What you need - or don’t need - to know about climate change

Published Tuesday, June 6, 2017 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner; updated August 20, 2019.

A large company I know circulates a weekly newsletter called Need to Know to its management team.  It focuses on essentials: the news and updates managers most need to know, selected from among the multitude of activities happening within the company.  It’s a clever strategy, because too much information quickly becomes useless as we exceed our ability to absorb, understand and retain. 

When it comes to climate change and other environmental issues, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and confused by too much information, and then paralyzed into inaction.  So here’s Need to Know, the climate change edition.

First, what you don't need to know

The prospect of someone telling you that you don’t need to know something may properly arouse suspicion – but consider this.

I have a cell phone.  I have no idea how it works, except I know for certain that it does.

I work on a computer, connected to something called the internet.  I know virtually nothing about how either work; all I know for certain is that they do.

I have no idea how jet engines work, but I’ve flown enough times to know for certain that they do.

All this to say: you can be certain about some things without having to know everything about them.  And if you really do want to know everything about something just to be sure-sure, there’s always the option of researching further or asking an expert - in the cases above, a telecommunications engineer, IT professional or aircraft mechanic.  In the case of climate change, a climate scientist.

What you do need to know

So here’s what you really need to know about climate change.

Climate change is real; the only significant scientific uncertainty is how fast it’s happening.  (And that uncertainty should be no excuse for inaction; if you were stuck on a set of tracks with a train approaching, it would seem unwise to pause from the task of freeing yourself to wonder whether the train were travelling 90, 100 or 110 kilometers per hour.)  It’s not a conspiracy of climate scientists, melting glaciers and all world leaders except Donald Trump.  

Most climate change is being caused by greenhouse gases emissions from our burning of fossil fuels, plus other human activities like deforestation and agriculture.  Not sunspots, volcanoes or wobbles in Earth’s orbit.  Not ozone, water vapour or air pollutants.  Some argue it’s arrogant to think we humans could possibly affect the climate of a planet, to which the easy rebuttal is that it’s even more arrogant to imagine we humans could abuse our planet’s environment the way we do without consequence.

Global emissions need to drop by 45% (from 2010 levels) by 2030 if we are to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C - which many argue is already too much.

The consequences of climate change – heat waves, droughts, extreme storms, infrastructure damage, sea level rise, melting permafrost, invasive pests and more – will by far outweigh any imagined benefits.  Sea level rise is particularly concerning, given how many millions live in threatened coastal cities like New York, Miami, New Orleans, Abidjan, Ho Chi Minh City, Mumbai and Osaka.

If we want to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, between two-thirds and four-fifths of known global reserves of oil, coal and natural gas need to stay in the ground.  In other words, just because there’s gas at the global gas station doesn’t mean we can safely burn it.  

Fossil fuels left in the ground will one day need to be written off of the balance sheets of fossil fuel companies; you won’t want those companies in your RRSP when that happens.

For the same reason, appealing as it might seem, we can’t build an economy on oil sands and pipelines.  

We can, however, generate a lot of wealth and jobs in renewables.  Already more Canadians work in green energy than in the oil sands, and there are plenty of opportunities yet to be pursued.  Plus, unlike oil companies, the sun and wind never send a bill.

Climate change is not a left-or-right issue any more than an earthquake is; it’s science-based reality affecting everyone who breathes – something politicians of all stripes need to recognize.  Debate solutions, but not the problem.

We humans already have most of the technology we need to transition to renewables, and that technology is getter better and cheaper every day.  The main thing holding us back is commitment: on the part of our leaders, and on the part of us.

So there you have it – the Need to Know on climate change.  You can research any of the above points further if you want to be sure-sure.  Or you can accept them with certainty, so that you can move on to actions and solutions.