This article is in response to frequent comments I receive acknowledging the usefulness of the science around environmental breakdown but also a feeling of helplessness as to what each of each of us can do.
After a devastating year, a looming question emerges – can environmental collapse still be prevented? The answer! The world as we now know it – the age of fossil fuels – must come to an end. There is no time to waste.
The past year left no doubt: Climate change is dangerously impacting societies the world over. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) projects a record of 275 million people will need humanitarian aid in 2022 – a rise of over 60 % from last year. As forests burn and cities drown, as crops wither and people die, it becomes clearer than ever before: The deadly flaws of our economic structures have been ruthlessly exposed.
It can be easy to despair at the climate crisis, or to decide it’s already too late. But that does not have to be the case. We have the knowledge and the technology to transform our energy structures. As well, there is a rapidly growing awareness worldwide about the severity of the numerous crises we face, especially among the vocal youth. Some in positions of power are listening. There was progress at the last COP (Conference of the Parties) held in Glasgow. At a minimum there was a decision that the COP meetings would now be held every year instead of every 5 years. However, it was clear that most national leaders were held back by vested interests and “their own attachment to the status quo – and thus the profits from continued destruction” (Rebecca Solnit – Dec 2021).
The anxiety that is building concerning the looming environmental crises and the institutional inaction, is best met by having a clear understanding of the facts and the possibilities for a truly sustainable future. Here are a few thoughts and suggested readings.
CAN WE PREVENT A CLIMATE DISASTER?
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN
CAN WE PREVENT A CLIMATE DISASTER?
TWO NUMBERS – 51 billion and zero. The former is the number of tons of greenhouse gases typically added to the atmosphere each year because of human activities. The latter is the number of tons we need to get to by 2050 to avert a climate crisis.
What this means is that carbon emissions must be halved by 2030 and halved again by 2040 to achieve the goal of net zero by 2050. It also means that deforestation must stop immediately. As well an international agreement on preserving biodiversity must be signed before next year’s COP meeting and thus be integrated into the international pledges.
Moreover, there is a dire need to ensure that justice and equity are at the heart of these massive campaigns. After the COP conference, some of the harshest condemnations were reserved for wealthy countries, which have released the bulk of greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere but have resisted mandates to provide financing for developing nations. It is well documented that poorer nations, despite very low carbon emissions, are more heavily impacted by climate change. Critical financing is thus needed to help these nations address loss and damage, adaptation, and damage mitigation.
Addressing these over-arching goals is massive – but as individuals we are left exasperated as to what we can do.
WHAT CAN WE DO – INDIVIDUALLY
Everything we do, from having a shower, eating a hamburger, driving to work, to buying things, has an environmental impact. With the clarity of this understanding, we can lessen our impacts – at least to a degree. To be clearer, over-consumption is at the root of the planet’s environmental crisis. We (globally) are using up the planet at a rate of 1.7 times faster than it can regenerate. If everyone consumed at the rate of the average American or Canadian it would be 5 times faster. Consuming less is a must. Also – how we consume such as knowing the source of the product, is a factor. For instance, at present, buying meat produced in Brazil will most certainly be associated with destruction of the Amazon rain forest. Much of what comes from China is manufactured using energy from coal.
There is a multitude of sources that provide information on reducing environmental impacts of our lifestyles. They all, more or less, emphasize the same steps – buy less, avoid unnecessary packaging, eat less meat (or better still no meat at all), eliminate food waste, ensure home energy is not wasted, reject bottled water, drive less, ditch big cars (or better still drive a low or zero emission vehicle), recycle properly, fly less, etc.
For those interested, here is one link among many that can be viewed online that present ways we can lessen our impacts.
Youth climate strikes – from National Geographic – 2021
THE COLLECTIVE FOR A BIGGER IMPACT
Consumer choice and individual action are needed and can make a definite impact. But climate change policies, from the local level to the global level, often collapse on the lack of “political will” — the unwillingness or inability of governments to enact policies that will reduce carbon pollution at the scale and speed required. Public will, especially as expressed through citizen activism, therefore becomes crucial. Global climate change is a massive collective action issue.
Author Rebecca Solnit – posted recently on her Facebook page the following about Bill McKibben a well-known American environmentalist, author, and journalist: “ I was sitting on the floor of an auditorium in Paris with Bill McKibben, while the Paris Climate Summit was in session. Someone wandered up to him and asked him, “What’s the best thing I can do as an individual, for the climate?” He replied, as he often has with the best possible answer, “Stop being an individual.”
