We have a problem, a very big one. The evidence is everywhere. The floods in Pakistan; the extreme heatwaves in India, China, Europe and much of the US this year; the droughts driving famine in Somalia and fires in British Columbia and England; and the drying out of the Amazon rain forest to cite a few well-known ones. All of these have been clearly worsened by global climate change which we have been warned about for over 30 years. If there’s a surprise, it is that these climatic catastrophes are more severe and happening sooner than predicted by scientists.
There are some other surprises about the climate crisis that I hope you will explore with me. And there are solutions staring us in the face.
Touring Pakistan in early September, the secretary-general of the United Nations pointed to “the war we are waging on nature, and nature is striking back, and climate change is supercharging the destruction of our planet.”
Who is waging this “war on nature” and how do we stop it?
The causes of rising global temperatures are well understood, especially the burning of fossil fuels—oil, gas and coal. But despite that understanding, and three decades of yearly international conferences, little is being done. As the secretary-general explained in August, “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic.”
As the globe is hit be one extreme climate event after another, the acceptance of business-as-usual is increasingly being identified as the real underlying problem that must be addressed.
“Today it is Pakistan,” the secretary-general warned last month “Tomorrow it can be anywhere else. Climate change is the defining issue of our time and a business-as-usual approach is pure suicide.” He went on: “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But, the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
One of the countries he is talking about is Canada where new pipelines are being built to convey the oil and gas from expanding extraction in Alberta and British Columbia. Sadly, in Canada and the United States, the wisdom of the United Nations is usually ignored.
The fundamental question we all face is what to do? This isn’t just a localized pollution problem. This is our whole planet at stake. And unfortunately, the problem is almost certainly much worse than we are being told by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
While the IPCC is a highly credible group of scientists from countries around the world, its reports are cautious. They only include what has been fully agreed on, and the final version of their reports are edited by the political representatives of dozens of countries to make them sound less threatening. As a recent paper in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences noted, the IPCC assessments are focused on the impacts of global temperature increases of 1.5° and 2.0°C but we are currently headed past a 3°C rise. The researchers warned that “bad-to-worse-case scenarios…are poorly understood”. They concluded that “there are ample reasons to suspect that climate change could result in a global catastrophe”.
One of the big gaps in IPCC reports is limited examination of various tipping points, where the accumulation of changes flips ecological and climatic systems into a new irreversible state. A recent study found at least four of these points of no return could occur very soon.
So the problem is really, really serious which is why it is often called existential. However, the currently widely promoted plan here in North America is to continue making climate change more extreme for about 30 more years! That is the actual meaning of the “net zero by 2050” that is the official goal of the Canadian government and many others—to spend nearly three decades just to arrive at a point where remaining carbon emissions are equal to or less than what the oceans and other sinks can absorb.
Until that point, the level of carbon in the global atmosphere will keep going up from its current level of 420 parts per million. That’s even though we know that the maximum safe level is only 350 parts per million, and that up until the last century it has not exceeded 300 parts per million in at least 600,000 years.
So what should we as individuals do? One short answer is “stop living like Canadians”. For people born and raised here that may be hard to comprehend. People who have lived in most other parts of the world, especially the global south, should find it easier to understand. Per person Canadians have about the highest carbon emissions in the world. Despite our tiny portion of the world’s population, Canada is one of the top 10 emitters. And when we add up all the carbon pollution since 1850, Canada is also in the top 10.
On a personal level, our biggest sources of emissions according to the City of Hamilton calculations are vehicle driving and home energy use. We know air travel is also a big source but it is not mentioned in the local reports, perhaps because the city owns an airport. Eating meat, cheese and other dairy products has also been flagged as a problem. You can make personal choices to reduce these emissions you control. Every molecule of carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere will stay there for at least 100 years to haunt you, your children, and your grandchildren. It all counts!
Carbon pollution that is usually not mentioned, but also a huge source, is buying new stuff that is often quickly thrown away. Nearly everything we purchase has a carbon footprint in its production and transportation as well as in the mining of its components. Most of our stuff in Canada is now imported, more and more from the global south, so its carbon pollution is unfairly blamed on those countries, even though Canadians are generating the demand.
The rule of carbon counting that allows Canadians to miss much of our climate pollution also means that official Canadian emission figures do not include the burning of the oil and gas and coal that we export. That gets counted where it is actually burned, which is why the Canadian government argues that extracting, piping and selling more and more is a way for Canada to reduce emissions—by allegedly paying for pollution control inside Canada. Perhaps the people making this argument haven’t noticed that earth only has one atmosphere and therefore emissions anywhere end up everywhere.
