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Climate Change Is an Existential Crisis—It Should Be ​the Top Political Issue, Too

Insights + Opinion
Vancouver, British Columbia skyline with the North Shore Mountains. RonTech2000 / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Global warming isn't a partisan issue—or it shouldn't be. The many experts issuing dire warnings about the implications of climate disruption work under political systems ranging from liberal democracies to autocratic dictatorships, for institutions including the U.S. Department of Defense, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and numerous business organizations and universities.

In 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen reported to Congress that evidence for human-caused global warming was near undeniable, conservative politicians including the UK's Margaret Thatcher, U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Canada's Brian Mulroney agreed that action was needed. In my home province of British Columbia, a right-leaning government, the British Columbia Liberal Party, introduced a carbon tax in 2008.


Now, as the evidence compels us to increasingly urgent action—the latest IPCC report says we have about 12 years to get emissions under control or face catastrophe—politicians from parties that once cared about the future are lining up to downplay or deny human-caused climate disruption and are hindering plans to address it.

The U.S. offers a sad example. When confronted with a detailed report compiled by more than 300 scientists and endorsed by a dozen different agencies, including NASA, NOAA and the defense department, that warned climate change threatens the American economy, way of life and human health, the president responded, "I don't believe it."

Here in Canada, politicians claim to take climate change seriously but reject plans to mitigate it without offering better alternatives. Some provincial and federal leaders are governing or building campaigns around rejection of carbon pricing, a proven tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It's interesting, because carbon pricing is a market-based strategy, whereas the kind of government regulation that would be required in its absence is something conservative thinkers usually reject.

To be fair, few politicians are emerging as climate heroes, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum. Our federal government has some good climate policies, including carbon pricing, but is still pushing for pipelines and oil sands expansion. It's even watered down carbon-pricing plans to appease industry.

Alberta's NDP government has likewise implemented some good policies and encouraged clean energy development, but by promoting pipelines and the fossil fuel industry to appease a bitumen-beholden voting base that likely won't support it anyway, the party is alienating young people and others who care about climate and the future.

It bewilders me that so many people are opposed to environmental protection, to ensuring Earth remains habitable for humans and other life. It doesn't take much to see that we've screwed up in many ways. Climate disruption, species extinction, plastic pollution and contaminated water and air are all symptoms of our wasteful, consumer-driven lives, in which profit is elevated above all else. Prioritizing a relatively recent economic system designed when conditions were much different over the very things that keep us healthy and alive is suicidal.

We can't stop using fossil fuels or shut down the oil sands overnight. But if we don't start somewhere, we'll get nowhere. I and others have been writing and talking about global warming for decades, while emissions continued to rise, oil and gas development expanded and global temperatures kept climbing. There's little evidence that governments are treating the climate emergency as seriously as is warranted, preferring to focus on short-term economic gains and election cycles instead.
As we head into an election year in Canada, we must ensure that climate and the environment are priorities for all parties. This costly crisis will bring devastation to economies, food production, human health and much more if we fail to put everything we can into resolving it.

We've seen major national and international efforts to confront serious threats before, regardless of the money and resources needed to do so—from defeating the Nazis in the Second World War to investing in science during the space race. These paid off in many ways, accomplishing their stated purposes and spurring numerous beneficial inventions and technologies.

Now, as humanity faces an existential crisis, we must do everything we can to push those who would represent us to truly act in our interests rather than kowtowing to a dying industry. Climate change should be the top issue in this year's federal election and all others.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington.

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