/Commissioner urges action on climate crisis 
Ontario's Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe was invited by Environment Haliburton to speak in Minden. She gave outlined the climate emergency that is facing the province and gave some suggestions on what can be done to slow Earth's warming. /JENN WATT Staff

Commissioner urges action on climate crisis 

By Jenn Watt

Published July 13 2017

The world that environmental commissioner Dianne Saxe grew up in is an impossibility for today’s youth – or any of the youth in the foreseeable future. The progress of climate change what she calls a climate emergency has already started and the damage has begun.

Saxe’s keynote speech at the annual Environment Haliburton event at the Minden Hills Community Centre on Thursday was a sobering hour of evidence that the greenhouse gases humans have released into the atmosphere since the 1800s is changing the world as we know it.

Throughout the time humans have been on earth carbon dioxide in the air has always hovered between 180 and 280 parts per million Saxe told the audience. Scientists estimated that in order to avoid climate change the earth would need to be kept at a maximum of 350 ppm.

“Three-hundred-fifty is the closest thing we’ve got to a magic number … [to] still have the kind of world that existed when I was young with coral reefs and mountain glaciers and low-lying island states and fairly predictable kind of normal weather. And we blew past that in 1988” Saxe said. “It takes about a generation between the time that we put carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the time we start feeling the effects.”

Thus the deterioration of the coral reefs due to ocean acidification the melting of mountain glaciers and the rising water.

The world is now beyond 400 ppm.

“This is completely uncharted territory” Saxe said noting the last time the earth had 400 ppm no humans lived here.

“We know it’s going to be hotter we know it’s going to be wilder but we don’t know how much and we don’t know how fast.”

Saxe came to know more about the reality of the climate crisis through her work as environmental commissioner of Ontario a non-partisan office that advocates for better environmental practices and acts as a watchdog for the environmental bill of rights in Ontario.

The office is tasked with reporting once a year on three topics: environment energy and climate change. Facing Climate Change was released in November and evaluates the threat of climate change and Ontario’s part in reducing its effects.

It was through her work in researching that report that Saxe became increasingly alarmed at how bad the situation has become.

In 1992 leaders from around the world met in Rio de Janeiro to talk about climate change and the threat it posed to humanity. It was agreed that work must begin immediately to reduce greenhouse gas emissions Saxe said.

“What did we do? In fact better than nothing. Look what happened to our emissions. We’re at the highest level of carbon dioxide emissions ever in human history” she said.

“We are emitting new greenhouse gases every year faster than has ever happened before. Where do they go? A quarter of it goes to the ocean. That’s what’s acidifying the ocean making it harder for anything that has a skeleton to pull calcium out of the water. About a third of it’s in soil and vegetation.”

The rest is in the atmosphere.

Saxe said the province had done well in recent years on reducing greenhouse gases; the most recent targets were reached by closing its eight coal-fired power plants. Ontario successfully met its emissions reduction target of six per cent below 1990 levels by 2014.

Air quality has changed appreciably since that time. In 2005 there were 53 smog days she said. In 2015 the year the coal plants had closed there were none. American coal plant closures also contributed to improved air quality with 251 closed or committed to be closed since 2010.

In one month this year China closed 103 coal plants and India cancelled plans for a 14-gigawatt coal-fired station as the price of solar dropped rapidly.

Saxe also applauded the government’s move to put a price on carbon though she noted the increase wasn’t much of a deterrent for motorists. However she thought putting a price on pollution was a step in the right direction.

While closing coal plants helped the province meet its first target the next metric – 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 – will be harder to meet.

“Ontario has to reduce emissions a further 15 megatonne … a bigger and faster reduction than the 12 megatonne reduced from 1990 to 2014” the Facing Climate Change report reads.

The biggest challenge is transportation. More than industry or electricity transportation makes up the largest part of Ontarians’ carbon footprint. Saxe said she understood that in rural areas without public transit it was harder to cut back on fuel usage. She advocated ride sharing reducing flights and using electric hybrid or other low-emissions vehicles when possible.

She also warned of the hazards of refrigerants which she said were “some of the worse greenhouse gases.” These are found in refrigerators and air conditioners. She asked the audience to ensure their appliances were not leaking any of these harmful gases into the atmosphere.

She advocated that every person find a way to reduce his or her carbon footprint by five per cent.

She then said everyone should prepare for climate change; stock up on water and food in case of an emergency reinforce structures and buy what supplies you can for power outages and wild weather.

Finally engage your political representatives she advised. “Politicians care enormously about what their constituents say to them” she said.

Saxe said no scientists could predict with certainty exactly what the world will look like with climate change beyond some solid guesses at which parts would be hit hardest.

“It isn’t guaranteed that large chunks of Africa will become completely inhospitable” she said “It’s not guaranteed that significant parts of the Middle East will be too hot for anyone to live there.”

Then ominously: “we’re on track for it.”

While the climate emergency will change the world around us it is the coming generations that will shoulder the burden of the pollution we release now. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for 1000 years she said.

She instructed the audience to think about how they would explain to that generation – those who are children today and their children and so on – what they did to stop the crisis.

“Write a letter to that young person that you love for them to read in … 10 years 15 years and tell them what [you] are doing about climate change. It’s a really tough letter to write especially if you want to write anything other than ‘I’m sorry I tried’” she said.

“It’s a good exercise.”