We went to the radical climate group’s offices to hear their plans for civil disobedience.
A coffin inside XR’s temporary headquarters. Photos: Jake Lewis
On Tuesday, as temperatures in London spiked at 21.2C – the warmest winter day on record – Extinction Rebellion (XR) gathered national media to lay out their next steps.
At the climate activism group’s temporary headquarters near Euston railway station, members spoke to the audience as brilliant February sunshine poured through the windows, as if to serve as a troubling reminder of why radical action is necessary. In XR’s case, that means mass civil disobedience as a way to force the government into actually doing something about our rapidly degrading environment – and if that ends in them being arrested, so be it.
XR co-founder Gail Bradbrook was fresh from an appearance at Westminster Magistrates Court. She and five others had been charged with criminal damage – Bradbrook allegedly spray-painted “frack off” on a government building – and all had pleaded not guilty. It had been an emotional day, not least because the judge was, coincidentally, sending them for trial on the 16th of April, a day after XR begin their full-scale international rebellion with coordinated actions on the 15th.
At times, Bradbrook appeared upset as she delivered an abridged version of XR’s frank and profound talk on the appalling state of the climate. We heard how when it comes to damage control, all we have done to date is “rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic”, and were repeatedly reminded of how “fucked” we all are. But Bradbrook offered nuggets of optimism too, and issued a call to arms to help restore our world.
Hope at XR comes in the form of action. “We can’t just leave it to the COP, we can’t just leave it to the Climate Change Committee’s review of the UK’s long-term target to sort it out,” insisted Farhana Yamin, a climate change lawyer and XR activist. “Because the entire system is out of kilter, out of touch, and it is certainly not working fast enough.”
XR is planning a relentless campaign of disruptive yet peaceful civil disobedience ahead of the dawn of the sustained rebellion in April, when it is expected that tens of thousands of people will shut down London indefinitely, until the government takes meaningful action over what XR call the “environment emergency”. Multiple actions over the coming weeks will serve as a means to “normalise” mass uprisings, but are also designed to educate and entertain. Some, however, will perhaps trigger shock and even alarm.
A torrent of symbolic, artificial blood will flood Downing Street to create “a sea of red” on the 9th of March, when hundreds of XR members say they are prepared to be arrested as part of The Blood of our Children protest. The idea is to make the gravity of the climate crisis viscerally clear.
Banners in the temporary XR headquarters
“There will be parents and children, as well as people taking on arrestable roles, like me, who want to make a point about intergenerational injustice,” said Paolo, an XR member. “The idea is to find that sweet spot where the police are obliged to arrest you, but it’s totally non-violent and peaceful. The people who’ve committed criminal damage will sit on the ground and wait to be arrested.”
Young people who have “inherited” the climate crisis are also mobilising among themselves. An XR youth faction was formed just days ago and now has eight members. Robin is 24 and a founding member of XR Youth. He joked that it’s his mum’s 60th birthday soon and that he might not be around for it if he’s arrested.
“We want to represent the youth voice,” he told me outside XR HQ, where he was about to lead a non-violent direct action training session for a group of young people. “If you were born in 1990 or later, you’ve never experienced a normal climate, so we’ve set that as our age range. We are the generation of fucked up climate, and we are the generation that’s going to take it forward.”
The temporary XR headquarters
Training people in peaceful rebellion is key to XR’s mission. Workshops are held most days of the week in local groups across the country, but next month will see the movement stage “mass rebellion training for thousands, with a festival atmosphere” at its Spring Uprising in Bristol.
More than a dozen music acts are confirmed, and there will be an art factory, a regenerative sanctuary and solution-focused talks. Alongside the training, this party element of the weekend event is key, said XR member and festival organiser Tiana Jacout, who was introduced to me as the “brains behind the bridges occupation”, i.e. the action in November of 2018 when thousands of XR members blockaded five bridges in central London.
