This article was originally published in Policy Magazine.
Elizabeth May was leader of the Canadian Green Party when Policy magazine began publishing and she is now leader of the Canadian Green Party. In between, her work for Policy on climate change and politics has been consistent — always unique, always filed in the spirit of public service. For our tenth anniversary issue, here is Elizabeth May with a plea for humanity.
Looking back to 2013, the world has changed in tumultuous ways.
Geopolitical upheaval is everywhere. We have been living through a global pandemic since spring 2020. Humanity is united as never before through a shared and mutating virus, yet we are increasingly divided.
National governments have shifted to the right and then to the left – and back again. Whether Brazil – from Dilma to Bolsonaro and back to Lula, or the US, from Obama to Trump and back to Biden. Or Canada, from Harper to Trudeau. Some nations had no changes in leadership. Putin is still in control of a fake democracy in Russia while Xi Jinping remains in control of a true totalitarian state in China. Still, there is change, from sabre rattling to sabres drawn.
Looking at how those political changes impact climate change, it is true that political leaders within nation states matter. Australia’s policies have undergone a sea change. From 2013 to 2022, Australia’s right-wing, anti-climate Liberal party under three prime ministers (Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison) maintained appalling global and domestic policies. Last May, that ended with Labour’s win and Anthony Albanese as prime minister.
Critical countries in the climate crisis really matter. US policies under Barack Obama were definitely better than Donald Trump’s policies, while Justin Trudeau represents a major shift from laggard to climate champion — or so we are told.
The horror is that even after four years of Trump, the United States still had a better climate record than Canada’s. This is, of course, due to a number of Clinton- era policies and Obama directives that had a momentum of their own. Trudeau’s rhetoric is outstanding, but the horror is that he is still practising the eternal Liberal strategy of appeasing the oil patch (and the Alberta government) with support for fossil fuels to keep them from being too angry at other policies on transitioning – ever so slowly – away from oil and gas.
It is true that this decade finally saw all governments on earth agree to a treaty replacing Kyoto. After the 2009 failure in Copenhagen, we finally achieved an all-inclusive treaty in Paris in 2015. The Paris Agreement matters, but only if we commit to achieving its goals.
It would be a large and false claim that there is no difference between the Liberals and Conservatives on climate action. There are many excellent programs that have been put in place to promote heat-pumps, energy efficiency, increasing electric vehicles through infrastructure and consumer rebates, and many other such worthy efforts. No one can deny that carbon pricing was a hard-fought win.
And it is also false to say that Stephen Harper did nothing on climate. Under Harper, as ever, Canada punched above our weight. Tragically, we were effective saboteurs of global action. In 2009, I watched as our negotiators at COP15 in Copenhagen blocked progress. We legally withdrew from Kyoto – the only country to do so. We monkey-wrenched key multilateral principles to which all nations had agreed, such as maintaining a shared base-year so that emissions reductions and pledges could be measured by the same yardstick. But Harper left behind a civil service committed to placating oil and gas with concretized policies of incrementalism.
Still, the difference between Trudeau and Harper on climate is, as Bill McKibben says, that, under Liberals, we lose more slowly.
Before 2013, we did experience catastrophic climate events that we thought would be the wake-up call the world needed. Nearly 2,000 people died in August 2005 in Hurricane Katrina, devastating New Orleans. In an early lesson in the intersectionality and equity layers of the climate emergency, most of the dead were poor and African American. Major media proclaimed that Katrina had changed everything. Still, emissions kept rising.
In 2013, more catastrophic events occurred and closer to home. In June, the Bow River was supercharged by unprecedented rains. Highwood, Elbow and many other rivers also flooded, causing 32 declarations of states of local emergency. The $1.7 billion price tag made the June 2013 floods in Calgary the costliest climate event in Canadian history. But that record was smashed, also in Alberta, when the 2016 fire raged through over 590,000 hectares of boreal forest and into Fort McMurray, with a total cost of $9.9 billion.
In November 2013, as the world gathered in Warsaw for COP19, the Philippines was hit with its deadliest-ever typhoon. Typhoon Haiyan, with winds at 378 km/hour, killed 10,000 people. Yeb Sano, the lead climate negotiator for the Philippines, went on a hunger strike to get industrialized countries to act.
