The Climate Barometer: Climate emergency declarations – powerful or pointless?

July 28, 2022
The Climate Barometer

Our planet is heating up, causing tremendous upheaval for life as we know it. Every month, The Climate Barometer from delves into climate science and looks at what life on a changing planet will mean.

Climate emergency declarations – powerful or pointless?

As temperatures soar across parts of the United States, President Joe Biden is facing mounting pressure to declare that the country is facing a climate emergency. Despite announcing a new set of plans to confront global warming, the president stopped short of formally declaring a climate crisis.

With countries often setting climate goals without reaching them, this begs the question – what is the significance behind declaring a climate emergency?

Canada's federal government declared a national climate emergency in June of 2019. The motion, passed by the House of Commons, acknowledged climate change as a "real and urgent crisis," and affirmed Canada's commitment to meeting its emissions target under the Paris Agreement. 

But the following day, the same government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Upon completion in 2023, the project is expected to triple the amount of crude oil leaving Alberta. 

On July 18, Canada's federal government proposed an industry-specific cap-and-trade system to limit emissions within the oil and gas sector, which makes up more than 25 per cent of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions. But the emissions cap itself has yet to be specified. Models used in the national Emissions Reduction Plan released in March projected a 31 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 compared to 2005 levels, but the government's target is a 40 to 45 per cent reduction.

In the U.S., by formally declaring a climate emergency, the president would be able to redirect federal resources towards renewable energy initiatives in an effort to limit the use of fossil fuels. From a legal perspective, the declaration could also be used to stop projects such as oil drilling. But some experts say they anticipate these actions will be challenged in court, particularly by energy companies.

Biden said he intends to use his power as president to bring about "formal, official government actions" to tackle climate change in the coming weeks. But data continues to show the U.S. and other carbon-polluting countries are falling short on their promises to address the climate crisis. Will a formal declaration really make a difference?

The briefing

Taking a look at stories about the environment that caught our attention this month

Creature confrontations

Animals in some of the world's coldest regions are no doubt feeling the impacts of rising global temperatures. But melting sea ice is not only threatening the existence of polar bears, it's also causing them to travel further inland as they search for food. The result is an increasing number of encounters between polar bears and humans around the Arctic, according to a new report. 

Monarch butterfly at risk of extinction

Following record-low numbers reported last year, the monarch butterfly now finds itself on the endangered species list. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature placed the orange-and-black insect on its "red list" of threatened species on July 21. Considered endangered, the monarch butterfly is now just two steps away from being extinct. Seeing as the butterflies migrate each year to escape the cold winters, disruptions caused by climate change are leading to a decline in population.

Taking countries to court over climate change

Is it possible for one nation to take another to court over greenhouse gas emissions? While it has yet to be done, climate litigation may be taking a step in this direction thanks to a new study on the economic costs of these emissions. Researchers in the U.S. were able to calculate just how much one country's carbon emissions damaged the economy of another, revealing that a small group of nations was responsible for trillions of dollars in economic losses between 1990 and 2014.


An in-depth look at an important climate issue

Daily temperatures are not only skyrocketing in the U.S. – parts of Europe and Canada have also had to contend with heat waves. The presence of greenhouse gases makes these weather phenomena more common and intense, according to a recent study, given their ability to trap heat close to the Earth's surface. 

In mid-July, England experienced temperatures of 40 C, the highest ever recorded in the country. The extreme heat caused airport runways to lift and train tracks to bend as fires spread among homes in London. Wildfires are also ravaging countries such as Portugal and Spain, as abandoned woodland remains vulnerable to heat waves that are becoming more frequent, and doing more damage than ever before.

Additionally, heat warnings have already been issued for several Canadian provinces this summer, and according to one climatologist, there's more warm weather to come, with August expected to record higher temperatures than normal.

In order to better handle the heat, governments have been urged to adapt to climate change. In the U.K., for example, experts are calling on the government to do more to prepare for heat waves in the future. Seeing as unusually hot weather is caused, in part, by carbon emissions as a result of human activity, the solution continues to be a reduction in these emissions, not only by Britain, but countries around the world.

In the meantime, though, it's important to stay safe amid rising temperatures, mentally and physically, especially given the role they play in increasing the risk of heat illness. Here's a handy explainer on some of the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke.

Riskin report

CTV News Science and Technology Specialist Dan Riskin shares his exclusive insights

Global warming has been causing glaciers to melt for more than a century, but new research shows two glaciers are now losing ice at an alarmingly rapid rate.

Thwaites glacier, nicknamed the "Doomsday Glacier" due to its ability to raise sea levels if it melts, is losing ice faster than it has at any point in the last 5,500 years. This is according to a recent study where scientists used ancient penguin bones and shells to reconstruct the history of both the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers.

The discovery is leaving experts concerned both glaciers are in the process of retreating to the point where they could collapse. CTV News Science and Technology Specialist Dan Riskin has more in this month's Riskin Report.

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