Europe’s heatwave may have caused more than 20,000 ‘excess’ deaths

This article was written by Juliette Portala of Reuters and was published in the Globe & Mail on November 24, 2022.

The sun rises above the London skyline, as a second heatwave is predicted for parts of the country, in London on Aug. 11.TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS

Summer heatwaves in France, Germany, Spain and Britain led to more than 20,000 “excess” deaths, a report compiling official figures said on Thursday.

Temperatures hit nearly 40 degrees Celsius or above from Paris to London in 2022 and climate scientists from the World Weather Attribution group found that such high temperatures would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change.

A heatwave in 2003 caused more than 70,000 excess deaths across Europe, largely in France, and led many countries to implement measures such as early warning systems, asking people to check on others and opening air-conditioned schools.

This and related action plans may have eased some of the impact of heatwaves in 2022, but the death toll was still “higher than expected,” Chloe Brimicombe, a heatwaves researcher at the University of Graz in Austria, said.

“I consider this … the most impactful heatwave since 2003,” she told Reuters.

Because authorities do not attribute most deaths directly to heat, statisticians use the excess formula to give an estimate, looking at how many more people died in a given period than would be expected compared with a historical baseline.

Heat can kill by inducing heatstroke, which damages the brain, kidneys and other organs, but it can also trigger other conditions such as a heart attack or breathing problems.

The World Meteorological Organization said this month that Europe had warmed more than twice as much as the rest of the world over the past three decades, while the Copernicus Climate Change Service said summer 2022 was the hottest on record.

France reported about half of the summer’s excess deaths in Western Europe, with 10,420 fatalities in total.

Excess deaths reached 3,271 in England and Wales during the summer, Britain’s Office of National Statistics reported.

Spain recorded 4,655 heat-attributable deaths between June and August while the German health agency reported 4,500.

New protections for 500 species

This article was written by Kathia Martinez and was published in the Toronto Star on November 27, 2022.

Delegates at a recently held UN wildlife conference also rejected a proposal to reopen the ivory trade.

An international wildlife conference moved to enact some of the most significant protection for shark species targeted in the fin trade and scores of turtles, lizards and frogs whose numbers are being decimated by the pet trade.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES, ended Friday in Panama. In a record for the conference, delegates enacted protections for over 500 species. The United Nations wildlife conference also rejected a proposal to reopen the ivory trade. An ivory ban was enacted in 1989.

“The Parties to CITES are fully aware of their responsibility to address the biodiversity loss crisis by taking action to ensure that the international trade in wildlife is sustainable, legal and traceable,” Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero said in a statement.

“Trade underpins human well-being, but we need to mend our relationship with nature,” she said. “The decisions coming from this meeting will serve the interests of conservation and wildlife trade, that doesn’t threaten the existence of species of plants and animals in the wild, for future generations.”

The international wildlife trade treaty, which was adopted 49 years ago in Washington, D.C., has been praised for helping stem the illegal and unsustainable trade in ivory and rhino horns as well as in whales and sea turtles.

But it has come under fire for its limitations, including its reliance on cash-strapped developing countries to combat illegal trade that’s become a lucrative $10-billion-a-year (U.S.) business.

One of the biggest achievements this year was increasing or providing protection for more than 90 shark species, including 54 species of requiem sharks, the bonnethead shark, three species of hammerhead shark and 37 species of guitarfish. Many had never before had trade protection and now, under Appendix II, the commercial trade will be regulated.

Global shark populations are declining, with annual deaths due to fisheries reaching about100 million. The sharks are sought mostly for their fins, which are used in shark fin soup, a popular delicacy in China and elsewhere in Asia.

The conference also enacted protections for dozens of species of turtle, lizard and 160 amphibian species, including glass frogs whose translucent skin made them a favourite in the pet trade. Several song birds also got trade protection as well as 150 tree species.

Splitting air

Our only choice is to work together — our future depends on it

This article was written by Jerry Levitan and was published in the Toronto Star on November 26, 2022.