And it is true that this decade finally saw all governments on earth agree to a treaty replacing Kyoto. After the 2009 failure in Copenhagen, we finally achieved an all-inclusive treaty in Paris in 2015. The Paris Agreement matters, but only if we commit to achieving its goals. The harsh reality is that the key goal — to hold to no more than a 1.5 degree rise in global average temperature, as compared to before the Industrial Revolution — is slipping through our fingers. The multinational oil giants are celebrating record profits while their emissions rise and our chances of global survival diminish.
There is no good time to mention the collapse of human civilization. Most people in politics want to avoid being described as alarmists. But the planet is on fire or drowning, baking or freezing — all at once and everywhere. After years of killer droughts, this fall California experienced merciless floods. Pakistan’s flood drove millions to higher ground. British Columbians have faced extreme loss of life (620 people in four days from the 2021 heat dome), more lives and property lost in the November 2021 floods, and untold acres burned to cinder from annual fires since 2017. And the heat dome killed an estimate one billion sea creatures. The toll for the natural world rarely makes the ledger. No one wants to raise the alarm that human civilization is on the point of collapse too soon. But we cannot wait until it is too late. Too late is just around the corner.
All the extreme weather events we are experiencing are happening in a 1.1 degree C warmer world. The most ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement is to hold to 1.5 degrees. And over the last decade we have made sure we cannot hold to 1.5. As United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres says, “We are on the highway to climate hell, foot on the accelerator.”
In 2013, for the first time in human history, carbon dioxide concentrations in the global atmosphere hit the 400 parts per million (ppm) mark. For all the events of human history in 2013 that was the most significant. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, CO2 had never exceeded 280 ppm. Many observed we had left the Cenozoic Era and entered the Anthropocene. Humanity was now the driver of planetary change. Foot on the accelerator.
The most recent readings of carbon in our atmosphere shows a galloping change. According to the World Meteorological Organization, “Carbon dioxide concentrations in 2021 were 415.7 parts per million (ppm), methane at 1908 parts per billion (ppb) and nitrous oxide at 334.5 ppb. These values constitute, respectively, 149 percent, 262 percent and 124 percent of pre-industrial levels before human activities started disrupting natural equilibrium of these gases in the atmosphere.”
Even the pandemic has not slowed down the warming. The drop in emissions globally from pre-COVID 2019 to 2020 amounted to only a six percent drop. But what has surprised scientists is that the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere moved at its fastest-ever rate between 2020 and 2021. Canada started the last decade with the worst climate record in the industrialized world. We enter this next decade holding the record. We are by far the worst performer in the G7. And our emissions are still rising.
According to the most recent warning from the world’s scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Working Group 3 report in the Sixth Assessment Report, April 4, 2022) it will not be possible to hold to 1.5 degrees C, nor to stay below 2 degrees unless global emissions peak and begin to drop rapidly before 2025. Failure to achieve deep cuts well before 2030 will make any 2050 goal irrelevant – too little too late. Too little too late is Canada’s new climate target.
It is not hard to know what we must do. We must cancel the TMX pipeline, which we should do for financial reasons since we own it. We should reverse the decision to allow any new drilling or new fossil fuel development, cancel Bay du Nord and close the Donkin coal mine. We must ban fracking. It is not hard to know what we must do, but why is there such overwhelming political cowardice to do it? Do we not care what future awaits our children and grandchildren?
And why are we so enmeshed in the past that we are fearful of a bright, decarbonized and resilient future? Our homes could generate all the energy we need. Our homes could charge up our cars. Our backyards could grow food, as could empty urban lots. Our economy could be circular and sustainable. Our jobs could be rewarding. We have all the solutions we need. And we have no time to waste.
We cannot afford to lose another decade. Truth be told, we cannot afford to waste a single year, nor a single month. We have barely enough time to save ourselves. The important news is that we do have that time.
Why do we hesitate when the only thing at stake is our survival?
Contributing Writer Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, is the Leader of the Green Party of Canada.