Climate Change and the Canadian Federal Election – One ecologist’s perspective

Posted by on September 19, 2019
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It’s been ages since I added to this blog, but Canada is embarking on a Federal election and climate change is high on the list of topics being discussed.  Lots of Canadians think acting on climate change is important, but many are unsure just how important it should be, compared to other issues.  Some Canadians think climate change is relatively unimportant.  How to decide?

Canada currently contributes less than 2% of the greenhouse gases humanity currently releases into the atmosphere.  Canada has an economy that is substantially dependent on the extraction of natural resources, especially oil and gas.  Curtailing our production of these fuels, especially the still mostly untapped bitumen reserves in the Athabasca Tar Sands, will dampen our economy and cost jobs.  In fact, what Canada desperately needs is a further investment in pipelines to coastal ports because the overwhelming majority of Canada’s gas, oil and bitumen is exported, and those exports are being limited by lack to ability to transport product to the coast.  There is more than enough global demand over the next several decades to provide lucrative markets for Canada, and we have a moral obligation to make use of the bounty Nature has provided for us in Athabasca.

Apart from referring to the Athabasca Tar Sands (their correct name) instead of the politically correct oil sands, which they definitely are not, that paragraph pretty well sums up one side of the argument that would suggest Canada has little need to do anything special about climate change – because we are such a tiny player in greenhouse gas pollution – but a great need to strengthen our economy by continuing to invest in a growing energy sector based largely on the mining of bitumen for export.

The other side of the argument is more nuanced, a little more sophisticated, and, I believe, the side that will be proved right in hindsight from somewhere a few years ahead.  This argument hinges on 1) the science of climate change, 2) the art of diplomacy for middle tier countries, and 3) the economic opportunities inherent in acting aggressively on climate change.

Climate Science

The science is pretty clear.  Climate scientists have known since the 1960s that the global economy was pumping sufficient CO2, CH4, and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, that concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere were measurably changing, and that these changes were causing a warming of the planet.  There is no disputing the data and the physics of greenhouse gases is quite clear – science understands what is happening to the atmosphere, how that affects the radiation of heat away from the planet, and the consequences in terms of planetary warming.

The data on atmospheric concentration of CO2 atop Mauna Loa are inexorably clear, and freely available on the web.  Unless one believes in government conspiracies (in this case involving both a major government agency and a major university who have collaborated in this charade for 51 years), the simple fact that CO2 concentration has been going up at an ever increasing rate since 1958 when the instruments were first installed to measure it, is about as self-evident as reproductive organs on a canine.  Similar graphs show similar changes in atmospheric concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide – all due to us.

Once we get it through our collective thick head that our global economy really is altering the composition of the atmosphere, the rest falls into place.  Increases in concentrations of greenhouse gases (such as these three) progressively impede the radiation of heat away from the planet without impeding the arrival of solar energy as light.  Ergo, the planet warms up.

We then must turn to another sphere of climate science, that to do with weather, to comprehend what is likely to happen to our climate as our planet warms up.  If there is any uncertainty in the science underlying climate change, it lies in our incomplete understanding of the ways in which warming the planet lead to altered weather.  Some of the multiple causal pathways involved are quite well understood – for example the way warming of the planet translates into higher average temperatures from place to place.  Other pathways, such as the one that begins with warming’s effects on the melting of ice, and ends up dealing with the contributions of massive loss of glaciers on climate, fresh water supply, and sea level rise, are still processes about which we have a lot to learn.  Understanding the details of how warming alters availability of fresh water which in turn alters agricultural production still has a fair way to go.  But anyone who claims the science of climate change is so poorly understood that we should hesitate to make any policy decisions until the science is better defined is really only looking for an excuse to do nothing.  If we all continue doing nothing, but continue our economic business as usual, it does not require great forecasting skill to project an increasingly alarming future for the planet.  And all the signs suggest that future is already upon us and getting worse daily.  To sum up, the science is very clear that climate change is upon is, is huge, and must be curtailed if we want to preserve any semblance of a stable world order with thriving economies and high quality of life.

Art of diplomacy

Canada is a mid-tier nation.  We are wealthy, have a relatively high standard of living for most of us, based on a relatively advanced economy.  We also have a relatively tiny population spread over an enormous country.  We have a miniscule capability in conventional warfare, no capability in nuclear war, and a lack of experience in terrorism as a way of getting our wishes fulfilled.  We know there are plenty of countries quite capable of rolling over us without pausing for breath.  We live next door to one such country and across the Arctic Ocean from two others.

