Warming up to the truth about climate change — what happened in 2017 and what could come next
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By Keith Cheng
Climate change is more of a hot topic now than it has ever been. The past year saw unprecedented amounts of environmental damage that can have harrowing and long-lasting global impacts if it continues at the current rate. Despite these anxieties, some individuals maintain a growing skepticism of the validity of climate change.
In the US, climate change deniers are perhaps more powerful than ever, and they have been actively working to dismantle any progress that was made on environmental policy over the past few years. President Donald Trump’s intent to withdraw the US from the United Nations Paris Agreement, announced on June 1, 2017, is one such example. The Paris Agreement was established in 2015 to “limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius,” as described on the United Nations website. As the world’s second largest carbon emitter, the US’ withdrawal is a worrying sign for the future of the environment. This intended withdrawal has even seen certain US states, including California and New York, pursue environmental policies that uphold commitments to the agreement.
With fears of climate change rising, it is becoming increasingly important to take action before it’s too late.
Canada’s large quantity of forested area makes it especially susceptible to wildfires; since 1990, an average of 2.5 million hectares of Canadian forest have been lost annually to wildfires.
The recent dry weather and drought has helped expedite both the frequency and severity of these fires, leading to large amounts of environmental damage as well as costly financial burdens for Canada.
British Columbia experienced its worst wildfire season in 2017, costing the province a total of $315.7 million. As of April 1, 894,491 hectares of land had been burned, beating the previous record of 855,000 hectares in 1958.
And it’s not only Canada that has faced rising rates of forest fires; unprecedented rates of forest fires have wreaked havoc through California, Russia, Australia, and Chile, among others.
While wildfires are a natural part of the forest ecosystem and can be beneficial in moderation, the increasing severity can have devastating effects if it continues. The emissions from the wildfires can lead to significant air pollution that can cause health problems, especially to those with asthma.
The increase in fires also increases the risk of other disasters such as flooding, debris flow, and landslides. The emissions from wildfires can also increase global temperatures; “the fires release ‘particulates’ — tiny particles that become airborne — and greenhouse gases that warm the planet,” states NASA’s website.
Coral reef bleaching
Coral bleaching is when corals become completely white because algae have been expelled from their tissues. This phenomenon occurs when corals are put under stress from changing conditions, such as changes in light, temperature, or nutrients. Coral and algae have a symbiotic relationship where they are dependent upon one another to survive. Without algae, coral loses its main source of food and becomes more susceptible to death and disease.
Increased water temperature from climate change is one factor that can lead to coral bleaching. The world’s largest reefs experienced two major mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 that killed approximately half of the world’s coral.
The Coral Watch program of the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) put most of the coral reefs on “Alert Level 1” in February of last year, indicating that while bleaching is considered likely, it is unlikely to be severe enough to cause more coral to die. However, bleaching is likely to continue, which is definitely still a reason to be concerned.
The loss of coral reefs would affect all species in the ecosystem, as coral is a source of food and shelter for many organisms, and its disappearance would lead to a subsequent decline in the fish communities that depend on it.
This loss of coral can affect human communities in ways that may not be obvious. Many communities near the reefs depend on them for food and income, and they also help protect coastal communities from environmental damage, such as storm surges and erosion.
There are also many medicines that rely on organisms from the coral reefs. Deemed the ‘medicine cabinets’ of the twenty-first century, the reefs provide us with many important compounds necessary for the development of medicines used to treat diseases such as cancer, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s.
Rising Arctic temperatures
The impacts of climate change on the Arctic have been a worry for many years, though the concerns are now becoming increasingly dire.
The NOAA publishes an annual report card that analyzes the current state of the Arctic ecosystem, and found that March 7, 2017 was the “lowest winter maximum ice extent in the satellite record.”
This is the third straight year in which there is a record low winter maximum in Arctic ice, meaning there was less of the Arctic Ocean that froze during the coldest times in the winter.
