Bill Henderson: Climate change denial is widespread in B.C. in 2014
Before I was a climate activist, I was a forest activist in B.C., and in the failed forestry revolution of the '90s I learned a very important lesson about change in our present, particular socio-economy. Few today doubt that climate change is happening but almost everybody (IMHO) remains in denial about how serious climate change really is, our responsibility to future generations, and what level or degree of mitigation must happen. Flat Earth denial is almost dead, but even informed British Columbians have yet to awaken to the true horror of our climate predicament.
You don't think so? You're not in denial? Well, read this short sketch of why I think we must urgently agree that climate change is an emergency requiring presently impossible action and ask yourself what a responsible citizen should do.
The damage to second-growth forests around the Salish Sea is not trivial. I've worked in the forest industry for more than 40 years; I still work on a booming ground in Howe Sound and the vast volume of second growth being processed would astonish the average citizen. And a large proportion is 50 and 40 even 30-year-old trees. From what we now know about proper forestry—ecologically sustainable forestry—this second-growth liquidation clearcutting is worse than the ignorant removal of the old-growth forests that had been the best use of the land for thousands of years since the last ice age. If you look around these second-growth forests on Google Maps/Earth you can see that at the present rate of harvest a second liquidation will occur in a few short decades.
There is almost no coverage of this crime against future generations except minor, ineffectual complaints about exporting raw logs. A very few are getting rich today and impoverishing many in the future but nobody cares.
If the regrowing second growth was commercially thinned where needed and only a small proportion logged until it was at least in age classes over 125 years, there could be future woodworkers harvesting finer grained wood probably three, four times as valuable as today with far more value-added potential, and, much more importantly, healthy re-growing forests supplying nature's services to many future generations as well as timber opportunity. Robert Costanza et al. estimated that timber was only one-fifth to one-seventh of the total value of nature's services from our forests. Instead a few people getting rich and a few people with jobs today and a little percolating wealth in our still forestry-dependent communities is robbing our kids of healthy forests and future forestry jobs and wealth opportunity.
But the sustainable forestry path isn't possible: the forestry revolution in the '90s against timber management failed because timber management had become so entrenched; the timber volumes promised in sustained yield management had built up such an extensive industry in forestry-dependent communities that acute path dependence did not allow change to proper forestry, did not allow British Columbians to do the right thing for future generations.
Governments inherit policy paths formed often many decades ago; change isn't a level playing field where anything is possible. Truly sustainable forestry—instead of the present greenwash of continuing timber management—would have required major systemic change that wasn't, still isn't possible, isn't allowed, in our fragile service sector economies.
The grossly inflated harvesting levels based upon the SY liquidation-conversion plan would have had to be reduced by at least two-thirds (more in most forest districts given overcutting legacies) and with forestry still B.C.'s largest industry, and with many regions and communities dependent upon this continuing harvest level, such a reduction was not economically or politically possible.
Change to a truly sustainable forestry wasn't possible in the '90s and still isn't possible now—this is a supremely important lesson to be learned considering climate change.
Climate change is a very complex subject; climate change is an experiment without precedent. Climate science is vast and deep; anybody can have an opinion on climate change, but to really understand one must do a heck of a lot of reading in many differing disciplines and commentary sources all the while trying not to get siloed or trapped by bias and denial rampant in our society. I'm a boomman—hired from the neck down (but with an attitude—how is that possible???)—but I do the reading and given the important lesson about how change is limited in our present socio-economy, this is why I think climate change is an emergency requiring urgent action to protect our kids very future and all we know and love.
Climate change mitigation requires presently impossible "major systemic change" urgently, at all costs, but few understand, and those that need to act are either in denial or don't care. (You don't think so? Read on.)
British Columbians have been mis-educated to believe that climate change is just one of many issues that we can handle when we choose to: gradual warming with increasing extreme weather that might get seriously catastrophic sometime far into the future if we don't change our lifestyles and or if we buy the wrong products, if we don't develop "clean energy", etc. Climate change is never as important as our own place in it's-the-economy-stupid, although it might be in the top 10 issues of concern. This is a very faulted way of telling the climate change story—think of your kids and/or grandkids while I tell the story a little bit more truthfully, a little less in denial.
With time lags in the carbon cycle that average around 40 years and overcoming inertia, the real situation is: we benefit greatly from both the production and use of fossil fuels but the consequences of our actions today will fall on innocents in the future: our kids and their kids, everybody's kids worldwide. What to do about climate change isn't our choice of actions and consequences effecting us—climate change is about responsibility for our actions today that will have serious negative consequences for our descendents for centuries into the future.
And the suite of potential climate consequences—usually labeled as dangerous climate change—is not just weather but disruption that in our rational moments we have agreed to stay well away from as maybe civilization or even humanity threatening.
Extreme weather today—the consequence of the build up of greenhouse gases up until about 1980—is just the beginning. Climate science has a pretty good understanding of predicted consequences of rising temperature beginning with extreme weather and changing microclimates, through potential triggering of latent feedbacks such as melting permafrost or drying Amazon, etc., leading to differing possible abrupt climate changes such as monsoon failure or other major climate flips or weakening thermohaline circulation, etc., or the worst consequence of all, runaway climate change.
The real climate situation today is that government must be forced to do its duty and stop groups who benefit from fossil fuel production now from inflicting increasingly grievous injury on innocent victims in the future. Regulating to protect its citizens from harm is a primary duty of government. Given the climate change science, government must act and stop fossil fuel use, keep fossil fuels in the ground (until they can be used without emissions). A legal path to forcing the American government to protect its citizens is presently being pursued by James Hansen and Our Children's Trust, for example.
