Field notes from the front lines

Published Tuesday, August 6, 2013 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

Last week, I was privileged to be among 1500 people attending a climate change conference hosted by former US Vice President Al Gore.  Here are a few field notes – three days of learning, greatly condensed.

Challenges

Distressingly, our global environmental challenges continue to loom ever larger.  The level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere tipped past 400 parts per million this spring, a level unprecedented in human history.  

2013 was the 36th consecutive year – and June 2013 the 340th consecutive month – with global temperatures above the 20th century average.  Extreme temperature events used to cover only .1% of the Earth; now they cover 10%.  Over 100 new record high temperatures have been set across Atlantic Canada in so far in 2013, versus just a half dozen new record lows.  

Recent extreme rain events in Alberta, Toronto, southwestern NB and elsewhere this summer are perfect examples of the weird weather that comes with climate change.  

But there are more ominous overtones too.  Insurance companies are tiring of paying massive claims for climate change-driven disasters, and there is the very real possibility that homes and businesses in areas most prone to such disasters will soon be uninsurable.  In a recent interview, Eric Smith, CEO of Swiss Re North America (a major global reinsurance company), said, “What keeps us up at night is climate change.  We see the long term effects of climate change on society, and it really frightens us.”

Last month, it was reported that coal pollution in northern China is reducing life expectancy there by 5.5 years.  

Solutions

At the same time, thankfully, many countries are undergoing revolutions in renewable energy.  

Solar power installations in the US have more than quadrupled in the past two years.  The Ivanpah solar power facility in southern California, slated for completion this year, will produce nearly as much electricity as our coal-fired Belledune power plant.  The cost of solar panels continues to decline as technology improves, and it is expected that solar power will cost no more than conventional power in most countries by 2020 at the latest.  

Larger, more efficient wind turbines are being developed and deployed. 

More importantly, governments are starting to move on emissions reduction.  Last month, President Obama said, “As a president, as a father and as an American, I'm here to say we need to act,” and announced new regulations aimed at reducing emissions from coal fired power plants.  Earlier this year, the US and China, the planet’s two largest emitters, pledged to cooperate to address climate change – a landmark achievement.  

China is piloting a new emissions trading system and plans to roll out a national cap-and-trade program within two years.  India has introduced a tax on coal, and is investing the proceeds into environmental cleanup.

Human ingenuity brings hope too.  A 17 year old girl from India has developed a phone app to teach climate change to elementary school students.

What about us?

Unfortunately, the global showcase of innovative climate change-fighting policies and solutions presented at the conference included no Canadian examples.  Sadly, the only mention of our country came in reference to tar sands, pipelines, the denial industry and the Lac Megantic tragedy.  

It would seem that by continuing to focus on the fossil fuels that are poisoning our planet, Canada is clinging to HD in a world that’s moving to Blu-ray.  (It doesn’t have to be that way, as we have bountiful undeveloped wind and solar resources.)

Getting it done

Big problems, but big solutions and opportunities too.  Other countries are getting it; we should too.  In Execution: the discipline of getting things done, authors Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan suggest that execution, the ability to quickly turn ideas and plans into tangible action, is the key difference between corporations that succeed and those that fail.  Perhaps that assessment applies equally to societies too.

So let’s look at the world through the necessary lens of sustainability.  Let’s get going on clean energy policies, and invest in more renewables.  (As a friend of mine likes to say, the sun never sends a bill.)  Let’s make Canadian and NB progress part of next year’s showcase of successes.  

Let’s get it done.