34. Signs for All to See
I wrote this a couple of years ago. It’s quite depressing, but you can’t quibble with much of it. I’m posting this today, September 30, 2021, which is National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. It is also called Orange Shirt Day because when Phyllis Webstad, of Dog Creek Reserve, was given a new orange shirt by her mother to attend school she was stripped of all her clothes when she entered. She wrote about that and went on to found this special day. Residential schools, originally created by the Catholic Church, forced First Nation families to give up 150,000 of their children from 1831 until the schools were closed down in 1996. Thousands died and this year hundreds of unmarked graves surrounding the schools have been found. Many suffered sexual predation, medical experimentation, malnutrition, and other abuse. I never learned any of this when I was growing up. It is difficult, but important, to face the truth that my ancestors did this. I am just back from the event. There was a large crowd of mostly white folks in orange shirts listening respectfully to the stories and songs presented by residential school survivors and their families. This, to me, is a hopeful sign that reconciliation may be possible. I don’t think that we can deal with the climate emergency without also reconciling with the original stewards of this land. The two are inextricably linked.
There have been several climate related issues that have come up recently that are disturbing.
2017 was the hottest year on record without El Nino
Ocean temperatures were the hottest ever recorded.
The next hottest, in order were: 2015, 2016, 2014, 2013. (Lijing Cheng, Jiang Zhu, lead authors published in “Advances in Atmospheric Sciences”, March 2018, Volume 35, issue 3, pp 261–263)
Early 2018 temperatures in the Arctic were the hottest ever recorded and astounded scientists.
In Siberia temperatures were as much as 35C above average, for days. Scientists have called the news “shocking”, “weird”. It is impossible to unpack local aberrations from long-term effects, but scientists are re-examining their computer modeling, which did not predict such extreme swings. There is concern that the ‘polar vortex’, strong winds that circle the arctic and deflect warm air masses to the south, is breaking down. The arctic is warming faster than anywhere else. And Canada is heating up at twice the global average. Meanwhile extreme cold temperatures were recorded in Europe and North America as unconstrained polar air flooded south. In Ontario in April a baseball game had to be cancelled when an ice storm hit, and chunks of ice fell from a tall building onto the stadium roof and punctured it. During the same weather event a basketball game was delayed briefly due to leaks on the roof caused by ice. (Horrors).
Greenland is melting faster than predicted: scientists are saying that they thought that the rate of melting ice being recorded in 2019 would not occur for another 50 years.
Antarctic glaciers are melting from below
Previous studies of glacier melt were made from satellite data which showed just the upper surfaces of the ice. This was only part of the story. A team of scientists from the University of Leeds has created an underwater map of Antarctica and found that the glaciers are also melting from below. They found that climate change has increased the rate of melting and that the Antarctic will overtake Greenland as a source of sea level rise. Recently a report from UK and American scientists found that the rate of melting has increased threefold in the last five years and ice is vanishing faster than at any time in history.
The Gulf Stream current is at its weakest in 1,600 years.
When the warm water that flows north up the coast of North America meets the cold Arctic water it cools, sinks and then flows southward. This is called the Meridional Overturning Circulation (Amoc)
The Gulf Stream is the strongest current flow in the world and is one of the great drivers of global climate, affecting everything from the weather in Europe to the monsoons in India. Scientists had thought that it could take centuries for this system to break down. These new measurements cast doubt on that. The Arctic is warming up much faster than other regions and is already 3C above historical norms. Greenland is melting quickly and flooding the area with less dense freshwater which is also weakening the Amoc current.
Canada’s forests are no longer “lungs of the planet.”
Due to warming temperatures forests are more susceptible to pests such as the mountain pine beetle and to massive fires, which release huge amounts of CO2. The fire that ravaged Fort McMurray in May 2016, causing the evacuation of 88,000 people, is a small harbinger of what is to come. These dangerous fires create their own weather system and can be impossible to control. Oddly, the reaction to this fire in Alberta was not to question tar sands production. It was the exact opposite: expand production to cover the financial losses that the fire caused. Let’s just dig ourselves a bigger hole.
Over 600 fires caused so much smoke in B.C. in 2018 that some scientists studied the way it was dispersed around the globe in order to understand how radioactive clouds would travel after a nuclear war. 1.2 million hectares of B.C.’s forests were lost, and 200 million tons of carbon dioxide rose into the atmosphere. Then it got worse in the summer of 2019 when the whole of Siberia seemed to be on fire, as well as many parts of Alaska. The fires have been so hot the soil beneath the trees is burning too, sometimes travelling underground, exposing the permafrost to accelerated melting, and leading to a positive feedback loop of more melting, more CO2 and methane emissions, causing more heat and more burning. Scientists say that this amount of fire and smoke has not been seen in the last 10,000 years. I used to think that when the boreal fires start to burn uncontrollably like this it’s game over. But we are still here, we must have hope, but also fear. Hope and fear. And action.
According to a prominent economist who studied the effects of massive logging, the Amazon could be just two years away from being at a tipping point when the rainforest will stop producing enough rain to sustain itself.
Great Barrier Reef
At least 30% of the Great Barrier Reef has been destroyed.
Probably more, due mainly to the highest ever recorded sea surface temperatures across the reef.
After three years of continent-wide drought, in the austral summer of 2019 and 2020 Australia experienced the worst bush fires ever recorded causing the death of an estimated one billion animals.
