(Originally published Dec. 1, 2018)

IT IS the most urgent and dangerous issue of our time. And it presents the most difficult political dilemma imaginable.

Climate change is real. It is all around us. Its effects are killing tens of thousands from drought and drowning, storms, wildfires and heat stress, malnutrition and disease. As polar ice sheets melt, sea levels rise, threatening coastal cities worldwide. Disease-carrying ticks are more common and insect infestations are beginning to devastate forests.

These impacts are of biblical proportions and by expert accounts things are getting worse faster than anticipated. When scientists made their early predictions in the 1990s they hadn’t the data to properly forecast how much and how quickly climate change would change life on Earth. These days the scope and pace of change is startling.

Some countries are doing a lot about it while others do next to nothing at all. The latest United Nations environment office report, released this week, finds that in spite of repeated scientific warnings about the need to curtail heat-trapping gas emissions, the gap between those emissions and the levels needed to stop catastrophic (not a word used lightly) global warming is actually widening.

Without a way to force compliance to meet need, the UN and various scientific agencies have set goals that countries must meet if we are to avoid ruining the Earth for succeeding generations. A chart issued with the latest report shows who’s paying attention.

Among countries on track to meet their commitments are ones we might not expect — Russia, China, India, Japan and Brazil. The list of the world’s biggest emitters is, unfortunately, longer and includes Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

“Even if countries follow through on all of their ‘unconditional’ climate pledges,” the UN report warns, “the planet’s average temperature will probably still rise by about 3.2 C by the end of this century, well beyond the goal of the Paris Agreement — 1.5 C over pre-industrial levels.

“So where do we go from here? The message is clear: countries will need to be much bolder in their climate commitments if we are to avoid crippling levels of climate change.”

The signs that all world leaders understand this reality are not good.

U.S. President Donald Trump flat out said he doesn’t believe the report, nor that of his own government’s scientific advisors issued last week. That study noted that even if the world were to somehow stop all emissions today, effects of pollution to date are locked in. Ongoing effects will last “for decades to millenia” as self-reinforcing weather cycles replace those we are used to.

Trump’s plans involve increasing production of coal and keeping oil prices, and thus gasoline pump prices, low (even as the major automakers see reality and begin to move away from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles). The notion of putting a price on carbon — making polluters pay to force them to find ways to clean up — makes Trump livid.

As a chilly blast of Arctic air hit the U.S. Northeast last week Trump tweeted, “Whatever happened to global warming?” That the leader of the most powerful and influential country on Earth doesn’t understand how human-caused global warming weakens the jet stream in winter allowing a polar vortex of frigid air to spill south is alarming in the extreme.

Canada, like the U.S. and the rest of the developed world, has been caught by its wanton delay in responding to climate change. That response is not easy. It’s akin to trying to stop an ocean liner and turn it around in a hurry. It can’t be done but we’d be a lot closer if we’d acted sooner — if we’d paid attention to the scientific information that’s been free for the taking. Instead we let our leaders let us down, often joining them in pushing warnings aside because they were just too monumental or inconvenient to consider.

For now, though, we’re stuck with reliance on fossil fuels while public policy catches up with rapid advancement in alternate energy technology. The speed with which that happens is being slowed in part by the powerful energy lobby that doesn’t want to lose its dominance, and by government hypocrisy — acknowledging the urgency while fearing the electoral consequences of what reacting really means. Wholesale change in societal behaviour doesn’t come easily to political entrenchment.

Thus, we see Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gamely insisting that Canada can clean itself up while protecting “a sustainable economy” at the same time. He’ll trumpet the importance of clean energy while buying a pipeline for $4 billion. His government is offering industry tax incentives to invest in more efficient machinery while trying to reassure Alberta that its oilsands production remains vital to the country’s energy mix.

Trudeau has said he’ll impose a federal carbon tax on any province that doesn’t have its own emissions pricing. Ontario has led provincial opposition by preparing to challenge the plan in court. That’s hardly surprising in that Premier Doug Ford might as well be Trump’s twin brother in opposition to anything that might force industry to take climate change seriously and spend on research accordingly.

What non-participating industry will cost the planet, enabled by governments like this, is beyond comprehension. The known effects of rampant climate change are terrifying. Society simply cannot allow political timidity to block rapid response to this reality any longer. 

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.

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