Column: What will it take?
CBC Radio has been airing programs I’ve hosted since the late 1980s. The prescience of the experts I spoke with as early as 1989 for It’s a Matter of Survival is astounding. But it saddens me. Had we taken their warnings seriously we might have avoided the terrible consequences they accurately predicted.
With massive wildfires burning worldwide, floods inundating communities and washing away topsoil, intense hurricanes battering coastlines, ice melting at both poles and in glaciers everywhere and desperate climate migrants fleeing hostile conditions, scientists continue to issue increasingly urgent warnings to the world community.
In light of the cascading impacts of a warming planet, the Guardian recently asked 40 scientists from all over to assess where we’re at. They didn’t hold back, especially as the global response to the crisis is not nearly enough to meet the challenge.
“We need to stop burning fossil fuels. Now. Not some time when we’ve allowed companies to make all the money they possibly can,” Imperial College London climate scientist Friederike Otto said.
The survey found overall agreement that we’re entering uncharted territory — “flying partially blind.” Climate models are amazingly precise at predicting the rise in global temperatures as greenhouse gas emissions climb, but they aren’t as good at charting increasingly erratic and extreme weather events — nature’s own warnings — many of which are turning out to be harsher than expected. They will almost certainly get worse.
“Knowing that we will look back on today’s extreme events as mild relative to what lies in our future is truly mind-boggling,” Andrea Dutton at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told the Guardian. “The speed at which we make this transition will define the future that we get.”
Rein Haarsma of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute said, “The extremes we see now happening could induce tipping points such as the collapse of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation and melting of the Antarctic ice sheets, that would have devastating impacts.”
Scientists recently issued a warning about those perilous conditions in Antarctica. Their letter from the recent Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research Biology Symposium in New Zealand stated, “Antarctica is a crucial component of the Earth system and a sentinel for growing change. As Antarctic scientists, we see the evidence of mounting change, including changes in food webs, rapid change in populations, breeding failure and local ecosystem collapse, with projections of rapid transformation of a region that makes our planet liveable and contributes in extraordinary ways to global biodiversity.”
Because polar regions are warming faster than the rest of Earth, the Arctic isn’t faring much better. Rapidly melting sea ice cover is affecting weather patterns and ocean currents, speeding us toward unpredictable planetary feedback loops and new human-related threats as open waters entice oil and gas development, mining, fishing, shipping and waste dumping. Scientists are calling for the entire Arctic Ocean to be designated a marine protected area.
Warnings from scientists and Indigenous Peoples aren’t new. From the Amazon to the Arctic, people on the front lines have been telling us of the extreme changes they’ve been witnessing for decades. Experts working with organizations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the International Energy Agency tell us we must curtail rampant consumerism, leave fossil fuels behind and shift quickly to renewable energy.
Scientists from around the world have also issued two “warnings to humanity,” one signed in 1992 by a majority of living Nobel Prize winners and more than 1,700 leading scientists and another on the 25th anniversary in 2018, signed by more than 15,000 scientists. The latter stated, “By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperilled biosphere.”
When will we heed the increasing warnings? Why do politicians, media pundits and keyboard trolls with no background in science think they know more than those who have observed and studied every aspect of climate?
We’ve long known what the problems and solutions are, but we’ve put off change to the point of crisis. There’s no time left to lose. We ignore the warnings at our peril.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.
Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.