Are people giving up on having a say in their lives and are resigned to survival? If that is true, where in heavens are we all headed?, Jerry Levitan asks.

“For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

—John F. Kennedy, commencement address at American University, Washington, D.C., June 10, 1963

What goes through the minds of those with power and influence who make the decisions that affect people’s lives? Given the overwhelming existential challenges humanity faces, we have more in common than ever before, including how imperilled we all are.

None of us can escape from our deteriorating environment, contagions that spread and mutate so quickly, economic dysfunction and the reckless selfishness that characterizes our species. All the while, the powerful make decisions that impact us, many times with devastating consequences.

Most of us have no choice but to focus on our day-today struggles. We do not have the time or capacities to keep up with all the swirling havoc that surrounds us. The powerful have that time and the resources to define our economic and social systems to reflect their interests, priorities and perspectives.

Nothing proves this point more than the atrocious election turnouts in Ontario’s and Toronto’s past elections. Is the reason as simple as people are giving up on having a say in their lives and are resigned to survival? If that is true, where in heavens are we all headed?

A decades-old scientific theory explores why we have not yet discovered any sign of alien life on Earth or in the vast reaches of the universe. “The Great Filter” postulates that nobody else is out there because intelligent life inevitably reaches a stage at which it destroys itself.

A great piece in the Daily Beast highlights NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s examination of that theory, developed by economist Robin Hanson in 1996, who wrote: “The fact that our universe seems basically dead suggests that it is very, very hard for advanced, explosive, lasting life to arise.”

Assuming this theory has validity, astrophysicist Jonathan Jiang and his co-authors are quoted in the piece to say: “The key to humanity successfully traversing such a universal filter is … identifying those attributes in ourselves and neutralizing them in advance.”

This brings me back to my question: What goes through the minds of the people who make decisions that impact us? Imagine having the opportunity to decide on how to treat workers in our educational system and how to fund it, the system that takes care of and nurtures our children.

Or, health care workers who risked their lives during the pandemic to protect strangers and funding that system for our well-being. Would you want these workers to be treated fairly and show gratitude and support for what they do? Would you want your tax dollars to go to those systems so they could operate effectively for our collective benefit? Or would you rather spend taxpayer money elsewhere, like giving motorists rebates for licence plate renewals before an election, or building billion-dollar highways? Remember, this is our money.

Imagine the thought process and discussion that leads to decisions to open up Ontario’s Greenbelt to development, or using the notwithstanding clause to suspend the applicability of our Charter of Rights. How about diminishing the power of councillors, who we just elected by empowering the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa to force passage of bylaws that align with provincial priorities, whatever that means, if more than one-third of council members vote in favour.

Are these the decisions you would make if you had power and influence? Do you want your children and their children to get used to this kind of exercise of arbitrary power in a mutated form of democracy?

We have the ability to replace the Great Filter and not succumb to Hanson’s theory. We can replace that filter with one that neutralizes our destructive attributes. We can find our common ground recognizing that we breathe the same air, cherish our children’s future and know that we are all mortal.

To do that, we need leadership of courage and vision, dedication to addressing our existential challenges and we need, all of us, to vote.

Hydrogen op-ed needed context

This opinion was written by Donovan Vincent, the Star’s public editor, and was published in the Toronto Star on November 26, 2022.

While opinion pieces afford writers a forum to present more of their point of view, when it comes to important and complex issues that some readers may not be overly familiar with, there’s also a duty to inform.

Earlier this month, the Star published an opinion article that said the oil and gas sector has “bamboozled” this country’s politicians into supporting Canada’s hydrogen industry.

The contribution from freelancer Taylor C. Noakes, a journalist, historian and regular contributor to the Star, argued Canada’s goals for hydrogen as an alternate energy source are based more on “myth than reality” when it comes to fighting climate change.

Noakes believes that rather than being the fuel of the future, as proponents are calling it, hydrogen use is still in the “highly experimental” phase and lacks the critical infrastructure to be transported widely, whether by land or sea.

