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Climate is Changing Ever Faster While Humanity Carries On Business As Usual.

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I recently heard on the news that 1 in 7 Pakistanis were sleeping out in the open because the monsoon floods meant they no longer had liveable houses.  I also saw a news item about a new report in Nature Climate Change that stated that committed warming has now ensured that melting of the Greenland ice sheet will lead to a 27cm rise in sea level.  I doubt if many of us have understood the true seriousness of either of these claims.

About one third of Pakistan is under water.  Much of their home construction uses mud bricks.  The scale of destruction is mind-numbing, but too easily dismissed – it is happening ‘over there’.  Image © @anis_uji and NDTV,

Pakistan’s population is currently 230.6 million.  And 32.9 million of them are sleeping outside.  Canada’s current population is 38.4 million, so one way to see the Pakistan horror is to imagine all Canadians, except for the lucky inhabitants of Toronto (including North York, Mississauga, Scarborough, Etobicoke, Vaughan, Oakville, East York, and Willowdale), sleeping outside tonight because we have no homes to sleep in.  And if you don’t like the idea of letting the citizens of Toronto off lightly, just replace Toronto with British Columbia.  Because the monsoon floods have been a bit more severe than usual.  The usual phrase – climate change will cause more extreme floods and droughts – does not begin to capture what has happened in Pakistan.  And is happening elsewhere around the world.  And will continue to happen, and get worse year by year, as we continue to warm the planet.

These Pakistanis are not wading as recreation.  There is no dry path.  One in seven citizens have significantly damaged or destroyed homes.  Photo © Arshad Arbab/EPA

Greenland is melting

The story concerning the melting of Greenland’s icecap contained a critical sentence right in its first paragraph glossed over by the media which reported on it.  “We find that Greenland ice imbalance with the recent (2000–2019) climate commits at least 274 ± 68 mm SLR from 59 ± 15 × 103 km2 ice retreat, equivalent to 3.3 ± 0.9% volume loss, regardless of twenty-first-century climate pathways.”  Never mind the precise quantification, including estimates of variance in the data; focus instead on commits to at least 274mm of sea level rise… regardless of what we do during the rest of this century.  The authors have used a novel approach to estimate the extent to which the ice sheet is away from equilibrium with the pattern of annual snowfall.  In that way they can estimate the amount of melting that would have to occur to regain that equilibrium if we were to stop warming the planet today.

To understand what is going on here, just think about ice.  Just as an ice cube in your favorite beverage takes time to melt even though surrounded by a liquid which is warmer than 0oC, we have warmed Greenland’s climate sufficiently that the snow arriving each winter cannot replace the ice which melts in the summer.  Just as you commit to melting that ice cube when you drop it into that drink, we have committed to a certain amount of melting of Greenland’s icecap, and over time that melting will occur regardless of any further warming we cause.  In the process, sea level will rise 27cm.

Jason Box, lead author of the new report, on the melting Greenland ice sheet.  Melting in Greenland that we are already committed to will raise sea level 27 cm.  But that is just the beginning.  Land in southern Florida?  Forget it. 
Photo © Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS).

Why do I say the media glossed over this fact?  Because nearly all readers will have seen 27cm as the total sea level rise that is going to occur, forgetting that more warming will melt more of Greenland’s ice, and forgetting that exactly the same process is going on for every other glacier on the planet.  There is committed melting (and associated sea level rise) for each of these as well, and we are looking at total sea level rise, already committed to – that is, no longer avoidable, no matter what we may try to do – far in excess of 27cm.

There is no doubt that there is sufficient water on the planet to raise sea level substantially above the present-day level if not locked up in ice.  During the two million years of the Pleistocene, mean global sea level fluctuated from as low as 130 m below present-day level during maximum episodes of glaciation to from 10 to 40 m above present-day levels during interglacials when glaciers had melted back.  In the more distant past, there have been periods when the climate was a lot warmer than today, and sea level was much higher; over geological time sea level has fluctuated 300 to perhaps 400 m.  Our warming of the climate is making the risk of substantially higher sea level much greater; it does not even have to stop at 10 to 40 m above the present level.  The committed melting of Greenland’s icecap is just one small part of a much bigger problem.  And the problem is global.  It’s not limited to Greenland.

