Meaningful climate action in Canada is doomed

Toronto, Sept. 27, 2019: Students from Lord Dufferin Public School gather at a climate protest as part of a day of action at cities across Canada.


Gary Mason is a Globe and Mail columnist.

In May, 1985, British scientists made a shocking and deeply unsettling discovery: a massive hole in the ozone over Antarctica.

The ozone layer is the buffer vital to shielding humans from the potentially deadly effects of the sun’s rays. It was being ripped apart by the release of harmful chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere.

Chlorofluorocarbons come from a family of chemicals, widely used at the time, as coolants in refrigeration and air-conditioning units, among other things. Scientists began sounding warnings in the early 1970s about the danger they posed to the environment, alarms that were mostly ignored until the ozone hole made front-page news. Suddenly, politicians were confronted with a crisis situation: a world in which dangerous ultraviolet rays were no longer muted by the barrier that had been protecting us. Left unchecked, the radiation unleashed could lead to untold numbers of new health problems, including an epidemic of skin cancers.

The idea that a hole in the sky now exposed us to the merciless impact of the sun captured the public’s imagination in a way few other environmental crises ever had. People imagined humankind literally withering into extinction as crushing temperatures became unbearable. A genuine panic set in.

Two years after the ozone’s gaping wound was detected, leaders from around the world gathered in Canada to sign the landmark Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer. (It has now been ratified by 196 countries and the European Union). The treaty radically reduced the amount of these materials – commonly known as Freons – being released into the atmosphere. Among other achievements, the accord has, over three decades, reduced the use of nearly 100 ozone-draining chemicals by nearly 100 per cent. It has helped cut the equivalent of 135 billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions. The ozone hole, meantime, has shrunk considerably and is now about the size it was in 1988. (It continued to grow years after it was first discovered).

NASA images show the Antarctic hole in the ozone layer from 1979 to 2010. The Montreal Protocol of the late 1980s stopped the hole’s growth, and later reversed it, by keeping the chemicals causing ozone decay out of the atmosphere.


It was not by accident that Montreal became the setting of the historic agreement. Canada had taken a leadership role in the creation of the 1985 Vienna Convention, which was a precursor to the Protocol and the foundation upon which the Montreal pact would be built. Prime minister Brian Mulroney was more than happy to play host as he took the ozone threat seriously. He was also a great arm-twister and skilled negotiator. The team of officials representing Canada at the table included a young policy adviser by the name of Elizabeth May.

“The issues we faced then are similar to the issues we face now,” the federal Green Party Leader recalled during a break this week from the campaign trail. “If we had lost the ozone layer, all life on Earth was at risk and yet there were still people who were saying people just needed to wear sunscreen and broad-brimmed hats and they’d be okay.”

Canada’s role in the creation of one of the most powerful, and successful, environmental conventions ever undertaken is worth considering in the context of the federal election campaign and the current debate around climate change. This country was responsible for a mere fraction of the chemicals that had produced the hole in the ozone. But that didn’t stop us from playing a lead role in the creation of a manifesto that has done so much good for the world.

It’s also worth noting that the prime minister at the time was a staunch conservative, one who was also responsible for pushing Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and later George H.W. Bush on the issue of acid rain. His efforts would be rewarded in 1991 with an important treaty between the two countries that dealt with the issue. In fact, it can reasonably be argued that Mr. Mulroney did more for the environment than any other PM in our history.

Quebec City, 1985: Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney holds talks with U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Mr. Mulroney was one of those pressing the Reagan administration to take the threat of acid rain more seriously.


Montreal, 2019: Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg ahead of the Sept. 27 climate strike. Afterward, she said Mr. Trudeau was ‘obviously not doing enough’ on climate change, but also stressed that she gave him the same message as other politicians and is focused on the big picture rather than any single leader’s actions.


How times have changed.

Today, we find ourselves at a disquieting juncture. After years of the environment and climate change being regarded as a marginal issue during federal election campaigns, this time was supposed to be different. Poll after poll had confirmed how concerned Canadians are about the grave threat a warming planet poses. The ground was set for a bold foray, a once-in-a-generation plan to meet the country’s obligations under the Paris accord and beyond. Even the Green Party seemed on the brink of a historic breakthrough, and the idea of sending 10 MPs or more to Ottawa was no longer just some tree-hugger’s fantasy. And yet here we are, more than a third of the way through the campaign, and there is nary a courageous, groundbreaking climate initiative in sight. Instead, the Liberals ended the week announcing measures to help make homes more energy efficient. While the time we have to mitigate the widespread damage a warming planet will cause evaporates before our eyes, we argue about the need for new pipelines. The debate around energy and the environment has become so caustic, so toxic, that our political leaders can’t even be honest with us.

There is no better example of this than when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said at a town hall event in Peterborough in January, 2017, that while he couldn’t shut down the oil sands immediately, “we need to phase them out, we need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels.” It should not have been a controversial statement because it’s true. And yet, politicians in Alberta (and many citizens, too) lost their minds, accusing the Mr. Trudeau of betraying them, of forging a plan to rob thousands of people of their livelihoods. A few days later, Mr. Trudeau tried to undo the damage, saying that he “misspoke” – the oil sands would not be going anywhere soon, he assured Canadians.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks at a 2017 town hall in Peterborough, Ont., where his remarks on the Canadian oilsands stirred controversy in Alberta.


I think that may have been the moment I decided meaningful climate policy in Canada was doomed. If a federal leader couldn’t even say what we know to be true – that we need to transition off of fossil fuels soon – then what hope was there of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the level we must, in the limited time we have?

As I look at the climate landscape in Canada, I see glimmers of hope, but also dark clouds of gloom and fear. Here are four central reasons for my pessimism.

First, neither of the two major parties with a realistic shot of leading the country after the Oct. 21 election has a strategy that will bring emissions down to the level they need to be. (Under the Paris accord, Canada has agreed to a 30-per-cent reduction of 2005 levels of GHGs by 2030). The Conservative “plan” has been rightly criticized by climate experts for being vague and more likely to drive GHG emissions up, than reduce them. The party hopes that new technology will solve the problem. In other words, the Conservatives have no real climate plan at all.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer announces his party’s emissions policy in Chelsea, Que., this past June.


The Liberals deserve credit for bringing in the most meaningful measures to tackle climate change of any Canadian government to date. On Friday, Mr. Trudeau announced a $3-billion plan focused on “natural climate solutions” such as tree-planting. Earlier, this week, the party announced it is committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 (which is the same as the Greens). It has promised to have legally binding five-year targets and will appoint an expert panel to advise on how to achieve the emission reductions required to meet the targets agreed to under the Paris accord.

This is all wonderful, but the thrust of their latest plan remains aspirational. Targets don’t reduce emissions by themselves; enforcement does. “Trust me” is not a climate policy.

Audits that have been conducted on the Liberals’ climate plan to date have suggested they are going to fall well short of their goals. Since the government introduced its first climate plan in 2016, it has purchased a pipeline and approved a massive liquefied natural gas project in B.C. It says it has put a cap on oil sands emissions of 100 megatonnes annually, but has refused to impose or insist on regulations to ensure that happens. There is also no schedule in place in which the cap begins to decline – a necessity.

By some estimates, at the current trajectory, emissions just from oil and gas production will be 80 per cent of Canada’s total emissions by 2050. Even by 2030, they are forecast to be 47 per cent off our total emissions output.

“We’d have to ban all fossil-fuel-car sales and stop all heating by gas in the country right now under that scenario and we’d probably still couldn’t meet our targets,” says Tzeporah Berman of, a grassroots environmental organization headquartered in San Francisco.

When it comes to meeting our Paris obligations, we are having a completely dishonest conversation.

Pro-pipeline demonstrators gathered in Calgary last November outside a venue where the finance minister was speaking.


Second, there are fewer people today who believe anthropogenic climate change is a hoax, but a new form of denialism has taken its place, and it is no less insidious and dangerous. The “new climate denialism,” a term coined by Seth Klein and Shannon Daub of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, doesn’t dispute that the Earth has a problem with greenhouse gases. What the new deniers refuse to accept are the measures necessary to reverse the effects of climate change before it’s too late.

