U of T scientists sign open letter declaring climate emergency

Letter outlines where action can be taken, while four researchers share perspectives with The Varsity

U of T scientists sign open letter declaring climate emergency

Over 11,000 scientists from 153 countries signed a letter entitled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency,” which was published in the BioScience journal in November. Twenty-one of the signatories are faculty or graduate students at the University of Toronto.

The authors believe that public discourse on the climate crisis has been narrowly focused on global average surface temperature. They argue that this scope fails to fully capture how humans affect the planet, and communicate the dangers of the climate crisis.

Communicating the impact of the climate crisis

The authors note that a better solution for analysts would be to explore a wide range of indicators of the impact of human activity on the climate crisis.

They substantiated the letter with a series of graphs which illustrate the change of various indicators over the past 40 years, working with high-quality data collected by climate scientists.

Troubling trends that the graphs reveal include long-term increases in human and livestock populations, meat consumption, global loss of tree coverage, fossil fuel consumption, heightened airfare, and carbon dioxide emissions.

However, the authors note promising changes as well, such as decreases in global birth rates, the long-term slowdown of the rate of forest loss in the Amazon, rising infrastructure for solar and wind power, institutional fossil fuel divestment, and the prevalence of carbon pricing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet the authors warn that these changes may not last — for example, fertility rates have been stabilizing, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon has risen once more, and while consumption of solar and wind energy has increased 373 per cent per decade, it was still 28 times smaller than fossil fuel consumption in 2018.

Despite 40 years of climate negotiations, the authors believe that business has continued as usual, and that the world at large is still failing to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis. They warn that we have failed to meaningfully change the ways we live, and that we are dangerously close to losing the ability to secure a sustainable future.

Six key areas where action can be taken

The authors outlined six key areas where action must be taken: energy, short-lived pollutants, nature, food, the economy, and population. They emphasized that fossil fuels must be replaced with low-carbon renewables and other clean energy sources, and that the emissions of short-lived pollutants such as methane and soot must be reduced.

They also stressed the importance of restoring Earth’s ecosystems. “Marine and terrestrial plants, animals, and microorganisms play significant roles in carbon and nutrient cycling and storage,” the authors noted.

Restoring ecosystems alone could bring the world to a third of the Paris Agreement’s emissions reduction target by 2030.

The authors also advise the elimination of animal consumption, especially ruminant animals like cattle and sheep; the curtailing of excessive extraction of Earth’s resources; and equitable solutions to population growth, such as family planning and widened access to girls’ education.

This is only a selection of the many recommendations in the “World Scientists’ Warning” — their breadth reflects the magnitude of the climate crisis. Fittingly, scientists from a wide variety of fields are represented among the signatories.

To learn more about the scientists’ perspectives, The Varsity reached out to four of U of T’s 21 signatories from a diverse range of academic disciplines.

How the climate crisis impacts public health

Dr. David Jenkins is a professor at U of T’s Faculty of Medicine who is well-known for developing the glycemic index — a system which explains how carbohydrates affect blood sugar levels.

Jenkins believes that it is important to connect the climate crisis to all the factors that it impacts, with health being one of them.

He also discussed the spread of diseases that are usually found in warmer climates to parts of the world that used to be colder due to the climate crisis.

Jenkins therefore believes that changing the impact of humans on the climate is of the utmost urgency. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — two years ago — only gave us 12 years to turn the crisis around,” he said. “The world, in general, needs a wake-up call.”

This warning builds on all the other climate warnings that the world has received, Jenkins noted. The first was issued in 1798 by Reverend Thomas Malthus.

As a nutritionist, Jenkins believes that one way in which humans can reduce their impact on the climate crisis is by adopting plant-based diets — something which can also be incredibly healthy if planned well. For example, tofu and seitan are relatively inexpensive and healthy food sources.

However, he stressed that with plant-based diets, careful planning is important in order to meet nutritional requirements.

The urgency of addressing the crisis

The Varsity also reached out to Dr. Miriam Diamond, a professor at the Department of Earth Sciences who is cross-appointed to the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, the School of the Environment, and the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry.

Diamond highlighted that the climate crisis “is not just an issue… It is a crisis and needs to be treated as such.”

Natural phenomena such as the fires in Australia, the severe flooding in the Ottawa Valley, and the dramatic fires in western Canada and Ontario over the past two years all have a climate component, according to Diamond.

Diamond also brought up the recent federal election, noting that the climate crisis was not as high of a priority as affordability. “Our society is delicately positioned to function in [the] stable climate that we’ve known for the past several hundred years,” she said.

“[We do] not have the resources to cope with… the current and growing number of disasters,” she continued. “What’s coming further down are questions of food availability.”

“If we think we are worried about [it] right now… it’s about to get a whole lot worse.”

On activism and the paper’s research

Dr. Steve Easterbrook, Director of the School of the Environment, and a professor at the Department of Computer Science, hopes the letter will give the media and the public an overview of the current knowledge that we have about climate change.

“One of the things that paper does very nicely is it shows how everything is interconnected,” he noted.

