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“Can civilization survive climate change?”

Elizabeth May

I am extremely honoured to be here tonight to give one of the prestigious annual Killam lectures. As an alumni of this institution and as a former faculty member, with the extraordinary connection of the chair in my name, I have a particular attachment to Dalhousie University. Thank you to the members of the committee.

I take my text from A History of the World for Martian Infant Schools by Lord Bertrand Russell.

“Ever since Adam ate the apple, man has refrained from no folly of which he was capable.

The End.”

The issue of “climate change”, sometimes called “global warming,” more properly “climatic instability” -- or “climate chaos” or maybe “Climate Armageddon” (we do not yet have the right language to convey the nature of this threat) demands of us that we refrain from folly.

We have done it before, if only rarely. There are three technological developments that threaten life on earth. On the first, humanity recognized the threat of nuclear weaponry and took steps to avoid it -- first with a global treaty to ban the detonation of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere for testing, and later with disarmament and non-proliferation treaties. There is still a distance to go before all our swords are beaten into ploughshares, but we have made a start.

The second, the release of chemicals that destroy the ozone layer, has been on a downward trend since the 1987 Montreal Protocol. The ozone layer will continue to thin for a few decades due to the already released ozone-depleters still floating toward the stratosphere, but if we stay the course on the Montreal Protocol, the ozone layer should begin to repair itself before the end of this century.

We now face a much larger challenge. My title, “Can civilization survive climate change?” is not hyperbole.

Humanity -- indeed, life on Earth itself – is at risk due to climate change. It is theoretically possible (and I have never said this publicly before as I hate to say something out loud that I find paralyzes me with fear) that our fossil fuel addiction could actually destroy the life-giving conditions of our atmosphere.

A “run-away greenhouse effect” is possible, but not likely. What is far likelier is that our civilization will fail to heed the warnings -- leading to massive collapse.

In cosmic terms, humanity has not been around all that long.

The life of Planet Earth encompasses a 3.8 billion year time span. (I am indebted to that corporate champion of sustainability, Ray Anderson, for this comparison). To gain some perspective on humanity’s importance, if you place the 3.8 billion year span along a time line one kilometer long, humanity (homo sapiens -- the self-proclaimed smart species) make our appearance 2 centimetres from the end.

Far more recently did homo sapiens develop what we call “civilization.”

Recently, we have had a societal fascination with the collapse of civilization. Jared Diamond’s U.S. best-seller, Collapse, is paralleled by Canadian Ronald Wright’s best-selling Massey Lectures -- A Short History of Progress.

Both chronicle the self-destructive tendencies of the amazing primate known as “man.” From the very location of the Garden of Eden and the early Sumerian civilization, one that succeeded for 1,000 years, to the Easter Islanders and their 900 year run, to the Mayans, the Incas and the Romans, humanity has a worrying history of outrunning its ecological limits, living beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity and crashing as a result.

All collapses are not equal -- although they may seem that way to the individual crushed in its last paroxysms.

Ronald Wright quotes a piece of “cynical graffiti” (which I cannot imagine he did not coin himself):

“Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”

Wright noted:

The collapse of the Sumerian civilization affected a half million people;
The fall of Rome affected tens of millions.

“If our civilization were to fail, it would, of course, bring catastrophe to billions.”

The notion that our civilization could fail is as uncomfortable as it is unfamiliar. It is out of step with the technological optimism that has been the hallmark of the Industrial Revolution.

It is the Industrial Revolution that has allowed us to live beyond the immediate limitations of local food production; that has created consumer, manufactured goods and vast leisure time; that has allowed the human population to balloon from 1.2 billion in 1850 to the over 6 billion today (I always find it sobering to consider that when Jesus walked the Earth, there were 200 million people on the planet, and that to reach the doubling point of 400 million took 1500 years. The last doubling time, from 3 billion to 6 billion, was in my life time.)

It is the Industrial Revolution that fueled an amazing burst of ingenuity, of scientific discovery and medical triumphs…

“The boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart. I mean, these are the days of miracles and wonders. This is the long distance call…”

Paul Simon’s lyrics already strike a nostalgic chord… “the long distance call”?

How about cell phones with cameras to instantly send pictures, convey images, text messages and blackberries sending whole documents to your pocket? The wireless world that tells us “we are all connected” but leaves us feeling increasingly alienated.

