The phrase “climate change” gets tossed around a lot these days. It’s the focus of heated political debates, media curiosity, and progressive activism across Canada and internationally. But what are the pundits really talking about? Why should we care? And how can educators engage in this conversation?
It’s time for a crash course on climate change, climate policy, and progressive climate action.
The climate change challenge
Generally speaking, anthropogenic climate change refers to alterations in the global climate system that are caused by human-made emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. Most GHGs are produced when we burn fossil fuels for energy, whether it’s coal in our power stations, gasoline in our vehicles, or natural gas in our homes. The accumulation of GHGs in the atmosphere produces a greenhouse effect, where the sun’s energy enters our atmosphere but can’t escape it causing the temperature of the earth’s surface to rise (i.e. global warming).
Climate change is not a theoretical, future problem. Globally, 2016 was the hottest year on record, with an average temperature approximately 1.2ºC above pre-industrial levels. The average amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time. Arctic sea ice was also well below normal in 2016, while ocean levels rose to new highs. Despite protestations from conservative pundits and politicians, the scientific community is strongly in agreement (with 95% certainty) that human activity is the primary driver of these changes.
What does this mean for us? Although no single event can be blamed on climate change, global warming has increased the frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters, such as hurricanes and wildfires. The cost of these events is measured in both lives and dollars. The fires that ravaged Fort McMurray last summer cost an estimated $3.5 billion in insurance claims alone—the costliest disaster in Canadian history. We can expect wildfires, droughts, floods, and extreme storms to occur more often and with greater severity than in the past, not to mention rising food prices and lower air quality.
In less developed parts of the world, climate change is already having a destructive impact on food and water security and disaster preparedness. The worldwide number of climate-related refugees was estimated at an average of 26.4 million people per year between 2008 and 2015. Human health is put at further risk by heat stress, disease, undernutrition, and other factors exacerbated by a warming world.
Unfortunately, this is only the beginning. Based on our current trajectory, we can expect an additional 1.0 to 3.7ºC of warming by the end of the century. Even at the low end, we are on track to exceed the critical 2ºC threshold that scientists warn is the “upper limit” before the effects of climate change spiral completely out of control.
It is no overstatement to say climate change poses an existential threat to our way of life. It should be treated as a crisis of the utmost urgency at a global scale.
The crucial role of climate policy
The severity of the climate change crisis can be depressing, but it need not be paralyzing. With aggressive, coordinated action, it is still possible for countries around the world to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the worst effects of climate change in the long term. Acting fast is important, because the longer we wait the more expensive and disruptive it will be to adapt.
Policymakers are engaged in a healthy debate about which policy approaches will most effectively mitigate climate change, but they all agree that it starts with reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Without diving into the weeds of climate policy, here are the three main ways that we can reduce emissions in Canada and elsewhere:
- Increase energy efficiency in buildings, industry, and transportation systems. The easiest way to reduce emissions is to reduce the amount of energy consumed in the first place.
- Phase out fossil fuels and replacing them with non-emitting and/or renewable energy sources. Investments in solar, wind and geothermal energy, for example, promote economic growth without increasing emissions.
- Put a price on greenhouse gas emissions through a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system. A carbon price encourages people and businesses to make lower-emitting choices.
Talking and teaching climate change
Whether we like it or not, climate change and our response to it will profoundly reshape Canadian society and our economy in the coming decades. Ensuring the transition is constructive and managed, rather than destructive and unpredictable, will require a broad-based cultural commitment to sustainability. We can start by broadening how we think and talk about climate change, including in the education system.
Discussing the realities of climate change in the science classroom is essential, but inadequate. Sustainability should be a consideration in all areas. The origins and impacts of climate change can be discussed in the context of history, literature, math, and the arts. Sustainability can be incorporated directly into classes on business and social studies. The more openly we can discuss climate change in a variety of contexts, the more prepared we will be for a future where sustainability concerns are central to everything we do.
We are already experiencing the negative impacts of climate change, but future generations will pay the steepest price for our inaction. The sooner we embrace sustainability, the sooner we can embrace aggressive climate action. And the sooner we act, the better our chances of building a better future for all.
Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood is an international trade and climate policy researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. This article originally appeared in the winter 2017 issue of Our Schools/Our Selves.