The loss of Arctic sea ice changes the amount of solar radiation reflecting off the Earth’s surface. Current levels of sea ice reflect approximately 50 per cent of radiation back into space during the summer. Water temperatures begin to rise as sea ice melts and less solar radiation is refracted.
The NOAA’s report card found that sea surface temperatures in August 2017 were 4°C warmer than previous trends in the Barents and Chukchi seas. Studies have found that this decrease in reflection is comparable to a 25 per cent increase in CO2.
Another pressing concern with rising Arctic temperatures is the potential of rising sea levels. The warming of the Arctic Ocean has been shown to have affected the Greenland Ice Sheet: there has been an observed 30 per cent increase in summer melt on the ice sheet between 1979 and 2006.
Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet can have detrimental effects; it is estimated that if the entire sheet melts, sea levels could rise up to six metres, potentially leaving cities such as Richmond, British Columbia underwater by the end of the century.
What does this mean for us?
Impacts of climate change can already be seen in Toronto. The average temperature in Canada has increased by 1.6°C from 1948–2013, and Toronto’s Future Weather and Climate Driver Study from 2012 predicts that summer temperatures in Toronto could reach a high of 44°C by 2050.
Warmer temperatures can lead to various problems for the city. The increased temperature promotes the spread of vector-borne disease and increases the risk of water and foodborne diseases. The risk of dehydration and heat stroke also become more prominent.
Diseases such as West Nile virus and Lyme disease, for example, become more frequent as disease-bearing organisms are able to survive and breed longer in a warmer climate.
The increased temperature can also affect ecosystems, both on a natural and urban scale. Natural ecosystems will see a change in composition of plant and animal species as native species disappear and more invasive species begin to take over. The urban landscape and architecture will be affected by the milder winters; more frequent freeze-thaw cycles will accelerate the degradation of roads and buildings.
As a city, Toronto has always been quite progressive in climate change initiatives; The Atmospheric Fund, for example, is a Toronto-based organization that strives to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area through the promotion of sustainable startups.
A policy called TransformTO has also been established by the city as an attempt to “reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and improve our health, grow our economy, and improve social equity,” as stated on its website.
John Robinson, a U of T professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and School of the Environment, believes that the next step moving forward is deciding “how to ramp things up, how to move beyond the somewhat ad-hoc process where different issues [are] looked at somewhat separately.”
While there are many initiatives that try to tackle specific issues such as carbon emissions, moving forward requires an interdisciplinary approach. We can’t simply look at the environmental issues when hoping to promote change; understanding the social issues that are intertwined with them is an important part of moving forward.
“You can’t just deal with poverty on its own, you can’t deal with pollution on its own — they’re actually quite tightly coupled, and so you have to start thinking in a more holistic way,” says Robinson.
Robinson also emphasizes the role that universities play in sustainability, stating that universities are now expected to engage in social problems like sustainability.
U of T has been somewhat active in sustainability through its President’s Advisory Committee on the Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainability that was set up in 2017. Its mandate states that it strives “to identify ways to advance the University’s contributions to meeting the challenges of climate change and sustainability, with a particular focus on research and innovation, teaching, and University operations.”
The committee is currently working to take on the challenge of sustainability in three ways. The first step is turning the campus into a
“living lab” where every decision is centred around sustainability. The second step is being an “agent of change” through partnerships with the private and public sector, as well as civil society.
“The third area is curriculum innovation and the idea here is to create sustainability pathways — curriculum pathways, so that every single student at the university can add sustainability to their curriculum,” says Robinson. “So, no matter what program you’re in — civil engineering, or medieval history, doesn’t matter, you will be offered a sustainability pathway when you arrive at first year.”
While Toronto has taken initiatives to alleviate climate change, the successes of these projects are dependent on us as members of the community. With growing concerns regarding the impacts of climate change, it is vital for us to take action before it’s too late.