Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Evolution of Climate Change Lingo in a Warming World

There has been an evolution of words, terminology and ideas which has informed public discussions about climate change over the last 30 years. In the mid-1980s, popular science talk was all about the “greenhouse effect” – how greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. This trapped heat contributed to “global warming”.

As our understanding of the dynamics of climate broadened, “global warming” morphed into “climate change”. New economic concepts were introduced, including “sustainable development” – the idea that development must not occur at the expense of future generations. Also, terms previously relegated to obscure scientific journals started to become mainstream. Suddenly, the Amazon rainforest was a “carbon sink” where “carbon sequestration” occurred in jungle vegetation, released as part of the “carbon cycle” through forest fires.

As public awareness of climate issues expanded, so too did demands for government action. The first Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, laid the groundwork for an international way forward. The Earth Summit created the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which led in 1997 to the signing of the Kyoto Accord, the first binding international treaty limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Back in the 90’s, the writing seemed to be on the wall for the continued profligate burning of fossil fuels.

But the fossil fuel industries fought back with the promise of cheap energy. Even as the production of conventional non-renewable energy sources started to diminish, new technologies (and rising prices) led to the profitable development of alternative fossil sources, including bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands (rebranded as the consumer-friendly “oil sands” in the 1980s), and more recently through hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”). Although energy prices have risen substantially for consumers, our thirst for their use has not been abated by rising prices – or the threat of a global climate crisis.

In 2009, global national leaders signed the Copenhagen Accord. For the first time, the global community had drawn an emissions line in the sand by agreeing to hold the global average temperature rise at 2 degrees C from pre-industrial levels.

The best available science suggests that if 2 degrees C of warming is exceeded, we risk triggering dangerous positive feedbacks, such as the melting of greenhouse gas-rich northern permafrost, leading to substantially more warming.

This year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Fifth Assessment Report, which for the first time provided a global “carbon budget” for the burning of fossil fuels up to the year 2100. This carbon budget can’t be exceeded if temperature rise is to remain below 2 degrees C. Unfortunately, the world is currently on target to completely deplete this budget in just over 20 years.

At international climate negotiations, there is an understanding that to stay within our carbon budget, a significant portion of proven fossil fuel reserves will need to remain buried in the ground. This “unburnable carbon” will prove problematic for the profit margins of fossil industries and their investors. The possibility of a coming “carbon bubble” is very real, and could negatively impact financial markets if not managed. Calls for divestment of risky fossil stock portfolios, particularly on the part of public pension plans, are being made throughout the world.

Our understanding of the complexity of the climate crisis has increased over time. As a result, the vocabulary which we use to discuss a growing number of solutions to the crisis has also expanded.

Yet, for the most part, our political leaders have failed to engage the public on climate mitigation and adaptation strategies.
Is this because our elected officials don’t want to address climate change, or because they don’t understand it?

Steve May is an Officer of the federal and provincial Nickel Belt Greens


(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 in the Sudbury Star, Saturday November 30th, as "May: Climate Change Lingo Has Evolved, Policy Hasn't"

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