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Change of mindset, collective action, needed to tackle global warming

Canadian magazine EnviroLine reported on the program's inaugural lecture featuring Andrew Weaver.

By Sharon Szmolyan, B.A., M.B.A.
Originally published in EnviroLine

LOS ANGELES – Climate scientist Andrew Weaver, a member of the Nobel Prize-wining United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, presented “Global Warming: A Canadian Perspective,” at the Canadian Studies Program’s inaugural reception and lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles on November 7, 2012.

It was a night in which it became a little easier to identify with the sentiments of John Milton’s paraphrase of Psalm 114:

Shake earth, and at the presence be aghast
Of him that ever was, and aye shall last,
That glassy floods from rugged rocks can crush,
And make soft rills from the fiery flint-stones gush.

Devastation caused by a 900-mile (1450-kilometre)-wide storm was still fresh on the minds of those gathered. Many had loved ones living in the path of the largest and most destructive weather event experienced by North America’s most densely populated region (19,006,798, according to the U.S. Census Bureau). New York, the city of five ‘boroughs:’ Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island and Northern New Jersey, had been ravaged. “Superstorm Sandy” brought climate change front and centre into the public dialogue.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in an Oct. 30, 2012 press briefing, said that New York seemed to be hit with a “100-year flood every two years now” as a result of rising sea levels caused by global warming. “There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement; that is a factual statement,” Cuomo said.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg echoed Cuomo’s comments, saying that the city was facing storms “much more severe than before.” Bloomberg cited climate change as a major deciding factor for his endorsement of President Barack Obama in the U.S. presidential election.

Climate change in the U.S. is a political issue, as it is in Canada.

Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, is now seeking the Green Party of BC nomination in Oak Bay Gordon Head in the May 2013 provincial election. Weaver says he felt “now was the time to get engaged to ensure that the principles of economic, social and environmental sustainability continue to be raised and discussed in the legislative assembly.” (See http://www.greenparty.bc.ca/andrewweaver/?p=1).

Climate change is also an economic issue in both countries.

The waters have receded, bridges are re-opened, New York’s swamped subway tunnels have been pumped out, and the submerged streets of Manhattan’s financial district are being repaired. Millions of New Yorkers have returned to their regular pursuits and the damages from Superstorm Sandy are being factored from a GDP perspective. EQECAT Inc., a catastrophe risk-modeling firm, estimates insured losses of between $10 billion to $20 billion, and total economic damages of between $30 billion to $50 billion.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) attempts to translate impact of damages from natural disasters such as hurricanes into two categories: the destruction of property and the capital stock (buildings and equipment), and the disruption of the flow of income that this stock of capital produces. The latter is reflected in the BEA’s quarterly GDP releases, as is any rebuilding of the capital stock in subsequent quarters and years. Reconstruction of the capital stock is a GDP event. Sandy will likely produce a noticeable impact on industrial production and retail sales of a few tenths of a percentage point and a modest decline in consumer confidence, Barclay’s economists in New York calculate. 

Environmentalists see Sandy as the climate change tipping point, a ‘Cuyahoga River moment,’ referring to the polluted Ohio River that caught fire in 1969. That event sparked an environmental movement, leading to the National Environmental Protection Act which helped establish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Clean Water Act. Sandy has pushed climate change back to a front-and-centre position in the American media.

The Canadian Studies Program at UCLA event – sponsored by the Canadian Consulate General, the province of Ontario’s members of the Western Climate Initiative and their international marketing centre in Los Angeles, the Québec provincial government’s LA office, and UCLA’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences – was a kick-off to the Canadian Studies Program’s new direction.

Established through a $300,000 endowment made to UCLA in 2001 (during former prime minister Jean Chretien’s Liberal government), the program’s intention – to enter into a partnership with the university to forge a relationship that would deepen knowledge and understanding of Canada by UCLA students, faculty and alumni – has a new focus: bringing speakers to address issues of concern to both Canada and the U.S. It is an interdisciplinary program, extending across the physical, ecological and social sciences, as well as policy, business, engineering, law and medicine, rather than being limited in one department.

Weaver noted that climate scientists had been calling for attention to the fact that warmer ocean temperatures, together with rising sea levels, would bring about more devastating hurricanes. He did not, however, attribute Superstorm Sandy to climate change.

Weaver began with the big picture, before turning to Canada’s perspective on global warming, specifically how scientists might prepare the public for the complex scenarios of climate-challenged planet, which he views as a communications issue. He addressed the fact that anti-environmentalism has been a keystone of neoliberal anti-regulatory politics, and that the perceived threats posed by climate change discourse have intensified environmental opposition in the Republican Party.

