In 1988, Wayne Gretzky hoisted the Stanley Cup for the last time. Brian Mulroney was prime minister. Justin Trudeau was in high school. And on June 23rd, James Hansen, a NASA climate scientist, testified on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Hansen said that his research showed a “99 per cent confidence” that global warming was happening, humans were causing it, and rising temperatures were not a “chance fluctuation.” “Global Warning Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate,” read the front page of the next day’s New York Times. The subhead: “Sharp Cut in Burning of Fossil Fuels is Urged to Battle Shift in Climate.”
Back then, the danger was novel and unknown. Today, it is neither. On Monday, as climate heating lashes countries around the world, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its latest and most compelling research, underlining the danger glimpsed 33 years ago: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” the IPCC said in a report that distilled more than 14,000 studies. “Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.”
The world is probably hotter than at any point in 125,000 years. The global average temperature is 1.1 C higher than in the late 19th century and the IPCC predicts the increase will hit 1.5 C by about 2040 – sooner than expected. The 1.5 C mark is the level at which the world pledged to contain global warming in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Mr. Hansen’s prescience wasn’t completely ignored. The IPCC formed in 1988 and the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro saw a collective promise to do something about global warming. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol followed. Eventually the 2015 Paris Agreement arrived. But the plans and promises were mostly just talk, and greenhouse gas emissions kept climbing, particularly driven by China. Emissions in Canada are up more than 20 per cent since Mr. Hansen’s testimony. Emissions in the United States are unchanged, but remain immense.
In the past year, however, there’s been a real push to change course. Canada has promised an aggressive and escalating carbon tax. U.S. President Joe Biden has made climate action a pillar of his presidency. China is aiming for net zero by 2060. The European Union last month unveiled its most ambitious set of climate policies. And business and finance have started to shift priorities.
The IPCC report offers a bleak outlook, but also hope: It is not yet midnight. The aim of the message is to jar the world to action, ahead of the UN climate summit in Glasgow in November, dubbed COP26.
Global co-operation on a scale never before seen is required. Oil, natural gas and coal fuelled the modern world; changing that will be, to put it mildly, daunting. But it can be done. The International Energy Agency, long an advocate for oil, in May detailed how the world could get off oil and achieve net zero by 2050.
One can take inspiration from the 1987 Montreal Protocol for reducing the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The world came together, set targets, and stuck to them. Success followed. The ozone hole is recovering. But that ask, of governments and individuals, was small compared with what is now demanded.
As countries ready for COP26, it will be the actions of the biggest economies – the U.S., China and the EU – that matter most. Canada is highly threatened by climate change, but by itself, it cannot do much to lessen climate warming here, or around the world. The same goes for even the largest countries. It’s a shared challenge, in a world that rarely acts collectively.
Canada’s prosperity was partly built on oil. Over the coming decades, Canada will have to figure out how to prosper in a postcarbon world. It will not be easy, but there is also economic opportunity in the energy revolution. Alberta, for example, could become a global hydrogen leader.
The early climate models have so far proved remarkably accurate, yet their early warnings were mostly ignored. Two things have since changed: urgency and ability. The danger is growing closer, but so is humanity’s capacity to avert disaster.
The severity of current and future climate heating is clear. And the technologies to do something, by drastically cutting back fossil fuels, are also in hand. Change should have started 33 years ago. Better late than never.
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