Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Global Warming Needs Global Attention, Climate Suggests

Meeting my Hero

Growing up as a child, the friendly old man who talked about bugs and trees on the TV series “The Nature of Things” and countless other documentaries seemed like a hero of gigantic proportions. That’s why it was so surprising to see Canadian Environmentalist Dr.David Suzuki enter Norfolk United Church in Guelph on February 14, 2006 as an average-sized man. It was his sixteenth stop across the country amidst his month-long “If YOU were Prime Minister…” tour.

“There’s the man!” was how Bill Barrett of Planet Bean, a local vendor dealing in fairly traded, roasted coffee introduced him then made reference to the fact that here was David Suzuki speaking to about five hundred of us on Valentine’s Day, rather than seducing his wife over chocolates and expensive wine. “Welcome to the largest single club,” he joked.

While Suzuki’s tour focused mostly on the issue of global warming, Barrett did a good job of highlighting the historical relevance of environmental concern in Guelph specifically by going back in time one hundred years ago, when the city I now live in was facing a water crisis. The local hospitals were filled with typhus patients, also known as “jail fever” because the disease is often encountered in areas of poor hygiene. Reasonably enough, when better water sanitation was introduced, the problem was solved.

Right now we are on the brink of another water crisis worldwide, stemming from the climate change crisis, which Suzuki never imagined would progress this fast. While the equator may see small temperature increases of a degree or two, that translates to about twelve times that increase at the South and North poles. It has also been evident by the rapid disappearance of glacier-capped mountain peaks like Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa which feeds into rivers that supply 40% of the world with their drinking water! If this water source disappears by 2015 as scientists predict, we will be facing a major water crisis for a huge portion of the world’s population.

So he wanted to emphasize that action makes a difference. We’ve got a long way to go in order to make ourselves heard and make environmental protection a part of the democratic process. Suzuki was about to make some very good suggestions about how we do that.

Even on a Local Level, Environment Matters

Guelph has many organizations and businesses devoted to the environment; everything from the rain barrel collection program, Speed River clean-up, to the community garden and the low energy light bulb project. We have the Fair Trade Coffee Coop, the Youth Employment Action Program and a whole slew of other acronyms.

Barrett painted the picture of perfect community cooperation, yet when he asked: “What’s missing?” and then: “Where’s our local MP?” Mayor Karen Farbridge was not available to respond.

Many people got involved however, including alumni of Guelph’s Economics program, who asked questions following the lecture and suggested other Economists have to start regarding our natural resources as part of the equation. Also, local media group, Ed Video was taking five minute film snippets of what people would do were they to be elected Prime Minister.

Garbage Dumps Itself back on Us

Let’s face the facts: there is a direct link between what we do to the environment and the overall health, sanity and productivity of our society. Today we have a tougher battle to fight as rates of asthma, obesity and cancer increase with the amount of hormones and pesticides in our rivers and the amount of greenhouse gases in the sky. Warmer weather has meant an increase in pests like the red beetle and the mosquito, which spread infections, plaguing our societies with disease. To sum our current state, I could quote singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley: “The sky is a landfill.” And who do we have but ourselves to blame?

To be clear, the ensuing speech that Suzuki gave did not inspire a guilt-fest of doom and gloom but rather an attentive and inspired audience. He talked about the gains made in solving the hole in the ozone layer crisis by banning CFC’s and certain pesticides but he also bluntly stated what thousands of scientists worldwide recently met to conclude, that “all indications are pointing to the fact we are [still] undermining life support systems of the planet.”

Suzuki’s father always thought he would be a preacher, so it did not seem out of the ordinary that Suzuki would be preaching to us from a pulpit in a church about how we can save our planet from eternal damnation. One of Suzuki’s critics said that his problem was that he was “preaching to the converted” and therefore not making much of a difference. However, although many of us believe in the environment and know it’s important to conserve, how many of us think of turning off the lights when we’re not using them, about taking shorter showers, riding bikes and buying local food? Suzuki suggested the future depends on whether the “converted” keep talking, being creative and, above all, being active.

A Changing Tide: How Global Warming is now Registering in the Global Conscience

A positive point that Suzuki noted was that our attitudes have come full circle since 1988 when Lucien Bouchard suggested that the climate was the “most pressing issue” for political campaigns and that global warming “threatens the survival of our species. If we don’t do something now we’re in big trouble.” That was back in ’88 and since then we haven’t really done anything. Considering Stephen Harper is now saying it’s too late to reduce emissions and attempt to act in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol, environment is again the major issue for the upcoming election. As a sidenote: we haven’t heard anything from Environmental Minister Rona Ambrose since she suggested we’d have some “made in Canada” solution to the international climate crisis.

Because children will be the generation to inherit increased asthma rates, ice-cap-melting weather and rising ocean lines, Suzuki seemed distraught that children are not allowed to vote:

“All the party rhetoric is to convince you they are the party to elect…but children don’t vote. Therefore they aren’t on the political agenda and it makes me sick to see all these attack ads…not a single word about what Stephen Harper is committed to…I want to see action, laws and something that will protect our children.”

It was nice to see ex President Al Gore gaining a “best documentary” Academy Award this past week for his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” which exhibits images of the glaciers completely crumbling and draws alarming connections between weather change and the environment. Fascinatingly, ice samples taken from the Antarctic can accurately show carbon levels for the past 650,000 years. Right now we have more carbon dioxide in the environment than that entire span. If the trends continue as they have been, Greenland could completely melt within the next decade, raising ocean levels enough to put most of Florida and parts of New York, including the historic World Trade Centre site, underwater. It is these kinds of leaders which can, through creativity and hard work help us register the true costs of our actions from yesterday and those that we commit today.