Intended to coincide with the timing of the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt and pegged to news earlier this summer of a hydrogen export pact signed between Canada and Germany, Noakes’ article started on the front page of our Insight section and provided lots of fascinating facts that seemed to back up his main thesis.

Noakes argued hydrogen is a complicated solution given the existence of simpler options, including solar and wind power. He went on to say hydrogen is being touted by the fossil fuel sector because that sector derives financial benefits from it — primarily, because they have natural gas in abundance that they can use as the feeder fuel to create hydrogen.

He later quoted a manager from Environmental Defence who slammed hydrogen as a way for fossil fuel interests to “lock in more natural gas infrastructure.”

Near the end of the article, Noakes pointed out that earlier this month, the federal government committed several hundred million dollars to a hydrogen facility in the works in Edmonton, operated by Pennsylvania-based firm Air Products, a company that calls itself the world’s largest hydrogen producer.

A reader couldn’t be faulted, therefore, for concluding that politicians from our federal government had just wasted a fortune in tax dollars on a new hydrogen facility after being hoodwinked by the oil and gas lobby.

But some experts, including representatives from Air Products and a local environmentalist who has for decades studied hydrogen and clean energy, contacted the Star to say Noakes left out some important context in his story — salient details readers needed to fully grasp what is actually happening with our hydrogen industry.

After hearing their arguments, I tend to agree.

Opinion articles are just that: an opportunity for writers to tell readers how they feel about issues. Like I do with my column.

But it’s a delicate balance. While opinion pieces afford writers a forum to present more of their point of view, when it comes to important and complex issues that some readers may not be overly familiar with, there’s also a duty to inform.

Noakes spent a lot of time delving into blue hydrogen, which he wrote is being “championed” by the oil and gas sector as a stepping stone to greener hydrogen.

Blue hydrogen is created through a process called steam reforming, breaking methane — a hydrocarbon and primary component of natural gas — into hydrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2), and coupling that with another process that is supposed to capture the CO2 before it gets into the atmosphere.

The article quoted an expert in the area, Robert W. Howarth, a professor at Cornell University, who basically dismissed blue hydrogen. Howarth said in part there are only two blue hydrogen plants “anywhere in the world,” and that the plants “have not even tried to capture the large amount of carbon dioxide generated from burning the natural gas that powers the steam methane reforming process.”

No experts working in the hydrogen industry were quoted in this story. (Tim Fryer, the Star editor who handled the piece, says he erred in not pushing Noakes to do this.)

By making a quick call to Air Products, the company that received the whopping federal subsidy earlier this month for their new $1.6-billion facility (it will be operational in 2024, the company says), Noakes would have been able to mention that Air Products plans to put in place an auto-thermal reformer, a different process based on advanced technology the company says will allow for a greater capture of CO2, at over 95 per cent. Electricity powered by hydrogen will offset the remaining five per cent of CO2 to get to net zero, the company says.

The advanced gasification process uses oxygen, which allows for the capture of a more concentrated form of CO2, explains Simon Moore, a vicepresident with Air Products.

Hydrogen is largely used to clean transportation fuels such as diesel, reducing harmful sulphur in the fuel, thus reducing those emissions. Edmonton is using hydrogen-powered buses. Those in the industry also argue that for transporting purposes, hydrogen can be converted to ammonia, which has higher storage capacity. Ammonia can also be easily converted back to hydrogen.

In its report, “Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector,” the International Energy Agency says one of the key pillars of decarbonization — achieving the quick reduction in CO2 over the next 30 years — includes electrification, renewables, and hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels.

“If we can sequester — (i.e. isolate or cut) — carbon, then we have a huge advantage as a country economically,” argues Dennis Gazarek, a reader who reached out to the Star after going over Noakes’ piece.

Gazarek describes himself as a “practical environmentalist” (pro-wind, nuclear and solar) who has studied the hydrogen industry closely for decades. The world will need a mix of energy solutions in the future, he says, including hydrogen.

To me, hydrogen clearly has its pros and cons, and remains a work in progress if it’s to truly become a “fuel of the future.”

But when you’re telling a story about a topic this nuanced, there are important elements that readers need to be given upfront.

