In 1989, I did a radio series for CBC called It’s a Matter of Survival. It examined how humans were altering the environment in detrimental ways, including heating the planet by burning massive amounts of coal, oil and gas for power and transportation. Listeners were so concerned that 17,000 sent in letters (this was pre-email days) asking what they could do. That led to the David Suzuki Foundation’s start in 1990.
It wasn’t the first time I had discussed the looming climate crisis. In 1977, I interviewed writer Isaac Asimov, who spoke about the “greenhouse effect.” He explained how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs infrared light, acting as a “heat shroud.” He noted that burning coal, oil and gas raises CO2 levels in the atmosphere and that, in “another 50 years or so … instead of three hundredths of a percent, it might be five hundredths of a percent.” (It’s now over four hundredths of a per cent.)
Even though that seems like a small increase, he said, it could melt polar ice caps, raise sea levels and cause runaway effects.
In 1988, just before the CBC series, renowned NASA scientist James Hansen testified to the U.S. Congress that climate change was, in fact, occurring and that failing to address it quickly could lead to dangerous consequences. In his presidential campaign, Republican candidate George H.W. Bush vowed to combat the problem if elected. Four years later, under his presidency, the U.S. became a founding member of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which continues to be the international forum for efforts to address climate change.
Even though politicians of every political stripe from around the world vowed to take climate change seriously, emissions have risen by 68 per cent since then, and fossil fuels have gone from supplying 79 per cent of the world’s energy needs to 81 per cent.
Greenhouse gas emissions have reached a record high, and scientists say it’s now too late to save summer Arctic ice. We’re seeing the effects: massive wildfires in Canada — where warming is occurring faster than southern parts of the world — droughts, floods, extreme weather events, growing numbers of climate refugees leaving increasingly inhospitable parts of the world.
What’s astounding is that fossil fuel spokespeople, politicians and media pundits are still saying the same things they’ve been saying for at least the past four decades — that we can’t get off fossil fuels overnight (it’s been a long night), that we need to keep burning fossil gas as a bridge fuel (it’s a long bridge) and that we can’t afford to transition to renewable energy (it’s long outdated information).
Then there are those who still deny there’s a problem at all, or who say our concerns are alarmist or hysterical. If you aren’t alarmed, you don’t understand the science.
If it seems dire, it’s because it is. But it’s not hopeless. We’re running out of time, but we’ve made progress, and we have numerous solutions — more every day. Evidence shows that employing those solutions will make the world better for just about everyone except, perhaps, those raking in massive profits from fossil fuels and destroying forests, wetlands and agricultural land. Even their lives would likely be more satisfying if they realized there’s more to life than profit and power.
Energy efficiency, renewable energy and energy storage solutions have advanced by leaps and bounds, far faster than anticipated. Not only that, but costs have fallen to the point that renewable energy is less expensive than coal, oil and gas.
Overall, we’d all be better off economically if we shifted rapidly to more affordable renewables, especially given the volatility of fossil fuel markets. Our health would be better without the pollution burning fuels causes. Ecosystems would improve. And, if done right, the shift could bring greater equality as power and wealth wouldn’t be as concentrated as it is in the fossil fuel economy.
Of course, we still have the responsibility to stop consuming so much, to rethink our wasteful ways of living. As human populations increase, the planet can’t support endless growth and consumption.
There are no excuses left to continue exploiting and burning any fossil fuels, and there’s no time left to waste. Nature has spoken. We must listen and act now.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.