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7 Mar 2020

Kids fear the future

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

There are more and more stories about kids becoming afraid of the future. I was born in the midst of a war, but there was a sense that it was going to end in victory. A couple of decades later people were marching to ban nuclear weapons, stop the Vietnam war, end racism and for women’s rights. In all those cases there has been at least partial success and a sense of progress. With the decline in our environment and especially with climate change there a strong sense we are losing the battle, and have no credible plan to save our environment and civilization from great damage, even catastrophe. It is the young who feel the threat most keenly. Hundreds of thousands have been going on one-day school strikes – Fridays for Future – inspired by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish high school student who pioneered the movement. Some have closed roads and bridges to force adults to pay attention. A number of young people question what kind of future they will have and wonder openly if they should even have children of their own. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer captures many of the concerns and frustrations of the young as they try to get their parents to pay attention. It is clear that we need unprecedented changes in how we live, travel and eat and especially how we generate and use energy. The young need not only to protest but to lead because today’s adults have failed to do enough. They have the chance to rewrite history and save the world.

26 Feb 2020

Children and sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The future success of nations depends on their children’s health and well-being, but no country is ensuring their future according to a group of world experts. Many wealthy nations are doing a good job of taking care of the current needs of the young, but are undermining their future through their greenhouse gas emissions. Some poor nations have few but are unable to adequately take care of children’s needs now. The World Health Organization, UNICEF and The Lancet medical journal published a A future for the world’s children? It said that recent decades “have seen dramatic improvements in survival, education, and nutrition for children worldwide. Economic development, concerted international action, and political commitment have brought about rapid change. In many ways, now is the best time for children to be alive.” But the future is less rosy, it continued saying “…today’s children face an uncertain future. Climate change, ecological degradation, migrating populations, conflict, pervasive inequalities, and predatory commercial practices threaten the health and future of children in every country.”

The report split the world into two categories based on how they care for children today and how they are dealing with the threat of climate change. “The poorest countries have a long way to go towards supporting their children’s ability to live healthy lives, but wealthier countries threaten the future of all children through carbon pollution, on course to cause runaway climate change and environmental disaster. Not a single country performed well on all three measures of child flourishing, sustainability, and equity.” For example, Norway, South Korea and the Netherlands ranked first, second and third in having flourishing children today, but ranked low on long-term sustainability because of their high greenhouse gas emissions, which undermine the future for children. It quoted student climate activist such as Greta Thunberg from Sweden in her famous speech to last year’s World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland when she told delegates, “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” The report went on to say the world needs to listen to children and make them central to global sustainable development goals.

Deborah Morayo Adegbile (left), from Nigeria, and Greta Thunberg (second from left), from Sweden, take part in a press conference at UNICEF House announcing the collective action being taken on behalf of young people over climate change.
Credit: UNICEF

12 Feb 2020

Future Earth

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

A group of scientists from around the world has warned the environmental challenges facing us are so great that it is too late for incremental change. In a far-reaching and detailed report, they say only a historic and transformational change unprecedented in modern history will save us. The 222 scientists from 52 countries provide a snapshot of our world as it heads into a crucial decade in which environmental crises are becoming more severe and some risk becoming irreversible. Their report, Our Future on Earth 2020 warns a number of overlapping environmental breakdowns could tip us into a global systemic crisis. It would bring include extreme weather, such as droughts and floods, major biodiversity loss, water shortages and lower food production. There would be an increased likelihood of wildfire, heat death, water shortages, and power outages

On a more optimistic note the report says: “we are a vast global population facing unprecedented environmental challenges, yet we still have the time and the capability to prevent extreme outcomes, such as runaway climate change and wildlife extinctions.” However, making the changes needed will require much more than tinkering with the existing system. It warns that “transformative change goes well beyond incrementalism or reform, both of which allow existing practices, goals, and structures to stay in place. We need to rethink how we design economies and do business; how we produce and distribute the food we eat – even what we eat; how we design and construct our homes, workplaces, and communities; and how we get from place to place.” The needed changes to how we live and do business will be disruptive. We have to deal with the complexity of the problems and solutions while many people want simple answers.

