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On Climate, Our Choice Is Now Catastrophe or Mere Disaster

The IPCC Special Report makes for grim reading. Wake up, politicians.

Crawford Kilian 9 Oct

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

On Canadian Thanksgiving, the International Panel on Climate Change issued a Special Report. It’s a long document, and not the kind of thing you should read while digesting a big turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

The IPCC doesn’t even seem to think most citizens will read it; the summary is for “policymakers,” the wonks and their political masters, who will translate its findings into whatever they think will get them re-elected. That will take considerable spin, because the Special Report tells us we’re screwed. Even to be a little less screwed, we’ll have to overturn everything in our society, politics, and economy — just to keep the global temperature from rising more than half a degree Celsius.

That doesn’t sound like much, but an enormous amount of energy is involved in warming the planet by half a degree. Briefly, the IPCC argument runs like this: since the 19th century’s “pre-industrial” carbon dioxide levels began to rise, global temperature has risen about 1 degree Celsius. That one degree has brought us a shrinking Arctic ice pack, rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet, dying reefs, rising sea levels, and some very extreme weather.

The Paris Accord, which Canada signed, is intended to keep further temperature rise below 2 degrees by the end of the century, and to try to keep it as low as 1.5 degrees. This was on par with the “pledges” rich nations make to help poor nations recover from earthquakes and epidemics; somehow the money itself never arrives.

In fact, studying the 1.5 degree goal was considered a sop to island nations that expect to drown if sea levels keep rising, and the Special Report was compiled to please them. The real trouble, scientists thought, would start with 2 degrees.

Everyone gets hurt

But both the report and concurrent research show that a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius is going to hurt everyone, not just Polynesia. At present rates of emission, we’re going to hit a global average of 1.5 degrees not in some distant future, but in 2040. “Warming in many regions has already exceeded 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels,” the report says. “Over a fifth of the global population live in regions that have already experienced warming in at least one season that is greater than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.”

To slow things down, the report says, “Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.”

We are hurtling toward a multi-national pile-up, and we know it. Even if we slam on the brakes, the Special Report tells us, we’ll be seriously injured instead of maimed or killed. That is, no good consequences are foreseeable — only bad and less bad.

Not quite ghastly

So sea levels will still rise, and the oceans will still acidify, but less than if we crash through to 2 degrees Celsius. Fewer ecosystems will collapse and fewer species will go extinct. Extremely hot days will be 3 degrees warmer instead of 4 degrees. Droughts and storms won’t be quite as bad at 1.5 degrees as at 2 degrees. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets will be somewhat more stable and less likely to collapse. About 10 to 30 per cent of coral reefs will survive at 1.5 degrees; at 2 degrees, they’ll all die. Instead of losing a global fishery catch of 3 million tonnes at 2 degrees, we’ll lose only 1.5 million tonnes at 1.5 degrees.

Of interest to Canadians, “Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees rather than 2 degrees is projected to prevent the thawing over centuries of a permafrost area in the range of 1.5 to 2.5 million km2.”

The Special Report says surprisingly little about the health and social consequences of further warming. At 1.5 degrees we’ll see fewer heat waves and disease outbreaks than at 2 degrees, and crop losses won’t be quite as bad, and water won’t be quite as scarce. The consequences will be worst for the poor tropical nations that have contributed least to the warming problem, but not quite as bad at 1.5 degrees as at 2. The social and political consequences go unmentioned except as abstractions: “Hazards, exposures, and vulnerabilities that could affect increasing numbers of people and regions.”

More concretely, the world (including us) will be involved in wars, revolutions, mass displacement of millions of people, famines, and epidemics. And that’s the better of the two scenarios.

More ignored than denied

And how are our politicians responding? Good luck finding the term “global warming” on the Canadian Conservative Party’s website. The Liberals offer lots of opportunities to support Trudeau (and get on the Liberals’ mailing list). The NDP promise vague generalities: “Establishing binding targets and clear standards to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” etc. Only the Greens offer real numbers that roughly match those of the Special Report.

Meanwhile, provincial politicians like Jason Kenney and Doug Ford are promising fast relief from Trudeau’s feeble carbon tax, while B.C.’s John Horgan okays an liquefied natural gas pipeline to Kitimat and Rachel Notley keeps pushing for the Trans Mountain expansion.

Internationally, climate change isn’t being denied so much as ignored. U.S. President Donald Trump wants to roll back U.S. standards for vehicle emissions and methane leaks. Chinese coal-fired power stations generate almost a million megawatts, and the likely next president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, is thinking about quitting the Paris Accord and disbanding the government’s environment department altogether.

Trudeau will doubtless show up for a December meeting in Poland where Paris Accord signatories will discuss how to implement their promises. Whether they will do anything but “pledge” is still unclear.

One government is already moving. Finland’s Prime Minister Juha Sipilä has just called for an all-party summit in November to figure out how to do more and faster to keep the country’s emissions low. Sipilä wants Finland to pioneer technological solutions, but his own environment minister says “there is no possibility” of reducing emissions by 2030. A Swedish environmental expert, meanwhile, says Sweden could lower emissions to meet the 1.5ºC target, “but time is of the essence.”

But Germany, once a leader in climate politics, shrugged off the new report. The day the report appeared, French media such as AFP emphasized the difficulties of meeting the 1.5-degree target and quoted no government officials at all.

Given the lack of credible alternatives to an unsustainable status quo, modern governments and most of their voters are sleepwalking into catastrophe. If anyone or anything can wake them up, we might have a chance. And if we don’t work hard to turn that catastrophe into a mere disaster, we won’t be able to say nobody warned us.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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