Since 2008, the National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change has examined the perceptions and preferences of residents of the United States regarding their views on the existence of climate change and potential policy approaches to address global warming. The discrediting of global climate change claims began in earnest in 1989, when the Marshall Institute, an American conservative think tank, issued its first report disputing climate science (See Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway; Bloomsbury Press, 2010).

Although climate change denial is a latecomer to neoliberal anti-environmentalism, it is now the counter-movement’s pivotal issue in battles against environmental regulations. Neoliberals hold that the issue provides license for wholesale government intervention everywhere.

Conservative columnist and climate change denier George Will has argued (2008) that the fanatical “green left’s” charges that CO2 emissions and fossil fuel industries pose a “planetary menace” provide a rationale for the government to “intrude” everywhere, curtail consumer choice and property rights, and increase the state’s size and surveillance. The Wall Street Journal identified Will, in 1986, as “perhaps the most powerful journalist in America.”

America’s mainstream media, having been pummeled by conservative attacks over alleged liberal bias and seeking ‘editorial balance,’ often grant parity with published, peer-reviewed science to ‘climate skeptic’ news releases and policy papers from right-wing think tanks and their bought experts and pundits.

The views of the far right, having increased their leverage during recessions and through periods of economic insecurity, are now receptive to many Americans. Many believe that regulating fuel efficiency – and thereby vehicle size and weight – increases energy prices and taxes, “kills jobs,” violates freedom of choice and threatens overall liberty.

A Bloomberg poll conducted in October 2012 found that only 26 per cent of Republicans believe human activity is warming the planet, compared with 78 per cent of Democrats and 56 per cent of independents. “The GOP is as stony a ground for that issue as you can find today,” said Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute libertarian think tank and a frequent critic of federal environmental policy.

Given this, how are members of the public likely to assess and think about very real, scientifically substantiated risks? How can policy makers make plans for adaptation, mitigation and development in the face of all the perceived uncertainty?

Representative democracy and its political dynamics are being driven by new social movements that treat science cynically, fueling endless public debate – in the face of sound science – over risks and the public policy to deal with them, and at a time when voters in elections tend to be poorly informed about issues.

In Canada, the National Survey of Canadian Public Opinion on Climate Change, which accompanied the American survey, found that belief in climate change among Canadians is significantly greater than among U.S. residents. Canadians who believe that climate change is occurring also have the general belief that it constitutes a very serious problem.

Canadians tend to reject claims by climate change deniers that scientists are manipulating climate research for their own interests. Canadians also express a higher degree of willingness than Americans to pay for increased production of renewable energy resources, indicating that they would support such policy options such as cap-and-trade and carbon taxes, even if this imposed increased costs of up to $50 per month in energy expenses.

However, partisan affiliation is associated with individual views on global warming in Canada. Conservative Party supporters are significantly less likely than supporters of other federal parties to believe that the Earth is warming. Under the Stephen Harper government, there’s very little appetite for doing anything to mitigate climate change.

The question underlying Weaver’s presentation to the Canadian Studies Program at UCLA boils down to this: given that the ultimate effects of global warming will not be felt in our lifetimes, are we incapable of feeling a moral responsibility for future generations?

Across North America, we are grappling with a mindset that is composed of a complex of institutions, habits, and attitudes – a ‘habitus’ that is insouciant about social and ecological limits. While many of us in believe in anthropogenic warming and fear its consequences, few are willing to expend significant resources or alter our way of living to meet the challenge. The belief in the need for continuous economic growth, at almost any cost, supersedes everything in a time of high unemployment, global fiscal insecurity and an ever-tightening job market.

But truly, we are embedded in the biosphere. Recognizing this fact compels envisioning a possible community that cultivates awareness of our social interdependence and responsibility to fellow human beings, future generations and other life on the planet. This sense of collective fate needs to be underscored in efforts to illuminate what confronts us, form strategies to deal with it, and take collective and shared action aimed at altering our relations to others and to nature.
All this may sound utopian, but globalization and its environmental ‘wall’ have changed the scenario. In a world where current rates of global resource consumption in developed nations are being extended to hundreds of millions or billions more people, continuous, unplanned, exponential growth simply cannot be sustained.

Under the Harper government, Canada’s policies on climate change have been weak. The last federal budget was accompanied by a 400 page piece of legislation that dedicated one-third of its measures toward giving the federal government new tools to authorize water pollution, investigate environmental groups, and limit public participation in consultations and reviews of proposed industrial projects. 

