Canada is on fire. Why isn’t our politics?
Climate breakdown is obliterating heat records, killing people, killing crops, and just burned another Canadian town to ash. Western Europe and Uganda are suffering cataclysmic flooding. Drought is causing famine in Madagascar. All while we are still well below supposedly “safe” levels of overheating.
Surely this is a massive wake-up call for the public, and all that’s needed now is political will for governments to act much more urgently?
But a little item floated by this past week suggesting the situation is not so straightforward.
Pollsters asked Canadians across the country what caused the recent heat wave. The folks at Leger wanted to know whether people thought “the unprecedented heat wave gripping western North America” was the result of climate change or natural causes?
Fifty-nine per cent blamed “human actions, such as burning fossil fuels,” while 41 per cent said “natural phenomena, such as ocean currents and the jet stream.”
Fifty-nine per cent is a solid majority, but I think you’ll agree it’s not the five-alarm wake-up call that’s warranted. Nor the kind of public juggernaut that requires politicians to scramble to the front or get crushed underneath.
There’s still a huge gulf between the general public’s understanding and the scientists who determined the heat wave was virtually impossible without humans driving climate change.
Those polling results come from just one question from just one pollster, but they track other findings. The usual patterns emerge when you dig into the results: Quebecers were most likely to attribute the heat wave to human actions, while Albertans were the most dubious. Just 39 per cent of Albertans blamed fossil fuel burning.
Young people understand the situation much better than older generations. Almost three-quarters of Canadians aged 18 to 34 lined up with the scientists.
If all Canadians were as clued-in as younger generations, politicians would be acting with a lot more urgency. But a very large segment of the population is still coming to terms with the severity of climate change.
That’s why you find polls from earlier this year where just 45 per cent of Canadians thought the feds need to be doing more to tackle climate change. And 71 per cent that rated its performance on climate as “acceptable” or “good.” At the provincial level, we still have provincial governments that are actively hostile to climate action, even ones, like the Ford government in Ontario, where the fossil fuel industry doesn’t dominate politics and public debate.
Sorry for all the numbers I’m throwing at you this week. But I think they articulate the challenge facing those of us already thoroughly alarmed: There’s an even larger segment of the public who are concerned, but not yet engaged.
Most people still have a muddled understanding of climate breakdown — of its urgency, that it’s caused overwhelmingly by fossil fuel burning, and that carbon pollution from oil, gas and coal needs to be phased out entirely.
The fossil fuel industry has spent years and untold dollars polluting the public conversation. But it’s also the case that climate change is a very difficult problem for human psychology. And many of the actions we need from governments require buy-in from the broad middle of the general public if we’re going to avoid backlash and backtracking.
But one thing any marketer will tell you is the most effective way to engage people is peer-to-peer. Which means that the stories you share and conversations you have are important. You might even be able to start with your romantic partner.
Fossil fuel workers ready for a just transition
Natasha Bulowski reported on a new survey that found “a majority of Canadians working in fossil fuels are interested in switching to jobs in the net-zero economy, but are worried about being left behind.”
The poll was commissioned by Iron & Earth, an organization run by oilpatch workers. The organization estimates it would cost $10,000 to upskill each worker, and upwards of $5.5 billion to train the entire fossil fuel industry workforce. (Less than half the expected price tag for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.)
In related news, the University of Calgary has stopped taking new students into its oil and gas engineering bachelor program. Only about 10 students had registered over the past two years. The head of the department says it won’t abandon oil and gas studies, but “we need to give students a chance to learn about what geothermal means, what hydrogen energy means, wind and solar, and then package that together, so when students graduate from here, they are actually stronger and will be able to better perform once they go into whichever segment of the energy industry that they end up.”
And here’s one last bit of polling this week: Angus Reid found that slightly more than half (54 per cent) of Canadians think energy sources like solar and wind should be the federal government’s priority as opposed to oil and gas. There’s a powerful political dimension here — the numbers jump to seven-in-10 if you exclude people who voted Conservative last election.
Europe’s “emission-reduction arms race”
On Wednesday, the EU rolled out the world’s most ambitious blueprint yet for cutting emissions. One thing that really got attention is the plan to start charging tariffs on imports coming from countries with less-stringent climate policies. Jeffrey Jones describes the EU as “looking to spark an emission-reduction arms race.”
The idea of Carbon Border Adjustments (CBAs) has been floating around policy circles for years. The basic notion is twofold: on the one hand, it’s to protect domestic companies from imports that weren’t subject to policies like carbon pricing, and to simultaneously pressure other countries to strengthen their climate laws.
No one really knows if CBAs will melt down in disputes at the World Trade Organization or whether they can be designed in ways that don’t hurt developing countries, but the basic idea is to create clubs of countries that move faster than the rest of the world and ratchet up policies everywhere.
If you’re interested in more on CBAs, Don Pittis wrote a good primer from a Canadian perspective, and if you want to go full policy wonk, the International Institute for Sustainable Development has you covered.