By this he meant join something, support something, look for the strength in numbers and coalitions and organizing. Alone, most of us can’t do much, and can feel helpless; together we have the capacity to change the world for the better. Some thoughts:
Informed Discussions – Read documents, watch documentaries, or read books and discuss these with family members and friends. Some recommended reading is listed at the end of this article. As well, there is a link to a short video that is informative.
Vote for our future – Politics matter. Consider the 4 wasted climate denial years of the Trump administration resulting in the USA exiting, for a time, the Paris Accord. Brazilians will do the world a big favour by ousting the environmentally disastrous Jair Bolsonaro as their president. Simply put – I recommend that one of the highest priorities in casting a ballot should be based on the candidate’s stance on environmental protection.
Advocate – Write letters to political representatives and inform them to take action or they will lose your vote. Or better still, take part in some form of activism. Collective action works. There have been many mega projects cancelled or put on hold due to collective action. Here are some:
Donate – I realize there are many organizations worthy of donations and it is difficult to choose which ones to support. However, given the various crises we are facing, it is well worth considering supporting organizations that are lobbying to eradicate fossil fuels, revolutionize agriculture, call for a halt in deforestation and loss of habitats, or are advocating loudly for climate justice.
One area of great interest to me is the use of the courts to hold governments and industry to account – much like what was achieved to fight ‘Big Tobacco’. Recently, climate change activists won a big legal victory against oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. A Dutch court ruled that the company must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030, based on 2019 levels. This could set a precedent for similar lawsuits against huge oil companies that operate across the globe. See also the link below about the organization – Urgenda holding the Dutch government to account.
Pictures of plaintiffs fly outside the court in The Hague, Netherlands, before a ruling ordering Royal Dutch Shell to rein in its carbon emissions. Thousands of citizens joined the suit charging that Shell’s fossil fuel investments endanger lives. Peter Dejong/AP
In summary – we do not have to feel helpless facing the threats of environmental collapse. The knowledge and technology are there but politics is being unduly influenced by big industry. We can take our own steps but also join the voices of many to demand change.
The following is a few of many sites and literature sources for those interested.
I find The Guardian to be one of the best – it’s international edition has a section devoted to climate change and publish new items each day. It’s very current and fact based. I also like Science Daily.
CLIMATE CHANGE – INDUSTRY KNEW THIS WAS COMING Allan Maynard, MSc. August 5th, 2021.
Sometimes a picture can express many words. This graphic does just that. Many believe it’s already too late to stop the warming that was predicted decades ago.
There is little doubt now. Climate change is dangerously impacting societies the world over. As forests burn and cities drown, as crops wither and people die, the question looms louder than ever this summer: What will it take for leaders to finally act? Consider the following recent extreme events – many unprecedented.
• In late June 2021, it was a deadly heat wave in the north-west Americas that smashed Canada’s all-time temperature record by more than 5 degrees C and caused around 500 to 600 heat related deaths in each of British Columbia, Oregon and Washington. The World Weather Attribution Organization (see link below) reports that this was the “the most anomalous heat event ever observed on Earth.”
Burnt-out cars stand in front of a ruined building in Lytton, B.C., on July 9, 2021. (Bethany Lindsay/CBC News). In late June 2021, Lytton recorded Canada’s highest ever temperature of 49.6 degrees C (121.3 degrees F).
• About 10 days later, it was devastating floods that turned streets into rivers and trapped people in cellars in Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and the UK. • A few days after that, we observed horrifying visions of Chinese commuters trapped in Zhengzhou subway trains as flood waters pushed air out of the carriages. At least 33 people died in the city after a year’s worth of rain fell in four days. • Other heat records were recently set in Turkey, Finland, Estonia and elsewhere, while savage forest fires in North America continue to rage, filling the skies with toxic smoke over a good portion of the continent. • Massive floods are also deluging Nigeria, Uganda, and India in recent days, killing hundreds. • More than a million people are close to starvation amid Madagascar’s worst drought in history. • In Siberia, tens of thousands of square miles of forest are ablaze. New data is now showing that the drastic warming in Siberia is unleashing methane stored in the frozen ground below. Methane is 84 times stronger than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.
Forest fires in Siberia. The resulting smoke from forest fires such as this one and other fires and others around the world are highly dangerous to human health.
The U.N. climate officials are pleading for the world to heed the alarm bells, pointing out that these catastrophes are simply the latest in a ghastly string of warnings over decades, that the planet is hurtling down a treacherous path. Most alarming of all is that the science is now showing that climate change is making parts of the world too hot and humid for humans to survive.
PREDICTED LONG AGO (even by Industry)
In 1896, Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius created what was, in effect, the first model of climate change. After years of work and hand computations he made a striking prediction. He stated that if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere doubled it would raise global temperatures by 5 to 6 degrees. Today – that prediction holds up reasonably well. The CO2 concentration has almost doubled and warming in the arctic areas has increased over 7 degrees C.
