Climate Change Could Be Fatal: An Open Letter To Canada’s Business Community

The third essay in a series by Bill Henderson

This third essay on my new metaphor for effectively treating climate change is about climate change being potentially fatal for all we know and love, potentially fatal for civilization as we know it, maybe even for humanity itself. Do we need to consider a major disruption in our society and economy for effective treatment of what could be a fatal disease?

Cancer, without treatment, is almost always a terminal disease. A diagnosis of cancer is not something easily accepted; not something that rests easily on your mind. This could be fatal. In fact, depending upon the cancer and how early/late it has been diagnosed, it might prove fatal no matter how vigorously treatment is begun. Senator McCain’s brain cancer, for example, is predicted to kill more than 90% of those unfortunate enough to get it despite treatment. Fortunately, today the majority of cancers can be treated successfully.

During my cancer treatment this summer, David Wallace-Wells published a very scary essay called ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ at New York magazine. In reaction there was a storm of controversy about how accurately he had interpreted the climate change science followed by many essays about communicating the doom and gloom aspect of the building climate problem. I’m going to try and pass on the best of that debate within what I think are the key factors for analyzing the risk of potential climate fatality for civilization, humanity and other forms of life, and why I think getting to effective treatment quickly must be top of mind for everybody on the planet – especially the business community.
First of all, Wallace-Wells wrote about the suite of climate change dangers that pose existential, fatal risks to civilization, if not humanity itself. He wrote with emotion and urgency in keeping with the cancer-like threat. Most climate change commentary focuses upon temporal and spatial frames where climate change is merely inconvenient: extreme weather today, sea-level rise in the short term, effects on crops or ocean acidification or desertification, and where adaption is possible in our presently configured world. Only so-called ‘doom and gloom’ commentators venture into writing about possible dangers such as methane feedbacks or abrupt climate change that are possible but low probability, at least until temperatures rise more substantially.

These possible fatal dangers have for several decades been labeled as dangerous climate change and have been the subject of international treaties going back to the Rio Summit in 1992. Just as it is possible for newly diagnosed cancer victims to study up on how possibly fatal their particular cancer is, those concerned – because you could now consider climate change as a possible fatal problem for everybody – can and should study up on the climate science and commentary concerned with dangerous climate change. But unlike cancer, there is a lot of uncertainty, because human caused climate change has never happened before; scientists use proxies from paleo-history and models predicting how warming will play out, but climate change is an experiment that has never been run before, and the risk of fatality will never be as knowable as cancer.

What is known is that there is substantial reason for concern and Wallace-Wells wrote up scary scenarios that deserve attention. Unfortunately, he made both factual and analytic mistakes, and climate scientists such as Michael Mann and others wrote pointing this out, and questioning whether his pessimistic focus was useful or detrimental in enlightening interested readers on a subject that the public isn’t well informed about.

Wallace-Wells wrote about heat death and an uninhabitable Earth. James Lovelock made a prediction more than a decade ago that warming would leave only a few hundreds of millions of humans clustered around the still liveable poles. But most climate scientists see this as at best only a very long term risk and only if climate mitigation continues to be ineffectual. Wallace-Wells wrote up a worst case vision of methane from melting permafrost and clathrates where the state of the art climate science predicts only gradual and minor carbon feedbacks from such sources, unless or until temperatures rise more than the 2-4C rise expected this century. He postulates agricultural, economic and global security concerns that are valid as climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’. As climate scientist Kevin Anderson has expressed: a 4C rise in temperature, which is possible in the second half of the century with projected greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is incompatible with civilization as we know it.

‘Sam Carana’s’ 10C rise in temperature by 2026 is another example of exaggerating the science and foreshortening timeframes – while maybe possible theoretically, in reality there is an extremely low probability of such a rise in temperature happening so fast. Wallace-Wells mistakenly over-exaggerated at least the degree of danger to humanity in the short term. To his credit he acknowledging that. But his essay drew massive attention to the possibility that climate change could be fatal to civilization and humanity, maybe even to most of the life on the planet. Many experts wrote to defend if not his text scientifically, at least his vision of how serious a threat climate could get to be.

Going back at least to Rio in 1992, and central to the agreement at COP 21 in Paris in 2015, our governments have agreed to limit green house gas emissions and landuse change so that temperature rise would be kept below a reasonable ‘guardrail’ to limit the possibilities of dangerous climate change. The guardrail was to stay under a 2C rise in temperature, under a 1.5C rise if possible. But what if this guardrail is too high?

