of a year ago. 

Canada is almost certain, Gelfand said, to miss its short-term 2020 target of 620 megatonnes of total emissions. At the rate the country is going, she concluded, we will be emitting 731 megatonnes by 2020, more than 100 megatonnes above target.

For the medium-term 2030 target, the jury’s still out. To achieve that target, Canada will have to significantly pick up its emissions-reduction game, Gelfand said last year. A year on, the changed political climate has made that task a lot harder.

To start with: Stop subsidizing oil and gas

Dale Marshall, of the Canadian organization Environmental Defence, is one of many who point to what is most unfair about global warming. Speaking at a recent conference on climate change organized by the Group of 78, a Canadian foreign policy institute, Marshall said: “The sad irony of climate change is that those impacted first and worst are those least responsible for the problem …”

To help mitigate climate change impacts on the developing world, Marshall says industrialized countries “must mobilize $100 billion per year to address impacts, undertake low-carbon development, and mitigate loss and damage.”

Canada’s share of that effort would be $4 billion, which, as it happens, is what the Trudeau government spent to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline from Texas-based Kinder Morgan.

Marshall has other suggestions for the Canadian government. For one, it should stop subsidizing the oil and gas industry. As a Bloomberg News editorial put it: “Oil and gas subsidies are the world’s dumbest policy.”

“Federally,” Marshall said, “the largest subsidies are tax exemptions for oil and gas exploration and development.”

Canada could also ban new exploration and expansion of pipeline and offshore drilling and, Marshall proposes, the country should “develop a framework and public dialogue on fossil fuel phase-out and just transition.”

None of these major steps is on the Trudeau government’s radar. Nor is it on any provincial government’s radar. In fact, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau now has to face the growing power and influence of Canada’s boisterous and belligerent climate-change-who-cares coalition. That gang includes at least four provincial governments and the official opposition in Ottawa.

One of the who-cares gang’s biggest arguments is that Canada produces less than two per cent of the world’s emissions, so nothing we do will make much of a difference.

But despite our relatively small population – 37 million compared with more than 300 million Americans and more than 1 billion Chinese – Canada ranks ninth on the list of countries when total emissions produced are measured, well ahead of France, Italy and Great Britain, each of which has close to double Canada’s population.

And the story of Canada’s emissions per person is even more damning. Only three countries – Saudi Arabia, the United States and Australia – produce more emissions per capita than we do. Canada produces 15.32 metric tonnes of emissions per person per year. Britain, France and Italy produce far less than half of that. In fact, France, at 4.37 metric tonnes per person, produces less than a third of Canada’s per-capita emissions. When you consider those numbers, the only justification for Canada to do nothing to reduce its outsized emissions would be to deny climate science altogether.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Photo source: UN Climate Change Flickr


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...