In his view, the letter is also in defence of student climate activists, who are often dismissed in the media for their youth. “Articles like this, I think, emphasize that the students conducting this process, understand the science. They’ve got it right.”

He also underscored the value of dialogue about how to effectively fight the climate crisis. His belief is that scientists in disciplines not typically viewed as relevant to climate — including his own area of computer science — should consider how they could apply their skills to this issue.

“If you take this notion that we’re in a climate emergency,” he said, “I think of it as an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ type of emergency.”

Easterbrook rejected the notion that individuals reducing their personal carbon footprints is the most effective way to curb changes in climate. Instead, he urged people to consider: “What can you do that other people can’t do?”

A perspective from the Department of Political Science

Dr. Richard Sandbrook, a professor emeritus of the Department of Political Science, presented a different perspective. “The problem is not that we don’t know what to do; it is rather that we don’t do it,” he wrote.

One of the letter’s recommendations is for wealthy nations to aid poorer ones in the transition to renewables, which Sandbrook strongly supports.

He also wrote that the global south, whose nations are mostly not major contributors to warming, must be supported, or else “these areas will become unlivable, [and] internal wars and state breakdown will occur, along with major population movements.”

Unfortunately, Sandbrook believes that the political consequences of the climate crisis are not widely grasped. That is especially true of Canada, as it is far from Africa and the Middle East — regions which will feel the impacts of the climate crisis most strongly, according to Sandbrook, and where most climate migrations will originate.

Notably, while the graphs accompanying the letter include indicators of human activities that cause changes in climate, indicators of how these will affect humans — such as migration — are missing.

To Sandbrook, organization is critical. “The radical actions needed to arrest global heating at below 2°C will only happen in time as a result of mass pressure from below,” he noted.

Strange Weather: The Science and Art of Climate Change

Without artists and humanists, science is frequently lost in translation, while artistic work that disregards science risks irrelevancy. This one day symposium will bring together climate scientists, humanists and artists to bridge this disciplinary gap. The School of the Environment, in partnership with co-sponsors the Jackman Humanities Institute (JHI) and the Centre for the Study of the United States (CSUS), will welcome guest scholars and artists who are committed to – and practiced in – the current paradigm shift to less siloed climate change thinking.

A new dynamic strategy to protect biodiversity: transient protected areas

In conversation with Dr. Marie-Josée Fortin on a new approach in response to the climate crisis

A new dynamic strategy to protect biodiversity: transient protected areas

An innovative, comprehensive approach to biodiversity conservation has been proposed by a research paper affiliated with the University of Toronto in the form of ‘Dynamic Protected Areas,’ which would be transient protected areas that change according to the biological concerns of the meta-population.

In an interview with The Varsity, Dr. Marie-Josée Fortin, a co-author of the paper and a professor at the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, broke down the advantages and disadvantages of both the extant strategy and the new strategy proposed in the paper.

The integration of the new conservation strategy would require significant updates of pre-established notions about biodiversity, conservation, and legislation. The co-authors ultimately concluded that the new strategy would be worthwhile, as current strategies will not be enough to keep up with the climate crisis.

What is biodiversity?

It is widely accepted that strategies to address the climate crisis must be multi-faceted in order to adequately treat a variety of connected issues, from flawed socioeconomic systems to biological limitations.

The term ‘biodiversity’ refers to the variety of all life on Earth. Biodiversity can be quantified or analyzed in a number of ways, which makes it a blanket term that encompasses many measures of diversity. Such measures include genetic variety in a single species, and species richness in specific regions.

Currently, the ‘Permanent Protected Area’ status is one of the main methods of preserving biodiversity in Canada. Permanent protected areas are fixed spaces that are set aside to minimize human intervention. Algonquin Provincial Park is an example of a permanent protected area, right here in Ontario.

The limitations of permanent protected areas

Fortin and her colleagues’ suggestions came from the limitations of ‘Permanent Protected Areas.’

Whether a provincial or national park, Fortin noted that permanent protected areas can take a long time to come into effect because the legislative process can be slow.

Furthermore, as more natural environments are converted for human use, it will be increasingly difficult to find land for permanent protected areas.

The static nature of permanent protected areas also poses a significant ecological dilemma. Fortin explained that biological organisms are categorized at many different levels, but the paper specifically addresses meta-populations, meta-communities, and meta-ecosystems.

The ‘meta’ prefix suggests a broader organization of each grouping. For example, a ‘meta-population’ refers to many populations at once and considers how they interact with one another, between different locations instead of one fixed location.

With these terms in mind, it’s no wonder that permanent protected areas alone may be inadequate in preserving biodiversity. The species within these areas are not completely isolated from their surrounding environments — they may engage in significant interactions with outside, unprotected environments, and vice versa.

Dynamic protected areas as an alternative

To better illustrate the concept of dynamic protected areas, Fortin referred to already-existing ‘no-take zones,’ which are marine areas that ban the exploitation of resources within that specific area, typically only until that resource is able to replenish itself. In other words, the region is only protected for as long as the environment demands.

