Climate Change

Climate Change: A Global Threat

According to the Board of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, the arm within the American National Academies for atmospheric and climate sciences, “The preponderance of the scientific evidence points to human activities—especially the release of C02 and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere—as the most likely cause for most of the global warming that has occurred over the last 50 years or so.” [1]

Scientists agree that the highest safe level of C02 at 350 parts per million; human emissions have now pushed the level of C02 in the atmosphere to 392 ppm.[2] The rate of increase is at 1.8 ppm annually.[3]

The BASC further advises that, “The faster emissions are reduced, the lower the risks posed by climate change. Delays in reducing emissions could commit the planet to a wide range of adverse impacts . . [and] the risks associated with doing business as usual are a much greater concern than the risks associated with engaging in strong response efforts”.[4]

Canada, through its international agreements, has made strong commitments to a green future. In the 2010 Cancun agreements of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Canada affirmed:[5]

that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time . . . [and] that deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required according to science, and as documented in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with a view to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions so as to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C above preindustrial levels, and that Parties should take urgent action to meet this long-term goal, consistent with science and on the basis of equity.

The scientific consensus “has been endorsed by every National Academy of science of every major country on the planet, every major professional scientific society related to the study of global warming and 98 percent of climate scientists throughout the world,” writes Al Gore. [6] Yet despite Canada’s strong public commitments, the country is pushing forward with developing the tar sands, has barely even slowed the rate of greenhouse gas emissions growth let alone reduced its emissions, and under the current government has pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol.

Climate change raises global average temperatures. Every summer, new temperature records are set across the globe. Much of the South West United States saw unprecedented wildfires and droughts, while regions across the world face extraordinary flooding and storms.

Climate scientists used to say that global warming stacks the dice in favour of more extreme weather: what might have used to be a storm so large that it occurred only once every 1,000 years now might happen every 500, or a 100-year flood might instead happen every 60 years. Now they say that we are adding more dots on the dice: whereas before we might have rolled a 12, now we are rolling 13s and 14s.23 Many attribute Hurricane Sandy’s strength and destructive power to global warming,[7] and it has raised an understanding across North America that the effects of climate change are already being felt.

Entire neighborhoods of many major cities are threatened by global warming. Vancouver, New York, New Orleans and many other North American cities are so close to sea level that projected sea level increases could put huge swaths underwater.21 The World Bank projects that even 2° degrees Celsius warming will result in between 0.3 and 0.8 meters by 2100 and 1.5 and 4 meters of sea level rise by 2300, and 4° degrees Celsius would result in an up to 1 meter increase by 2100 and up to 4 meters by 2300, placing huge swaths of the world’s coast underwater.[8]

As the temperature rises, we can expect more and more severe impacts. The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, in its 2007 report, discussed some examples of impacts associated with global average temperature change. Appendix 1 reproduces a figure demonstrating some of the impacts of climate change.[9]

In North America, the report continues,[10]

  • Warming in western mountains is projected to cause decreased snowpack, more winter flooding and reduced summer flows, exacerbating competition for over-allocated water resources.
  • In the early decades of the century, moderate climate change is projected to increase aggregate yields of rain-fed agriculture by 5 to 20%, but with important variability among regions. Major challenges are projected for crops that are near the warm end of their suitable range or which depend on highly utilised water resources.
  • Cities that currently experience heat waves are expected to be further challenged by an increased number, intensity and duration of heat waves during the course of the century, with potential for adverse health impacts.
  • Coastal communities and habitats will be increasingly stressed by climate change impacts interacting with development and pollution.

And for Canadians living in polar regions, the report discusses some projected regional impacts,[11] including

  • The main projected biophysical effects are reductions in thickness and extent of glaciers, ice sheets and sea ice, and changes in natural ecosystems with detrimental effects on many organisms including migratory birds, mammals and higher predators.
  • For human communities in the Arctic, impacts, particularly those resulting from changing snow and ice conditions, are projected to be mixed.
  • Detrimental impacts would include those on infrastructure and traditional indigenous ways of life.
  • In both polar regions, specific ecosystems and habitats are projected to be vulnerable, as climatic barriers to species invasions are lowered.

It is clear that Canada faces clear and pressing challenges from climate change.

Global warming is also a threat beyond Canada’s borders, and many communities across the world have less capacity to adapt and mitigate the impacts.

The World Bank warns that “the distribution of impacts is likely to be inherently unequal and tilted against many of the world’s poorest regions,” highlighting additional sea-level rise, greater tropic cyclone intensity, and increased aridity and drought pressures. River basins that rely on monsoons, like the Ganges and Nile, and those that rely on seasonal ice melt are particularly vulnerable to widespread drought risk.[12]

Similarly, island communities—islands make up one tenth of the world’s population—face the most extreme threat from rising sea levels. Entire islands could be submerged as the oceans rise, and entire peoples may have to migrate to new lands. Many communities themselves emphasize that while “[c]limate change related migration is likely to be a reality, it need not be a refugee crisis,” but the massive relocation of people combined with the destruction of entire homelands is a serious challenge.[13]

Global instability, on many axes, is predicted. 55,736 people were killed by extreme weather in Russia in 2010, in particular from the wildfires that swept the country. Russia then temporarily banned the export of grain, which caused food price shocks around the world. Natural disasters destabilize the lives of people across the world. The American Security Project describes this trend: “Secure states do not automatically mean secure peoples and climate change is proving that.” Climate change and food insecurity, the Project concludes, are international security issues. They “may precipitate large-scale disruption that local public health, law enforcement and emergency response teams cannot contain.”[14] Weak states, the report warns, “may risk failure or increased regional tensions from the inability to cope” with these new stressors and challenges.[15] Regional conflict, disaster relief, and state collapse could be far more likely as warming increases, threatening us all.

