Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

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1 Apr 2024

The Brundtland beginning

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on The Brundtland beginning

photo of Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland
Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland

It’s hard to believe it was 40 years ago I flew to the United Nations headquarters in New York to interview, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, head of the new World Commission on Environment and Development. In 1983 a number of countries, including Canada called for a commission on the future of the environment. Wisely, the United Nations turned that into something broader, looking at the kind of development that was destroying the environment while providing things people needed and wanted. Dr. Brundtland, a no-nonsense get things done person, pulled together a panel of experts from around the world and in 1987 released a report, Our Common Future, which popularized the term “sustainable development,” now usually referred to as sustainability. It brought a global wave of support but it’s sobering to look at where we are today on the curve of sustainability. Most people are aware of the growing environmental crises and many are changing their behaviour. Governments have enacted many new laws to curb pollution and protect species. Nations of the world have agreed on sustainability goals. But is far from enough. The climate change crisis keeps getting worse because we still don’t have enough affordable and available sources of green energy. Tropical forests are still cut and burned to create agricultural lands. The seas are still being over-fished. There is still poverty, hunger and war. It’s worth celebrating the achievement of getting us on the path to sustainability but the real celebrations will have to wait until we bring our consumption and pollution within nature’s capacity to deal with it on a permanent basis.

1 Apr 2024

More sustainable weddings

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on More sustainable weddings

As winter grinds to an end we’re approaching another season, that of weddings. They’re one of the most important events in people’s lives. They are often big and expensive. In recent years Canadian weddings were estimated to cost between $20,000 and $30,000. Young couples sweat the cost and the invitation list. How many think about the environmental impact? A European jewellery company has put up a website called The Guide to Sustainable, Zero-Waste, Ethical Weddings. It looks at the impact of a typical wedding using British information but the impacts will be very similar anywhere. There are large amounts of unrecyclable plastic, food waste and exotic flowers flown from far away. The average wedding has a big carbon footprint. What to do? The website provides lots of tips. Some, such as eco-friendly products, rented outfits and ethically sourced diamonds, should be obvious but maybe young couples don’t always think of the environmental impact of their big day. It’s a useful source of information for those who want to reduce their ecological footprint.

27 Mar 2024

The young are not OK

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on The young are not OK

There’s a disturbing message in the World Happiness Report 2024. Young people (aged 15-24) in a number of countries are now less happy than older people who are approaching end of life. It probably should not be surprising. The world is full of conflicts. Climate change and environmental decline are wrecking the future for the young. Fewer young people can afford to own a home. [When my wife and I bought our first house many years ago we could afford a nice place in a good Toronto neighbourhood. With current house prices and middle-income salaries, we’d have no hope of buying a similar home today.] Social media have given young people unprecedented ways of connecting but also of being bullied and targeted for extortion.

The latest happiness report, using data from the Gallup World Poll, was prepared by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an international panel of social scientists. Scores are based on individuals’ own assessments of their lives. The survey looked at six key issues: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and freedom from corruption.

Once again, the Nordic countries top the list for happy people. Wealthy countries did not fare that well. Canada came in at 15th and for the young ranked 58th, falling below peers in much poorer countries. By contrast those over 60 in Canada ranked their happiness much higher, comparable to Nordic countries. Why do the Nordics keep ranking high in happiness? They have a good life expectancy and a very strong social safety net. I remember a Dane telling me that the government had raised taxes but had strong public support because people knew the money would be used to keep them secure and healthy in difficult times. By contrast strong political lobbies in countries like the United States fight to lower taxes but this leaves the vulnerable exposed to the risk of crushing health costs and lower life expectancies.