The alternative idea of ‘Dynamic Protected Areas’ that Fortin highlighted would focus on terrestrial species that undergo annual migration. For example, if a particular species migrates south for the winter, the government could establish dynamic protected areas that travel with that species and that only last as long as the migration does.

With dynamic protected areas, there are still economic and legislative considerations. Nevertheless, Fortin and her colleagues support the strategy’s implementation, because it acknowledges that the environment has been and always will be undergoing change.

Confronting the rise of eco-anxiety

“Who am I in the context of climate crisis?”

Confronting the rise of eco-anxiety

In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first introduced the world to the possibility of global warming. His research focused on the widespread effects of coal burning. However, his research was oversimplistic. People couldn’t imagine a future of mass extinction and forest fires, so his findings did not lead to widespread fear.

In 1956, a news report on long-term environmental changes from greenhouse gas emissions appeared in The New York Times. However, the article noted that as there was little risk of running out of fossil fuels, industries would likely continue consuming them. As long as it paid to consume coal and oil, and those resources were cheap and plentiful, then such practices would soldier on to generate profits. And so they did.

Now, half a century later, elementary school children are seeking psychiatric care to cope with debilitating panic and anxiety over the environmental crisis. A study conducted by Caroline Hickman at the University of Bath showed that 45 per cent of children suffer from depression after a nature disaster.

‘Eco-anxiety’ is a recently-coined term that encapsulates the rising emotional and psychological responses to the climate crisis. From 2008–2009, the American Psychological Association put together a task force that investigated the relationship between the climate crisis and human psychology. The results for this study revealed that people remained more or less blasé about the climate crisis.

In 2018, however, a Yale University and George Mason University study group reported that 29 per cent of Americans were “alarmed” about the climate, up 11 per cent from 2009. The denial that was prevalent just a decade ago is dissolving, and in some cases is being replaced by paralyzing fear.

The necessity for an intersectional approach

While eco-anxiety has only garnered attention in recent years, people are no strangers to our psychological states being under environmental influence. Dr. Romila Verma of U of T’s Department of Geography and Planning gave three possible reasons why the global population has seen a sharp increase in climate change-specific mental health issues.

As the climate crisis persists, environmental destruction becomes more visible and more serious, as Verma wrote to The Varsity. We’re told that if we haven’t suffered an extreme climate event yet, we will, and in the meantime, we’re being “bombarded” day-in and day-out with news of devastation occurring elsewhere.

Verma also mentioned social media being a contributing factor to anxiety in general, be it climate-specific or otherwise. “Before the advent of social media,” she wrote, “[a crisis] was not as visible unless you were directly hit by these issues.”

According to a press release from the United Nations in March, there are only “11 Years Left to Prevent Irreversible Damage from Climate Change.” Verma believes that this has increased anxiety among young people especially. This timeline tabled an ultimatum that children are forced to confront. Much of the action and campaigning since then was born of this responsibility, a burden that children know they inherited as the byproduct of centuries of reckless economic dreams.

While mainstream media tells us that eco-anxiety is a new, emerging dimension of the climate crisis, we would be ignorant to assume that this concern really is brand new for all populations. We would be just as mistaken to consider eco-anxiety an equal-impact phenomenon. Like many other crises, the climate crisis and eco-anxiety run along intersectional race, class, and gender lines.

For Indigenous communities, a loss of land and disrespect for the sacredness of the non-human is not a recent occurrence, but rather part of a centuries-long history. Furthermore, for individuals with disabilities, well-intentioned but under-researched practices, such as the plastic straw ban, come at the expense of accessibility. Exposure to natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes has also been shown to increase the risk of gender-based violence, as it exacerbates the already vulnerable position of women.

There have been strides made in understanding the impacts of climate crisis. In recent decades, there has been recognition that gender is an important factor in the realm of developmental policy. In the 1970s, the concept of environmental refugees emerged, with particular regard to the desertification occurring in parts of Africa. These intersectional factors must influence the theory and methods of addressing the climate crisis.

“There are many instances of environmental injustices which are in direct violation of [the] human rights of indigenous, disabled, minorities, immigrants, refugees, homeless people,” wrote Verma, and not all have the 11 years to wait. “The vulnerable populations around the world are already being denied basic needs like food, water, and shelter.”

The harrowing reality is that regardless of a universal trend of growing urgency, we as a society still invest in climate protection for privileged populations at the expense of the already disadvantaged. Furthermore, we still believe that the limitation of harmful corporate activities for the safety of the marginalized is transgressive.

Eco-anxiety’s long history

Before the industrial revolution, before contemporary capitalism, and before modern urban development was the long history of Indigenous peoples battling colonialist environmental destruction. These struggles date back to early European settlement that operated on the ideology of ‘terra nullius’ — the concept of no man’s land, in which land that is deemed unoccupied can be occupied by a sovereign state. This was used by European settlers to justify expanding into Indigenous territory and incite genocide against Indigenous peoples.

Everything that has come of these territories since has been built on the notion that the Earth was made solely for human extraction. For the Indigenous peoples who fought to protect their land back then, eco-anxiety is far from a post-2000s phenomenon.