29 Jan 2020

We need greener buildings

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

When we talk about cutting greenhouse gas emissions we often think of coal-burning power plants, motor vehicles and aircraft. But homes and buildings are a major source. A statement from the Canadian senate says they are the source of about 17 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from burning oil and gas to heat them. It’s been possible for years to build structures that need virtually no fossil fuels to heat them. However, many buildings leak large amounts of heat because they were built in an era when energy was cheap and builders did not want to raise the purchase price by adding more insulation and energy efficient windows and heating systems. An article on green buildings says North America still often settles for mediocrity when it comes to green buildings. Homeowners and owners of businesses appear to be heading towards a change that may become a crisis. If we are to meet our goals of greenhouse gas reductions, we have to phase out of fossil fuels, and that means most buildings will have to change their heating systems.

19 Jan 2020

Decade of decisions

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The first decade of this century was shaken by terror attacks, including the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, and the ensuing wars. The second decade started with the struggle to prevent a global economic meltdown after the 2008 market crash. The third decade will be defined by how we deal with climate change and how that struggle reshapes our societies. Climate change is already bringing increasing floods, droughts, forest fires, rising sea levels and a melting Arctic, and we will have to live with a disturbed climate for centuries. The question is how much can we limit the increase in global temperatures. Coming out of the hottest decade on record the United Nations has warned we have to take drastic action over the next few years or we will be locked into the kind of changes that will destroy economies, force people to flee their homes and render increasing areas of the planet inhospitable. The UN has said we need we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 7 per cent a year in this decade to avoid disastrous consequences, and be carbon neutral by 2050. Given that 80 per cent of global energy production comes from burning fossil fuels, this will require  an unprecedented transformation of society, with seismic shifts in energy use, food systems, transportation, land use, employment and personal behaviour.

The most frightening evidence of climate change has been the dramatic increase in massive, uncontrollable wildfires in Australia, California and parts of southern Europe. Whole towns have been destroyed and people burned to death as they tried to escape. People are scared and want action.  Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, known for promoting more coal mining, was booed when he visited fire-ravaged areas of the country. Many observers say one reason that Canada conservative party lost last fall’s federal election is because it was too weak on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There are encouraging signs of change. The European Union said it will dedicate a quarter of its budget to tackling climate change, and will shift 1 trillion euros to environmentally friendly investment over the next decade. The German government has a plan to phase out coal-fired power stations by 2038, involving compensation of more than 40 billion euros. Microsoft has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030 and by 2050 to have removed all of the carbon from the environment that it has emitted since the company was founded in 1975. Car makers are making large investments in electric vehicles. A significant number of investors are moving away from fossil fuels. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, is getting out of investments in coal used to generate power. Founder and CEO Laurence Fink, who oversees the management of about US$7 trillion in funds, said a warming planet puts “on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.” This week the World Economic Forum will hold its annual meeting of thousands of business and political leaders, economists, celebrities and journalists in Davos, Switzerland. Last year, the leaders were scolded by Swedish teen and climate activist Greta Thunberg. “At Davos, people like to talk about success, but financial success has come with a price tag, and on the climate we have failed.” Her message and similar words from millions more are finally being heard. Citing a survey of more than 750 key decision-makers, the World Economic Forum said catastrophic trends like global warming and the extinction of animal species would be front and center at this year’s meeting.

