The time has come for radical action on climate change, Thomas Homer-Dixon, chair of global systems at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation at Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo, argued during a presentation on September 16.
Since he first started writing about climate change 30 years ago, the world has denied and avoided addressing the problem to point where no aspects of society will be untouched by its impact.
“We’re getting to a point where it’s not clearly solvable anymore in a way that would allow us to maintain anything resembling the status quo - our social and economic and political structures and even liberal society as it existed prior to the development of this problem,” said Homer-Dixon. “These kinds of changes that are now already underway are going to be extraordinarily dramatic and very disruptive socially.”
In his more than one-hour speech, he delved into a number of matters including why the Leap Manifesto may not present the best approach to addressing climate and elements of a Canadian climate policy that could be both feasible and enough. In a nutshell though, addressing climate change is going to require sacrifices, he said.
“Solving climate change means to a certain extent engaging in a process of constructive triage, deciding what you’re going to lose, what you’re going to trade off and what things are most important to keep. It’s a much more challenging endeavour because we’ve lost 30 years of time,” argued Homer-Dixon.
He acknowledged that a majority of the world’s governments have agreed to take action. Whether that happens is another question entirely, but what’s certain is that the planet is headed for at least 2 Degrees Celsius of warming with the resulting impacts being more severe floods, protracted droughts, extreme weather events, civil strife and more.
The key theme of his presentation centered around the “feasibility and enough” conundrum. Are there a suite of policies for which Canadian governments can secure the political go-ahead to implement and will these policies be enough to prevent catastrophic climate change? The problem, according to Homer-Dixon, is that because real action on climate change has been little to date, doing anything that is both feasible and enough will get more difficult.
The window is closing and that overlap between policies that are both feasible to implement and stringent enough to address the climate problem is getting smaller.
One element of the climate discussion that has perhaps prevented action or delayed it comes from the fact that politicians have adopted a kids gloves type of communications strategy. Homer-Dixon argued it’s time for some straight talk.
"We need to realize how bad this is,” he said.
He likened the kind talk required to a doctor speaking to a patient who has cancer.
“You want the doctor to look at you and say, you’ve got essentially a terminal illness, you’ve got a window of possible survival here. These are things you need to do if you want have a possibility of getting through that window,” stated Homer-Dixon. “That’s the kind of honesty we need from our leaders ... and we’re getting very, very little of it.”
So where is Canada headed? It’s looking up, or as Homer-Dixon described it, the country has an “emerging” climate change policy. That’s encouraging because under the previous Conservative government, while it made statements about emissions reduction, had no intention of meeting them. That’s different under the Liberals.
But does Canada’s current climate change policy make sense? Simply put, no, he said. There are key issues that the country has to focus on to respond this challenge and that includes carbon pricing, regulations, new technologies as well as market access for domestic oil. These can’t be done in silos though.
“We need to take a portfolio approach. There’s no silver bullet here. There’s no one thing we can do to solve this problem,” Homer-Dixon argued. For example, carbon pricing needs to be combined with building code improvements, energy efficiency in appliances and other regulations, he added.
New technological development and deployment will help. More renewable generation from the likes of wind and solar need to be added to the electricity grid and transportation needs to shift to electricity. But they alone won’t be enough. New technologies such as underground coal gasification, new nuclear generation techniques and ultra-deep or enhanced geothermal need to be pursued.
So what does Canada need to do to get its climate change policy on the right track? Describing it as the “grand bargain”, Homer-Dixon said the country will have to step up on carbon pricing (the federal government has announced that it will introduce a national carbon price). He pointed to a recent paper from Tracy Snoddon on the use of a federal carbon price floor to level the playing field among all Canadian provinces as one potential option.
(Canadian Green Tech wrote about the Snoddon paper here: Eliminating carbon price differences through a federal price floor)
The Canadian government will also have to ensure that products and services from non-carbon taxed jurisdictions face tariffs at the border. It will have to work with the World Trade Organization on non-discriminatory border tax adjustments.
And in addition to a ramping up of emissions reduction regulations for buildings and appliances, the government is going to have to approve one pipeline. Homer-Dixon said the most logical choice is Kinder Morgan.
One final piece of the puzzle requires the Canadian government to significantly amp up its commitment to research and development (R&D). There has to be “substantial, massive I would say, investment by Canadian standards in energy R&D,” he said noting that in a recent Nature article ranking the top 30 countries in science and technology investment as a percentage of GDP, Canada didn’t even make the list.
Homer-Dixon is a little more optimistic than some might be when it comes to meaningful action to avoid climate disaster. He believes that by 2030, there will be a global price on carbon emissions. Next year, between 25% and 30% of the world’s economy will be under some kind of carbon pricing regime and with China’s commitment to roll out a national carbon price across its entire economy, the future bodes well, he noted.
Besides, he said, climate change impacts will spur additional action in the near term.
“As things start to come around the edges of the global system because of climate impacts - food price spikes, extreme events - and as people start seeing these events, there’s going to be more and more pressure around the world to use a carbon price of some kind. Canada needs to be ahead of that curve instead of behind it,” says Homer-Dixon.