Canadians are remarkably intelligent people, or we’ve been blessed to have remarkably intelligent leaders over the years.  We’ve not had to learn our relative weakness by having our faces ground into the dirt; we’ve somehow sized up the situation and decided that discretion, or, more aptly, effective diplomacy is the better part of valor.  We are collectively the skinny kid in the schoolyard who knows that massively armed bullies are best dealt with diplomatically.  Over the years, we have actively supported international agencies that seem the best places in which to allow hotheads to cool their ardor, and we have forged strong partnerships with likeminded nations.  We understand that not only is the glass half full, but several can drink from the same glass to mutual benefit.

At the present time, the world seems to be becoming a place where the advantages of such diplomatic, cooperative, win-win behavior by nations seem to be being discounted.  In too many nations at present, people have found their way into leadership positions who doubt there is such a thing as a treaty worth upholding or a problem which can be resolved in a win-win way.  Maybe Canada should wise up and start planning on going it alone?

Think about that for a moment.  We could arm ourselves to the teeth, build a wall along our southern border, develop much less lenient policies on immigration in order to keep undesirables at bay, and try to refocus our economy so that we minimize the importance of international trade.  Does that sound like a reasonable plan?  Or maybe we could go along as at present, relatively weakly capable of our own defense, but convinced that so long as we remain nice people – Canadians are so very nice – the rest of the world will leave us to our own devices even as the planet changes and quality of life degenerates for many people in many places.  The USA would never dream of taking Canadian water from the Great Lakes would it?  Even when vast areas of the US Midwest and Southwest become veritable deserts?  No, of course our American neighbors would never dream of taking our water.  As for Russia and China, on the other side of a rather small sea that will soon be navigable for much of the year, they’ll play nice so long as we do.  Right?

I think it should be very clear that, at this particular time, when the usefulness of international diplomacy is being so widely questioned, Canada is one of those nations that cannot avoid doing its best to keep the world order on track.  But, in order to continue to be recognized by others as one of the nations that contributes positively to international good governance and cooperation, Canada has to be seen to be acting in ways that are appropriate to the situation the world faces at the present time.  Given the science of climate change, given the future that is upon us, can Canada afford not to be pursuing international efforts to limit the extent of climate change, by deeds rather than by words?  Far better Canada be seen to be a nation doing its best to support the global effort to mitigate climate change, than to be seen as yet another rich country that does not give a damn, and worse yet, that is actively expanding its production and export of the fuels that are contributing so much to climate change at present.

Canada should be a strong, a leading, supporter of international efforts such as the Paris Agreement, and actively seeking ways to do even more to bring climate change under control, not because we are nice, cooperative people, but because it is in our own self-interest as a mid-tier nation attempting to support the existing world order. 

This image shows total GHG emissions per capita for 2016 and only includes nations with 10 million inhabitants.  If we look only at CO2 emissions, Canada’s 15.6 tonnes per person remains close to the highest.  The same is true if we consider our releases of all greenhouse gases.

If any of us Canadians need any more reason for the need to act on climate change, let’s remember the following.  Although Canada contributes under 2% of greenhouse gas emissions at the present time, we are still the tenth largest emitter nation, and our per capita emissions, at 15.6 tonnes CO2 per person, are the third highest in the world among developed nations (all data come from the Global Carbon Atlas for 2017).  Canadians waste energy and our emissions per capita show that.  We trail the USA and Australia in this, but seven small oil-producing countries, including Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, also have higher per capita emissions than Canada.  If our contribution to the problem is trivial, as some Canadians claim, why should any nation on the planet do anything to rein in emissions.  Oh, and by the way, Canada has failed to live up to every international climate treaty it has entered, withdrew in disgrace from the Kyoto Accord, and is currently failing to achieve the emissions reductions we committed to under the Paris Agreement.  If we continue this sorry performance, how long before other nations will start to see us as the phony we are proving to be – all talk, not much walk.

Carbon Action Tracker’s thermometer shows very clearly the extent of the work that needs doing globally on climate.  Canada is not the only country to have pledged to do too little and to have failed until now to live up to even its insufficient pledge.  Ponder what a 3oC warmer world might be like.  For starters, Canada would be a lot more than 3 degrees warmer – higher latitudes are warming more than equatorial latitudes.