Since the 1960s there have been plenty of modern warnings from scientists around the world. I can clearly recall one important warning more than 3 decades ago (1988), when James Hansen—then a NASA scientist, told the US Congress – “the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.” Another early prediction – a 1972 MIT study predicted that rapid economic growth would lead to societal collapse in the mid 21st century. A new paper shows we’re unfortunately right on schedule (see link below).
But consider this prediction from JAMES F. BLACK – SENIOR SCIENTIST FOR EXXONMOBIL – in the 1970s no less. – “There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels … There are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered. Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert. (Some countries) would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed. Man has a time window of 5 to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical. Once the effects are measurable they might not be reversable.”
From this and other unearthed industry documents as well as highly credible research studies in the public domain – there is no escaping the fact that the fossil fuel industry knew this was coming.
INDUSTRY TACTICS – BILLIONS SPENT ON DENIAL AND DELAY
So – what was industry’s response to these dire and well-founded warnings, many from their own scientists? DENIAL AND DELAY. For the fossil fuel industry, climate change denial has been a multi-million-dollar endeavour. After all, trillions of dollars of assets will have to be left in the ground as the world moves towards renewable energy and away from energy based on fossil fuels. It is well documented that the public relations firms used to undermine climate change science are the same kinds of companies (along with their so-called ‘scientists’) that were hired to deny the truth linking lung cancer to cigarettes, industrial discharge to acid rain and CFCs (chloro-fluoro carbons) to ozone depletion. In all of these cases they have been soundly proven wrong. They fought science with junk-science but their message stuck. The denial reports, even though wrong, became the salvation for politicians who lacked the courage to confront the global warming threat, or even worse bowed to the wishes of their mega-donors.
LATEST INDUSTRY TACTIC – BLAME THE CONSUMERS
In the past few years, the denial strategy by industry has crumbled in the face of the many dramatic realities of climate change. For this reason, the fossil fuel industries have been settling on a new tactic to avoid being properly and necessarily regulated. That tactic? DEFLECTION – TO BLAMING THE CONSUMER.
You may recall my second article of the plastics series (The Myth of Plastic Recycling) describing the “Crying Indian” (played by an Italian actor) ad (see link below). The ad was a fraud. The ad was funded by the “Keep America Beautiful” organization founded and still mainly funded, by the beverage and packaging industries. While anti-littering campaigns should certainly be lauded, the sinister reality behind this campaign was to shift blame for packaging waste in the environment towards the users of the products rather than the manufacturers.
This tactic has now been embraced by the fossil fuel industries, factory agriculture and more. Michael Mann – the respected and widely published climate scientist has called this the Great Deflection Campaign in his new book “The New Climate War”. The idea, as with the packaging waste, is to shift the blame to consumers –buy smaller cars, fly less, eat less meat, buy clothes from recycled fibres, etc. It’s us consumers who are to blame – not institutions, manufacturers, or sub-standard government policies. Sure – consumer choice and individual action are needed, but these will not result in high-speed transport, funding for renewable energy research, or regulate toxic and greenhouse gas emissions.
WHAT THEN MUST WE DO?
This heading – the actual title of the Leo Tolstoy book dealing with poverty, exploitation, and greed as perennial aspects of the human condition, seemed appropriate to summarize. We are now facing a very rough road ahead. We have left it too long. Our biggest enemy is no longer climate denial but now it’s climate delay. The most dangerous opponents of change are no longer the shrinking minority who deny the need for action, but the supposed supporters of change who refuse to act at the pace that the science demands. Unless the world cuts emissions in half in this decade, we will probably lose the chance to avoid warming of significantly more than the 1.5C set out in the 2015 Paris Accord.
There is no way we will get out of this crisis without a massive intervention that is even grander in scope than the recovery from World War II. As Michael Mann points out – “there is no escape from climate change catastrophe that doesn’t involve policies aimed at societal decarbonization”. It will take behavioural change, incentivized by appropriate government policies, strict regulation, intergovernmental agreements, and massive technological innovation. Business as usual (in other words laissez-faire or hyper- capitalism) and the accompanying politics (bought and paid for by major corporations) is no longer an option. The politicians that are standing in the way of massive change and the accompanying investment must be voted out of office.
The actions we take defy the normal rhythm of political cycles. As Ed Miliband correctly points out in The Guardian “What we do in the next few years will have effects for hundreds of years to come”. Let us hope these actions take our world in the right direction as opposed. Otherwise, our children, grandchildren and future generations face an unthinkable terrifying future.
