Sunday, July 19, 2009

Brave New World

Despite all the hype, the recent global climate talks in L’Aquila, Italy, ended with little progress. While everyone agreed that there was an urgent need for long-term reduction targets, no one was willing to commit to immediate reductions.

The G-8 nations were prepared to cut emissions, but not in the immediate future. The developing giants – China and India, both struggling to catch up with the richer western nations – argued that they are not responsible for the bulk of the carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere.

In the end, it was much ado about nothing.

“Once again, we have had a lot of talk and little action from Canada and the G8. To end a stalemate in international climate negotiations, the G8 needed to make a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020,” said Dave Martin, climate and energy coordinator for Greenpeace. “Stephen Harper has given lip-service to the importance of fighting climate change but has opposed meaningful greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions in Canada.”

The question is, why should he? While Canadians are frequently scolded for being some of highest users of energy per capita in the world, our total national output represents a mere 2.3 percent of global emissions. If the entire country were to become carbon neutral tomorrow, it would do little to mitigate the pending climate crisis.

Targeting GHG reductions is a lot like chasing a runaway train. If we all work very hard together we might be able to close the gap, but as scientists are increasingly trying to tell us, we may have already passed the tipping point.

On second thoughts, perhaps the runaway train analogy isn’t quite right. It’s more like trying to bail out the hull of the Titanic. We might be able to keep ourselves afloat in our corner of the world, but the math tells us that we cannot possible win against the northern Atlantic Ocean.

So, should we continue trying to bail out a sinking ship, or should we jump to a lifeboat, assuming we can find one, and hope that someone rescues us?

The answer is neither. If we really want to survive, then we must be willing to bail each other out. According to the Pembina Institute, “Negotiations for a new global climate deal cannot succeed without stronger commitments from countries like Canada for financial support of climate action in developing countries.”

I’ll take that one step further. Canadians should be focusing all our considerable energy and ingenuity on developing innovative new technologies that leapfrog our current efforts to mitigate climate change. These new, resilient and diverse energy technologies would not only transform our economy they would provide the tools to help developing countries do the same.

This isn’t about providing financial assistance to poorer countries. This is about transforming the global economy and environment with technologies we haven’t even begun to imagine.

If this sounds impossible, consider President Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to the U.S. Congress to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. At time the he made his challenge, the U.S. had yet to successfully launch a man into orbit around the planet. Eight years later, on July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong uttered those few words that changed our relationship with the cosmos forever:

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

This week, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of that historic accomplishment, perhaps it’s also time to revisit the vision and courage that it took to achieve that milestone. Rocket and computer technology were still in their infancy when the race to the moon began, and yet somehow the goal was reached. It’s worth noting that the motivation to reach the moon was merely a political rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Today the stakes are billions of times higher – 6.7 billion to be exact. That’s the current estimated population of the world. If the climate models are correct, there will be very few of those 6.7 billion people who won’t be impacted by catastrophic climate change.

So, forget about Canada’s 2.3 percent. Instead, let’s focus on the bigger picture. To quote another space visionary, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, “We’ll head in the direction in which we look.”


For more on the 40th Anniversary of the first lunar landing, visit

The International Panel on Climate Change is the world’s leading scientific body for the assessment of climate change. Established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the IPCC provides a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences.


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