BY PAUL BOREHAM
Smoke is rising. It’s collecting in the outer regions of our atmosphere and encircling the planet in an ominous cloud. As the sun shines down upon us and brightens our day, that smoky layer is preventing the rays from escaping. Instead they are sticking around, warming the planet and causing instability.
Scientists agree: Our existence is at stake if we don’t do something fast about our gluttonous burning of oil and gas products. The climate is changing.
Leaders from 190 countries are meeting at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, to discuss the deepening “cloud in the sky” and make a plan to combat the problem.
“It’s a focal point for people right across the world to think seriously about climate change and what needs to be done about it,” said Simon Dalby, CG chair in the political economy of climate change.
“So far, despite 20-something years of warnings from the climate scientists, policy-makers have been very slow to get really serious about addressing it,” he said.
Climate talks began in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. The Kyoto protocol was produced from that in 1997, an agreement where countries, including Canada, signed on to cut gas emissions by five per cent of levels emitted in 1990. These were ambitious goals, but it was all for not. Conferences followed, the last being in 2009 in Copenhagen – deemed a failure by many, especially environmental groups and individuals concerned about the growing problem, who blamed politicians for their lack of courage.
Divest Waterloo is a local group (part of a worldwide divestment movement) involved in educating the public about climate change and encouraging a move away from fossil fuel investments.
“Our focus is on a system change, and for that to happen we need regulation, and we need our politicians to get involved,” said Laura Hamilton, volunteer for Divest Waterloo. “There’s been a reluctance, especially in Canada. Talking about taking on the fossil fuel industry is almost taboo,” she said, because of the power it wields and its perception of being the economic engine of the country. She added, “You can see that we’ve had too many of our eggs in that basket,” referring to the recent drop in the price of oil.
“What we should be doing is investing in alternatives and becoming a leader in the clean technology that the whole world is going to need if we hope to survive.
“The divestment movement is about calling on our culturally and morally powerful institutions to show leadership. Right now we’re focused on the universities and churches,” she said, adding that foundations are next on their list. She gave an example of an Anglican diocese in Ottawa that recently divested. It involves: (a) stopping buying funds that include fossil fuel stocks and (b) taking five years to review all investments of the same, removing them and if possible re-investing in clean energy solutions. It is a public commitment.
“When people talk about money, others listen,” she said. It sets an example.
“Money is power. Collectively, that’s power we all have. Move your money, and do it publicly, and what you’re doing is you’re showing the world that this energy transition is possible.”
She used the analogy of churches and universities in the United States that refused to fund businesses in South Africa during apartheid. It takes away their social licence, she said.
As far as education, there are a few simple things everyone should know about climate change, Hamilton said, as stated by leading climate scientists.
(The facts below are from a video Hamilton showed, and commented on, at a recent workshop she co-hosted in Kitchener. The short video excerpt, titled Do the Math, is narrated by author and activist Bill McKibben.)
Two degrees is the tipping point. The planet’s temperature since pre-industrial times – before the burning began – has risen about one degree. Once it reaches two degrees, the climate will become too erratic and cause massive changes in how humans live. The only thing agreed to at the last climate conference by all countries was that this number would never be exceeded.
Next, 565 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere is the limit for us. It’s currently in the upper 300s, and we’re burning 30 billion tons a year with an increase of five per cent every year. We’ll reach 565 billion tons in 15 years at the rate we’re going. Carbon enters the atmosphere quickly, but it exits very slowly.
Lastly, there is currently about 2,795 billion tons of oil in reserve, waiting to be burned – five times the amount needed to reach the limit.
The hard part of what Hamilton does is talking about all the doom and gloom. Melting glaciers, sea rise, droughts, catastrophic storms, food and water shortages and refugee explosions are just a sample. It is happening now, she said, attributing the Syrian refugee crisis partly on drought caused by climate change.
“It’s very easy to get bummed out about all this,” said Hamilton. “But by being active and doing something about it, you can feel hopeful.”
Divest Waterloo is organizing a gathering on Nov. 29, the day before the climate conference, in unison with marches in Ottawa and across the country. It’s in support of the talks and to let the world know that addressing climate change is 100 per cent possible, she said.
There is reason to have some hope for Canada’s role in upcoming climate meetings. Our new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has a much different take on the situation than outgoing prime minister Stephen Harper. In fact, Canada was slowly becoming the subject of derision and mockery.
“It does make a difference because Justin Trudeau is not Stephen Harper,” said Dalby. “Clearly he doesn’t have the antipathy with dealing with climate change that Harper did. He really does have to go to Paris and make it clear to the international community that Canada is no longer an obstacle to progress. The tone will be different. The willingness to co-operate will certainly be different.
“The last nine years we’ve effectively been stymieing efforts. We withdrew from Kyoto and did all sorts of things that undermined efforts to move ahead on climate,” said Dalby.
Trudeau has said he will consult with the provinces on how to proceed with a climate change plan for Canada. He does not have much time to do that, and so the best he can do in Paris is “telegraph to the community that we’re back and willing to play a constructive role,” said Dalby. Much work will need to be done in the months after the talks.
Trudeau is heading to Paris with the provincial and territorial premiers, and he has invited the other federal leaders, making it a large group across party lines.
“The United Nations is now asking all of the states that are parties to the original United Nations Framework Convention (1992) – which basically means every state on the planet – to suggest what contribution they are actually going to make to solving climate change,” said Dalby. “It’s changing the whole political dynamic of how climate is being addressed.
“The sooner we get to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the easier adjusting to the changing climate in future decades it’s going to be. It really is a case of the sooner the better.”