The temporary XR headquarters
But perhaps the most effective way to seize people’s attention is by going after the very thing that is consuming the nation: Brexit. Although XR does not take a view on leaving the European Union, it is gathering hundreds of people to block the motorway out of Dover as part of its No Brexit on a Dead Planet event on the 30th of March. The action is designed to demonstrate that we could be looking at rioting on the streets if food supplies collapse, not because of Brexit, but climate change.
“It’s phenomenal that while your house is on fire, all the government can do is squabble about getting a slightly shittier trade deal with their closest allies,” said Jacout. “People are squabbling over how food will get to England and not looking at the larger picture of whether there is food available to come to here in the first place.”
Next week thousands of Kiwi students will leave school in a strike for climate change action.
In a suit and tie, retired fund manager Charles Drace is not your typical rebel. California-born, he was once a theatre and film actor, with bit parts in the spaghetti Western ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ and war movie ‘Patton’.
Now, from his neat town house in central Christchurch, the 74-year-old is plotting how to get arrested.
“For years and years now, we’ve been playing nice. And I think one of the things that has been recognised in the last year or so is that it’s not working. We just can’t be nice anymore.”
Drace is a climate activist, a member of the global movement Extinction Rebellion. It began in November, when thousands of protesters paralysed London by disrupting traffic. Since then, it’s caught fire across the globe, with around a million members in 35 countries carrying out acts of civil disobedience.
They’ve glued themselves to buildings and spray painted “frack off” graffiti, closed five major London bridges, swarmed Fashion Week and gone on hunger strike outside Westminster Palace.
In New Zealand, ‘zombies’ have paraded through Wellington airport, held a funeral for Planet Earth in Nelson, and shut off the water supply to Environment Canterbury’s headquarters. Last week, 35 activists banged on the glass windows of BP’s Auckland office, chanting “liar, liar, pants on fire.”
Next month, they’ll join groups across the world in a week of civil disobedience and attention-grabbing stunts.
It’s bigger than just a march. Extinction Rebellion’s goal is to trigger an enormous political and cultural shift, big enough to save the planet from certain doom. They say they need 3.5 per cent of the population on board to make radical change. Numbers in New Zealand total about 2000, so about 165,000 short.
“We are declaring rebellion against the government for criminal inaction and what Extinction Rebellion sees as a climate and ecological emergency,” Rowan Brooks, 29, says.
“One of the core things which XR is saying is we need to tell truth and start acting like it.
“We need to stop pretending that we will sort some things out, and that we’ve got 50 years. Disruptive protest is a way of motivating politicians and the powerful to do things.”
Athlete and small business owner Gene Beveridge, 26, joined the BP protest, the first time he’s ever got involved with a political movement.
“Personally, I’m not really that interested in marching around but if that is what we need, then I’ll do it … I want policies to be a better reflection of science and public opinion.
“Over the past three or four years, with the Trump phenomenon and Brexit, I’ve just realised that the discourse is quite heated. That’s what woke me up.
“I couldn’t rely on other people, there isn’t enough goodness in the world for things just to work out. I had to get involved myself.”
Until now, climate activism has concentrated on pollution, plastics, the impact on animals and forests or the melting of ice-sheets. Extinction Rebellion goes much further, warning of the collapse of civilisation, famine and the extinction of mankind.
“We have to be dramatic, we have to make the point so strongly that the Government is forced to listen, instead of listening gently and coming back with platitudes,” Drace says.
Their message might be extreme, but you won’t find more polite subversives. They are non-violent, against damage to property and use graffiti paint that washes away.
Brooks, a community garden co-ordinator, frequently interrupts himself to make sure others in the group get a fair say.
Drace likes formal dress for protests, because environmentalists are often stereotyped as “hippies.”
“I have tried to break that mold,” he laughs. “I guess I would be described by most people as being in a fat cat type of occupation. But there are an awful lot of professional people who really care.”
The Christchurch branch, with around 150 members, is planning their first ‘swarming’ road blocks in the city. They’ll last ten minutes each, and volunteers will hand out water, snacks and explanatory pamphlets.
