Never let a good crisis go to waste

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its starkest warning yet on the clear and present danger of global warming.

According to the IPCC’s report, “continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”

And that, people, is just the watered-down version. At the insistence of representatives of the world’s governments, who, astonishingly, debate line-by-line the text of the IPCC’s reports with the scientific authors, a graphic neatly summarizing how much temperature increase is associated with the kinds of dangerous climate change impacts that most of the world’s leaders have pledged to avoid was taken out of the report.

“Anything that’s politically contentious gets stripped out of the [IPCC’s] summary for policymakers,” said David Victor, a professor of international relations at the University of California and one of the IPCC report’s authors.


Of course, this is hardly surprising by now. In fact, the IPCC’s latest report itself is hardly news. One commentator aptly captured the declining importance of the IPCC’s reports this way: “Everything we know about climate change. In one unreadable pile. Every six years.”

That’s because the science is already in, and it’s been in for quite some time now. As Victor explains, “every time the IPCC comes around, we have a crisper, more worrisome set of messages about the trends in emissions and impacts of climate change, and then you don’t see much connection between that story and what governments actually do. That’s because it’s not really a scientific problem anymore. Essentially, everything that needs to be done to move the needle is political.”

Respectfully, I think Victor a tad overstates his case. As I’ve explained in previous columns, climate change is a complex, “super wicked” problem, and its solution, or, more accurately, its multiple and varied solutions, will require the input and expertise of a wide range of experts — researchers working on climate science, economics, psychology, communications and law, to name just a few — as well as local communities.

But Victor and many others besides are nonetheless right to argue that, without political action, no amount of research — no matter how interdisciplinary and innovative that research is — will make a whit of difference.

Thankfully there are signs that the political needle is beginning to move.

Last month, for instance, European Union leaders agreed on a climate and energy package obligating the EU to ensure that by the year 2030 its greenhouse gas emissions will be at least 40 per cent lower than they were in 1990. Not ideal, granted, but it’s a start.

In June, a Colorado District Court judge ruled that it was “arbitrary and capricious” for a government administrative agency to assess a coal mining exploration project without considering the environmental and climate change impacts of greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed, during the hearing of the case, Judge R. Brooke Jackson, in an unmistakably exasperated tone, posed the following rhetorical question to the U.S. government’s lawyer: “Doesn’t somebody sometime need to take very seriously what the effect that these greenhouse gases is on the world that we live in?”

And just last week, Québec’s National Assembly unanimously passed a resolution expressly deploring the fact that the federal National Energy Board refuses to consider the climate change impacts of greenhouse gas emissions when it conducts environmental assessments of energy project proposals. The National Assembly’s unanimous resolution proceeded to demand that the Québec government’s Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) directly assess the global climate change impacts of TransCanada’s proposed Energy East oil pipeline project.

There’s also a growing recognition that climate change is not only a “super wicked” crisis in urgent need of a solution, but that it’s also a golden opportunity to address a whole host of problems — environmental, economic and political — at the same time.

That, in a nutshell, is the overarching theme of perhaps the most accessible book yet to be written on climate change: Understanding Climate Change: Science, Policy, and Practice by professors Sarah Burch and Sara Harris. If you decide to read only one book about climate change, Understanding Climate Change is the one you should choose.

Here’s a sample:

“Ultimately, climate change represents both a monumental challenge and a striking opportunity. It is absolutely possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect communities against the impacts of climate change, while making them more beautiful, healthy, and resilient. This is the essence of transformative change, and the seeds have already been planted. It is the task of every individual, community, and nation to cultivate them.”

Jason MacLean

Published in the bi-weekly column, Sustainability Matters, The Chronicle-Journal, Thunder Bay, Monday, November 10, 2014