Right now, in Glasgow, twenty-five thousand people from 200 countries are engaged in an intimate discussion about how to “save the planet™”. Everyone who truly cares about the environment is there, each of them pressing forward with one or more of thousands of inconsistent, often even anti-environment, agendas.
Great quantities of beer will be consumed. Friendships will be formed and lost. Speeches will be given. Creative solutions will be bruited about, championed, and then discarded. The energy (no pun intended) will be electrifying (still no pun intended).
Many people will come away from the ten day talkfest convinced that things are going to be better.
I’m going to go out on a limb here: they’re not going to save the planet™.
So let’s talk about climate change.
What do we know?
Well, the first thing we know is that average global temperatures are higher than they were 50 or 100 years ago. We also know that combustion of fossil fuels is pushing temperatures higher, and that deforestation is limiting the natural forces that reduce carbon and limit the temperature rise.
(Yes, I know there are climate deniers. I see their social media posts all the time. I have only one thing to say to them: Go get vaccinated; then we’ll talk.)
We also know, I should add, that on a per capital basis Canada, of all places, has by far the biggest responsibility to act to improve the situation. We have high forestation, and lots of land that will benefit from global warming. We are very high producers of atmospheric carbon, and are among the larger providers of fossil fuel to the world. And, we have both the money and the resources to implement large scale solutions.
The problem of climate change has two key components, of which we often focus on only one.
The one that gets all the attention is WE HAVE TO ELIMINATE CARBON EMISSIONS RIGHT AWAY!!! This is the “solve the problem” component.
Then there is the second component, the one that we don’t want to talk about: “adaptation”.
So let’s start with that.
Recently I finished The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, David Wallace-Wells’ best-selling 2019 book on climate change and how it will affect our future. Honestly, after a while I got tired of hearing “and we’re all gonna die” as the punch line for every aspect of the analysis.
However, Wallace-Wells is not wrong in his fundamental conclusion, i.e. some of climate change has already happened, and we can’t do anything about it. The effects of that change are just beginning to be felt, and will be increasingly painful for at least the next 100 years or more.
Even if COP26 “saves the planet” through Herculean efforts (no, they won’t), and we get to net zero by 2050, or even 2030 (no, we won’t), things are still going to be bad. Not only that, they are going to get a lot worse before they get better. The five to eight degrees of warming that Wallace-Wells fears might happen probably will not happen, because sooner or later we will actually hear Greta Thunberg’s message that the house is on fire. However, the past and future effects of the damage we’ve already done cannot be avoided. They can only be managed.
As one person put it to me the other day, “we’re already fucked”. His argument was that he might as well buy a gas guzzler, because the horse has already left the barn on climate change. (No, I don’t agree. See below)
Let’s start with what is going to happen, with or without radical action on GHGs.
By 2050, and probably sooner, sea level rise will have made major cities in Viet Nam, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and China mostly uninhabitable. There are more than 400 million people living in the areas that will be under water or threatened. They will become climate refugees.
And, just in case you think that’s a long time from now, storm surges and annual flooding will mean that most of those cities will have to evacuate tens of millions of people within the next ten years. For some, like Dhaka, Bangladesh, evacuation should probably start today. The Pearl River delta in China (Guangzhou), and the Chao Praya delta in Thailand (Bangkok) may need to start evacuating some areas within five years if they want to stay on top of the problem.
The sea level rise will be exacerbated by an increase in extreme storm activity, particularly in the Atlantic and Pacific hurricane belts.
Climate disruption will also increase wildfires in many areas of the world, creating a feedback loop in which carbon is released into the atmosphere and future carbon sinks are destroyed.
Not to mention the polar ice sheets.
I could go on…
On the other hand, some areas will become more habitable. Step right up, Canada. It is almost certainly the case that the Canadian tree line will move north, and the area in which humans can live comfortably will also expand. (Russia will see a similar impact.)
Just as well, since those climate refugees have to go somewhere.
If you’re a Canadian politician, you have to accept that Canada’s population will grow, not just at the current rate (more than 400,000 per year, up from 300/350,000 in recent years), but at more like 600,000 per year, and increasing. By 2050, it is likely that Canada will have more than 60 million people. It could easily be closer to 100 million.
Those people will not end up in Toronto and Vancouver. The latter will have its own problems, with global sea rise directly displacing a million or more people in the city and surrounding suburbs. On the other side of the country, the Greater Toronto Area is reaching a density level that will generate significant crowding issues if it doubles in size, for example.
Happily, Canada has lots of land. Right now, that land is sparsely populated, mainly by indigenous peoples. Lots of room.
Oh, wait. Didn’t we do that once before, just move in and push the existing (native) inhabitants aside? Maybe we don’t want a repeat of that debacle.
All of this leads to an interesting possibility. Now may be exactly the time for Canada – already reeling from the impacts of our past treatment of indigenous peoples – to form a new partnership with First Nations. Call it a treaty, or an agreement, or a relationship, it doesn’t matter.
Canada’s indigenous peoples have something southerners want – land, and a nuanced relationship to that land from which we can probably learn a lot – and this may be an opportunity to benefit both indigenous and non-indigenous as partners in the future use of those lands.
It won’t be easy, of course. Biases on both sides, coupled with political agendas and more venal urges (it is still people who would be doing this, after all), will make this a difficult task. On the other hand, tens of millions of people are going to move into the centre of Canada, into indigenous lands. Nothing is going to stop that. We can have a repeat of our past mistakes, or we can work together to ensure that the future is good for everyone.