Economic Opportunities

Many who seek to defer any action on climate argue for the need to protect Canada’s resource-based economy.  Increasingly, this argument is sounding more and more like the argument that may have been made at the turn of the 20th century to protect the industry built on making and repairing buggies, breeding and caring for horses.  Somehow the automobile took care of that issue.

The market, so often revered by those who argue against any government regulations that ‘impede’ business, is already shifting away from fossil fuels, and particularly the especially difficult and costly to produce fuels such as bitumen extracted from the Athabasca tar sands.  The global investment in oil production peaked in 2014 at about $550 Billion, but in 2018 it was down to $350 Billion.  Companies like Exxon-Mobil are narrowing their focus to the oil that is likely to be the most profitable in the midterm, such as the Permian Basin back in Texas.  Exxon-Mobil announced earlier this year that it was delaying development of its large $2.6 Billion Aspen project in the Athabasca region because of ‘uncertainty’ while simultaneously expanding its investments in the Permian Basin and off the coast of Guyana. Koch Industries sold all its tar sands leases in August, exiting Alberta completely.  And Norway’s giant sovereign wealth fund, which was built initially with revenues from oil – hint, hint, Alberta, and is now valued at about $1 Trillion, announced in June a major program of divestment from fossil fuel projects around the world.  The planned divestments will amount to about $13 Billion.  When the big players leave the game, you know something is afoot.

What’s afoot for the Alberta tar sands is collapsing profitability as the global demand for oil falls and purchasers choose the less expensive supplies with the lowest carbon footprints.  As some of the dirtiest fuel in the world, difficult to extract and refine, Alberta’s so-called ethical oil won’t stand a chance.  So far, our governments (federal and provincial) have propped things up by charging only modest royalties for the product being extracted, providing many favors on taxes for the producers, and now buying a pipeline that may eventually get expanded.  But putting large quantities of bitumen that nobody wants to buy on the BC coast seems a plan unlikely to succeed in stimulating Canada’s economy.

By contrast, there are enormous growth opportunities were Canada to embark on a major effort to decarbonize the economy – everything from installation and operation of renewable sources of energy supply, to retrofitting of buildings to lower energy costs of operation, to creating high-speed train, light rail, and other energy-efficient transportation solutions for this enormous country.  Then there are the ancillary benefits in quality of life, such as improvements in overall human health – an important issue in a nation that has most of health costs covered from government funds.

The phase-out of Ontario’s polluting coal-fired power plants completed in 2014 eliminated emissions of 28 megatonnes of CO2 and 320 kg of mercury, a known, bio-accumulating neurotoxin.  The average of 53 smog days per year in Toronto fell to zero (although air quality improvements south of the border also helped here).  Based on the growing evidence of beneficial health impacts in Ontario, the Federal government was able to claim earlier this year that its planned phase-out of coal power generation across the country would yield “260 avoided premature deaths, 40,000 fewer asthma episodes, and 190,000 fewer days of breathing difficulty and reduced activity — resulting in health benefits of $1.2 billion, from 2019 to 2055” for a cost of $2.2 Billion.  Yes, the phase-out will cost money, but half the cost is offset by health savings.  And independent auditors have judged those claims of health savings to be reasonable (and less than some advocates have suggested).

In short, a perusal of what is happening in places such as Europe where countries are further along the path towards decarbonizing, and some back of the envelope calculations on likely costs and benefits for Canada make clear to most people who bother to enquire that there are substantial pluses in a forward-looking economy that operates as Canada shifts away from use of fossil fuels.

Brian Gable’s cartoon says it well: Canada can cling to the belief that tar sands bitumen will always be an important part of our economy, or we can open our eyes, look around, and realize that the world has changed, and will continue to change, in ways that do not make that bitumen look like much of a hot commodity.  There is no economic argument to avoid the decarbonization that is needed.

Above all, Canada needs to put in place an organized phase-out of tar sands bitumen production, done by the energy sector in collaboration with Alberta and Federal government, with due recognition of the need to sustain employment opportunities for displaced workers, while minimizing investment losses.  An unplanned collapse, which is what will happen if we collectively do not tackle this problem, will do considerable damage to Canada’s economy and the quality of life of Canadians working in the energy sector.

