In­ac­tion on cli­mate change likely to cost us much more down the road

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT - EDITOR'S NOTES

CAT­A­STROPHIC SCE­NAR­IOS OF ECO­LOG­I­CAL and so­cial col­lapse are part of the cli­mate change nar­ra­tive. How­ever it plays out – and we’re all along for the ride, some of us longer than oth­ers – it won’t be pain­less.

Those ad­vo­cat­ing mea­sures to mit­i­gate cli­mate change to­day paint a payme-now-or-pay-me-later pic­ture: ei­ther we spend time and money com­bat­ing ris­ing global tem­per­a­tures, or we spend what’s likely to be a whole lot more down the road deal­ing with more se­vere weather-re­lated dis­as­ters and ap­ply­ing tech­no­log­i­cal fixes, if we come up with any.

While we’re cau­tioned against ex­trap­o­lat­ing to­day’s weather with cli­mate is­sues, it’s easy to see the re­cent spate of hur­ri­canes and the re­sul­tant toll, hu­man and fi­nan­cial, as a har­bin­ger of things to come.

Just this week, in fact, the U.S. Govern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice re­ported the fed­eral govern­ment spent more than $350 bil­lion over the last decade on dis­as­ter as­sis­tance pro­grams and losses from flood and crop in­sur­ance. That number does not in­clude this year’s ma­jor hur­ri­canes – Har­vey, Irma and Maria – for which more than $50 bil­lion has al­ready been al­lo­cated, nor a se­ries of wild­fires.

Fu­ture weather events are ex­pected to cost more than $35 bil­lion a year over the next decade. The in­ten­sity is get­ting worse, leav­ing large swathes vul­ner­a­ble to flood­ing and surges (north­east and south­east coasts), droughts and wild­fires (West) and crop-re­lated is­sues (Mid­west).

As well, the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion es­ti­mates that 12.6 mil­lion peo­ple die glob­ally each year due to pol­lu­tion, ex­treme weather and cli­mate-re­lated dis­ease. Cli­mate change be­tween 2030 and 2050 is ex­pected to cause 250,000 ad­di­tional global deaths.

The worst-case sce­nar­ios of such changes are the fo­cus of the film Two De­grees: The Point of No Re­turn, which I re­cently caught on the His­tory Chan­nel (like other would-be ed­u­ca­tional chan­nels, long largely bereft of ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­rial in favour of very bad re­al­ity TV, as an aside). In this case, the mes­sage was one of im­pend­ing doom should global tem­per­a­tures reach two de­grees above the prein­dus­trial av­er­age, a course that may be ir­re­versible at this point. We’re on a pace for that some­where around mid-cen­tury.

It’s a rather apoc­a­lyp­tic view, sug­gest­ing we might be on the road to our own demise in rel­a­tively short or­der due to floods, famine and dis­ease that fol­low in the wake of a cli­mate change tip­ping point.

The dire con­se­quences we ex­pe­ri­ence over the next cen­tury are likely overblown, but mesh some­what with the much more lim­ited crises we’ve seen al­ready. And the film lends to a sense of ur­gency that some ad­vo­cates for change would like to see from more of us, par­tic­u­larly those mak­ing the de­ci­sions.

“How do we de­velop the nec­es­sary sense of ur­gency?” asks Michael Purves-Smith, an Elmira en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist who’s or­ga­niz­ing a pub­lic roundtable dis­cus­sion about what can be done to avoid the tip­ping point.

There’s plenty to be wor­ried about, but no easy an­swer to bring­ing more peo­ple on board, he ad­mits.

There’s some irony in mod­els that show wide­spread epi­demics – per­haps the re­sult of ris­ing tem­per­a­tures al­low­ing trop­i­cal dis­eases and pests into new, un­pre­pared ar­eas – as one pos­si­ble un­do­ing of hu­man­ity. Such was the premise of Purves-Smith’s novel Rocky Moun­tain Lo­cust, though the story was ac­tu­ally an optimistic view of re­cov­ery in a post-tech­nol­ogy world.

In that vein, he re­mains optimistic we can find some way to avoid the worst-case sce­nar­ios of some cli­mate change pre­dic­tions.

Flood­ing, soar­ing tem­per­a­tures and for­est fires abound. We tend to take such sto­ries in iso­la­tion, how­ever, fail­ing to con­nect the dots to form a (big) pic­ture of trou­ble on a plan­e­tary scale. Well, even more than fail­ing, we’re de­ter­mined not to con­nect to those dots. And those con­tent with the sta­tus quo – largely those prof­it­ing thereby – have ab­so­lutely no in­ter­est in draw­ing the per­ils to our at­ten­tion.

The dis­re­gard for the con­se­quences of the changes – con­sciously ig­nored in or­der to fo­cus on un­sus­tain­able con­sump­tion – is prob­lem­atic whether or not you be­lieve what man does is hav­ing any im­pact on the cli­mate. Ex­treme weather, flood­ing, land­slides and for­est fires will wreak havoc nonethe­less. The same prin­ci­ple ap­plies to all forms of pol­lu­tion, loss of fresh wa­ter, habi­tat de­struc­tion, degra­da­tion of arable land and a host of other some­day-cat­a­strophic ills that we’d rather not dwell on just now.

The fact is, how­ever, that we’d be well ad­vised to take steps to com­bat cli­mate change, and ramp up the pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sures in those places likely to be hard­est hit – ris­ing wa­ter lev­els, droughts and vi­o­lent weather seem like cer­ti­tudes, so some plan­ning would be in or­der.

Does go­ing on and on about cli­mate change help or hin­der the cause?

I think peo­ple have tuned out. Our at­ten­tion spans be­ing what they are, we’ve moved on. Oh, we oc­ca­sion­ally take pass­ing note of some con­fer­ence or sum­mit, where politi­cians make nice speeches about the fate of our planet and what needs to be done. As with many other is­sues, we sup­pose that all the talk leads to ac­tion, as­sum­ing the in­evitable de­cline in news cov­er­age means the prob­lem has gone away.

And, as is al­ways the case, short-term think­ing will dom­i­nate. Politi­cians wor­ried about re-elec­tion won’t do any­thing that seems ex­pen­sive or puts na­tional in­ter­ests at an ap­par­ent dis­ad­van­tage.

Cana­di­ans have grown tired of the de­bate, and will not sup­port one dime trav­el­ling out of the coun­try on some ill-fated cap-and­trade, car­bon off­sets or en­vi­ron­men­tal repa­ra­tions scheme cooked up by an unac­count­able in­ter­na­tional group.

We sim­ply do not be­lieve politi­cians and bu­reau­crats ca­pa­ble of cre­at­ing a sys­tem that isn’t cor­rupt, in­ef­fec­tive

and likely to waste money. His­tory has shown us such agree­ments are rarely to the ben­e­fit of av­er­age cit­i­zens.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be mak­ing our own ef­forts to com­bat cli­mate change. Canada con­trib­utes about two per cent of global green­house gas emis­sions de­spite hav­ing less than half of one per cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion. Clearly we can do bet­ter.

Es­ti­mates tied to the kind of emis­sion re­duc­tions deemed nec­es­sary to off­set the worst of cli­mate change run into the hun­dreds of bil­lions. Cou­pled to the life­style changes and po­ten­tial eco­nomic up­heaval, the costs seem too oner­ous.

If the worst does hap­pen, we’re go­ing to be spend­ing far more to deal with the dam­age and mit­i­ga­tion fac­tors … but that’s some­thing that may hap­pen in the fu­ture. And the fu­ture is al­ways to­mor­row, not to­day’s con­cern.

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