The State of the Planet

We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. . . We will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.

President Obama, Inaugural address, January 2013.

These stirring words gave hope to millions around the world who were despairing for the future of the planet. At last, a major international leader was taking a stand. But facing Congress a few weeks later, the president was more muted about the environment in his State of the Union address. A brief reference to combating climate change “for the sake of our children and our future” was tucked away in the middle of his speech, sandwiched between the need for energy self-sufficiency and curbing climate change using market-based solutions while “driving strong economic growth.”

Why had the lofty sentiments about the state of the planet dissipated in a matter of weeks? Was it the reality of dealing with a fractious legislature who opposes action on climate change? Was it the need to placate the business community and the fossil fuel lobby? Perhaps he was pandering to consumers who also happen to be voters.

In Canada, however, there were no stirring words about the state of the planet in the last Speech from the Throne in 2011. There was no ennobling vision for the future of our children and grandchildren. There was not even a reference to the dangers of climate change.

The monotonous mantra of low taxes, jobs, prosperity and economic growth dominated the address, punctuated with depressing references to the need for law and order legislation and eliminating the gun registry. Mention of the “natural environment” was limited to the creation of parks and to the importance of developing our natural resource wealth which would take place under “improved regulatory and environmental assessment.”

The Throne Speech is a major address that outlines the focus of the government’s policy and legislative priorities. The War of 1812 merited mention but not the rapidly deteriorating climatic conditions across Canada and especially their impact on our indigenous people in the North. We spent more money in 2012 commemorating the bicentennial of a minor war than we spent on climate change. Strange priorities.

The three speeches, which could all be described as “State of the Nation” addresses, offer an interesting contrast. The presidential inaugural speech included some inspiring words about the plight of the planet but the details of the State of the Union address lacked the passion and commitment of the earlier speech. The Canadian Throne speech simply made no pretence about planetary concerns and subsequent legislation has confirmed that position.

How can the president pledge to speed up new oil and gas permits in his quest for energy self-sufficiency when they will involve the destructive process of fracking which will lead to cheaper fossil fuel prices, more consumption and sky-high greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions? Market-based solutions tend to favour the wealthy and the wealthy pollute more than any other socio-economic group, while “driving strong economic growth” on a planet with finite resources and a rapidly declining biocapacity is folly.

Like the US presidential addresses, the visions outlined in the Canadian Throne and Budget speeches do not always reflect what is ultimately enacted in Parliament. The “forked tongue” is still too prevalent in our public discourse.

For example, the Canadian Budget Implementation Bill of 2012 (Omnibus Bill C-38) stripped away most existing environmental protective measures, proclaiming “open season” on our resources and unleashing potentially disastrous ecological outcomes. What had been implied in the Throne Speech in 2011 was not “development” of our natural wealth but “exploitation,” making the reference to “improved environmental assessment” nothing short of cynical.

A government that has spent a hundred million dollars promoting and publicizing an Economic Action Plan that will have a negative impact on nature has just closed down the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) project to save a paltry two million dollars. The ELA, comprising 58 lakes, is an internationally renowned fresh-water research station in north western Ontario. The priorities of our government – and the motives – get stranger.

The resource and energy development programs of the Canadian and US governments are not consistent with the long term protection of the planet. There is nothing “ethical” about fracked oil and tar sands bitumen and there is no scientific basis to “clean coal.” Furthermore, programs that promote pipelines, lower taxes, economic growth, prosperity and more consumption will simply exacerbate environmental problems.

Our most important – and urgent – societal challenge in North America is to shift the focus from the “state of the nation” to the “state of the planet.” Individually and collectively, this must be our paradigm shift.

An unlikely ally

A powerful message on the precarious state of the planet is coming from a most unlikely quarter: the business and financial community. Prominent individuals and organizations are looking beyond narrow national interests to the concerns of the larger world. How ironic that we may be looking to business and finance to provide enlightened and inspiring leadership on environmental issues.

A number of reports have been issued over the past three months by major international organizations alerting us to the dangers of ecological degradation. The first of these, by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the world’s largest professional services firm, warned in November, 2012 that global society may have passed a critical threshold: unless we “decarbonize” our economies immediately, we cannot restrict temperature increases to two degrees C. If uncontrolled, ghg emissions could propel the planet to a six degree warming by 2100.

Also in November, 2012, the World Bank issued its ground-breaking report: Why a four degree warmer world must be avoided, prepared by the Potsdam Institute, one of the top climate research bodies in the world. According to the report, ghg concentrations in the atmosphere are higher than at any other time in the past fifteen million years. Emissions are projected to hit 400 parts per million (ppm) by 2020 which will push us over the two degree C. temperature increase ceiling agreed to at the Copenhagen conference in 2009. The report actually questions whether human adaptation to a four degree increase is even possible.

The World Economic Forum meets in Davos, Switzerland each January. It is a gathering of top business leaders, bankers, politicians, intellectuals and journalists. This year’s get-together was unusual for the outspoken comments on our troubled planet by a number of prominent individuals.

Selected comments that are remarkably blunt from Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, during the conference clearly illustrate her concerns:

  •  The science is sobering – 2012 was among the hottest years since records began in 1880.
  •  Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.
  • Without concerted action, the very future of our planet is in peril.

Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, who commissioned the Potsdam report, had an op-ed column published in the Washington Post during the Davos meeting. He appealed to governments and people world-wide to concentrate on reducing emissions, focusing on low carbon growth and building resilient societies. “The world needs a bold global approach to help avoid the climate catastrophe it faces today. The planet, our home, cannot wait.”