In a paper several of us published in 2014, we determined that 2.6 billion people lived within 100 km of a coast, including those living in 19 megacities (>10 million people each).  By 2050, that coastal population was expected to grow 45%.  Not all land within 100km of a coast lies at low elevation, and not all low elevation land is within 100km of a coastline – big rivers can have extensive, low elevation portions.  But, the sheer number of people in coastal populations should convince all of us that a sea level rise of several meters will be catastrophic for civilization.  And the real message from that paper in Nature Climate Change last month is that this coming catastrophe is well under way.

So, for me, the floods in Pakistan and the new data on melting in Greenland are just two items among a growing number that show us, if we care to look, that climate is already changing and that the changes are unlikely to be good for us.  I see nothing that would support the complacency, equanimity, or utter lack of awareness concerning climate change; it will affect all of us, big time.

I’ve written in the past, that people by and large do not comprehend the magnitude of the forces we are unleashing as we warm the planet.  I’ve also written of my disappointment over humanity’s failure to take decisive action to stem climate change.  I find it increasingly difficult to maintain a positive, optimistic tone when I discuss the climate emergency.  And my silence on this blog for the past four months is a sign that I had reached the point where I thought there was nothing more to say.

Some Positive News

A small number of positive events recently have renewed my natural optimism.  I really do want to see glasses half full.  These events include the sustained support by western nations for Ukraine in its struggle with Russia (which may still wane as the costs of such support mount), the unexpected success of the Biden administration in getting its climate, health and tax bill signed into law, the surprisingly powerful California decision on electric cars, and, perversely, the US Supreme Court’s decision on abortion.  Notice that all of these events, bar one, are US-centric; such is the continued importance of the USA when it comes to global progress on climate.

Biden’s new, $700 billion bill, signed into law on August 16th, is a major positive step on climate by one of the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases.  The bill looked like it was doomed to fail, until it suddenly succeeded.  Even so, it had to be named the Inflation Reduction Act, and slipped through the US Senate using one of that institution’s arcane rules for budget reconciliation, all because that other arcane filibuster rule meant it would never pass otherwise.  Sausage making is a messy business, but this time the good guys came out winners.  We can criticize this bill for all the things it will not do but should, or we can recognize it as containing by far the largest investment ever in decarbonizing the largest economy on the planet.

Electric cars are parked at a charging station in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, April 13, 2022. California wants electric vehicle sales to triple in the next four years to 35% of all new car purchases. Regulations passed Tuesday, April 12, 23022, by the California Air Resources Board set a roadmap for the state to achieve California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ambitious goal of phasing out the sale of new gas powered cars. The draft must go through a months-long state regulatory process and get approval from the U.S. EPA.  Photo © Rich Pedroncelli/AP

California’s decision on August 25th, to phase out sales of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035 is a major step towards decarbonizing transportation across numerous jurisdictions that tend to follow California’s lead.  It will have an impact across North America and hasten the development of alternative types of vehicles and electricity grids capable of handling the load.  The move was unexpected, but in keeping with trends in that forward-thinking state.

The continuing support by western nations for Ukraine and the Supreme Court decision on abortion may seem less obviously reasons for climate optimism.  The first, which could dissolve at any moment as this conflict continues, impressed me because it demonstrates that democracies can still work in unison, even when the decisions being reached inflict some economic pain on their citizens.  Maybe such coming together can happen for decisions on climate as well.  The second seems paradoxically to have energized the Democratic base in the US, and this could mean that Biden may continue to have a Democrat majority in the Senate come November.  If that does transpire, and I’m not holding my breath, it could be good for continued momentum on climate in that important country.

Some Countries to Watch

So.  Four events that gave me some renewed optimism and prompted me to write once more in this blog.  But, and it’s a big but, my nascent optimism is tempered by the abundance of evidence accumulating of the worsening environmental situation on this planet.  I will need to see several other signs of good things happening before I become confident that we have turned a corner and have decided it is time to stop business as usual on energy and the environment.  Two countries that may be worth watching, as well as the USA, are Canada and Australia.  (These three just happen to be the three largest greenhouse gas emitters per capita of all developed countries on the planet.)