12 Dec 2019

A fair change in a greening world

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

We are heading into a period of disruptions greater than the world has ever seen. The surging climate crisis is bringing increasing droughts, fires, storms and floods. They will get worse. A series of other environmental problems, including overfishing, deforestation, land degradation, water shortages, the decline and loss of other species and a host of pollutants, will add to our misery. The world is trying to respond, but too slowly. Climate change is the biggest issue. People are coming to accept that we need to rapidly move from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy. This will mean huge changes to energy, transportation and a host of other sectors that have run on coal, oil and gas for generations. It means billions of people will have to find other types of work and other sources of energy. Globalization of trade gave us a foretaste of the kind shocks and repercussions. Industrialized countries, particularly in North America and Europe, saw tens of thousands of jobs vanish as companies moved production to lower wage nations, particularly in Asia. This had huge social and political impacts in the job losing nations, as people lost good paying work and went on unemployment or took lower paid jobs. It led to a reaction against the politicians who embraced freer trade but failed to compensate the people who were thrown out of work. The discontent is helping to fuel the rise of populist leaders. But, this is small potatoes compared to the changes we need to make to prevent catastrophic climate change. The UN Environment Programme warns the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6 per cent per year from 2020 to 2030 to meet the internationally agreed goal of no more than a 1.5°C increase in temperatures over pre-industrial levels. We need to virtually eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This is a call for a stunningly rapid transformation of the world economy. It would mean a rapid decline in the production and use of fossil fuels. It would mean the replacement of virtually all the world’s vehicles, including, cars, trucks, buses, planes, ships and other motorized equipment with non-polluting motors. It would require replacing a vast number of heating and industrial systems, such as boilers and furnaces in homes, office buildings, institutions and factories. Then there is the human impact. While millions of new jobs will be created and vast wealth generated by the work needed, millions of jobs will disappear or be radically changed. We cannot ignore the people who will be affected. We need all governments to start working on a global just transition strategy that treats displaced people fairly and sees that they get training for new jobs or get fair retirement packages. What is being done in the world? The European Union’s new Green Deal for Europe proposes €100 billion [about CAD146 billion] of the EU budget and investment loans from the European Investment Bank to fund a “just transition” in poorer, eastern member states whose economies currently rely on fossil fuels. This is the kind of investment the former West Germany has made in the former East Germany since reunification. The International Institute for Sustainable Development has published a paper, In Search of Just Transition: Examples From Around the World, that provides some examples of how countries are starting to grapple with change.

11 Dec 2019

Smarter, greener prosperity

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Canada has a trillion-dollar opportunity if it moves quickly to a build a low carbon, high performance economy. In a letter to the country’s first ministers, the Smart Prosperity Institute said: “Becoming a leader in clean performance and innovation will strengthen our competitiveness, attract capital, generate good jobs, and improve Canadians’ quality of life…” It said, “Building a low carbon, high performance economy is a vital environmental responsibility.” It added, “The shift toward a low-pollution, innovative, resource-efficient economy is the opportunity of the century.” The letter was signed by 26 people including executives from an oil company, a bank, an insurance organization, a consumer products giant, labour, indigenous and environmental leaders. The institute, a national research network and policy think tank, produced a report called 8 Reasons for Canada to Transition to a Clean Economy Now. It calls for green infrastructure and procurement, better environmental regulations, clean investment, smart tax incentives for clean technology and purchases, investments in natural capita and in education and skills for people to work in clean economy jobs, a “clean competitiveness roadmap” for a path to a low emission economy and exporting Canadian clean technologies. The 26 leaders say Canada needs to do more to take advantage of the growing shift towards emissions-free vehicles, greener energy, cleaner industrial production, and smarter, more efficient buildings. Their letter is also a call for national unity at a time when some provinces, particularly Alberta and Saskatchewan are fighting with the federal government for the right to expand fossil fuel production even though the country, along with most of the world is pledged to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Annette Verschuren, a business executive and signatory of the letter to first ministers, said the energy sector will have to move to lower-carbon production and extraction methods that will open new markets.

