We’re seeing climate change happen. It’s time for action

Science | by Gregory Beatty

This year marks the 30th anniversary of NASA researcher James Hansen testifying before a U.S. Senate committee that global warming was real.

Scientists had speculated about the impact of greenhouse gases (GHG) from burning fossil fuels since the 19th century, but Hansen’s statement was a landmark moment. And fresh off the success of addressing two earlier environmental challenges — acid rain and the ozone layer — the world seemed poised to act. An International Panel on Climate Change was founded in 1988, and governments of all political stripes made climate change a priority.

Despite numerous conferences and accords, though, we’ve failed dismally at cutting emissions. And now, 30 years later, we’re staring down the proverbial exhaust pipe at a scary future.

So how did we get in this mess?

Big Biz Baloney

When we solved the ozone and acid rain problems, the sacrifices required were relatively painless. Fossil fuels present a much greater challenge. From a geological perspective, what they essentially are is stored sunshine, built up over billions of years as the Sun powered the life-cycles of carbon-based plants and animals on Earth.

Our ability to harness this energy has had a huge impact, says University of Regina economist Brett Dolter.

“Fossil fuels are energy dense, and they’ve allowed us to have modern civilization,” says Dolter. “During the Industrial Revolution we started burning coal, in the 1900s we started to use oil, then natural gas. So there was an exponential increase in fossil fuel use that helped us increase food production, manufacturing and other economic activity.”

You don’t replace an energy source like that easily. But green energy has made great strides in recent years, and that will make the switch easier.

But it will still cause upheaval — especially for economic and political interests with close ties to fossil fuels.

Not surprisingly, that’s led to pushback in the form of climate change denial. The well-funded propaganda campaign’s been compared to the battle tobacco companies waged in the 1950s to deny links between tobacco and cancer. As the research rolled in, though, the tobacco lobby was left without a scientific leg to stand on.

Climate denial is at that point now, says University of Regina climate researcher David Sauchyn. He recently contributed to a report by 98 scientists that assembled climate data from every continent dating back 2000 years.

“I contributed some old wood from the Rocky Mountains from trees sensitive to temperature fluctuations,” says Sauchyn. “The information we compiled shows that Earth’s temperature was slowly declining until about 150 years ago when there was a dramatic reversal. Of course, that coincides completely with the Industrial Revolution and fossil fuel combustion.”

Grim Possible

What we’re experiencing today is just a taste of what lies ahead. While rising temperatures raise the spectre of drought in our perennially water-challenged province, Sauchyn’s forecast is for wetter conditions.

“There’s lots of good science that suggests if you heat up the world it gets wetter because you’re driving the hydrological cycle,” he says. “As the oceans warm, there’s more evaporation, more humidity.”

That forecast comes with a caveat, though.

“The moisture from the oceans has to reach us,” says Sauchyn. “If there’s a blocking system that forces the wet air masses elsewhere, then we have a lack of moisture in a warmer climate.”

“The most challenging scenario is a long, dry spell which Saskatchewan hasn’t had since the 1930s,” he adds. “We have lots of tree ring evidence that shows we had long droughts that lasted decades. But in the past, Earth’s temperature was lower. So if one of those droughts occurs in a warming climate it will present a real challenge.”

That’s not the only water hit Saskatchewan could take. As Rocky Mountain glaciers recede, the summer flow of rivers many communities rely on for drinking water and irrigation could decline.

As bad as that sounds, it could get worse as a warming Earth will unleash all sorts of feedback loops. Increased water vapour in the atmosphere, for instance, will trap more heat. Similarly, as permafrost melts in the north, methane — which is a potent GHG — will be released.

“That’s something that’s not appreciated by the public,” says Sauchyn. “We can make a relatively minor change in the climate system, and ultimately it has a huge effect.”

Wedge Politics

When Brett Dolter looks at the current battle over climate change, he laments that science has taken a back seat to political and economic considerations.

“That’s a huge problem, as it starts to bring in identity politics, so if you identify as a conservative you’re less likely to want to take action,” he says.

The fight over carbon pricing is a perfect example, he adds.

“What we’re trying to do is transition from one energy system to another. That’s why economists like myself favour a carbon price that increases over time so you steer the economy toward low emission technologies. The formula to do that is clean-up electricity, then electrify everything possible — vehicles, home heating, industry. If we can do that, emissions will start going down.”

To meet Canada’s international commitment to reduce carbon emissions, the federal Liberals have proposed such a plan.

Saskatchewan’s government is vehemently opposed, and has even launched a court challenge.

To score political points, our government recently released a University of Regina study which, it claimed, showed that a carbon price of $10 per tonne rising to $50 in 2022 would cause a $16 billion hit to Saskatchewan’s GDP. While Dolter appreciates the government’s effort to assess the impact of carbon pricing, he has several concerns about the study.