In a Toronto Star project, Anishinaabe journalist, Varsity alum, and Indigenous Issues Columnist Tanya Talaga highlighted the seven Cree communities that form the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council lining the James Bay coast. She writes that, eco-anxiety for them has been “a reality for decades.”

In Concordia University Magazine, William Gagnon posits that among Indigenous peoples, there is a growing understanding of a socially created feeling of homesickness without even leaving home, which he dubs “solastalgia.” In watching one’s own home environment break down, a longing forms for a home and safety that existed in a different time.

Beyond the experiences being multiplied temporally, there’s also a verticality to Indigenous stress. Talaga further elaborates, commenting that “when you don’t have access to health care such as clinics with doctor or nurses, or communities with high school or safe housing, clean water or working sewage, watching the land change before your eyes due to [the climate crisis] adds another layer of despair.”

Talaga also noted that few research studies have been conducted on Indigenous sites. However, Indigenous peoples have a wealth of knowledge in oral histories passed down for many generations full of climate understanding.

In the past several years there has been a growing interest in the application of Indigenous knowledge to land-use and land-management practices, reviving traditional ecological knowledge and recognizing — for perhaps the first time in a long time — the value that had been displaced.

Just as the Anthropocene — the current geological age of human influence on the Earth — is not new, nor does it only date as far back as the invention of Western machinery and technology. Mindful practices are not new either; in fact, they’ve existed for far longer than we think.

Racism and climate refugees

In North American suburbia, placing polluters near Black neighborhoods is not an unknown practice. This doesn’t occur out of explicit malicious and racist intent, but rather because it is the least expensive option.

On a more worldwide scale, racial tensions can be found in issues such as food insecurity, economic decline, and, more recently, forced migration. In the wake of a drastically changing climate, the term ‘climate refugee’ has been used to describe people who have been displaced or are at risk of temporary or permanent displacement due to environmental change.

This conflict does not end with the environmental movement itself. Competition, ethnic tension, and distrust between migratory and host societies are highly common. This low level of social cohesion has been linked to greater vulnerability, and further disconnects disadvantaged communities from institutions. As the movement of large bodies of people increases in frequency — although the required aid upon arrival becomes greater as well — disputes follow ethnic divisions fiercely.

In the sphere of international law, the question of responsibility is tabled: who will protect these climate refugees? Political ecologists point out that the challenges of the climate crisis deepen questions of distribution and access to resources from water, land, and infrastructure, to more complex ‘items’ such as capital, education, and aid.

Climate refugee narratives often mobilize racist fears that the arrivals of impoverished populations are threats to national security, and thus could prompt pre-emptive reactionary policies, preventing movement before it has even begun. These sweeping assumptions of bodies in motion could further international divides, adding to the existing eco-anxiety of disempowered populations, and are a great failure to address the very fundamental question of social inequity.

The ones bearing the brunt of it: children

In an interview with Reuters, Hickman remarked that the current state of our climate leaves today’s youth with feelings of betrayal and abandonment. She further emphasized that “fear from children needs to be taken seriously by adults.”

Leaving these issues unaddressed could further compound their fears.

Children are a particularly vulnerable age group, not only because the climate crisis weighs disproportionately heavy on their futures, but also because post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following catastrophes, depression, aggression, and social withdrawal are more common for them, and their symptoms tend to be more long-term when compared to adults.

Verma pointed out that many young people have not hesitated to be at the forefront of movements like Fridays for Future, which was pioneered by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and picked up later by equally-impassioned students such as Wiikwemkoong First Nation water protector Autumn Peltier and U of T’s own Allie Rougeot.

“There is no right or wrong age to be a changemaker,” Verma wrote. “Since young people are the future adults, and they will face more severe consequences of climate change, they should become part of the solution.”

Verma explained that in her personal experiences advocating for climate justice, she sees today’s youth as key voices in forcing those in power to implement and innovate accordingly. She also said that there are the mental health challenges that come with such a large undertaking. She believes that in order to adequately care for child activists it is important to examine our broken mental health systems.

“There are incidents of these activists being bullied, harassed and made fun of,” wrote Verma. “In the face of adversity, it takes a lot of courage and resiliency to withstand this onslaught.”

“My concern is that some of these climate activists might face emotional turmoil.”

Where do we go from here?

Eco-anxiety means different things for everyone. It may be necessary to take a step back from the events of the climate crisis and ask ourselves, “who am I in the context of climate crisis?”

“Climate change impacts are felt in every section of society however, the main burden of its consequences falls on marginalized and vulnerable populations,” wrote Verma.

As students and faculty of this institution, we each come from one form of privilege or another. Our identities are not without the protections offered by our race, gender, class, or other identity groups. For most of us, it is important to understand our anxieties and our positions in relation to those who have been disadvantaged for much longer than media and history has allowed us to realize.

For students like ourselves, our futures hang over a precipice. What is our role in this fight? What are the decisions that we’re obligated to make? In the face of mass extinctions, food strikes, and forced migration, family-building has become an unethical dream. The uncertainties linger like smog in the air.

