Facing despair as a strong economy fails to defeat climate change: Don Pittis
As growth slows, must we resign ourselves to the devastation of a warming world?
It is not unreasonable that the majority of Canadians and the 97 per cent of scientists who understand that climate change is real are feeling a certain amount of despair.
Optimism following the 2015 Paris summit that the world could and would halt the growth of greenhouse gases in the earth's atmosphere and slow the devastating effects of rising seas, storms, drought and forest fires has turned to gloom.
And perhaps most disheartening is the fact that despite a strong, growing economy in many parts of the world, including Canada and the United States, governments have failed to reverse the damage. So what happens when the economy goes into retreat?
Backsliding at the G20
As the G20 meets in Argentina today, reports from groups that monitor greenhouse gas output show that none of the world's richest 20 economic powers have met their Paris targets that would limit temperature increases to two Celsius degrees above pre-industrial levels.
"Current nationally determined contributions would lead to a global temperature increase of around 3.2 C," says the report from Climate Transparency, based on numbers assembled using the various governments' own data.
Trump reportedly tried to suppress a recent U.S. government study by releasing it on the day after American Thanksgiving. That may have backfired when the release — which declared climate change had already cost the economy hundred of billions of dollars and would cost hundreds more — was unofficially labelled the Black Friday Climate Report.
"Climate change … is arguably the biggest threat humanity has ever faced," says Stewart Elgie, chair of the Smart Prosperity Institute, a think-tank based at the University of Ottawa, comparing it to the impact of nuclear war. "We are messing with the planet's life support system in a way that we haven't before."
Captured by selfish forces
But despite large support for climate action, governments have been captured by selfish forces that seem bound to sacrifice the planet for short-term interests. Well-funded voices of opposition use social media to discredit sound science.
Scientists & engineers launched “InSight” from Earth (a moving platform) across 300million miles to arrive where Mars (a moving target) will be seven months later, landing safely to do geophysics at the Martian equator. And you have a problem listening to us about climate change? <a href="https://t.co/a6gx3jmM2z">pic.twitter.com/a6gx3jmM2z</a>—@neiltyson
Repeatedly, public funds are being spent to make climate change worse, instead of investing in alternatives that would make it better. And since Earth's climate is the ultimate shared resource, there sometimes seems no advantage in taking individual action, if others just produce the carbon you have saved and more.
But rather than despairing, Catherine Gauthier is using the law to fight back. A spokesman for the Quebec youth group Environnement Jeunesse, the 29-year-old has helped launch a legal campaign to sue the federal government in an effort to keep it from destroying the planet for future generations.
"We are bringing the government to court because it is infringing our fundamental rights," says Gauthier. Under Quebec law, that includes the right to a safe environment and the preservation of biodiversity, she says.
Growing visible impacts
Gauthier says the technique has been used elsewhere, including the Netherlands, to give the fight against climate change a legal basis that stands above individual economic interests.
"People who do not see these immediate impacts right now are going to start seeing them very soon," says Buchanan.
While she objects to increased government subsidies for fossil fuel production, she insists it is false to see a conflict between fighting climate change and supporting the economy. And while poll after poll show most Canadians realize something needs to be done, she thinks their voices have been overwhelmed by the financial clout of pro-carbon interests.
Buchanan says she hears from despairing people who ask what they can do, and she always asks them if they have told their elected officials how much they care.
"More often than I expect, the answer is, 'No,'" she says.
Paralyzed by fear
Elgie, like other climate scientists and activists I spoke to, will not let despair divert him from helping to move the world to a low-carbon economy.
"Fear can be paralyzing," says Elgie.
He admits that dramatic shifts are always disruptive and often go through a process of "two steps forward and one step back." It may be that in recessions people will be less willing to make changes, but he says whether we realize it or not, the process of decarbonization is underway and is unstoppable.
"In 20 to 30 years, we will live in a low-carbon global economy. We can debate the pace of change," he says, "but the fact that change is happening is now undeniable."
Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis