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The point of no return? Recapping a year of dire climate change warnings

Click to play video 'The biggest climate stories of the decade' The biggest climate stories of the decade
The biggest climate stories of the decade – Dec 28, 2019

The Canadian Press has dubbed climate change the news story of the year, and it isn’t hard to see why.

The impact of global warming in Canada is “effectively irreversible” and happening twice as fast as it is in the rest of the world, according to an April report from Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Debate over the carbon tax has only continued to grow, and thousands of Canadians turned out en masse in September as part of protests demanding our government take more action now.

READ MORE: Canadians want more action on climate change, but are worried about ‘economic hardship’

Before we head into 2020, and a new decade in which climate change’s impacts will become increasingly hard to ignore, let’s take a look back at what dominated the headlines in 2019.
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The year started with extremes: it was the snowiest January on record in Ottawa while cherry blossoms bloomed on Vancouver Island.

As Konrad Gajewski, a professor of geography and environment at the University of Ottawa, told the Canadian Press, it was “the kind of thing people have been predicting for years.”

While cherry blossoms in full winter bloom might not be the most fear-inducing of climate change headlines, the month wasn’t without a sense that worse was coming. Investors indicated they were starting to think they should be greening up their portfolios in anticipation of climate change’s other impacts.

Click to play video 'Government must help Canadians adapt to ‘new reality’ of extreme weather: Trudeau' Government must help Canadians adapt to ‘new reality’ of extreme weather: Trudeau
Government must help Canadians adapt to ‘new reality’ of extreme weather: Trudeau – Apr 30, 2019

Not only were some folks wanting to ditch stocks in more carbon-intensive industries, but others were also bracing for the possible financial impacts of wildfires, flooding and other extreme weather exacerbated by climate change.

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At the same time, researchers at the University of Waterloo sounded the alarm that Canadian homeowners aren’t quite ready for the havoc climate-related catastrophes are going to wreak.

Their study found that weather-driven insurance claims more than quadrupled in the previous decade and that the number of homes becoming uninsurable because of flood risk is on the rise.

READ MORE: First your home is flooded — then you lose your mortgage?

If you thought you were safe from the harmful effects of smoke because you don’t live in a wildfire evacuation zone, two researchers from B.C. and Alberta found otherwise in February.

Not only did extreme wildfires in 2017 and 2018 send smoke drifting towards the Atlantic and all the way across the pond to Ireland, but the impact of inhaling it, experts said, could do the same damage as a couple packs of cigarettes daily, depending on just how thick the smoke is.

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In other news about problems that might feel far away but really aren’t, research out of McGill University showed we are continuing to underestimate the impact melting ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica are having on extreme weather in places like Ottawa or Vancouver Island. That extreme weather creates the conditions behind deadly wildfires and destructive floods.

READ MORE: NASA scientists share startling images of Greenland’s melting ice

The growing threat of extreme weather was put into much starker terms in March by experts who said the narrow strip of land connecting Nova Scotia and New Brunswick could wash away at any moment — “one perfect storm” to disconnect the East Coast from the rest of Canada.

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READ MORE: Here’s how climate change will impact the region where you live

Canadian students joined their peers around the world that month demanding the Canadian government take action to tackle climate change.

“Although individual actions are crucial, the fact is that collective and institutional decisions must be taken to reflect the seriousness of the situation,” student organizers in Quebec said in a statement.

Click to play video 'Students, youth protest around the world to urge leaders to fight climate change' Students, youth protest around the world to urge leaders to fight climate change
Students, youth protest around the world to urge leaders to fight climate change – Mar 15, 2019

Climate change protests continued to ramp up in the spring, notably in the United Kingdom.

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Climate group Extinction Rebellion organized a multi-day blockade of some of London’s famous landmarks that led to more than 700 arrests. Their goal was to force the British government to take firmer action to address climate change, including reducing net greenhouse gas emissions down to zero by 2025.

