The Most Important Issue of the Election

Posted on August 9, 2015


So far, this election campaign has mainly been one of “gotcha” moments, where the parties and various media outlets try to catch candidates or their supporters in unflattering moments. A few days ago, there was the minor kerfuffle over Stephen Harper referring to Justin Trudeau by his first name. During Thursday’s leaders’ debate, meanwhile, Trudeau tried to catch Mulcair out by referring to his support of a 50%+1 threshold for a hypothetical Quebec independence referendum-a position which Trudeau alleged Mulcair would only mention when he was speaking French. Ezra Levant has tried to tar Trudeau by pointing to his posing with topless women at a Vancouver pride parade. And there have already been plenty of gotcha moments for Harper, ranging from his security tackling people trying to attend his events to his staffers misspelling the word “Minister” when they declared that he had won the Maclean’s Debate.

One such “gotcha” moment emerged during the last few days in relation to NDP candidate in Toronto Centre, Linda McQuaig, who spoke with surprisng candour about the Alberta oil sands. McQuaig argued that “A lot of the oilsands oil may have to stay in the ground if we’re going to meet our climate change targets”. Calgary Conservative candidate Michelle Rempel, who was on the same panel, immediately pounced on McQuaig. “For the hundreds of thousands of people whose jobs are dependent on Canada’s energy sector”, she said, “listen to what you just heard. Instead of standing up for the energy sector or Canada’s economy, you’re hearing ‘I want to tax this, I want this oil to be left in the ground.”

McQuaig backed off the comments, saying that what she meant is that she wants better environmental regulations of the oil and gas sector. For her sake, and for the world’s sake, I hope that was a flip-flop. Because that comment about the oil sands was perhaps the most important policy statement we have heard yet in this election campaign.

That’s because climate change is the most important issue we could talk about during this campaign. Hands-down. It’s not the only important issue. The country is in a recession. We have just received a report from the Truth and Reconciliation commission which indicts our government for cultural genocide. We are facing security threats, both in the middle east, and in Eastern Europe. We have just passed some very authoritarian security legislation, in the form of both C-51 and C-24. And we are about to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a very dodgy trade deal that threatens our very democracy.

Those are all important issues. But here’s the thing: If we don’t tackle climate change, none of them will matter in the long run.

If you don’t believe me, let’s look at a few facts. First of all, here’s the Keeling curve:

The Keeling curve measures the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from an observatory in Mauna Loa, Hawaii. That level has been increasing exponentially since we started measuring. CO2 levels have blown past the safe limit of 350ppm, and passed 400 ppm just this year. Carbon dioxide, along with other greenhouse gases, warms the atmosphere. Since 1880, the growing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmopshere have warmed it by about 1.5 degrees celsius. Those 1.5 degrees have already had catastrophic outcomes. This past month, a heat wave in India killed 1,800 people in just ten days. Currently, California is in the midst a record-breaking extreme drought, while a hot and dry spell in Western Canada is leading to the worst wildfire season in Canadian history. Another drought in the Middle East caused a food crisis, and arguably contributed to the wave of violence that has affected that region and given rise to ISIS. Meanwhile, ice sheets in both Antarctica and Greenland are sliding into the sea, in a process that is probably already irreversible. That means that we are going to see more than ten feet sea level rise by the end of this century, guaranteed. That will be enough to inundate much of Vancouver. Miami is probably already doomed, as is Bangladesh, a country of 156 million people. Island nations such as the Maldives will simply disappear off the map.

That’s what happens at 1.5 degrees of warming. It’s just the beginning. Even at the internationally agreed-upon limit of 2 degrees, we face some pretty dire consequences. Beyond that, things start to get very, very scary. We could very well be heading for 4 degrees of warming, which, as xkcd points out, is a magnitude of temperature change comparable to the last ice age.

4.5 Degrees

At 4 degrees, droughts, extreme heat waves and sea level rises could make many places virtually uninhabitable, while severe storms would make others extremely perilous. Meanwhile, as chainging climates wreak havoc on our agricultural systems and ocean acidification demolishes the marine food chain that we rely on for the fish we eat, it is likely that virtually everywhere on Earth will feel the sting of food shortages. And when they can’t find food, people tend to get violent.  To make matters even scarier, 4 degrees of warming means that feedback mechanisms such as the loss of albedo and the melting of the Siberian permafrost, could send us spiralling out of control into a hotter and hotter world.

Basically what I’m saying here is that if you, or anybody you care about, is planning to be alive past the year 2050, then you should be abjectly terrified, because, if you’ll pardon the expression, this is some seriously apocalyptic shit we’re looking at. There are some very intelligent people who don’t think that civilization as we know it can survive 4 degrees of warming. Maybe they’re wrong, but do you really want to put that to the test?

The Alberta oil sands alone store enough carbon to increase the global average temperature by 0.4 degrees. Keep in mind that the oil from the oil sands is much more difficult and carbon-intensive to extract than most conventional deposits of oil in the world. So if we do burn all the oil sands oil, we are likely to have burned much of the rest of the world’s oil reserves as well. In that scenario, the economy of Alberta will be the absolute least of our worries. With that in mind, Michelle Rempel’s comments about jobs in the oil sands sector could very well go down in history along with Neville Chamberlain’s confident assertion that there shall be peace in our time. We are in the midst of a global emergency that threatens the very foundation of our society. If you are under the age of 30, then you will live through the consequences of how we handle this problem. It is within the realm of possibility of possibility that you could spend the latter half of your life in a very dangerous world, plagued by storms, heat waves, cold snaps, famines, economic depression, and war. We should be begging and pleading and screaming for our leaders to do something about this, and the fact that they won’t, because that would hurt the Albertan oil industry, should be met with scorn and rage.

This December, world leaders are heading to Paris this winter to negotiate a climate treaty. Barack Obama has just announced a plan to cut the carbon emissions in the American energy sector. Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton has a more ambitious plan. China is now planning significant cuts of its own. All of these plans are insufficient by themselves, and the Paris agreement undoubtedly will be at least a little bit disappointing. But it’s a start. Renewable energy is getting cheaper and cheaper, and electric cars are becoming viable. If by 2030 we can be rapidly cutting our carbon emissions, then we might have a chance of staving off disaster. That can start in Paris this December. And it’s all the more likely to start if we in Canada elect a government that takes climate change seriously. That means that whoever wins this election will, along with other world leaders, be responsible for literally saving the world. We should all approach this election with that in mind.

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