Decision-Making In a Time of Accelerating Climate Change

At the end of April a small group of economists, politicians and scientists gathered for Making the Planetary Boundaries Concept Work, a conference held in Berlin. Their purpose: to work out how decisions that account for planetary boundaries can be made at the national level. Their task is no less vital than determining how governments can support lives of dignity without doing irreparable damage to the earth systems that sustain us.

These earth systems include climate, atmosphere, water, land and biosphere. Planetary boundaries are earth system limits. Simply put, when these limits are exceeded the planet we call home becomes less hospitable.

Developed in 2009 by a team of scientists, the planetary boundaries framework has significant traction in international policy conversations

The diagram above depicts the nine planetary boundaries. The green bars depict boundaries that have not been surpassed, whereas the bars that end in red are boundaries that have been far surpassed, leading to breakdowns in the ability of ecosystems to function. Image: F. Pharand-Deschênes /Globaïa.

Operating within planetary boundaries to maintain hospitable conditions on Earth obviously seems like a good idea, since to do otherwise is to further exacerbate problems like accelerating climate change. Indeed, there are countries that promote consideration of planetary boundaries in decision-making.

Unfortunately, the realities of competing in the global economy seem to introduce challenges in applying planetary boundary based decision-making for countries like Canada. Canada signed and ratified the Paris Agreement in 2016, which represents a step in the direction of recognizing planetary boundaries. However, Canada’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 is the same as our previous scientist muzzling, climate laggard government.

Also in 2016, Canada released the “The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change”. The framework’s four areas of focus (without mention of planetary boundaries) are:

  1. Carbon pricing
  2. Tightening energy efficiency standards and codes for vehicles and buildings
  3. Adaptation and resilience measures
  4. Clean technology, innovation, and jobs

Actions such as these have garnered international recognition for the Trudeau government in the area of environmental leadership, as the Prime Minister’s recent CERAWeek Global Energy and Environment Leadership Award indicates.

“We are showing that environmental leadership and economic growth are inseparable,” said the Prime Minister in accepting the award this March. 

IHS Markit Vice Chairman and CERAWeek Conference Chair Dr. Daniel Yergin presents Prime Minister Trudeau with a CERAWeek Global Energy and Environment Leadership Award on March 9, 2017. Image source: CERAWeek.

Award presenter Dr. Yergin told CBC News: "We recognize that Prime Minister Trudeau has taken a very clear position in terms of integrating energy and environmental concerns and the way that the two interact.”

However, some of Trudeau’s decisions have caused critics to question whether Canada can keep its commitment to decarbonization. In his CERAWeek award acceptance speech, the Prime Minister boasted about the approval of three major oil sands pipelines.

“We are able to approve pipeline projects because we have significant measures in place, including a price on carbon pollution, a world class oceans protection plan, because we’re phasing out coal, because we’re demonstrating real climate leadership,” Trudeau said.

These fossil fuel pipeline approvals make it clear that our leaders have not embraced planetary boundary based decision-making. To claim leadership on climate while acting in ways that contradict this priority does not make sense.

The following anecdote may shed light on this illogical state of affairs. In a recent speech, Liberal MP Jonathan Wilkinson went over the “Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change.” During the question and answer period an audience member expressed concern over Trudeau’s approval of the Keystone, Line 3 and Trans-Mountain pipelines.

The gist of Wilkinson’s response was that demand for fossil fuels is the problem. So long as demand is high, Canada’s dropping out of the market would do nothing but increase sales for other countries, he argued. Again, this certainly does not reflect a consideration of planetary boundaries.

It was disappointing to hear Wilkinson absolve himself of responsibility for bold action on climate change, especially when his party has committed to it. That said, planetary boundary informed decision-making is still cutting-edge, which may partially explain Canada’s contradictory behaviour.

Canadians, on the other hand, seem quite ready to embrace the cutting edge. On April 22 thousands took to the streets in 18 Canadian cities to march for science. Canadians marched for facts. They marched for leaders to take stock of facts. They marched for fact-informed decisions.

April 22, 2017: Hundreds march from Science World in Vancouver to support of science to uphold the common good. Image source: @DrScottSampson.

While Trudeau’s government has taken some steps on climate, it is necessary to go beyond recognition of relationships between the economy and environment. I challenge the Canadian government to apply knowledge of planetary boundaries on the international stage at COP 23 and at the national level, so as to keep our home hospitable. 

Christine Leclerc

Physical Geography (Hons.), first year