The future isn’t what it used to be

Salt Spring Island’s climate hero, Dorothy Cutting, gave me Bill McKibben’s new book “Eaarth,” and I set it aside to read on my cross country train trip. Crossing the country by train emits a lot less carbon than flying. But it is like travelling in an antique compared to the high-tech trains of Europe and China. Those trains, often built with Canadian Bombardier technology, provide transit that rivals airlines. The newest models can set speeds of 500 km/hour. The 3,500 km trip from Vancouver to Toronto, now taking four days, could be made in less than 8 hours. As I write this, our train ambles through the boreal forest of Northern Ontario. Sometimes you think you could pop out, pick some berries and run to catch up.

The newspapers along the route are finally noticing that the climate is getting hostile. The Saskatoon Star Phoenix has a story “Pakistan floods, Russian heat fit climate trend around the globe: extreme weather events become more frequent: scientists,” while the Globe and Mail front page shows a dramatic image headed “Crisis in Pakistan: 13 million: The Pakistani floods have now affected more victims than the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami…”

Bill McKibben writes in Eaarth that these catalogues of global events, inventories of disaster, are how we most often describe climate impact. “The trouble with this endless collection of anecdotes,” he writes, “…is that it misses the essential flavour of the new world we’re constructing.” He calls that new world “Eaarth” in an effort to distinguish it from our old planet. The message of his book is sobering. We do not live on that old planet anymore. Everything we had taken for granted — relatively stable climate, changing over millennia, not decades — cannot be taken for granted anymore. It is not exactly the “Brave New World” of Aldous Huxley, but it is a new world and we have to be brave to figure out how to live on it. We have to be resolute in moving off fossil fuels quickly to keep the world liveable.

Maybe this summer’s round of news clippings will wake people up to the climate reality. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released data demonstrating that June 2010 was the hottest June on record — for both land and sea temperatures. If you look at NOAA’s global maps ( you will see that our part of the world was about the only place on the planet not super-heated through June. June was the 304th consecutive month with a combined global land and surface temperature above the 20th-century average. NOAA data put the first decade of the new millennium as the hottest decade on record, with the last 12 months the warmest 12 months, the last six months the warmest six months, and April, May and June 2010, the hottest April, May, and June on record. Highest ever temperature record for Asia, a record set in May in Pakistan, was just under 130 degrees F. As Bill McKibben commented, “I can turn my oven to 130 degrees.”

Russia’s heat wave caused a doubling in the daily death rate due to heat stress and from the smoke from fires that ringed the city. Wildfires covered 1,740 square kilometers. The street temperature in Moscow was 40 degrees C (104 degrees F). And the drought decimated the Russian wheat crop. President Putin ordered a ban on wheat exports. Ukraine also has suffered serious crop failures. It is simply too hot for the wheat to grow well. The Russian export ban will cause the price of grains to rise globally, threatening global food security.

Drought has also gripped much of Africa, with Niger reporting the worst drought in its history with villages being abandoned, leaving dead livestock behind.

Torrential rains hit much of Asia, with significant downpours also impacting Poland and Germany. China and Pakistan were hard hit. Nearly 1,500 people have died in the landslides in China. Approximately 1,600 people have died in Pakistan due to the flooding. The humanitarian impact extends far beyond the death toll. Thirteen million people have been affected. Millions are displaced. The floods due to a combination of torrential rains and illegal logging. Warmer air holds more moisture than cooler air. We are all seeing the results of our changed atmosphere in more frequent, extreme events of torrential rainfall.

Glaciers have collapsed. From July 6-7, Greenland’s Jakobshavn Isbrae glacier lost a nearly 7 square kilometre chunk of ice and retreated one mile. On August 5, a different Greenland glacier, the Petermann Glacier, lost a 251 square kilometre “ice island.” Meanwhile, Arctic sea ice was at its lowest extent ever for the month of June.

Climate scientists are always careful to say that any one event cannot be blamed on the climate crisis, but they are clear that it is highly unlikely that the spate of climate disasters could have occurred if not for the dramatic changes in global climate caused by human activity.

The first task on this new Eaarth is to end our addiction to fossil fuels – quickly. We must avoid those “tipping points” in the atmosphere that condemn us to an unlivable planet. Its grim characteristics were described by scientist Stephen Hawking who fears Earth “could end up like Venus, at 250 degrees centigrade and raining sulphuric acid.” Such an end point remains unlikely, but possible. Avoiding it requires a dramatically different course than that set by the current government of ever expanding tar sands and no domestic plan to cut carbon. Once that new course has been set, the next steps require figuring out how we live on a new and less hospitable planet. We need strong, resilient communities, greater local food security, a green energy revolution. And we need governments around the world to wake up to the reality that there is no larger threat to our economy, our society, our future—and our present—than the climate crisis.

Elizabeth E. May is an Officer of the Order of Canada, Leader of the Green Party of Canada and nominate candidate for Parliament in Saanich Gulf Islands.