All of these events indicate the climate is changing faster than the ever-conservative IPCC climate scientists predicted. This is a serious, life-threatening crisis. Where is the reaction from our political leaders? From ourselves? We need to increase tarsands production in order to decrease emissions? Does Australia need to increase coal and gas production despite the travesty of their island neighbours having to abandon their homes due to rising seas? What kind of bubble are we all in? (Answer: a carbon bubble). I tend to be an optimistic person. (My wife would say overly optimistic). The more I have studied climate change the more I am afraid I have underestimated the danger we are all in. Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org., has stated that the situation facing mankind is not like a world war, it is a world war, and we are losing. The IPCC has reported that we have only until 2030 to half our GHG emissions to have a 50% chance of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But emissions are still rising and there are already a billion fossil fueled cars and trucks in the world and most of them will still be working in 10 years, as will many of the fossil power plants. Buildings will continue to be made from concrete and cows will still be belching methane. Meanwhile the climate is approaching tipping points, such as the loss of arctic sea ice and melting glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica. Paul Crowley, head of WFF Canada, has noted that the chance of putting the genie back in the bottle after the ice has melted is slight, in fact beyond any of us being able to do anything about it. No, to avoid catastrophe we need to change how we live and work immediately. That means getting off fossil fuels, eating less meat, consuming less, planting more trees, sequestering carbon and demanding government action.
Last month 70% of private vehicles sold in Canada were SUVs or pickups. Even Germans are now buying more SUVs. There is denial across society. This is especially true for predominantly English-speaking places such as the U.S., Canada and Australia, which have the largest GHG emissions per capita of all industrialized countries. According to David MacKay, the average North American consumes energy at a rate of 250 kilowatt hours per day. (250kWh/d). The average European or Japanese consumes 125kWh/d, or half that. Why?
Some of it is due to energy production. The U.S. and Canada have large oil and gas industries and Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal. Also, these countries are large and not as densely populated as Europe or Japan. But this just accounts for some of it. There are cultural differences as well.
When Europeans first came to the Americas, they claimed that most of the land was empty. Except for the people who already lived there. Original estimates of Indigenous populations were ruefully low. Modern estimates are between 300,000 and 500,000 in the Pacific Northwest alone. (Opentextbc.ca. /postconfederation/chapter/11–3, also fnha.ca/our history our health) The new occupants cleared the land and established their own towns and villages. A wave of European diseases had decimated Indigenous communities ahead of this expansion. By 1867 the total number of aboriginals across Canada was only about 125,000. Compared to Europe, the Americas seemed to offer wide-open spaces and unlimited opportunities. A new frontier culture developed based on land development, resource extraction and farming. There was ‘freedom’ to move on when the soil became barren, or the forest was gone or fish depleted. This ‘freedom’ didn’t exist in older, more densely populated European and Japanese societies that had matured over centuries. And this culture was so successful technically and economically that it became the model for development everywhere. (Note: I’m not implying that this model of development originated at this time. Jarred Diamond in his book “Collapse” argues that many, if not all civilization collapses have been caused by or triggered by resource depletion. Many scholars consider that the advent of our extraction-based economic system can be traced all the way back thousands of years ago to the development of large-scale agriculture. The new occupants in America brought this model with them and applied it with gusto).
Today the climate is changing ever faster, the oceans are steadily acidifying, and we are confused as to how to proceed. I have long been proud of fact that in my country the rule of law prevails. (as if I had anything to do with it). Our legal system, based on English common law developed over centuries, and together with civil law, has proved to be more effective than any other system in protecting individual rights and promoting harmony. I used to think that it would be hard to improve on this system. It was too bad that these rights and privileges didn’t seem to apply to indigenous people and other minorities. I thought that if they did then things would be O.K. I was wrong. There is something missing in our legal system and in our culture.
A comment made by a Chief of a B.C. First Nation has stuck with me. She said that aboriginal laws “come from the land”. There is a new school being set up at the University of Victoria, B.C. It will be the first institution to offer a dual-degree program in Canadian law and Indigenous law. Her comment was in relation to that. Inherent in Indigenous law is that the land and nature are sacred. How this central understanding will develop in this new field is a wonderful, open question. The B.C. government, together with First Nations, has now enshrined the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into law. These two developments can serve as a path forward, and not just for indigenous people. For all of us. We have much to learn and very little time. We need to conserve more and consume less. This requires a huge shift in culture.
Steve Bannon, of Breitbart Bent News fame made an interesting comment. He said that in order for politics to change you first have to change culture. He’s been very successful. He helped get Brexit passed and the U.S. boy-president elected. First culture must change. Only then will politics follow.
This will get messy. Real social change always is. Could this be the beginning of a cultural shift in a country that has huge fossil reserves (although three times the carbon intensity of Saudi oil and more than twice as expensive) , yet begins to limit their extraction and use? Canada has wonderful, peaceful, democratic traditions. If any country can achieve this huge shift, it is Canada.
 A study by Rystad Energy, a research firm, that was reported in the Nov 2, 2019 issue of The Economist indicated that the breakeven price for new projects at which a company can make a 10% return in Saudi Arabia is U.S. $31.00 per barrel. The price for new Canadian oil was projected at $71.45 and CO2 equivalent/g per megajoule in 2015 was more than three times the Saudi oil.