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Extinguishing the fire: Fort Mac, climate change, and preventing 2ºC

The wake-up call that should have been

Environment

The fire which began in northern Alberta on May 1st grew to become one of the most devastating disasters in Canadian history, forcing the evacuation of over 80,000 people and destroying approximately 2,400 structures in the city of Fort McMurray. The fire was one of two tragedies: the first was the destruction endured by the residents of Fort Mac, the second was the coverage of the fire by the national media.

That no one was killed in the fire is an astonishing stroke of luck. But the the havoc wreaked by the Fort McMurray fire should have kindled our awareness of the dangers and consequences of extreme weather caused and exacerbated by climate change. Unfortunately, our mainstream media failed us. Instead of doing justice to the plight of the people of Fort Mac and connecting the dots between climate change and its human consequences, they chose to sensationalize. For almost nine days the Globe and Mail and National Post ran front page stories detailing the destruction. Between the numerous personal stories of loss and heroism, it was difficult to find any mention of climate change. From May 4 to 14 the Globe ran two stories which gently suggested that climate change just might have had something to do with the conditions leading up to the fire. At the same time, the National Post ran three stories which briefly discussed, and downplayed, the issue of climate change.

This was a deliberately missed opportunity to reflect on the impact of climate change and signal the urgent need to reconsider our climate policy. Instead the media stopped at encouraging and applauding the outpouring of support for victims of Fort Mac.

Many of the Globe’s and National Post’s stories which highlighted the altruism of Canadians also spoke ambivalently of the fossil fuel industry, and with discomfort at the thought of a drop in crude output. Amid coverage of the fire under headlines like “No End in Sight,” the Globe ran stories unconcernedly discussing the building of another TransCanada pipeline and an op-ed titled “Fort McMurray’s silver lining” in which Calgary historian David Finch claimed that “Canada can show the world how to steward bitumen in an environmentally sensitive manner that results in truly wise use.”

Moreover, it is a hard slap in the face to the victims of climate change, present and future, when climate policy is given a passing grade during the destruction of Fort Mac. After witnessing the displacement of tens of thousands of people, the Globe’s Gary Mason evaluated Rachel Notley’s climate policy, asking himself whether it was sufficient, he concluded “Over all, I’d say yes.” (May 6, 2016). The National Post too condoned climate policy destined to destroy the lives of so many people across the planet. It saw no contradiction in its front page image of a scorched forest and a story lauding Rachel Notley for energy priorities that “aren’t much different from those the Tories would have had…” (May 8, 2016)..

Yet there can be no doubt about what unhindered climate change means for the planet: as the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report showed we can count on the disruption of food and water supplies, compromised livelihoods, damage to infrastructure, the spread of disease, and rising mortality rates. And this applies especially to some of the worlds most vulnerable populations. The fault does not lie only with politicians and CEOs of fossil fuel companies; we are all implicated, not because we use the fossil fuels that make the problems worse, as some commentators suggest, but because, through our state policy, we consent to the extraction and transportation of a product that threatens humanity’s very existence. If mainstream media failed to bring this to light during the fire in Fort McMurray, so too did the Left. Take the article by Martin Lukacs “The arsonists of Fort McMurray have a name” originally published in the Guardian and reprinted in Canadian Dimension. The article ascribes responsibility to the fossil fuel companies, and while these corporations must indeed shoulder a large part of the blame, the analysis is incomplete without a critique of the state policies which let them run rampant. Another article, “Deleting the Real Story Behind the Great Canada Fire” by Paul Street in Counterpunch, offers some excellent criticisms of the media coverage of the event, but fails to understand the fire as the kind of disaster we, and not just fossil fuel companies, are imposing on the world. It is not enough to simply point fingers at the fossil fuel industry, nor to lament the media’s failure to make the link between climate change and the fire in Fort Mac. We need to talk about the vast shortcomings in the climate change strategy adopted in the name of Canadian citizens which is certain to create desolate conditions for the world’s most vulnerable people.

The Canadian state has an embarrassing track record when it comes to climate policy, even the policies that have been implemented over the last two decades, as scholar Nic Rivers has argued, “have covered only small fragments of the economy, leaving emissions from some major sources completely uncovered by any policy, and therefore free to increase.”

State policy entirely fails to take account of the magnitude of the problem. We are presently on course for 2 °C of warming by 2036 unless we dramatically restrict the global rate of CO2 emissions. However, recent research suggests that our carbon budgets are actually overestimated and a 2 °C warmer world is much closer than we previously thought.