Putting it all together

Lest there be any doubt about the seriousness of climate change, just as I was preparing to post this, I looked at this week’s issues of Science and Nature.  Nature had an editorial on how time is running out to act.  In it, they state, “Last year, the IPCC warned that limiting global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels would be a colossal undertaking, requiring greenhouse-gas emissions to be cut in half by 2030. The transition to renewable energy alone would cost US$2.4 trillion annually. And yet, without such drastic measures, the world is likely to exceed 3 °C of warming by the end of the century, and will experience more frequent and more severe catastrophic effects, including weather extremes, rising seas and drought.”  Nature backs this up with a short article by Jeff Tollefson including scary graphics to show just how little progress is being made.  He begins by quoting Argentinian 18 year old Bruno Rodriguez, “There is no middle ground.  We need radical industrial transformation.”  He then draws attention to Friday’s global climate strike, and presents graphs showing how national emissions have been growing, how inadequate the commitments made under Paris really are, and a map showing which countries have been showing least progress.  Canada is among the poor performers.

This graph, from Tollefson’s article shows how many million people worldwide will be impacted in each of several ways, and in which locations the risk is greatest, if climate is allowed to warm by 3oC (we are heading for more than this).

Science posted a new review article online today from Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and a group of scientists active within the IPCC that looked again at the consequences of particular levels of warming, 1.0oC, 1.5oC and 2.0oC.  The point out that commitments under the Paris agreement are “woefully inadequate” to achieve a 1.5oC goal, and state, “Warming of 1.0°C since the pre-industrial period has fundamentally transformed our planet and its natural systems. Multiple lines of evidence reveal that a 1.5°C world will entail larger risks to both human and natural systems. The risks of a 2°C world are much greater. This places us at a critical time in human history where proportionate action taken today will almost certainly minimize the dangerous impacts of a changing climate for hundreds of millions of people.”  I frankly do not know how much clearer the problem can be stated.  We really are in a global climate emergency and the time for half-measures is long past.

So, is climate change a major issue in the minds of Canadian voters?  And should it be?  All but one of the political parties have statements concerning actions to curb climate change in their platforms.  Most Canadians are capable of reading these statements and making informed judgements.  Some of these platforms are a lot stronger than others, and the media have been providing helpful evaluations of each.

The Green Party policies on climate change stand out from the pack in being significantly more ambitious and have been criticized because of this.  The NDP also proposes a more aggressive ramping down of emissions than is currently planned.  Neither of these parties is likely to form a majority government, and so their policies can be viewed more for what they might be able to extract from the Liberals or Conservatives in the event of a minority government.  From this perspective, the Green Party seems better positioned with a clearly enunciated set of policies and goals on climate change.  Nor, by the way, is the Green goal of reducing Canada’s emissions by 60% from 2005 levels by 2030 (double the reduction planned by the Liberals) an unrealistic response to the need to act.  It is not an impossible goal and could be achieved with a rapid but well-planned phase out of tar sands production.  That it seems so different to the policies of the other parties is more a reflection of how far the other parties need to go to fully understand the immensity of the climate problem that confronts us.  (A lot of Canadians, not just the political class, also have yet to comprehend just how severe the climate problem is.)

The Liberal and Conservative parties both have reasonable chances of forming government, though not necessarily a majority government.  Of the two, the Liberals have a set of climate policies, as well as climate actions already taken that suggest they comprehend the need to act in a meaningful way on climate.  The Conservative policies, in contrast, rely too much on business-as-usual and the effectiveness of the private sector taking steps that make sound economic sense.  Without a firm hand setting clear goals, the ‘market’ is not going to shift us out of fossil fuels at a pace remotely commensurate with the need – the market has too much interest vested in the existing fossil fuel-driven economy to change at the pace required.

I had high hopes for what the Liberals would accomplish four years ago, and I’ve not yet given up hope completely.  But the Liberals got tangled up in the political game of telling people what they wanted to hear – you cannot plan for an orderly phase-out of Canada’s exploitation of tar sands bitumen without discussing with the energy sector the need for such a planned, orderly phase-out!  Gentle suggestions, designed not to ruffle the feathers of an Albertan oil man, ain’t gonna’ get us where we need to be.  And now that the government owns a pipeline, they may find it even more difficult to walk the correct walk than they have over the past four years.

So what is a Canadian voter to do?  The science and the geopolitics say Canada needs to act aggressively on climate change.  One of the two parties most likely to form the next government seems far more likely to attempt to respond appropriately to climate change.  One of the other parties is the only one that has a set of policies on climate change that point us in the right direction with a sufficient effort; that party could play an effective role on climate in a minority or a narrowly majority government. 

