Bridging Silos — The Case For Emergency Climate Action

By: Bill Henderson

Note: This e-mail was sent to all of Canada’s Conservative Members of Parliament on 08 July, 2012


The lack of response to my Stephen Harper is a monster e-mail strongly suggests that most if not all of you do not think that climate change is an emergency threatening the lives of billions, civilization as we know it, and maybe all we love and care about.

And therefor you do not view your governments expansion of fossil fuel production as a serious crime. This e-mail is therefor an introduction to three reasonable lines of thinking explaining why climate change is an emergency: why our use of fossil fuels today is a serious threat to future generations requiring urgent emission reduction action that is the very opposite of building more fossil fuel production and export capacity at this crucial time.

Climate change isn’t an emergency just because somebody says it is. I’m hoping to direct you to a little science and policy reading which will give you informed perspectives so that you can make up your own mind. Of course, you might examine this science and policy reading and continue to regard climate change as a minor problem compared to economic recovery, for example, but at least you will have done due diligence as an MP, to your constituents now and in the future. I’m guessing that a little research on your part deeper down these three lines of reasoning will be not only valuable to you but might force you to reappraise your governments actions.

A little summer reading; not exactly holiday on the beach reading but interesting, informative, not too technically difficult reading on a subject of great importance. If after you are finished you can e-mail me back with alternative informing perspectives (maybe even reply to all) then us reasonable and fair Canucks will maybe have bridged silos and learned something of value, of utility in guiding our actions as Canadians today.

There are a suite of potential climate change dangers for future generations from our use of fossil fuels. The prevailing conception of climate change is of a gradual, monotonic warming that will cause problems in a distant future. But due diligence towards future generations requires that we should be responsible for our actions and the full range of possible climate change dangers. Do you understand the full range of potential climate change dangers – non-linear, tipping point, positive feedback, abrupt, climate dangers?

Have you read Rial, J. A.; Pielke Sr., R. A.; Beniston, M.; Claussen, M.; Canadell, J.; Cox, P.; Held, H.; De Noblet-Ducoudré, N. et al. (2004). “Nonlinearities, Feedbacks and Critical Thresholds within the Earth’s Climate System” (PDF). Climatic Change 65: 11–00. for example?

There are four really good books explaining the abrupt climate change danger: Elizabeth Kolbert’s FIELD NOTES FROM A CATASTROPHE: Man, Nature and Climate Change; Fred Pearce’s WITH SPEED AND VIOLENCE: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change; John D. Cox’s CLIMATE CRASH: Abrupt Climate Change and What it Means for Our Future; and Eugene Linden’s THE WINDS OF CHANGE: Climate, Weather and the Destruction of Civilizations

Each of these books looks at the work of the same climate scientists  (Alley,  Broecker, Thompson, etc.)  examining  icecores, sediments and other historical records of climate change in order to understand what we should expect in our future. Read any two and you gain a much deeper appreciation of climate science in practice and utility and a much deeper appreciation of the dangers we should be factoring into  our present decision making. They are all worth reading but CLIMATE CRASH is particularity good at examining our strong bias for gradualism and the wider scientific awakening to this bias – punctuated equilibrium, for example. THE WINDS OF CHANGE really is a general public, beach reading, thriller; Linden was a longtime Time writer and he is very good at applying the ice core history lessons to our present North American circumstance.

There is a wealth of abrupt climate change science reading – I can direct you to more or you can do a simple search if you have further interest. The business community has learned the lessons of amplified feedbacks from breakdowns in small peripheral economies like Greece, but our conception or appreciation of climate change seems trapped within society’s bias for gradualism and how our brains apprehend danger as local and temporal. But we are still responsible for the consequences of our use of fossil fuels even if they are unintended or not predicted hence the need for precautionary boundaries. We should quantify the dangers and take the proper precautionary action.

So, first of all, climate change is an emergency because the history of climate change shows that small forcings (like our greenhouse gas contribution today) can whipsaw climate globally endangering civilization which has flourished within the begnine Holocene climate stability; raising greenhouse gases to atmospheric levels not seen in the past million years risks our global civilization’s destruction.  With consequent loss of life. Almost certainly with speed and violence beyond adaption.

The second line of reasoning comes from scientists working on a global carbon budget to stay beneath a precautionary ceiling of carbon emissions so as to not exceed a 2C rise in temperature. (Canada committed to this precautionary ceiling in signing the Copenhagen Accord.)

Is 100% emission reduction possible by 2020?

Bridging Silos -- The Case For Emergency Climate Action

Schellnhuber’s graph describes the 100% by 2020 reduction needed by countries like the US and Canada with 20 tonne plus per capita annual emissions. The 100% emission reduction by 2020 is part of a global budget needed to have a 60-70% chance of staying below 2C, the presently agreed upon precautionary ceiling to protect against dangerous, uncontrollable, runaway warming.