Jeffrey Simpson, in a Globe and Mail column titled “Canada’s Message: The world and its climate be damned: wrote that the view is “since Canada ‘only’ contributes 2 per cent of total emissions (while being among the largest per capita emitters), it should really do very little.

Ponder that argument. Has it ever been seriously advanced – in war or peace – that Canada isn’t doing its part in world affairs?

Did Canada say in two world wars, ‘Sorry, since we can’t be the decisive actor alone, we’ll take a pass?’
Should Canada refuse to give foreign aid because its aid alone can’t eliminate poverty?

Should Canada withdraw from a multitude of international institutions because it’s smaller than other member countries and thus can’t do much by itself?” (See http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/canadas-message-the-world-and-its-climate-be-damned/article4403806/).

Weaver in his talk noted that unlike Canada, Sweden is “very progressive” in tackling carbon-related issues. “Canada is particularly egregious,” he said. “As of 2007, we (had) a made-in-Canada solution and we have lost our reputation in the international space.” Some of us even believe in the ‘ethical oil’ argument.

Within Canada, Quebec has always led the way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, followed by B.C. and Ontario, Weaver said. He ranked Alberta and Saskatchewan at the bottom. “When we invest in infrastructure, let’s think of a way to achieve carbon neutrality,” he said.

Weaver addressed the scenarios of a 2°C (3.6°F) to a 4°C (7.2°F) increase in average global temperature. At a 2°C increase, the world is marked by extreme heat waves, declining global food supplies, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.

As global warming approaches and exceeds 2°C, Weaver noted that there is a risk of triggering nonlinear ‘tipping’ elements. The West Antarctic ice sheet could disintegrate, leading to more rapid sea level rise, or there may be a large-scale dieback of the Amazon rainforest that would disrupt Earth’s ecosystems, rivers, agriculture, energy production and livelihoods.

At a 4°C rise in global temperature, “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” as Michael Stipe of R.E.M. put it.
Harvard University professor E.O. Wilson estimates that if we continue on our present course, half of all plant and animal species could be extinct by 2100 – that is, within the lifetime of a child born today.

Kenya stands to lose its lions within 20 years. India is finishing off its tigers. Deforestation everywhere means that thousands of species (including hundreds yet to be discovered) too small or obscure to be kept on life support in a zoo vanish each year.

It was not until the late 1960s that we were able to see the first stunning images of Earth from space. They showed a remarkable oasis of blue and white within the broad expanses of a lifeless cosmos – an oasis protected by a thin, fragile mantle of gases. It was a gripping reminder that Earth may indeed be unique and irreplaceable. Various astronauts in the Apollo flights have noted that, from the lunar distance, the Earth’s atmosphere appears so thin that it is virtually unobservable – a resource that humans need to learn to conserve and use wisely.

Whether you are a citizen of Canada, the United States, the European Union, China or any other inhabitable place on the planet, it will take recognition that the threat posed by global warming and climate change calls for collective action and mobilization of civil society, to initiate state intervention and to reconstruct social liberalism or another yet-to-be-imagined alternative policy regime.

We will need to redefine liberty, to bring it more into balance with equality, and create more just, sustainable alternatives to the growth imperative and capitalism as we have known it. Totalitarian governments repress liberty recognizing it as a competitor to state power to define – or redefine – human or civil rights. The linkage between citizens and their government is strengthened when the public has ample opportunity to have their concerns heard by the legislature.

Coping with an ecological crisis on a planetary scale requires a critical discourse, a spirited public, a capacity for compromise, care for others and a willingness to look at what we are doing and ask how we could cultivate the skills to think and act in the public interest, honing our capacity for empathy, dialog and while discerning the will to make a difference. 

As in UBC’s motto: Tu um est. It is up to you. It is up to all of us.

I am crazily optimistic. Just as humans have been responsible for creating the problem of global warming we are the solution.

‘Decision landscapes’ evolve. Every one of us finds ourselves in an environment conditioned by what we see, which becomes a belief – one which includes the actions and interactions of other agents – past and present; this ‘decision landscape’ is an environment in which certain modes of being, of acting, of thinking, have a greater probability than others of finding expression. Tendencies and trajectories evolve, and history arises. What is the history we want to be creating?’

Let us act now, to quote Milton, to make humanity’s time on Earth something grander and nobler than a history of “glassy floods” from a “troubled sea.”
 

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