18 Feb 2024

Data and climate change

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Data and climate change

The increasing use of computers has been under the gun for its voracious demands for energy to run the machines and power the Internet. When that energy comes from burning fossil fuels it is aggravating climate change. But an organization called datascienceprograms.com that promotes education in data science is encouraging people to use data science to deal with our greatest environmental problems. A web page titled How Data Science Can Help Fight Climate Change says “Data science … uses different methods, such as machine learning (where computers learn from data) and data visualization (turning data into pictures), to analyze the details and understand the most challenging components of climate change.” It goes on to explain how data is used to understand climate and to propose some solutions to our changing climate. It’s an interesting site for people who want to understand how data is and can be used and especially for those seeking careers in the data field.

11 Feb 2024

A movement for sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on A movement for sustainability

In the struggle for sustainability everyone is a player but some are more powerful and better organized than others. For example, OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) brings together governments and industries to see that the world keeps burning fossil fuels even as their emissions drive a climate disaster. Other industry groups, often working with governments, are busy trying to cut down or burn the world’s remaining forests or to scoop up what is left of the fish in the seas.

On the other side is a large but scattered series of groups and individuals pushing for limits to excessive resource exploitation and pollution. They are up against governments and billionaires who want to maintain the status quo. What chance do they have?

A thoughtful series of essays called What’s Next for the Global Movement? tries to look at how people and organizations might unite to offer a way of living within the planet’s means. It’s from a group of thinkers called the Great Transition Initiative, a project dating back more than two decades.

As they write, “we’re in a world of trouble” and “It emerges from a political and economic system adept at creating problems but inept at finding solutions.” The problems, such as climate change and a growing gulf between rich and poor, “…require a broad response at the global level that goes against the perceived short-term interests of many.” Governments are limited in what they can do. “No government can move first or act alone to solve global problems because doing so would make its national economy uncompetitive, risking unemployment, capital flight and economic decline.”

So, how do you mobilize against the juggernaut of unsustainable development? Authors call for “a global citizens’ movement centered around people, peace and planet. To get broad support it will need to help people understand the limits to growth and to see practical alternatives. It needs to offer a vision of a life that could be slower, simpler and more satisfying, lived in closer connection with self, family, community and nature.

One author calls for an Ecological Civilization Coalition that will turn unrest and protest into a force for societal transformation. It will require collaboration by thousands of organizations and the mobilization of millions of citizens. They will need to work at the global scale and against a powerful and entrenched economic system that puts wealth generation before ecological stability. Such a coalition will need leadership from people who can take the principles of sustainable development from the World Commission on Environment and Development and the UN Sustainable Development Goals and push for action. This seismic change will need the broad support of citizens around the world. People will have to be willing to limit their desire to consume in return for a more stable, safe and predictable life. Such a transition will not be easy.

5 Feb 2024

Addicted to fossils

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Addicted to fossils

Around the world tens of thousands of people die every year from drug overdoses. It’s a tragic loss of life and the subject of much debate on how to save drug addicts. But millions die annually because of our addiction to fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. A 2021 study by Harvard University, the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London, estimated that more than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution, or 1 in 5 deaths worldwide. The burning of these fuels releases pollutants such as fine particulates and ozone. Breathing these leads to heart disease, strokes, lung disease and cancer.

Credit: cherwell.org

Numerous studies say that phasing out the use of fossil fuels, which we know is essential to stop climate disasters, will also save millions of lives and reduce suffering from these diseases. Medical experts say it is extremely hard for addicts to break their dependence on drugs. The same is true for fossil fuels, which produce about 80 per cent of the world’s energy and support our economies and lifestyles. The greenhouse gases they produce are also causing a dramatic increase in weather disasters, such as floods, droughts and wildfires. Warmer weather is melting glaciers and polar ice caps, raising sea levels, and is allowing tropical diseases to spread further. The net result is more death, destruction of property and human misery. So cutting fossil fuel use will not only stabilize our climate but it will save millions of lives a year.

14 Dec 2023

Some climate progress

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Some climate progress

It was perhaps the best we could hope for. The 198 countries at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai agreed for the first time that the world has to transition away from fossil fuels by 2050 to stop the growing damage from climate change. Many countries wanted stronger language, such as an explicit commitment to phase out or even phase down fossil fuels. The final statement also called for global renewable energy to be tripled and the rate of energy efficiency improvements doubled by 2030. The reality is that emissions may keep increasing. More than 400 oil and gas projects were approved globally in the last two years based on data from Rystad Energy consultants.

