climate change emergency crisis Lytton

What climate emergency?

“The world is burning, coastal cities are flooding, glaciers are melting, droughts, heatwaves and hurricanes are commonplace, and yet the ‘climate emergency’ question was relegated to very end of the debate, like an afterthought.”

This past weekend, editors of 220 leading medical, nursing and public health journals from around the world came together to publish a joint editorial calling for urgent action on climate change. It’s an unprecedented move that’s meant to reflect the severity of the situation. 

The editorial, which appeared in well-respected publications like the New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet, urges “fundamental changes in how our societies and economies are organized and how we live.”

The plea comes on the heels of a report released this past August by a United Nations scientific panel that warns that, by now, some climate change effects may be irreversible, and highlights human responsibility (greenhouse emissions and fossil-fuel consumption) for much of the extreme weather events we’re currently experiencing. 

Why adapt when we can attack?

fires Greece climate change emergency
Fires in Greece, summer 2021

On Monday, Greece announced it’s creating a climate crisis ministry after the country was devastated by huge wildfires that burnt for weeks and destroyed more than 1,000 square kilometres. The heat waves have become so intense in the past few years that it takes very little to start catastrophic blazes that destroy everything in their path.

I was initially excited by the announcement, until I read the description of the new ministry. It basically revolves around “firefighting, disaster relief and policies to adapt to rising temperatures resulting from climate change.” In other words, it’s less about preventing or stopping climate change and aggressively attacking the root of the problem, and more about figuring out how to react to and survive the unfortunate consequences of inaction. While many are touting the ministry as a progressive move and a sign of things to come, it feels defeatist to me. The focus is on mitigation and band-aid solutions that defray the human cost of climate change, instead of proactive, bold measures to get us off this destructive path. 

The government is essentially saying, “We have to live with climate change, because we’re not willing to sacrifice certain things or we don’t believe voters who placed us in power are willing to sacrifice certain things, so let’s see how we can stave off the worst of it for now while the world burns.” It’s the bureaucratic equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs as the Titanic sinks. An emergency entails fight-or-flight reflexes and most governments just appear satisfied with a wait-and-see approach instead. But this patchwork of temporary solutions can only do so much against the sheer force of Mother Nature, and if the latest events around the world have shown us anything, we’re woefully unequipped to be battling compounding disasters on several fronts. 

Environmental concerns are still an afterthought 

climate change emergency Canada federal party leaders
Federal party leaders ahead of the first 2021 debate

To borrow the words of the wonderful Roberta Flack, our profit-driven systems and our inability to demand accountability from big corporations are “killing us softly” because we’re too comfortable enjoying the short-term benefits of mass production and capitalist conveniences to see how our choices are threatening life on this planet. And since the climate crisis doesn’t affect us all equally, the world’s most affluent, who are usually the ones with the most political clout, are the ones least likely to react to this emergency. 

During last week’s federal leaders’ debate in French, I watched as the climate emergency was treated as anything but an emergency. We were already 1 hour and 50 minutes into a two-hour debate when political leaders were finally asked about their respective parties’ platforms on the environment. The world is burning, coastal cities are flooding, wildfires are out of control, glaciers are melting, droughts, heatwaves and hurricanes have become commonplace occurrences, and yet we relegated the “climate emergency” debate question to the very end of the political discussion, almost like an afterthought. 

The thing is, most politicians know they can afford to treat it as an afterthought because voters do, as well. While we claim we’re worried about the environment (a recent Angus Reid poll identified climate change as the top issue driving voters’ ballot choice in this election), a few years ago a CBC poll found that half of Canadians wouldn’t even pay a measly $100 more per year in taxes to fight it. And while some have made changes in their own personal lives, like buying local and taking public transit more, I suspect that there are far more voters who aren’t willing to make any sacrifices at all. Those who yell at the top of their lungs about being inconvenienced the minute it becomes harder to drive their car everywhere, or parking can’t be found in front of every place they visit or the minute they’re forced to carry a reusable shopping bag with them. The horror! Every time Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante aims to prioritize the environment, she’s constantly treated like some hippie-dippy granola lover who has a personal vendetta against cars, instead of someone simply acknowledging her responsibility as the mayor of a major metropolis, which, as an island, is destined to feel the effects of climate change more than some down the road. 