We have to look at both ourselves and each other and ask: what do we owe to our own futures in order to create a livable world for all?

Quantifying the climate crisis: how changes could impact road maintenance

U of T instructor Dr. Piryonesi on studying the climate using probabilistic models over deterministic models

Quantifying the climate crisis:  how changes could impact road maintenance

Road management, the climate crisis, and machine learning are three things which may not seem connected, but they do to Dr. Madeh Piryonesi, a University of Toronto civil engineer who defended his PhD this year.

This June, one of his papers, co-authored by Professor Tamer El-Diraby at U of T’s Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering, titled “A Machine-Learning Solution for Quantifying the Impact of Climate Change on Roads,” won the Moselhi Best Paper Award at the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering’s annual conference. Piryonesi created a model to predict how roads would deteriorate due to change in climate, and implemented it as an online tool that will be accessible to policymakers.

Piryonesi’s research has been funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Ontario Good Roads Association.

How roads may be impacted by the climate crisis

In Piryonesi’s model, users are treated to a visual interface where they can input a road’s name and see that road pop up on Google Maps. They can then enter the parameters for a future climate — such as an increase in temperature and precipitation — and see the projected future deterioration of the road.

The model can make predictions for roads in many locations, thanks to the wealth of data Piryonesi had access to. His machine-learning algorithms were trained on data provided by the Long-Term Pavement Performance program, which is managed by the US Federal Highway Administration. The program stores data — including traffic and weather information — on more than 2,500 road sections across Canada and the US, and dates back over 30 years.

“Using this very well-spread data kind of makes sense for climate change analysis,” said Piryonesi to The Varsity.

The model’s predictions depended strongly on location. He tested the tool on roads in both Texas and Ontario. While it projected that, in a certain climate-change scenario, roads in Texas would be badly hit, it actually predicted that some roads in Ontario would fare better with a change in climate than without.

Piryonesi stressed that this doesn’t mean the climate crisis is good for Ontario roads, only that, under the model’s specific assumptions, Ontarian roads should not be badly damaged.

Nevertheless, the model highlights how the climate crisis varies by region.

The theory behind Piryonesi’s work

Many models already exist for predicting road quality in order to aid municipal governments in maintaining their infrastructure. However, Piryonesi diverged from most previous work in two ways.

While existing models use a variety of techniques, the use of machine learning in road modelling is relatively new. Tailoring these models to incorporate changes in climate is also novel.

Piryonesi explained that the reason this interesting combination is useful is that change in climate is inherently a stochastic process — that is, it involves randomness.

According to Piryonesi’s paper, this puts deterministic models, which spit out a single value, at a disadvantage compared to models that can consider a range of possibilities and predict their likelihoods. Machine learning falls into the latter category.

At its core, Piryonesi’s work is based on a decision tree algorithm. In everyday life, decision trees — a kind of flowchart — let us visualize how outcomes or costs depend on sequences of events that take place.

In machine learning, decision tree algorithms are fed existing data, learn from it, and reverse-engineer a decision tree that predicts unknown data. To amplify the low accuracy of a single decision tree, Piryonesi’s model also uses ‘bagging,’ a process in which hundreds or thousands of ‘learners’ construct separate trees, and then hold a ‘vote’ on the best one.

This approach can produce predictions that are not single numbers. “If our model has five outcomes, being the road staying in good condition, medium, and so on,” said Piryonesi, “the tool can give you, for example, a probability of 98 per cent good and the two per cent being in the other conditions.” Deterministic models can’t make these probabilistic predictions.

However, Piryonesi is aware that some users do not see this as advantageous. “Most customers or most municipalities that we are working with are using deterministic tools,” he commented. “The problem is, they don’t get the notion of probability and probabilistic things; they want one number.”

In Piryonesi’s opinion, industries and academia alike should better communicate the fact that everything in the real world is probabilistic.

“Having a probability doesn’t mean that it’s bad; [only] that we are not sure,” he said.

The impact of the tool’s findings

The findings were interesting to Piryonesi for two reasons. For one, understanding how badly roads are affected by changes in climate compared to other types of infrastructure can inform governments on what infrastructure demands the most attention and funding.

Climate justice also interests him. He sees value in determining quantitatively which regions would be hit worst by the climate crisis. “I think this could be a good basis for carbon pricing, for tax.”

Although change in climate was not originally his area of expertise, he was drawn to it because he saw the need for more evidence-based research.

“Politicians, men of religion, everyone, people on the street, they talk about [the climate crisis]. And oftentimes they have anecdotes [but] they’re not super accurate,” he said. “So I thought maybe I would want to touch a little on this [topic].”

Editor’s Note (November 10, 8:35 pm): The article has been updated to note the contributions of Professor Tamer El-Diraby and organizations that provided Piryonesi with funding.

