CANADA VISITS THE WHITE HOUSE this week and behind all the glitz and glamour naturally produced by two leaders who effectively know how to work a crowd are issues that will take a lot more than popularity to address. We’ll consider some of these in the next few posts, starting with perhaps our greatest challenge.
Both Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama got lots of press at the Paris climate change summit last November. They got along well and agreed the time had come to raise the game between the two nations regarding climate change. The buzz from the agreement still moved through the streets of the great French city when I was there in January.
But while all this is going on, environmental decline is picking up pace whether or not some kind of effective global response can be worked out. World leaders were reminded of this in Paris when they got a quick briefing on sea-level rise. In a little over a century (1901 – 2010), the level of our oceans climbed roughly seven inches. Things have changed so dramatically that it has become difficult to predict what the next 100 years will look like.
The last time our planet reached the levels of warming it has today – roughly 300,000 years ago – sea levels rose 20-30 feet. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the planet is now reaching similar temperatures by 2100. The Panel concludes that within the next 100 years sea levels will rise 3-4 feet. Unknown is what will transpire when the West Antarctic ice sheet melts. The best guess is that water levels will rise 11 feet if and when that happens.
That’s a small portion of the data, but the real issue will become the human cost. Columbia University professor Maureen Raymo put it bluntly: “I don’t think 10 years ago scientists realized just how quickly the potential for rapid sea level rise was.” The effects on places like the Florida Keys or Chesapeake Bay will be devastating, but the ultimate tragedy will play out in the developing regions of Asia, Africa, Central and South America. The United Nations estimates that some tens of millions of climate change refugees will be the ultimate result of people who can no longer live in their historic coastal homes and who, with precious little resources, will begin to move across borders in search of security and survival.
Every day we have witnessed the pressure placed upon European nations of refugee numbers out of control. Serious as it is, the appearance of millions of Syrian refugees on the world scene is only a harbinger of what will arise once the environmental refugees begin to make their migrations.
In perhaps a sad bit of irony, Trudeau and Obama will enjoy a state dinner and numerous other formal venues at the same time that a significant citizen revolt is underway in both the Democratic and the Republican parties – people have had enough. Canada, while hardly pushed to the political extremes experienced at present by their southern neighbour, nevertheless voted for their own desire for change only a few months ago. But unless the two administrations can move quickly into emergency mode, everything runs the danger of image without substance.
Both political leaders are overseeing a political estate in various levels of turbulence and must confront the economic devastation of global capitalism that is about to be matched by environmental devastation. This is not the time for mere policy discussion between two neighbouring friendly nations who just happen to share the largest unprotected border in the world. If we can’t get it together, all the silverware, photo ops, and political bargaining will come to mean little.
We are facing the greatest challenge of this or any other time, with climate change threatening our very survival. As both capitalism and the environment create such massive fallout, it is time for friends to become compatriots in the task of saving democracy and the planet in these most precious of moments.
No doubt the Obama-Trudeau gatherings will be a photographer’s dream, but something serious, really serious, must go on behind the glitter. Best to follow W. Somerset Maugham’s advice: “When you choose your friends, don’t be short-changed by choosing personality over character.” The time for serious work is upon us. That’s what friends do in times of seismic challenge.