EARTH DAY 2021 – DIRE WARNINGS WITH A DEGREE OF HOPE
BY Allan Maynard, MSc, April 2021
“How is it possible that that most intelligent creature to ever walk the planet Earth is destroying its only home” – Jane Goodall
Last April 21st was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. In my blog of that date, I stated – “By many measures our planet’s environment is having one of its best earth days in decades. The tragic pandemic that is causing so much human misery is also giving Planet Earth a rest – a much needed breather”.
This year unfortunately, the pandemic is still with us. But Planet Earth is not getting the same degree of relief. In fact, carbon dioxide emissions are forecast to jump this year by the second biggest annual rise in history, as “global economies pour stimulus cash into fossil fuels in the recovery from the Covid-19 recession. The leap will be second only to the massive rebound 10 years ago after the financial crisis and will put climate hopes out of reach unless governments act quickly”, the International Energy Agency has warned.
However, there is a sense, especially after the US led April 22, 2021 climate summit, that business as usual is no longer an option in recovering from the economic consequences resulting from the pandemic.
There is no longer a legitimate debate about the reality of global warming leading to climate change disasters. What was once a warning 50 years ago is now a part of everyday life around the world. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen from 280 PPM in 1970 to over 420 PPM in 2020. The temperature in the arctic is over 5 degrees warmer thereby shrinking sea ice by over 2.6 million square km and greatly affecting ocean currents.
In 2020 alone we witnessed deadly floods in SE Asia and Bangladesh, bushfires in Australia, wildfires in California and Siberia, both drought and record rainfall in China, and extreme storms from the Philippines to Nicaragua. The extremely active 2020 Atlantic hurricane season concluded with a record-breaking 30 named storms and 12 landfalling storms in the continental United States. Drought conditions now cover 85 per cent of Mexico. Lakes and reservoirs are simply drying up, including the country’s second-largest body of fresh water with millions of Mexicans now experiencing water shortages.
Floods in Indonesia – from USA Today
There are many more stark examples. The main point – we are seeing dramatic levels of damage and health consequences due to environmental degradation and it’s getting worse each year.
The majority of environmental scientists are warning that many parts of planet earth are now experiencing ecocide – defined by the United Nations as “criminalized human activity that violates the principles of environmental justice, as by substantially damaging or destroying ecosystems or by harming the health and well-being of a species. Others claim that we are entering a 6th mass extinction. Consider 3 examples — 1) 60% of the worlds invertebrate population has vanished since the 1950s, 2) 90% of the ocean’s fish stocks have now been exploited, 3) 40% of the earth’s land area is now used for agriculture.
A growing climate emergency means ever greater threats to water and food security, along with destabilised ecosystems. As climate change takes its toll on Earth’s physical planet, it will also cause social, economic, and political chaos as refugees flee areas that can no longer sustain them. By many measures, this is already happening.
On Earth Day 2021 (April 22nd), one hundred and one Nobel laureates, including the Dalai Lama, released an open letter directing governments around the world to sign up to a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty to help tackle the climate crisis. In this letter they state “Climate change is threatening hundreds of millions of lives, livelihoods across every continent and is putting thousands of species at risk. The burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas – is by far the major contributor.”
There is no question – we MUST confront the possibility that the threat from climate change may indeed be existential.
RAYS OF HOPE
Despite the dramatic consequences of and dire warnings about climate change and environmental destruction, there are some rays of hope. Here are 3 examples.
Decoupling economic growth from CO2 emissions — Christiana Figueres is the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (2010-2016). In a recent Op-Ed she writes “History will remember this decade as the climate turning point, the moment we finally woke up to the fact that despite (and because of) shocks like Covid-19, decarbonization — the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions — is now inevitable. The only question is how fast we will achieve it.” Thankfully, there is increasing evidence that the world is on a positive track to decouple CO2 emissions and economic growth breaking a long-established concept that economic growth requires more fossil fuel consumption. Since 2005, 32 countries (including the US and the UK but not Canada), each with a population of at least one million people, have decoupled (in absolute terms) emissions from economic growth, both for terrestrial emissions (those within national borders) and consumption emissions (emissions embodied in the goods consumed in a country). These countries prove that positive economic outcomes can be achieved in the transition to clean energy.
Making Climate Change the Cornerstone of Recovery – Spurred by alarming science based evidence, growing public outcry, massively increased insurance costs and human migrations, — governments, industrial leaders and civil society leaders are finally waking up to the notion that climate is at the center of everything(health, food production, national security, equality, crime prevention and more). Europe has already allocated hundreds of billions of Euros to put climate front and center. As well, trillions in investments around the world are now going towards energy transition.
