As the pages on our calendars are turned from one year to the next, we are reminded that the future can’t be held back. It’s going to come on its own terms, and by necessity we must adapt. What the year 2014 taught us, based on knowledge which has been accumulating now for decades, is that we are headed towards a planetary crisis. We are likely in the early stages of that crisis now.
The crisis centres on the fact that humanity is altering the chemical composition of our planet's atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels which release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, causing the planet to warm and the climate to change.
2014 is now officially the hottest year on record. 10 of the past hottest years have occurred since 1998. Since the late 1800s, the world has warmed between 0.6 and 0.9 degrees Celsius, and the rate of warming has more than doubled since 1950. If we continue to burn fossil fuels at the rate we are today, we can expect a rise in temperature between 2.5 and 5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100 .
These changes in average temperature might not seem large, but in terms of their impact on the climate, they are astounding. When the world was just several degrees cooler, much of North America was covered by glaciers.
Throughout most of the period of human civilization, the world’s climate has remained fairly stable. Only since the onset of the industrial revolution has this started to change – slowly at first, and much faster recently. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere accumulate over time. Even if all fossil fuel burning stopped tomorrow, the warming will still continue for at least another century.
The crisis we are facing isn’t just a chemical crisis. Global warming threatens to upset the systems on which our civilization is based. Our food supply, and the fresh water we need to grow crops, is threatened by changes to the planet's climate. Agricultural crises often lead to economic and political upheaval brought about by famine and war.
If we are to avoid the very worst of these catastrophes – the environmental, economic and political – it's very clear what we need to do. We must stop burning fossil fuels and hold the line of warming at no more than 2 degrees Celsius. And in Copenhagen in 2009, just about every nation on the planet agreed to do just that.
But so far, agreement has led to only limited action. Fossil resources continue to be exploited, even though we know that most of our reserves of coal, oil and natural gas can't be burned. Yet, here in Canada, our national and provincial governments are committed to new fossil fuel infrastructure projects, like pipelines and ports, to facilitate more fossil fuel extraction and burning.
A new study published in the science journal Nature this week exposed a stark truth for Canada. To keep warming at 2 degrees Celsius, no more than 15% of the Alberta tar sands known reserves can be extracted and burned. The study makes it also makes it clear that there is absolutely no point in further exploration for new fossil fuel sources.
The future is coming on its own terms, and one way or another, we'll have to adapt. Rapidly decarbonizing our economy through a shift to renewable energy is the most sensible course. Armed with this knowledge, we must find ourselves political leaders who have the courage to act for our future benefit, rather than those who choose to act against our interests – and the planet's.
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)
Originally published as in the Sudbury Star, Saturday, January 10, 2015 (print only).
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