It’s not just members of the public who are in denial, but politicians and the oil and gas industry as well. Everyone agrees there is a problem, but few are willing to accept the sour medicine it will take to do something about it. So, for instance, you have an NDP government in B.C. It talks a wonderful game when it comes to climate, but then green-lights a $40-billion LNG expansion that will make meeting its climate targets all but impossible. A recent report by the province’s own Environment Ministry said that between 2007 and 2017, climate measures have been successful in reducing emissions by less than 1 per cent. In 10 years! Yet, you’d never know it from all the back-patting going on about carbon taxes and clean-fuel initiatives.

Industry is guilty of the same thing. Oil and gas companies all say they recognize climate change is real, that they are obligated to do something about it as good global citizens. But none is advocating the kind of action – such as ending opposition to tougher environmental impact assessments and methane regulations – that would help produce real change. It’s fake concern.

An oil worker holds raw sand bitumen near Fort McMurray, Alta.


Third, there is another form of denialism going on that is also responsible for the lack of progress we’re witnessing around greenhouse-gas reduction: a refusal by oil and gas companies to acknowledge that their industry’s days are numbered. A recent piece in The New York Times by Christiana Figueres laid it out in stark detail. The life of many of the world’s oil and gas companies, in their current form, could be as little as five years in some cases, but no more than 30 even in the most optimistic scenarios, predicted Ms. Figueres, who was the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Markets have started to abandon many of these companies. Exxon Mobil was the last big oil giant remaining in the top 10 of the world’s most valuable companies – until it dropped out earlier this month for the first time.

Ms. Figueres chronicled other moves that portend trouble for the industry. For instance, Norway’s massive sovereign wealth fund recently decided to get rid of nearly US$6-billion in oil and gas investments. The European Investment Bank, the world’s largest multilateral financier of climate-related investment, has proposed ending the underwriting of fossil-fuel infrastructure by 2020, including for gas. And the Danish pension fund is removing the top 10 major oil companies from its portfolio because their business models are incompatible with the Paris accord.

But you would never know any of this living in Canada. Here, talk of transitioning off oil, or the industry not having a bright future, is verboten in places such as Alberta and Saskatchewan. This denialism only serves to delay the implementation of measures critical to climate success.

It also ignores enticing analysis. Ten years ago, the British government commissioned a study into the transition to a low-carbon economy. Noted economist Nicholas Stern found, among other things, that every US$1 invested in a low-carbon economy now, saves a jurisdiction US$4 in 20 years.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna speaks in Ottawa this past August.


Finally, it’s impossible to talk about inaction around climate change without mentioning the debilitating role inflammatory rhetoric now plays in the debate. We have heard how Environment Minister Catherine McKenna sometimes requires a security detail because of concerns about her safety. She tells the story of a time recently when she was walking outside a movie theatre with her three children and a car pulled up. The man inside rolled down the window and yelled a profanity Ms. McKenna’s way, before calling her “Climate Barbie,” a term of derision she has protested in the past for being sexist and demeaning.

Some of this is certainly the result of the times in which we live. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, for one, has relied on often incendiary oratory to get supporters riled up against the Liberal government in Ottawa, which he blames for trying to kill the oil industry. (Even though it bought a pipeline.) But a phalanx of conservative premiers has railed against the dangers of climate measures that will “kill the economy.” The doubt these politicians have sowed in the minds of the public may be having an effect. A recent survey by the firm Ipsos found nearly half of those polled thought scientists were elitists whose findings they discounted because they don’t align with their personal beliefs. Other polls have shown that people believe climate change is real but don’t want to sacrifice much to reverse its effects – a result no doubt influenced by the words of politicians who have convinced many Canadians that measures such as a carbon tax are a mere money grab that will have no measurable impact on GHG emissions.

I wish I could be more optimistic about the future, about the will of Canadians to rise above the depressing lack of urgency that exists in this country to deal with the greatest threat the planet has ever faced. But at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be anything resembling the kind of mass anxiety necessary to produce the kind of call to arms needed to incite real change.

Instead, we content ourselves with the actions of a 16-year-old girl from Sweden who speaks a truth that makes the powerful squirm. We watch videos of her speeches and urge our friends on social media to do the same. “What a hero!” we exclaim. And while it’s no doubt true, lauding Greta Thunberg doesn’t do us a damn bit of good. We can’t just listen to her words, we must also heed them.