Renewable energy is growing fast but fossil fuels, coal, oil and natural gas, still provide nearly 82 per cent of the world’s energy. Renewables, including hydro-electricity, provide just over 14 per cent of power while the remaining 4 per cent is from nuclear reactors, which emit no greenhouse gases. The annual conference on dealing with climate change came during the hottest year since accurate records began more than a century ago. Around the world tens of millions suffered from heat waves, drought, forest fires and floods. A warmer climate is causing the spread of tropical diseases. Previously, the UN’s IPCC climate expert panel has said emissions need to be slashed by 43 per cent this decade to limit global warming to 1.5C, the goal set at the Paris climate summit in 2015.

6 Dec 2023

Good COP or bad COP?

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Good COP or bad COP?

It’s a troubling sign when the person heading global negotiations to stop climate change is the head of one of the world’s largest oil companies. The president of COP28, the 28th United Nations Climate Change conference is Sultan al-Jaber, who is also the head of the United Arab Emirates’ state oil firm, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Early in the meeting he was quoted as saying there was no science to say that we need to phase out fossil fuels to control climate change. That goes against decades of scientific findings that we must rapidly stop burning coal, oil and gas to cut the amount of climate damage. al-Jaber later said: “We very much believe and respect the science.” Jim Skea, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the meeting there is a global scientific consensus agreed to by governments. It states that by 2050 coal use is virtually be eliminated and oil use had to be reduced by 60 per cent and gas use by 45 per cent by 2050,

The conference this year in Dubai is shaping up as a titanic struggle between fossil fuel producers and people trying to stop environmental destruction. The meeting opened not with a promise to reduce climate pollution but with an offer to pay compensation to poor countries for some of the damage climate change is causing. We have just come through a year of devastating climate extremes and countries already suffering from the effects of climate chaos want actual reductions in pollution. More than half the 198 countries at COP28 called for a fuel phaseout, an immediate end to all new oil and gas production, and clear end dates for fossil fuel production. The problem is they are asking rich petro states to stop making as much money. Many fossil fuel promoters, their heads firmly buried in oil-rich sands are trying to increase production. Although fossil fuel emissions continue to rise, there are some encouraging trends. More than 100 countries have pledged to triple their renewable capacity and double energy efficiency by the end of the decade. A number of countries are phasing out coal burning power plants and installing wind and solar power. The conference continues until Dec. 12.

12 Nov 2023

Happy birthday sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Happy birthday sustainability

It was 40 years ago that the seeds were sown for one of the defining terms of our era: sustainability. In late 1983, the United Nations, at the urging of Canada and a handful of other nations, decided to create a commission on the future of the environment. There was growing concern about uncontrolled pollution and overuse of natural resources. A decade earlier the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment had warned of the dangers of environmental destruction. In the same period the Club of Rome, a gathering of world scientists, educators, economists, humanists, industrialists and civil servants, published Limits to Growth. It warned of impending shortages of natural resources provoking a huge debate. The Science Council of Canada published The Conserver Society, saying that society must “begin the transition from a consumer society preoccupied with resource exploitation to a conserver society engaged in more constructive endeavours.”

In 1984 the United Nations announced the World Commission on Environment and Development, a group of distinguished government, business and academic experts from around the world. The commission, headed by Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, held hearings around the world. In 1987, it released its historic report Our Common Future, saying “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable—to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The Brundtland Report used the term sustainable development but over the years it has been shortened to sustainability. This is a good way of describing the goal but we need to keep a focus on the kind of development we are using. Right now too much of it is still based on fossil fuels whose emissions are ruining our climate and overuse of natural resources, such as forests and fish, which are creating shortages and a less stable environment for our future.

