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David Suzuki: Put People Before Politics

Climate

When we elect people to office, we give them power to make and enact decisions on our behalf. They should have a vision that extends beyond the next election and the latest Dow Jones average—to our children and grandchildren.

We expect our leaders to have a clear picture of our world and the conditions necessary for human life and well-being. If they don’t, how can they make informed decisions? So let me outline some simple, scientifically validated truths about us and the world we live in—truths that should guide our political decisions.

All the energy in our bodies that we use to move, grow and reproduce is sunlight captured by plants in photosynthesis and converted to chemical energy, which we ingest.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

We are, above all else, biological beings, with an absolute need for clean air from the moment of birth to the last death rattle. We take air deep into our lungs and filter whatever’s in it. Plants on land and in the ocean take in the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and release oxygen during photosynthesis, creating the atmosphere we depend on.

We are about 60 percent water by weight, so we need clean water to be healthy. When water falls to Earth, it’s filtered through tree and other plant roots, soil fungi and bacteria, cleansing it so it’s safe to drink.

All the energy in our bodies that we use to move, grow and reproduce is sunlight captured by plants in photosynthesis and converted to chemical energy, which we ingest. We eat plants and animals for our nourishment, so whatever they’re exposed to ends up in our bodies. We need clean soil to give us clean food.

These are basic, biological facts and should be the prism through which any decision is made at individual, corporate or government levels. Protection of air, water, soil and the web of life should be the highest social, political and economic priority.

We’re also social animals. Scientists have shown that love during childhood is essential for healthy development. Children who are deprived of love at critical points can develop a variety of physical and psychological deficits. To avoid those, we have to work for strong families and supportive communities, full employment, justice, greater income and gender equity and freedom from terror, genocide and war.

Finally, we are spiritual creatures who require sacred places, a sense of belonging to the world and a recognition that we are not in charge of nature, but dependent on the biosphere for our health and well-being. We are not outside of nature; we are part of it.

To be fully healthy and human, our most elemental needs are biological, social and spiritual. Politicians ought to know this. Their role is to protect and enhance those necessities of life; otherwise there is no vision, direction or leadership.

That’s why it’s absurd for a politician or government representative to speak about any aspect of the economy without acknowledging the threat of human-induced climate change. Many oppose doing anything on ideological grounds, but the science is overwhelming and compelling, and the need for action is clear. What can you say about “leaders” who choose to ignore the best available evidence to the detriment of the people they are elected to represent?

Surely those who act only for short-term economic gain, imposing destructive consequences on generations to come, must be held responsible. We must also consider the consequences of rapid and excessive exploitation of fossil fuels on the world’s poorest people, who have done little to create climate change but are most affected by it. 

Even though Canada ratified the legally binding Kyoto Protocol, which spelled out our obligations to reduce the risk of climate change, many of our “leaders” have wilfully ignored scientific evidence and urgent calls to meet the protocol’s targets, and Canada eventually abandoned the agreement. What should we call that?

And what can we say about “leaders” who can see something is wrong and have the means to respond but choose not to? This is what Canada is doing—in the face of overwhelming evidence and pleading of other industrialized nations.

Our elected representatives deserve respect for their commitment. But the elevated status and power of politicians also carries responsibilities. Many are abrogating those responsibilities for ideological reasons that have nothing to do with our well-being.

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The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."