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Mark Jaccard outlines challenges of climate change action in new book, Deluding Ourselves to Disaster

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The coming climate scenario has spurred international promises. Political leaders of most rich countries promise to reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. Prime Minister  Harper promises reductions of 65 per cent by 2050, 38 years from now. To meet these goals, emissions in developed countries need to be reduced by 50 per cent in 18 years.

That is only possible if all your investment today is CO2 free.

Jaccard’s research shows that the technology exists to meet the goals. Electrity generation can be 90 per cent CO2 free by 2050 by using renewables, fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage and nuclear power. Buildings can by 85 per cent CO2 free by using heat pumps, passive solar, biofuels, photovoltaics and solar hot water. Vehicles can be 80 per cent CO2 free by 2050 by using electricity, biofuels and hydrogen.

Action in the opposite direction

But Canada isn’t pursuing this technology at the rate necessary to meet its goals. In addition, it is aggressively promoting the tar sands, even though independent research shows that Canada’s promotion of tar sands expansion and pipelines is not consistent with the 2050 promise.

Moreover, if nations meet their carbon reduction commitments, less expensive conventional oil will meet the entire demand for the reduction path. “Peak oil is not the right problem,” Jaccard said. Investments today in the tar sands and pipelines will have to be abandoned for the Harper government and the world to meet its 2050 commitment to avoid dangerous climate change.

Despite promises, the world is not on a path for the 450 ppm (parts per million) CO2 (Jaccard prefers the more accurate 550 ppm CO2e, which includes other climate forcing gases such as methane and nitrious oxide as CO2 equivalents). Canada and the world are locking on to a path toward 800 ppm CO2e that is consistent with a four to six degree rise in temperature. On this path, people alive today will experience catastrophic damages from extreme weather, disease, ecosystem destruction, sea level rise and ocean acidification.  

These are the facts that lead Jaccard to his question to himself and his challenge to the audience, “If you understand this evidence, what are you doing with your life?”

Why is alterning climate emissions such a difficult problem?

Past success with acid rain, ozone depletion and urban air pollution are a cheering thought. But climate change policy has now failed for three decades. Bad luck and near misses provide some explanation. For example, the election of George Bush in the US gave the fossil fuel and anti-government lobbyists time to organize and create campaigns that exploit the flaws in human thinking. But Jaccard thinks there are factors that make altering climate emissions a more difficult problem.

One challenge is that individual initiative has little value toward the creating a global public good. Compliance and enforcement mechanisms are difficult on that scale as well. The delay in effects creates another challenge. We must act now, but human decision-making is myopic at individual, market and political levels.

Another challenge is the question of who pays. Perceptions of equity tend to align with self interest. International negotiators promote the type of equity that gives their nation the most advantage: polluter pays, equal payment based on per capita or GDP emissions, or historical responsibility.

The complexity of the earth’s atmospheric system creates uncertainty regarding the specific of climate impacts we can expect even though a catastrophic outcome is virtually certain.

High starting costs create another challenge. It won’t cost that much to totally transform the energy system, from about 6 per cent to 8 per cent of a household budget compared to the 20 per cent of the household budget that heating used to require. But the initial costs are high. At the larger scale, there are risks to start shifting to CO2 energy sources because fossil fuel energy will always be cheaper without a regulatory structure that injects environmental safety concerns into the investment decisions. The transformation is not expensive, but it is difficult to launch.

The self-serving bias in human thinking has made it easier for the oil and gas industry to discredit climate science and policy. It’s easier to exploit an anti-science bias when people see it as conflicting with their self interest (although even the most skeptical individuals embrace science if they break their leg).

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