The lineage of our human species has survived for several million years thanks to a wondrous, interconnected evolution of factors resulting in air to breathe, water to drink and plants, fungi, animals and minerals for food, shelter, tools and clothing.
For most of that time, our ancestors lived in relative harmony with the shared natural world. Life wasn’t always easy, but people lived within the limits of what the planet and its stable cycles of water, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and more could support.
Now, with our accelerating numbers, appetites and hubris, we’ve upset the balance, putting ourselves and most life at risk. We’ve lost our way, our place in nature.
For many years, blinded by rapid technological progress and benefits, we could perhaps be forgiven for our inability to see the true picture, despite warnings from those whose analyses found flaws in our methods and thinking.
But today’s increasing environmental crises were largely preventable. We’ve known about the “greenhouse effect” since at least 1824, when French mathematician Joseph Fourier described the way gases in our atmosphere retain heat that would otherwise be emitted back into space, thereby maintaining relatively stable conditions for life.
Since then, many scientists have demonstrated that pumping increasing amounts of gases like carbon dioxide and methane – mainly by burning coal, oil and gas – would trap even more radiation, heating the atmosphere and planet.
Profit-driven consumerism in the wealthier world, especially North America, spurred a car-centric lifestyle that promoted burning ever greater amounts of valuable carbon stored in coal, oil and gas – as scientists became increasingly alarmed. By 1977, the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy sent a memo to President Jimmy Carter titled “Release of Fossil CO2 and the Possibility of a Catastrophic Climate Change.”
Noting that “the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is now 12 per cent above the pre-industrial revolution level and may grow to 1.5 to 2.0 times that level within 60 years,” the memo warned that this would “induce a global climatic warming of anywhere from 0.5 to 5 °C” which “could be catastrophic and calls for an impact assessment of unprecedented importance and difficulty.”
Some of the memo was based on space, atmospheric and ocean research produced for President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, which found burning fossil fuels was adding “billions of tons” of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
The solution, according to the memo, was to develop a long-term energy strategy that included conservation, nuclear power and, for “insurance against over-reliance on a nuclear-energy economy,” research into solar, biomass and other renewable sources.
Seeing a threat to their enormously lucrative activities, industry executives mounted a full-scale campaign to deny, downplay or cause confusion about the growing evidence that their actions threaten our survival – a campaign that’s ongoing.
With atmospheric CO2 levels now more than 50 per cent higher and global average temperature at least 1.1 °C warmer than the pre-industrial era, we’re seeing the impacts: heat domes, extreme weather, droughts, floods, sea level rise, refugee crises, species extinction… the list goes on – and it will get worse unless we stop burning fossil fuels.
Yet, a Guardian investigation shows that, with government complicity, the world’s largest fossil fuel companies are planning scores of major “oil and gas projects that would drive the climate past internationally agreed temperature limits with catastrophic global impacts.” Canada is one of “the countries with the biggest expansion plans and the highest number of carbon bombs” and has some of the highest subsidies for fossil fuel companies.
Meanwhile, fossil fuel executives are gleeful at the massive amounts of money they’re hoarding, even as most people are feeling the pinch of rising fuel prices. BP CEO Bernard Looney – whose pay more than doubled from 2020 to 2021 to almost US$6 million because of rising oil and gas prices – described his company as a “cash machine,” while company chief financial officer Murray Auchincloss said in a February speech, “Certainly, it’s possible that we’re getting more cash than we know what to do with.”
We still have time – and solutions – to slow the consequences of climate disruption and resolve the crisis, but our window of opportunity is getting narrower by the day. We need to put an end to the greed and excess and find our way to a better, safer future for all.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.