Prairie politics need to catch up to the planet’s climate emergency

Politics | Gregory Beatty | August 26, 2021

With a federal election called for Sept. 20, it’s time to look at the state of climate politics in Saskatchewan.

Spoiler alert: it’s not great.

As the Summer From Hell winds down, climate change ought to be top of mind for Canadian voters. Western Canada is in a multi-year drought that, combined with scorching temperatures, sparked major wildfires, widespread crop failure, a desperate sell-off of cattle by ranchers with no feed for their herds, months of smoky skies, and a stunning drop in both water level and quality in prairie lakes and rivers.

Things are even hotter and drier in the western United States. Internationally, deadly floods hit Germany, Belgium, China and India. Wildfires raged out of control in Siberia and the Mediterranean. Then there’s the major shrinkage in the size and thickness of glaciers and the polar ice cap thanks to all the heat in the north.

And let’s not forget that last year, 2020, had the most hurricanes and tropical storms on record.

Unfortunately, more climate uncertainty lies ahead, says the Saskatchewan Environmental Society’s Peter Prebble.

“It’s very clear that climate change is accelerating, says Prebble. “There are very few places in the world that are safe now. In Lytton, Canada’s maximum temperature record was exceeded by 4.6 degrees Celsius. The temperature [49.6C or 121.3F] was an all-time record for north of the 50th parallel, and it was shocking.”

Red Alert

As coincidence would have it, just days before the election call the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report. The document, grimly described by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres as a “code red for humanity”, was authored by over 200 scientists and agreed to by all 195 member governments. It confirmed that climate impacts are accelerating.

“Scientists note, for instance, that between 1992–1999 and 2010–2019 the rate of ice sheet loss increased by a factor of four,” says Prebble. “They do that a lot in the report. They don’t look at a particular year, they look at a decade then compare it to another decade. Between 1901–1971 sea level was increasing at 1.3 millimetres a year. Then from 2006–2018, it increased to 3.7 mm a year, so almost three times as much.

“Those are two examples of things that will critically determine future climate on Earth and have very long-term impacts,” Prebble says. “There’s no going back on them. They are irreversible. Ice sheets will continue to melt and sea levels rise for centuries. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t significant benefits from reducing emissions as that will reduce both the rate and overall amount of change.”

One gargantuan problem is that feedback loops are starting to kick in. Take wildfires, for example: as the forests and peat bogs burn, they release decades and even centuries of stored carbon into the atmosphere. And across the Arctic, permafrost that’s been frozen for thousands of years is melting and releasing millions of tonnes of methane.

More carbon in the atmosphere means more warming. More warming means more fires and more melting. More fires and melting mean more carbon is released.

It’s a vicious cycle.

“Scientists acknowledge in the IPCC report that the full impact of feedback loops is not accurately reflected in their models,” says Prebble. “This summer, permafrost was melting in the high Canadian Arctic 70 years ahead of when scientists were expecting it to. So it’s difficult to know how deeply the feedback loops will impact us.”

Vote Climate

The ongoing pandemic notwithstanding, climate change is absolutely the number one issue voters need to think about this election.

And not to be partisan, but the Conservative Party’s pitiful track record on climate change and the environment along with their current, pro-fossil fuel development “policies” should make them unelectable at this critical moment in our history.

But as you might have noticed, that’s not how voters in the heartland of Canada’s fossil fuel industry see it.

Buoyed by tons of anti-Trudeau carbon tax/pro fossil fuel propaganda and backed by provincial allies like the Scott Moe-led Saskatchewan Party and Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party in Alberta, the Conservatives will probably dominate the region. Again.

The thing is, international action is coming on climate change whether the Saskatchewan and Alberta governments (and the federal Conservatives) like it or not.

Two leading players are Europe and the U.S., says Prebble.

“Europe has set a target of a 55 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases, [GHGs] compared to where they were in 1990, by 2030. They’ve met earlier targets, and I think they’re serious about meeting this one,” says Prebble.

“Similarly, the climate plan President Biden is putting forward is very hopeful,” adds Prebble. “He’s showing real leadership and aiming for a 50 per cent reduction in U.S. emissions by 2030.”