The Real Costs of Neglecting our Environment

So what are the costs? Why does it seem so impossible for politicians to mount a campaign against the annihilation of our biosphere? Sir Nicolas Stern, who was Chief Economist for the World Bank calculated that it would cost every country 1% of the GDP to correct the problem of global warming if they seriously got started now. However, the cost of not fixing it now will inevitably destroy the world economy completely. In other words: the cost is our lives.

Suzuki struck out against how current politicians are manufacturing consent and trying to lure our attention away from the environment. An example of this is Stephen Harper’s 1% tax cut or our preoccupation with foreign wars which have led us to spend $16 billion on the military. Recently there was a smear campaign ad attacking Stephane Dion and the Liberal party in general with the tag-line: “let’s not go back”. Yet, if “back” refers to when politicians actually cared about our environment then perhaps we should. Liberals aren’t the only alternative choice. Volunteers from the Green Party were present at Suzuki’s event, handing out leaflets at the door.

Speaking of increased military expenditures and tax cuts, in a country with one of the highest rates of consumption, why aren’t we conserving our budget and taxing people MORE for their consumption rather than less? Suzuki highlighted other countries that have taxed their citizens creatively, by charging them for how much garbage they throw out by weight, as they have done in Germany. If economics is the study of financial incentives then doesn’t it make sense (cents?) to reward good environmental behaviour and punish the bad?

After WWII the consumption rate of the world has ballooned! Politicians however, often confuse spending with a good economy and argue the environment isn’t worth it because it costs too much to clean up. What they don’t understand is that the environment is all we have!! After 9-11 for example, President George Bush, yet the most devastating President to the environment since his father, encouraged citizens to “go out and shop”, as if the terrorist enemy was the fear of living decadently.

The Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in 1992 was planned to tackle this problem of global consumption. Agenda 21 was a blueprint for how we could live in a sustainable way. Admittedly, it was very complicated and confusing but yet everyone signed it, rich and poor countries alike! Two years later however and the rich countries like Canada basically said “Sorry, we can’t afford it.” If WE can’t afford it and WE are the ones responsible for most of the global environmental degradation, how do we expect developing countries like China, who are currently setting up open pit coal mines by the thousand, to learn from our mistakes?

When Prime Minister Jean Chrétien ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 1992 it committed us to reducing our emissions. In 1995 the Kyoto Protocol became international law. In 1997 Canada’s goal was to reduce their emissions 6% less than 1990’s levels. Since then we have INCREASED our levels of emissions and become a laughing-stock to the international community. This is really deplorable considering there is now a 30% thicker layer of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere compared to what there was just one hundred and fifty years ago.

I always chuckle when I see this Public Service Announcement (above) with Mr. Rogers' “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” song dubbed over images of children playing catch in flooded streets while tornadoes whisk their homes away. They wash their cars and wave to each other as if nothing is the matter. Then the message flashes across the screen: “Ignoring global warming won’t make it go away.” The PSA is funded by the World Wildlife Fund. I wonder if the Prime Minister himself has ever seen them. He really should. David Suzuki said that Stephen Harper, “who has never had a green bone in his body…has to admit that there’s a problem with the environment.”

Are Humans such a ‘Superspecies’ that we will Cause our own Downfall?

So the ruling is out. David Suzuki is convinced that “efficiency protects the environment and saves money.” It’s not a trade off. We may just live in the most pivotal moment in the history of our species. What Suzuki sees as setting humans apart from other animals (not that we don’t share the same earth) is that humans have the ability to envision a future. He asked Guelph residents what kind of city they foresee living in in 2035. To start to make that city, we have to start now. In the US, despite being only one of two countries that didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol (neither did Australia), many cities have committed to the international treaty individually and Environmentalists like David Suzuki and Al Gore continue to travel and speak in order to make a change in our awareness and ultimately action, person by person. With combined efforts, changing the climate back is possible.

One Person, So Many Animals. What Can I Do?

So what can you do as an individual person? What if politicians don’t listen to you or put other issues ahead of environment on the agenda?

The Nature Challenge is a set of simple, practical things that people can do to reduce their “ecological footprint”. It’s a set of behavioral changes that we can make to lessen the toll the environment takes as a result of us. David Suzuki thinks that if enough Canadians sign up for the Nature Challenge on his website then politicians won’t be able to argue that the environment isn’t a concern. His goal is to get 1 million Canadians to sign it. Considering that Comedian Rick Mercer got 1 million Canadians to petition Stockwell Day to change his first name to “Doris” then why can’t we rally as much support for something that’s slowly killing us all which might one day do so abruptly?

For more information, and to sign up for the Nature Challenge, please visit David Suzuki’s website at or visit



Blogger Adorable Girlfriend said...

UC being a scientist, we spend a great deal of time talking about this issue. We stress it doesn't matter who is to blame. Instead, let's all focus on the small and large things we can do to change the world. For example, I always ask for a recycling bin when staying in a hotel. They should be routine in hotels with the newspapers they give out. Small stuff that is a big impact!

Nice article.

2:01 p.m.  
Blogger Beth said...

Is it me, or does that guy look like Mr. Miagi on Karate Kid?

2:54 p.m.  
Anonymous Nicole said...

So glad you got to meet Dr. Suzuki. He's an amazing man.

9:18 p.m.  

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