While the inclusion of the temperature target of limiting warming to 1.5 °C was celebrated at the COP21 in Paris by governments and civil society–including these authors–there was strong evidence even before the conference that this target would be untenable. According to the fifth assessment report of the IPCC, we have a finite amount of CO2 that we can emit to stay within a given temperature threshold; this is what is known as our carbon budget. For us to have a greater than 66 per cent chance of respecting the Paris Agreement’s aspirational goal of limiting warming to 1.5 °C, we must stay within a remaining carbon budget in the range of -35 to 452.5 billion tons of CO2. This means that we have already used up the low end of the carbon budget range and at the current rate of emissions, we will have used up the high end by 2028. In theory, we could stay within this range, however, that would require massive global cuts in emissions upward of 30 per cent per year beginning immediately — immediately because the longer we wait to make large cuts, the faster we cut through our remaining emissions, and the greater chance we have of busting the budget. A great irony of the Paris agreement is that although countries pledged to pursue “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C,” by the time they revise their GHG reduction targets in 2020, it will likely be impossible to remain within our 1.5 °C budget.

Carbon budgets can help guide the global community in its efforts to solve the problem and they are an effective way to determine the appropriate objectives for Canada.

A fair way to allocate emissions would be on a per capita basis. For example, with about half a percent of the world’s population, Canada should be allocated half a percent of the world’s remaining carbon budget. Applied to every country this way of allocating emissions would give everyone on the planet an equal share of the remaining allowable CO2 emissions. This method is not without its problems, however. While a per capita method might seem fair, it does not factor in historical emissions. Given that richer countries are most responsible for climate change, they should be allocated fewer emissions, while poorer countries — which are the least responsible and most negatively affected by climate change — should receive a bigger slice of the carbon pie. Poorer countries could increase their emissions in the short term while emissions from wealthier countries would have to decrease. But if we were to factor in all our historic emissions in the remaining carbon budget for Canada, for example, we would no longer have any emissions left to burn.

A per capita allocation then seems the most realistic approach if we consider that we cannot decarbonize our societies retroactively. But the discrepancy between a per capita distribution of the global carbon budget and a more justice-oriented distribution that considers historic responsibility should not be ignored. Indeed, if we want to talk seriously about climate justice then we must redress this discrepancy in the form of reparations in a form other than carbon emissions. This is a key demand of many poorer nations at international climate negotiations, and one that is continuously ignored.

Using the per capita approach, we calculate that Canada has a remaining carbon budget of 2.95 to 6.2 billion tons of CO2 if we wish to do our fair share in helping avoid 2° C of warming. How much time does that give us? According to the latest available GHG emissions inventory prepared by Environment and Climate Change Canada for the UNFCCC, we produced 705 million tons of CO2 in 2014. If we continue emitting at current levels, we will bust our carbon budget within seven years. We calculate that to remain within the 2 ºC carbon budget Canada would need to cut its CO2 emissions between 12%-26% per year starting in 2017, depending on which end of the range one wishes to avoid. And remember, these numbers are deduced from a global carbon budget with a 66% likelihood of success, and which is likely overestimated. If we really want a safe chance of avoiding 2 °C then we should be demanding even more ambitious targets in which the biggest cuts are made within the next decade.

In this graph, you can see the emission reduction targets that would be required if Canada tried to stay within its carbon budget (the green line represents respecting the low end of the budget’s range, the purple line the high end). This is compared to Canada’s current emission reduction targets (red line) and our future emissions trend with current policies in place (blue line) according to Environment and Climate Change Canada. The discrepancy between where the lines start is due to the fact that the carbon budgets are CO2-only, while Environment and Climate Change Canada include all non-CO2 emissions and convert them into CO2e.

While calling for such drastic cuts in emissions might seem unrealistic, it is the only course of action that would give us some assurance of not surpassing the 2 °C temperature threshold.

Unfortunately, many groups working within the climate movement are downplaying the radical implications of what the science is telling us we need to do. While groups remain divided on specifics, in Canada many organizations working within the climate movement are currently rallying around the demand of 100% clean energy by 2050, one of the main demands of the 100% Possible climate march last November in Ottawa. This demand, although worded differently, is also a central part of the People’s Climate Plan campaign led by 350.org, the Climate Reality Project, and other large environmental non-governmental organizations meant to put pressure on the federal government during the public consultation phase of its forthcoming national climate policy. However, the 2050 target is highly problematic. While it is technically true that if we are to stay below 2 °C then we will have to have decarbonized by 2050 (and only part of the answer lies in having 100% clean energy by 2050), it is also true that we could reach zero emissions by 2050 and still have exceeded 2 °C. This is because we can use up our carbon budget before then if no serious cuts are made in the short term. It is likely that many groups refuse to advocate for the immediate large scale cuts in emissions and the necessary policy prescriptions to achieve them because they fear backlash from their supporters and being dismissed as unrealistic by the public.

Focusing on the 2050 target is a strategic mistake, and, perhaps, part of the reason why the need for emergency action on climate change is not currently part of the policy debate within Canada. As of this writing, there are no public campaigns calling on the Trudeau government to reconsider its 2030 emission reduction targets.

If we have any hope of preserving the lives and dignity of countless people around the globe in the face of the looming catastrophe of climate change, then we need to rethink our emissions reductions goals in very short order and act now to implement the massive cuts required.

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