Elizabeth May talks the hot and cold of climate change

Green Party leader outlines the COP 21 conference in Paris for members of the Saanich Peninsula CFUW.

MP for Saanich Gulf Islands and federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May talks climate change and COP 21 Paris with members of the CFUW. From left: Carolyn Chandler

Presented by the Canadian Federation of University Women of the Saanich Peninsula (CFUW), a crowd of people gathered to hear from Saanich Gulf Islands MP, Elizabeth May talk climate change and what went on at COP 21 in Paris.

May, who is also a member of CFUW, said she benefits from the advice of CFUW and enjoys being a member.

We Met in Paris sounds so romantic, she teased, but that certainly wasn’t the case. First, they didn’t actually meet in Paris.

They met 17 kilometres outside of Paris in what had been the original air field for Paris (Le Bourget).

A gathering of 40,000 people representing 195 countries met to develop a comprehensive climate agreement in what’s called COP 21, which stands for Conference of the Parties.

May began by giving historical context before discussing what was agreed upon. The discussion goes back to 1990 when negotiations began for a United Nations Convention on climate change.

It was then agreed upon two years later in 1992 when it was signed by every country on earth.

The Rio Earth Summit (a UN event), held in June of 1992, saw two legally binding treaties.

One was the framework convention of the protection of biological diversity, and the other, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCOCC).

“At that point it was the largest gathering of heads of government in the history of the planet,” said May.

A big part of the FCOC, May continued is the reduction of fossil fuel emissions, greenhouse gases and adaptation to those levels of climate change we can no longer avoid.

There were no timelines or deadlines, she said, within the UN Framework, just the commitment that all nations agree they have to avoid levels that become dangerous.

What the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) first did, May continued, was once they had the UN FCOCC, they began trying to figure out the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last millennia.

May said that in reading the chemistry of the atmosphere, at no time over the last million years has the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere ever exceeded 280 parts per million (ppm) — which May said is vanishingly small.

She went on to say that 280 ppm of CO2 has been enough to keep the planet habitable and that we’ve benefitted from a beneficial greenhouse effect.

“Two years ago we hit 400,” she told the crowd, adding it’s a dramatic change in the chemistry of the atmosphere. “So the climate scientists have been trying to figure out what’s dangerous. They have basically pegged 425 parts per million as really dangerous.

“We are roughly going up two parts per million per year, and as we increase greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, there’s the question of what will that do to global average temperature,” she said, adding it’s one way of measuring the impact of climate change.

“Global average temperature has a big impact at numbers that sound really small.”

This is one of the topics discussed in Paris.

“To give you something for purposes of comparison, the difference in global average temperature between right now and 10,000 years ago in the last ice age, is five degrees. Five degrees global average temperature is the difference between this country being under 10 kilometres of ice and now,” she said, adding the scientific community is saying two degrees would be dangerous and that 1.5 degrees is as much of a risk as we want to take.

May said one of the big successes of the Paris agreement with leadership from Canada and the new Liberal government, was that they’re committed to doing their part to hold a global average temperature to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above what it was before the industrial revolution.

Two things negotiated in Paris included: the Paris agreement, which would be a legally binding treaty, and; the decision of the COP — a report that lays out things that can be done immediately.

The Paris agreement starts with actions in 2020, assuming they are signed and ratified by the Canadian and other governments. The first thing coming out of the COP decision was a mandate to the secretary general of the UN to organize a high level gathering for earth day, April 22, 2016 at the UN headquarters in New York, to see as many heads of government as possible come out to sign the Paris agreement.

So where is Canada in all of this, May asked.

“In very direct terms, the world wouldn’t have gotten the same treaty had our government not changed,” she said. “So there should be lots of pressure on our current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and our Minister of Environment, Katherine McKenna, to improve that target, because we’re now in the process federally and provincially of negotiating the path, the plan, the way forward to meet the target.”

It’s critical she said, for people to work towards more ambitious targets sooner rather than later.

May said, whatever Canada does, the country should tax and price carbon, get rid of subsidies on fossil fuels and make the shift required of a global commitment to save the lives of our kids and grandkids.

“So I was enormously inspired by the fact that so many governments from around the world, so many presidents and prime ministers really seemed to get it when they committed to the Paris agreement.”

May said the shifting away from fossil fuels will actually be good for Canada’s economy, creating jobs and putting Canada in a position to remain competitive in a world that’s going off fossil fuels.

“We really did a great job as [a country] in those negotiations and now that we’re home, we have to deliver.”