Even worse, more than a third of all Canadian voters are ready to vote for a pro-oil conservative party, a party that has candidates who don’t even believe in climate change and who this past March voted against recognizing that the climate crisis is real. On the other hand, voters who see the Liberals as a viable, centre-left option have to constantly deal with the cognitive dissonance required to support a party that claims it understands the challenges of climate change yet continues to finance pipelines. In the meantime, the Bloc are busy supporting the troisième lien, a $10-billion highway tunnel under the Saint Lawrence River, the very antithesis of a green project. The Greens are frankly a mess these days, and the NDP’s climate plan keeps being criticized as being ambitious but far too vague. A destination without a clear roadmap is a hard sell for many voters. In the meantime, we keep trucking along, as the world’s fourth-largest oil producer and one of the highest emitters of greenhouse gases on a per capita basis.

We can’t wait for the pandemic to be over to act

NYC New York City subway flooding 2021 climate change emergency
New York City subway flooding 2021

To be fair, the pandemic has affected a lot of things and understandably taken our eyes off the ball. To the average human, overwhelmed by surviving a global pandemic that has decimated millions around the world, the climate crisis seems to have been shoved aside by the immediacy of simply staying alive. In this current reality of a virus trying its best to kill us, having scientists tell us that the “climate crisis is the greatest threat to public health” just doesn’t feel tangible or real. It feels alarmist and far away. Or, it feels too large of a problem right now to even tackle, and so we don’t. 

It’s hard to focus on something else that’s coming at us at full speed while bracing ourselves for wave after wave after wave of COVID. The body can only deal with so many threats at any given time, and so, the pandemic has understandably been prioritized. But, as the joint editorial stated, we need to fundamentally shift the way we think about our economies and how our lives are organized, because we’re running out of time. And that is proving to be the hardest part. 

I recently read an interesting analysis by economist Mark Jaccard, who studied the main parties’ climate change policies for Policy Options. He concluded that the Liberals have the most effective and least costly climate change policy, the Conservatives come in in second place and the NDP has the worst. He reached these conclusions by comparing the economic cost of implementing the plan, the plan’s effectiveness in reducing emissions and how sincere he thought each party was in wanting to implement said plan.  

I found the analysis interesting, but evaluations like these can be problematic because their conclusions can often be based on modelling that can quickly become outdated. While measuring factors like a willingness to implement a plan is important (an ambitious plan you ignore or water down after being elected is less effective), in today’s rapidly deteriorating context, I’m no longer certain that the cost of implementing a climate plan should be something we factor in. Because, if people think it’s expensive to transition to more environmentally friendly energy, wait until they see what it will cost us when we don’t.

In other words, if it’s in most countries’ best interest to make the transition to renewables as soon as possible, and if we know that most of our infrastructure is simply not built to withstand the disasters that are coming, why are we standing around haggling on the price? 

Right now, the world is in such a heightened state of COVID-related survival mode, most of us have barely noticed the alarms blaring. But this climate-crisis dystopia isn’t in some undefined future. Those shocking images of the New York metro system completely submerged in water are unfolding now. Reports of people drowning in their basement apartments or in their cars due to flash floods are right now. The oil spills and the chemical releases in Louisiana after Hurricane Ida, the subsequent deaths of innocent people, left with no generators and power for weeks on end, that’s now… Millions of displaced climate refugees, that’s now. The hundreds of wildfires that burned across the country and in the U.S., responsible for the eerie orange sunsets we’ve been experiencing and the smoke we’ve been inhaling, that’s right now… Lytton, B.C. burning to the ground, as if it never existed, that’s right now, too. 

Those events weren’t just bad things that happen occasionally. The multi-year droughts, the soaring temperatures and the rising waters are because of climate change. But we somehow keep convincing ourselves they’re tragic one-offs and not a terrifying reality that’s here to stay and only slated to escalate and increase in severity. Our collective denial is about to set in motion something we won’t be able to undo. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.