Urgency. There is a branch of climate science that has been trying to figure out a carbon budget to stay under a 2C temperature increase, a 2C precautionary ceiling that most of the world's nations including Canada have agreed to. You might be familiar with Bill McKibben's "terrifying new math" which described this carbon budget science and the calculation of the amount of present fossil fuel reserves that could be burnt and how much would have to stay in the ground in order to stay under 2C.
Here is a slide created by Joachim Schellnhuber, a foremost climate scientist:
That's right, countries like the U.S. and Canada would have to reduce their emissions to almost zero by 2020. Impossible!! Yes, but necessary. Here's why.
In their Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Scenarios for B.C., Colin Campbell and Cliff Stainsby (following a prescient Andrew Weaver and using UVic's climate modeling) point out that if B.C.'s per capita emissions are, like the Americans in Schellnhuber's slide, over 20 tonnes and the global carbon budget allows but two tonnes per capita per year, B.C. will use up its whole budget for the 21st century in just 7.5 years. The Campbell-Stainsby paper came out in 2008 and we are close to using up our share of the carbon budget already.
After two centuries of rising emissions and at least two decades of procrastination while emissions continue to rise, we must reduce emissions substantially this decade. Most informed people quietly admit that staying under a 3C or even 4C rise in temperature (which means death for all we know and love) will be extremely difficult if not impossible within continuing economic business as usual (BAU). In fact, even the 2C carbon budget can be considered denial because 2C is already deep into dangerous climate change and probably too late to implement already (without emergency government).
This isn't what you hear in the news? Well, both scientists and ENGO spokespeople are innately conservative people well aware that major systemic change is a heretical notion in our present fragile economic ecosystem that demands long-term stability for investment and growth. Scientists are successful within a very competitive occupation—the more successful the more they respect and don't question the status quo. Professional environmentalists work with both governments and industry; funding is always a problem; therefor ENGO ED's firmly control messaging—scientifically accurate but economically heretical emission reduction statements are self-censored.
But radically reducing emissions urgently and keeping at least two-thirds of present fossil fuel reserves in the ground—a CCPA report suggests 80 percent of Canadian reserves—must happen if we are responsible and want to do the right thing by our kids. Must happen, but presently not even thinkable within economic and political BAU. In fact, we are going in the other, highly irresponsible, direction.
Think of one of your children or a niece or nephew; think of a toddler who will be in their 40s in 2050. Say to him or her: we've decided to expand fossil fuel production as Canada's economic engine. In these economically insecure times we need to build an LNG industry on the West Coast to create tens of thousands of new jobs and pay off the provincial debt. An expanding oilsands benefits local economies all over Canada and if our five conditions are met pipelines to Asia are in B.C.'s interest. We hope to build more coal mines to export more B.C. coal to Asia and we are going to expand our port and railway capacity to export American coal too.
Yeah, I know, toddlers aren't going to understand. Every government and business person in the province wants and expects these projects to go ahead. They have to. The laminate of debt and investment far into the future keeps us on a path that will be extremely costly and disruptive to change.
Those that care to be responsible for our actions and recognize the danger to our kids must overcome the misperception of climate change as just another consideration to be shoehorned into continuing political and economic business as usual. We must build no new fossil fuel infrastructure, make no more investments in finding new production until we have the technology to use fossil fuels without GHG emissions. We must keep most of our remaining fossil fuels in the ground, and we must wean ourselves off fossil fuel use as quickly as possible.
This must require major systemic change, a radical reconfiguration of our economy. This will require emergency governance legislation like wartime-style coalition government and mobilization. (Or, if you are a radical socialist, the overthrow of capitalism, within a decade.)
You don't think so? Not possible, isn't going to happen? You are not alone. But the deeper you read into the climate science and the more you understand about the suite of climate change dangers and the urgent mitigation timeframes, the more you recognize the widespread and overpowering denial that permeates what little discussion there is about climate change action in B.C. What about responsibility for our actions today? How can we not stop using fossil fuels given the consequences for our kids?
If you are responsible and recognize the danger what do you do? How about challenging the informed publics with our real climate and policy change predicament? How about challenging them to act responsibly? There are hopeful paths to needed emission reduction, to major systemic change; you don't have to be a commie to recognize the problem and historical ways of governing in emergencies. We are incredibly wealthy; we could make major systemic change and thrive.
Change that unblocks or allows needed emission reduction is possible. Change is growing like topsy at the grassroots and innovation level. A post-carbon economy is possible. But without government action to stop fossil fuel production and use there will be no promising post-carbon economy, no major change of investment and infrastructure, no needed reconfiguration of our socio-economy. Path dependence in a still Fordist car/sprawl/mall economy is too strong. Just more wasted time and wasted opportunity and growing guilt at our inability to do the right thing and kick a habit that threatens all we love and care about.
If you care we must find a way to force informed publics to confront the blocking governance problem head on. We must find informing voices to tell the premier, for example, that LNG, pipeline, and coal export development is criminally insane if you have a families first agenda. We must explain the present limits to government action and how these limits can be overcome. We need leadership voices that know we must do the right thing by our kids and that there is a better B.C. in our future if we get out of denial and recognize how wealthy we are and how building that post-carbon society is possible.
Or you can stay in denial.