On Sept. 23, Greta Thunberg delivered a searing speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York. Listen to it here.REUTERS

Dear American – a letter from your friend, Canada.

rom my perspective, white middle class Canadian, I think this is one of the strongest, most eloquent pieces I have read in a long time defending and promoting the goodness of American people. For a lot of years I spent 2 months a year working and promoting in the US back in the 70’s and 80’s and yes I saw of the bad ( I was mugged in Cleveland) but overwhelmingly it is the good people I remember.
Thank you so much for such a readable article.

A Sassy Lifestyle Blog


Dear America,

I moved here in August of 2016; three months before your last election. Since then I have held back from sharing my personal political opinions; primarily because I feel that, as a guest in your country, it’s not my place and frankly, it would be rude.

I’m now preparing to leave the US to go back to Canada, but before I go, I wanted to share a few of my observations; as a friend.

Because, who are we kidding, Canada is your best friend; we know you better than any of your other friends. We’re your closest neighbor; we grow up watching your TV and listening to your music. We know you to be proud, passionate and at times a bit rowdy and rambunctious and we love you for it.

Although we know everything about you, we know that you know much less about us; and that’s ok, because…

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We can’t just stand up for our values when it’s convenient

Wow, thanks for sharing this and it is strange that our beloved CBC didn’t pick this up first?

Robby Robin's Journey

Canada is in the midst of an election (of 6 weeks duration rather than 2+ years) and as most people know, our prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has gotten himself into an unwanted controversy due to some pictures of him in ‘brownface’ and ‘blackface’ that have emerged from some 18+ years ago. Many people have lamented the fact that the media – and many politicians – have not used this situation to engage in a more fulsome public discussion on racism and broader discrimination, as opposed to dwelling on Trudeau’s lack of judgment at the time. It’s a missed learning opportunity.

In an opinion piece on September 21, Mayor Naheed Nenshi of Calgary does an impressive job of presenting the realities and complexities of continuing broadly-based discrimination in Canada – with parallels in many other countries. Such an impressive job, in fact, that I thought it worthwhile sharing as widely as possible…

View original post 1,467 more words

Our society’s culture of fear is holding back children’s fitness

Two recent studies from the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise got me thinking about children’s fitness – and looking out the window of my office.

I live and work in the same house I grew up in and my oldest daughter goes to kindergarten at the same local school I attended. When I look outside, I get a vivid (if anecdotal) picture of how much has changed over the course of a generation: the endless outdoor games, the packs of roving kids and the pelotons of school-bound cyclists that I remember have mostly disappeared.

“Same house, same school, same neighbourhood, which is likely no more dangerous than when you grew up,” said University of Lethbridge public health professor Richard Larouche when I recounted the scene to him. “I think this example speaks to the importance of social norms that have changed over time.”

Larouche is the lead author of one of the two new studies, which together make the case that fitness patterns established in childhood have lasting effects on adult health, and these patterns can be influenced by a wide variety of sometimes unexpected factors such as parental attitudes about traffic and morning temperatures.

The first study, from researchers at the University of Tasmania in Australia, tracked down nearly 2,000 adults who had been tested as children between the ages of 7 and 15 back in 1985. The test assessed muscular power with a standing long jump, and also collected other information such as self-reported physical activity, diet and body composition.

When the same tests were repeated two decades later, the results were somewhat depressingly predictable. “Muscular fitness persists, or tracks, between childhood and adulthood,” explains Brooklyn Fraser, the study’s lead author. The strong stayed strong and the weak stayed weak.

That doesn’t mean your fate is sealed as a child, Fraser points out. Of the children whose long jump ranked them among the lowest third, around 15 per cent managed to climb into the highest third by adulthood. But more than half stayed in the lowest category. That helps explain why high levels of muscular fitness in children end up predicting lower risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome and other serious health conditions in adulthood.

Acknowledging the importance of childhood fitness is one thing; figuring out what to do about it is a far more complex challenge. Larouche’s study, conducted with colleagues at the University of Quebec in Trois-Rivières, the University of British Columbia and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, monitored the physical activity levels of 1,699 children in 37 schools in Ottawa, Trois-Rivières and Vancouver for a week, then used a series of questionnaires filled out by the children and their parents, along with other data sources such as weather and walkability scores, to search for predictive patterns.

The biggest and most easily modifiable factor affecting how much the children moved was the amount of time they spent outdoors.

