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The Ticking Clock on Climate

Elizabeth May and Tom Duck have some homework for you...

by Zack Metcalfe

Green Party leader Elizabeth May and Dalhousie professor Tom Duck held a joint, non-partisan event in Dalhousie’s McCain Building Saturday, May 2, discussing both the science and politics of climate change. [Zack Metcalfe photo]
Green Party leader Elizabeth May and Dalhousie professor Tom Duck held a joint, non-partisan event in Dalhousie’s McCain Building Saturday, May 2, discussing both the science and politics of climate change. [Zack Metcalfe photo]

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) - The scientific community says planet Earth is fast approaching boiling point, but for some reason, the Canadian government isn’t feeling the heat. This faulty relationship between science and politics was the topic of choice this past Saturday, May 2, as Green Party leader Elizabeth May and Dalhousie professor Tom Duck shared the stage to talk about climate change.

“I think it’s so important that we start getting scientists, politicians and the public together to discuss these really important issues that we have to grapple with...that we’re going to be grappling with one way or another,” said Duck. “Now, without any further ado, let’s talk about climate change.”

The mechanisms behind climate change are well enough understood - our fondness for burning fossil fuels, like natural gas, gasoline and coal, is leading to a buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, warming the planet. Duck said prior to the industrial revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide (C02) in the atmosphere was measured at 280 parts-per-million (ppm), a value which hadn’t changed for some 10,000 years. Recently this value surpassed 400 ppm.

“This is the most carbon dioxide we’ve had in our atmosphere in at least the last 800,000 years,” said Duck. “There’s some evidence to say it might even be the most carbon dioxide we’ve had in the last 20 million years. We’re really pushing things into unprecedented territory.”

The consequence of these additional ppms so far has been a 0.85 degree C increase in average global temperatures, which doesn’t seem like much, but Duck points out that a mere 3.5 degrees C stands between our modern climate and the last ice age. In that context, 0.85 degrees is a significant increase which hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Arctic ice cap is disappearing at a rate of 11 per cent every decade, sealevel rise could amount to 70-80cm in a few short decades and extreme weather events are becoming more common. Globally, 2014-2015 was the second warmest winter on record.

Meanwhile, temperatures are expected to continue their catastrophic rise. Duck said we’re likely to doubt the pre-industrial 280 ppm in the next 40 years and could triple it by 2100. This, he said, could amount to a 4 degree C increase in average global temperatures.

For Atlantic Canada, Duck said dramatic increases in precipitation and extreme weather events will take their toll on infrastructure. He also made special note of heatwaves, which will increase in frequency and heavily impact regional agriculture and forest health, compromising food security, water security and come at tremendous economic cost.

“Faced with all this, it turns out the solution is reasonably straightforward,” said Duck. “We just need to stop burning so much coal. We need to stop burning so much oil. We need to stop powering our cars with gasoline.”

The first global effort to reduce C02 emissions began with the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and although many nations met or surpassed their Kyoto targets, Duck said considerably more is needed to avoid the worst of climate change. Canada not only failed to meet its Kyoto target (reducing emissions by 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012), but was also the first and only nation to withdraw from Kyoto. 2009’s Copenhagen Accord had still weaker targets and was described by Green Party leader Elizabeth May as both a “train-wreck” and “disaster.”

But there’s another international climate conference on the horizon and May said its importance cannot be overstated.

“We don’t hear enough in this country about what’s about to happen in Paris,” said May, referring to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in France, November 30. This conference seeks a universal and legally binding agreement on climate change.

“No second chances,” said May. “We’re up against it, in terms of atmospheric chemistry, because as much as politicians may want to play with deadlines...the atmosphere is not interested in negotiating with humanity.”

Although political action on climate change has left many global citizens wanting, May said parts of the economic sector have made surprising progress on this issue, particularly where investment dollars are concerned.

“These aren’t people pricked by conscience, hoping to do the right thing,” said May. “These are people who want to make money. Globally in 2014, for the first time ever, investments in renewable energy outpaced investments in fossil fuels. And while Canadian media obsesses over the falling price of a barrel of oil, what’s really exciting is the plummeting price of solar.”

She went on to say the lifetime cost of building a new solar facility is now less than the lifetime cost of building a new coal facility for the same amount of electricity.

In anticipation of the Paris conference in late November, both Duck and May called attention to the 2015 Canadian federal election scheduled for the preceding October. This, they said, is an opportunity to make climate change a ballot box issue and to forge a more climate conscious government to represent Canada in Paris.

“We need to create political space for parties to move on this issue,” said Duck, “and the way to create political space for them to move on this issue and to get these targets we want scientifically, is to have a public discussion. This is so important, what we’re doing here tonight, but it really can’t end here, so I have an assignment for all of you.”

In the fashion of a true professor, he told his audience to go home and talk about this issue with friends, family and colleagues. He also suggested social media as an awareness raising tool, encouraging people to tweet about climate change once a week in order to show their interest and garner support.

“If we can generate this big public discussion, the politicians will have to take notice,” said Duck. “They will have to act on this issue.”

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Topics: Environment
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