The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey
Part IV: Climate Change Conversation We're Not Having
350. I saw that number a lot last week. You may have too. I don’t know that this number registered in the mainstream media to any degree, and I have no doubt that the Average Canadian remains largely in the dark about the significance of this number.
While attending a viewing of the movie “The Age of Stupid” at Laurentian University last Friday night, during the “Not Stupid” Awards portion of the evening (where the University’s environmental club recognized the efforts of local Sudburians to effect positive change within their community and around the globe), it was revealed to me that we’re actually at about 390 right now (October 2009).
Back in March, when I was handing out plain white buttons with “350" printed in bold black letters, when asked by passers-by what 350 was all about, I was able to inform them that we were at about 387. On Friday, it blew me away to hear that we may be at 390 only 7 months later. Wow. We’re really headed in the wrong direction. Fast.
If you’re not familiar with 350, the number refers to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and it represents a reasonable target that we, as a global society, should be shooting for if we are going to avoid raising global temperatures. When we started this whole industrial revolution thing, there was only about 275 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. With industrialization, we’ve risen now to 390. That might not seem like much of an increase. But where does this trend take us?
Well, the European Union, which is unquestionably ahead of its North American counterparts in taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is shooting for a target of 450 parts per million of CO2 in our atmosphere as the do-not-pass-GO do-not-collect-$200 absolute high-end emission limit. With 450 ppm in the atmosphere, we can expect a global rise in temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius. If we go beyond 450 ppm, and experience further warming, we risk ending up in the uncharted territory of feedback loops which lead to runaway climate change.
A feedback loop doesn’t sound all that scary. But it is easier to refer to a feedback loop than to: extreme glacial melting, flooding, rivers drying up, irrigation system failure, crop failure, famine, desertification, drought, ice-sheets breaking away from continental shelves, rising sea levels, desalination of the oceans, stalling of the Gulf Stream current, freezing conditions in Europe, heatwaves in America, environmental refugees everywhere, overwhelmed governments, riots in the streets, failed states, armed conflict, taxes not being collected, and a general breakdown of society as we know it. That’s the kind of feedback loop we would find ourselves in if we go above 2 degrees of warming.
I’ve been seeing more and more references to the 2 degree limit in the mainstream media lately, although largely they have not been accompanied by any significant degree of analysis. Usually the media simply reports that “many environmentalists believe that 2 degrees is an appropriate target to shoot for”. But that’s about it for analysis. There’s certainly no discussion about the “feedback loop” and what that might mean for the Average Canadian and the rest of the world.
In the past year, there have been an increasing number or reports which have come out which suggest that global warming is occurring at faster rates than described in the IPCC’s Nobel Prize winning report. More recent data appears to be supportive of these conclusions. Phrases such as “between 3.5 and 7 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100" are starting to become the new normal in discussions about climate change. Forget about 2 degrees. The world is warming up a lot faster than previously thought. What you learned from “An Inconvenient Truth” is now out of date. Yes, it will take another couple of years before these new numbers become completely accepted, and may require an updated report by the IPCC to do so, but it seems inevitable that things are moving more quickly than previously thought.
Yet largely the mainstream media has been silent about this new science (although you see a few articles every now and then about melting ice sheets in the Canadian arctic). Certainly in terms of public policy discussions, much of the mainstream media remains focussed on whether or not human-made global warming is actually taking place. Or at best the media might discuss the costs of taking action to address climate change as being too high in terms of jobs and income loss.
As an aside, this really galls me. While the mainstream media isn’t at all reluctant to express their thoughts about the damage to our economy that emission reductions will have, they are silent on the damage which will occur to our economy if we refuse to act. Those events in the feedback loop I described earlier are not just a figment of my imagination. They will occur if we warm the Earth and blow through the 450 ppm roadblock. Yet the mainstream media says nothing about how lousy a global catastrophe might be for Canada’s GDP.
Your government isn't talking about this either. Not to you, or in the House of Commons. When your government chooses to speak to you about climate change at all, it’s to tell you that they’re doing something about it (such as pouring billions of dollars into carbon capture and storage research and development, which would have limited effect on reducing carbon emissions but will certainly provide corporate welfare to the tar sands industrial giants to produce more oil), or that we need to wait to see what the Americans are going to do about it. When targets are discussed, they are woefully inadequate targets to prevent runaway climate change. And there is only silence with regard to how we’re going to achieve those woeful targets anyway.
The Opposition parties aren't talking about the situation we'll find ourselves in if we don't act either. Why would they? Would the Average Canadian voter want to cast a ballot for a party which is full of doom and gloom? Well, maybe if they had a plan to address the doom and gloom, they might. But those parties currently occupying the opposition benches in the House clearly don't have such a plan, nor are they thinking about one.
In absence of any real plan, a North American cap and trade carbon market seems to be the life preserver our government wants us to grasp ahold of. But with the woeful targets being discussed right now in the United States (17% reduction in emissions below 2006 baseline, and possibly with exemptions to the biggest emitters, such as coal producers), there will be no way we’ll prevent blowing through the 450 ppm roadblock.
The mainstream media tells us, though, that Canada can’t go it alone here. We can’t be leaders on this issue. If we aim too high, our economy will be compromised, and jobs will be lost to American and international competition. Taxing carbon will impose a massive burden on exports, and unless everyone is doing it, we’ll just be shooting ourselves in the foot. And doing so during a period of moribund economic recovery no less. How foolish to think that this is the right time to be heeding those lefty environmentalists who want to reduce emissions!
Again: where is the discussion regarding what will happen if we implement Option A: Do Nothing. The mainstream media, through omission, wants you to believe that things will largely remain business as usual in 10 and 20; maybe you'll need to boost the AC a little in the summer time, but largely, business as usual. There is no discussion at all about how inaction will really impact us.
And when someone dares speak about the looming crises, politicians, political pundits and media tend to play whack-a-mole, ridiculing the doomsday message as being far-fetched. Or worse: proclaiming the message to be one the public really doesn't want to hear about because it's so depressing. Better just to ignore it altogether. Those lefty environmentalists are just so damn sad and angry all the time, they should really keep popping the Prozac and get with the program.
To sum up: Our failure today to begin addressing climate change will lead to massive changes to our society, most of which appear to be pretty negative. There will be social upheaval. The end result will be that what we presume to be a “normal” way of life will all but disappear for the vast majority of us, and that we will be forced to deal with a collapsing economy and a collapsing polity due to the climate crisis.
With governments bending under the weight of multiple crises, where will this leave our Canadian democracy? Are we equipped to deal with the (to paraphrase James Howard Kunstler) “clusterfuck” of looming and current crises? Given that we don’t seem to even want to acknowledge that they will occur suggests to me that the answer is “No, we won’t be equipped. How foolish of you to ask”. How will our government be forced to deal with food shortages, economic melt-down, and environmental catastrophes?
And I’ve not even touched on Peak Oil. If you think that the effects of climate change are going to be bad for Canada and western democracy, well, (to paraphrase BTO) "you ain’t seen nothing yet!"
(Continued in Part 5...)
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