Our Extraordinary Moment

On June 18, 2015, WWF-Canada’s workplace engagement program Living Planet at Work hosted a night of celebration to mark the end of a successful Spring Things fundraising campaign. All who attended were treated to a keynote speech followed by Q&A with the Honourable John Godfrey, climate change adviser for the Government of Ontario. Godfrey provided a historians view of climate change. The following is a summary of his remarks. 
Today we stand at an extraordinary moment in history.
The issue of climate change, and the actions and technologies associated with it, is no longer radical. It is a topic seriously addressed by governments and, most recently, the Pope. Attitudes, actions and knowledge are changing at a fast pace. And as a historian, I’d like to share my perspective on how we are on the brink of the next industrial revolution and now moving toward a low carbon future.

John Godfrey © Charlie Lindsay / WWF-Canada
John Godfrey © Charlie Lindsay / WWF-Canada

The Unbound Prometheus is a classic economic history text that focuses on three major industrial revolutions, and documents the initiation and results of each. During these revolutions, as we see today, society changed at amazing rates, spurred on by the introduction of new technologies.
First industrialization changed how we worked, then electricity and the internal combustion engine changed how we lived and travelled, finally chemicals and electrons changed how we saw the world, and how we made it work for us. Today, in the midst of the low carbon revolution, we can see how some technologies – like the Tesla electric car – will allow us to keep certain lifestyle choices while transitioning from fossil fuels, and how other technologies – like email and videoconference – will eliminate the need for some carbon intensive choices, like travel and traditional mail delivery.
In The Unbound Prometheus, David Landes says, “No economic and social system, at least historically, has ever been pushed to its extreme logical consequences”. Today, I think we have. And climate change is that consequence. It is time to use innovation and policy to support the digital revolution to a low carbon society.
There are three things we need to do.
The first is adaptation. Unfortunately we are too late to the party and are already seeing the effects of a changing climate. In Winnipeg for example, infrastructure was historically built to withstand 100 year floods. Suddenly, in the 90’s we saw extreme flooding happening more frequently – three 100 year floods within 10 years. We need to adapt to a changing future, but the world of adaptation is fraught with our inability to project the future based on historic standards. We can’t rely on the past as a model for the future anymore, and we must build and adapt based on changes that we might expect.
Of course, you have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, which in this case means we need to address mitigation – reducing greenhouse gas emissions – while adaptation planning is underway. This is where the government of Ontario’s proposed cap and trade program will come in. Cap and trade is not a silver bullet. It will perhaps take care of 20 per cent of the solution. More importantly, a price on carbon sends a signal to businesses that this transition to a low carbon economy is happening, and it reinforces other policies that will encourage sector specific reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.
Finally, we must invest in innovation. This is where our hope for the future comes in. Our own ingenuity can plan a significant role in stopping our momentum on this course and turning us to a new direction.
Climate change will hurt species at risk. It will hurt our economy. And society will need to adapt to a new climate. It will hurt the individuals and communities that are the least able to adapt. Think of the aboriginal communities and populations and how they will respond and adapt to increased flooding. Climate change may be an environmental issue, but it’s also an economic one and perhaps most importantly, a social justice issue.
On the topic of climate change, our obligation to act, and hope for the future. I can’t do much better than to quote Pope Francis himself:
“Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start”.
These remarks were summarized from the Honourable John Godfrey keynote speech titled “A Historian’s Perspective on Climate Change”. Godfrey was the guest of honour at WWF-Canada’s workplace engagement program Living Planet at Work celebration to mark the end of a successful Spring Things fundraising campaign. Learn more abouut workplace engagement and corporate giving here.