A timely tome
Slim volume on climate change an urgent wake-up call to all Canadians
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‘The clock is ticking.” Such is the grave warning offered by William Leiss, author of Canada and Climate Change and fellow and past president of the Royal Society of Canada — amongst other designations and credentials.
Canadians and the world population faces its largest existential crisis ever in our 200,000-year shot at survival. Greater than the Second World War and the Cold War, climate change — whether we like it or not — will be our greatest challenge and demise if we choose to do nothing. The climatic sweet spot that we have experienced is fluttering away.
For Canada, doing nothing has been the standard policy over the past 40 years. While Conservative governments have engaged in climate change denialism, Liberal governments have promised substantive results with little payoff. The current Liberal government, following the doldrums of the Harper years, have pledged to cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 and to achieve net-zero by 2050. According to Leiss, both of these targets are fairy tales. For Leiss, “In the three decades starting in 1990, we have missed every target we have set for reducing emissions.” Put simply, “we have fulfilled none of the pledges on [greenhouse-gas] emissions reductions we have made to date.”
And subsequently, “neither Canadian politicians nor most citizens have tried hard enough in the past to honour our commitment for reducing our greenhouse-gas emissions.” Whether through ignorance (climate change doesn’t exist!), akrasia (I should probably do something, but…) or paralysis (what could I possibly do?), Canada and the west have failed to realistically understand the peril and catastrophe that awaits our grandchildren. As Leiss posits, “the youngest cohort of people alive today will very likely begin to experience, during their lifetime, some of the more serious impacts of climate change.”
And such is the purpose of this book, which is part of a larger series edited by Daniel Bédard entitled Canadian Essentials: to wake Canadians up to significant notions such as climate, the geological history of the planet, what we’re up against and the measures and sacrifices that will be required — starting yesterday. For Leiss, the audience is the general reader and, perhaps more importantly, that “it might usefully be assigned to secondary students” as a means to ensure all graduates have an ecological literacy.
An ecological literacy provides us with the knowledge and skills to be able to take substantive action, to avoid hoping for the best. Or, as Leiss frames it, “We have a clear choice before us: we can believe what the scientists say… or we can take our chances — on behalf of the coming generations….” An ecologically literate citizenry won’t take this chance. It would understand the nine planetary boundaries (of which four have been surpassed) and take meaningful action to mitigate the impact of rising temperatures; 1.5 C was a dream, and 2.0 C even is perhaps wishful thinking.
By providing an overview of climate over the past 4 billion years, and then distilling into clear terms what the impact of industrialization has had on global temperatures, Leiss paints a clear trajectory for our planet if we continue with the status quo. He also offers significant solutions — some political and others related to ensuring global trusts are created to bring all countries along the pathway to net zero. Coupled with this is the need to reduce emission, become more efficient, and possibly sequester and reuse carbon dioxide. Without these measures, Leiss writes, “we may be approaching the ‘point of no return’ in climate change, the point at which we no longer have the option of avoiding future rising temperatures and catastrophic outcomes.”
The timing of Canada and Climate Change for public education is timely. As recently as 2021, the Conservative Party “voted against a resolution stating, ‘we recognize that climate change is real,’” Leiss notes. Moreover, the two main sectors driving climate forcing factors in this country — transportation and oil and gas — have continued to increase. The fossil fuel industry is still heavily subsidized by the state, an act of corporate welfare that robs the future from the next generation.
Conservative provincial governments (including Manitoba’s) have recently attempted to take the Federal government to court to push back pricing on emissions — a proven and critical element to achieving targets. Canada (and the planet) is still up against short-sighted and politicized forces intent on oozing out misinformation and excuses. This, despite that life on the prairies, as an example, will become increasingly more difficult. According to Leiss, we will experience less rainfall and higher temperatures — phenomena that we already can feel.
When cottage country in the boreal forest is destroyed, perhaps we will take notice.
Here’s the rub. Canadian public opinion polls spotlight we generally “indicate a reluctance… to bear any current new costs” related to emission reduction. We are still content with our large trucks, Mexican vacations and massive houses. We continue to demonstrate a lacking ecological literacy.
If we are to take a serious crack at rallying to the challenge of climate change, this book needs to be placed on the desks and coffee tables of all Canadians.
The clock, indeed, is ticking.
Matt Henderson is assistant superintendent of Seven oaks School Division.