“We are going to be doing really short stints just around the place, to practice and to start little moments of disruption,” Brooks says.
“It’s not about the motorists. It is about saying maybe we need to stop what we are doing for a second and look at the gravity of the situation.
“Once traffic isn’t moving through a city, then that has a flow on effect which is economic. People aren’t managing to do their things as well. And then people start saying [to] council, government: ‘what are you going to do about these people who say there is a climate emergency’?”
A group called Extinction Rebellion turned off water at the ECan offices and chained themselves to the water mains in protest to the way ECan has been dealing with Canterbury’s water.
Aren’t they worried about frustrating people?
Brooks says Kiwi cities won’t suddenly grind to a halt, largely because the movement is in its infancy.
“In New Zealand, with the two degrees of separation, once you have people who are willing to put their bodies on the line, then everyone who knows them, trusts them, maybe starts to believe that action is actually legitimate.”
Brooks was one of five protesters arrested after the group turned off the taps at ECan. They were all released with a warning.
“We opened the thing on the street and turned the tap off,” Brooks says. “Some people sat on the cover … a plumber came and turned on another tap. We went and borrowed some tools from some workers down the road, turned that off and sat on top of that one.
“We are deliberately doing things which we are not supposed to do, because we are saying the government is not doing what it is supposed to do,” Brooks says.
He and Drace are fully prepared to go to prison for their actions.
“We are talking about a dying planet … we face mass extinction, including human extinction. If, tactically, me being in prison is going to help [prevent] that, then lock me up.”
Drace agrees it is “his duty.”
“It is the only honorable thing to do. To get out and fight.
“I don’t believe there is any chance we can stop global warming, but I think there is a big chance that we can delay it and let the next couple of generations at least have some kind of decent life.”
In England, members have described meditating and performing yoga in holding cells after protests. Co-founder Roger Hallam said: “The action itself is not as important as going to prison, which has cultural resonance, you might say.”
Not everyone in the movement feels that way. Marine scientist Sea Rotmann runs a consultancy and her work involves international travel.
“It would be career limiting if I was … arrested or convicted because all of my work is with international governments … for the work I do – which I think has a lot of benefit in terms of finding solutions – I need to be able to travel.”
New Zealand police say there is no ‘national operation order’ for Extinction Rebellion.
But a spokeswoman added: “Our role is to ensure the lawful right to protest while allowing members of the public to go about their daily business safely, and we will respond appropriately to any issues regarding disorder or public safety that may arise.
“We urge anyone planning or undertaking protest activity to keep the safety of themselves and others at the forefront of their minds.”
Rotmann says joining Extinction Rebellion’s Wellington branch has been empowering.
But she says it’s unusual for a scientist to join a direct action campaign.
“Science is a profession which forces us to be overly conservative with how we describe our data and our facts and our modelling. We are not meant to be catastrophising, to be emotional, or show our frustration, anger and grief … I am a research consultant – not an academic. So, I am able to speak out.”
Rotmann says her scientific knowledge has left her distraught.
“I’ve been dealing with a lot of grief for many years. I have what many environmental scientists call pre-traumatic stress disorder which is the same as PTSD except you are having it because you know what is coming and you can’t do anything about it. You feel powerless.”
Like many of Extinction Rebellion’s key players, Rotmann has a background in activism. She is involved in court action over the extension of Wellington airport’s runway. Simon Oosterman, the group’s media liaison, is a seasoned campaigner and trade unionist who organised the first Starbucks pay strike, and was arrested for taking part in a naked bike ride to protest vehicle emissions.
Brooks and Drace campaigned against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, with Brooks organising protests.
Rotmann, Drace and his fellow Christchurch team member Torfrida Wainwright, are all Green Party members.
But even though they are pushing the Government to do more, they don’t see a conflict with their party. Especially as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called climate change her generation’s “nuclear free moment.”
“It’s great leverage,” Wainwright, 68, a veteran feminist and climate campaigner says. “It is something we can use. We can say to her: ‘You are saying this and now act on it.’
