Humankind battles ‘the invisible factor’ again

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By Frants Attorp

When governments want to downplay potentially damaging news, the modern practice is to leak it to the public without fanfare, preferably on a Friday afternoon when reporters and politicians have disappeared for the weekend.

And so it was last month when the Trudeau Liberals revealed on a website they would be softening their carbon tax for some heavy polluters. The decision came after Canadian industries expressed concern that the tax, scheduled to take effect in 2019, would affect their ability to compete.

The Liberals’ rethink raises questions about their commitment to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, whose stated goal is to keep global warming under two degrees this century. (The Earth has already warmed just over one degree on average since pre-industrial times.)

The Paris accord is non-binding, with no penalties for countries that do not meet their self-defined targets. Furthermore, the United Nations stated last year that the pledges made by 195 countries amount to “only a third of what is needed to avoid the worst impact of climate change.” In other words, implementing the Paris accord as it now stands is like applying a Band-aid to a gaping wound.

In a twist of fate, the Liberal backpedalling came at a time of extreme weather events around the globe, from California to Algeria and North Korea. British Columbia, meanwhile, is set for another record-breaking forest fire season. And all this in a La Niña year, which is typically associated with cooling!

Just days after the Liberal announcement came the release of a major new study warning that Earth could be heading for runaway climate change caused by melting permafrost, dying forests and other positive feedback loops.

One of the most chilling aspects of the study is the suggestion “Hothouse Earth” is just decades away, “within the range of the Paris Accord temperature targets.” If a two-degree warming is too much, what hope is there given that an additional 0.6 degrees is now baked into the cake due to emissions already released into the atmosphere? Nothing adds up.

Human psychology is one of the biggest impediments to meaningful climate action. We have been programmed through evolution to respond to threats, but only those we can see or readily understand. Unfortunately, greenhouse gases cannot be seen, and therefore do not trigger the primeval fight or flight response.

Compounding the problem is climate lag, the many decades between increased emissions and the full spike in temperatures. The lengthy delay separating cause and effect confuses the primitive human brain, and gives deniers and fossil fuel advocates ample opportunity to spread doubt and theories of a giant hoax.

There was one previous instance when we faced an invisible enemy. In the 1980s, scientists warned that the ozone layer, which protects life on Earth from excessive ultraviolet radiation, was being depleted by chlorofluorocarbons. The global crisis led to an extraordinary example of international co-operation: the Montreal Protocol, which saw nations around the world switch to less harmful products for cooling and aerosols.

But times have changed. Social media has hypnotized, science has been discredited and many can no longer differentiate between fact and fiction. Contributing to this alternate reality is the growing use of the term “fake news” as a political weapon.

Modern lifestyles make hypocrites of us all, but that doesn’t mean we can’t lobby for something beyond good intentions and political spin. The fundamentals of survival haven’t changed: either abide by nature’s rules or suffer the consequences.

Since we can’t go back and live as we did even a century ago, we must use all tools at our disposal, from the very simple to the most advanced, to reduce greenhouse gases. Renewable energy should be the credo of our times.

We have thrown caution to the wind and are now involved in a global game of Russian roulette. What are mankind’s chances of avoiding total chaos? One in five, seven in 10 or 50-50? Nobody seems to know for sure. But one thing is certain: very few, if any, would board an airplane with such miserable odds of making a safe landing.

Frants Attorp is a Salt Spring writer.

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