There are other very helpful personal steps we each can take. The David Suzuki Foundation urges us to talk about the climate crisis, to start a climate conversation, even if uncomfortable, with family, friends and co-workers. Also make sure our personal investments are not making carbon pollution worse. All of Canada’s large banks are bankrolling the tar sands and other fossil fuel projects. Tell them to stop and if they don’t, move your money to a credit union. Often the emissions from your investments far exceed those from driving and other more obvious sources.
The Suzuki Foundation also calls on us to vote and to get involved in local government. We have a city election on October 24 and many of the candidates this time support strong action on climate change. Find out who in your ward is running on a platform that includes climate change, and vote for them.
Hamilton Council declared a climate emergency three and a half years ago and in August of this year, approved a climate strategy. The big question is, will it be implemented, how fast will that be, and especially, will the new city council spend the money to make it more than just a nice plan. A key action that I’m helping to promote is making city buses free, frequent and electric. What happens will depend on who gets elected on October 24 and then on how much they continue to hear about climate action from residents like you and me.
But be careful about personal solutions, because reducing your personal pollution and consumption, while helpful, are not the main answer. A study five years ago calculated that over 70% of emissions in the last three decades have come from just 100 large corporations. So emissions you can directly control are only a part of the problem. Indeed it is rumoured, and probably accurately, that fossil fuel companies created and have spread the myth that individuals are the problem. That myth has hidden the real global warming culprits and fed the false belief that we are all responsible. This depresses and demobilizes us and distracts us from real action.
The great Egyptian scholar, Samir Amin, explained in The World We Wish To See, “It is known today that capitalism is not viable, ultimately, because of the ecological destruction that the logic of its development makes inevitable. It is also known that just preserving the forms of consumption that benefit a minority of some 20 percent of humanity requires that the aspirations of the others must be ruthlessly crushed.” I am not a Gandhi scholar. I have read far too little of this great leader’s guide to living. One of my earliest memories growing up in a small Ontario town is of my very non-political mother referring to the Mahatma. That was evidence of how much influence he has had all over the planet.
I understand that there is a debate about whether Gandhi was an environmentalist. Some argue that he wasn’t because he never wrote about global warming. That seems to me to be a poor argument. Gandhi provided India and the entire world with the key lesson—that we have to make the struggle for justice the centre of our lives. And he showed how that can be achieved without violence.
Fighting climate change is the most critical justice struggle today. The evidence is overwhelming that carbon pollution is really the continuation of colonialism. The oppressors are the same and the victims are the same. Look where the worst climate devastation is occurring—in the poorer countries of Asia and Africa, especially India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines, all of whom have very low emissions per person. Listen again to the UN Secretary-General last month: “What is happening in Pakistan demonstrates the sheer inadequacy of the global response to the climate crisis, and the betrayal and injustice at the heart of it. Whether it is Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, small islands or Least Developed Countries, the world’s most vulnerable—who did nothing to cause this crisis—are paying a horrific price for decades of intransigence by big emitters. G20 countries are responsible for 80 percent of emissions.”
I think those who leave Gandhi out of the list of climate heroes are forgetting his fundamental philosophy and teachings. Several decades before the rise of today’s environmental movements, Gandhi understood and highlighted the crucial environmental issues of over-consumption and violence to humans and the natural world. Recall one of his most famous warnings: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” Today the United States has superseded England but the results are the same. The world is being stripped bare. The climate crisis is one of the symptoms of a planet that is being systematically destroyed by corporate greed.
Gandhi understood that “nature has enough to satisfy every one’s needs, but not to satisfy anybody’s greed”. He correctly asserted that “true economics stands for social justice; it promotes the good of all equally, including the weakest and is indispensable for decent life”. Those lessons are fundamental to understanding and stopping the climate chaos confronting us. Life’s purpose is not to get as rich as possible despite that being the central message and logic of our economic system. This flies in the face of Gandhi’s philosophy. He told us that “a certain degree of physical harmony and comfort is necessary, but above a certain level it becomes hindrance instead of help. Therefore, the ideal of creating an unlimited number of wants and satisfying them seems to be a delusion and a snare.” According to him, a person who multiplies their daily wants cannot achieve the goal of plain living and high thinking.
In our lifetimes there have been many debates about the best economic and political philosophy to follow. Today it is crystal clear that the currently controlling capitalist system is not the answer. The climate crisis and many accompanying crises prove this is a path to catastrophe. Well ahead of his time, Gandhi understood this and pointed to a path founded in justice, modest living, and self-sacrifice.