This is what the age of climate intensity looks like.

It’s shifting our conversations. Changing our lives. Taking over our streets. Casting an outsized shadow, for better or worse, on elections around the world. Analysts say it transformed the results of European Parliament elections in late May. And in Canada, it’s coming this fall to a ballot box near you.

For too long, political leaders could tick the box on climate change by expressing their deep, abiding concern, introducing largely cosmetic policy changes, then carrying on with business as usual. In Canada, massive fossil fuel subsidies have continued with a nod and a wink, with self-styled climate leaders like British Columbia Premier John Horgan still finding billions in tax breaks for liquefied natural gas developments that will utterly defeat an otherwise solid effort at an ambitious provincial carbon target.

They won’t get away with it for much longer. Because now, the scene is shifting, quickly and decisively enough that elected officials and their political strategists are being left behind. The depth, breadth and urgency of scientific reporting on climate change is accelerating, and it’s driving a corresponding uptick in news coverage.

A school strike movement that began last year with a solitary protester outside the Swedish parliament has spread to millions of students across 122 countries joining actions on Fridays, including dozens of coordinated protests across Canada on May 24. And the student strike is the leading edge of a reality that should matter to every politician of every political stripe: after several years of what climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe calls “global weirding,” countries everywhere are seeing an explosion of public demand for effective action along with a troubling undercurrent of climate despair.

That was then

As recently as 2014, a year before the United Nations climate conference that produced the Paris climate agreement, who would have expected a successful push for a climate stabilization target more ambitious than the 2°C goal that had been the international standard for a couple of decades? Or that just three years later, a normally staid United Nations agency would declare the tougher 1.5°C target mandatory, not optional, to avert global catastrophe? And hand the world’s governments a 12-year deadline to deliver on that goal by cutting their greenhouse gas emissions by nearly half?

Who knew that it would take only nine months for Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s solo protest to grow into a global movement? That Thunberg would spend much of the year travelling Europe by train (never by air) to meet UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, address the 2018 UN climate conference and the 2019 World Economic Forum, chastise members of the British Parliament for their lame response to the climate crisis and earn a Nobel Peace Prize nomination along the way?

And who could have predicted that stunningly inexpensive solar, wind and battery storage technologies would undercut global coal demand and compete successfully with natural gas power plants? Or make it pretty much inevitable that electric cars will be cheaper to own and operate than internal combustion vehicles in the next couple of years?

This is now

After five years of publishing the Energy Mix, a thrice-weekly e-digest on climate, energy and carbon-free solutions, I see the pace and depth of that change showing up in my inbox every morning. And it points to a bigger narrative behind the individual headlines.

The volume of reporting pretty much doubled between May 2014, when our first edition appeared, and the Paris climate conference in December 2015, then doubled again in the couple of years that followed. Now, I’m pretty sure we’re in the midst of another doubling.

But climate intensity is a measure of quality as well as quantity. One morning in mid-May, I opened my email to find a cascade of climate stories that were current, compelling and urgent. None of them would have been on anyone’s radar three to five years ago.

There were three major studies on plastics pollution, including a blockbuster analysis that traced a carbon footprint equal to 189 new coal plants to the plastics industry, which begins with fossil fuels for its raw material. A major UN biodiversity report had just warned that up to a million species face extinction, many of them within decades, partly due to climate change.

There were two competing climate emergency resolutions up for debate in the House of Commons, with Liberals and New Democrats trying to outdo each other for the mantle of climate leader. Green candidate Paul Manly had recently won a by-election in the BC riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith after a campaign in which climate change was a top ballot-box issue. In the previous weeks, the climate crisis had surged to the top of the pre-election agenda, with nine million Canadians declaring it among their top one or two voting issues and 48 percent identifying it as a leading policy concern.

And Greta Thunberg had gained enough prominence to become a target of choice for far-right provocateurs in Germany. The combined weight of knowledge and action wasn’t nearly enough to stop Thunberg from observing that whereas in other times of crisis adults have raced to the defence of their offspring, “today we children are fighting for ourselves, [while] so many of our parents are busy discussing whether our grades are good, or a new diet or what happened in the Game of Thrones finale.”

But her comment did show up in the Guardian, one of the English-speaking world’s newspapers of record, in a bylined piece by Thunberg and 46 other youth activists. That, too, would have been unimaginable a scant 12 months ago.

The peril for politicians

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been a textbook example of how not to respond — to the climate crisis itself and to the public urgency it has triggered.

“Canada is back, my friends,” the newly minted PM told the Paris conference in December 2015. “We’re here to help.” But “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil and just leave it in the ground,” he added less than two years later, in a keynote address to the big CERAWeek oil and gas conference in Houston.

That contradiction might have been excused in 2015 or even in 2017. But not today. Now, with the federal election looming, party leaders are either tripping over themselves to promise to make the Alberta fossil industry great again or calculating how far they can safely stray from that line without losing mainstream support. If climate intensity shifts that mainstream much farther, they’ll all be caught flat-footed, as many of their counterparts have been in the EU.

“More than a protest vote, Green strength also rests on deep concern in Germany about the state of the planet,” the Washington Post reported. “German voters told pollsters that the environment was their top concern going into the vote, and that was apparent in the outcome. Exit polls in Germany showed the Greens to be the overwhelming top choice for young voters and for first-time voters. The party also did especially well in cities, while taking voters from both the center-left and the center-right parties.”

The wider global sweep of recent election results has been more mixed. Far-right parties have gained in the EU, and a pro-coal, climate-denying coalition unexpectedly won a close race in Australia, largely on support from the coal-producing state of Queensland.

But take a step back, and the momentum is unmistakable. Climate intensity scarcely existed when Canadians last went to the polls, but it’s surging today. With much of eastern Canada still recovering from epic floods, and the West heading into wildfire season, the demand for real action and consistent policies could become an irresistible force on the campaign trail.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Ash.B

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Mitchell Beer
Mitchell Beer is publisher of The Energy Mix, a thrice-weekly e-digest on climate change, energy and carbon-free solutions; and president of Ottawa-based Smarter Shift Inc.

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