Recently, David Finch, Paul Varella and David Deephouse – analyzing polling data around oil-sands development – explained that while climate change is seen as an important issue by most Canadians, it isn't personally relevant because the most dramatic effects will not be felt until the end of this century.
I gave birth to my first child last year. According to the latest data from Statistics Canada, his life expectancy is 79; if he reaches that age, he will live until the year 2090. The normal anxiety I feel as a parent about my child's future is heightened by what I know from a career spent considering the implications of climate change and analyzing the economic impacts of climate change policy. And for me, it couldn't be more personal. The best information available today tells me this issue touches anyone who has a child in their life who they love. Action we take, or fail to take, right now to address climate change will profoundly affect their lives.
In 2020, my son will be 9. Due to inertia in the climate system, not much will have changed, although I imagine that extreme weather events, crop failures and water shortages will be more directly attributed to climate change. Will the stories on the news keep my son awake at night? If they do, I will hug him tight and tell him everything is all right – that the adults of the world are working as hard as they can to fix the problems. Will I be telling the truth?
In 2035, my son will be in his mid-20s, ready to embark on the career of his choice. By that time, many of our trading partners will likely have recognized the magnitude of the climate change threat and implemented stringent policies to control their greenhouse gas emissions and the emissions embodied in their imports. Will Canada be rich with opportunities in this new economy due to early investment in clean energy technology development? Or will prospects be dismal with fewer and fewer buyers to support emissions-intensive oil-sands extraction?
In 2050, my son will be 39, just a few years older than I am now. These could be times of political instability and international conflict, as hundreds of millions of people are permanently displaced by climate change. They may also be somewhat hopeful times, however. If we take decisive action now, in the early decades of the 21st century, the impact of these changes will finally begin to be felt around 2050. Will my son have grabbed hold of that hope and started a family of his own?
As this century draws to an end, my son and the other babies of today will be old men and women. Like today, they will be in a vulnerable phase of life, depending on the care and kindness of others, craving routine and consistency. Unfortunately for them, if we do not alter the path we are on, a climate catastrophe will be unfolding. The global average temperature will have increased between 4 and 6 degrees Celsius, crop yields will be falling all over the world, water availability will have declined significantly in many areas, and sea level rise will be threatening major cities. Intense storms, forest fires, droughts, flooding and heat waves will be occurring. There will be a high risk of sudden, dramatic and irreversible changes in the climate system. What will become of the elderly in this frightening new reality?
I have a lot of questions and uncertainties about the future, but one thing I know for sure. The state of the world at the end of this century is personal for me because that is the world my son will grow old in, long after I'm gone. Right now, it is looking like a world of hunger and thirst, of increasing chaos and insecurity. And, in the words of poet William Butler Yeats, "that is no country for old men."
Rose Murphy is a PhD candidate in sustainable energy at Simon Fraser University.