Science & Technology

United Nations stresses climate conundrum

It was a mild morning in London, England when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its groundbreaking report in May 1990. By proclaiming that the Earth’s gradual warming is unquestionably man-made, it became the first international body to state so.

The report was concise: “Unless emissions of carbon dioxide and other harmful gases [are] immediately cut by more than 60 per cent, global temperatures [will] rise sharply over the next century, with unforeseeable consequences for humanity.”

Despite these dire warnings, the world has remained relatively indifferent, continuing to back competitive oil markets, build more factories, and ignore the pleas of the overwhelmingly unified scientific community.


An International Dilemma

Earlier this month, the IPCC released its special climate change assessment report, reiterating many of the same proposals it had asked world leaders to consider almost three decades ago. Titled “Global Warming of 1.5˚C,” the report states that the earth’s temperature increases must be kept  below 1.5˚C of pre-industrial levels, or else risk disastrous consequences to our social and ecological systems. Irreversible changes to world climate are expected as soon as 2030, by which time the world is expected to have exceeded its carbon budget.

“A lot of the focus prior to the Paris Agreement had been on  2.0˚C of warming,” Kirsten Zickfeld, a lead author on the IPCC special report, said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “However, many vulnerable nations, such as small island states and nations in the developing world, are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.”

Their desperate call for action prompted the IPCC to reevaluate their recommendations, leading to the publication of this most recent report. After over a year of research, the IPCC concluded that 2.0˚C of warming was too generous an estimate for island nations and countries with coastal infrastructure.

“Two degrees is something that many of these countries could not adapt to,” Zickfeld said. “The effects would be too serious.”

The 1.5˚C threshold is an aggregated measure based on the findings of various studies. It represents the IPCC’s best estimate for the point at which there will be devastating natural phenomena beyond human control. Unfortunately, according to Nigel Roulet, professor of geography and director of the Global Environmental and Climate Change Research Centre at McGill, many places, such as Afghanistan and Kuwait, are either nearing or have already surpassed this threshold.

“Even if we completely stopped carbon emissions now, we would expect more warming to occur,” Dáithí Stone, a researcher at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, said.

Meanwhile, it takes time for the effects of climate change to play out, meaning that the highest risk areas will likely get worse despite their best efforts.


Canadian Catastrophe

Many of the impacts of climate change can already be observed right at Canada’s doorstep. In 2018, British Columbia experienced not only one of the hottest wildfire seasons by average temperature on record, but also saw a massive number of active wildfires burning at a single time, second only to 2017.

In an interview with the CBC, Chilliwack fire ecologist Robert Gray stated that the

prevalence of wildfires has drastically exceeded previous climate models.

“What we thought was going to be an average condition in 2050, we’re starting to see those conditions coming a lot sooner,” Gray said.

Gray’s concerns are echoed in the IPCC report. The committee warns that changes in climate, which were thought to occur gradually over the next century, are happening at an exceedingly amplified, if not alarming, rate. Increases in the number and ferocity of B.C.’s wildfires are directly related to the climate conditions in the region; as average temperature rises in the summer and spring months, so does the probability of emergent wildfires. In Alberta, some climate models predict a 20 per cent increase in the frequency of extreme river flow events over the next century. These models are a stark reminder of the catastrophic flooding which submerged large parts of the province in 2013.

The number of large-scale extreme weather events in the country is on the rise, driven largely by climate change, which is only expected to worsen over the next century.

“If we do not do anything, we’ll assume massive costs caused by the damages of sea levels rising, longer and hotter heat waves, and increased flooding,” Zickfield said.

The Alberta flooding epidemic was, at one time, the costliest disaster in Canadian history, with insurable damages amounting to $6 billion. This record was only surpassed in the 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfires, which displaced almost 100,000 people and cost $9.5 billion in damages.


Keeping the Great North Green  

Rising water levels pose a particularly significant risk to Canada, which has the longest coastline of any country in the world. With 6.5 million residents living along the ocean as well as the country’s proximity to the Arctic, coastal disturbances caused by melting ice present a looming risk for Canadians.

“Sea ice changes affect the energy balance of the Arctic Ocean,” Roulet said. “[Changes in sea ice distribution] have consequences on weather conditions throughout the Northern hemisphere.”

Flooding aside, a 2016 report on the marine conditions of Canada’s changing climate found that climate disturbances in the Arctic region could significantly affect the distributions of key species such as salmon and seals. These changes pose an immediate problem for northern communities that rely on marine wildlife as a primary food source. Indigenous communities, in particular, which disproportionately lie within potentially-affected coastal regions, could see the most substantial consequences emerge from ecological disturbances.

The Trudeau government has made significant improvements to Canada’s policy on curbing human-induced climate change. The guiding document on these changes, “The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change,” published in 2016, is a broad plan to reduce Canada’s ecological footprint. To help offset the financial burden of shaping the Canadian economy to a more-climate friendly model, the government has allotted $1.4 billion to provinces and territories that have adopted the Framework. However, while comprehensive, the Framework is made obsolete by the most recent climate models and international guidelines, such as those in the IPCC’s October report.

“The Liberal government, and all governments we’ve had in Canada, have been very good at talking the talk about greenhouse gas emissions,” Roulet said. “But when it comes to substance in reducing [greenhouse emissions, their response] has been weak.”

Roulet believes the Liberal carbon tax, announced on Oct. 23, to be a good baseline for how the country should proceed in addressing our carbon emissions. The carbon tax is a federal policy which, if implemented nationally, would place additional tariffs on the sale of fossil fuels. As of 2018, provinces are responsible for legislating carbon taxation.

“The bigger challenge is to not only enact short-term measures like using renewables for new power generation capacity,” Stone said. “The challenge is also to shift long-term measures, like decommissioning existing coal power plants.”

While Canadians must face the implications of climate change at home, they also have a responsibility to set an example for the rest of the world. With their notably-high carbon emissions per capita, Canadians have a moral obligation to reduce their ecological footprint and provide relief to the many countries, mostly in the developing world, on the verge of climate disaster.

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