Arno Kopecky is an environmental journalist and author. His latest book is The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: Promise and Peril in an Age of Climate Crisis.
On Monday, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the fourth and final volume of its Sixth Assessment Report. The language is scientific, but the timing is darkly poetic: In the time it took to publish all four volumes, the oil industry logged its most profitable year in history. Emissions in 2022 rose accordingly, as we learned shortly before the report was released. Not coincidentally, so did human conflict.
The report doesn’t discuss what happened while its authors were writing. It skips from 2020 (the year by which global warming reached 1.1 degrees) to 2030 (the year by which we must cut 2020′s emissions in half in order to stay below the critical 1.5-degree threshold) and beyond. But there’s no making sense of the catastrophic path we’re on, let alone how to get off it, without acknowledging the relationship between money, emissions and conflict.
You don’t need to fly to Ukraine to see that relationship play out. It’s on full display right here in the world’s fourth largest oil-producing nation. Canada’s five biggest oil companies earned a combined profit of almost $40-billion in 2022. That trickled down, or rather up, earning Canadians some $50-billion in government royalties across the country. The boom was most concentrated in Alberta, where oil production has nearly doubled since 2010 – over a third of provincial revenues came from oil and gas in 2022.
You’d think all that money would make us happy. Instead, 2022 also saw the Freedom Convoy roll into Ottawa and set a new bar for national discord. Vaccine mandates may have sparked that particular protest, but the discontent had been brewing since well before the pandemic, much of it grounded in climate policy. Many of the convoy’s key organizers were veterans of the pro-oil movement who helped organize the United We Roll protest of 2019, in which truckers converged on Ottawa to protest the carbon tax. One form of denial leads to another.
The 2019 protest didn’t get nearly as much traction as the follow-up three years later; people weren’t angry enough back then. Now they are – on all sides.
Because don’t forget, most Canadians do want their government to fight climate change. A majority of us are well aware that the costs of fossil fuel will soon eclipse the benefits, and that unlike royalties these consequences won’t disappear from one year to the next. We feel just as outraged by climate obstructionists as those obstructionists feel about us. Three years ago, not long after the United We Roll protest and just weeks before the pandemic, we were the ones blockading critical infrastructure all across the country to protest the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline.
But even if we’re the majority, there still aren’t enough of us. Decarbonizing at the pace and scale the IPCC calls for (less than seven years to cut emissions in half?!) will require total collaboration – a mass mobilization across all levels of society, co-ordinating all levels of government. Instead, we have a former oil and gas lobbyist sitting in the Alberta premier’s seat, and a federal opposition leader who rose to power by promising to “Axe the [carbon] Tax” and build pipelines in every direction.
And so, an existential threat that ought to bring society together is tearing us apart instead. Threats only unite society when they’re external, or, in the case of domestic scapegoats, too weak to defend themselves. The pro-oil camp is neither of those things.
So how do we move forward? It’s a deeply human instinct to seek solutions in history, but there is no precedent for climate change. It’s not like the hole in the ozone layer, because the grip of fossil fuel on our economy, infrastructure and politics is incomparable to the grip aerosols once had. Fossil fuels have built the modern world and delivered god-like power and prosperity. Has anything so useful ever turned out to be so destructive?
Another human instinct is to remedy despair with platitudes. I feel myself reaching for one now, the kind you hear each time these climate reports come out, like “the end is not yet written.” Anything rather than contemplate the harsh truth coming into sharper focus with every new IPCC report: Halting global warming at 1.5 degrees is now a bleak fantasy. Whether we keep it to 1.6, or 1.7, or 2.0 – that’s the question.
It’s not an idle one. Every hundredth of a degree is worth fighting for, represents a major victory. The damage has begun, but the worst – warming of over two degrees – is still avoidable. It just won’t happen without a fight.
The path to climate unity leads directly through conflict. In this certainty, some hope resides. Conflict can be a creative force. It offers purpose. And deadlines have a way of sharpening one’s focus. Our 2030 deadline also marks the year the next IPCC report is due. It may be trite to say it hasn’t yet been written; nevertheless, it’s true.