Click to play video 'How to achieve net zero green house gas emissions' How to achieve net zero green house gas emissions
How to achieve net zero green house gas emissions – Jan 21, 2019

The bad news was starting to pile up: a report on the state of global air from the Health Effects Institute also revealed toxic air is shortening people’s lifespan by nearly two years.

“Air pollution reduces average life expectancy by almost as much as tobacco use,” the report read.

A scientific report from Environment and Climate Change Canada was even bleaker. Not only is global warming in Canada “effectively irreversible,” researchers found, but Canada is warming up at a speed twice as fast as the rest of the world.

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READ MORE: Canada warming up twice as fast as rest of the world, and it’s ‘irreversible,' report finds

But if 2019 was the year of grim warnings, May is when they truly began.

There was the promise of an increase in Lyme disease thanks to warmer weather giving blacklegged ticks the conditions they need to spread across Canada.

There was also a report from the Public Health Agency of Canada warning people across the country to brace for an increase in outbreaks of food-borne illnesses thanks to climate change.

And then there was the United Nations’ comprehensive report on biodiversity warning that more than one million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction.

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The report blames humans entirely and warned that unless we take action to restore these species’ habitats, they will likely become extinct within decades.

George Mason University biologist Thomas Lovejoy was unequivocal:

“Humanity unwittingly is attempting to throttle the living planet and humanity’s own future.”

June brought one headline-grabbing positive when the House of Commons passed a motion to declare a national climate emergency in Canada.

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However, enthusiasm for the recognition dampened when it became clear that even though the vote passed 186 to 63, it didn’t require the government to actually do anything. Another dampener? The vote happened hours before the government gave the green light for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (a First Nations court challenge is now in the works).

Click to play video '‘If you’re in a climate emergency you don’t build a pipeline’: May' ‘If you’re in a climate emergency you don’t build a pipeline’: May
‘If you’re in a climate emergency you don’t build a pipeline’: May – Dec 4, 2019

Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, also warned in June that our world is facing a growing risk of “a climate apartheid scenario in which the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict, while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”

July was about local action and national planning.

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Nearly two dozen projects in Lower Mainland B.C. received government funding to try to build up declining wild salmon stock. Salmon are a cold-water species struggling to survive as rivers warm.

On the opposite coast, a Halifax-based geoscientist created new coastline maps attempting to get a more accurate sense of where the worst damage from flooding and erosion brought on by climate change would be felt.

Click to play video 'Ottawa confirms Pacific salmon stock decline' Ottawa confirms Pacific salmon stock decline
Ottawa confirms Pacific salmon stock decline – Aug 22, 2019

All across the country, young voters mobilized in an effort to force climate change to the fore in the upcoming federal election.

Hundreds of young Canadians rallied in more than two dozen cities, asking for a leaders’ debate specifically addressing climate change. (That didn’t happen. A debate between parties, but not leaders in particular, was scrapped after the Conservative Party pulled out.)

For anyone who isn’t a fan of long, hot summers and had been hoping for a respite at the end of August, University of Winnipeg scientists put out a report bearing bad news.

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“We are going to have longer, hotter and more frequent heat waves in the future,” said geography professor Ian Mauro, co-author of the report. The uptick in heat waves spells bad news for cardiovascular health, respiratory health and mental health.

“It’s a really critical thing to be talking about,” Mauro said. “We know that these heat waves are going to increase in frequency, duration and intensity moving forward.”

Click to play video 'Climate change poses greatest risk to health, says Peterborough’s Medical Officer of Health' Climate change poses greatest risk to health, says Peterborough’s Medical Officer of Health
Climate change poses greatest risk to health, says Peterborough’s Medical Officer of Health – Mar 28, 2019

Scientists are also keeping a close watch on mosquitos. While historian Timothy Winegard’s book The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator clearly lays out the damage mosquito-borne disease can cause, Canada has — so far — escaped with relatively few deaths.

But thanks to climate change, that could be changing, too.

