This summer, it seemed as if ‘pandemic panic’ took a back seat to the climate change crisis in all of our newsfeeds and media outlets. It felt as if everyday there was a new devastating news headline of extreme weather ravaging cities all over the world—that the shift that scientists and environmentalists have spent years warning us about was here.
Climate change is beginning to have inescapable impacts on not only the environment, but on our daily lives.
This summer, rising temperatures created the perfect storm of arid conditions for wildfires and droughts for some parts of the world and, in other places, trapped more moisture in the atmosphere, leading to heavier rainfall and life-threatening floods.
Age of Union wanted to have a more complete understanding of the current situation we all face; what is actually at stake and what are the solutions that can be implemented moving forward. We have teamed up with Matt Brunette of Canadian Ape Alliance to help us navigate this new reality. Brunette is a scientist who specializes in assessing the impacts of climate change. He conducts his research in the Eastern Congo, one of the last areas in the world where pristine primary forests still thrive, as he helps Dr. Kerry Bowman establish a wildlife corridor to protect the lowland gorillas of the area.
“Carbon is an abstract concept for many of us, but its prolonged presence in the atmosphere contributes immensely to the “greenhouse effect,” leading to global warming and the damage we are witnessing due to climate change.” – Dax Dasilva Age of Union: Igniting the Changemaker
Age of Union: In your expert opinion, was the extreme weather the world experienced this summer worse than ever before?
Matt Brunette: It does seem like there is a constant trend of west coast forest fires becoming more frequent and causing more devastation with each passing year. However, the most alarming fact that sticks out is when there are weather events that break records. Constantly, we are breaking heat records with every passing summer. If you look back at the last few decades , this trend of record breaking weather and heat keeps trending up, and not only here in North America, but in Europe and Asia as well. This summer signifies what many summers to come will look like. These extreme events are the new normal.
Why does a slight rise in the temperature of Earth’s surface equate to such an extreme increase in wildfires and floods?
An overall increase in global temperatures means that there is an individual increase in land and surface water temperatures as well. With increasing temperatures, we can then expect more evaporation from the land/plants and oceans/lakes, to lead to some areas getting drier while some other areas will get wetter with more moisture in the air, making extreme precipitation events more likely.
Warming ocean surface temperatures also plays a factor in global temperature circulation through impacting El Nino/ La Nina, the North Atlantic Oscillation, and Gulf Stream Current etc. Though we can't say that climate change is responsible for any particular extreme weather event, we can say with confidence that climate change makes extreme weather events more likely.
Another factor that contributes to an increase of floods and wildfires is human land use. By replacing land with concrete and cities, we take away permeable surfaces that may be able to absorb precipitation better and help mitigate floods. In some already dry areas, (e.g. parts of California) large populations rely on groundwater for agriculture and residential use. With climate change impacting precipitation patterns in these areas, the groundwater is not fully replenished each season, forcing people to drill deeper and deeper for water - thus further drying out the soil and increasing likelihood of wildfires.
Climate change is such an overwhelming concept to grasp. We know that climate change refers to the warming of global temperatures and causes changes to atmospheric conditions and weather patterns, but how could you clarify this concept to be more relatable?
Think of it in terms of Earth ultimately being the only planet we call home. So imagine the planet was a house that has a thermostat that’s completely out of control. Even if you open a couple of windows to let some cool air in, the house keeps getting hotter, causing the paint to peel off the walls, and floor boards begin to warp. But we can fix the thermostat and drive down the temperature in the house. We just have to take action in order to do so.
We are at a point now where you can’t deny that nothing is happening, climate change is here. Because of the way that climate change sort of happens, you're looking at trends over long periods of time. But now we are seeing that these changes are occurring more often than we are used to. So when you see an oversaturation of climate change in the news, it's scary and it reinforces what the scientific community has been talking about for a while now. When we compare models of projections for the future, if the rate of emission does not decrease significantly, this will not only become the new normal, but the rate of these disastrous weather events will increase significantly.
Is it possible to reverse the effects of climate change and the damage that has already been done?
A lot of it really comes down to what we do with all of the information we have amassed over the decades, but this could be the beginning of the end if we don’t all start taking action now. A lot of people are doing a lot of good work, but it’s now a problem of global cooperation and action. Unfortunately, Covid has shown how difficult it can be to get everyone to fall in line and cooperate within one country, let alone cooperation on a global level.
However, there are many actions and adaptations that can still be taken. We're at a global temperature increase of 1.1C above pre-industrial levels. The UN is aiming for a max of a 2C increase, or better 1.5C increase. Even at 1.1C we are seeing some pretty extreme impacts of climate change across the globe. Due to the long lifecycle of CO2 in the atmosphere, even if emissions stopped today there would be a long lag of atmospheric CO2 concentrations - meaning that many of the changes we see will be around for quite a long time. Some countries are already seeing significant climatic impacts (many of them poor or developing nations) and have been forced to adapt. The irony is that many of these countries have contributed the least to the issue of global emissions, yet are paying the biggest price.
