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Explainer: What is climate change?

Climate change is the rise of global temperatures and the impact of that rise on weather systems. Climate change causes a wide range of effects including sea level rise, flooding, wildfires, drought, extreme weather, species extinction, food shortages and more.

In Canada, we’re already feeling many of these impacts first-hand. We had one of the hottest summers on record this year. Many parts of Ontario, the Prairies and BC saw devastating forest fires that forced the evacuation of entire communities, made it difficult to breathe in surrounding areas and destroyed people’s homes and property. Across Canada, shifting weather patterns have led to an increase in invasive ticks and a rise in tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease. Farmers in Canada are facing some of their worst droughts in decades, resulting in increased food costs that are becoming unaffordable for many. If we don’t act now, and act drastically, these effects will only worsen.

Why is it happening? There is widespread scientific agreement that the climate change we’re currently experiencing is caused by human activities, mainly the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) for energy. When these gases are burned they release greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the air. Those greenhouse gases trap the sun’s heat in the earth’s atmosphere, causing global temperatures to rise.

In 2017, human-caused warming reached approximately 1oC above pre-industrial levels. This rise has already caused major changes to the global environment. Scientists agree that we need to limit total global warming to 1.5oC to avoid climate disaster, which could mean mass species extinction, food scarcity and more. 

What action is needed and who is responsible?

There are two major international bodies that produce knowledge on climate science and propose solutions related to climate change. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the United Nations body responsible for assessing climate science. It gives government decision-makers information about climate change and its risks and lays out the work that needs to be done to limit global temperature rise. One of its most recent reports confirms what scientists have been saying for decades: that human activity has caused “widespread and rapid changes” to the natural environment as a result of burning fossil fuels. And while there’s no denying that the circumstances are dire, the report also makes clear that it’s not too late to act.

Urgent and unprecedented change is needed to limit unsafe warming, the report says, which can be achieved by limiting carbon dioxide emissions and reaching at least net-zero carbon emissions (meaning that either no emissions are produced or that total emissions are offset by activities that remove them from the air). Many countries have made commitments to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, including Canada.

The International Energy Agency is an intergovernmental organization that provides data, analysis and policy solutions related to a sustainable energy future. It recently released its Net-Zero by 2050 report, which describes how the global energy sector can reach net-zero emissions within the next 30 years. It asserts that current government commitments to reduce climate change fall short of what’s needed to prevent climate disaster, and spells out 400 milestones for reaching net-zero. It emphasizes that a rapid shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy is necessary to limit global warming to 1.5oC. It also reminds us that the shift to net-zero needs to be “for and about people,” meaning that any decisions about the shift off of fossil fuels need to be just and transparent for those who will be impacted by them.

So, the need for action is urgent and the proposed solutions are big. So what can individuals do about it? If problems related to climate change seem like they can’t be solved by small, personal changes like eating less meat, it’s because they won’t. Although we’re frequently bombarded with messages about what we as individuals can do to reduce our own emissions, in reality climate change is mainly caused by corporations. A 2017 report found that just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, and the biggest polluters are fossil fuel producers like ExxonMobil, Shell and BP. Corporations have a major role to play in turning the tide on global climate change. But, without pressure to do so, they won’t. Responding to climate change requires systemic change— meaning that our economic and energy systems need to be totally transformed.

That’s why government leaders at all levels have a responsibility to make decisions that prompt this change. They need to pass legislation that limits the amount of emissions corporations can generate and invest in clean-energy alternatives, and provide the necessary support for people who will need to retrain or change their work industry as a result of the shift to renewable energy. Decision-makers need to set us on course to set and achieve targets that limit warming and reduce emissions while making sure that everyone has what they need to survive and thrive in a changing economy.

Some of this is already happening. Over 120 countries have committed to reaching net-zero by 2050, including Canada. The current federal government has also announced the creation of a Just Transition advisory body whose role is to provide advice and recommendations on how a transition off of fossil fuels can be fair to the people who are impacted by it, while also making sure everyone has what they need to survive and thrive in the new economy. They previously introduced a carbon pollution pricing system that sets costs for carbon pollution created by jurisdiction.

And while these changes may sound promising, it’s important to remember that Canada’s current plan to reduce emissions has been criticized for being insufficient to reach net-zero by 2050. Both the IEA and IPCC reports are clear that the path to net-zero involves a total departure from business-as-usual. Without massive public pressure for governments to commit to serious climate policy that puts people over profits, we won’t be able to limit emissions enough to protect us from unsafe temperature rise. 

That’s where we come in. As individuals, we all have a role to play in ensuring governments and corporations feel pressure from citizens, funders and the general public to strengthen their responses to climate change. We can also fight to make sure that their responses are fair and equitable, and work for those who are often left out of public consultations on climate change, sustainability and more. 

At the individual level, this can be done in many ways. You might consider volunteering with a local environmental group, making a presentation to your municipal government, or writing to your MP or MLA about your concerns and the commitments you’d like to see from all levels of government. You could explore taking on a project in your community focused on sustainability or emissions reduction, participating in a climate justice protest, donating to an organization working on a project or cause you care about or , if you have investments, working to divest those savings from fossil fuels. We can make individual changes too, like driving less or eating less meat, but ultimately it’s through coming together to press for meaningful policy change that we can achieve real action.

The Green Resilience Project wants to hear what action looks like at the local level, and what communities of all kinds want and need to be able to engage. Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing insights from our conversations with the hopes of inspiring action and developing recommendations for policymakers about how income security and climate action can work together to strengthen community resilience.

If you’re interested in learning more about climate change, check out our list of resources on topics explored by the Green Resilience Project.