Still, we are the technological whiz kids of all time. How could we fail?

Pretty easily really.

As civilizations go, that spawned by the Industrial Revolution is really, really new.

Back to our timeline. 3.8 billion years of Earth history on a time line 1 kilometre long. Humanity enters 2 centimetres from the end. The Industrial Revolution begins 1/8000ths of a centimetre from now.

In a breathtakingly short period of time, less than the blink of a cosmic eye, humanity has become the dominant force for change on the face of the Earth. We have taken the life-giving, life-creating, life-nurturing systems of Planet Earth and pushed them into reverse.

We are polluting our life support system with toxic chemicals with generational health impacts. We have caused the largest episode of species extinction since the one that took out the dinosaurs. We have weakened and thinned the ozone layer that protects us from the sun’s most harmful rays.

And, by burning fossil fuels and destroying forests, we have changed the very chemistry of our atmosphere.

That this could happen was spotted early by Swedish chemist Svant Arrhenius in the last part of the Nineteenth Century. He stayed awake all one long dark Christmas Eve playing with calculations of how the trapped carbon from the vegetation of millennia, released as the industrial machine burned coal, might actually change the atmospheric carbon balance. By his calculations, humanity could double the concentration of atmospheric carbon --- in 3,000 years. Arrenhius can hardly be blamed that his estimate was off. That we are now closing in on a doubling less than 150 years from when he made his calculations has nothing to do with his grasp of chemistry or math and everything to do with the fact that he was basing estimates on what he knew. The internal combustion engine had not yet been invented. There were no cars, no traffic jams, no drive-through windows. There were no oil refineries, no tar sands, no airplanes.

Who could have imagined today’s level of fossil fuel consumption more than 100 years ago?

What we call “climate change” is really far more fundamental. It is really about altering the chemical make-up of our atmosphere. We are playing Russian Roulette with our life
support system.

Modern science began to catch up with Arrenhius in 1979 when the U.S. Academy of science prepared a report for then-President Jimmy Carter, warning of the impacts of climatic disruption from increased levels of burning fossil fuels. In 1988, another milestone occurred. Canada was actually in the lead in hosting the first-ever international scientific conference on climate change, designed to give the issue a public face. It was opened by Prime Minister Mulroney and addressed by the Prime Minister of Norway, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland and took place in a Toronto heat wave, the last week of June, 1988.

The consensus statement from the assembled scientists was “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment, whose ultimate consequences are second only to global nuclear war.”

You would have thought that would have gotten some attention -- and it did. That same year, the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (known as the IPCC) -- setting up a process that is essentially the world’s largest peer review. Over 2,000 scientists, appointed by their governments, began meeting regularly to provide a consensus view and a special report called “advice to policy makers.” By 1990, the countries of the world, through the U.N., began negotiating a treaty to deal with the threat.

In 1992, at what was at that time the largest ever gathering of heads of government, the Rio Earth Summit, the first legally binding climate change treaty was signed. The Framework Convention on Climate Change was agreed upon by the governments of just about every country on Earth. In the lead up to Rio, then US President George H.W. Bush declared that he would not attend the Earth Summit at all, if the treaty were to include binding targets and deadlines for Greenhouse gas reduction. As Bush said at the time “The American lifestyle is not on trial.”

Although the treaty was watered down to accommodate Bush, the Framework Convention did establish several important points that have served as foundation for later action. The UN FCCC committed all Parties to a shared commitment to action. It acknowledged that climate change is real, that human activities, from land use changes (deforestation) and burning of fossil fuels were the major sources of the problem, and accepted that awaiting 100% scientific certainty would be to ask for a post mortem. The Convention adopted the Precautionary Principle – that a lack of scientific certainty should not be used as an excuse for inaction.

The Convention’s “ultimate objective” is to stabilize “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” In other words, the build up of greenhouse gases (GHG) due to human activity should be stopped before it can become dangerous.

The key word here is “dangerous.” It is subjective. If you were in France in the heat wave of 2003, watching the ice melt in the Western Canadian Arctic, or the water rise in New Orleans in August 2005, or British Columbia in the fires of 2004, you might well conclude that things are already pretty dangerous.

