Time to prepare for a warming world

Wars are often fought on multiple fronts, and the fight against climate change is no different.

Wars are often fought on multiple fronts, and the fight against climate change is no different.

The front we are most familiar with is the struggle to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions to levels where the climate will no longer continue to warm on our account. To say that things are going poorly on the emissions reductions front would be a significant understatement.

It has been a decade since the Kyoto Protocol was something that people were talking about, yet very little has changed since then other than the temperature. When the first phase of Kyoto targets came to an end in 2012 the world had not only failed to meet its target of reducing emissions by five per cent but had increased them by 58 per cent – a complete failure. Imagine if those were your weight loss targets.

A few months ago, politicians met again in Paris and with great fanfare announced an agreement to limit world temperature increases to less than two degrees by the end of the century. It’s a bold and ambitious goal, to say the least, that not only requires us to reduce emissions but actually pull some carbon out of the air as well.

But getting together with other global leaders in a room and making promises is easy. Going home and taking action with all of the complexities of domestic politics is quite another. Contrary to what meetings of heads of government might imply very few countries actually function on the premise that what the leader says goes.

Most have legislative processes that must ratify and then implement those commitments. It is great that the United States, for instance, has a president who acknowledges the seriousness of this threat (for now). But it has a Congress that is still steeped in denial. Several months after the conference the U.S. Senate acknowledged that the climate is changing in a 98-1 vote but then proceeded to vote 50-49 against a motion, stating that human activity was a contributing factor. While these motions were symbolic, they illustrate the major challenges ahead in terms of transforming talk into action.

Other countries such as Canada where legislatures are less of an obstacle face challenges arising from their federal nature. Regional governments wield significant authority within these systems of government and many of them didn’t sign on to the Paris targets.

Public opinion itself is yet another major impediment. Opinions on climate change range the gamut from grave concern to outright denial. But in the middle there is lots of indifference and lack of commitment to meaningful action.

Excuses abound.

“Canada is a small country in the grand scheme of global emissions” – as if all countries do not have a role to play and this is a sufficient excuse to do nothing. “People will always need oil” – which somehow means we shouldn’t work on needing less of it. “We must fight climate change but not at the expense of the economy” – or in other words what we’re meaning to say is we’re not actually going to fight climate change.

Many of those who do acknowledge the seriousness of the problem approach it much like saving for retirement. It is something we know we need to do but not the expense of today’s lifestyle. So we take token measures like turning off our lights on Earth Day and plan to start saving with tomorrow’s raise (and then don’t) until suddenly we’re 65 and tomorrow has become today.

Sufficed to say, I am not terribly optimistic that the body politic is sufficiently united with the commitment and determination to tackle this, regardless of what world leaders might have said in Paris.

Which regrettably leads us to open that second front in the battle against climate change – mitigation. If we accept climate change to be an inevitability – not over the course of thousands of years, as it has always changed throughout history, but on a time scale of decades and centuries – the question becomes how do we adjust to a warming world?

This past week the Yukon College’s Northern Climate exChange gave us its best guess of what the territory can expect moving forward and what we should prepare ourselves for.

The gist of it: warmer temperatures (especially in the winter), and more (yet less consistent) precipitation. While this could potentially mean more agriculture, we can also look forward to more flooding, more fires, changes in fish and wildlife habitat, and significant challenges dealing with infrastructure being contorted atop melting permafrost.

Reading the report, our near future is not as catastrophic as the future faced by, say, Florida – which is so low-lying that it could eventually be underwater if polar ice caps continue to melt. Unlike residents of the sunshine state, Yukoners might find a way to adapt to a new, warmer world.

But it will take foresight and planning. We can’t prepare for climate change like we save for retirement, or we will be caught flat footed and ill-equipped to deal with the challenges. This report provides a solid base of knowledge to create a framework moving forward and should be required reading for Yukoners.

While it is premature to abandon that main front in the battle against climate change, it is clear at this point (and has been for a while) that some amount of climate change is inevitable and the time has come to make plans to cope with the warming planet we will face moving forward.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.