The triage of sustainability

Published Tuesday, June 11, 2013 in the Fredericton Daily Gleaner and Wednesday, June 12, 2013 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

When I see a Hummer, a drive-through or a bottle of water, one word often springs to mind: triage.  Usually associated with the world of emergency medicine, triage has relevance in sustainability too.


I first heard the word in the movie Pearl Harbor.  As Japanese planes strafed Hawaii, American medical personnel were quickly overwhelmed with far more casualties than they could handle.  In order to allocate care in the most efficient way possible, difficult choices had to be made.  Those with lesser injuries were deferred; those with serious injuries were given immediate attention; and those whose injuries put them beyond hope of recovery were left to slip away.

It was triage, the harsh reality of prioritizing resources when the demand is greater than the supply.  


Scientists and leaders the world over have acknowledged that if we plan to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, we need to limit warming to 2°C.  In an article for Rolling Stone Magazine last August, academic and author Bill McKibben pointed out that if we wish to achieve that goal, we need to limit total future emissions to 565 gigatonnes or 565 billion tonnes.  You could call it our global emissions quota.

Two problems emerge.  First, today’s known reserves of oil, coal and natural gas contain enough carbon to blow us through that quota several times over.  The International Energy Agency, a leading global authority, has confirmed that if we wish to limit global warming to 2°C, we can burn no more than one third of the fossil fuel reserves presently on the balance sheets of Exxon, Shell and all of the world’s fossil fuel energy suppliers.

Second, at today’s rate of oil, coal and natural gas consumption, we will use up our global emissions quota by the time today’s newborns graduate from high school.

To put it more succinctly: there may be gas at the local station but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to burn it.  Every litre of fuel we burn is one less litre we can burn, if we plan to keep the planet liveable for future generations.


All of which speaks to priorities.  Imagine if each of us were given our fair share of that global emissions quota – call it our personal lifetime carbon quota.  How would we use it?  What choices would we make?  (Note that business as usual would not be an option, since Canadian emissions are four times the global average.)

Would we choose to drive a Hummer, an SUV or a pickup truck for basic transportation?

Would we burn part of our precious quota sitting in a drive through, or spend it on the manufacture of a disposable cup?

Would we drink water from plastic bottles trucked all the way from Ontario?  

In winter, would we choose strawberries airfreighted from Chile?  Would we choose to airfreight ourselves south?

In summer, would we choose air conditioning at the first hint of heat?

Would we use tanning beds?  How about leaf blowers and ride-on mowers?

Would we be willing to allocate a share of our quota to school buses?  What about fire trucks and ambulances?

If each of us had to live within a personal lifetime carbon quota, how would we deal with it?  Would we examine, prioritize and act?  Or would we succumb to the defeatist environmental thinking that seems to have pervaded the halls of power in Ottawa?  Would we decide that it’s impossible to set and live within meaningful targets, thereby signalling to future generations that they are just not worth the effort?  

To be sure, it would be a big test of who we are and what we stand for.


I don’t foresee a future reality where each of us has a personal carbon quota.  But today's reality makes it clear that the planet needs for us to live as if we did have one.