Personally, after decades of reading and learning as a climate activist, I find James Hanson and colleagues have had the best insight into climate change as a possibly fatal problem requiring urgent treatment. After the unprecedented ‘Big Melt’ of the Arctic icecap in 2006, Hansen and co. published papers including Atmospheric Targets: Where Should Humanity Aim? that used paleo-climate studies and modelling to suggest that a melting Arctic icecap and, hence, even a 1C rise, would eventually push us out of the Holocene Era that has been the cradle for civilization since the end of the last ice-age 10,000 years ago. With potentially fatal consequences.
Our climate is a system, and follows common system dynamics. Climate change is non-linear and there are feedbacks and tipping points and points of no return. Small changes in Earth’s orbit and inclination – Milankovitch cycles – instigate latent CO2 feedbacks that have been instrumental in whipsawing the very dramatic changes we see in the paleo record of the past 100,000 years of ice age / warming cycles. Human caused GHG emissions threaten similar feedbacks and urgent action to return to below 350 ppm is needed to protect the planet’s ice sheets and present carbon sinks before it is too late.
Hansen’s warning is very much like a cancer diagnosis where the cancer is treatable until it begins to migrate through the body and metastasises upon a vital organ. The past decade of extraordinary temperature increase in the Arctic is to many climate scientists ever increasing evidence that the Arctic is the ‘vital organ’ in danger and that because we haven’t done the emission reduction heavy lifting that should have been done to limit and warming, climate change should now be regarded as an emergency.

To me, Hansen”s science and warning gets more alarming every year of melting icecaps and ineffective mitigation. Rising temperatures – even a 2C rise – could lead to Wallace-Wells scary fatal scenario. It would be on par with a person like myself with a cancer diagnosis, aware that time is vital and that the danger is growing, but blocked from effective treatment.

So, we must get back below a 1C rise in global temperature before the polar icecaps melt irreversibly. Canada and the world have agreed only to stay as far under 2C as possible. But pledges to date will leave us far above 2C. Canada, for example, has a 30% of 2005 levels by 2030 target (which most experts expects us to fail to meet). Furthermore, the carbon budget left to burn before we cross a 2C increase is shrinking rapidly due to advancing climate science (for example, Rogelj et al,Tan et al, MacDougall et al, Friedrich et al, Proistosescu et al, and Schurer et al) and continuing emissions of just under 10GT per annum. Therefore emissions must decline by something like 100% by 2030 to even stay under the 2C guardrail.

The present mitigation strategy relies upon decarbonization aided by carbon pricing to do the heavy lifting. Decarbonization requires a long timeframe such as the now obsolete 2050 of the Kyoto Accord era. Fossil fuel use still accounts for over 80% of global energy use to at least 2040 in informed projections (US Energy Information Administration, for example). The decarbonization strategy is clearly not the necessary treatment for what looks more and more like a possibly fatal problem. Market driven decarbonization which allows continued unregulated fossil fuel use is clearly pretend mitigation. If we treated cancer this way I and millions of others would just die. We have decarbonization and not effective mitigation because only market friendly mitigation is allowed.

A scheduled wind-down of all fossil fuel production and use, responsibly and fairly regulated in accordance with carbon budget science is a last chance to keep us safe from the suite of dangers we know imminently threaten. A scheduled wind-down could be not only effective – the best path to reducing GHG emissions at a scale now needed – but also the best mitigation path using and protecting our market-based governance.

I am addressing this open letter to Canada’s business community (and business globally, especially within the US) as the particular group in our society that has done the most to obstruct effective climate mitigation. Business organizations and leaders have repeatedly led in financing and spreading climate denial and have repeatedly used their powerful influence with governments to block any and every climate initiative that they thought might get in the way of business. Whether it was ideology or fear of potentially negative financial consequences, no one group has done more to keep us from effective treatment than business. (Of course, there has always been businesspeople providing climate leadership, but only a minority and within business constraints.)

One of my favourite books is WHY STATES FAIL (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012) which explains why ‘Goldilocks’ sized government – big enough to protect property rights and the rule of law, but not powerful enough for elites to seize the gains from innovation/investment virtuous circles – enabled the industrial revolution and the exponential growth that led to our incredibly wealthy and complex modern society. Except that Acemoglu and Robinson don’t mention how business elites have captured governance globally in our present era, and are stymieing mitigation of escalating problems such as climate change. Governments everywhere nurture business and put on the Golden Straitjacket to protect investment and innovation for good reason, but effective treatment now requires draconian regulation of fossil fuels.

Business leadership needs to recognize climate change as a rapidly building threat to all of society, to all we love and care about, and recognize the need for effective mitigation. Business has to get itself out of government’s way for everybody’s sake. Otherwise climate change could be fatal.