Margaret Thatcher was the first politician I heard speak seriously about the risks from rising CO2 levels from burning fossil fuels.
In 1988 she made a series of speeches in Britain, and to several global organizations, calling for urgent international action. During the 1970’s it was the prospect of another ice age that was going around, so the idea that the earth was getting a little warmer for me was welcome. I clearly didn’t understand much about climate science.
Dave Phillips the well-known Environment Canada weather guy was another touchstone. For years he refused to directly link fierce hurricanes, long winters, or extraordinarily hot summers to climate change. This year he’s on a Canadian tour giving speeches calling the battle to halt global warming “World War III”.
"We're already seeing it here in the Maritimes, with the storm surges and coastal flooding and erosion. It's not something that we can imagine, we are witnessing it right now and scientists are actually measuring it. It's fairly alarming," he told a CBC radio audience.
Even more alarming is the book The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. His warning of mass extinctions, including humans, is almost unthinkable, but the history of what’s brought us here is sobering too. While many us think there’s been almost a century and a half of burning coal, oil and gas that’s responsible, the hard truth is that most of it has happened in my lifetime (I’m 69). 85% of carbon emissions have happened since the Second World War.
Wallace-Wells writes: “…. we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries, all the millennia… that came before.”
Farmers are caught in the cross-hairs of climate change. Fiercely unpredictable weather has led to enormous risk, ongoing anxiety, and financial hardship. That’s bad enough. Farmers also have to absorb a lot of criticism. Many people with full stomachs say agriculture is a major contributor to the problem.
From 10,000 feet it’s easy to see where the smoke is coming from, and lay blame. I think especially here on PEI we have to look a little closer. Most of us can agree that cutting down rain forests in Brazil to raise cattle, in order to ship the beef thousands of miles to supermarkets in North America and Europe is not environmentally sound. What about buying beef that’s locally produced on PEI? How about cattle that are mostly fed on grass and silage? What if this actually improves the health of soils?
Here’s one the best descriptions I’ve seen (from Time Magazine) for why this makes environmental sense: “It works like this: grass is a perennial. Rotate cattle and other ruminants across pastures full of it, and the animals’ grazing will cut the blades — which spurs new growth — while their trampling helps work manure and other decaying organic matter into the soil, turning it into rich humus. The plant’s roots also help maintain soil health by retaining water and microbes. And healthy soil keeps carbon dioxide underground and out of the atmosphere.” Feeling better about eating a real hamburger from locally produced cattle?
Even the lure of the new plant based meat as a way of lessening our carbon guilt needs more attention. Beyond Meat products come from plants in Missouri and California, so travel thousands of miles to get to the Maritimes. There are certainly health benefits from eating more vegetables, and cutting back on fast food burgers, but supporting local beef producers and other farmers rather than relying on supply chains that snake around the world makes sense too.
Here’s something else that makes sense. I’ve written before that I’d like to see PEI join the carbon trading system used by Nova Scotia, Quebec, BC, and California. (Ontario had one too until Rob Ford killed it). We’ve seen that actively growing grasses, plants and trees absorb CO2 from the air and store it in the ground. Several jurisdictions allow rural landowners to get credits (money) for maintaining permanent pastures or standing forests (see https://climatetrust.org/forest-carbon-projects-faq/ ). Why couldn’t we do this here?
We also know that anything that smells of taxes and government regulations has a lot of critics. Even Margaret Thatcher, that champion of taking on rising CO2 levels, eventually gave in to her political instincts. In 2003 she published a book called Statecraft where she claimed that science had been distorted to mask an anti-capitalist political agenda, that efforts to reduce CO2 emissions were costly and economically damaging. This feels very cynical now. It’s the almost daily impact of climate change that’s costly and economically damaging.
My generation has had all the benefits of cheap energy and inexpensive food. Yes the oil companies knew CO2 levels were quickly rising and said nothing, but farmers were simply responding to signals from the market that more efficiency, cheaper food was needed. Unpredictable weather is enough of a hardship. Let’s acknowledge that we all have work to do.