Open Letter on Climate Change

This effort was initiated by members of Science for Peace out of deep concern about the federal government’s obstruction of action on climate change, both domestically and internationally. The letter was signed by over 550 Canadian Faculty members, whose names are listed here . See also the letter in French and a press release by Science for Peace.

To the Honourable Prime Minister and the Ministers of the Canadian Government:

To the leaders of the Opposition Parties:

The undersigned university faculty members call on the Prime Minister and the Ministers of the Canadian Government and on the leaders of the Opposition Parties to respond to the planetary emergency of climate change. As we will argue, greenhouse gas emissions must be drastically reduced, and soon. The time frame is critical, and it is dictated by the physical environment, not by political or economic considerations. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, you can’t fool the environment any of the time.

It is unacceptable and horrifying by the standards of public health and morality that many industrialized nations are doing the opposite of what is required, by actually increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The Canadian government is particularly culpable, as it has persistently obstructed cooperative global action and even continues to invest in the growth of a carbon-based economy. The Energy Information Administration of the U.S. government predicts that Canada will continue to have the highest per capita carbon emissions in 2030 at 19 metric tons per person, whereas by contrast the continent of Africa will remain at current levels of 1.0 metric tons per person. The physical environment does not know national boundaries: our emissions bring premature death and hardship worldwide, especially to the people who did not cause the problem.

There is so much at stake. Societies are already facing threats of unprecedented severity as climate change is occurring faster than predicted. More intense and longer droughts occur over larger areas, extreme weather events are more frequent and have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, melting mountain glaciers threaten water systems vital to agriculture, sea level rise begins to inundate island nations and now causes increased salinity in the Nile Delta which is the breadbasket of Egypt, the Inuit people are losing their means of subsistence, extreme heat waves cause thousands of deaths, there is altered distribution of diseases, and higher temperatures have led to massive forest fires and to the costly pine beetle infestation in western Canadian forests. Climate change and other contributing human activities are now causing species extinction estimated to be about a thousand times the natural rate.

The danger is imminent of an irreversible alteration of climate. The tipping point that must be avoided at all costs is the melting of the polar ice-sheets and of the permafrost. Should this happen, the loss of global reflectivity and the release of additional greenhouse gases may send the temperature skyrocketing.

The last time the world was only 1 degree C warmer than pre-industrial levels for a sustained period of time, sea level was five meters higher than today. Such a rise would submerge coastal areas and would inundate low-lying fresh water systems. When the climate was last 2 degrees C to 3 degrees C warmer, sea levels were perhaps 25 m higher than today. Such a catastrophe is admittedly some decades in the future, but preventing it requires action now.

New data from paleoclimate studies, using ice and sediment cores, indicate how much atmospheric CO2 the world can live with. When it stood above 450 parts per million, the polar ice was gone. To be safe from the tipping point, the level must be kept below 350 ppm; this estimate by the eminent NASA scientist James Hansen1 is endorsed by the Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

At present the concentration is 390 ppm. That is, we have overshot the target. To save a world in which humanity can thrive, it is essential to rapidly reduce carbon fuel emissions to zero and then pass to negative emissions by reabsorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. This is believed to be feasible by using various means including reforestation and underground sequestration. The required changes in energy use and generation will need to persist far beyond our lifetimes, but that must not blind us to the need to begin these changes immediately. If we postpone these very significant reductions we may slide past the tipping point to profound and essentially permanent climate change which might doom human civilization and even humanity.

Canada can still step aside from the path of ecological collapse, but the time is short. It is known that energy from renewable sources – wind, water, and solar – can be enough for the world to have a modified but still comfortable way of life. What is uncomfortable is making the transition so suddenly. Rapidly reducing to zero carbon emissions will inevitably incur substantial short-term dislocations and human insecurity. The need is everyone’s, and all of us must share in meeting it. Jobs lost in energy and extractive industries must be replaced by jobs in conversion to a sustainable economy, and unemployment during the changeover be cushioned by government support. With good leadership, Canada has shown it can make such rapid changes – for example, at the outbreak of World War II. We call on you to provide such leadership now, while there is still time.

The big immediate task is to put in place a precise timetable taking Canada to zero fossil fuel emissions in the near future. This means setting a precise time-profile of maximum emissions, falling quickly to zero (Hansen et al propose, for example, a linear decrease with time, leading to zero by 2030). The chosen schedule of emission reduction needs to be absolute and not subject to trade-offs of any kind.

Various detailed studies have shown how to proceed on the path toward an eventual completely renewable energy society. The huge emissions associated with the military industry cannot be tolerated; transportation and housing arrangements will have to be reconfigured; agricultural practices will have to become less carbon-intensive. The tar sands project is inconsistent with the requirement of zero emissions: tar sands extraction is ruinous to the atmosphere, to the Athabasca water system, and to a large tract of boreal forest. Even in the short term it has not benefited Canadians or Albertans because of the very low royalty rates and large federal subsidies.

Fortunately there are many people in Canada, including academics, who have long studied these problems and who are eager to help the government find the best solutions to each problem. We call on the Canadian government to acknowledge the gravity of the current climate crisis, to safeguard the future of our children and grandchildren who are at great risk here in Canada and worldwide, by taking the appropriate actions without further delay.

1 See especially James R. Hansen et al, 2008. Open Atmospheric Science Journal, vol 2, 217-231 ^