“You couldn’t say that to John Key because he and Bill English denied there was a problem anyway. All you could do is beat at the walls.”
Rotmann has twice stood as a candidate for the Greens.
“Extinction Rebellion is completely non-partisan and I think it is really important that it stays that way. But, in a lot of ways, the New Zealand Government is not as anti-environment, and is promoting climate change [action], in a way other governments aren’t.
“I mean, it would be different under a National government.”
Despite this affinity with the Government, the protests are demanding carbon neutrality by 2025, not the 2050 timeline proposed.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw says the rebels aren’t alarmists, and he gets their frustrations.
“They are deeply concerned that we do everything we can to limit global warming to help limit the impacts of climate change,” he says. “I share those concerns … Our aim is to be carbon neutral by 2050. That goal is consistent with the science outlined in last year’s IPCC report about what’s needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.
“We may find that solutions and the momentum of change to low emissions options enable us to meet that net zero goal sooner than 2050, in which case I hope future governments will want to move faster.”
He says he is concerned about public safety and property.
“I understand the organisation’s depth of feeling about climate change and their commitment to ensuring the issue of climate change is not ignored. Civil disobedience is a longstanding means of drawing attention to issues of public concern. All I would ask is that they do not put themselves or others at risk of harm through their actions.”
Drace remains frustrated and wants the Government to immediately halt all oil exploration – not just new permits
“The Government will say ‘oh, we are doing all we can’ and yet nothing significant, nothing effective is happening,” he says. “And so there is a widespread feeling that is growing dramatically – and the students’ strike is part of this.”
Next week, school children across the world will go on strike, part of a growing international youth movement inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. Extinction Rebellion Christchurch members have been working closely with local kids.
Drace ran a half-hour workshop for the junior demonstrators, taking them through planning and advertising, dealing with police, avoiding trouble and even which spray paints and stencils to use on their placards.
Twelve-year-old Lucy Gray is organising the March 15 rally in the city’s Cathedral Square. About 1000 students are expected to ‘strike’ in 20 cities – joining millions of children across 51 countries.
“The strike is a campaign for kids to be able to share their voice with the rest of the world because although we can’t vote, we still have a voice, and we need to be able to use that to get the government to realise this is our future, it’s matters to us and we want to stand up for our future,” the Beckenham pupil says.
While Extinction Rebellion’s message is doom-laden, Gray and her friends are much more positive.
“I am worried but I try to convert my anxiety and fear into action because the more action we have, the more we can do.
“I try and stay positive because if we let it drag us down we are not going to have energy to do the things we need to do, we are not going to have that fire inside us that we need to keep burning.”
Despite the fact that ITV once broadcast a fly-on-the-wall documentary about me called Disasterman, I have always had a fairly positive outlook. Staying optimistic in light of the environmental bombshells published this week, however, is not easy. At times like this it is difficult not to wonder if, whatever action we take, we may already be doomed.
The first bombshell exploded at the weekend, when the results of a major new study (1) revealed that the global population of insects of all types was plunging by 2.5 percent a year. Should this rate of decline continue – and there is good reason to think it could even accelerate – then a quarter of all insects alive today will be gone in a decade. Before 2070, half will have vanished and none will survive to the end of the century. It is impossible to play down the scale of this blossoming catastrophe. Without insects we will starve. Full stop! This would be as near as it gets to an extinction event for the human race, and not one that happens in the dim and distant future, but one that will increasingly impact on our children and their children. As ever, this should not really come as a surprise. We know the cause – a conspiracy of climate change and industrial-scale intensive agriculture. The solutions too, are clear; a complete rethink of our diet, how we grow our food and how we manage our world – for the good of all life, not just our own.