This is not just his opinion but the product of several key papers on a global carbon budget published over the past couple of years: MeinshausenAllen, the WGBU (Schellnhuber) paper, and the Anderson-Bows paper commenting upon what we’ve learned about carbon budgets.

Beyond dangerous climate change: emissions scenarios for a new world‘ a seminal 2011 paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows is considered by many to be the most important climate paper of recent years because 2C is now recognized as not a safe precautionary ceiling but deep into dangerous climate change, and their research on possible emission reduction pathways strongly suggests that effective mitigation must happen urgently and is improbable if not impossible within our presently configured socio-economy.

” So this is where we’re at: stuck between temperatures we can’t possibly accommodate and carbon reduction pathways we can’t possibly achieve.”

Grist’s David Roberts has a series of informing columns on the Anderson-Bows paper here and here.

This second line of reasoning describes climate change as an emergency because we have failed to take necessary action for at least two decades and now the climate and economic math rules out all but emergency action to reduce emissions.

Finally, and to sum up and make the case for a policy of emergency action because of the dire science, the single best climate science/policy document is CLIMATE CODE RED: The Case For Emergency Action, a book that you can find in most Canadian libraries but which I’m guessing few of you are even aware of let alone have read.

CLIMATE CODE RED started as a brief to Australia’s Garnault Climate Change Review by Melbourne businessman David Spratt and fellow climate policy analyst Philip Sutton concerning the seriousness of the emerging science  – the ominous 2007 Arctic icecap melt, in particular, the limits to effective mitigation within economic and political ‘business as usual’, and to encourage the choice of a ‘safe climate’ target instead of the current inadequate policy targets like 2C/450ppm. In 2007 it became a more detailed Web document and inspiration to informed climate activists globally and then was re-written and published as a book in 2008.

Very much influenced by Dr. James Hansen’s work in interpreting the possible complete melting of the Arctic ice cap in papers such as ‘ Atmospheric Targets‘, Sutton and Spratt work backward from the goal of a ‘safe climate’: a Holocene climate. A reformed ice cap is necessary and that means reducing CO2 emissions (plus equivalent) to below 350 ppm, maybe even down to 330ppm if necessary, by reducing emissions to zero as quickly as possible and sucking CO2 back out of the atmosphere through forestry or terra preta, etc. There is an urgency because reduced albedo effect is increasing the forcing every year; we are passing an Arctic tipping point but not yet at a point of no return.

We are now not in a ‘safe climate’, and economic and political business as usual is both too slow and path dependent for the systemic change necessary to effectively reduce emissions to zero, so we must at least consider the heretical: the use of emergency legislation and wartime-style mobilization and reconfiguration of the economy.

Sutton and Spratt are brave enough to at least present this heretical argument. They are not ideologs or enviro fanatics; they are not just screaming climate change is a catastrophe. Their concern isn’t just polar bears but humanity and all of the species with which we presently share creation. Their wise words in this very readable book should at least be understood by all legislators globally. Are they right in making this case for emergency action? That is the debate we should be having, should have had, out loud, open, full and iterated, in Canada and globally. But we don’t because to even considering climate change as an emergency is heretical and blocked by those who are totally preoccupied with economic stability, the health of the present economy, and who fear any consideration of government action that would undermine existing business and investment.

So, climate change is an emergency because increased greenhouse gases from our use of fossil fuels has led to a rapid melting of the Arctic ice cap which is a tipping point step to a profoundly unsafe climate; we must reduce CO2 in the atmosphere to below 350ppm urgently and that will require massive systemic change only possible in wartime-style emergency governments.

Three lines of reasoning or rather suggested readings to inform about three lines of reasoning implying that climate change needs emergency action – or at least full open debate about the case for emergency action. I can only ask that you do a little reading to inform yourselves about this climate change perspective. I don’t really know if your staff will even forward my e-mail for your attention, let alone whether you will read some or all of my suggestions, but if you do get this message please think for a moment about a toddler in your life – your child or grandchild – that will be your age mid-century and the world you are creating for him or her in your decisions today. We are responsible for the consequences of our actions to future generations. How will future generations judge us for staying in an orthodoxy where real emission reduction wasn’t possible?

There is a very substantive case that your government is going in the exact wrong direction by facilitating increased fossil fuel production at this crucial time. This is why I wrote to you last week on Canada Day that it is the scale of the crime, the scale of what is at stake for future generations, and Mr. Harper’s leadership in trying to accelerate fossil fuel production at this crucial time – the horrific potential consequences and the brazen undemocratic short-term self-interest – that makes Stephen Harper a monster and you and your government and indeed all Canadians to some degree complicit in a crime that dwarfs the Holocaust. If upon doing a little reading you think I’m mistaken, please write me why – I’d be very, very happy to be proved wrong.

Sorry for the too long e-mail and thanks for your time,

Bill Gibsons, BC

About the author: Bill Henderson is an activist living in Gibsons, B.C.