Jordan: It was 416 days after Andrew Sheer promised a conservative climate plan, that he delivered one. I know that number because environment Minister Catherine McKenna counted them just about daily. It was actually a pretty good running bit for her.
News Clip: But you know what is exactly as advertised conservatives? Because they’re just like the Harper conservatives, they have no plan for the environment and no plan for the economy.
Jordan: Last Wednesday, Sheer stepped up and announced his plan.
News Clip: And just as conservatives will not leave our children a fiscal deficit, we will also not leave them an environmental deficit.
Jordan: That’s not my job to tell you if that plan is good or not, I can tell you that pundits in general were not especially kind to it. But we talked to a lot of pundits, and I can tell you that nuanced scientific policy not exactly a specialty of theirs either. But now that every federal party is on the record with their approach to the world’s biggest threat, it is worth analyzing whether the conservative plan or anybody’s plan, for that matter is enough to make a difference, and like I said, that’s not my job. I am nowhere near equipped to parse these details and neither probably are you, but I do know someone who is.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Katharine Hayhoe is probably the best person to both parse those details and explain them simply enough for me to understand. She is a Canadian climate scientist working as a professor at Texas Tech University. Katharine, I want to start this conversation by asking you to kind of illustrate how you talk to people in conservative circles about climate change, and I know there was a particular incident a couple of weeks ago that kind of made some headlines. So can you tell me about your approach and that incident in particular?
Katharine: Sure, so a thermometer isn’t blue or red or even green, it doesn’t give us a different answer depending on which political party we associate or affiliate ourselves with, or we’re planning to vote for. And when we look at the science, the science is very clear, not only climate is changing, humans are responsible, and the impacts are serious, but the science is also increasingly clear on the fact that the way that climate change is affecting most of us personally in the places where we live today in ways that we can actually see and that affect us is by exacerbating naturally occurring weather and climate extremes. So just as an example we’re seeing that heat waves, like we saw last summer, are becoming more frequent and much more severe. We’re seeing that heavy rain events which we’ve been experiencing across the country the last few years, have become a lot more frequent, and also a lot more severe. We’re seeing that wildfires are burning greater area because we have hotter and drier conditions. And, of course, we see that sea level rise is threatening our coasts and permafrost in the Arctic is melting faster and faster, every new study that they publish. So there’s a direct connection between human induced warming of the planet, and that amplification or exacerbation of the extremes that affect our health, the economy, our infrastructure and even our homes. So there was an essay that was written by an economist stating that there basically was no link between human induced climate change and extremes, and that peace was put on Twitter by Lisa Raitt and by Andrew Sheer. So I replied to Lisa, and I said, that’s really not true. No, hurricanes are not increasing in number, we know that and no scientists has said that they are. But for example, they’re getting stronger, and bigger and slower, and they have a lot more rainfall associated with them, and there’s all the other changes in extremes that we’ve seen before. So I reached out to her and I provided the resources such as the U. S. National Climate Assessment, which I co authored, as well as things like our global weirding episode on how Canada is being affected by climate change, and she responded very positively. She said, thank you for the resources essentially, I will check them out, and then we had a later exchange where I said I’d be happy to meet with you anytime and talk over the science, and she said that would be great. And her response contrasted dramatically with the response that I’ve gotten from any other male politician that I’ve ever interacted with on social media including Andrew Sheer, which is they just completely ignore you 100%.
Jordan: So given that when you did reach out, she was so welcoming towards a different point of view and towards, as she said, you know, learning something. What did you expect to see when the Conservatives released that climate plan last week?
Katharine: Well as far as I know she was not a major architect of the plan, and, like I said when I reached out to Sheer similarly, he did not respond at all. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw the plan, and let me tell you the good first, and then let me tell you the concerns. So the good thing is that, first of all, despite the iffy doubtful, a bit dismissive things that he has said on social media, and publicly about climate change and how it affects us. Despite that, the actual plan clearly states that they agree with the science, that the climate is changing, humans are responsible, and they even want to meet the Paris Agreement target. But I believe they’re referring to the two degree target, not the one and 1/2 degree target. So that’s good, it’s certainly more then….
Jordan: That’s a basis in fact, for sure.