On Tuesday, hard on the heels of the insectageddon bombshell came another, this one in the form of a new report by the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research (2). This flagged up how the accelerating impacts of climate change and other environmental problems, threatens a collapse of the world’s social and economic systems. Once again, this is hardly news to those of us who have eyes and use them, but the report draws attention to a number of key points; not least the fact that mainstream political and policy debates utterly fail to recognise the problem. It is off the radar and kept there by Brexit, trade wars and comparable issues that pale into insignificance against climate breakdown and environmental degradation. Not only can most policy makers not see the elephant in the room, they are not even in the room.
These two reports are simply the latest in a near continuous torrent of bad news that acts to sap the will. In the face of this mind-numbing deluge, it would be all too easy to throw in the towel; to turn our backs on the environmental crisis that threatens our survival; to plead that it’s just too hard to tackle. But we can’t afford to do this. It is too late now to prevent dangerous, all-pervasive, climate change that will affect every one of us and make the lives of our children and theirs a real struggle. It is going to be tough anyway – that’s now a certainty – but the longer we delay and the slower we are to take serious action, the worse it will be. This is why Extinction Rebellion is calling for a net zero carbon world by 2025. However bad the news gets, this is still something worth fighting for. What choice do we have?
(1) Worldwide decline of entomofauna: a review of its drivers
Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.
It’s been a strange week, unplanned and unexpected. It all started when Louis and Niaomh (my children aged 21 and 30) came home, so I guess they have some responsibility for it all. As always they bring life, friends, dogs, food, stories and fun with a little bit of chaos in the mix.
On Saturday they all set off for Rebellion Day. I stayed home with Sylvie and big dog Bagheera. I felt really torn, I wanted to be there but wasn’t sure if either me or my daughter Sylvie (aged 12) could cope with seeing them arrested. Niaomh wrote my number on her arm with a Sharpie before she left.
We had talked on the Friday evening. I knew the plan was to block the bridges but had no idea how the police would respond. Protests in the past have often become violent and I wondered about kettling and brutal removal.
I watched the day unfold on various different media sources as bridge by bridge was occupied. And finally they did it! I was amazed. And the footage showed peace and humour and positivity. I felt proud of them all and moved and thankful.
Then came the text that I had been both expecting and dreading “Heya Im, Niaomh got arrested and is at Charing Cross. She’s all good and with a friend but we might be back a bit late….” (13.01)
I was surprised by my initial reaction. Calm. What can I usefully do?
Tried ringing Charing Cross police station but there was no-one answering. Tried the Metropolitan Police non-emergency numbers and choosing the ‘in custody’ option got a recorded message saying they don’t give out any information about people in custody ‘for legal reasons’. Baffled, surely they are in custody for legal reasons and families and friends have a right to know? Then thought with all the cuts they probably just don’t have the resources to deal with this anyway.
The thing I felt most assured by was that Extinction Rebellion have Wellbeing Volunteers, but more than this, they look after each other. So, there were about 100 people outside Charing Cross police station waiting for Niaomh and other protestors (they were in police stations across London) to be released. They had a small sound system (playing amongst other tracks ‘sound of de police’) and kept each other buoyant.
So, the best thing I could do was walk the dog and make food. Do the Mum thing.
“The tiny comrade is released!” (21.21)
“Hooray! Xxx” (21.22)
They got back after midnight by which time I was in bed, so I had to wait until the morning for their tales.
Niaomh and Adam were on Southwark Bridge. The police were arresting people slowly but surely. At some point someone shouted out that they were only arresting men. They looked round for the ‘gobbiest’ women. Niaomh and her friend Roz were prime candidates. (If you know Niaomh this will not surprise you). My best description of her is she’s big on the inside.
She said she didn’t even know she had been arrested. She thought she was just chatting with the policeman and then he said that she had to go with him as he’d actually been reading to her, her rights. She asked if he was going to put handcuffs on her and he said no not unless you’re violent. Are you going to be violent? No, she said.
She decided instead to use the weapon of charm. All in all, she said the police were great. When she was released they were chatting and laughing with her and fascinated by the piece of turf with the XR logo that she had been wearing and they returned it to her. She said perhaps this is the best way to reach people, to get them to at least consider what you are trying to say.