For purposes of an estimate of rough justice, the IPCC decided that whatever else might be dangerous, a doubling of carbon dioxide clearly would be. So lots of modeling went into what the world would look like if the global concentrations increased from the pre-Industrial Revolution level of 275 parts per million to double that -- 550 parts per million.

Meanwhile humanity’s emissions of greenhouse gases were going through the roof. In 1996, the global level reached over 6 billion tones of carbon from fossil fuel burning. The statistic is not meaningful in itself, but in context it is startling. The 1996 level was four-times that of the late 1950s.

By 1997, the Parties to the Framework Convention met again, this time in Kyoto, Japan, to set out binding targets and timelines for Greenhouse gas reduction. It was clear that Kyoto targets were only a small first step. Even if fully implemented, including by the United States, the Kyoto reductions would not avoid an atmospheric doubling of carbon. At best, Kyoto would delay the doubling point by ten years.

But Kyoto has not operated at “best.” It has faced an extraordinary challenge, dominated by US interference and sabotage, to even become legally binding. As a small, first step, it has been resisted as though it represented the banning of fossil fuels.

Increasingly, I believe that the issue of climate change is hobbled by its categorization as an environmental issue. It is an environmental issue, in the same way that drowning is a “water issue.” It surely is that, but it is much more.

For one thing, we (or politicians and the media) tend to have spoken about climate change as though we knew what it meant. The projections for global impacts of the world’s atmospheric concentrations were to double have been used as though those were a worst case scenario. Of course, the end point of climate chaos is directly related to the timing and depth of reductions in our emissions. If emissions continue to rise, if we burn fossil fuels as though there’s no tomorrow, then “no tomorrow” could be the result.
In fact, a worst case scenario for climate change is not really worth thinking about. I do not like talking in public about an outcome I find paralyzes me with fear. The worst case scenario is basically blowing our atmosphere and losing life on earth. That is not terribly likely, but it is theoretically possible.

What we do know is that at roughly 30% more carbon dioxide by concentration in our atmosphere than at any time in the last twenty million years, we are changing huge areas of the planet -- quite fundamentally.

Arctic ice is shrinking. The polar bears are at risk because without ice, they have trouble hunting. But it gets worse…As ice retreats, warming is intensified. The ice bounces back the sun’s rays (the albedo effect). Dark ocean water soaks up the sun’s energy, further warming the ice.

The permafrost from Siberia to the Mackenzie Valley is melting. As it melts, whole villages face the need to relocate, and caribou sink in the mud as they try to migrate.

The glaciers, whether in the Alps, the Rockies, the Yukon, or the Andes, are all in rapid retreat. (I used to say that politicians moved with glacial speed, but now, due to climate change, the glaciers are moving faster than the politicians!)

Globally, we are experiencing increasing persistent droughts –from a 5-year drought in Australia to China, to the drought in Mozambique that immediately preceded the torrential rains of 2000, in which that nation’s annual precipitation fell within days on the dry and desiccated lands.

Extreme heat wave events are also on the rise. We experience them in Canada with hot humid days (with smog advisories) for the first time in Nova Scotia and an increasing number of 30 degree plus days in southern Ontario. In 2003, the heat wave in Europe killed 30,000 people. In India last summer, the streets were empty in Delhi as the temperature topped 50 degrees C. We lack good information on the number of deaths there.

The intensity of hurricanes is increasing. While some hurricane specialists are not yet convinced, increasingly research at MIT and Princeton demonstrate that the energy packed in the hurricane’s punch has increased by 50-80% from 1950 to 2003. Warmer waters in the ocean lead to more severe hurricanes. I do not need to stress the point to Haligonians. Hurricane Juan was the first full force tropical hurricane ever to slam into our shores. Normally, cooler ocean water to our south would have down-graded Juan to a tropical storm, but in 2003, it hit Nova Scotia as a full force tropical hurricane. One also slammed into Brazil last year (March, 2004) – Brazil’s first ever hurricane.

Scientists are increasingly talking about climate as being less a dial, than a switch. What is described in the literature as “non-linear perturbations” can be translated as “nasty shocks” or sudden and abrupt climate catastrophes.

In early 2004, a surprising course began to publicize the risk of one such event, the U.S. Department of Defence, the Pentagon, released to Fortune magazine its analysis of the security implications of “a plausible scenario for abrupt climate change.”