Rest assured that as Europe and the U.S. move to meet their climate targets, they’ll be flexing their considerable political and economic muscle to ensure delinquent countries meet their targets.

By country, Canada consistently ranks in the top 10 in the world for GHG emissions. And if per capita emissions was an Olympic sport, we’d be on the podium.

Lacklustre climate policies in Saskatchewan (and Alberta) are a big reason why, says Prebble.

“The Saskatchewan environment minister keeps saying we have a comprehensive ‘made-in-Saskatchewan’ plan,” he says. “It’s frustrating to hear it being described that way because there are so many gaps. Transportation is one, agriculture is another. The building sector is a third.”

Prebble says the government’s plan to reduce methane emissions in oil and gas is reasonably good. SaskPower’s target to reduce emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 is good, too.

But the government’s overall emission reduction target is only 16 per cent from 2018 levels by 2030 — which is far too low.

“The U.N. is calling for a 45 per cent reduction by 2030, and the Canadian government is officially targeting a 40 to 45 per cent reduction,” says Prebble. “The Saskatchewan government is essentially saying they’re not participating in Canada’s efforts to meet the 2030 target.

“That’s an incredibly irresponsible position to take in the face of a climate emergency,” adds Prebble. “Given that Saskatchewan’s per capita emissions are already nine times the world average and well over three times the Canadian average, it’s so frustrating to see the provincial government claim it has a comprehensive plan when that’s simply not the case.”

Meanwhile, the provincial government aims to boost oil and gas production by 20 per cent by 2030.

“That’s hugely problematic and completely unsustainable,” says Prebble. “Given that GHGs from the industry already account for 32 per cent of Saskatchewan emissions, the last thing we should be doing is expanding the industry. And, of course, Alberta is doing the same.”

Both governments have been relentlessly obstructionist to federal climate change efforts too, with their costly carbon price court fight and the Saskatchewan government’s laughable “rebate at the pumps” replacement proposal (which Ottawa denied) being two recent examples.

The Saskatchewan Party and UCP can brag they “stand up” for their provinces all they want, but when their ass-backwards policies drive other countries to whack Canada, Alberta and Saskatchewan with heavy carbon penalties and legal sanctions, it will hurt.

“What climate change needs to become in Saskatchewan and other democracies around the world is a vote-determining issue,” says Prebble. “Citizens should expect their governments to do everything possible to reduce GHG emissions in an accelerated and orderly way, and in a way that also ensures a just transition for people whose employment is being impacted.”

We’ll see how many Saskatchewan voters have figured this out on Monday, Sept. 20.


It’s Not “Alarmist” When The World’s On Fire

In early July, an international group of legal scholars released a draft definition for the crime of ecocide which they urged the International Criminal Court to adopt. The draft defined ecocide as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

Climate change wasn’t mentioned directly, but the implication was clear. And with the science settled decades ago, a persuasive argument can certainly be made that anyone in a position of power or influence who impedes humanity’s collective effort to address the problem deserves to be sanctioned as a criminal.

Not to be “alarmist”, but growing numbers of people in both the developing and developed world are suffering and dying. Economies are being brought to their knees, and precious public infrastructure and private property is being damaged and destroyed.

“In the July heat wave that hit B.C., the coroner estimated the excess deaths at 570 people,” says the Saskatchewan Environmental Society’s Peter Prebble. “Then there are impacts from flooding, wildfires, storms and other events. There are really significant impacts not just on quality of life, but on actual mortality that will play out over the next century if we don’t act rapidly to reduce GHGs.”

Even just having to breathe smoky air, as many people across North America have this summer, is a health hit — especially for people with breathing challenges.

Then there are the longer-term impacts to consider. Sea level rise will put heavily populated coastal regions and islands at risk of being flooded out. Regions on Earth that are already scorching are expected to grow even hotter — to the point of possibly becoming unliveable.

To survive, people will be on the move. We’re already seeing climate refugees, and as conditions worsen in vulnerable areas, many millions, perhaps even billions, will need assistance.

“We’re at a point where the future of human civilization is truly at stake,” says Prebble. “Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are now higher than at any point in the last two million years. That was a period when humans were barely emerging on Earth, so we’re talking about experiencing a climate we’ve never seen before filled with exceptional extremes if we don’t act very quickly.”