As always in Canada, we are hobbled by the first-past-the-post voting system, so that in some ridings voting your conscience results in the candidate you least want to see elected winning the seat.  In such ridings, a more strategic approach to voting, if adopted by significant numbers of voters concerned about climate, could help elect more candidates with policies favorable to acting on climate.  In a few ridings the Greens have a possible path to victory and I hope they gain seats in the Parliament.  In other ridings, however, voting for anyone other than a candidate from one of the two major parties is merely a protest vote.

And finally, there is the question – how important is the need to act on climate change relative to all the other things that political parties promise?  That is something each individual voter must decide but let me provide a few estimates of impacts of climate change in a warmer world (we are currently heading towards a 3.3 degree increase in average global temperature as shown on the CAT thermometer graph above). 

In November 2017, The Guardian reported on impacts of sea level rise in a 3 degree world, using UN data and analyses by Climate Central.  They estimate 275 million people currently live in areas that will be flooded by 2100; most of these people live in Asia.  Among the most affected cities are Shanghai with 17.5 million people affected, Hong Kong with 8.5 million and Osaka with 5.2 million people, but even Miami, with 2.7 million people is essentially eliminated by 2100 in a 3 degree world.  And it’s not just Miami, even at 2 degrees projections show the southern third of Florida, from Lake Okeechobee south, home to 7 million people, essentially under water.  When sea level rise is affecting cities all over the world, its unreasonable to plan on building shoreline defenses.  Those people have to move!

An even more disturbing set of information has been compiled by the respected website, CarbonBrief.  It reports a wide range of consequences for 1.5o, 2.0o, and warmer worlds.  I am cherry-picking here but encourage you to peruse the site because it is definitely disturbing.  Just remember, while perusing that each effect, in each location is happening along with all the others, making the overall impact on our lives considerable.  For example, marine heatwaves, very destructive of coral reefs and of plankton production and hence of fishery yield, are projected to be 16 times more frequent in a 1.5o world than in the past, but 41 times more frequent in a 3.5o world and the AMOC (Atlantic meridional overturning circulation), which drives the circulation of the oceans, is destined to slow by 11% in a 1.5o world but by 34% in a 2.0o world.  Slowing of the AMOC leads to cold winters in Europe and a variety of other changes.  Similarly, at 1.5o ocean acidification will increase by 17% by 2050, but in a 2.0o world the increase in acidification will be 29%.

On land, the proportion of species losing 50% or more of their range in a 1.5o world ranges from 2% for birds to 8% for plants, but in a 4.5o world (definitely within the realm of possibilities this century) those percentages become 40% and 67%.  (If two thirds of all plants lose at least half their native range you know that many of them will go globally extinct.)  Global per capita GDP is projected to fall 8% in a 1.5o world, but 13% in a 2.0o world.  I could go on. 

Each of these projections has some uncertainty, but taken together, a 3 degree or warmer world is going to be a very different place to where we now live, and even 1.5o causes significant problems for us.  (And just because the examples I grabbed were not Canadian ones, bear in mind we have a rapidly thawing Arctic and no plans for how we will deal with the economic, sociological and environmental upheavals that are coming in our North.) Yes, the Greens are correct: climate change is a serious problem that requires urgent solutions, and yes, Canadians should be concerned and trying to ensure they elect a government capable of providing us with leadership in the struggle to achieve important climate goals.  The casual ‘let’s do a little bit and see how we fare’ approach in place up until now has got to be replaced with a much greater commitment.  Vote carefully this October, Canada!

Brian Gable scores with yet another cartoon!

One Response to Climate Change and the Canadian Federal Election – One ecologist’s perspective

  1. Geoff Ross

    Another truly excellent piece of reviewing and writing Peter. Great for logical flow, objectivity, balance, (though that itself lets the Conservatives off too easy for some outrageous policies) relevance, tone, information content and timeliness.
    I would love to have this as “required reading” for all Canadians, but of course this will not and can not happen. Most will not see it and many who do will not have the desire or ability to read it to the end. (Those that do read all and understand likely already in the “choir”) So what to do ? It would be wonderful if you could write a greatly-condensed version and somehow have that picked up as an editorial by the local media. A difficult request I know, but extremely important.