Climate change is starting to spiral out of control, a UN panel warned Monday.
The new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns the whole world — and with it, Canada — is on track for devastating wildfires, smouldering heat waves and other extreme weather events to get even worse.
“Canada is warming at nearly twice the global rate. Parts of western and northern Canada are warming at three times the global average,” said Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson in a statement reacting to the new report.
And while the government is pledging to ramp up its efforts to tackle the looming climate disaster, the IPCC painted a grim picture of the impacts inaction could have on Canadians.
What does the report say about Canada?
Canada is already feeling the heat of a changing climate. When a heat dome settled over British Columbia this summer, 570 people died. Mussels and clams were cooked on Canada’s coastlines. Wildfires spread mercilessly, levelling an entire B.C. town after it smashed Canada’s temperature records multiple days in a row.
And according to the IPCC report, this could just be the beginning.
“Scientists have made a clear link between climate change and more frequent and powerful weather events, including heat waves, wildfires, flooding and sea ice loss,” Wilkinson said in his statement.
Temperatures are expected to keep rising across Canada in the coming years and extreme heat events will become more common, the IPCC report found. Cold spells will become less common and less intense, and the agriculture and infrastructure that depend on frosty conditions will suffer as a result.
The panel also found there’s a chance more rivers could flood across Canada as a result of climate change. Canada can also expect to see a lot more rain — in the form of both your average rainy days and more extreme precipitation events.
The glut of rain Canada will experience doesn’t mean we’ll avoid droughts and dry conditions that set the stage for wildfires, though. The report found that with heavy rainfall and high temperatures comes more evaporation — which actually expands aridity, droughts, and what the report called “fire weather.”
“Maybe we’re less prone to hurricanes where we are, but certainly droughts, extreme weather, extreme rainfall … the atmosphere becomes more supercharged at higher temperatures,” said Mark Jaccard, an IPCC author for multiple reports, distinguished professor at Simon Fraser University and author of the book The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success: Overcoming Myths That Hinder Progress.
There’s limited but growing evidence that climate change could also cause more landslides to take place in British Columbia, the report noted. North America can also likely expect more wildfires, as well as more intense tropical cyclones, severe wind storms and dust storms.
It’s also going to snow less, glaciers will keep receding, permafrost will keep melting and lakes won’t freeze as much — eventually making some seasonal ice roads obsolete.
Sea levels are rising, the report added, and coastal flooding will happen more often.
On top of all that, the report affirmed that global warming is magnified at the Earth’s poles, meaning that while the rest of the world deals with warming of 1.5 or two degrees Celsius, Canada’s north will face a much more extreme temperature increase.
“It could be four degrees Celsius closer to the pole, the kind of increase you’d have, which means melting of ice, changing of conditions of winter and and changing in the permafrost, which affects structures and also melting of permafrost, releasing more methane, which is itself a greenhouse gas that will accelerate the global temperature change,” Jaccard said.
“So there’s just a little smattering of what we can expect.”
What is the government doing about it?
The Trudeau government has made lofty promises on the climate change file since it was first elected in 2015, and experts are divided on how well it has done when it comes to fulfilling those pledges.
“We’re not seeing a level of ambition nearly close to what’s required from Canada,” said Julia Levin, who is the senior climate and energy program manager for Environmental Defence.
“What we get a lot of is federal leaders who have climate plans, make promises, but at the same time, that allow for the expansion of the fossil fuel industry. And those things are incompatible.”
Since 2015, the government has spent billions of dollars on greening Canadian society with funding for public transit, establishing grants for home retrofits, and incentives for Canadians to drive electric vehicles, according to a government webpage. The federal government also slapped a price on carbon — one that’s set for a major increase in the years to come.
Canada has also committed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and has promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, Wilkinson said.
“Canada also announced its next phase of climate finance investments to help developing nations, doubling its previous contribution to $5.3 billion over the next five years,” Wilkinson said.
Still, the government’s efforts don’t go far enough, Levin said.
“(The climate crisis) really has to be tackled in systemic ways. This is about transitioning our economy away from fossil fuels to renewables,” she said.
However, Jaccard said that in making decisions such as purchasing the Trans Mountain pipeline, the government was actually playing a strategic game aimed at keeping the focus on climate change.
Now, he said, the government is headed in the right direction.
“We’ve shifted from becoming an absolute climate policy laggard to a climate policy leader globally, we really have,” he said.
“Whether it was the Mulroney government, who said it was going to act on climate, or the Chretien government, who said it was acting on climate, or the or the Harper government, none of them really did the policies that are the easy indicators of sincerity. Since 2015, we do have a very climate-sincere government.”
Still, Jaccard and Levin agreed on one thing: the government can step up their game.
What can the government do about it?
While climate change will have a serious impact within Canada’s borders, issues like pollution don’t respect the borders that carve up the world. That’s why Jaccard said the government needs to become a trailblazer in an important area: carbon tariffs.
Carbon tariffs are levies that would be placed on emissions-intensive goods, setting another kind of price on carbon that just doesn’t just affect Canadians, but other countries, too.
That means countries that are high emitters will be forced to reckon with a steeper price tag attached to their environmentally-unfriendly goods, hitting them right in the pocketbook and, according to proponents, exerting pressure on their climate policies.
“You cannot assume that Brazil will never elect another Bolsonaro, or Russia will never have another Putin, or India another Modi, or the United States another Trump,” Jaccard said.
“These are people who just put the interests of their country ahead of the planet. And yet, we actually need all countries to work in the interests of the planet. That only happens with carrots and sticks — and the sticks are carbon tariffs.”
For Levin, however, Canada should look domestically first.
“There’s a role for Canada to play, just like we have in other areas, in being global leaders,” Levin said.
“But we can’t start that until we have our own backyard (in order), and our own emissions.”
Levin said the government needs to stop giving so many subsidies to oil and gas companies and move away from any investments in fossil fuels.
“We can’t fix fossil fuels. We have to ditch them. Burning fossil fuels and digging them out of the ground is causing the climate emergency. There’s no way to get around that fact,” she said.
If Canadians don’t like what they’re seeing on the climate file, Levin added that Canadians can also pressure politicians where it counts: the ballot box.
“What we need people across this country to do is hold our political leaders accountable,” Levin said.
And with an election likely looming on the horizon, she said, “this is a perfect time to hold our political leaders accountable for actually tackling the climate crisis.”
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