Lord Nicholas Stern, former chief economist for the World Bank and renowned for his report in 2006 warning about the dangers of a warming planet, admitted in an interview at Davos that he had underestimated the risk of rising temperatures. He acknowledged that ghg emissions are increasing at so rapid a pace that the planet is losing its ability to absorb the escalating carbon dioxide concentrations. He fears that we are on track for at least a four degree rise in global temperatures.

How refreshing to hear the candour of some of the world’s business and financial elites calling for action on global warming. They have the courage to level with us in plain language about the gravity of our situation. Some may question their sincerity but their central message that economic well-being, human health, social stability and biodiversity are all dependent on a vital and vibrant planet is undeniable.

Our governments in North America, beholden to their electorates and focused on power, do not have the courage to level with us. We are still rooted in an age of narcissistic nationalism where the interests of the nation-state trump the needs of the global community. Globalization is merely a market and a trade term, not an ethical imperative.

Annus horribilis

Queen Elizabeth popularized the term “annus horribilis” in a speech in November, 1992 when she used the Latin phrase to describe a series of family events that had attracted negative public attention. “Annus horribilis” can be aptly used to describe the weather events of 2012 which, because of our conveniently short memories, may already have been forgotten.

  • The continental US experienced its hottest year in history, and every state had above average annual temperatures. July was the hottest month ever in the US. Drought covered almost two thirds of the country and crop yields were down significantly. The record year culminated with the onslaught by Superstorm Sandy, fueled by warmer ocean water and violent winds loaded with extra water vapour, a phenomenon that was almost certainly caused by anthropogenic activity.
  • Canada is heating up faster than nearly every other country on the planet. The summer of 2012 was the warmest on record. Remarkably, our winter average temperatures have risen over three degrees since 1950, a period that has coincided with the most dramatic increases in ghg emissions since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century.
  • Perhaps the most alarming event of 2012 was the collapse of the Arctic ice sheet. Summer sea ice has been declining for years, but warmer winters are now inhibiting winter refreezing and, consequently, the overall volume of the ice cover is down dramatically. The summer sea ice will probably be gone in a decade and the heating of the exposed water will expedite a feedback process that will reinforce the warming trend with unpredictable weather and climate consequences.
  • The global oceans are in triple trouble. The seas are warming, especially at deeper levels, and acidification of surface water because of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide is leading to world-wide “osteoporosis” of shellfish and coral reefs. Now mercury concentrations, primarily from coal-fired power plants and gold mining, are on the rise, exposing coastal communities to a reappearance of the scourge of “minamata disease.”
  • Changes in precipitation patterns and temperature ranges are having a devastating effect on global biodiversity as numerous species disappear because they cannot make the necessary biological adjustments to rapidly changing natural conditions. Ecosystems, such as the coniferous forests of British Columbia and Alberta are falling prey to the invasion of beetles that are now able to survive the warmer winters.
  • The National Oceanic Atmospheric administration in Washington has just announced that 2012 experienced the second largest single-year jump in ghgs ever recorded. Atmospheric levels have reached just under 395 ppm and we are closing in fast on the danger zone of the two degree average annual temperature increase – decades ahead of earlier estimates.

The crowning climax to 2012 – and the crowning irony – was the UN Climate Conference in Doha, the capital of Qatar which happens to be the world’s biggest polluter in per capita ghg emissions. Once again there was no agreement on collective action to control emissions; the only winner was the fossil fuel industry. Certainly it was an appropriate location for the conference considering that Doha is one of the fossil fuel capitals of the world.

Kyoto, now a ghost agreement on life support, survived the conference but only fifteen percent of global emissions are covered by the remaining signatories. If North American concern for climate change is measured by our commitment to Kyoto, the only international agreement on ghg emissions, we are in deep trouble. Because Canada and the US are both major league petro states now, the lack of commitment is understandable but nevertheless reprehensible.

Canada has been actively undermining Kyoto for the last few years and finally walked out last year. The US has never ratified Kyoto and it has been actively sabotaging the negotiations in recent years, including Doha according to international activists. Yet, President Obama in his victory speech in November, just weeks before the Doha conference, declared: “We want our children to live in an America . . . that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” You cannot isolate America from a warming planet, Mr. President. Geography 101.

If our governments are opposing climate change initiatives on the international stage to play to the home crowd for votes, then we have to challenge them, otherwise we are complicit in the charade. If our countries are not committed to a global climate agreement because of narrow national interests, how serious is our commitment to the future of the planet? We do need inspiring and uplifting speeches but we also need honesty. Empty words merely create cynicism.

“Securing the future” is not a catchy election phrase or another ephemeral political issue – it is a moral matter. As voters, it is our ethical responsibility to persuade our politicians of their obligation both to the global community and to future generations. To reinforce this message, we need only remember the Kenyan proverb: We have not inherited this land from our ancestors; rather we have borrowed it from our children.

To initiate change, we first have to transform our own individual hearts as Gandhi reminded us. We have to build personal lifestyles that are sustainable before we demand changes of our governments. How we cast our votes is also a reflection of the state of our hearts. We must use the privilege of our vote, not for short term self-interest or ideological reasons, but for the benefit of those without a voice. Let us not forget that we hold the proxy votes of unborn citizens.

Lest our lawmakers ignore our votes, they should be mindful of the age-old counsel of the Iroquois nation that we should consider the well-being of our progeny seven generations into the future when making decisions:

Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.

Great Law of the Iroquois.

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