12 Nov 2023

Going in two directions

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Going in two directions

A report on how fossil fuel production is rising despite promises to cut it shows the hypocrisy of nations around the world. It comes at a time when greenhouse gas emissions are rising, the climate is warming and becoming more extreme and people are facing disastrous floods, fires, droughts and storms.

“Governments, in aggregate, still plan to produce  more than  double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than what would be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C.” This comes despite 151 national governments having pledged to achieve net-zero emissions. The Production Gap report comes from five expert organizations, including the United Nations Environment Programme. Along with it comes a warning from António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General: “We cannot address climate catastrophe without tackling its root cause: fossil fuel dependence.”

As individuals we are caught in the middle of an epic battle for our future. We know that we need to cut emissions dramatically. Many people are switching to electric cars, mass transit, heat pumps and energy efficiency but it is far from enough. At the same time too many industries, especially fossil fuel producers, keep on polluting, supported by politicians who refuse to lead us into a cleaner future.

24 Oct 2023

Some good climate news

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Some good climate news

Finally, some good news on the climate front. Today the International Energy Agency [IEA] released a report saying we are moving toward a post fossil fuel era. Investment in clean energy has risen by 40 per cent since 2020 both because of the need to stop climate change and because it makes economic sense. This is a historic shift and one that is essential if we are to prevent more climate catastrophes. For many years fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas, have provided about 80 per cent of the global energy supply. The IEA forecasts this will start to drop this decade, although not fast enough to stop climate change. It was 50 years ago that we saw the first major oil blockage by a group of Arab countries. It caused a huge economic upset and led for some time to the phrase “off oil” as countries struggled to deal with supply shortages. Once oil supplies resumed the world went on to consume even more oil and other fossil fuels, driving up air pollution and climate change. Now that clean energy is getting cheaper the world is finally starting the long overdue shift away from polluting fuels.

15 Oct 2023

Eating ourselves to death

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Eating ourselves to death

In the 1973 French film, La Grande Bouffe, [the big feast] four men decide to gorge themselves to death on fine cuisine. It was a satire on excessive consumption, but now we are starting to see the reality. People are literally eating themselves to death, though at a slower pace than in the film, with too much unhealthy food, causing heart disease and diabetes. We are also eating up one species after another, whether “bush meat” in the tropics or fish species in decline that end up on our dinner plates.

We humans are inquisitive and acquisitive. These characteristics took us from caves to the moon. But our uncontrolled consumption of the planet’s resources and the resulting pollution threaten our very future. Overconsumption is the root cause of unsustainability. In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development said everyone is entitled to satisfy their needs and reasonable wants. What we see now is an orgy of consumption by the rich minority of people. Too many people feel this consumption brings enough pleasure that it offsets the fear of environmental collapse.

Either people don’t realize or don’t care that it will take decades, even centuries to undo much of the damage we are inflicting on our world. We are entering a whole new era in which climate change will inflict huge damage, we will lose species, and food production will likely fail to keep up with demand. We need something to trigger a great change in our thinking. People need see themselves living well within nature’s ability to regenerate natural resources and safely assimilate our pollution.

9 Oct 2023

Running out of time

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Running out of time

Pope Francis

A highly respected world leader, Pope Francis, has warned that we are running out of time to save ourselves from the climate changes we are creating. In a blunt message he said, “the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point.” He said a number modern of technologies have destroyed what used to be a healthy and harmonious relationship between humans and nature. “We have not realized that at the same time we have turned into highly dangerous beings, capable of threatening the lives of many beings and our own survival.” His statement comes eight years after his powerful statement on sustainability that accused the rich and powerful of turning a blind eye to environmental destruction while continuing with excessive and wasteful consumption.

The pope’s latest critique of the modern world was released after a summer of record heat, drought, wildfires and floods as the global temperature continues to rise because of greenhouse gases released by human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels.

