Harper out of touch on climate change science and economic impacts

  • National Newswatch

By Kirsty Duncan, M.P. | May 19, 2013Climate change is accelerating much more quickly than previously thought. Nine of the 10 warmest years in the modern weather record occurred since the year 2000. While global average temperature increased by 0.7°C over the past 100 years, Arctic temperatures often doubled this mean; the central and western Canadian Arctic experienced increases of two to three degrees Celsius in just the last 50 years. And in 2012, the Arctic region broke records in the loss of summer sea ice, spring snow cover, and melting of Greenland's ice sheet.More worrying, the duration and magnitude of the decline of summer sea ice may be unmatched over the last 1,450 years, as highlighted in a 2011 article in the prestigious journal Nature.But these changes should not surprise us. As early as 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” Six years later, the IPCC strengthened its earlier statement: “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities”. And, as the 2007 IPCC fourth assessment report noted, “discernible human influences now extend to other aspects of climate, including ocean warming, continental-average temperatures, temperature extremes and wind patterns.”Fifteen years ago, Environment Canada published “The Canada Country Study: Climate Impacts and Adaptation”, examining how climate change could affect our communities (agriculture, human health, water, etc.) and how Canadians could adapt to potential changes. The report predicted, for example, lowered lake levels and a reduced carrying capacity for commercial ships.This year, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan hit their lowest January water levels since record-keeping began in 1918, following more than a decade of below-normal rain and snowfall and higher temperatures that increase evaporation.If the Harper government truly aspires to make policy decisions based on evidence, as it claims, then surely itmust“sing from the same song sheet”: that is, the Minister of Natural Resources cannot question the science of climate change when the minister of the Environment has finally admitted that “climate change is a very real and present danger and we need to address it”.Science shows that climate change is real, it is happening now, and serious impacts are associated with the two-degree-Celsius stabilization target, including an increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, and rising sea levels.The World Economic Forum (WEF), surveying 1,000 experts, recently ranked climate change as the third biggest concern overall and failure to adapt to climate change as the biggest single environmental hazard facing the planet. Moreover, the WEF listed runaway climate change as its first serious X factor — an emerging concern with unknown consequences — and even raised the question of whether humans already have triggered a chain reaction that is rapidly tipping Earth's atmosphere into an inhospitable state.Prime Minister Harper should acknowledge that the goal of preventing dangerous climate change is not new. Prime Minister Mulroney signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. Article 2 of the UNFCCC states: “The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of Parties may adopt is to achieve … stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”And, even before Mulroney, it was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who adopted climate change as the last great cause of her leadership, and helped to push the issue toward the top of the international agenda. Science has told us over and over what we need to do to limit climate warming to a maximum of two degrees Celsius, and what the risks of failure might be. Despite the extraordinary commitment of the scientific community in Canada, the Harper government has refused to accept the realities of dangerous climate change and the urgent need for action.Federal policy discussions in this area have taken place in the face of systematic cuts to climate programs and research and the muzzling of government scientists. The Harper government has failed to deliver a comprehensive climate change plan, little progress has been made at the federal level to cut the growth of carbon dioxide emissions, and climate accountability measures have been removed from legislation.Canadians deserve the very opposite approach: a federal government that will motivate and push sub-national governments on climate change, and that will support their efforts — rather than claim triumph on the backs of provincial efforts, which are responsible for 75 per cent of the reductions asserted by the Harper government. Canada needs legislation with incentives, compliance standards and targets to tackle one of the greatest risks humanity faces.The world simply does not have enough domestic legislation and action to limit climate warming. This glaring gap is recognized by scientists, business and industry leaders, and the WEF. That reality should keep Canadian decision-makers up at night.The Global Legislators Organisation recently released its third climate legislation study, the most comprehensive audit of legislation across 33 major developed and emerging economies. It showed substantial progress in 18 countries, “flagship legislation” in 31, and limited developments in 14. For the first time, however, it reported negative progress for one country – Canada – which regressed following its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent repeal of the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act.As climate change is tragically speeding up, President Obama has thrown down the gauntlet to American legislators and also challenged Canada on the issue. Yet, the Harper government continues to regress and desperately green wash its deplorable record on the environment in the United States and now Europe.Because of the Harper government's failure, Canada faces predicted annual climate change adaptation costs of $21-43 billion by 2050. Canadians deserve better. Our children and grandchildren deserve better. They should not be held hostage by this government's skepticism and short-sightedness.Kirsty Duncan, M.P. Kirsty Duncan is a Liberal member of parliament (Etobicoke North, elected 2008 and 2011) and critic for the Environment. She has a Ph.D. in geography (University of Edinburgh, 1992) and has taught meteorology, climatology, and climate change at the University of Windsor, corporate social responsibility and medical geography at the University of Toronto and global environmental processes at Royal Roads University. She served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization that won the 2007 Nobel Prize with Al Gore and is the author of Hunting the 1918 Flu: One Scientist's Search for a Killer Virus (University of Toronto Press, 2003), and Environment and Health: Protecting our Common Future (2008).