Katharine: Yes, and that’s the way it should be because again, the science isn’t political. What we do with the science is political, and so that statement alone would not be in most Republican politicians plans in the United States, so that itself is, first of all, a positive step. The second positive thing about their plan is that they have the right headlines, so they talk specifically about all the different sectors in Canada that our emissions come from. They talk about adaptation and resilience, they talk about indigenous peoples, they have the headlines, they have the topics that we need to address, and that’s really good news, too. When you get into the details, that’s where the problem is, because there aren’t many details. There is a long plan with a lot of words in it and some very nice pictures and graphics, easy to read, but there isn’t a lot of detail. How exactly are they going to put a cap on industry? What does that cap going to look like? How is this plan going to actually reduce our emissions? There’s no estimate of that. So how do you know if you’re going to meet the Paris agreement if you don’t even know how your plan is going to reduce emissions? That’s a bit of a concern.
Jordan: When you look at plans like this as a climate scientist, what are you looking for?
Katharine: Well, the climate system doesn’t care how we cut our emissions. All we know, all we can say as scientists is the faster and the more we reduce our carbon emissions, and the quicker we reach net zero, the less severe, and the less dangerous the impacts will be on us in Canada as well as in others around the world. So from a scientific perspective, the more we reduce, and the faster we do that, the better. Now, as a human, I know that the reason we care about a changing climate is because it’s a threat multiplier. So it takes the issues that we already struggle with today, whether it’s health issues, economic issues, issues of national security, infrastructure and more, and it exacerbates them or makes them worse. So because of that, when we look to solutions to climate change, we can’t only look at reducing emissions, we also have to look at building our resilience to the risks that are already here today, and some of the risks that are already inevitable because of our past emissions, and the future emissions that we can’t avoid on our way to zero. So because of that, any policy has to be very wide reaching, it has to look across the entire economy, across the entire country. It has to look at every sector, from transportation to forestry to infrastructure to health, and it has to look at how to cut emissions at the same time as we’re making ourselves more resilient to the changes that are already happening today. So from that perspective, every party’s plan does acknowledge that, and that’s again a really positive thing. But from my perspective as a scientist, the conservative plan, not having any specific targets, not having any specific numbers, in what it would reduce makes me nervous because it looks like we won’t end up reducing very much under their plan, and the amount that they’ve put aside, and the ways that they plan to build resilience and to adapt are going to be really insufficient to the world that we would live in if we, you know, maybe sort of try to meet the two degree target. Definitely don’t try to meet the one and 1/2 degree target, but in all reality probably blow past that pretty quickly.
Jordan: Yeah, well, one of the things we wanted to talk to you about is the fact that there is no real target. And is it possible for an emissions reduction, or a carbon tax plan or anything like that to work without that one? Like, how would we even know if we are failing?
Katharine: Well, if we’re going to lose weight, the first thing we do is we step on the scales to see where we are today, and then the second thing we do is we set a target. If we don’t have a target, we don’t have anything to aim for. If you’re an athlete training, you have a goal that your training for, if you’re somebody who’s striving to be better at anything, whether it’s something that you’re studying, or learning, or working on, you set a goal for yourself, that’s just how we as human beings operate. So not having a goal makes it seem like oh well, you know, we can say that we did this, you know, we accomplished this and you know, if my goal was to lose weight and I say, Oh, I lost a pound, I accomplished my goal. Yeah, but I’m still way above where I actually should be, so that that’s why I’m concerned is that there’s, again there’s a lot of pages, there’s a lot of words, there’s the right titles, for sure. But we have to get serious about this and to be serious, you need a goal, and that goal has to actually reflect reality, not just stick sort of pie in the sky oh, sure, we can meet the Paris target. We have to look at well what do we actually have to do to meet the Paris target, and can we do it? And one of my concerns is the fact that there’s a lot of language around incentivizing business to develop new green technology. But what they totally avoid is any mention of the fact that fossil fuels are heavily and massively subsidized in Canada, in the United States and around the world. In the U. S. fossil fuel subsidies according to the International Monetary Fund, which just estimated these this year, fossil fuel subsidies in the US alone are greater than the Pentagon’s budget.