29 Aug 2023

Mea culpa

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Mea culpa

If we are to change our lifestyles to live within nature’s limits we have to start by admitting some hard truths. The first is that most people in the industrialized world are consuming and polluting far too much. My own mea culpa: I’ve always enjoyed driving cars, especially sports cars. Over the past 60 plus years of driving I’ve probably released more than 200 tonnes of CO2. And that’s not counting the emissions from travel for pleasure and business. Ironically some business travel was to work on environmental projects. What next? I try to limit driving while planning for either a pure electric car or a plug-in hybrid that will drastically reduce emissions. I have a heat pump on order to replace a gas furnace. I’ve reduced meat consumption. These are small steps and not enough to reach net zero but they are a start. And, we all have to start someplace. How about you?

8 Aug 2023

Hard to face reality

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Hard to face reality

Recently, I watched an interview with some western farmers struggling to deal with crippling droughts that have become more severe in recent years. They were asked if climate change was the cause. Both dodged the question saying there had always been droughts. That is true but scientists say human-caused climate change is making weather more extreme and is behind the terrible heat waves, droughts and forest fires around the planet. The interview reminded me of a conversation a few years ago with a friend who had been a medical doctor and was always well informed about the news. When I mentioned that climate change was getting more severe he kept raising arguments to question such an idea. I have been writing about climate change for 40 years and have seen the solid science behind the forecasts that have become reality. I used to be annoyed by denials but now I feel more sympathy. After all, it’s hard to admit many of the things we have been doing all our lives, such as driving fossil-fueled cars and burning natural gas, are causing a climate crisis that will kill people and wreck economies. In the United States it has become a political issue with climate change deniers leading a major political party. We need to stop the arguments and find ways to get together to find solutions for the crisis we have created.

31 Jul 2023

Looking ahead to 2050

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Looking ahead to 2050

What might our world look like in 2050? Do we have a chance to avert climate disaster? A group of Canadian academics is writing about how we might do it. The Environmental Governance Lab at University of Toronto is publishing a series of “We Did It!?” stories from the perspective of writers in the year 2050. The lab is hosted by the U of T Department of Political Science and the School of the Environment and includes writers, mainly from Canadian universities. The focus is on the political choices and social dynamics that could bring about a Net Zero Canada by 2050. The writers assume that after a slow start there will be an all-out push to renewable energy in the coming decade. They predict economic reforms aimed at more equitable income distribution, and Energy Aid policies. They see the country moving to a circular economy where “wastes” are recycled and reused to a much greater extent. It’s not all roses. They say that the global average temperature may be held to under a 2-degree warming and we will avoid utter catastrophe, but will live in a far more uncertain, dangerous, and precarious world than we had hoped. The new normal includes nearly constant deadly heat waves and flooding.

This is a welcome attempt to look at how the world might change enough to stave off a climate collapse. Too much of the public dialogue has been about technical fixes and funding of big companies. We need more broad looks at how social attitudes could shift from high consumption and pollution that is driving climate change to lifestyles that fit within the planetary boundaries we keep ignoring.

15 Jul 2023

Smoke signals

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Smoke signals

When I get up in the morning I always check the weather forecast. Now I also check the smoke forecast on Firesmoke. We may have fair weather but still be plagued by smoke blowing south from the hundreds of forest fires burning across Canada’s north. Some days I look up and the sky is brown with air pollution. It will be a bad day for breathing. It’s just one more signal of our climate crisis. The north has become so hot and dry that it’s like a campfire waiting for a match. Around the world this summer people are suffering and dying in record heat waves. Crops are withering. June was the hottest month on record. Storms are becoming more fierce.

Despite decades of warnings and agreements to reduce climate changing pollution we’ve made no progress. About 80 per cent of the world’s energy comes from burning fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. We have been adding large amounts of renewable energy in recent years but that is mainly coping with growing demand and the old fossil fuel burners keep pouring out pollution that harms our health and is destroying our climate.

We have to face a stark choice. We can make unprecedented cuts to fossil fuel use which will cause huge disruptions to our economies and lifestyles for years as we shift to renewable energy. Or we can continue to stumble along and change the climate so much that our civilization will crumble. Hard choices. Time’s a wasting.

