How the ‘fractal carbon trap’ calls for change in policymaking around the climate crisis

U of T political science professors explain how fossil-fuel reliance perpetuates itself

How the ‘fractal carbon trap’ calls for change in policymaking around the climate crisis

What is the fractal carbon trap, and how can the concept guide policy in reducing reliance on fossil fuels? Dr. Steven Bernstein and Matthew Hoffmann, professors at U of T’s Department of Political Science, published a paper in Nature Climate Change on how their concept can guide decarbonization.

The fractal carbon trap is a two-part metaphor which explains the difficulties of introducing sustainable technologies into society. The term ‘fractal’ refers to the complex nature of the carbon system. The ‘trap’ is created by the fractal nature of the system. When it comes to changing the system, there is a threshold point in the reduction of fossil-fuel use that must be crossed. Below that threshold point, any beneficial changes will be swallowed by the re-assertive forces of the system — this is the trap. However, above that threshold point, beneficial changes will be amplified by the systemic forces.

A local example of the fractal carbon trap at work is the Ontario government’s cancellation of the electric vehicle rebate program. Incentivizing the use of electric vehicles was a way of interrupting the system, but the political ideologies and economic concerns of those in power pushed back against earlier progress.

This paper is an introduction to their much larger project on analyzing climate politics and decarbonization, which is the reduction of fossil-fuel dependence. Bernstein and Hoffmann explained to The Varsity what the trap is and what needs to be done in order to change the future of climate politics.

Why there is no singular, effective decarbonization policy

The concept of the trap helps to address limitations on the road to decarbonization — that is, the process of minimizing the role of fossil energy in the fractal. When it comes to big-picture climate politics — those on an international scale — Bernstein argued that the problem lies not with the trap itself, but rather with the framework in which the climate crisis is often thought of.

Much like a mathematical fractal, the carbon fractal has many levels and layers which can be exploited to further decarbonization. However, as long as policymakers and governments are hung up on collective problem-solving, climate action will continue to be bogged down. Leveraging the multilevel nature of the fractal metaphor allows for many possible positive interventions to push climate action over the threshold.

With all this in mind, it’s only natural to wonder what a good policy would look like. There is no singular, agreed-upon policy plan for the climate crisis and, upon reading this paper, it becomes evident that the expectation of such is unrealistic.

Hoffmann argued that “the key to success is thinking about the interdependencies across the domestic and global, between local and national, and thinking about how you can generate or catalyze broad transformation.”

“The reciprocity ideas, the worrying about enforcement and monitoring is a holdover from the older way of thinking about the way climate politics works as a global collective problem.” Understanding how to successfully protect and implement individual policies is equally as important as setting goals for overarching policy plans.

One of the main things that Hoffman and Bernstein’s project will attempt to answer is the question of whether or not the threshold point for the fractal carbon system is too high —  that is, if it’s even possible to reach the point of positive reinforcement. In terms of this concern, both Bernstein and Hoffmann are generally optimistic about the progress being made to surpass that threshold point as more climate policies, such as  the carbon tax, become more common.

As more people like Bernstein and Hoffmann work at the problem, the tides may be able to shift, and the way the climate crisis is thought of may transform to help break free of the trap.

“The time we have left is very short”: systems and people need to combat climate crisis, says professor

Professor Danny Harvey on individual action at Science for Peace event

“The time we have left is very short”: systems and people need to combat climate crisis, says professor

Though the bulk of the damaging effects of the climate crisis are decades away, it is already “an emergency,” said Dr. Danny Harvey, a professor of geography at the University of Toronto, in a keynote speech.

“The time we have left is very short,” he continued, “compared to the time required to take the actions needed to avert otherwise inevitable catastrophic consequences.”

Harvey was speaking at a forum held by Science for Peace on January 14. The event was free and open to the public, attracting almost 200 attendees to Innis Town Hall.

What society needs to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations

Discussing solutions to the crisis, Harvey said, “We have to change the entire energy system. And not just that, we have to change social norms and values and the way people think, and that’s perhaps even harder… In fact, in many respects, it’s already too late.”

Displaying graphs of industrial carbon dioxide emissions in the past decades, Harvey pointed out that despite discussions of regulations and solutions, emission levels have maintained a steep and steady increase.