25 Nov 2019

The price of sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

How badly do we want sustainability? If we go by a number of surveys, not enough to voluntarily pay for the changes needed. In an online article by Sally Ho of the Green Queen website in Hong Kong, “sustainability all comes down to unit economics. When we make one eco-friendly decision over a less planet-friendly option, our individual motivation seems to stem from price, rather than moral persuasions.” These findings align with studies  in Canada. An Ipsos poll in September, on how much more Canadian are willing to pay to fight climate change found 46 per cent did not want to spend any additional money in the form of taxes or higher prices. Just 22 per cent said they would be willing to pay up to $100 extra per year. Ms. Ho writes that the flip side is that if prices do go up – for example for energy – we will use less. She references a 2018 University of Chicago study, of 691 households in Kyoto, Japan, which showed higher prices encouraged people to conserve energy much more than moral reasons. In Canada and a number of other jurisdictions carbon pricing is being used to discourage people from burning as much fossil fuel. In its final report, Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, a group of economic, business and political experts, calls for the price on carbon to keep rising. In terms of strategies to meet greenhouse gases reduction goals, “carbon pricing (with rebates or tax cuts) tops the list. It delivers the lowest cost emissions reductions. The second option is well-designed, flexible regulations, which can perform almost as well as carbon pricing.”

7 Nov 2019

Cooperation for sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

It’s one thing to set goals for sustainability. It’s quite another to figure out how to reach them. The re-elected federal government has set a green economy and especially greenhouse gas cuts as major goals. But, it depends on the whole country cooperating in an unprecedented national project. The government can convene, lead collaboration, provide financial incentives, change regulations and improve its own performance. The bulk of the transformation will take place in private businesses, offices and homes. If tens of millions of people are going to pitch in for a greener and cleaner future they have to be part of the process. There is a good precedent. In 1986, Canada’s environment ministers created the National Task Force on Environment and Economy. It included environment ministers, business, academic and non-government organizations. The task force recommended round tables on environment and economy to seek consensus among different parts of society on how to move to sustainable development. Governments created but mostly abandoned round tables for a number of reasons, including a reluctance to share power and lack of willingness to take the multistakeholder approach seriously. Now, the demands for sustainability are far more urgent, and governments need to reinvent that wheel. They need top-level players from the major sectors, including energy, transportation, food production, resource extraction, labour, academe, non-government groups and all levels of governance, including indigenous peoples. These experts need to agree on goals and provide expertise on how to achieve them. Each sector leader needs to commit to achieving the goals. Many will require cooperation across sectors, so these leaders need to commit to collaboration on a national approach using ideas that are proven, while continuing to innovate to bring on even better technologies and approaches.  

23 Oct 2019

A greener election

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Canada has just had a historic election. For the first time, the environment, specifically climate change, was the major issue in the campaign. It likely played an important role in voting patterns, given public opinion. The previous Liberal government had imposed a price on carbon emissions, often called a carbon tax. The Conservative party campaigned with a promise to abolish the tax. The Liberals won the most seats in the House of Commons, though they will form a minority government. However, three other parties that support carbon pricing and other measures to reduce climate change also won seats, meaning there is a strong majority in favour of controls on greenhouse gases. The Conservatives lost the election for a number of reasons, but their failure to have a strong and clear plan to fight climate change was certainly one of them.

29 Sep 2019

Making a sustainable future possible

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Like an avenging angel, Greta Thunberg has swept out of Sweden to accuse the world’s leaders of failing to save the planet