It suggested that it was plausible that the Gulf Stream could stall by 2010. This would be caused by rapidly melting polar ice changing the salinity of the ocean. The ice is fresh water and its release would push down on the more saline currents, slowing and potentially stopping the vast ocean conveyor belt of currents. If the Gulf Stream were to stall, the Pentagon study anticipated widespread social and institutional collapse as droughts led to collapses in food production, displaced environmental refugees pressed on other borders for resources, soil erosion increased and wind speeds across Texas picked up … The Pentagon concluded that the risks of climate change were more significant than the risk of terrorism.

The other two major sudden shocks that are currently getting a lot of attention are the potential for the Greenland Ice Sheet to melt as it is warming far more rapidly than scientists anticipated, and the potential collapse of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet. The World Meteorological Organization reports that “melting glaciers in Greenland have revealed patches of land exposed for the first time in millions of years.”

The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is enormous. It contains a mind-boggling 3.2 million cubic kilometers of ice, about ten percent of the world’s total ice. It appears to be weakening as warmer water is eroding its base. No one knows why the warmer water is there, or where it is coming from. It is not expected, but it is possible that the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet could collapse. If it does, the IPCC estimate of sea level rise (so far based on the increased volume of warmer water in a 2 X C02 world) would increase from 0.88 metres, by 2100, to 4-5 metres.

A number of scientists have determined that the risk of these events is increased if global average temperature goes up by 2 degrees C above the pre-Industrial Revolution temperature. This, they estimate, could happen if concentrations of greenhouse gases were to increase to 400 ppm. Remember, we are 380 ppm now, up from 275 ppm in the 1800s.

It is a lot easier to be a dispassionate observer of the Easter Islander rolling the Ancestors’ heads to the shore than to observe our own idols being revered as we teeter toward the brink. The new idols – the corporate logos of Shell and Exxon – must be appeased. Our new idol is the GDP, the Dow and the Nadsaq. Do what you want to protect the environment, but do not inconvenience the idols.

Our responses to climate change are tepid at best. Even those who champion action are afraid to call for the targets we really need.

To avoid the “tipping point” described above, we need reductions of 80% by 2050, of 30% by 2020.

It is possible but it will not be easy.

There is no precedent in the history of environmental movement victories – not from curbing pollution in streams, to acid rain, to ozone depletion -- for that that is required now. None of our previous efforts come close to the monumental societal effort that is required of us now. In fact, in our history, the only analogous level of resolve and commitment is that exerted by a country at war. No sacrifice is too great. No level of commitment too large.

I firmly believe it is not too late to dramatically reduce fossil fuel emissions. It is, however, too late, to prevent at least a century of continuing climatic destabilization. At 380 ppm C02, our atmosphere is altered. Our atmosphere is warming -- warming our oceans, driving hurricanes and other severe weather events. But it is not too late to hold the impacts to levels that we can survive -- as a civilization, with our culture and institutions intact.

Next month, we have a chance. A brief political moment of opportunity. The first United Nations negotiating session since Kyoto became law will open in Montreal on November 28th and run till December 9th. It is the 11th time the Parties to the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change have met. It is the first time they have met in North America. I remain grateful that Paul Martin offered to host the conference. It is a political risk, but it does create an opportunity for the world to move forward.

On December 3rd people from around the world will march under the slogan “The U.S. must rejoin the world.” Bush may find it harder to ignore climate impacts, with lessons from Katrina, Rita, Stan and Wilma. So far, it has been a safe bet that Bush, who has made the White House a wholly owned subsidiary of the fossil fuel industry, will keep pushing for climate collapse. We have to move on without him, supporting those U.S. Mayors, Governors and members of Congress who increasingly are acting on the threat.

Our challenge - the challenge of peoples of the world who understand the enormity of the threat – is to be willing to avoid despair. We have to be willing to invest in hope. We must embrace compassion, optimism and faith -- in each other and in the future.

To the smart monkey -- us – we have to say, “It’s time to grow up. Our long adolescence is over.”

We must be mature, spiritual beings who can think beyond the end of our nose. The party is over. Cheap oil is over. Fossil fuels as a recreational drug are no more.

But if we are very lucky, and very smart, we can re-write Russell’s History of the World to say that humanity rejected folly… and that we returned to the Garden.

The party is over, but life in a harmonious relationship with all creation is just beginning.

A video of this lecture is available from Dalhousie University (registration may be required)


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