Close to 700,000 people calling for climate action joined global marches in New York, Delhi, Berlin, Rio de Janeiro, and other major cities on September 21, the day before world leaders gathered for a one-day UN climate change conference. Out of the thousands of banners displayed and photographed, one caught my eye: “There is no Planet B.” This is the ultimate truth for the human race. We have a choice of caring for our home planet and surviving, or trashing it and becoming extinct.
As a northern country, Canada is already experiencing the effects of climate change. There is the tangible evidence of melting glaciers, such as the famous six-kilometre-long Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park. The most-visited glacier on the North American continent, it has receded 1.5 kilometres since 1890. It is currently melting away at a rate of five metres a year and becoming shallower. The glaciers of B.C. and Alaska are the source of our northern rivers; their disappearance has huge implications for ocean circulation and sea levels, for wetland habitats, and for socio-economic issues such as agricultural irrigation, hydro-electricity generation, fisheries, and even tourism.
Canada is also experiencing first-hand the melting of the polar ice caps, a phenomenon documented by satellite imagery. The Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis website provides weekly updates on the extent of the ice, which of course fluctuates with the seasons and weather conditions. Scientific records began in 1978 and show about a five percent per decade decreasing trend in the average area of sea ice. On September 17, the Arctic ice reached its summer minimum extent, which was slightly lower than last year and the sixth lowest level on record. However, it is not just the extent of sheet ice that is declining but the thickness and total volume of ice. The volume of sea ice has had a strong downward trend since 1978. The experiences, oral histories, and journals of on-the-ground sources such as the Inuit and polar explorers prior to the 1970s show that sea ice was once much more extensive.
The permafrost of the Arctic tundra is also melting. As the ice melts, sea levels gradually rise, a serious implication for the future of coastal properties and communities. The position and strength of the jet stream that flows across North America will be affected by a warming Arctic, with consequent effects on weather patterns across the continent. Arctic wildlife, adapted over millennia, will struggle to survive. There will be geopolitical and economic implications as new sea routes open up and the northern coasts become more accessible for exploitation. All these effects and their consequences are already beginning to be observed.
A recently released German study, using images from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat satellite, has determined the extent to which Greenland and Antarctica are currently losing ice from their ice sheets. Greenland, located northeast of Canada, is almost entirely covered with ice year-round, yet is losing its ice cover at a rate of 375 cubic kilometres a year. Antarctica is losing ice in the west but gaining some in the east, in a pattern that is not yet understood. Its net loss of ice is 125 cubic kilometres a year. These numbers do not have much meaning to the average layperson, like myself, but are apparently the highest rates since observations began 20 years ago. If melting of these major ice sheets continues as predicted, the effects on ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream, and climate are highly unpredictable.
These visible, measurable, large-scale effects on the coldest regions of our planet, indicate clearly that the climate is warming. Among other evidence, the timing is indicative that large-scale changes made to the biosphere by humankind play a key role. Greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests on a massive global scale.
Ecosystems are changing in response to the changing climatic conditions. Forests are lost from droughts, fires, and insect infestations. Deserts expand, wetlands dry up. Wildlife species and vegetation move to higher ground or northwards to maintain their ambient living conditions. There are often limits on their movements, and for some species this is leading to extinction. A new study by Audubon details the shifting movements of hundreds of bird species that will occur over the next few decades in response to climate change. Many commonly-seen B.C. birds like bald eagles and common loon will be adversely affected.
Scientific and engineering knowledge accumulated by the 20th century put people into space; sent satellites into orbit; built roads and bridges spanning the globe; invented computers, the Internet, and the mathematics behind it all; and links us in a global community as never before. This same scientific and engineering know-how is telling us that anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, play a crucial role in climate change. Science is based on a methodology that has led us to the modern world, with all its strengths and imperfections. Very many, well-qualified people have accepted the anthropogenic causes behind climate change, and we would all be wise to heed their findings.
Like hundreds of thousands of other people around the world, I want to now see us find worldwide, effective solutions to the problem of rising greenhouse gas levels and a warming Earth. We have precedents for environmental success. Industry and governments tackled the problem of the ozone hole and appear to be succeeding, although it has taken some years. Many regional initiatives have seen species saved from extinction, watersheds restored, air quality improved. A long-term problem needs a long-term solution, but that is no reason to delay the start. Savvy entrepreneurs are already looking at how they can capitalize on greener strategies. Even the Rockefeller family has joined other investors in divesting millions of dollars of traditional energy stocks from their portfolios.
We are conducting a vast experiment on our planet, with unknown consequences. The soundest strategy in this situation is not denial, or ignorance, or ideologies, but a level-headed, forward-thinking, science-based, holistic, and cooperative worldwide approach to what can be done. We have unprecedented levels of global observation compared with just a few decades ago, we have teams of scientists working on gathering and analyzing the data needed for sound decisions, and we have much greater awareness among the general public over the need to make lifestyle changes to the best of our abilities.
Science needs strong government and corporate support. Governments are slow to act and unwilling to commit adequate funds to a global approach. Currently, much of the wealth derived from the planet’s resources is concentrated in the hands of a tiny proportion of the world’s population. Wars and conflicts consume unsustainable levels of resources and budgets. These are huge drains on the health of society and the Earth’s environment. Investing in peace, cooperation, education, and environmental responsibility frees up economic resources for more of humanity. A change of direction should not mean the loss of livelihoods, but a fresh approach to life on Earth. We must meet the challenges of climate change with determination, new ideas, and a willingness to put aside partisan politics and the constrictions of national agendas to find real solutions.
The 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris must succeed. The Canadian federal and provincial governments must commit to play a leading role. The writing is on the wall—climate change is here, it is happening, and adaptation and amelioration must take place now. We only have one planet; there is no Planet B.