Greta Thunberg at the UN

from a climate disaster. The the 16-year-old schoolgirl turned climate activist regularly castigates political leaders. In a fiery speech at the United Nations on September 23, she said “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.” What started as a lonely crusade on the steps of the Swedish parliament last year has grown into a global movement of young people leaving school to accuse politicians around the world of failing to save the planet and leaving them to clean up the mess. Thunberg has catalyzed and mobilized millions in a justifiable protest against political actions that are too little and too late. What comes next? Many politicians would like to move faster, but they are afraid to take the kind of actions needed. Scientists have said we need cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 just to hold global warming to 1.5 C more than normal. That means rapidly starting the phase-out of fossil fuels, transforming agriculture to cut methane emissions, and changing whole industries, such as cement production. There is huge pushback to these ideas from many, especially those in the fossil fuel business. For politicians to move faster, they need to feel the voters will support them. What Thunberg and her followers need to do now is to change their consumption patterns and to convince others to do the same. The move to vegetarian diets and a slowing demand for cars among many young people is a first step. It needs to grow into a consumer movement that is grounded in sustainable use of energy and resources to give the green light to politicians and business leaders that sustainability is the future.

27 Aug 2019

Six transformations for sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The Amazon is burning, glaciers and icecaps are melting, people are dying from air pollution and species are being driven to extinction. We must transform how we live, work and play if we are to head off a series of environmental disasters that will make us sicker, poorer and put us in greater danger. In 2015 and 2016 nations agreed on 17 sustainable development goals for the world by 2030. They include ending poverty and hunger, ensuring equity, promoting sustainable consumption and production, and protecting and managing the natural resource base of the planet. Most nations also signed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which calls on the world to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to stop the planet from dangerously overheating.

How do we make the huge changes? Six world experts on sustainability,     Jeffrey D. Sachs, Guido Schmidt-Traub, Mariana Mazzucato, Dirk Messner, Nebojsa Nakicenovic and Johan Rockström, have proposed ways. In a paper, Six Transformations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, they call for “deep transformations in every country that will require complementary actions by governments, civil society, science and business.” The paper from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network says the transformations are interlinked and deal with a number of sustainability problems at the same time.

The six transformations are:

  1. Education to build human capital leading to reductions in poverty, inequality and gender discrimination.
  2. Universal health coverage and policies to increase well-being and quality of life.
  3. A shift from fossil fuels to zero carbon energy. They link this to a “circular economy” which keeps materials in use and virtually eliminates pollution.
  4. A move to efficient, resilient food systems that provide healthy diets and good livelihoods for food producers. This also requires protection of biodiversity, including land and marine habitats.
  5. Cleaner, safer cities where everyone has access to potable water and sanitation, and sustainable transportation.
  6. Universal access to the Internet along with a comprehensive set of rules and systems to help people benefit from the digital revolution.

The authors warn that putting such sweeping goals into action will require deep, deliberate, long-term structural changes in resource use, infrastructure, institutions, technologies and social relations over the next few decades. A successful transition to a sustainable world will require long-term planning combined with broad engagement with affected people and compensation for those who will face losses during the changes, such as people in the fossil fuel sector. The speed required and need for major government intervention are unprecedented in modern technological revolutions. They compare it to the 1960s US program to put a human on the moon in less than a decade, something initially seen by many as impossible.

15 Aug 2019

Sustainability pioneer sets sail

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Greta Thunberg setting sail. Credit: Ben Stansall

Greta Thunberg sets sail for New York. Credit: Ben Stansall

Pioneers are people who do what the rest of us can’t or won’t. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, is sailing across the Atlantic so she doesn’t create more pollution by taking a plane like most of us would. Last year, Thunberg quietly started skipping school and sitting on the stops of the Swedish parliament with a sign demanding the government do more to stop climate change. Since then, she has become a global symbol for young people demanding their elders do more to save the planet for the next generation. A person of principle, she travels to meetings in Europe by train, to reduce her carbon footprint. She wanted to be at next month’s Climate Action Summit at the United Nations in New York without flying. She got an offer to make the 3,500-nautical-mile voyage on the Maliza II, a bare-bones racing sailboat with solar panels and an underwater turbine to generate some electricity. It will not be a comfortable voyage. Whether crossing uncharted seas, finding ways through seemingly impenetrable mountain chains or rocketing into space, pioneers and explorers blazed new trails. Whether or not we will once again sail across oceans or will fly in low-pollution aircraft Thunberg is showing that if you are determined it’s possible to do things differently.

