“This probably doesn’t need to be said but planning for low probability, high impact, worst case scenarios is looking pretty smart right now.”  Gavin Schmidt

The building climate change dangers promise to make the coronavirus pandemic look like a day off work with a cold.

Increasing global temperature means rising sea levels, worsening extreme weather, more forest fires, and widening desertification. Climate change is a threat multiplier and increasing warming portends more famine, plagues and war. These disasters will mostly happen in the world’s more vulnerable regions but the spillover effects will hurt us too.

These are just the dangers of increasing monotonic warming. There are, more disturbingly, low probability but high impact existential climate dangers collectively labeled ‘dangerous climate change’ which have the capacity to kill not millions but billions of people globally and which could crash our global civilization leaving who knows what hell for our descendants. Increasing human-induced warming is effecting key tipping points in the earth’s climate and could lead to a cascade of latent feedbacks and horrific Hothouse Earth.

We have known about these climate dangers for at least three decades but governments have not acted and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from burning fossil fuels and human landuse change have continued to rise. Actual mitigation action has been minimal and current projections suggest that with  present policies we are headed for a 3-4C rise in temperature this century. Each increment of warming increases the damage of monotonic warming and increases the chances of dangerous climate change. We are headed for catastrophe of a scale unimaginable.

What is Canada doing?  Canada is still aiming to reduce emissions by 30% by 2030 when the climate science proscribes a 7.6% reduction per year to have any chance of staying below a 1.5 rise. The existing and proposed policies in Canada’s Pan-Canadian Framework are limited to a 5-10% reduction PER DECADE. And emissions are still rising with most knowledgeable observers predicting that Canada will fail to achieve even it’s clearly insufficient (by at least half) level of emission reduction. Canada’s climate policies are in the very bottom tier of nations, with Russia and the Saudis, according to a study ranking climate goals of different countries.

But even worse, the Canadian government pretends to be a climate leader while doing everything in their power to expand fossil fuel production and export. Canada is now the world’s seventh largest producer of fossil fuels for export.

Globally, despite many initiatives to try and raise global mitigation ambition, governments have lapsed into an ‘immunity via collective failure’ paralysis where, in a tragedy of our atmospheric commons, fossil fuel producers ignore reason and morality and continue to flood markets with what has now become a possibly fatal pathogen.

Overcoming the tragedy of the atmospheric commons requires leadership by example from producing countries in winding down production and export. Wealthy, stable countries like Canada and Australia that could survive such a transition and even prosper must step up and lead. Instead Canada leads in being a truly bad example; Canada leads in not doing the right thing. Canada is still trying to build export pipelines and LNG infrastructure.

What if Canadian governments had reacted similarly to the coronavirus pandemic? What if we knew that our Federal Covid-19 plan was a plan to fail? What if we all knew that measures now being taken were clearly, obvious to everyone, grossly insufficient?

An important but as yet under-appreciated corollary of our coronavirus experience is that now, with governments expected to act effectively in an emergency, there is going to be increasing scrutiny of climate mitigation planning and policy. Are emission targets precautionary enough? Are our present mitigation policies effective? Are special governmental powers needed?

Governments were forced to do the heretical and lockdown their economies to fight the pandemic – given that we failed to contain the buildup of GHGs in the atmosphere for at least three decades, much more radical climate treatment policies are now needed. Incremental policies allowed by market fundamentalists have not worked. The treatment now required is a regulated managed decline of all fossil fuel production.

Canada is a world leader at not taking climate change seriously; at not acting swiftly and effectively; at letting ideology and fear of economic and political repercussions restrict needed treatment. Canada is a world leader at being an oil addict: myopic, self-interested and immoral.

But there is hope for the future because the Pan-Canadian Framework plan to fail is indefensible; it is clearly, grossly, insufficient; and the pressure on government will only increase. Greta and the kids will not tolerate this cynicism, this incompetence threatening their future. The pandemic has been a reset on how we think about the future and publics want governments to act on climate with the same urgency as effective coronavirus treatment.

Perhaps this is why Prime Minister Trudeau, our pretend climate leader, now always looks like a deer in the headlights.

Bill Henderson writes on Climate Change


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