We need to continue to talk about the climate crisis

A month after Greta Thunberg’s UN speech, we are still marching

We need to continue to talk about the climate crisis

On September 27, thousands gathered in Queen’s Park to take part in the Global Climate Strike to demand action on the climate crisis. The Fridays For Future movement, which originated from 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg’s protest outside Sweden’s parliament, has now spread worldwide. Since the march in Toronto, Thunberg is still touring, having supported marches in Denver, Edmonton, and Vancouver in the past weeks.

Many of the protestors on the marches were teenagers who brought their youthful energy with them. The swathes of people marching were impressive, and many older people seemed encouraged by the youth turnout.

Yet when I attended the climate march in Toronto, I could not shake a feeling of disenchantment. In between the chants and speeches, the question of, “so what now?” lingered in my mind.

A protest is meant to invigorate and inspire, but it is not the be all, end all of a political movement. It can be a start, but much more tangible action is needed for these marches to have any significant meaning beyond performative action.

On September 23, Greta Thunberg made an impassioned speech at the United Nations, which has now gone viral. With tears in her eyes, she criticized world leaders, condemning their excuses, inaction, and “fairytales of economic growth.” Those very leaders whose actions she was condemning applauded and cheered throughout her speech with stunning obliviousness.

Thunberg met with Justin Trudeau four days later at the Montréal climate strike, and told him that he and other world leaders were not doing enough for the environment. Later that afternoon, Trudeau marched alongside the crowd of activists in Montréal, though the activists and marchers were protesting his government’s inaction on the crisis.

What was our prime minister protesting? His conscience?

After being re-elected, Trudeau reiterated his support for the Trans Mountain Pipeline, claiming that it falls in line with the Liberal party’s climate plan, and that the significant economic benefits will offset the environmental impacts and risks. Further, during his campaign he announced his party’s plan to plant two billion trees in Canada.

Unfortunately for Trudeau, building pipelines and planting trees will not save the climate. Drastic structural action is needed, one which has no place for pipelines. Apparently, Thunberg’s warnings of liberal economic fairytales did not reach the prime minister. There will be no economy for the government to worry about if we are all dead.

The marches were primarily made up of young people; inevitably, this meant that everyone was using social media. Signs referenced memes, people were taking snaps, and I was even asked to take a few Instagram pictures.

Admittedly, the performativity of social media can call into question people’s dedication to climate activism: protesting is cool, and environmentalism is sexy. Posting on social media does not indicate a challenge to the status quo, but instead, it presents an opportunity to gain online clout and receive a surge of serotonin from the flood of likes.

However, a protest can’t be completely discredited because people are posting about it on social media — so long as we don’t expect the Climate Strike to be the end of our climate activism in Canada.

Youth are always the future, and they turned out in droves — young people are animated and excited and want to see change. So long as that drive remains, stronger climate policy is coming.

Climate action requires radical policy changes and shifts in public life. Energy corporations like Canadian-based Suncor produce tens of billions of dollars of revenue a year, and by virtue of that they yield huge amounts of political power.

While individual choices to reduce consumption should be encouraged, changes are needed on a grander scale. It makes no sense to tell people to stop driving their cars to work when there is a lack of reliable public transportation. Public changes drive private choices.

Policies around the climate crisis are also inextricable from Indigenous land rights. While Greta Thunberg has found herself at the face of the movement, Indigenous activists have been saying the same thing for decades — that they were ignored, criminalized, and killed for their words and actions.

The climate marches are a good sign — there’s hope. But behind that hope there needs to be a powerful call to action through voting and civil disobedience, not just protests promoted by the institutions we criticize.

What if hope can’t save us?

A reflection on the meanings of hope and despair in the climate crisis

What if hope can’t save us?

Coming to know the climate crisis often feels like an exercise in mourning. We mourn the creatures, the water, the steady turn of the seasons. Some of us mourn the children we may decide not to have, or the trust we once had in our elders. We mourn for the people we thought we would become, for the lives already lost to the climate crisis, and for the destruction to come. We mourn the truths we thought we knew.

Reckoning with the severity of the crisis is vertiginous. We know things are going to get a lot worse. It’s instinctual to step back from the ledge and seek shelter in optimism — the strength of which is far from justified. The future is uncertain, to say the least.

Amidst all of this, hope is attractive. I’m familiar with its appeal: half-whispers to friends, to my partner, even to myself: “What if everything ends up all right?”

Even such a timid question feels transgressive. In many ways it is a way of asking, “What if things aren’t really as bad as we think they are?”

Lately, I’ve been troubled by a concern that hope regarding the climate crisis is problematically fickle. On one hand, without hope, we may be overwhelmed by fear. In isolation, fear turns individuals and societies inward, often violently so.

On the other hand, hope, or an excess of it, could lead to inaction and the abdication of responsibility. Confidence that the crisis will be met by others, without us needing to significantly deviate from the status quo, renders it unlikely that we will do the difficult work of demanding and realizing radical and systemic change.

And radical, systemic change is exactly what is necessary to confront this crisis. It is increasingly clear that business as usual is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. We must divest from the dehumanizing, exploitative, colonial, and anthropocentric fossil fuel capitalism that has precipitated the climate crisis.

After all, we do need to be frightened — all of us.

