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Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

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15 May 2019

Climate deadlock

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

People have struggled for years to keep partisan politics out of the environmental debates, but is becoming a losing battle. The latest example is the carbon fee or tax on fossil fuel consumption in Canada. It was originally supported by many conservatives as a way of using market forces rather than government regulations to control pollution. Now some of the same conservatives are attacking the idea. Instead of saying it is one way of encouraging people to use less fossil fuels, they are painting it as a government cash grab. This schism threatens to become a major issue dividing the two major parties in the fall Canadian election. As well, some conservative provincial governments are now repealing environmental protection laws, including putting a price on carbon dioxide pollution. We are losing reasoned debate on what to do about one of the most important challenges facing the world at a time when we need consensus. Instead, political parties are turning to attack ads. It was not always this way. When I was an environmental reporter in the 1980s, there was general agreement among political parties on the need to deal with such problems as acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer and Great Lakes pollution. For many years there was all-party agreement that climate change was a problem to deal with. If there was criticism, it was that governments were not doing enough to control pollution. In recent years “wedge” politics has become more common with parties seeking to split voters into camps. Unfortunately, climate change has become a victim of political gaming. If one party proposes cuts to greenhouse gases another party will attack them seeking political advantage. The only way out of this mess is to establish a cross-party coalition that sets aside the old jobs versus the environment arguments and seeks agreement on what it will take to reduce emissions to a safe level.

10 May 2019

The young demand change

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Climate change is forcing us into a historic shift that will remake our societies. If we do not virtually stop pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we will destroy our civilization. If we do make the drastic cuts needed, we will have to make seismic changes in how we use energy and how we manage forests and other wild lands. The last time the world faced such a dramatic decision was in the second half of the past century, when we were at imminent risk of nuclear war. I remember a time of fear and ferment. Those of us who lived in North America feared a nuclear war with the then Soviet Union. It would have killed tens of millions, and devastated the planet with radiation, fires and smoke that would have shut out the sun, causing “nuclear winter.” Young people, the baby boom generation, reacted with anti-nuclear peace marches around the world. It’s harder to calculate the impact of peace marches, but by the late 1980s there was a shift among major nuclear powers toward a reduction in missiles and a de-escalation in nuclear threats.


Anti-nuclear protest in 1961
Credit: AP Photo / Lindlar


There is always the potential for a nuclear war among the great powers, but it seems unlikely now. Today the greatest single threat to civilization is environmental decline, particularly climate change. It is forcing us to change. The question is will the change be peaceful and organized or will it be chaotic and harmful. Faced with the crisis, many politicians and business leaders seem frozen like deer in the headlights. They have made some gestures toward curbing pollution, but it is far from enough to save the planet. Last year greenhouse gas emissions were rising. As in the last century, many young people are taking up the cause, with their own marches and demonstrations trying to push the world to action.

The anti-nuclear protestors of the past century had leaders such as British philosopher Bertrand Russell and Australian physician Dr. Helen Caldicott. The leading figure for today’s climate protests is 16-year-old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg. Last year she skipped school to sit on the steps of her country’s Parliament with a sign demanding the government do more to stop climate change. She has become a Joan of Arc like figure for student protestors around the world. This year there have been worldwide student “climate strikes” with tens of thousands skipping classes to march in protest against political failures to stop climate change. Also last year a group in the United Kingdom formed the Extinction Rebellion movement to protest against failure to stop climate change. Peaceful protesters barricaded roads and bridges at major city landmarks. They shut down parts of London as people attached or even glued themselves to buildings. At one point police had to stop arresting protestors because they ran out of holding cells.


Extinction rebellion, London UK, 2019
Credit: AP


It’s too early to tell what impact if any these protests will have more than 450 communities around the world and some higher levels of government, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, have declared climate emergencies. Some are backing up the declarations with actions to move to renewable energy.

7 May 2019

The disappearing world

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The latest bad news is that about 1 million of 8 million known species on Earth face extinction because of what we are doing to the planet. The report from the UN-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is the most comprehensive yet on the health of plant and animal life on Earth. Humans are now the dominant force of change on the planet. We have altered three-quarters of the land, and 85 per cent of wetlands are gone. Coral reefs are dying. One-third of marine stocks are over fished and 60 per cent are fished to the maximum sustainable level. The changes are driven by an ever-growing population and increasing per capita consumption. The big change agents are agriculture, fishing, logging, urban sprawl, pollution, over-hunting and invasive species. The losses are not just about other species. “Nature plays a critical role in providing food and feed, energy, medicines and genetic resources and a variety of materials fundamental for people’s physical well-being and for maintaining culture,” says the report. This just the latest report to warn we are destroying our own life support system. Back in 1987 Our Common Future the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development said we have a responsibility to leave a habitable world for future generations.