“Studies comparing physical activity in indoor versus outdoor environments have consistently found that children are more active outdoors,” Larouche says. “Other studies suggest that children may be more active if, as adults, we back off and let them play.

There were also some more subtle indicators that, in some cases, varied by gender. Boys were less active if their parents reported driving to work, were worried about traffic or were worried about other people in their neighbourhood. Girls were more active as the morning temperature warmed, adding 77 steps a day for each additional degree Celsius.

Active travel to school also played a role, but in general the children (who were between 8 and 12 years old) had low levels of independent mobility, as assessed by whether they were permitted to do six things on their own: travel to and from school, travel to other places within walking distance, cross main roads, go on local (non-school) buses and go out alone after dark. On average, the children in the study were permitted to do two of these things – which brings us back to the scene outside my office window.

“Many people believe that the world is a more dangerous place than 25 years ago,” Larouche says, “but interestingly crime and road injury rates have both declined substantially.”

The challenge, Larouche believes, is to turn back the clock on social norms about what is acceptable for children to do. As a parent, I know it will be difficult, and even a bit scary, to follow that advice in the years to come. But if I was allowed to do those things, why shouldn’t my kids do the same?

Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.

Scientists In Antarctica Discover Long Line Of Obese Dinosaurs Trapped In Their SUVs — The Out And Abouter

Scientists taking core samples at a remote location in Antartica have made a shocking – but probably not significant – discovery: Dinosaurs. Obese ones. Trapped in SUVs with just one dino driver in most of the vehicles. And stuck in a traffic jam that appears to have been caused by a lunch time rush at […]

via Scientists In Antarctica Discover Long Line Of Obese Dinosaurs Trapped In Their SUVs — The Out And Abouter

Yes, the Climate Crisis May Wipe out Six Billion People

William E. Rees 18 Sep 2019 | William E. Rees is professor emeritus of human ecology and ecological economics at the University of British Columbia.


“Carbon emissions may continue to rise, the polar ice caps may continue to melt, crop yields may continue to decline, the world’s forests may continue to burn, coastal cities may continue to sink under rising seas and droughts may continue to wipe out fertile farmlands, but the messiahs of hope assure us that all will be right in the end. Only it won’t.” — Chris Hedges



One thing the climate crisis underscores is that Homo sapiens are not primarily a rational species. When forced to make important decisions, particularly decisions affecting our economic security or socio-political status, primitive instinct and raw emotion tend to take the upper hand.

This is not a good thing if the fate of society is at stake. Take “hope” for example. For good evolutionary reasons, humans naturally tend to be hopeful in times of stress. So gently comforting is this word, that some even endow their daughters with its name. But hope can be enervating, flat out debilitating, when it merges with mere wishful thinking — when we hope, for example, that technology alone can save us from climate change.

As novelist Jonathan Franzen asks: “If your hope for the future depends on a wildly optimistic scenario, what will you do 10 years from now, when the scenario becomes unworkable even in theory?”

We needn’t bother Roger Hallam with this question. He can scarcely be held up as a “messiah of hope.” Quite the contrary. Hallam, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, has been desperately warning of societal collapse for years.

But on Aug. 15, in a memorable session of the BBC’s HardTalk, Hallam irritated multiple cultural nerves by claiming, on the basis of “hard science,” that six billion people will die as a result of climate change in coming decades.

More specifically, our ruling elites’ inaction and lies on climate change will lead to climate turmoil, mass starvation and general societal collapse in this century. Normally unflappable HardTalk host, Stephen Sackur, just couldn’t wrap his mind around Hallam’s unyielding assertions.

Sackur is no solitary skeptic. UC Davis research scientist Amber Kerr dismisses Hallam outright. The idea that six billion people are doomed to die by 2100 “is simply not correct. No mainstream prediction indicates anywhere near this level of climate-change-induced human mortality, for any reason.”

Similarly, Ken Caldeira, senior scientist, Carnegie Institution, points out, “There is no analysis of likely climate damage that has been published in the quality peer-reviewed literature that would indicate that there is any substantial likelihood that climate change could cause the starvation of six billion people by the end of this century.”

One key to understanding these scientists’ rejections is their language. They assert that there is “no mainstream prediction” nor analysis in the “peer reviewed literature” that climate change will precipitate such catastrophic human mortality.