Harvey spoke about the need to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations and, ultimately, the climate. He discussed the need to decrease net emissions to zero in order to keep warming to below two degrees. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, this must occur by 2050. While a zero fossil fuel emission target will likely not be reached for a long time, negative emissions, such as reforestation, building up soil carbon, or directing capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide can be used to compensate for emissions.

Reduced costs and advancements in wind and solar energy will also help the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. According to Harvey, major reforms of the electricity system are required to completely adopt clean energy. From an engineering standpoint, the required technology is well on its way, and the changes may be attainable within 30 or 40 years.

Harvey also pointed out the need to change our current economy and industrial production process, but noted that this will be a complicated process that will also require behavioural shifts away from current mindsets of consumption and unlimited growth.

The importance of individual action

Whereas issues of energy and the economy largely involve systemic changes, individual action is also crucial, according to Harvey.

Diets, in particular, account for a significant fraction of global emissions, he explained. A 2018 research study has shown that meat consumption is disproportionately responsible for these emissions, compared to other sources of food.

Sustainable solutions such as clean energy still require resources — thus, our individual decisions to reduce consumption, purchase products to last in the long term, and use resources efficiently, should work in conjunction with systemic changes, and further reduce our environmental impact.

Fighting climate crisis denial in class

Dr. Dan Weaver on spending the Global Climate Strike answering questions in the classroom

Fighting climate crisis denial in class

Thousands of climate activists, including University of Toronto students, skipped their lectures to rally at Queen’s Park during the Global Climate Strike on September 27, demanding government action against the climate crisis.

But what happened to the U of T students who went to their lectures and classes?

Dr. Dan Weaver, an assistant professor at the Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences at UTSC, recalled teaching a first-year class that day in a Twitter thread in December.

For the students who attended, he turned his lecture into a question-and-answer period to address climate crisis denial.

Climate crisis denial refers to being doubtful of the overwhelming scientific consensus and implications of the climate crisis. A recent survey by The Angus Reid Institute found that 10 per cent of Canadians believe that the climate crisis is simply a theory, and 20 per cent think that the crisis is a natural occurrence, devoid of human contributions.

Events preceding Weaver’s lecture

Weaver and colleagues signed an open letter to U of T to have class officially cancelled on September 27 in order to allow for students to attend the climate strike. Despite this request being denied, professors were instructed to not penalize students of their absence.

Weaver took this opportunity to initiate a class discussion on climate crisis denial, since he inferred that in this sample of  students, there would be climate crisis deniers present.

Speaking with The Varsity, Weaver recalled: “It was a very quiet class to begin with, very unsure whether they can ask, what they can ask, [and] what would my reaction be.” Weaver did not criticize any students for their views, but rather welcomed their questions and answered their inquiries with research-based evidence.

He continued by explaining that, as an instructor in an educational role, “What I can contribute from the classroom is an opportunity to engage with the science of the issue, and in particular with an audience that hasn’t had the opportunity most likely to talk to someone in the field directly.”

Engaging students and encouraging them to ask questions

Weaver evaluated the impact of his efforts by the frequency and type of questions he received over the course of the semester. “Because when someone continues to come back and ask follow-up questions, they are now intellectually engaged.”

From his viewpoint, “I already won: they are thinking critically.”

“Some people who are very passionate about this or other issues are much too quick to put down people of the ‘wrong opinion,’” noted Weaver, “and tell them to believe [and] get on board. That is the wrong approach.”

“There is a lot to be gained by giving people the opportunity to just ask questions in an honest and sincere way, and I think that is critical and often missing.”

Breaking down three common questions asked by climate crisis deniers

One of the main reasons for climate crisis denial is that some deniers don’t trust the consensus “that [the] climate is changing, and we are the cause, because of [information from] computer models,” Weaver explained.

Climate modelling utilizes mathematical computer programming to predict, to its best ability, natural and human impacts on the progression of climate change based on atmospheric, land, ocean, and sea level measurements.

Weaver continued, “We have teams… across at least a dozen countries doing it independently and coming to the same results… reproducing past climates and making predictions about where things are going.”

Another common reason promoting climate crisis denial is that “the narrative that climate change is entirely controlled by the output of the sun.” This view is promoted by the Canadian non-governmental organization Friends of Science Society — which Weaver said is one of “the world leaders in climate skepticism.”

Weaver countered their belief that, as he described it “The sun is a primary driver of [the changing] climate.” Weaver explained, “[The sun] is not the only one that controls it; it is a lot more complicated than that — that narrative sells a very simple answer to a very complicated question.”