Sea turtle with fish
Sea turtle

The species report, Nature’s Dangerous Decline, says stopping the destruction “…may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.” What all such reports lack is specific instructions that would make it clear just what needs to be done and by who. The reality is that the United Nations is not able to support documents that say we need to rapidly move away from gas-powered cars, leave fossil fuels in the ground, catch fewer fish, reduce forest clearing, reduce urban sprawl and generally consume less meat, energy and materials. That will take an independently-funded organization that can put together a respected team of world experts to design a roadmap toward sustainable production and lifestyles.

15 Apr 2019

Making a “good” country

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

What makes a “good” country in a world of environmental crises, civil wars, terror attacks, mass migrations and a political drift toward closed borders and narrow short-term interests? Simon Anholt, came up with his own set of measures the Good Country Index. It calculates what each of 153 countries contribute or takes away from the common good of humanity, relative to their size. Anholt, is an independent policy advisor who counsels governments and corporations on a wide range of issues, including national identity and reputation, education, trade, security. His index, started in 2014, changes from year to year. This year, Finland, The Netherlands and Ireland top the list, based on their performance in such fields as science, culture, peace, equality, health and the environment. War-ravaged Iraq and Libya are at the bottom. A BBC story gives a good overview.

17 Mar 2019

Going in two directions

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The struggle to tame climate change has entered choppy seas that are turning and tossing in all directions. The course is clear. Every credible report says we have to make rapid and drastic changes to our use of fossil fuels to head off climate changes that will undermine the very way of life we are trying to maintain. The politics are all over the map. In the United States, the president continues to deny climate change is a problem, and pushes for extraction of ever more fossil fuels. Meanwhile the mayor of New York is proposing to spend billions of dollars to protect his city from the rising seas caused by global warming. Same story in Miami. The president has proposed a budget that would cut clean energy spending just as New Mexico voted to decarbonize the state’s electric grid and Nevada’s governor announced his support for bills to expand renewable energy. In Canada, the federal government is promoting the development of heavy oil and pipelines to carry it to foreign markets. It is also imposing a fee on carbon emissions to encourage people to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. Countries around the world are struggling to both provide reliable energy and make the transition to a carbon neutral economies. Energy companies are struggling to keep up with the changes as they plan investments that are supposed to last for decades.

16 Mar 2019

Leadership from the young

Posted by Michael Keating. 1 Comment

Greta Thunberg

Credit: Hanna Franzen, EPA

Can a 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl get more action on climate change than politicians and business leaders? Last August, Greta Thunberg, then 15, skipped classes and rode her bicycle to the country’s Parliament where she sat on the steps with a sign demanding the government do more to stop climate change. Thunberg continued her protests, missing school every Friday even after the elections. At first, she was alone, but her persistence inspired other young people around the world, and drew respect from people such as the head of the United Nations.  Soon, she became the global voice of youth exasperated by the failure of policymakers to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions. In December, she told politicians at the COP-24 global climate summit: “You are not mature enough to tell it like is,” and that they were leaving the burden of clean-up to the next generation. She has recently been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Last Friday, hundreds of thousands of students in more than 100 countries followed her lead and walked out of school in a protest dubbed the Youth Climate Strike. The students expressed anger at older generations for not doing enough to fight pollution, and fear for their future on a warming planet. They carried banners with such messages as “I’m not showing up for school because adults aren’t showing up for climate,” and “why should we go to school if you won’t listen to the educated.” Greta Thunberg has joined the ranks of such renowned figures as Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who survived a Taliban assassination attempt because she sought an education. She went on to become a global activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate.

14 Mar 2019

Shape up or suffer

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Damage to the planet is getting so dire that our health is at risk unless we take rapid action. This week the United Nations Environment Programme issued its sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6). The encyclopedic 740-page report on the world environment was produced by 250 scientists and experts from more than 70 countries. Among the findings:

  • Air pollution, mainly from industries, vehicles and fumes from cooking, kills 6-7 million people prematurely every year.
  • Water quality continues to decline in most regions of the world. Diseases in contaminated water kill about 1.4 million people every year, and chemical pollutants are disrupting male and female fertility, as well as child neurodevelopment.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions keep rising, and the planet gets warmer. If the world is to meet targets for controlling climate change, emissions need to drop by between 40 and 70 per cent globally by 2050, and to net zero by 2070.
  • Humans are causing one of the greatest extinctions of life in millions of years. This loss of species is creating a poorer planet, and threatening food security.
  • The oceans and their inhabitants are being changed by over-fishing, global warming, acidification and tonnes of pollutants dumped into their waters every year. Plastics, which are found everywhere in the seas, break down into microscopic particles that end up in food we eat.