But keep in mind that scientists are reluctant, for professional reasons, to go far beyond the immediate data in formal publication. Moreover, organizations like the United Nations, including even its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are so dominated by economists’ concerns and bent by political considerations that extraneous noise obscures the scientific signal.

Prominent climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director emeritus of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, argues that, in these circumstances “a trend towards ‘erring on the side of least drama’ has emerged” and “when the issue is the survival of civilization is at stake, conventional means of analysis may become useless.”

Exploring this argument, policy analysts David Spratt and Ian Dunlop conclude, “Climate policymaking for years has been cognitively dissonant, ‘a flagrant violation of reality.’ So it is unsurprising that there is a lack of understanding amongst the public and elites of the full measure of the climate challenge.”

It seems that in mainstream scientific publications and official reports, the truth about climate change and the fate of civilization may be buried deeply between the lines.

Fortunately, there are other contexts in which experts are not quite so reticent and whose assertions echo Roger Hallam’s. As much as a decade ago a climate symposium organized to discuss the implications of a 4 C warmer world concluded, “Less than a billion people will survive.” Here Schellnhuber is quoted as saying: “At 4 C Earth’s… carrying capacity estimates are below 1 billion people.” His words were echoed by professor Kevin Anderson of the U.K.’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change: “Only about 10 per cent of the planet’s population would survive at 4 C.”

Similarly, in May of this year, Johan Rockström, current director of the Potsdam Institute opined that in a 4 C warmer world: “It’s difficult to see how we could accommodate a billion people or even half of that…. There will be a rich minority of people who survive with modern lifestyles, no doubt, but it will be a turbulent, conflict-ridden world.” Meanwhile, greenhouse gas concentrations are still increasing.

Keep in mind that a global temperature increase averaging 4 C means land temperatures would be 5.5 to 6 C warmer away from the coasts. Much of the tropics would be too hot for humans and many densely populated parts of the temperate zone would be desertified. A 4 C warmer world map suggests that as much as half the planet would become uninhabitable. (A ‘4 C world’ assumes business-as-usual or no new climate policies in coming decades. Note, however, that known and unknown ‘feedback’ mechanisms could make 4 C possible, even with new politically acceptable policies in place.)

In a recent review of this debate and related evidence, David Spratt asks (and answers): “So did Roger Hallam ‘go too far’? Not at all, there is serious research and eminent voices in support of his statements. The gross error in all of this are all those who cannot countenance this conversation.”

Making forbidden calculations

Which begs the question of whether “all those” would countenance any uncomfortable conversation. Population has long been a forbidden topic despite being at the root of the ecological crisis. Where might a discussion of population ecology lead and would its conclusions be any more politically acceptable?

1. We can begin by gaining some insight into the startling implications of exponential growth. When something is growing exponentially, it has a constant doubling time. For example, a population growing at two per cent a year will double every 35 years. Interestingly, the increase that occurs during any doubling period will be greater than the sum of the increases experienced in all previous doublings.

As the figure below shows, it took 200,000 years for the human population to reach its first billion in the early 1800s. In other words, population growth was essentially negligible for 99.95 of human history. But when sustained exponential growth kicked in, it took just 200 years — 1/1000th as much time — for the population to top 7.5 billion early in this century!

The recent two centuries of population growth generates this classic hockey stick curve. At most, just 10 of 10,000 generations of modern humans have experienced this unprecedented human explosion. Chart by Jonathan von Ofenheim.

2. This population explosion could not have occurred without abundant cheap energy, particularly fossil fuels. Obviously other factors are involved, but energy is essential for humans to produce the food and acquire all the other resources needed to grow both populations and the economy. While human numbers were increasing by a factor of seven, energy consumption grew by a factor of 25 and real gross world product ballooned 100-fold.

3. Because of sometimes super-exponential growth, half of all the fossil energy and many other essential resources ever used have been consumed in just the past 30-35 years. Look no further to explain why human-induced climate change has suddenly become so urgent.

4. The pace of change is unprecedented — the recent spurt of population, economic and consumption growth that people today consider to be the norm actually represents the single most anomalous period in human history.

5. Meantime, Earth hasn’t grown at all — on the contrary, natural life-support has arguably contracted. Global ecological deterioration indicates that the human enterprise has ‘overshot’ long-term carrying capacity. We are currently growing the human population and economy by liquidating once-abundant stocks of so-called ‘natural capital’ and by over-filling natural waste sinks.

