Bill McKibben is a founder of the environmental organization 350.org and the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College. A former staff writer at The New Yorker, his books include The End of Nature, Eaarth and Deep Economy.
In one sense, what’s going to happen to the planet in the 2020s should come as no real shock: Scientists have been warning us in great detail about what to expect, and their warnings have mostly come true. But since most people seem not to have believed them, it will probably be a surprise to watch their predictions continue to play out.
In the broadest terms, expect more evaporation and hence more drought and hence more wildfires. If you want one fact to understand the coming decade, it’s that warm air holds more water vapour than cold. In arid areas, expect the strings of hot weather that usher in fires, such as the ones that hit Great Slave Lake or Fort McMurray in the past 10 years. Just expect more of them.
But once that water vapour is up in the air, it’s going to come down. Remember the crazy flooding that cut the rail lines to Churchill, Man., in 2017? Is it still crazy after it happens half a dozen times?
Meanwhile, Canadians will continue to have a front-row seat to the continuing obliteration of the Arctic. We’ve already lost well more than half of the summer sea ice in the north; the thaw is now feeding on itself as blue water traps heat once reflected back to space by white ice. The latest science seems to indicate that the open ocean up north is helping stall the jet stream in an elongated arc: Depending upon which side you get stuck on, the long sieges of drought and rain, heat and cold, start to defy statistical probability.
And of course the damage will be much worse elsewhere: The iron law of climate change is that the less you did to cause it, the quicker and harder you’re hit by its effects. Which means, expect lots of human beings on the move. The United Nations estimates that we could see a billion climate refugees over the course of the century. In the past decade, a million people fleeing the civil war (and deep drought) in Syria upended European politics, while a million people fleeing the violence (and deep drought) in central America helped discombobulate the U.S. democracy. A billion is a thousand million.
This kind of severe dislocation means that climate politics will, finally, be at the top of the global agenda in the 2020s. Thirty years after scientists first told us what was going to happen, the power of the fossil-fuel industry to stifle the debate is finally fading: Opinion polls in country after country tell us that it’s increasingly a priority for voters. That doesn’t mean we’ll get the action we need: At the moment, most politicians are offering policies better suited for about 1997, legislation that won’t meaningfully deflect the curve of rising temperature.
But pressure is building for real progress: the American Green New Deal is spreading around the world, and it has its Canadian precursor in the Leap Manifesto, which laid out the scale of social change required to deal with this crisis. (Don’t call it radical. Radical is what you get when you ignore a bad habit for decades, and suddenly the surgeon tells you it’s time to cut out a lung. Thirty years ago, a carbon tax might have done the trick, but it won’t now).
And for Canada, time is running out for pretending that its real task is simply cutting its emissions. Since Canadians burn huge quantities of coal and gas and oil, that’s important – but mathematically, it’s far more crucial for Canada to stop digging up oil and gas and selling it around the world. In 2017, Justin Trudeau told a cheering conference of Texas oilmen that “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.” He was so sure of that that he bought himself a pipeline to help carry it all.
But the inexorable math of the climate crisis is going to become more and more obvious with each passing year; keeping Alberta’s oil underground is going to become as crucial a global priority as keeping the Amazon rain forest standing tall. (And it should be somewhat easier for Canada than for Brazil, since one of them is a rich country.)
Bottom line: The 2020s is the era when the climate-change bill comes due. The scientists have told us clearly that if we haven’t fundamentally transformed our energy systems by 2030 – which they defined as cutting emissions in half – then we can kiss goodbye any hope of reaching the targets we so hopefully set in Paris just four years ago. We’re out of time for evasion; it’s literally now or never.
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