“What I was surprised about was it didn’t show much impact in the first four years, then at $50 a tonne the economy suddenly takes a dive. So I’m not sure what’s going on.”

The way the government presented the results was misleading too, says Dolter.

“They made it seem like Saskatchewan was in recession from 2022–2030. That’s not what the model said. There was a one-year dip, then it was back to where it would’ve been otherwise.”

Finally, when assessing the impact on households, the government only considered what was paid out initially, without looking at what could be done with the revenue such as cutting the PST or investing in green technologies.

“It was like the government was assuming you take all the money and burn it on the steps of the Legislature,” says Dolter. “So the impact on households is nowhere near what they were claiming.”

Economic models aside, B.C. has had a carbon price for 10 years, and a recent study there showed no adverse economic impacts, and some success in reducing emissions from what they would’ve been otherwise.

Still, carbon pricing remains a wedge issue. “What that means is we’re being forced to look at the second best approach, which is regulation,” says Dolter.

That’s something Saskatchewan’s government plans to do with large carbon emitters under its “Prairie Resilience” strategy. It’s also invested in technologies such as carbon capture which, while not without merit, cost a lot and do little to wean us off fossil fuels.

“It’s not whether people believe in climate change like they do the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, it’s whether they accept the scientific findings or deny them,” says Dolter. “And using climate change as a wedge issue leads people to reject the science.”

Plants and Animals

Currently, the most dramatic effects of global warming are being felt in the Arctic. But Saskatchewan is being impacted too, says David Sauchyn.

“My wife and I were discussing how in late July we were eating ripe tomatoes, potatoes, beets and carrots from our garden,” he says. “It wasn’t that long ago that we waited until the end of summer to harvest our garden. Sure, maybe this is a warm summer. But it’s been happening year after year.”

In Agriculture Canada’s latest map of hardiness zones for plant growth, in fact, southern Saskatchewan has switched from zone 2 to zone 3 and even zone 4 in the Weyburn/Swift Current areas.

Now 71, Lorne Scott has farmed at Indian Head all his life, and he’s noticed a warming trend too.

“For 50 years, I’ve been putting out nest boxes for bluebirds and tree swallows and recording their arrival date in the spring. On average, they’re returning five days earlier than in the 1970s.”

Extreme weather is more common now too, Scott thinks.

“When I was a kid, three-quarters of an inch was a significant rain. More recently, we might get four inches. The years 2010–12 were the wettest in modern history. Then in 2017, Regina had its driest year on record. So it’s just extremes.”

Naturally, all that climate activity is having a big impact on wildlife. Although that comes with a qualifier, as it’s only one stressor we’re inflicting plants and animals as we radically reshape their habitats through industrial-scale agriculture, resource extraction, urban sprawl and more.

Several species whose range used to be confined to the U.S. have been moving north, says Scott, including fox squirrels, egrets, collared doves and turkey vultures. Instead of migrating south, more bird species are overwintering too, especially if they have feeder access.

Snow and Canada geese are two native species that are thriving, says Scott.

“Summers in the Arctic are much warmer now and snow geese are producing good batches of young whereas historically June and July snowstorms would virtually wipe them out,” he says.

Other species, though — especially those reliant on grasslands — are struggling. The burrowing owl, sage grouse, ducks (thanks to wetland drainage), meadow larks, horn larks and killdeers are in that category.

Seasonal swings in weather, like freezing rain and melting spells in winter, also hurt wildlife, says Scott.

“When there’s a coating of ice, it makes it difficult for sharp-tailed grouse and deer to manoeuvre and obtain food,” he say.

Some species, such as bees and bats, may even come out of hibernation, and find themselves without food and water.

Generation Threat

Youth have the most at stake when it comes to climate change. To get their perspective, I contacted the local Blue Dot Movement chapter and spoke with Mia. Just 17, she’s been a member for four years. “Blue Dot’s main goal is to ensure every Canadian has access to fresh water, clean air and good food as a human right,” she says. “I think that’s really important because not only is it good for us, it preserves the environment.”

We’ve been talking about climate change for 30 years. These days, it seems the issue has become bogged down in petty politics. What do you think about that?

I think it’s unfortunate that all the political fighting is hindering us from taking action to improve our environment. It’s really disappointing.

If we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the forecast for the world you’ll be living in is pretty grim. How does that make you feel?

It’s a scary reality. If nothing gets done, we could be facing a future with awful consequences. For sure, I feel we’re being [let down]. Although, unfortunately, my generation isn’t doing much either. It’s maybe better than it used to be, but we need to make an all-round effort otherwise we’ll all be stuck.

If you could speak to people in power today, what would your message be?

I would say that the small steps we’re starting to take are great, like banning plastic straws. I think that’s fantastic to preserve the environment. But bigger changes should start being made.