Humanity is literally converting the ecosphere into human bodies, prodigious quantities of cultural artifacts, and vastly larger volumes of entropic waste. (That’s what tropical deforestation, fisheries collapses, plummeting biodiversity, ocean pollution, climate change, etc. are all about.)

Corollaries: We will not long be able to maintain even the present population at current average material standards. And, population growth toward 10 billion will accelerate the depletion of essential bioresources and the destruction of life-support functions upon which civilization depends.

6. The recent history of human population dynamics resembles the ‘boom-bust’ cycle of any other species introduced to a new habitat with abundant resources and no predators, therefore little negative feedback. (The real-life example of reindeer herds can be found here.)

The population expands rapidly (exponentially), until it depletes essential resources and pollutes its habitat. Negative feedback (overcrowding, disease, starvation, resource scarcity/competition/conflict) then reasserts itself and the population crashes to a level at or below theoretical carrying capacity (it may go locally extinct).

960px version of BoomBustGraph.jpg
The ‘boom-bust’ population cycle. Note the resemblance of the human population growth curve in Fig. 1 to the exponential ‘boom’ phase of the cycle. The world community can still choose to influence the speed and depth of the coming bust phase. Source of graph: Biology: Life on Earth, 8th ed., Fig. 26-3.

7. Some species populations, in simple habitats, cycle repeatedly through boom and bust phases. The height of the boom is called the ‘plague phase’ of such cycles.

8. Hypothesis: Homo sapiens are currently approaching the peak of the plague phase of a one-off global population cycle and will crash because of depleted resources, habitat deterioration and psycho-social feedback, including possible war over remaining ‘assets,’ sometime in this century. (“But wait,” I hear you protest. “Humans are not just any other species. We’re smarter; we can plan ahead; we just won’t let this happen!” Perhaps, but what is the evidence so far that our leaders even recognize the problem?)

9. The crash may be triggered or exacerbated by the depletion or abandonment of economic stocks of fossil fuels. As noted above, modern civilization is a product of, and dependent on, accessible abundant energy. (At present there are no viable alternatives to fossil fuels. Even if we do develop equivalent substitutes for fossil fuel they will, at best, merely delay the crash).

10. The long-term human carrying capacity of Earth — after ecosystems have recovered from the current plague — is probably one to three billion people, depending on technology and material standards of living. (Estimates vary from fewer than a billion to a truly ludicrous trillion.)

11. Getting there would mean five to nine billion fewer people on the planet. This is where we end up after a recovery following either controlled descent or chaotic crash.

Making the looming disaster an election issue

The first thing to take from this analysis is that we are once again playing in Roger Hallam’s death-toll ballpark. But a more important point is that climate change is not the only existential threat confronting modern society. Indeed, we could initiate any number of conversations that end with the self-induced implosion of civilization and the loss of 50 per cent or even 90 per cent of humanity.

And that places the global community in a particularly embarrassing predicament. Homo sapiens, that self-proclaimed most-intelligent-of-species, is facing a genuine, unprecedented, hydra-like ecological crisis, yet its political leaders, economic elites and sundry other messiahs of hope will not countenance a serious conversation about of any of its ghoulish heads.

Climate change is perhaps the most aggressively visible head, yet despite decades of high-level talks — 33 in al — and several international agreements to turn things around, atmospheric CO2 and other GHG concentrations have more than doubled to over 37 billion tonnes and, with other GHG concentrations, are still rising at record rates.

In these circumstances, the only certainty is that the longer we deny reality and delay concerted action, the steeper and deeper the crash is likely to be.

So, where does this leave us? Jonathan Franzen has a suggestion: “You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable…. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.”

Certainly hope is sterile if unaccompanied by vigorous action that reflects looming reality.

This is an election year in Canada. Ask your candidates — sitting MPs in particular — just how much time they have spent contemplating these issues or debating them in caucus.

What is their party’s plan for the coming great unravelling?

Let’s hear it for our youth, the adults in the room for fighting the climate change crisis

Extremely timely and well written, thanks Jane.