May 3rd issue of Time Magazine
And now – importantly, the US is back at the table with a progressive ambitious plan along the lines of Europe’s. The US and Europe together represent 40% of the world’s economy so it is unquestioned that other countries will need to catch up or face possible trade sanctions.
China’s latest five-year plan unveiled last month, disappointed many by failing to include a tougher target. However, at the recent US led summit this month, president Xi Jinping said China’s coal consumption would peak in 2025, which would take the country – and the world – a long way towards the cuts needed. Time will tell on this one but clearly the US and Europe will be paying very close attention.
Much Cheaper Renewable Energy – The International Energy Agency now confirms that solar is providing the cheapest energy the world has ever seen. In a quirk of history, what had begun as an American drive to wean itself off oil (started by the Carter administration and dropped by the Reagan administration) was eventually taken up by China, making solar power dirt cheap in the process. In the past decade, renewable prices have plummeted: onshore wind down 70%, solar by 89%. Both are now cheaper that coal. With the rapid growth of renewable electricity, the case for electrifying transportation systems around the world becomes more and more obvious.
PUSH BACK IS EXPECTED
Of course, there will be the usual push back against progressive plans from the fossil fuel industries along with the politicians, think-tanks, and media they support. From past observations, the loudest cries will center around government overreach and attempts to link the plans to socialism. It is important to remember however the important role government has played in all economic transformations. Consider for example the recoveries after World War II. Moreover, government lead initiatives in Canada and the US made possible the rail lines that opened our frontiers, electric grids in rural communities, highway systems everywhere, the invention and coomercialization of nuclear power and the space age (with accompanying satellite technology). Even the internet (originally called ARPANET) was developed as a complex collaboration of universities, government agencies and industry – and funded by the US Dept. Of Defense.
IN SUMMARY – In my view, the extent of the dual crises (CoVid 19 and environmental collapse) requires extensive government involvement as we invest in a sustainable future. There is hope that the tides are turning. Most scientists and economists re-iterate the need for big, bold, and progressive initiatives and at least some leaders are listening.
Kenya’s Elephant Baby Boom – – In 2019, I traveled with my daughter’s family to Kenya – a trip that was magical in all meanings of the word. The safari experiences were many. It filled our hearts with joy and optimism. Optimism because we experienced first hand the dedication of the many people preserving and enhancing Kenya’s land and wildlife. One positive outcome is that Kenya’s elephant population has more than doubled over the past 3 decades. My daughter Jill wrote of elephants – “They are strength, curiosity, tenderness and stories untold’. We can have reason to hope.
There’s no doubt that 2020 was a discouraging year on many fronts. Daily news of a global pandemic and the consequences of environmental degradation are not the sunniest of subjects. Nonetheless, some positive news emerged: species were brought back from the edge of extinction; interest in renewable energy surged; environmental monitoring technology improved; new protected areas were created; and indigenous women leaders got some long-overdue credit and recognition. Perhaps, most important of all, well-informed young people such as Greta Thunberg, Delany Reynolds, Xiuhtezcati Martinez have been turning the climate crisis into humanity’s most unifying ethical moment.
POLITICS – Environmental advocates and leaders around the world celebrated the end of a U.S. administration that had taken the country 180 degrees in the wrong direction on all environmental issues – from toxics control, to land use, energy policy, and international cooperation on greenhouse gas emissions. President Biden has now chosen a knowledgeable team that is charged with making clean energy jobs and environmental protection a cornerstone of his economic plans. In recognition of the importance of indigenous leadership, this team includes Deb Haaland of New Mexico, for Interior Secretary, who is a member of the Laguna Pueblo people.
The new administration’s initiatives are of global significance sending a critical message to the global economy. Importantly, the US will re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement, the global pact forged five years ago among nearly 200 nations to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
ONE HEALTH – The idea that the health of the planet and health of people are inextricably linked is not a new one, but this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, brought about by a zoonotic disease, threw that connection into stark relief. This year, more people began to connect the dots between environmental destruction, agriculture, livestock, wildlife trade and human disease.
TRUST IN SCIENCE – Due to the seriousness of the global pandemic the general public began paying closer attention to scientific information such as news about testing and vaccine development. Moreover the public witnessed, first hand, the deadly consequences of science denial by political leaders. As a result, researchers have found that trust in science has increased to an all-time high. As well, scepticism of science has decreased well below pre-pandemic levels. This change in attitude will hopefully help leaders gain societal support for climate change initiatives.