“Panic is needed”

At the January 2019 meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Greta Thunberg baldly rejected the messages she had been receiving — and continues to receive — from world leaders in response to her activism. “I don’t want your hope,” she said. “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic… And then I want you to act.”

Greta’s comments reminded me of the phrase I’ve often heard used in the context of the fight for climate justice: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Is the balance tipping too far in the latter direction?

Zhenglin Liu, Co-President of University of Toronto Environmental Action (UTEA), characterized this as a problem of finding our individual equilibrium. “Surely there’s a right balance between hope and despair for each and every one of us,” he wrote.

Micaela Tam, Co-President of UTEA, added that it’s also important to consider to whom Thunberg was speaking: some of the world’s most powerful figures, whose individual and collective actions on the climate crisis have left a great deal to be desired.

“Hope is needed for people who might become disillusioned… to break initiatives down into tractable components, [and] to counter the narratives of those who resist action,” wrote Tam. “And at the same time, panic is needed for those who have been complicit for many of the same reasons. They work together.”

There is undeniable momentum in the climate justice movement right now. Now, the task is to amplify it and to ensure that its diverse directions are constructive. But this hope must also be informed by a radically honest understanding of the severity, origins, and implications of the climate crisis.

To quote author Roy Scranton, there’s only one way to enable the realization of this kind of hope: “We have to learn how to die.”

Thankfully, Scranton, who developed the notion in his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, means this metaphorically. His thesis is that the climate crisis forces us to overturn and ultimately reject our pre-existing ideas about progress, personhood, morality, economics, history, the value of a life — the list goes on. Learning to die is about letting go of our attachment to our fossil-fuelled way of life and way of interpreting the world, as both individuals and as a civilization.

Ultimately, it’s about loss. Though the way of life we must part with is fundamentally pathological and unsustainable, it is only human to feel fear, perhaps even sadness, when we part with the familiar. We imagine ourselves in the world as we know it to be. Disentangling our sense of self from the systems of knowledge and values we grew up with is and will continue to be a long and arduous process.

The world we knew doesn’t exist anymore. In some ways, it never really did.

The nature of hope

If our hope obscures urgency, there will be little left for the future.

And yet, I still think there’s something to be said for hope. What is hope if not that ineffable force that sustains us through hardship, upheaval, and loss from the routine to the otherwise unendurable? Hope — the right kind — can bring us together when it matters most.

How can hope play a positive role in both the climate justice movement and our lives as we confront the present crisis? What would that kind of hope — something to drive and unite us, rather than delude and render us complacent — look like? Where can it be found?

“Doing this work is the only thing that makes it possible for me to hope that it is possible to build a different world,” wrote Julia DaSilva, Co-Founder of Leap UofT, a student activist group fighting for climate justice.

But there was a caveat: hope can go both ways. DaSilva added that many common narratives about hope treat it as an individual possession.

“[This hope] makes it possible to get through the day, but it doesn’t place any responsibility on the person who has it,” she wrote. “Narratives about hope are only really helpful when they have direction.” 

It is an important distinction, and one that is reflected in psychological scholarship on hope. For example, a recent study published in Environmental Education Research found that when hope was disaggregated between “constructive hope” and hope based on denial, the implications for pro-environmental behaviour were significant.

Constructive hope among young adults — founded upon a sense of trust that their actions and the actions of others would have a positive impact — led to an increase in pro-environmental behaviours. Hope based in denial of the crisis, however, led to significantly more negative environmental behaviour.

Indeed, while conducting research on environmental psychology over the summer at U of T, Liu was struck by how often the idea of self-efficacy was cited as essential to encouraging pro-environmental behaviour. Self-efficacy is essentially the expectation that one’s actions will have an anticipated impact, and Liu characterized it as closely related to hope.

“[It’s] the hope that our actions can make a difference, not the hope that something will come out of nowhere and save us,” he wrote.

On community and collectivity

Skeptical philosophy student that I am, I still have my doubts. Even if hope is action-oriented and tied to responsibility, what can be done to ensure that it is strong enough to engender the change that must occur?

We must feel the bubbling fear in the back of our throats at the idea of climate crisis, and we must take actions to combat that which transcend the level of the individual. Many individual actions available to us — buying local produce, retrofitting our homes to be more environmentally friendly, purchasing electric vehicles, taking mass transit — require a degree of time, money, and luck that many people simply do not have.

We can’t shop our way out of the climate crisis. The idea that we can, or that all we need is individual adaptation through environmentally conspicuous consumption, is malignant. We need collective action and solidarity that confronts the systemic causes of the climate crisis. Action-oriented hope directed toward anything less will be insufficient, ineffective, and maladaptive.

For DaSilva, constructive hope and community are inextricable. She first got involved with climate activism during the summer before university. It was the “love and community” she found in the divestment and anti-pipeline movement that drew her further and further in.

“Hope,” she wrote, “was a byproduct of that sense of deep responsibility that comes from finding community in crisis.”

DaSilva characterized community and solidarity as prerequisites for the type of hope that will lead not to delusion or individualism, but to meaningful action on climate justice.