Addressing climate change will take a multi-pronged approach with determined government action and community commitment. Hope is the main ingredient to making it happen.
On the environmental level, we need to work towards ensuring the health of natural carbon sinks, which are reservoirs that store carbon on earth. Natural carbon sinks include forests, soil, peat bogs, mangroves, oceans, and grasslands. Plants breathe carbon in as a part of photosynthesis and store carbon as part of their biomass. For oceans, a lot of the carbon is taken in by phytoplankton and can be stored there for a long time. With natural carbon sinks it's important that we ensure the long-term health of the ecosystem to make sure that carbon is stored in the system for a long time. Preserving biodiversity is a key component of ensuring ecosystem health and tackling climate change.
Carbon sinks are reservoirs that store carbon. Natural carbon sinks include:
° peat bogs
Plants breathe carbon in as a part of photosynthesis and store carbon as part of their biomass.
For oceans, a lot of the carbon is taken in by phytoplankton and can be stored there for a long time.
At the government level, lots of investment will be needed to develop resilient infrastructure and economies. Support will be vital for resilient agriculture and developing new seed varieties that are more resistant to extreme weather. With tackling climate change we need to focus on both mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit the magnitude of the problem) and adaptation (to cope with the changes that are to come).
"We must get faster in the battle against climate change. And nevertheless, the second lesson is that we must pay great attention to adaptation to climate change. Investing in fighting climate change is expensive, but failing to do so is even more costly.” – German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Some individual actions that can help people adapt will be very different for different countries. We're very lucky in many western countries that many of us have access to electricity, air conditioning, shelter, and reliable food sources. Some adaptation-specific actions involve ensuring that homes are resilient to floods or extreme weather as these will likely become more common. If you live or work in flood-prone areas, consider the actions needed to deal with a higher occurrence of floods. For people with homes, that might include planting more trees to help soak up water or reducing the area of paved surfaces to limit runoff. However, the most effective individual action anyone can take is to reduce your carbon footprint as much as possible (eg: be energy efficient by using less water, less electricity, and insulate your homes properly etc). Another great solution is to protect areas that act as natural carbon sinks, such as wetlands and forests (these could be in your local park or along the edges of the river that runs through your very own city) - no area is too small - the more time one can invest, the more they should engage in the collective action to protect the interconnected ecosystems of Earth.
“Join the fight against climate change by beginning to track your progress and learning how to make daily choices to reduce your carbon footprint.” – Dax Dasilva Age of Union: Igniting the Changemaker
Are you still hopeful that we can change?
I still am and will always be hopeful about the future and what we can do to address climate change. No matter how bleak the outlook is, we always have to have hope. As Dr. Jane Goodall says (one of my role models and inspiration) we need hope, because without it people would lose interest and concern about the environment and their impacts on it. And now, as you know, is not the time for doing nothing. We can be hopeful because we know that, given the chance, nature and people are extremely resilient and can bounce back to a healthier state. We can be hopeful because many people do care about this issue and are working individually and together to make a difference for the planet. We can be hopeful because you and I, as concerned global citizens, are doing what we can and continuing to push ourselves to do more. Even though this issue is vast and complex, the little things we do matter. Whenever the issues and impacts of climate change seem too overwhelming, take a step back to focus on your individual actions and how you are reducing your carbon footprint and environmental impacts. Though they might seem small in the grand scheme of things, many small actions can lead to big results and you can always do more to influence or motivate others to take action.
An interview of Matt Brunette by Emma Dora Silverstone-Segal
Matt Brunette – has a Master’s degree in environmental science with a specialization in climate change impact assessment. He is an energy and sustainability consultant in Toronto where he helps businesses enhance their energy efficiency and save money. Matt is also the Corridor Project Coordinator at the Canadian Ape Alliance where he supports corridor project research/planning and coordinates project partnerships. Having been involved with the Canadian Ape Alliance for the past several years, he regularly visits eastern DR Congo to monitor progress and add capacity to local partners. Matt is currently conducting research on climate change impacts in the Kahuzi-Itombwe corridor to help inform project planning and resilience strategies.
Emma Dora Silverstone Segal has a degree in sociology & world religions from Mcgill University. She began her career in fashion PR & marketing, before moving into fashion design and buying as the Creative Director of Ladies & Men’s Accessories at Le Chateau for over 6 and half years before transitioning to work in conservation. In Miami, she represented nature photographers & their work in a Wynwood gallery while she freelanced as an environmental journalist. She is now the Creative Director and in house documentary film producer for Age of Union.