FINANCE – 2020 is on track to be a record year for fossil fuel divestment announcements, led by major institutional investors such BlackRock. More than 1,300 institutions controlling 14.5 trillion dollars have divested in some way from fossil fuels, according to a tally by environmental group 350.org. One major divestment is especially symbolic – that is the 5 billion dollar Rockefeller Foundation. This endowment was largely built from the proceeds of Standard Oil a company that, at its peak, controlled more than 90% of petroleum products in the United States. Equally encouraging, the divestment movement has been in tandem with the rise of ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing.
COST OF RENEWABLES PLUMMETING – In the past decade, renewable prices have plummeted: onshore wind down 70%, solar by 89%. The main reason for this is that renewable costs are all about the cost of the technology – costs that come down fast as we use more of them. Further learning-by-doing from renewable use will drive down costs for low- and middle-income countries consuming more energy in the years ahead. As with vaccines, so with renewables: they are invented somewhere but can help everywhere.
GROWTH OF ELECTRIC VEHICLES (EVs) – Since their first introduction to the consumer market barely a decade ago, electric vehicleshave rapidly grown in popularity. In 2010, there were only about 17,000 electric cars on roads around the world. By 2019, there were 7.2 million — that’s a 42,000% increase in electric vehicles in use. The number of EVs is still a small percentage of the total but the trend is clear. A significant number of car manufacturers have announced definitive dates for discontinuing the production of fossil fuel vehicles – including GM as stated in a press release for the Super Bowl – “GM is on its way to an all–electric future, with a commitment to 30 new global electricvehicles by 2025. We are aggressively going after every aspect of what it takes to put everyone in an EV because we need millions of EVs on the road to make a meaningful impact toward building a zero-emissions future.”
A GLIMPSE OF WHAT CAN BE – The tragic pandemic has through most of 2020 caused so much human misery. But it also, for a time, gave Planet Earth a rest – a much-needed “breather”. Air pollution levels, as confirmed around the world, were reduced drastically. Of special note was the reduction of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) along with fine particulate matter. In Beijing, residents were, for a time, able to see the stars at night, an impossibility the year before. Planet Earth experienced a reprieve in the early half of 2020.
As global economies started to recover, some (or even most) of these gains are reversing. But having this reprieve gave us a glimpse of what the world could look like when global emissions are greatly reduced as per the objectives of the Paris Accord. The trends in advocacy, leadership, financial investments and overall awareness can be encouraging. Of course, there’s much to be done. Moreover, there are complexities that need to be addressed. Jobs in traditional sectors will be impacted over time. Green energy also has environmental impacts. However, there is no choice but to move forward to a sustainable future.
In just a matter of a few weeks, California has experienced 6 of the largest wildfires in its modern history creating untold misery for tens of thousands. Moreover, the state has toppled all-time temperature records from the desert to the coast. Millions are suffering from some of the worst air quality in years due to heat-triggered smog and fire smoke. An apocalyptic plume has blanketed most of the West Coast, blotting out the sun and threatening people’s lungs during a deadly pandemic. Cities across the state have opened “cleaner-air centers”, where people who can’t afford purifiers or don’t have homes can escape the smoke for a few hours. But they have been less frequented than in previous years because of concerns about Covid-19. Public spaces such as libraries have been closed, eliminating another respite.
Fires have also been raging at unprecedented levels in Oregon and Washington. Unlike 2017 and 2018, British Columbia, has had a modest fire season. However, the southern half of the province became blanketed in smoke from the fires south. Vancouver BC, during the period September 11 to 19, 2020, had the worst air quality readings in the world.
In addition to concerns in North America, the year 2020 has seen unprecedented fires cause havoc across the world. Australia recently battled its largest bushfire on record, while parts of the Arctic, the Amazon and Central Asia are still experiencing severe blazes.
The resulting health concerns are considerable. Wildfire smoke is a very complex type of air pollution consisting of a variety of gases and small particles (Sarah Henderson – UBC). Of particular concern, is particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter (about 30 times smaller than the diameter of human hair)—also referred to as PM 2.5. These small particles, and ones even smaller, are capable of penetrating deep into a person’s lungs. The body responds by releasing the same immune cells it would deploy to attack a virus. Unlike a virus, however, particulate matter isn’t broken down by that immune response. This can then result in long-lasting inflammation in many people. It is estimated that wildfire smoke is responsible for 5 to 8% of the 3.3 million annual worldwide deaths due to poor air quality.
Forest management is a significant factor in the continuing issue of wildfire crises. Fires are a critical component of forest ecosystems. Fires thin out the vegetation, and create the required conditions for forest renewal. However, a century of trying to suppress all forest fires, and a population boom at the “wild-and-urban” interface has resulted in an abundance of ignitable fuel. It has also brought more of the electricty grid into forested areas. Downed wires (usually from wind) are beoming more significant in igniting forest fires.