Finding hope for bringing babies into a climate anxious world

Director discovers power in action while making documentary about what to expect when you’re expecting the climate crisis

This article was written by Victoria Lean and was published in the Toronto Star on November 26, 2022.

VICTORIA LEAN VICTORIA LEAN IS A TORONTO-BASED WRITER, PRODUCER AND DIRECTOR. HER DOCUMENTARY “THE CLIMATE BABY DILEMMA” IS STREAMING ON CBC GEM.

Payton Mitchell sees her activism as a form of family, writes documentarian Victoria Lean, and an expression of love for the people and places she cares deeply about.

Being young today means never knowing a time when the world wasn’t warming.

Along with temperature, climate anxiety is on the rise. A global survey found that more than half of people aged 16 to 25 believe that humanity is doomed. And I sympathize with that feeling.

I was born in the 1980s, with environmental scientists for parents, and so oil spills and ozone hole depletion were dinner table conversations. How humanity is trashing the planet — and what we can do about it — drives my work now as a filmmaker but is also on my mind when thinking about starting a family of my own.

Nothing ties you to the future like a child in your life, or a child you want to have. Despite knowing climate facts for years, it really hit home when I found an interactive tool that plotted key family milestones alongside the dramatic rise in global temperature. If I had a child now, they could face up to seven times more extreme weather events compared to my mother’s generation.

Deciding whether to have kids is a personal process that involves many factors. For me, grim forecasts for the planet add in some more. Recently, I wrote, directed and produced a docuseries about existential risks, called “We’re All Gonna Die (Even Jay Baruchel)” on CRAVE. While thinking through nuclear war, pandemics and climate change (among other apocalyptic scenarios), I was wondering how all this existential dread was permeating the most personal of existential decisions. To work through an existential double whammy, I made “The Climate Baby Dilemma” for CBC, a documentary about what to expect when you’re expecting … the climate crisis.

One would think I’d have even more dread now, but quite the opposite. I’ve realized that these are complex global problems, but problems — even the toughest ones — are meant to be solved, and solutions do exist. It’s technically possible to limit temperature rise from reaching catastrophic levels. Every action matters because preventing every additional amount of warming matters.

What I learned, emotionally, making this film was far more beautiful and hopeful than I expected, but it was also more deeply heartbreaking than I could have imagined. Over three years, I followed the groundbreaking researcher Dr. Britt Wray, as she wrestles with the question of whether or not to have a child, all while writing her book, “Generation Dread,” about the psychological impacts of the environmental crisis. Wray’s own work and multiple surveys have since confirmed that the concern about having kids in the climate crisis is widespread — 39 per cent of people aged 16 to 25 in 10 countries express that the climate makes them hesitant to have children, and another survey of just gen Z respondents in the U.S. put it as high as 78 per cent.

Their reasons are diverse, but generally people express more concern about the world a child would be inheriting, than the additional carbon footprint a child would add. In the film, I also met student activists like Emma Lim, who helped organize the 2019 youth climate protests in Canada. At the time, she also launched a pledge called No Future, No Children. For her and the thousands of youth who signed, forgoing parenthood is both an expression of their fear and a plea for action. To be clear, no one featured in the film is interested in telling others to have kids or not, and this is not about population control. It is an urgent indicator of how young people are feeling.

In nine years, unless emissions are brought down, the planet will exhaust its 1.5 C carbon budget. Coincidentally, within nine years, I’ll also have to make a definitive call on biological children or not. But I’ve realized that a specific answer to this question about kids in the climate crisis isn’t what ultimately matters. There’s no right or wrong answer here. It’s the very fact of the question that my generation (and younger) is presented with, and how we go about making sense of it with those we love. This reproductive decision — for those fortunate to be able to make one that’s in line with their wishes — is also just one in a long line of questions that the climate crisis presents us for the rest of our lives.