Localized environmental destruction also takes place everywhere fossil fuels are extracted from the ground. From mountaintop removal in Appalachia, where entire communities live below tailing ponds that could wash their homes away, to pipeline and oil tanker spills and leaks across the planet, to natural gas extraction techniques that contaminate the groundwater that people drink, the production and extraction of fossil fuels leaves the land scarred and poisoned.

Some of this destruction is legal and some is not. When BP spilled an estimated 172 million barrels of oil into the Gulf after a drilling rig exploded, the company pled guilty to over 12 felony counts.[16] They have so far agreed to $4.5 billion settlement, which would not cover any civil penalties the United States government might seek under the Clean Water Act and other laws.[17] In contrast, Royal Dutch Shell was able to avoid responsibility through legal settlement. In 1995 a prominent critic of Shell’s activities in the Niger Delta was hanged by the country’s military regime, and the company was then accused of funding paramilitary operations and bribing witnesses in Nigeria. Shell, vigorously denying all guilt, recently paid a $15.5 million settlement, what the New York Times article calls “a striking sum given that the company has denied any wrongdoing.”[18]

The consequences of fossil fuel use are tremendous, and they impact every person on the planet.


[1] Committee on America’s Climate Choices, National Resource Council. America’s Climate Choices. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2011. 15.

[2] 350.org. “Science”. 2012. <<http://www.350.org/en/about/science>>.

[3] The World Bank. “4° Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4° World Must Be Avoided.” Nov 2012. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics. <<http://climatechange.worldbank.org/sites/default/files/Turn_Down_the_heat_Why_a_4_degree_centrigrade_warmer_world_must_be_avoided.pdf>>.

[4] Committee on America’s Climate Choices, National Resource Council. America’s Climate Choices. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2011. 2.

[5] United Nations. Framework Convention on Climate Change. (United Nations, 1992) 2-3. <<http://unfccc.int/essential_background/convention/background/items/1362.php>>.

[6] Gore, Al. “Climate of Denial: Can the Science and the Truth Withstand the Merchants of Poison?” Rolling Stone Jun 2011 26. <<http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/climate-of-denial-20110622>>.

[7] Steer, Andrew. “Listening to Hurricane Sandy: Climate Change is Here.” The Huffington Post. 3 Nov 2012. <<http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-andrew-steer/climate-change-hurricane-sandy-_b_2068961.html>>.

[8] The World Bank. “4° Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4° World Must Be Avoided.” Nov 2012. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics. <<http://climatechange.worldbank.org/sites/default/files/Turn_Down_the_heat_Why_a_4_degree_centrigrade_warmer_world_must_be_avoided.pdf>>.

21 Gore, Al. “Climate of Denial: Can the Science and the Truth Withstand the Merchants of Poison?” Rolling Stone Jun 2011 26. <<http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/climate-of-denial-20110622>>.

[9] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Synthesis Report. New York: 2007. <<http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/spms3.html>>.

[10] M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson (eds). Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[11] M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson (eds). Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[12] The World Bank. “4° Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4° World Must Be Avoided.” Nov 2012. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics. <<http://climatechange.worldbank.org/sites/default/files/Turn_Down_the_heat_Why_a_4_degree_centrigrade_warmer_world_must_be_avoided.pdf>>.

[13] Lazrus, Heather. “Sea Change: Island Communities and Climate Change.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 28 Jun 2012. <<http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-anthro-092611-145730>>.

[14] American Security Project. “Climate Security Report—Part One: Climate Change and Security.” 7-8. American Security Project. 2012. <<http://americansecurityproject.org/reports/2012/csr-part-one-climate-change-security/>>.

[15] American Security Project. “Climate Security Report—Part Two: Climate Change and Global Security.” 15. American Security Project. 2012. <<http://americansecurityproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/CSR-Part-Two-Climate-Change-and-Global-Security-email.pdf>>.

[16] CBS/AP. “BP to Pay Record Fine in Gulf Oil Spill; 2 to Face Manslaughter Charges.” CBS: 15 Nov 2012. <<http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57550185/bp-to-pay-record-fine-in-gulf-oil-spill-2-to-face-manslaughter-charges/>>.

[17] Reuters. “Obama Oil Spill Commission’s Final Report Blames Disaster on Cost-Cutting by BP and Partners.” Telegraph: 5 Jan 2011. <<http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/oilandgas/8242557/Obama-oil-spill-commissions-final-report-blames-disaster-on-cost-cutting-by-BP-and-partners.html>>.

[18] Mouawad, Jad. “Shell to Pay $15.5 Million to Settle Nigerian Case.” New York Times: 8 Jun 2009. <<https://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/09/business/global/09shell.html>>.