28 Jul 2019

The sustainability goals we are not meeting

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

In 2015, the world’s nations agreed on 17 sustainable development goals for the world by 2030. The goals have a strong focus on ending poverty and hunger, ensuring equity, promoting sustainable consumption and production, and protecting and managing the natural resource base of the planet.

An unofficial group of sustainability experts has produced the Sustainable Development Report 2019, a tally of how countries are doing. No country is on track for achieving all 17 goals. Nordic countries, particularly Denmark and Sweden, are top performers but even they face major challenges in implementing some goals. Even the best performers have trouble with responsible consumption and production, climate action and biodiversity protection. “Trends on greenhouse gas emissions and, even more so, on threatened species are moving in the wrong direction,” says the report. Income inequality continues and “high-income countries generate negative impacts on fatal accidents at work, typically by importing products and services from low- and middle-income countries with poor labour standards and conditions.” Half the world’s nations are not on track to eliminate poverty.

The report says market forces alone will not achieve sustainable development goals. “Directed transformations are needed to develop the technologies, promote the public and private investments, and ensure adequate governance mechanisms needed…” These transformations must have buy-in from all sectors of society or they will fail, as has already been seen in a number of countries. The report proposes six sustainability transformations:

  • Education, Gender, and Inequality
  • Health, Wellbeing, and Demography
  • Energy Decarbonization and Sustainable Industry
  • Sustainable Food, Land, Water and Oceans
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • Harnessing the Digital Revolution for Sustainable Development

In September world leaders will meet at the United Nations in New York to report on what they are doing.

 

13 Jun 2019

Time to move

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Imagine that you are living in a comfortable hotel. You can have anything you want for dinner every night. The swimming pool is heated even in winter. You can jump on a plane and fly across the world whenever you desire. But, the hotel is slowly running out of supplies. It is deteriorating. It will begin to shut down. You will be very uncomfortable. You could move across the street to simpler but still very comfortable accommodations. You would not eat much steak. The pool has solar heat. You would strop driving gas-powered cars. You would not fly very much until aircraft switched to renewable energy.

When will we be ready to change hotels? The natural world – our support system – is crumbling under the impacts of climate change, harmful chemicals, destruction of fertile soil, deforestation, overfishing and killing of other species. But most people still hesitate to move “across the street” to the clean, efficient hotel. We don’t want to give fossil-fueled cars, flying and buying lots of stuff. Our efforts to change are marginal. Blue boxes and slightly more efficient cars are not enough to turn the tide. What will it take to get the majority ready for the kind of seismic changes in behaviour and consumption that we need? Historically, people made major changes for a limited number of reasons, such as war, extreme poverty, charismatic leaders, religious belief and, in the distant past, natural climate changes. Today, human-caused climate change is causing crises in a growing number of regions. Low-lying islands are getting more flooding. Droughts are becoming more common and in some tropical regions they are sending “climate refugees” toward northern countries. These northern countries are undergoing more floods and forest fires.

Greta Thunberg, warning to world leaders

Pressures are building. People who lose their homes to exceptional and repeating floods, and to record forest fires are starting to call on politicians to take much more serious action to control greenhouse gases. It will take this and more public pressure for politicians to feel comfortable making the huge changes needed in our energy systems. Pressure is also coming from the young. This year there were unprecedented Youth Climate Strikes by students around the world. The unofficial leader and inspiration is Greta Thunberg a Swedish high school student. This winter she told political and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “…I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I do. Every day. And I want you to act. I want you to behave like our house is on fire. Because it is.” She told them to stop saying it is too complicated. “Either we prevent temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees (Celsius), or we don’t. Either we avoid chain reaction of unravelling ecosystems, or we don’t. That’s as black or white as it gets. Now we all have a choice: we can either create transformational action or continue with business as usual and fail.”

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.