Unfortunately, forest management has become the primary talking point of some media along with the current US federal administration. Like President Trump, conservative media stars dismiss climate change and point to the poor management of forestland by local officials. In fact – a fringe right-wing website, “The Gateway Pundit”, has outlandishly blamed ‘left wing arsonists” for the fires.
Visiting California on September 14, 2020 to witness the destruction firsthand, Mr. Trump took western states to task for failing to manage the forests properly (forgetting that most forest lands are under federal jurisdiction). During a meeting with California officials who pushed him to acknowledge the role of climate change in the wildfires, the president said: “It’ll start getting cooler – You just watch.” He went on to claim “I don’t think science knows actually”. He is dangerously wrong. The science is clear.
Climate change – It needs to be clearly stated, no amount of forest management can stop the disasters in an ever-more flammable world. The link between fires and climate is basic physics: Human greenhouse gas emissions have warmed the planet. Higher temperatures evaporate more water, drying out vegetation and making it more likely to ignite. In the American West — where temperatures are already as much as 4 degrees Fahrenheit (approx. 2 C) hotter than in the preindustrial era — landscapes are burning in fundamentally different and more destructive ways.
The trends alone can tell the tale:
There are 10 times more fires than in the 1970s
In the western US, the climate crisis has doubled the area burned by wildfire from 1984 to 2015, according to research cited in the federal government’s climate assessment.
Fifteen of California’s 20 worst fires have occurred in the past 20 years
As of mid-September of this year – 3.2 million acres (5000 square miles) of California forests have been incinerated – almost double the area burned last year.
The Camp Fire of 2019, considered one of the most intense fires in modern history, destroyed the town of Paradise, CA (26,000 population). It burned at a rate of 1 acre per second, incinerating100, 000 acres of forest, and 19,000 structures. Lives lost – 86.
Australia – As of mid- March 2020, the 2019/ 2020 fires burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres),destroyed over 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes) and killed at least 34 people. Nearly three billion terrestrial vertebrates alone – were affected and some endangered species are now believed to have been driven to extinction. At its peak, air quality was at hazardous levels in all southern and eastern states.
On May 1, 2016, a wildfire began southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. … With an estimated damage cost of C$9.9 billion, it was the costliest disaster in Canadian history. The fire spread across approximately 590,000 hectares (1,500,000 acres) destroying 2400 homes and forcing the evacuation of over 80,000 people before it was declared to be under control on July 5, 2016.
The Arctic is burning like never before. These fires are releasing record levels of carbon dioxide, partly because they are burning ancient peatlands that have been a carbon sink for millennia.
The graphic below adds an additional perspective on areas burned in California since 1975. It is noteworthy that the October to December period is increasingly significant due to longer lasting dry seasons – from Increase in California areas burned by wildfires, 1975 to 2015. WILLIAMS, ABATZOGLOU ET AL., EARTH’S FUTURE
These are stunning statistical trends adding to a growing body of evidence that climate change is the main driver. Such statistics need to be addressed within more rigorous research that is then published in peer review literature. This is how science works. Scientists build on the work of others to create greater and more conclusive scientific knowledge. The studies review trends, work with complex models, along with considering metrics such as fuel and soil aridity, fire temperatures, speed of fire spread, wind factors and more. The research on wildfires is abundant and increasingly clear. A few examples are provided below:
Dr. F Otto – acting director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, has rigorously assessed the Australian fires. She concluded that temperatures during the 2019/2020 bushfires were 1 to 2 degrees hotter than they would have been in the early part of the 20th century. A quote for this author — “We found that climate change made the bushfires at least 30% more likely – and that is a conservative estimate”.
In Canada – a study by Dr. M. Kirchner-Young concluded that Canada’s 2017 fire season, which saw a record 1.2 million hectares of land burned, was driven by “extreme warm and dry conditions” heightened by climate change. The study estimated that the total area burned across the season was made seven to 11 times larger by climate change.
A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that human-caused climate change doubled the amount of forest burned between 1984 and 2015. California’s own climate assessment in 2018 predicted that higher temperatures would cause 2.5 million acres to burn annually — the models just did not expect it to happen until 2050.
This article would be many more pages if I cited all the relevant literature I have reviewed. Suffice to say – climate change is the most significant factor associated with the wildfire crises around the world. Climate change leads to increased aridity, prolonged droughts, longer seasonal dry seasons, decreased snow packs and a shift in wind direction and intensity. Wildfires will get increasingly disastrous unless governments around the world tackle climate change in a significant manner. Citizens around the world that have the privilege to vote need to elect leaders that acknowledge the climate crisis and have significant plans to address the many challenges we face.