Weaver continued, “If we had no atmosphere, the sun would still warm the planet, but the overall average temperature of the planet would be below freezing… The atmosphere is very important for moderating climate.”

In an email to The Varsity, the Friends of Science Society falsely disputed Weaver’s characterization of the organization. “Friends of Science Society sees the sun as the main direct and indirect driver of climate change, not carbon dioxide from human industry,” it wrote. “Friends of Science does acknowledge that humans contribute nominally to climate change, and CO2 emissions have a nominal role in that.”

The society’s position that humans have a small impact on the climate crisis contradicts the conclusions of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to the panel’s Fifth Assessment Report, it is “categorical in its conclusion: climate change is real and human activities are the main cause.”

A related common question from climate crisis deniers is, “Are we really having an impact, or is it all natural variability?” Addressing this, Weaver noted that “the climate naturally has variability and trends associated with it,” and these trends have been tracked, such as the measurements of the output of the sun during its 11-year solar cycle.

Weaver explained, “If you have an 11-year cycle and you think that climate is being driven entirely by the sun… logically then you expect to see this 11-year cycle in the climate going up and down, tracking with the sun.”

“And [then] we look at the data — is that actually what is happening in the climate? No, it’s not — there has to be more going on.”

Resources for understanding research on the changing climate

Weaver suggested the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Global Climate Change website as a resource to learn about the physical implications of the climate crisis. It provides information about the current state of the planet, including current measurements of carbon dioxide, global temperature, ice sheet melting, and sea levels.

Additionally, Weaver recommend looking at  the Climate Lab Book, a blog maintained by climate scientists featuring data visualizations of weather and climate patterns.

For discussions regarding climate crisis denial led by credible climate scientists, consider the blog RealClimate. If you prefer alternatives to blog platforms, Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist, engages with the public on Twitter and YouTube to discuss climate crisis denial.

“The best resource if you are a U of T student is probably to go talk to a faculty member involved,” noted Weaver. “You have that privilege that most people don’t have.”

UTSG: Sustainability: Beyond the Trend Conference 2020 by Sustainable Engineers Association

Sustainable Engineers Association (SEA) brings back their annual sustainability conference with this year’s theme: Sustainability: Beyond the Trend. The event is hosted by SEA UofT and SEA Ryerson and will be taking place Saturday, January 18, 2020 at Myhal Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Protestors call for climate action with Black Friday strike

Fridays for Future Toronto chapter organizes march ahead of United Nations Climate Change Conference

Protestors call for climate action with Black Friday strike

On Black Friday, Canada’s biggest shopping day of the year, hundreds of climate protestors took to the streets as a part of the Fridays for Future movement for action in response to the climate crisis, gathering in front of Queen’s Park for a rally before marching to City Hall. The strike also comes a few days before the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25). Leaders will meet on December 2 in Spain to submit climate action plans ahead of the 2020 deadline, in accordance with the 2015 Paris Agreement.

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

“We are striking today, on Black Friday, because we want to call out the system that forces us to live unsustainable lives. Because many of us don’t have the time, the money, or the option to live another way,” said Fridays for Future Toronto Chapter Head Allie Rougeot to the crowd. In her speech, she affirmed Fridays for Future’s commitment to Indigenous sovereignty and called on political leaders to take drastic climate action at the COP25 conference.

“We are demanding that in Spain, they do their jobs of protecting us and working for us.”

One theme of the strike was criticizing the Royal Bank of Canada’s (RBC) investment in fossil fuels, with marchers placing “Divest RBC” stickers on the storefront of the bank as they passed by it. Volunteers stood in front of the bank holding a banner that read, “Canada’s #1 Fossil Bank. Divest Now!”

In an interview with The Varsity, Rougeot reflected on the Black Friday strike, held over two months after the Global Climate Strike in Toronto, which saw the participation of around 15,000 people. “The turnout is definitely smaller [this time], but we expected a smaller turnout. What I really like is how much mightier it is.”

She described the central tenets of the strike and Fridays for Future as “a just transition for workers, Indigenous rights, and marginalized communities being included and us fighting for them.”

Rougeot, a U of T student, criticized the university’s “horrific” investment in fossil fuels. “As much as I want to be proud of my school, I will never be proud of my school until they divest.”