Katharine: Yes! Globally they are subsidized per second to the tune of somewhere around 170,000 U. S. Dollars per second, and so if we leave these massive market distorting subsidies on our fossil fuels, then how can you really incentivize the development of new green technologies, like trying to roll a boulder up a hill. So dealing with these either through a price on carbon or through actively removing the tax breaks, and the subsidies and charging them for the climate impacts and the damages that the extraction, processing and burning causes, unless you do that it isn’t a level playing field, and if you don’t have a level playing field, pretty much every economist in the world agrees that you’re not going to get the tech development at a pace that we need.
Jordan: Well let me ask you then, about how the other party’s compare. How have the liberals done? Would you give them a pass or a fail as somebody who watches this closely?
Katharine: Oh good question. It’s so funny because, of course, in Canada, the liberals are actually the centrist party, right? I mean, you think liberals kind of at the left end of the spectrum, but they’re not.
Jordan: Right, where as down there, yes.
Katharine: Yes, and so the liberals are trying to walk the fence between taking significant and meaningful steps to cut carbon, which a nationwide carbon tax certainly is. But at the same time, they’re trying to be very pragmatic, and recognize that we need the money to actually do some of this stuff because we don’t want to just take everybody’s tax revenues and use that ourselves, and because we need that money, and because we have to have the whole country on board, which includes Alberta and BC, that’s why we have to have the pipeline, and we’re going to actually use the revenues from the pipeline for good to accomplish our long term goals. So one day they announced the climate emergency, and then the next day they announced the approval of the pipeline, and what does that mean? It means that they are standing on the top of a very narrow fence, getting shot at from both sides.
Jordan: Well, Greta Thurnburg, the young climate activist, tweeted last week right after Trudeau’s government approved the TMX pipeline again that “one second they declare a climate emergency, and the next second they say yes to expand a pipeline”, this is shameful, but of course this is not only in Canada, we can unfortunately see the same pattern everywhere. And I wonder, is it possible, or will there come a time very soon when it won’t be possible for them to sort of stand on that very narrow fence, as you put it like will it become clear that you’re not going to be able to have it both ways.
Katharine: I think it will be because the urgency of climate action is growing as we start to experience the impacts of increasingly severe weather, and climate events in the places where we live. So this has really been a big factor in turning the conversation around in the U. S., and in Canada over the last 10 years. Because 10 years ago, unless we live in the Arctic, we really couldn’t point to something that we had lived through, or experienced where we lived, in the Maritimes, in Ontario, in Quebec, the prairies, BC. We couldn’t actually point to something that we could say well that significantly different than what you would normally expect as a result of a changing climate, but today we can. Whether we live in Alberta, BC, Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes or in the United States. Whether we live in the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific northwest, California, or the Northeast, we can point to specific events, and these are just getting worse. And as a scientist, what worries me is the fact that almost every new study that comes out shows that things are changing faster or to a greater extent than we thought. We know for a fact that we systematically underestimate the rate and the magnitude of change, and the impacts that it is having on our society, our economy, our infrastructure and more. So the urgency is absolutely growing, but you could only go as far as you have political will right now, and in Canada there’s still a lot of people who say, Oh, you know, this is just a future issue or hey, warmer is going to be better for us, or we’re just a small part of the global economy and actually it even says that in the conservative planet, says our emissions are only 1.6%. Well, actually, they’re 2% if you count all the heat trapping gases. But, you know, never mind that we’re in the top 10 of the world’s greatest emitters since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Today we’re only you know, 1.6%, and so nothing we do really makes a difference. So we still as a nation do not have the consciousness to recognize first of all, we have a huge influence not just inside our country but globally, number one. Number two that this really is a threat multiplier, as the U.S. military calls it. It is, in the case of being a niche issue, a green issue, an environmental issue, a tree hugging issue. It’s a case of if you are a human being living in Canada today, you are being and you will be affected by a changing climate and it is going to become the number one issue in the future.
Jordan: So the conservatives have a plan with no details, the liberals are walking the fence. What about the NDP and the greens? How did their plans stack up?