17 Jun 2023

Danger signals

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Danger signals

It’s ironic that Canada, one of the world’s major oil and gas producers, is taking it on the chin from climate change. The country is heading toward a record forest fire season thanks to extreme high temperatures and dry forests from our warming climate. Homes and businesses are burned to the ground and tens of thousands of people have become climate refugees in their own country. Thousands of firefighters from around the world came to Canada to help but they are facing uncontrollable walls of fire as high as a 30-storey building. Smoke from the wildfires travelled thousands of kilometres, poisoning the air in cities as far south as Washington, DC. Forest fire smoke, once a faraway problem is choking millions of people in the biggest cities. Air pollution readings shoot into the danger zone. These fires add an exclamation point to a recent study by the international scientist group Earth Commission. It said human activities have pushed the planet past seven out of eight scientifically established safety limits and into “the danger zone.”

BC Forest Fire 2023.
Credit: B.C. Wildfire Service

It is a sign of the profound unsustainability of our economy and lifestyles that that Canada, the world’s fourth largest oil producer, is suffering so much from climate change caused by burning fossil fuels. Even as fires rage and people flee for their lives, many politicians continue to push for more fossil fuel production instead of cutting greenhouse gas emissions sharply every year.  The burning question is how frightened people will have to be to demand governments enforce stringent pollution controls and stop the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

31 May 2023

The decline of life

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on The decline of life

When I got my first car, quite a few years ago, one of the first products I bought was bug remover. From spring through summer the windshield and front of the car were pasted with dozens if not hundreds of dead insects after a drive. Now, the most I see is a handful of insect splashes on the front of the car. It’s a visible symbol of the decline of life on our planet. In a recent article the academic journal Biological Reviews published an article trying to put some numbers on the crisis in life on Earth. “The global-scale decline of animal biodiversity … represents one of the most alarming consequences of human impacts on the planet,” write the authors. They looked at population trend data for more than 71,000 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians fishes and insects. They found that 48 per cent of species were in decline, mostly in tropical regions. The major cause of decline is loss of habitat as wildlands are cleared to cut timber and create more farms and ranches.

Polar bears at risk

“Animal populations and whole species are declining across the tree of life,” they write describing it as the “defaunation” of the planet. The loss of biodiversity is so high they say that life on Earth is entering its sixth mass extinction. The great extinction was 65 million years ago when a huge asteroid plowed into our planet and wiped out about half of plant and animal species at the time, including the dinosaurs.

Scientists have long warned that as the web of life shrinks we start losing ecological or natural services that make our planet habitable. These include maintenance of our atmosphere and water supplies, pollination of many foods and knowledge that leads to development of medicines.

29 May 2023

Cleaner energy coming

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Cleaner energy coming

And now some good news about sustainable development. According to the International Energy Agency [IEA] annual investment in renewable energy is up by nearly a quarter since 2021. More money is going into clean energy projects than into fossil fuels that are causing climate change.

About USD 2.8 trillion is set to be invested globally in energy in 2023, of which more than USD 1.7 trillion is expected to go to clean technologies – including renewables, electric vehicles, nuclear power, grids, storage, low-emissions fuels, efficiency improvements and heat pumps – according to the IEA’s latest World Energy Investment report. Solar power spending is expected to hit $1 billion a day.

Coal and solar in Denmark

“Clean energy is moving fast – faster than many people realize. This is clear in the investment trends, where clean technologies are pulling away from fossil fuels,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.

More people are buying heat pumps instead of gas furnaces, and electric vehicles instead of gas and diesel. The world’s biggest car makers are switching their production to electric vehicles as countries order phase-outs of internal combustion engines over the next decade or so.

Despite this good news we are far from reducing the production and use of fossil fuels. The IEA says more than USD 1 trillion, will be invested in coal, gas and oil this year. We are still far from meeting the greenhouse gas reductions needed to prevent disastrous climate change.