Forest Fires – A Clinical Primer. BC Medical Journal, August 2016
Attribution of the Australia Bushfire Risk to Anthropologic Climate Change. World weather attribution – June 10, 2020
Explainer: How climate change is affecting wildfires around the world – July 14, 2020
TODAY IS EARTH DAY – IN THE MIDST OF A GLOBAL PANDEMIC. By Allan Maynard, April 22nd, 2020
Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. By many measures our planet’s environment is having one of its best earth days in decades. The tragic pandemic that is causing so much human misery is also giving Planet Earth a rest – a much needed “breather”. Air pollution levels, as confirmed around the world, have been reduced drastically. Of special note is the reduction of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) along with fine particulate matter. In Beijing, residents can see the stars at night, an impossibility, even a few months ago. Also impossible a few months ago, fish can be clearly seen swimming in the canals of Venice. Yes – Planet Earth is experiencing a reprieve.
But, these outcomes give us little comfort. They come with a tragic cost from an invisible enemy. An enemy that has caused a global pandemic. We can however learn about earth’s ability to begin healing as we plan for the future beyond CoVid 19.
Earth Day was initiated on April 22, 1970. I can remember the euphoria of this recognition – with millions (20 million in the US alone – 10% of the population) marching around the world. I can recall clearly watching the symbolic act of students burying a brand new yellow Ford Maverick in San Jose, California. I can also recall being among more than a thousand like-minded students at Simon Fraser University and deciding then and there that I will enter the field of environmental science.
In 1970, the planet was home to 3.7 billion people. There were about 200 million cars on the road and oil consumption was around 45 million barrels a day. Today there are over 8 billion people on earth along with 1.5 billion cars. Meat consumption has almost quadrupled and fish stocks are being depleted. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has increased from 280 parts per million in 1970 to over 420 ppm today thereby warming the planet. Arctic sea ice has shrunk by over a million square miles. Sea levels are rising faster than most predictive models resulting in ‘sunny day flooding’ from unusually high tides in many cities around the world. In 1970 it was rare to see wild fires that burned more than 100,000 acres. In 2019, fires burning in California, Australia and even Siberia have ravaged tens of millions of acres. There are many more stark examples but – the main point – we are seeing dramatic levels of damage due to environmental degradation and it’s getting worse each year. Over the past 50 years we have demanded more and more from Planet Earth and we are paying the price all over the globe. A case could even be made that this current pandemic is one such price.
Despite the mountains of evidence, we are still seeing significant denial of climate change and environmental degradation. In fact we are seeing some governments moving 180 degrees in the wrong direction. In Brazil, President Bolsonaro has decided that it’s a good idea to burn precious Amazon forests to make way for beef farming. In the US, the Trump administration is weakening a host of air, water, land-use and climate change regulations. How can anyone make sense of these kinds of ludicrous decisions?
We already know how deadly denial, delay and even defiance, can be as we review the responses to the CoVid crisis. In fact, the analogy between the two crises is eerily precise. First there is denial of the problem, followed by deadly delay. Then it’s argued that it’s too costly to the economy to tackle the problem. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself’ became the mantra that greatly exacerbated the problem (of CoVid) itself. Both crises show, in stark reality, the threats of catastrophes arising from the clash of nature and modern human activity.
The two crises are also related in other ways. High levels of air pollution may be “one of the most important contributors” to deaths from Covid-19, according to some recent research. For example recent research from the Martin Luther University in Germany shows that, of the coronavirus deaths across 66 administrative regions in Italy, Spain, France and Germany, 78% of them occurred in just five regions, and these were the most polluted. The research examined levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant produced mostly by diesel vehicles, along with weather conditions that can prevent dirty air from dispersing away from a city. Short-term exposure to nitrogen oxides can lead to irritated respiratory systems, while prolonged exposure can aggravate respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This lung damage can, in turn, exacerbate the attacks by any respiratory virus – including CoVid-19.
For now, environmental degradation and climate change issues have been temporarily pushed aside. However, it is vital that we acknowledge, that these issues will be orders of magnitude greater in terms of overall human cost. The combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about 7 million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections (WHO – 2019 report). The numbers associated with climate change due to drought, hurricanes, wild fires, land use degradation and more are even more worrying but harder to predict.
For these crises we need good leaders who embrace a vision for the future. Certainly we know that we cannot, in recovering from this pandemic, go back to ‘business as usual”. It was business as usual that got us into this mess. As such, we need to remove politicians who impede progress by denying problems identified by good science, even exist. That must be the pledge for this 50th anniversary of Earth Day