While many are increasingly connecting kids and the climate crisis, it’s mostly done in private. Parents, nonparents and the undecided can feel alone, isolated and helpless in their anxiety. But I’ve learned that there’s so much power in talking with others about it. By giving shape to something so personal, I hope the film encourages more people to have these conversations. It not only helps manage the emotions, but it personalizes the stakes of the crisis and plugs us into what will keep children safer: advancing justice-oriented approaches to climate action and the transition off fossil fuels.

At one moment in the film, Sarain Fox, an Anishinaabe mother and activist, articulates how bringing kids into an extremely insecure and uncertain future is only actually new for those of us “who have had the privilege to live outside of genocide.” Indigenous as well as Black and racialized families have been raising children under the horrific shadow of racism and colonialism for hundreds of years, while finding ways to resist and build resilience and joy.

Fox highlights how the pain many now feel about the future can serve as “a kind of window into so many demographics who live with that same fear every day because of the world they live in.” Channelling this pain about the future toward solidarity and building deep and profound systemic change is fundamental — and frankly, true climate resilience requires it.

Throughout the documentary, Wray and others find ways to reframe their anxiety and grief toward transformative action. For many, the best antidote to feeling powerless is activism — and that can take many forms, including the decision to not have a child, focus on climate work and help to build more resilient communities. Like Payton Mitchell, who sees her activism as a form of family, and an expression of love for the people and places she cares deeply about.

On the heels of COP27, I’m thinking about where the process began 30 years ago.

At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, 154 states signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. There, a 12-year-old Severn Suzuki gave an impassioned speech that ended with: “You grown-ups say you love us. But I challenge you, please make your actions reflect your words.”

In the film, Suzuki, who is now an activist and mother of two, shares that the meaning of those words have only deepened for her and if we can embody the love we have for our kids as a society, then of course we can deal with these challenges. Making the film has connected me more intentionally and deeply to that sense of love for the next generation, and it has also introduced new set of questions involving what’s now required to truly demonstrate that love to them.

We are still learning about the true toll of the climate crisis. But the future is not doomed — it is still unwritten. Regardless of the level of climate devastation ahead, I’ve learned that we must now to find new tools as parents, as aunties and uncles, as godparents and community members to support the youth in our lives. It also means preparing for the day when a child looks you in the eye and asks if you did everything you possibly could.

Seed storage

The Global Seed Vault’s mission is to ensure Earth’s biodiversity

This article was written by Lex Harvey and was published in the Toronto Star on November 26, 2022.

The vault, operated by the Norwegian government and a German nonprofit called the Crop Trust, is only opened a few times a year to make way for new seeds.

You’ll need to carry a rifle if you wish to visit the world’s biggest collection of agricultural diversity. Here on Norway’s wild and vast Svalbard archipelago, polar bears outnumber people — and you can never be too careful (though of course, killing one is strictly a last resort).

In the icy tundra of Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town, few crops grow. But deep within its permafrost — layers of soil, gravel and sand, frozen in place — lay the keys to securing the world’s food supply, in the form of more than one million types of seeds.

Dubbed the “doomsday vault,” the Global Seed Vault has a certain scifi quality to it. The concrete structure jutting out of the hillside is built to withstand the most severe natural disasters, and even a nuclear bomb, according to its manufacturer. But at its core, the vault’s mission is quite simple.

“It’s just seed storage inside the mountain,” says Åsmund Asdal, the vault’s co-ordinator and only fulltime employee. Still, since it was built in 2008, the vault has acted as something of an insurance policy for Earth’s biodiversity, a role of increasing importance in a world ravaged by political instability, war and the urgent threat of climate change.

At 78 degrees N, about 1,000 kilometres away from the North Pole, you’d be hard pressed to find a more remote (yet still accessible) place to safeguard the world’s seeds. The vault sits just outside Longyearbyen, up the hill from the world’s northernmost commercial airport. For three months of the year, the vault resides in complete darkness, after the sun sets for the Arctic’s long polar night.

The seeds live in a chilled room, carved more than 100 metres into the rock, through a long tunnel and behind a large steel door that keeps out unwanted visitors. The vault is closed to the public, and its doors are only opened a few times a year to make way for new seeds. But the shimmering exterior, dressed in a design of steel and mirror shards by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne, hints at the magic that lies inside.

