Andrew Weaver, Canadian climate scientist-turned-politician, on COP26
Weaver contributed to several IPCC reports as a climatologist, then became a BC MLA
This story is part of a CBC initiative entitled "Our Changing Planet" to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.
On the eve of the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, we're bringing back a voice that hasn't been heard in a while on Quirks & Quarks.
As one of Canada's most eminent climate scientists, University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver was a frequent guest on the show through the 1990s and 2000s. He had a high profile among climate scientists, as a lead author on several UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments.
In 2013, though, Weaver took his career in a new direction and was elected to the British Columbia Legislative Assembly, serving two terms as a member, and then leader of the provincial Green Party.
In 2020 he left politics and returned to the University of Victoria to resume his post as a professor of earth and ocean sciences.
So with his unique perspective on both climate science and politics, we thought he'd be the ideal person to talk to on the eve of this year's climate change summit.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
We haven't spoken on the radio since you entered politics in 2013. Why did you decide to make that shift?
Well, I have been working as a climate scientist since the 1980s as a lead author on the second, third, fourth and fifth IPCC assessments. And as somebody who has spent my entire life working the field of climate science, I felt that it was difficult for me to continue to stand in front of large classrooms and tell people what the problem is and what needs to be done when, in fact, I realized that the single most important thing that needed what's needed is political will and getting the voice at the decision-making table to actually advance public policy in this area.
Was it a matter that, in some sense, the critical climate questions had been answered?
Indeed, the honest truth is that in 1979 ... the first national assessment of climate science was done ... and at that time it assessed the value of something known as climate sensitivity. Now, climate sensitivity is the single most important metric summarizing our collective understanding of the climate problem. It's essentially this: how much will the world warm if you double carbon dioxide levels from pre-industrial values to twice pre-industrial values?
We've got to stop trying to game the system and start focusing on trying to actually strengthen the system.- Andrew Weaver
Well, back in 1979, the assessed value based on the published literature going back to the 1800s was that it was somewhere between one and a half to four and a half degrees. In 2013 we have another assessment: one and a half to four and a half degrees.
Climate sensitivity, the single most important metric collectively summarizing all our knowledge and understanding of the climate problem hadn't changed in thirty-five years.
You were involved in provincial politics at British Columbia rather than national or international climate negotiations. But from your new insider perspective, what have you learned about the politics of climate change?
We know what the problem is with causing global warming. We know that the consequences are very serious. We know what the solutions are, however, to deal with all of that requires dealing with people with various backgrounds, various vested interests, et cetera.
For example, it does not advance public policy. If you essentially say we need to shut down the oil sands, because if you say that without coupling that with policy options for just transitions to assist people retrain to ensure that people have bread on the table, all you do is polarize society. And this is what I find most disconcerting, the emergence of a polarized society on so many of these issues, where evidence and facts are seeming to go by the wayside.
Let's get to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. This meeting is meant to build on the Paris agreement of 2015, when the world's nations committed to keeping climate change to not more than two degrees — ideally 1.5 degrees. How are we doing on that?
Let's be very clear: one and a half degrees is unattainable — it's not possible. The world has warmed by 1.1 degrees already. We know that there's a permafrost carbon feedback that will add maybe another 0.2 on that. We know that if we do nothing but keep existing levels of greenhouse gases fixed at the present values, we've got a 0.6 degree warming. Really, two degrees is unlikely and it's all hands on deck for three.
But there's nothing magic about one and a half degrees. And one of the things that I was most troubled about was when we started to see this narrative develop, 'We have 12 years left, we have 10 years left, we have eight years left.' And why that was troubling to me is I know many youth for which that message has been alarming and caused great angst and suffering and panic about their future. In fact, there's no scientific reason or rationale for 1.5 versus 2 vs 2.5. We know that the greater the warming, the worse it'll get. But let's not get hung up about 1.5.
Do you feel we have a technological pathway to making the changes that are necessary?
I think we do. So we can see a future emerging whereby we're all driving electric vehicles or using electric bikes or some other non vehicular form of transportation where those are plugged in at night and those batteries are basically stabilizing the load in the grid using smart grids. We have distributed production of renewable energy all over the place. You can see a future where we will start to move down this path.
I have always viewed global warming through the lens of the opportunity it provides. It is frankly, the single greatest opportunity we've ever been given to advance our society to a clean, non-polluting way through the decarbonization of energy systems. It's incredibly empowering to think we're all part of the solution and we can all make a difference.
Are there tools that we're not looking at that we should be?
Yes. In my view, this is for COP26, the single most important piece of policy that needs to be discussed is the notion of border tax adjustments. So what do I mean by that? Countries need the ability to be able to put a tariff on their border. That would be equivalent to the carbon tax or carbon price that they have internal to their country so that certain jurisdictions cannot undercut the market here, because we have a polluter pay model in Canada for goods and services here, and they don't have a polluter pay model in their jurisdiction for goods and services.
People need to calmly realize that this is a very serious issue. The solutions are all there. We are not going to solve it overnight... The decisions we make today will play out in the decades to come.- Andrew Weaver
That is in essence, correcting what I would argue is a global market failure, which is the fact that the atmosphere has historically been used as an unregulated dumping ground to put whatever we want in it, and there's no cost in doing it.
What's your wish list for COP26?
One's expectations should never get too high for these COP meetings. You've got several hundred nations arguing trying to position themselves better than the next nation beside them. Most countries will have resubmitted or have affirmed more stringent voluntary targets for the Paris Agreement, and I'm hoping that some of the details about joint implementation mechanisms where one country can help another.
And we've got to stop trying to game the system and start focusing on trying to actually strengthen the system.
Do you think there are subjects that will not get talked about that should?
Yes. The biggest problem is the elephant in the room, and we never talk about it — it's population. If you just look at a jurisdiction like B.C., our emissions per person have been going down year after year, but our population's been going up year after year. And that's true on a global scale, too, as we approach eight billion people.
It's a difficult issue to even raise because as soon as you talk about population, you suddenly move into very delicate areas like the role of religion in certain societies or the status of women in those societies or value based belief systems.
One of the arguments more often than not used is that as we collectively raise the standard of living of people everywhere, you find that population rate growth rates decline.
I think for many people, these international negotiations are pretty abstract. I mean, people are more concerned about what they will mean for how their lives will be changed by what gets decided by governments. What's your picture there?
So the average person isn't going to wake up the day after COP and notice any difference. Canada is going to try to say to the world, and rightly so, 'Now we're back in this game and we're here to make a real difference.'
People need to calmly realize that this is a very serious issue. The solutions are all there. We are not going to solve it overnight. When people started using words like emergency and crisis, I get all antsy because I remember standing up in the 1980s and talking about global warming and climate science, and in the 1990s, in the 2000s. And if it really was an emergency crisis, it was 20 years ago.
So it's really serious, and the decisions we make today will play out in the decades to come. But we need to actually do so in a manner that's thoughtful, put in these policies and also support those who are actually bringing them forward because we have to support those making the tough decisions.
Produced and written by Jim Lebans.