I have been thinking for a long time about our relationship with the planet and with each other. The IPCC report in October was a wake up call, but to what? I didn’t know what to do. I had fantasies of running off to join Greenpeace (if they’d have me), but I have home, work, a 12 year old and a small dog (Betty), friends and a community. Commitments and responsibilities, but also things I love and care about.
I have never been a joiner, but nothing in my life has ever made more sense to me than this, now. We either have to find ways to change, to evolve, to live better, to care more, to share, or we will become extinct, and in our death throes we will take out the living planet and the myriad of beings we share it with.
As a species we are irrepressibly curious, creative, caring, innovative, experimental, active, social and yet our flip side is destructive, brutal, fearful and greedy. But we have a super power – choice. I don’t believe that any being could truly choose global destruction but I could be wrong (any Darth Vaders out there?). It’s time to wake up and it’s time to choose and the clock is ticking.
Yesterday the news was more Brexit. Theresa May spoke of ‘a brighter future’. The disconnect is criminal. What future?
A recent visit to the cinema to see the excellent First Man, which follows astronaut Neil Armstrong on his path to immortality, reminded me of the big anniversary coming up next year. I find it hard to believe, but 2019 will see the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, way back in July 1969. I was a schoolboy at the time and remember it vividly. In many ways, this seminal event was the beginning of the end for the hugely ambitious US space programme. Despite another five landings following, and all the drama of the Apollo 13 emergency, the final two moon missions were scrapped, along with plans for a moon base and manned mission to Mars in the 1980s. There has been no return to the Moon and – notwithstanding wildly optimistic ravings from Elon Musk and other internet billionaires with more money than sense – a human presence on the red planet seems as far away as ever.
It is probably not entirely a coincidence that interest in space and reaching out to other worlds began to fade at a time when concerns over our own was growing. Today, few in their right mind would prioritise space exploration over putting our house in order down here on Earth. A house that is in severe danger of being trashed beyond repair by a conspiracy of climate breakdown, environmental degradation and mass extinction. Notwithstanding this, space still has a major role to play down here on the surface. Specialist satellites play a key part in observing and tracking many of the features that flag up how quickly our world is falling apart, including ice cover, sea-surface temperatures and land use. The Apollo programme, in particular, also taught us a vital lesson; just how quickly something can be accomplished if it is wanted badly enough. This is encapsulated in a short clip from the now famous speech President Kennedy made in 1962, during which he announced the intention to put a man on the Moon.
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.
Swap ‘stop climate breakdown’for ‘go to the Moon’ and these few sentences describe perfectly the can-do thinking that a war on climate change requires. It may be Kismet, but Kennedy’s speech was made seven years before the first moon landing; the same length of time over which Extinction Rebellion demands that UK carbon emissions reach net zero. So, it seems obvious. What we need is an Apollo Programme for climate change. An all-embracing crusade that strives to cut emissions to the bone within seven years. To do this will require retooling the economy and rebooting our wasteful lifestyles to make falling carbon output the measure of the success of our society; not rising GDP, the number of families with two cars, or how many fighter jets we have sold to Saudi Arabia.
The driver for the Apollo programme was simple and straightforward – get to the Moon before the ‘Russkies’ do. When the alternative is global catastrophe, an Apollo Programme for climate change shouldn’t really need to be incentivised. Knowing that we will bequeath to our children and their children a world that is not desecrated beyond redemption should be sufficient. Nonetheless, there are welcome incentives too. A zero carbon world will be a cleaner, safer and – almost certainly – a happier one. So what’s not to like. The sooner we start the better.
Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.
There’s a lot of talk about saving ‘the planet’ but planet earth will survive whatever we do to its climate. While the planet itself doesn’t need saving, we are fighting tooth and nail to save the human race and our fellow creatures, whether they happen to be furry, scaled, many-legged or feathered.