The Global Seed Vault, which is operated by the Norwegian government and a German nonprofit called the Crop Trust, is part of a broader network for seed storage. About 1,750 gene banks scattered across the globe hold the genetic codes to the world’s crops, both past and present, in the form of seeds or other plant tissues called germ plasm. Together, these facilities contain about 7.4 million types of germ plasm, according to the UN’s food and agriculture agency.

Around the world, crop diversity is decreasing, as food production converges around a globalized diet. A 2019 University of Toronto study found just four crops — soybeans, wheat, rice and corn — occupy nearly half of the world’s agricultural lands. The researchers also pointed to a lack of genetic diversity within individual crops; for example, in North America, just six individual corn genotypes make up over half of all corn crops. When a small number of crop genotypes dominate globally, that makes our food supply more vulnerable to disease and disaster.

Preserving living crop genotypes in gene banks means plant breeders can tap into that diversity to create new, resilient crops. “We need diversity to create something new,” Axel Diederichsen, a researcher for Agriculture and AgriFood Canada, who works at Canada’s plant gene bank, in Saskatoon. “If we only have one type of wheat and we want to make a new wheat, it’s very difficult. But if we have a collection with diverse wheat, then we can make crosses.”

Canada also has two other gene banks: one in Harrow, Ont., which holds fruit trees and small crops; and another, in Fredericton, which stores the genetic material for more than 200 types of potatoes.

But gene banks are fallible. “Many gene banks all over the world have lost seeds, due to flooding, due to fires, due to war and conflict, due to electricity failures, lack of resources,” said Asdal, the vault’s co-ordinator. Anything from a dropped envelope to a natural disaster can threaten the preservation of seeds in gene banks.

That’s where the Global Seed Vault comes in. Gene banks are invited to store duplicates of their seeds in the Svalbard vault, as a backup. Canada has about 32,000 envelopes in Svalbard, each containing about 200 seeds, to grow crops like barley, oat and wheat, Diederichsen said. Since 2008, Canada has made seven deposits in the Global Seed Bank, he said, and has another planned for October.

The vault currently hosts 5,947 plant species, many of which no longer grow on this earth, from 91 gene banks, according to its website. With each new deposit, the vault’s library grows richer. In June, Lithuania and Spain backed up seeds in the Global Seed Vault for the first time, as part of a large deposit that welcomed varieties of rice bean, lablab and a yard-long bean.

The vault’s value has already been tested. In 2015, after Syria’s bloody civil war forced an important gene bank in Aleppo to relocate to Beirut, researchers retrieved more than100,000 seed samples from the Arctic to replant in the new facility.

The Global Seed Vault’s far-flung location in an Arctic territory of politically stable Norway makes it a comfortable and safe home for the world’s seeds. Svalbard’s chilly climate and hundreds of metres thick permafrost make it a good choice, too. When seeds are frozen, they can stay alive for centuries, Asdal said. The mountain permafrost has a stable temperature of between -3 and -4 C, and the vault uses artificial cooling to keep the seeds at an icy -18C. But even if the cooling system were to fail, the seeds would stay frozen, Asdal said.

But even this so-called doomsday vault isn’t immune to the world’s collective climate change. Svalbard is the fastest warming place on earth, heating at a rate five to seven times that of the rest of the world, and rapidly rising temperatures are causing the permafrost to thaw. After an unusually warm winter in 2017, a flood of meltwater breached the vault. No seeds were harmed, but the scare prompted the Norwegian government to spend about $30 million fortifying the vault.

Despite the existential threats Svalbard is facing — from melting glaciers, to avalanches, to landslides — the Global Seed Vault is safe, Asdal assures, though it may need to use a bit more electricity to keep things cool as the planet warms.

Still, the world will need to lean on the genetic resources in the vault and other gene banks as the climate crisis accelerates, to replant crops that are destroyed in major weather events, and to breed new, adaptive plant varieties. Our food security depends on it.