“Hope is helpful when we experience it as a response to engaging [with] climate justice work… work sustaining our community,” she wrote.

I am inclined to agree. If we come together, from diverse standpoints and communities, to fight for our future and our home, drawing a deep sense of responsibility from our vulnerability and interconnectivity, there will be good reason for hope.

It is not as though there aren’t other reasons, too. The cost of renewable energy is dropping quickly — so much so that the International Renewable Energy Agency has predicted that renewables will soon be cheaper than fossil fuels. New solutions and means of adaptation seem to be discussed every day. Awareness of the climate crisis is at an all-time high, and more and more people are making meaningful changes in their individual and civic lives. It has become a central political issue, and climate justice has entered the popular lexicon.

As Naomi Klein, a social activist and author, told The Guardian this September, “What gives me the most hope right now is that we’ve finally got the vision for what we want … or at least the first rough draft of it.”

Uncertain futures, silver linings

There are so many ways the course of our lives and our Earth’s future can still unfold. We are still smoothing out the creases in the paper every day. There is an element of uncertainty, yes, but there is also an element of undeniable, fortuitous change. As DaSilva told me, “There is no future like the present.”

Who will we become? It is a terrifying yet electrifying question. It also speaks to the unprecedented political and existential opportunity inherent to the climate crisis. The odds may very well be miserable, and, at least in the short term, there will be no avoiding catastrophe and upheaval. But a better world is possible, as long as we look at this crisis straight in the eye.

No one is going to come and save us. All of us on this planet, here and now, are the best shot humanity has. So, yes, hope will be invaluable — but only if it is preceded by a courageous appraisal of our shared condition. Because it is only when we recognize what we will lose and what must change that actionable hope will carry us to the future at which its optimism is aimed.

Ultimately, we can find something to fight for that is more than fear. We can find it in each other. We can build a hope that is ambitious, just, and constructive. We can look to our friends, our family, the earth, people we will never meet, even a single brilliant blade of grass, and say: this, right here, is worth fighting for.

Rising sea temperatures projected to cause global fish oil shortages

U of T scientists warn that shortages may negatively impact human fetal development

Rising sea temperatures projected to cause global fish oil shortages

Fish oil, an essential fat for human development, is projected to fall drastically over the next few decades due to rising sea surface temperatures.

The finding was reported by a study co-authored by U of T researchers which analyzed the relationship between temperature and the amount of DHA. This is an omega-3 fatty acid that is found chiefly in cold-water fish and is produced by algae.

Fish, like humans, cannot make their own DHA in significant amounts. They must get it from algae, which is the base of most aquatic food chains.

Algae typically produce more DHA at lower temperatures to maintain the fluidity of their cell walls. When temperatures are higher, the cell walls are more flexible, so the algae need to produce less DHA. This reduction means fish on the upper echelons of the food chain are consuming less DHA as well — in turn, humans have a shortage of this essential nutrient.

Omega-3 fatty acids are often supplemented as fish oil capsules, and are necessary for heart health, neurological function, and fetal development in the third trimester.

Medical professionals recommend that pregnant people consume about 250 milligrams of DHA per day. To date, there are no commercially-available sources for omega-3 fatty acids besides fish.

This puts us in a dire situation as, according to the paper, 96 per cent of the world’s population will be in a shortage of DHA by 2100.

“Although [low-income countries] will be impacted, so will rich countries, [which] brings home the [wide impact] of climate change,” said PhD candidate Tim Rodgers, who co-authored the paper, in an interview with The Varsity.

“Our generation’s children might have these shortages, and especially pregnant women.”

The most vulnerable countries are located in sub-Saharan Africa. When accounting for trade, said Rodgers, which wasn’t included in the model the paper projected. North America and Europe are net importers of fish, and Africa and Asia are net exporters.

If these trends continue, the situation is much more critical than the paper suggests in regions where people are subsistence fishers, said Rodgers.

A deeper look reveals an even grimmer picture. According to the model, it is inevitable that these shortages will eventually occur, even in the best-case scenario where world leaders congregate and limit greenhouse gas emissions and the climate crisis. The damage is already done, and by 2100, shortages will be severe — at an approximate 10 to 58 per cent global loss of DHA. Alternative technologies for DHA production are being explored, though none are on the market.

Even if we managed to produce DHA from other sources, its distribution would be unequal. Low-income individuals who cannot access international markets would be left most vulnerable, noted Rodgers. The gap between those who stand a fighting chance against the climate crisis and those who don’t will become more obvious with time.

“One of the worries I have in the face of climate change, is that we have this fortress mentality,” said Rodgers, “where as resources become more scarce, we all try to protect ourselves at the expense of everyone else in the world. That’s not going to solve the problem.”

Discussing solutions to mitigate the impact of the climate crisis, Rodgers emphasized the need for alternative energy sources to produce clean electrical power. “Conceptually, we know what to do to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius,” he said.

“It’d be great if people just realize that these impacts will be felt by them, by their children, by their grandchildren, by everyone around the world — and that we need to act now.”