Greenland bans oil exploration
The government of Greenland is the latest to walk away from oil exploration. The government calls it “a natural step” because it “takes the climate crisis seriously.”
"The future does not lie in oil. The future belongs to renewable energy, and in that respect, we have much more to gain," it says.
While some exploration is underway, Greenland hasn’t yet built up an oil and gas industry. Geologists estimate there could be 17.5 billion barrels of oil off Greenland, along with large natural gas reserves.
Green finance isn’t getting to poor countries
Despite all the buzz around green finance lately, it turns out not much is getting to poor countries. The great finance reporter Kate Mackenzie covered a new study by University College London, which “showed that Africa and other developing regions tend to pay a much higher cost of financing for green energy relative to fossil fuels.”
COVID has made the situation even worse because of the hit to government revenues. Sixty-two countries spent more money servicing their debt last year than on health care. It all adds up to a “climate investment trap” where the poorest countries, most damaged by climate change, are at the biggest disadvantage raising capital to green their economies.
For the second time this year, a research project has concluded that the Amazon rainforest is now giving off more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. Previous studies were based on satellite data, but this latest was a heroic research effort in which scientists spent nine years flying small planes above the rainforest every two weeks to measure CO2 levels.
Most is coming from fires, which are often started to clear land for cattle and soy plantations. That means we haven’t necessarily hit a tipping point where the rainforests themselves flip from carbon sink to a carbon source even without human deforestation. But there were particularly worrying findings from the southeastern region, which is now emitting CO2 even without fires.
“This is bad,” said one scientist, “having the most productive carbon absorber on the planet switch from a sink to a source means we have to eliminate fossil fuels faster than we thought.”
It seems there’s new evidence every week that natural gas is much worse for the climate than previously thought. This week, we found out that fracking operations in B.C. are spewing about double the official numbers.
“This is rigorous research that the government and industry can’t deny because they’ve been involved in it,” commented Tom Green, an analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation.
Montreal is the latest stop in Canada’s National Observer’s cross-country tour of cities grappling with climate change. Matthew Hague guides us through several of the initiatives under Mayor Valérie Plante, “including banning all non-electric cars downtown, using tax breaks to incentivize greener buildings, eliminating parking at all Metro stations and planting some half a million new trees over the next 10 years.”
You can read the full article here, with its particular focus on the emerging Grand Parc de l’Ouest.
Electrification is the backbone of decarbonization, and while Canada has made great strides in greening the grid, it is still balkanized between provinces. A new advocacy group aims to create better collaboration and integration.
“We need to be able to move clean power electrons across vast distances in order to decarbonize cities and our industrial centres,” explained Canada Grid managing director Philip Duguay.
A nation-wide effort to actually eliminate carbon pollution from Canadian buildings would require much more government investment than we’re currently injecting, according to a new study by the Pembina Institute.
The authors estimate it would take about $10 billion to $15 billion per year, but would pay for itself twice over through increased tax revenue. Such a program would create 200,000 jobs and generate $48 billion a year in economic development.
Currently, 63 per cent of Canadian buildings are heated with fossil fuels, mostly natural gas. One of the keys to decarbonizing buildings is to switch over to electric heat pumps. As the City of Vancouver’s green building manager explained to Cloe Logan: “A heat pump is kind of like an air conditioner that can run backwards, and in the winter, (provides) heat, and in the summer, it provides cooling.”
Electric buses for Halifax
All three levels of government have come together to buy 60 battery-powered electric buses for the Halifax Regional Municipality.
"Our plan is to have a totally electric fleet by 2028, and we think we might be able to do it faster with continued support," says Halifax Mayor Mike Savage.
E-bikes per second
I live on a designated bike route and it’s been amazing to watch the number of electric bikes whizzing by recently. I haven’t found any sales figures for Canada, but in the U.K., someone buys one every three minutes. And Americans are buying an e-bike every 52 seconds.
Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty
On Thursday, Toronto became the latest city to endorse a global Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. I should pause here to disclose that the treaty initiative was founded by Tzeporah Berman. Somewhere down the list of her many accomplishments is having managed over two decades of marriage to me.
I’ll leave you this week with an interview between Tzeporah and Dave Roberts. Here’s a snippet from Roberts’ introduction: “There are already enough fossil fuels in known reserves to blow the world past its 1.5 C temperature limit. Yet fossil fuel production continues to increase.
“Fossil fuels have become a threat to all of humanity, as nuclear weapons are, and just as with nuclear weapons, Berman believes we need a global agreement to cap their growth and ramp them down. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty is meant to be a template for such an agreement.”
You can listen to the interview at Roberts’ site, volts.wtf or look for “Voltscast” wherever you get your podcasts.
Thank you for reading Zero Carbon this week. I won’t be sending out the newsletter during August so next week’s will be the last one you get until September. Please feel free to email with your comments or suggestions: [email protected]
Many thanks to the Trottier Family Foundation for supporting the Zero Carbon newsletter.