READ MORE: Mosquitoes are on the move due to climate change, and they could bring diseases

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In August, Canada was given a failing grade when it comes to tackling global warming, according to a Climate Action Network report that looked at the G7 nations’ climate plans. Canada, the report says, is among the worst of the already bad G7 bunch.

It is, as Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, put it, “depressing.”

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change dropped another massive report in September, this one warning that the damage climate change is causing to oceans and glaciers is outstripping the ability of governments to protect them.

Canada will not be impervious to the negative impacts if nothing is done, the report’s authors warned.

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Already, they said, the impact is being felt in Arctic communities:

“The shrinking cryosphere in the Arctic and high-mountain areas has led to predominantly negative impacts on food security, water resources, water quality, livelihoods, health and well-being, infrastructure, transportation, tourism and recreation, as well as culture of human societies, particularly for Indigenous Peoples.”

READ MORE: Water shortages and yearly floods, UN report says Canada won’t escape climate crisis

In many respects, however, September belonged to Greta Thunberg. After a long and well-documented journey to New York via a carbon-zero yacht, the 16-year-old Swedish activist gave an impassioned speech before the United Nations.

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean,” Thunberg said.

“Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

Click to play video 'Thunberg blasts world leaders at climate summit: “How dare you!”' Thunberg blasts world leaders at climate summit: “How dare you!”
Thunberg blasts world leaders at climate summit: “How dare you!” – Sep 23, 2019

Climate change was a ballot-box issue for three in 10 Canadians during the federal election, according to an Ipsos poll conducted in October. That was up slightly from 25 per cent of Canadians who listed it as a vote-determining issue during a mid-September poll.

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Ipsos vice-president Sean Simpson says he has “never seen climate change quite so high” on Canadian voters’ agendas. But people are serious.

Shortly after Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party was re-elected with a minority mandate, he was hit with a lawsuit.

Click to play video 'Young people sue federal government over climate change' Young people sue federal government over climate change
Young people sue federal government over climate change – Oct 25, 2019

Fifteen young Canadians filed a lawsuit attempting to force Trudeau’s government to develop a climate recovery plan that relies on the best available science.

“Despite knowing for decades that GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions cause climate change and disproportionately harm children, the defendants continue to cause, contribute to and allow GHG emissions that are incompatible with a stable climate capable of sustaining human life and liberties,” the statement of claim says.

More than 11,200 scientists around the world, including 409 from Canada, signed an open letter taking aim at climate change deniers in November.

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“We declare … clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency,” says the letter’s opening statement.

READ MORE: What the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord means for Canada, the world

And lest Canadian climate deniers believe our abundance of fresh water buffers us against the worst impacts, a report by the Global Water Futures project, which involves 22 universities, declared otherwise.

“We’ve enjoyed the luxury of the myth of limitless abundance of fresh water in Canada,” said co-author Bob Sandford, but “Canada is not a water-secure country.”

The report reiterates many of the other reports published this year: climate change continues to outpace government policies meant to mitigate its risks.

As if to underscore that point, the United Nations released another warning report saying the world must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6 per cent each year in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

If they don’t, the result could be “catastrophic.”

Are any of the steps being taken by governments working? December has been the month of “no.”

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UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the world’s efforts as “utterly inadequate” while adding his voice to the cacophony of others saying we will soon pass “the point of no return.”

Click to play video 'U.S. President Donald Trump mocks teen climate activist Greta Thunberg' U.S. President Donald Trump mocks teen climate activist Greta Thunberg
U.S. President Donald Trump mocks teen climate activist Greta Thunberg – Dec 12, 2019

Guterres also invoked the “climate apartheid” language of earlier in the year, saying if left unchecked, climate change will only allow for the “survival of the richest.”

Meanwhile, Oxfam published its Forced from Home briefing, which found that one person is forced out of their home every two seconds thanks to climate-fuelled disasters, making it likelier for climate change to be the reason someone is forcibly displaced as opposed to war or other conflicts.

— With files from the Canadian Press