In Canada, like many other nations, anthropogenic climate change still isn’t being addressed seriously enough by the government, despite liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s impressive claims. So what’s going on in Canada right now as regards climate change? What effect is it having on the country, and do we still have time to stop the carnage in its tracks?
Canada’s problem? It’s ‘business as usual’
According to an article by CBC News (1) a ‘business as usual’ attitude can only mean disaster for Canada. At the same time the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (2) has highlighted how warming is accelerating faster than ever. It gives us a 12 year deadline to call a halt to the human race’s continuing excesses, and it affects you whatever country you happen to live in.
So far this year Montreal alone has seen 70 human deaths from excess heat, with stifling temperatures regularly exceeding thirty degrees and high humidity that made it feel more like forty degrees. British Colombia encountered the worst wildfires since records began. Flooding brought Toronto to a standstill. And while some areas of the planet have ‘only’ warmed by one degree recently, some areas of Canada have seen dramatic temperature increases of four and a half degrees or more over the past seventy years, including the Northwestern Territories’ Mackenzie region.
It gets worse. As Canada’s senior climate expert David Phillips confirmed, some areas of the country have warmed twice as much as average in half the time. And unusually harsh climate events, which used to happen rarely, are set to become a lot more frequent as well as less predictable.
In general Canada’s summers have warmed by one degree, and its winters by almost one and a half. Some coastal communities in Canada are already battling with sea level rise, along with the associated land erosion and flooding. And eastern Canada is also suffering. Once thought to be less vulnerable to climate change, the past decade has seen dramatic change there, too.
The impact on human life
David Phillips and his team have run ‘business as usual’ computer models to predict Canada’s future climate. And it’s looking pretty grim. Toronto, for example, could experience more than 50 days of temperatures over 30C in the next 30 years, and that also means a 50-60% greater risk of the horrific freezing rain events that already cause such havoc. 2013’s ice storm, for example, cost the nation an eye-watering 106 million Canadian dollars.
While increasing temperatures deliver a longer growing season for farmers, a warmer climate means the land and vegetation dries out and there’s more likelihood of wildfires and widespread smoke pollution. Plus, of course, even more CO2 emissions. But flooding is the biggie for Canada. Flood damage already costs the country more money than any other kind of extreme weather.
The Weather Network website(3) provides more insight. The Arctic’s Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut are all heating up faster than the rest of Canada, not far short of twice the rate. Ice melt is a growing issue, contributing to rapid sea level rise. The albedo – the proportion of light or radiation reflected by the surface of the ice – plus fast-thawing permafrost, are already causing issues around food security and housing. Public health and people’s overall wealth are set to be hit particularly hard in the north of the country. Inuit and First Nations people, who tend to interact more intimately with the environment, will probably suffer most as shorelines erode, permafrost melts, and roads and buildings are destroyed.
Places like New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador are seeing more storms than ever. There are more floods thanks to extreme rainfall and the coastline, where most people live, is the worst affected. Fast-melting Arctic ice is having an impact, with The Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut predicted to be amongst the worst hit by rapid Arctic warming. In a nutshell, things are looking about as bad as they could get.
Best and worst case scenarios
Canada has made efforts to improve things. It has signed the Paris Agreement promising to stop global temperatures shooting up more than two degrees this century, although it’s increasingly likely we’ll miss the target. But at the same time they’ve agreed a new oil pipeline, which sadly reveals how money and short term thinking still come first with the Canadian government despite the hopes raised by Trudeau.
Canada says it will lower its 2005 carbon emissions by 30% by the year 2030. But in 2016 projections revealed the plan was extremely unlikely to succeed, with CO2 emissions targets likely to fail. If things don’t change the year 2030 – just 12 years away – will see Canada’s coastal communities having to move inland, a move that’ll cost the government a fortune. Poor food security will lead to high food prices and more imports. The weather will become increasingly extreme and unpredictable. And if anyone decides to extract the vast reserves of oil and gas that lie beneath the Beaufort Sea, global warming will only accelerate faster.