Zali Steggal, shown here with supporters, was one of the successful teal candidates in the Australian election – teal, to combine the blue of their generally conservative ideologies and green for their pro-climate action policies.  Not a party, but these independents are largely responsible for the shift to a labor government.  Photo © Team Zali Steggal

In their recent national election, Australians finally threw out the Liberal Party/Country Party coalition, installing a new Labor government with an apparently positive climate policy (another piece of good news for me).  In truth, the electorate did not really ‘swing to Labor’; the Labor party barely shifted its share of the vote, while picking up an additional 8 seats in the 151-seat legislature for a bare majority of 77.  The Liberal/Country coalition lost 18 seats, most of which were captured by climate-positive Greens and so-called “teal independents.”  Twelve Teals, mostly in formerly safe Liberal seats, brought their fiscal conservatism combined with climate activism to Canberra.

Following the election, the new government quickly increased Australia’s Paris commitment, pledging to cut emissions 43% from 2005 levels by 2030.  (The previous government’s pledge was 26 to 28%.)  Subsequently, it strengthened the safeguard mechanism that will cap emissions by the country’s 215 biggest emitters.  How this develops will be worth watching, because Australia, like Canada a big fossil fuel exporter, is trying to support its energy sector with increased subsidies for such things as carbon capture technology (total Aussie subsidies to energy sector ~ US$49 billion per year), and continuation of a policy of developing and exporting as much of the resource as possible, while ratcheting down on overall emissions.  Will the politically powerful fossil fuel sector hobble this government as successfully as it had hobbled its predecessor.  Time will tell.  The teals may become an important force in preventing that.

As for Canada, our last national election is now a faint memory, and was far from memorable the day after it happened.  Before that, on June 29th, the Trudeau government had passed the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, designed to help Canada actually meet one or more of its many climate pledges (meeting any such pledge would be a first for this country which promises much and delivers less).  Shortly after that, Canada strengthened its commitment under the Paris Agreement, planning to reduce emissions to 40 to 45% of 2005 levels by 2030.  Following the election on September 20th, the Liberals were returned with another minority government, Trudeau appointed noted conservationist Steven Guilbeault as Environment Minister, deftly finessed the New Democratic Party into tacitly supporting his program, and then everyone seemed to go on an extended vacation through the winter, spring and summer while various decisions were made that favored the fossil fuel producers (see my last blog post).  Canada has increased its subsidies to this sector by about $7 billion through 2030 to largely pay for the carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology that the industry assures us is their path to the promised land, enabling them to continue extracting and exporting while still lowering emissions.  Add in the approval of the giant Bay du Nord oil project off Newfoundland and sundry other fossil-friendly decisions quietly announced while we all enjoyed summer, all suggesting Canada, as well as delivering consistently less than it promises on emissions reduction, continues to encourage the fossils to go on digging up and shipping out while suggesting they really should not be doing that and perhaps should plan to stop sometime in the future (after current political leaders have all gone on to their cosy, corporate, often international, post-political, highly remunerative, part-time, not too demanding jobs they all so richly deserve).

This Globe & Mail cartoon from 2021 could have easily been reissued in 2022.  Despite the evident effects of the changing climate, Canada has been drifting with policies and performance clearly inadequate on the task to cut emissions. 
Image © Brian Gable/Globe & Mail

Canada’s 2021 commitment under the Paris agreement is remains inadequate despite the strengthened 2030 goal.  The commitment of funds towards emissions reduction on developing countries is highly inadequate.  Further, present policy is insufficient to meet the commitments made, and present-day performance is inadequate to meet the policy.  Overpromising and underdelivering yet again; at least there are things about Canada we can depend upon.

Australia’s newly announced Paris commitments bring it into line with Canada in terms of promises, so maybe these two laggards on the world stage will compete themselves into actually improving their performance and becoming the leaders they can fully afford to be.  There again, maybe both countries will just continue to lag.  While selling their coal, oil, and gas around the world as quickly as they possibly can.  I find it tragically laughable that national politicians in Canada and Australia continue to plan for a substantial, long-term, fossil-fuel extraction and export business sector, while the signs are mounting all around us that we have to leave most of the remaining reserves in the ground in order to prevent run-away climate change with all its attendant consequences.