We’ll deal with the consequences of climate change, believe it or not

Catastrophic scenarios of ecological and social collapse are part of the climate change narrative. However it plays out – and we’re all along for the ride, some of us longer than others – it won’t be painless.

Those advocating measures to mitigate climate change today paint a pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later picture: either we spend time and money combating rising global temperatures, or we spend what’s likely to be a whole lot more down the road dealing with more severe weather-related disasters and applying technological fixes, if we come up with any.

While we’re cautioned against extrapolating today’s weather with climate issues, it’s easy to see the recent spate of hurricanes and the resultant toll, human and financial, as a harbinger of things to come.

Future weather events in the U.S., for instance, are expected to cost more than $35 billion a year over the next decade. The intensity is getting worse, leaving large swathes vulnerable to flooding and surges (northeast and southeast coasts), droughts and wildfires (West) and crop-related issues (Midwest).

As well, the World Health Organization estimates that 12.6 million people die globally due to pollution, extreme weather and climate-related disease. Climate change between 2030 and 2050 is expected to cause 250,000 additional global deaths.

In that light, it’s not difficult to see why the messaging is of impending doom should global temperatures reach two degrees above the pre-industrial average, a course that may be irreversible at this point. We’re on a pace for that somewhere around mid-century.

The apocalyptic view suggests we might be on the road to our own demise in relatively short order due to floods, famine and disease that follow in the wake of a climate change tipping point.

There’s some irony in models that show widespread epidemics – perhaps the result of rising temperatures allowing tropical diseases and pests into new, unprepared areas – as one possible undoing of humanity.

Flooding, soaring temperatures and forest fires abound. We tend to take such stories in isolation, however, failing to connect the dots to form a (big) picture of trouble on a planetary scale. Well, even more than failing, we’re determined not to connect to those dots. And those content with the status quo – largely those profiting thereby – have absolutely no interest in drawing the perils to our attention.

The disregard for the consequences of the changes – consciously ignored in order to focus on unsustainable consumption – is problematic whether or not you believe what man does is having any impact on the climate. Extreme weather, flooding, landslides and forest fires will wreak havoc nonetheless. The same principle applies to all forms of pollution, loss of fresh water, habitat destruction, degradation of arable land and a host of other someday-catastrophic ills that we’d rather not dwell on just now.

The fact is, however, that we’d be well advised to take steps to combat climate change, and ramp up the precautionary measures in those places likely to be hardest hit – rising water levels, droughts and violent weather seem like certitudes, so some planning would be in order.

Does going on and on about climate change help or hinder the cause?

I think people have tuned out. Our attention spans being what they are, we’ve moved on. Oh, we occasionally take passing note of some conference or summit, where politicians make nice speeches about the fate of our planet and what needs to be done. As with many other issues, we suppose that all the talk leads to action, assuming the inevitable decline in news coverage means the problem has gone away.

And, as is always the case, short-term thinking will dominate. Politicians worried about re-election won’t do anything that seems expensive or puts national interests at an apparent disadvantage.

Nations will look after their own interests first. China and India – the two largest polluters going forward – will claim their status as developing economies exempt them from any controls, even as China brings on stream dozens of new coal-burning plants. Every country will want to protect their industries, no matter how energy intensive or polluting.

Canada is no different. The government is beholden to large resource companies, increasingly foreign-owned. The average Canadian, while a low priority individually, still warrants some consideration as part of the voting mass. And Canadians have grown tired of the debate, and will not support one dime travelling out of the country on some ill-fated cap-and-trade, carbon offsets or environmental reparations scheme cooked up by an unaccountable international group.

We simply do not believe politicians and bureaucrats capable of creating a system that isn’t corrupt, ineffective and likely to waste money. History has shown us such agreements are rarely to the benefit of average citizens.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be making our own efforts to combat climate change. Canada contributes about two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions despite having less than half of one per cent of the world’s population. Clearly we can do better. In the absence of international agreements, however, going it alone may require some other changes, including increasing protectionism. There’s no point in lowering emissions standards for manufacturers in Canada, or even the U.S., if goods from China and other major polluters can come into the market with impunity. Worse still, such tactics could end up encouraging even more transfer of Western jobs to offshore locations where the environment regulations are as lax as labour and human rights protection.

As an exporting nation – especially one with resources linked to emissions, particularly the tar sands – Canada may be very reluctant to go down that road. The result? No international agreements, and no national targets.

Perhaps the largest barrier to any major change, however, is human nature: we’re quite content with how our lives are today, and see no need to change that for some potential long-term benefit, one that’s unlikely to materialize in our lifetimes.

Estimates tied to the kind of emission reductions deemed necessary to offset the worst of climate change run into the hundreds of billions. Coupled to the lifestyle changes and potential economic upheaval, the costs seem too onerous. If the worst does happen, we’re going to be spending far more to deal with the damage and mitigation factors … but that’s something that may happen in the future.

Interestingly enough, should the forecasted problems arise, it won’t matter at that point if the climate changes are naturally occurring or manmade: we’ll still have to cope with such things as rising sea levels, increased storm activity, desertification and other threats to farmland, to name a few.

The most entertaining part of the climate change debate hinges on the anthropogenic component of global warming. Those who argue the planet’s history is full of cooling and warming trends, downplaying man’s impact on such a large system, seem to feel that somehow negates taking action. Yes, the Earth has undoubtedly gone through many climate changes, but most of them predate homo sapiens. In more geologically recent times, such events had little impact on humans because our population was small and migratory. Today, given that there are billions of spread out all over the planet, living in cities with massive infrastructure, the changes we’re told are coming would be catastrophic.

Left to its own devices, the planet will deal with the changes – manmade or otherwise. Over time, plants and animals adapt to the new environment. That has sometimes meant mass species die-offs, but that doesn’t mean we want to be one of them.

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