Pressure on the global environment keeps growing. The world population is some 7.5 billion, with median projections estimating nearly 10 billion by 2050 and nearly 11 billion by 2100. Consumption using an extract-make-use-dispose approach has “increased resource exploitation beyond the recovery ability of ecological systems.” Much of this is still powered by burning fossil fuels, which causes climate change; energy consumption is forecast to increase by as much as 60 per cent in the next few decades. “Current patterns of consumption, production and inequality are not sustainable,” the report finds, and “…trends in environmental degradation are projected to continue at a rapid rate…”

The report calls for a new way of thinking and living, moving from the ‘grow now, clean up after’ model to a near-zero-waste economy. It suggests ways we can move to sustainable development. “They include changes in lifestyle, consumption preferences and consumer behaviour on the one hand, and cleaner production processes, resource efficiency and decoupling, corporate responsibility and compliance on the other hand.” For example, adopting less-meat intensive diets, and reducing food waste would reduce the pressure to increase food production, including clearing more land.

The problem is we have the ability but lack the willpower. The authors say support is still missing from the public, business and political leaders who are clinging to outdated production and development models.

16 Feb 2019

A Green New Deal

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

After two years of backsliding, is the United States ready to once again be an environmental leader? Historically the country was a pioneer in creating environment departments, and passing clean air and water laws. Since Donald Trump became president two years ago federal environmental action has stalled and protections have been weakened. [However, many state and municipal governments have continued with their environmental agendas.] Now, some members of the Democratic Party are proposing a major sustainability agenda. It is called the Green New Deal, harking back to the New Deal President Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought in during the Great Depression of the 1930s to stabilize the economy, and provide jobs and relief to the many unemployed. The Green New Deal is aimed at systemic racial, regional, social, environmental and economic injustices. It would provide more support for health care and education, strengthen labour laws, promote a more sustainable food system and rapidly move the United States to renewable energy. It is certainly the most ambitious sustainability plan for any major nation so far.

22 Jan 2019

Even the powerful are getting worried

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

This week some of the richest and most powerful people in the world are at the annual World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort town of Davos. Usually, the focus is on keeping the global economy running smoothly. Now the winds of environmental change are blowing through these corridors of power. Before the meeting the forum published the Global Risks Report 2019, with a stark assessment of the future. While issues such as economic instability, trade wars, cyber-attacks and the instability of some states were part of the list of concerns, the report opens with the statement: “Environmental risks continue to dominate the results of our annual Global Risks Perception Survey. This year, they accounted for three of the top five risks by likelihood and four by impact.” People were worried about extreme weather and rising sea levels as the result of climate change, and about a failure of the world to reduce the risks and to prepare for the coming changes. The report also highlighted biodiversity loss, saying species abundance has dropped by 60 per cent since 1970, “affecting health and socioeconomic development, with implications for well-being, productivity, and even regional security.”

The report worries about the world’s willingness to tackle the big problems given the hardening of political and social divisions within and among many countries. A growing number of countries are looking inward and turning away from the multilateral instructions built up over the past 70 years. “Global risks are intensifying but the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking,” the report warns, saying the world appears to be “sleepwalking” into crisis. “We are drifting deeper into global problems from which we will struggle to extricate ourselves.”

Today, the opening was dominated by environmental issues. Prominent British naturalist Sir David Attenborough said there have been so many changes to the planet that “the Garden of Eden is no more.” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that leaders who deny or fail to do enough to deal with climate change are on the wrong side of history. She said they just have to look at receding shorelines in the Pacific to see how a warming planet is causing sea levels to rise. She said wants to bring the New Zealand Maori philosophy of ‘guardianship’ of the environment into politics and get leaders to think beyond election cycles.

22 Jan 2019

Weigh in on the future

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Every three years Canadians get to tell Environment Canada what it thinks of the federal government’s approach to sustainability. The environment department has posted the draft 2019 to 2022 Federal Sustainable Development Strategy, and is asking people to comment on it up to April 2. The draft strategy sets out priorities, goals and targets for a dozen sectors, including climate change, clean growth, greening government and sustainable food and forests. People are asked for their ideas of sustainable development, their sustainability priorities and what they will do to make the country more sustainable.