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

Similar to the Global Climate Strikes that took place in September, young people were particularly represented in this strike, with groups of middle- and high-school students striking together. Dunbarton High School student Devin Mathura commented on his presence at the strike with a large group of classmates: “We have to enforce the fight for climate change and [the fight] to declare a climate emergency by not going to school because why should we get an education when there’s not going to be a future for us?”

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

Seventeen-year-old climate activist Abonti Nur Ahmed spoke at the rally, criticizing the elitism of the climate movement. “I don’t remember the last time someone asked me how it was affecting my community and how it’s affecting the people that I know,” Ahmed said to the crowd.

In an interview with The Varsity, Ahmed said that the community she was representing was a politically disenfranchised one: “They don’t know how to fight for their own rights.” Her speech advocated for intersectionality in the climate movement, which she defines as not putting the blame on individuals, but rather understanding that systemic change needs to come before placing any burdens on already marginalized communities.

She hopes to inspire people to learn about intersectionality for themselves. “When I was speaking, the only thing that was in the back of my mind [was]: ‘I hope that people hear what I say and decide to go look up what intersectional climate change means,’ because I can say everything I want, but it has to start with the person’s passion.”

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.

The publicity stunt of greenwashing the climate crisis

Develop good habits, not social media posts

The publicity stunt of greenwashing the climate crisis

Greenwashing sounds like the name of an expensive celery juice or HGTV renovation show, but it actually refers to people who jump on the climate crisis bandwagon, hoping to benefit from the environmental movement without any intention of protecting the environment.

I’m sure that earlier this year many people saw social media posts about the Amazon Rainforest fires, expressing astonishment and calling it unacceptable. Perhaps you even posted something yourself. However, this outcry didn’t accurately reflect the sacrifices people made in response to the fires.

How many people donated to non-profit organizations that helped manage the outbreak and support Indigenous populations? How many stopped eating beef because our carnivorous desires fuel the pressure for ranchers to clear the Amazon? How many have kept up with the fires’ status, or the status of forests in Indonesia and Bolivia?

This is greenwashing — when the pigment of our green hands washes off in the privacy of our own economic, social, and political decisions. And it exists just as much on the individual level as the corporate. 

The issue here is appearance versus reality. Is the underlying reason that people and companies are compelled to act in an environmentally friendly way because they seek to mitigate the climate crisis — or do they simply seek to benefit from appearing eco-conscious? Greenwashing seems to encompass the latter sphere.

However, greenwashing operates on a level deeper than plain pretending. People internalize a picture of sustainable living that fits within the comfortable framework of their lives. This allows them to disregard how that lifestyle cannot effectively prevent climate destruction, and this is incredibly dangerous because it perpetuates a cycle of climate inaction.

We greenwash ourselves because it feels good. It bolsters our sense of moral worth without harming our destructive habits. To that end, we want the validation associated with helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions with none of the costs. To be part of a movement. To seem inscrutable. But this is a false altruism that cannot create concrete results.    

As much as I believe that greenwashing is rotten, I, too, like to remain where I feel comfortable, and often justify unsustainable practices by telling myself that I do other things for the environment. I bring reusable bags to the grocery store and take shorter showers, and apparently that’s enough.

I always receive some moral feeling — a heaviness, a disappointment, a guilt — when I do something hypocritical. I just know that I’m not being authentic. And that moral feeling guides me to a better path.

Previously, this feeling has always led me to actions that were more meaningful and satisfying. They were objectively right for me. But the thing about greenwashing is that it erases the moral weight of my actions. I could exchange one large, life-altering change for little actions of inconsequential support toward the planet.

When this is extended to society at-large, it means that we will have a sense of fulfillment, despite objectively not doing enough to tackle the climate crisis and re-shape our relationship with the environment.

It’s important that we recognize how we trick ourselves into not addressing climate change through greenwashing, since it’s the only way that we can take a step back and evaluate how greenwashing is another manifestation of our self-interested behaviour.

The climate crisis is essentially a challenge to the idea of an all-powerful human will. We affected the Earth with our growth and technology, and the Earth is responding with a series of catastrophic effects that will overpower humanity. But, in that context, we ultimately get to define ourselves. We are an aggregate of the decisions that we make, values that we hold, and attitudes that we display; we must will ourselves to be different.

There is room to be self-defining, and authentic, while combatting the climate crisis. If greenwashing is a choice, then we have the choice to stop it. It’s high time we learn to nurture our nature.