Katharine: So the NDP specifically mentioned the one and 1/2 degree target, not just the two degree target, which is really important because there was a recent report last October from the Intergovernmental panel on climate change, showing that there is a noticeable difference between the impacts around the world, especially on the poor and vulnerable who we in Canada, you know, often support in many ways, including welcoming people into our country when the places where they live are no longer inhabitable. The NDP’s plan mentions the one and 1/2 degree report, and the MDP’s plan also, of course, mentions the fact that our fossil fuel’s industries heavily subsidized, which is a key part of the issue, and then the Greens plan. Well, they’re green, they’ve been doing this for a long as they’ve been around. They understand the nuances, and in the ins and outs of the sciences, technology, the policy and what’s really needed to be done better than anyone else, and so I appreciate the fact that their support is surging and I would hope as a pragmatic voter that they’re understanding their depth of knowledge, their perspective could be integrated into the platforms of the bigger parties, and we’re already starting to see this today, I mean, if you compare the platforms 10 years ago to today, everybody’s platform is closer to what the green was than they were 10 years ago. But we need their perspective because people like Elizabeth May have been doing this for a really long time, and they understand how hard this is, they are not naive on what it’s going to take to achieve these goals, but they also understand how urgent and important these goals are, and how we scientists have been beating the drum on this not for five years, not for 10 years, but for decades at this point.
Jordan: In your experience, how well versed are average voters in the actual science that they’re seeing in these plans, and how can we better judge these plans for ourselves?
Katharine: That is the question, because I actually am an expert in greenhouse gas emission inventories, not just…
Jordan: I am not, for the record.
Katharine: I know and I am an expert in climate impacts, and I’m not a policy expert, but I’ve certainly done my share of policy analysis as a climate scientist, and it is hard for me to dig into this. I am reading this trying to write down some numbers, going to the Internet, loading up some data, doing some analysis myself, trying to make sense of it myself, and if I’m challenged by it, how is the average person supposed to figure this out? So that’s why I think it’s really super helpful, and hopefully some of our organizations will do this, some of our nonpartisan think tanks to take these plans, and to almost set up like a Consumer’s Digest reports table, where you kind of have these criteria and you give them like a pass, a neutral or a fail on each of them. So do they acknowledge climate change is real? Yes, they all get a pass on that. Do they acknowledge that climate change is affecting Canada and we have to reduce our emissions? Yes, they all get a pass on that. Do they have a concrete plan to reduce emissions? Well, the liberals, the NDP, the Greenwood get a pass on that, the conservatives would get a maybe because, you know, we’re lacking a few of the numbers and then will we be able to keep the Paris agreement targets for two degrees. The NDP, and the green would get a pass. The Liberals would get a maybe, the conservatives at this point would get a no, and then is there any way to meet a one and 1/2 degree target? Then only the NDP’s and the greens would get a maybe on that. So we could kind of, you know, have this table that goes down that says, depending on where you think we should be, should we meet the Paris target or not. Should it be two degrees or one and 1/2 degrees? That actually helps us to make that decision, and I think it’s also really helpful to point out that some of the things that some of the plans say are a bit misleading, and what makes me concerned about the conservative plan is that it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that the four provinces that had a price on carbon before it became a national policy actually led the country economically, for example. When you pulled people in British Columbia who’ve had a price on carbon longest, almost every single riding the majority of people say that they support a price on carbon after having one for 10 years. When you look at what conservative economists say around the world, including the one who won the Nobel Prize for economics this past year they all say that the most effective market mechanism for reducing carbon emissions is a price on carbon, and when you listen to conservative leaders with the exception of Lisa Raitt, who we discussed earlier, the vast majority of them appear to be totally unwilling to listen to climate scientists, and they spread and distribute misleading information about the impacts, and the reality and the urgency of climate change on our country because, you know, we always kind of think well they’re politicians, are they really telling the truth? So I would like to see a table that just lays it out so we can tell, you know, how accurate are their statements, how true to the science are they? How economically viable are they? And also how comprehensive are their plans in terms of do they just try to pigeonhole it, or do they actually genuinely reach across the entire economy to look at all the different sectors that our heat trapping gases emissions come from, and all of our different sectors that will be affected by a changing climate?
Jordan: Thanks so much for joining us today Katharine.
Katharine: Thank you for having me.
Jordan: Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and professor at Texas Tech. That was The Big Story. For more from us, including plenty of climate change, just type it into the search bar you can find us at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also hit us up on Twitter to tell us that climate change isn’t real and I will ignore you @thebigstoryfpn and of course, we are everywhere, everyone gets podcasts these days on Apple, and Google, and Stitcher, and Spotify and I could keep going, but I don’t need to. Thanks for listening, I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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