Robby Robin's Journey

Today, September 20, 2019, literally millions of young people worldwide are participating in a strike for climate change, organized by themselves. They are fighting for the survival of our planet. They are fighting to convince all of those of us who believe in science – not to mention the obvious signs that it’s real – that mankind has indeed had a huge negative impact on global warming and that we have to do something – actually more than just something – about it NOW.

Image credit: The Guardian

Yes, this means reducing, phasing out, and eventually removing our use of fossil fuel. Oil and gas industries can be part of it by continuing to improve their processes to reduce emissions, and they can be part of it by leading the way in investing in new, emission-free sources of energy as they move to new businesses. But head in the sand…

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Memo to Justin: Who you are today is who you were yesterday

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.

So this is what we are forced to imagine. You have been invited to a party. There is a stated theme, or maybe it’s just a general fancy-dress affair. You go to the mirror, look at your handsome face and think: Hey, brown makeup! Or you look at your somewhat less handsome face and think: Hey, Nazi uniform!

Is there any species of dumb that’s dumber than donning a racist or fascist costume under cover of a party? Justin Trudeau, once our “It Boy” Prime Minister, is reeling from revelations that he dressed in brownface for an “Arabian Nights” party in 2001. Some may remember Prince Harry’s equally ill-judged decision to favour a brown shirt and swastika for a swanky birthday party back in 2005. What is it about parties? In both cases, you have to wonder: What were these guys thinking? I mean, really – brownface and brown shirt? I’m older than both of them, but even at their respective ages I think I would have known that these were bad, perhaps despicable, choices. Brownface? Brown shirt? Red flags, guys, red flags.

“I take responsibility for my decision to do that,” the PM said this week on the campaign trail. “I should have known better.” He added: “It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do, and I am deeply sorry.” Things got even worse when it was revealed that, in high school, the youthful Justin performed Harry Belafonte’s hit song Day-O while wearing “makeup.”

Let’s be clear. We are not talking, here, about the nasty N-word dialogue in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) or the casual disregard shown for black people in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884). In both those cases, and many similar ones, there is an argument that the quoted characters are not identical with the author. Even T.S. Eliot’s avowed anti-Semitism or Enid Blyton’s racism might be contextualized, if never excused, based on the passage of time. But Mr. Trudeau: 2001. Prince Harry: 2005.

We are forced to recall, in the Prime Minister’s case, his justification, faced with accusations of unwanted groping, that “someone else might have experienced that differently and this is part of the reflections that we have to go through.” Memo to Justin: Some of us do our ethical reflections before the fact, not after.

The issues go beyond parties, japes and half-baked apologies. Recently, comedian Shane Gillis had his upcoming contract with Saturday Night Live cancelled because of racist and homophobic jokes he made, all captured on social media. This ignited an enraged counterattack from mostly white, mostly middle-aged comedians who saw it as an example of “cancel culture” – the new right-wing code for what used to be called political correctness.

Never mind that SNL, and especially executive producer Lorne Michaels, can boast no clean sheet when it comes to racist, homophobic and politically craven humour (the show’s kiss-ups to Donald Trump are especially egregious, though maybe balanced by some other gags). When Bill Burr, Jim Jefferies, Rob Schneider and others lamented this contractual decision as “cancelling,” they were just wrong. Wrong, period. There are consequences to actions, whether or not you consider yourself an “edgy” comedian or a handsome fellow with a fine social pedigree.

Some people, lamenting the new vigilance over what public figures say and do, wonder if there is no statute of limitations on bad behaviour. “Sheesh, guys, it was 2001! I was a kid!” In 2001, Justin Trudeau was 29 years old. Shane Gillis was 30 when he recorded the now-infamous podcast. “But I’m a comedian who takes risks.” Again, no. It’s not being overly sensitive or too social-justice warrior or “millennial” to respond: “Sorry, no free pass on that one, now or ever.”

Personally, I’m with Aristotle. The Greek philosopher taught us that your actions are your character. What you do is who you are. There is no escape hatch from that, just a deep and never-ending responsibility. Who you are today is who you were yesterday. We may forgive, but we never forget. Saying you “take responsibility” does not alter the record.

Have you done bad things in your life? Of course you have. So have I. Let’s hope we all exercised better judgment than even contemplating donning dark facial makeup or a swastika – or finessing a charge of sexual harassment. For the rest, the world must decide. Welcome to ethical life, friends.