The point of no return? Recapping a year of dire climate change warnings

The Canadian Press has dubbed climate change the news story of the year, and it isn’t hard to see why.

The impact of global warming in Canada is “effectively irreversible” and happening twice as fast as it is in the rest of the world, according to an April report from Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Debate over the carbon tax has only continued to grow, and thousands of Canadians turned out en masse in September as part of protests demanding our government take more action now.

Before we head into 2020, and a new decade in which climate change’s impacts will become increasingly hard to ignore, let’s take a look back at what dominated the headlines in 2019.

The year started with extremes: it was the snowiest January on record in Ottawa while cherry blossoms bloomed on Vancouver Island.

As Konrad Gajewski, a professor of geography and environment at the University of Ottawa, told the Canadian Press, it was “the kind of thing people have been predicting for years.”

While cherry blossoms in full winter bloom might not be the most fear-inducing of climate change headlines, the month wasn’t without a sense that worse was coming. Investors indicated they were starting to think they should be greening up their portfolios in anticipation of climate change’s other impacts.

Not only were some folks wanting to ditch stocks in more carbon-intensive industries, but others were also bracing for the possible financial impacts of wildfires, flooding and other extreme weather exacerbated by climate change.

At the same time, researchers at the University of Waterloo sounded the alarm that Canadian homeowners aren’t quite ready for the havoc climate-related catastrophes are going to wreak.

Their study found that weather-driven insurance claims more than quadrupled in the previous decade and that the number of homes becoming uninsurable because of flood risk is on the rise.

If you thought you were safe from the harmful effects of smoke because you don’t live in a wildfire evacuation zone, two researchers from B.C. and Alberta found otherwise in February.

Not only did extreme wildfires in 2017 and 2018 send smoke drifting towards the Atlantic and all the way across the pond to Ireland, but the impact of inhaling it, experts said, could do the same damage as a couple packs of cigarettes daily, depending on just how thick the smoke is.

Climate change contributing to Australia’s wildfires emergency says World Meteorological Organization

In other news about problems that might feel far away but really aren’t, research out of McGill University showed we are continuing to underestimate the impact melting ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica are having on extreme weather in places like Ottawa or Vancouver Island. That extreme weather creates the conditions behind deadly wildfires and destructive floods.

The growing threat of extreme weather was put into much starker terms in March by experts who said the narrow strip of land connecting Nova Scotia and New Brunswick could wash away at any moment – “one perfect storm” to disconnect the East Coast from the rest of Canada.

Canadian students joined their peers around the world that month demanding the Canadian government take action to tackle climate change.

“Although individual actions are crucial, the fact is that collective and institutional decisions must be taken to reflect the seriousness of the situation,” student organizers in Quebec said in a statement.

Climate change protests continued to ramp up in the spring, notably in the United Kingdom.

Climate group Extinction Rebellion organized a multi-day blockade of some of London’s famous landmarks that led to more than 700 arrests. Their goal was to force the British government to take firmer action to address climate change, including reducing net greenhouse gas emissions down to zero by 2025.

The bad news was starting to pile up: a report on the state of global air from the Health Effects Institute also revealed toxic air is shortening people’s lifespan by nearly two years.

“Air pollution reduces average life expectancy by almost as much as tobacco use,” the report read.

A scientific report from Environment and Climate Change Canada was even bleaker. Not only is global warming in Canada “effectively irreversible,” researchers found, but Canada is warming up at a speed twice as fast as the rest of the world.

But if 2019 was the year of grim warnings, May is when they truly began.

There was the promise of an increase in Lyme disease thanks to warmer weather giving blacklegged ticks the conditions they need to spread across Canada.

There was also a report from the Public Health Agency of Canada warning people across the country to brace for an increase in outbreaks of food-borne illnesses thanks to climate change.

And then there was the United Nations’ comprehensive report on biodiversity warning that more than one million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction.

The report blames humans entirely and warned that unless we take action to restore these species’ habitats, they will likely become extinct within decades.

Humans have put 1 million species at risk of extinction: UN report

George Mason University biologist Thomas Lovejoy was unequivocal:

“Humanity unwittingly is attempting to throttle the living planet and humanity’s own future.”

June brought one headline-grabbing positive when the House of Commons passed a motion to declare a national climate emergency in Canada.

However, enthusiasm for the recognition dampened when it became clear that even though the vote passed 186 to 63, it didn’t require the government to actually do anything. Another dampener? The vote happened hours before the government gave the green light for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (a First Nations court challenge is now in the works).

Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, also warned in June that our world is facing a growing risk of “a climate apartheid scenario in which the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict, while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”

July was about local action and national planning.

Nearly two dozen projects in Lower Mainland B.C. received government funding to try to build up declining wild salmon stock. Salmon are a cold-water species struggling to survive as rivers warm.

On the opposite coast, a Halifax-based geoscientist created new coastline maps attempting to get a more accurate sense of where the worst damage from flooding and erosion brought on by climate change would be felt.

All across the country, young voters mobilized in an effort to force climate change to the fore in the upcoming federal election.

Hundreds of young Canadians rallied in more than two dozen cities, asking for a leaders’ debate specifically addressing climate change. (That didn’t happen. A debate between parties, but not leaders in particular, was scrapped after the Conservative Party pulled out.)

For anyone who isn’t a fan of long, hot summers and had been hoping for a respite at the end of August, University of Winnipeg scientists put out a report bearing bad news.

“We are going to have longer, hotter and more frequent heat waves in the future,” said geography professor Ian Mauro, co-author of the report. The uptick in heat waves spells bad news for cardiovascular health, respiratory health and mental health.

“It’s a really critical thing to be talking about,” Mauro said. “We know that these heat waves are going to increase in frequency, duration and intensity moving forward.”

Scientists are also keeping a close watch on mosquitos. While historian Timothy Winegard’s book The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator clearly lays out the damage mosquito-borne disease can cause, Canada has – so far – escaped with relatively few deaths.

But thanks to climate change, that could be changing, too.

In August, Canada was given a failing grade when it comes to tackling global warming, according to a Climate Action Network report that looked at the G7 nations’ climate plans. Canada, the report says, is among the worst of the already bad G7 bunch.

It is, as Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, put it, “depressing.”

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change dropped another massive report in September, this one warning that the damage climate change is causing to oceans and glaciers is outstripping the ability of governments to protect them.

Canada will not be impervious to the negative impacts if nothing is done, the report’s authors warned.

Already, they said, the impact is being felt in Arctic communities:

“The shrinking cryosphere in the Arctic and high-mountain areas has led to predominantly negative impacts on food security, water resources, water quality, livelihoods, health and well-being, infrastructure, transportation, tourism and recreation, as well as culture of human societies, particularly for Indigenous Peoples.”

In many respects, however, September belonged to Greta Thunberg. After a long and well-documented journey to New York via a carbon-zero yacht, the 16-year-old Swedish activist gave an impassioned speech before the United Nations.

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean,” Thunberg said.

“Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

Climate change was a ballot-box issue for three in 10 Canadians during the federal election, according to an Ipsos poll conducted in October. That was up slightly from 25 per cent of Canadians who listed it as a vote-determining issue during a mid-September poll.

Ipsos vice-president Sean Simpson says he has “never seen climate change quite so high” on Canadian voters’ agendas. But people are serious.

Shortly after Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party was re-elected with a minority mandate, he was hit with a lawsuit.

Fifteen young Canadians filed a lawsuit attempting to force Trudeau’s government to develop a climate recovery plan that relies on the best available science.

“Despite knowing for decades that GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions cause climate change and disproportionately harm children, the defendants continue to cause, contribute to and allow GHG emissions that are incompatible with a stable climate capable of sustaining human life and liberties,” the statement of claim says.

More than 11,200 scientists around the world, including 409 from Canada, signed an open letter taking aim at climate change deniers in November.

“We declare … clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency,” says the letter’s opening statement.

And lest Canadian climate deniers believe our abundance of fresh water buffers us against the worst impacts, a report by the Global Water Futures project, which involves 22 universities, declared otherwise.

“We’ve enjoyed the luxury of the myth of limitless abundance of fresh water in Canada,” said co-author Bob Sandford, but “Canada is not a water-secure country.”

The report reiterates many of the other reports published this year: climate change continues to outpace government policies meant to mitigate its risks.

As if to underscore that point, the United Nations released another warning report saying the world must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6 per cent each year in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

If they don’t, the result could be “catastrophic.”

Are any of the steps being taken by governments working? December has been the month of “no.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the world’s efforts as “utterly inadequate” while adding his voice to the cacophony of others saying we will soon pass “the point of no return.”

Guterres also invoked the “climate apartheid” language of earlier in the year, saying if left unchecked, climate change will only allow for the “survival of the richest.”

Meanwhile, Oxfam published its Forced from Home briefing, which found that one person is forced out of their home every two seconds thanks to climate-fuelled disasters, making it likelier for climate change to be the reason someone is forcibly displaced as opposed to war or other conflicts.

– With files from the Canadian Press


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