Imagine the cost if Nova Scotia, as predicted, becomes an island? Imagine the impact on fishing in Canadian waters if the climate warms enough to drive fish away to cooler waters? After all, if the seas warm four degrees, cold water fish will either move away or die out altogether. The usual one in a hundred year storms could happen once every 25 years by 2050. Atlantic Canada’s balsam fir and spruce trees, which dislike warm weather, will die off, and it’ll take decades or even hundreds of years for warm weather alternatives to replace them.
Can we stop it?
As a concerned individual human being, you’ve done everything you can to mitigate climate change. You’ve replaced your lightbulbs with energy-efficient ones. You’ve cut down on car use, or even sold your car in favour of public transport. You haven’t flown for a very long time. You buy less, consume less, warm your home a few degrees less in winter. You insulate, you make do and mend, you recycle and re-purpose. You’ve fitted solar panels, a wind turbine, a water wheel. It’s all good stuff. Actually it’s great stuff. But it still isn’t enough.
Unless the world’s governments act now, and act decisively, Canada will suffer more as time passes. As will the rest of the world’s people, and our fellow creatures. Are you willing to protest peacefully and even go to prison to give our children a future worth having? If so, join us. If not, maybe you can help in some other way? We’d love to hear from you.
Forget the Good, the Bad and the Ugly- it’s the Bad, the Worse and the Criminal, we need to bring down.
I guess we’ve known it all along, but when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions it seems – as far as industrialised nations are concerned at least – that there just aren’t any good guys. Now it’s been confirmed by a new study just published in Nature Communications1, which forecasts what the end-century global average temperature rise would be, based upon the current emissions policies of individual nations. Heading the cast of scoundrels is a clutch of the usual suspects; China, Russia, Canada and Saudi Arabia – along with a bunch of smaller nations – whose policies, if matched globally, would see end-century temperatures climb to more than 5°C above those of pre-industrial times.
Not far behind is another gang of countries, including the United States and Australia, whose national climate targets, if matched worldwide, would see temperatures up 4°C or more by 2100. Before we cast stones, however, we in the UK don’t have much to crow about either. If the rest of the world followed our example, temperatures would still be 2.9°C higher by the century’s end – easily high enough to bring about catastrophic, all-pervasive climate breakdown2. And that’s with most of our manufacturing emissions outsourced to China and elsewhere.
The authors of the study make plain their hope that national emissions pledges, made as part of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, will be tightened in coming years so that the global average temperature rise may still be kept below 1.5°C. The way things are going, however, it would be fair to say that such a target remains pie-in-the-sky. For a start, there is no binding enforcement mechanism to ensure that pledges are kept. More importantly, they are simply not enough. Even if all signatories stuck to their emissions targets, the global average temperature rise would still be 3°C by 2100. If self-reinforcing feedback effects start to kick in seriously – as is highly likely – this could be a calamitous 4°C or even 5°C.
When set in the context of last week’s World Energy Outlook report, which predicts that global carbon emissions will still be heading skywards in 2040, the overall picture looks dire. Fiddling while Rome burns doesn’t even begin to describe the snail’s pace changes that are taking place across the energy and emissions reduction landscapes. We have to act big and act now. Rapid transitions that can change minds and change policies, virtually overnight, have happened before. Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, the US economy was re-jigged in just six months from its peacetime ambitions to a full-on wartime footing. If it happened then, it can happen now. We are, after all, in a war situation. A war that will end either with anthropogenic climate breakdown brought to heel or with our world and our society shattered. The focus of our government, and those of all nations, has to change NOW. Forget Brexit; forget GDP; forget growth for growth’s sake. The mindset has to be turned around so that success is measured by how much and by how quickly we slash greenhouse gas emissions – pure and simple. Net zero emissions by 2025 is the goal.
It’s a huge call, but history teaches that if we want it badly enough, it can be done.
Let’s go for it.
1du Pont, Y. R. & Meinshausen, M 2018 Warming assessment of the bottom-up Paris Agreement emissions pledges. Nature Communications 9. Article number 4810.