Most of us know what the plastic pollution crisis looks like. Roadsides littered with plastic bags, beaches strewn with plastic detritus, and heartbreaking photos of animals choking on, or entangled in, plastic trash. It’s a visceral, in-your-face problem. And the quantities are huge — up to 32 million tonnes of it per year, by one estimate.
Unfortunately for the continued safety of our species, the climate pollution we are dumping into our air and oceans is a thousand times greater. But this particular form of fossil fuel pollution — CO2 — is invisible to humans. That invisibility cloak has allowed societies, businesses, and individuals to release hugely dangerous amounts, without seeing what we are doing.
Out of sight, out of mind and out of control
As my first chart shows, humans are dumping 34 billion tonnes of fossil fuel CO2 pollution into our climate system each year.
In comparison, our rampant plastic pollution, as huge as it is, is barely visible on the chart.
Humanity’s out-of-sight fossil fuel CO2 pollution has grown so massive, it is starting to geo-engineer our planet.
Roughly half of what we emit stays in the atmosphere, acting like zombie heat pumps. These pump an additional 400,000 atomic bombs worth of energy every day into our already destabilized climate system. All that added energy is starting to super-size wildfires, droughts, storms, flooding, extreme heat, and is destabilizing major ecosystems.
Roughly a quarter of our CO2 pollution dissolves into our oceans, where it has caused a 30 per cent rise in acidity. That’s already causing widespread harm to many forms of marine life. And if we continue with business-as-usual fossil fuel burning, within the lifetime of today’s kids, ocean acidification levels are projected to reach a level last seen millions of years ago in the Miocene, fuelling a global extinction event.
Out of sight, out of mind. Out of control.
The great Canadian disconnect
Here in Canada, the stealth mode of CO2 has allowed us to become troublingly disconnected from our actions.
Polling shows most Canadians want Canada to be a climate leader. That’s heartening and unsurprising. But those polls also show that most Canadians think we are helping lead the way.
And despite 33 years of promising to pollute less, we’re still heading in the wrong direction. Our failure to cut our emissions has left us far behind many of our international peers.
As my chart on the right shows, Canada is the only G7 nation still emitting well above our 1990 levels. And we’re the only one that increased emissions over the last decade.
Despite the reality of our emissions, polls show Canadians think we are doing almost as well as Germany, and much better than the United Kingdom. In reality, Germany has cut its emissions by 32 per cent since 1990, and the U.K. cut its by 42 per cent. We cranked ours up by 21 per cent.
Climate scientist James Hansen has repeatedly warned about CO2’s invisibility posing a serious barrier to public understanding of the crisis, lamenting: “It’s not like 1970 when the public could see pollution in the air and in the water.”