It is not intuitive that climate change creates an opportunity to fundamentally alter the relationship between indigenous people and the rest of us in the country we all inhabit, but that is in fact the situation. Once we accept that hundreds of millions of climate refugees will be on the move in the next few decades, and Canada will be a major destination, our job is not to resist, but to adapt. In partnership with First Nations, Canada can be part of the solution, and be better for it.
The resettlement of climate refugees is just one of the adaptive actions that Canada can take to respond to climate change. Everywhere in the world, similar adaptation will be essential to reduce human suffering. We can’t ignore it because we don’t like the inevitable. Change what you can’t accept and accept what you can’t change, they say. That great concept of the Stoics is a propos today. Bad things are going to happen. Let’s face them.
That means, for example, governments and others having sufficient vision to start moving centres of population right now. Bangkok wants to build a multi-billion dollar seawall to hold off the Gulf of Thailand (conveniently ignoring the river running right through the city, and flooding regularly). Maybe someone with more vision will understand that many of the people in Bangkok will in fact be living somewhere else in a few years. Action, and the vision to initiate it, are required.
You can say the same thing about Ho Chi Minh City, and Yangon, and Kolkata, and virtually all of the south of Nigeria. (And don’t get me started on American coastal cities.)
These and other adaptive actions are not about fighting climate change. They are about accepting reality, and making the tough decisions to deal with it.
Our resistance to climate change, and our actions to stop it from happening, are doomed to be too little, too late. Let’s just accept that to be true.
On the other hand, just because we can’t wave a magic wand and restore nature’s carbon balance immediately, doesn’t mean we should just roll over and play dead. We can have a future that’s bad, or that’s really bad, or that is “OMG we’re all gonna die”. Which do we want?
This decision involves looking, not for a solution to the problem of climate change, but to multiple actions that can reduce the impact of climate change, and thus minimize (without eliminating) the problem. Instead of asking “Will this get us to net zero by 2050?”, we should ask “Will this improve the situation?”
Let’s take a much-discussed example: shutting down the Alberta oil sands. This, the rallying cry of many an environmentalist, is not in fact going to happen. Should it happen? Perhaps. That’s a debate we could have, but it doesn’t matter. It isn’t going to happen.
We could instead have a different discussion: What is our strategy to ensure that the lifecycle carbon balance of the oil sands is zero by a given future date? That strategy may include, for example, diverting new pipeline investments into petrochemical manufacturing facilities, or carbon capture research, or other non-combustible and non-degrading products from fossil fuels. That strategy may include investments, sourced from all Canadians, in economic initiatives in the Canadian West that do not rely on oil and gas.
And, of course, it may include limiting the sale of internal combustion engines or winding down the use of fossil fuels in heating and industrial processes. (More on that another day.)
In short, we don’t have to turn up our noses at all uses of oil and gas, right now and forever. We can instead pivot, because reducing emissions from our oil and gas is still an improvement.
Take another example: forestry. We know that trees and other vegetation are carbon sinks, part of the natural cycle in which animals (especially humans) and degrading plants emit atmospheric carbon, and growing plants ingest and use that carbon. We also know that we use trees and their products for many things, particularly buildings. That will undoubtedly increase in the future, since wood products have a much lower lifecycle carbon cost than many other building materials.
We could, of course, simply plant more trees, but we struggle today just to plant as many trees as we cut down or burn.
Maybe instead we should think about shifting our forestry practices so that only (or mainly) old growth forests are cut, and new growth is left to grow.
Treehugger alert: someone just handcuffed themself to the old oak tree out back.
So, yes, I know that old growth forests are lovable, cuddly expressions of nature at its finest. It is also true that they are a home for many species that would struggle without them. And, they are part of the majesty of natural history, telling a story of our past. All true.
On the other hand, trees grab carbon from the air in order to grow. Maximum growth means maximum carbon sink. (It is much more complicated than that, but allow me to simplify just a bit.) Meanwhile, old growth forests are not only less efficient carbon sinks, but they have forest floors of dead, decaying plant material that a) emits carbon through decay, and b) forms the tinder for naturally occurring wildfires.
Against that background, a country like Canada with a large forestry industry could adopt a shift to logging old growth forests wherever possible. Coupled with requirements to a) plant more trees than you harvest (largely already the case) and b) harvest and clean up the forest floor along with the commercial trees (already part of sustainable forestry, but widely ignored), the result could be to expand Canada’s carbon sink and, in the process, reduce wildfires.
As with anything of this nature, the devil is in the details. More to the point, though, such a shift would require that environmentalists and indigenous peoples get together with the logging industry and governments to ensure that the benefits are fully understood, and the implementation maximizes those benefits while minimizing the environmental costs.
Resistance to climate change, like adaptation, will almost certainly be made up of many smaller initiatives, each of which helps a bit. A strategy to wind down oil sands impacts over time, and a shift in forestry strategy, are just two of many examples. Wind and solar, efficiency, electric vehicles, better building standards, and about a million other things, can all be implemented to improve the future.
None solve the problem. Together they can make things a little better.
I wrote this article out of frustration with the absolutism that so often characterizes discussions about climate change. We have to fight climate change, or the future will be terrible. Don’t talk about adaptation; it is surrendering to a future we can’t accept. Fight, fight, fight until we win.
Bad things are going to happen. We are too late to stop them. What we can do is what we always do: make small (but still big) decisions that help improve the situation.
I hope that the environmental activists at COP26 keep their feet on the (electric) accelerator. We need people telling us regularly that we aren’t doing enough, because we aren’t.
Then, instead of throwing up our hands, we should keep plodding along in the right direction, and at the fastest speed possible, even though it will never be fast enough.
- Jay Shepherd, November 1, 2021