We will remember2019 as no less than the year of climate change awakening for Canada and much of the world. We saw unparalleled media coverage, civil disobedience, climate strikers on the streets, and a federal election in which two-thirds of voters supported parties that espouse a carbon tax. There was also unprecedented climate action locally.
As a father of four and grandfather of six, I know that talking and reading about climate change can be gut-wrenching. We must not, however, turn a blind eye. Yes, there is much to make us pessimistic, but there are also reasons for hope. As Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, says in her wonderful new podcast, “Outrage and Optimism”, the fact we have most of the solutions at hand should make us optimistic. At the same time, we need to use the very real fear and outrage we feel at the slow pace of solution implementation as the “fuel” to make us push for much faster and aggressive change.
This week, I’d like to provide an overview of some of the biggest climate stories and themes from past year. Let’s get the outrage out of the way first.
A series of terrifying climate reports, mostly from the United Nations, raised the climate warning level from orange to flaming red. In November, we learned that greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) are continuing to rise at about 1.5 percent per year. Based on current GHG reduction pledges, the world is heading for a 3.2°C temperature rise this century. Global emissions will need to be cut by 7.6 percent every year for the next decade to meet the Paris target of 1.5 degrees of warming.
A commentary in the journal Nature cited growing evidence that irreversible “tipping points” in which one shift amplifies another could be triggered within a few decades. One such tipping point concerns permafrost. We learned this year that layers of permafrost in the Canadian Arctic that scientists expected to remain frozen for at least 70 years have already begun thawing and allowing the conversion of previously-frozen organic material into CO2. A federal government study also reported that Canada is warming twice as fast as the global average, while the Arctic is warming three times faster.
In September, an IPCC special report spelled out the extent of human disruption of Earth’s oceans and ice, including more rapid than expected melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Ocean temperatures are at their warmest since accurate measurements began and causing more severe hurricanes and cyclones.
The warming of the planet has huge implications for wildlife. The United Nations estimates that up to one million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction due to human activity – and many within decades. The climate and extinction crisis also impacts our mental health. Research done this year by Smart Energy GB found that eight in 10 children and young people are more concerned about the impacts of climate change than anything else.
We also learned how climate change is contributing to the U.S.-Mexico border crisis as more and more people flee the highlands of Central America where droughts and flooding have caused chaos in the agricultural sector.
In January, the polar vortex plunged southward – a phenomenon some scientists link to a warming Arctic – bringing historic cold to eastern North America. In April, the Ottawa River reached 100-year flood levels for the second time in two years. At the same time, tropical cyclone Idai brought death and destruction to Mozambique, affecting nearly 3 million people. July, the hottest of any month in our planet’s recorded history, saw temperature records shattered across Europe and wildfires raging even in the Arctic. Two months later, Earth experienced its warmest September ever.
In August, more than 80,000 fires burned across Brazil, while in September, Hurricane Dorian rapidly intensified and stalled over the Bahamas, causing $3.4 billion in damages. Wildfires returned to California in October, and in November, Venice reeled from the worst flooding in 50 years.
In December, the average national maximum temperature for Australia reached a record-breaking 41.9°C. Right now, uncontrolled wildfires continue to burn across New South Wales, engulfing the region in toxic fumes and covering an area larger than Nova Scotia. The fires have already killed an estimated half-billion animals, including critically endangered species on Kangaroo Island. Experts say that the fingerprints of climate change are all over these wildfires.
Outrage at the increasing climate impacts and the lack of political action spurred unprecedented activism this year. Given the on-going assault on environmental protection from Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and our own Doug Ford, there was lots to be outraged about.
Millions of students across the world followed the example of Greta Thunberg and took to the streets. More than any other age cohort, young people understand the dire situation we’re facing. In September, Thunberg joined 500,000 protesters in Montreal and said, “My message to all the politicians is the same: listen to the science, act on the science.” There was also mass civil disobedience in many parts of the world by groups such as Extinction Rebellion. Also encouraging was the public pressure in 2019 to curtail single-use plastics. CO2 emissions from the production and incineration of plastic are huge – and growing.
There was no lack of action in Peterborough and the Kawarthas, either. City council declared a Climate Emergency and established the new Peterborough Environmental Advisory Committee. Other highlights of the year include the Climate Action Day event at Millennium Park on September 27 in which 800 people took part; the overflow crowd that attended the pre-election “100 Debates on the Environment” event; the many “Fridays for Future” student climate strikes organized by Peterborough Youth Empowerment; For Our Grandchildren (4RG) events such as how to invest profitably and sustainably at a time of climate chaos; the Peterborough Alliance for Climate Action (PACA) demonstration on April 18 to highlight the impact of climate change on species’ decline; protests by Extinction Rebellion Peterborough such as a the October die-in against fast fashion; the climate issue of “Greenzine” magazine, published by Transition Town Peterborough; and the highly successful Monarch Ultra relay run from Peterborough to Mexico to highlight threats to monarch butterflies– one of the main ones being climate change.
Many other local groups played a key role in climate leadership this year. Among these are Peterborough GreenUp, the Council of Canadians, Sustainable Peterborough, the Kawartha World Issues Centre, Peterborough Greenspace coalition, OPIRG Peterborough, Peterborough Health Coalition, Camp Kawartha, Peterborough Field Naturalists, the Endeavour Centre, Random Acts of Green, and the Youth Leadership in Sustainability high school program led by Cam Douglas.
In addition to the hope generated by the activism we are now seeing, we also learned this year that Earth’s ecosystems could support another 2.2 billion acres of trees – enough to capture 20 years of human-produced carbon emissions. To this end, the Liberal government has pledged to plant two billion trees. Plant-based meat substitutes like Beyond Burgers also burst onto the scene this year. By consuming less beef – a major source of GHG emissions – a huge amount of additional land could be freed up for reforestation and habitat restoration. As for other areas of individual action, climate experts stressed the importance of flying less, buying carbon offsets when we do fly, and sharing both optimism and outrage about the climate crisis with friends and family.
As for hope on the political front, all of Canada’s major political parties (with the exception of the Conservatives) support much more aggressive climate action. So do all of the Democratic presidential candidates as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal continues to drive Democratic party politics. In June, Denmark’s parliament adopted a new, legally-binding climate law, committing to reach 70% below its 1990 emissions in the next eleven years.We are also seeing increased leadership from the corporate and investment sectors. Canadian Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England and new U.N. special envoy on climate action and finance, has become a global climate leader as he pushes to make the finance sector take proper account of the risks posed by climate change.
Looking forward to 2020, it’s essential that city council begin to act on their declaration of a Climate Emergency. Internationally, the most anticipated event by far is next November’s COP 26 climate negotiations in Glasgow. Hosted by the UK, there is reason for optimism. Having recently set a net zero emissions target, the UK is in a position of leadership to call on other nations to strengthen mitigation targets. If the IPCC’s target of a 45% carbon cut by 2030 is to be met, the plans need to be on the table by the end of 2020.
Despite the outrage and pessimism felt by so many of us, we can’t give in to despair. Nor can we close our eyes to the onslaught of bad news. As eco-philosopher Joanna Macy says, we have to embrace the pain. “Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear war, none is so great as the deadening of our response.”