Climate Extremes Can Produce ‘Vicarious Trauma’, Even From a Distance

This story includes details on the impacts of climate change that may be difficult for some readers. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this crisis situation here is a list of resources on how to cope with fears and feelings about the scope and pace of the climate crisis.

As worried and weary parents struggle to help their children process frightening events like the recent flooding in British Columbia, experts are affirming the complex reality of “vicarious trauma” and the need to take care of our own mental health, to maintain the emotional reserves necessary to help others.

Up until the B.C. floods happened, Australian expat and veterinarian Sonja Cehun and her husband had no problem answering any of the questions their two children, aged 10 and 13, might send their way, CBC reports.

However, when a devastating atmospheric river arrived on the shores of their adopted home in November and her 10-year-old daughter asked her why it was happening, Cehun told CBC she had no answers to give, and no comfort to offer.

Cehun realized that her own “emotional bucket” had run dry. The floods became the proverbial last straw after many months of witnessing tragedy both near and far—from family illness, to the summer’s heat dome, to the devastating 2020 bushfires in her birth country.

“I didn’t do a lot of editing of my own personal feelings about how things were. And so it’s hard… it trickles down to the children in every conceivable way,” said Cehun. The North Vancouver resident said she feels much anguish, even though she wasn’t directly harmed by the floods.

Robin Cox, a disaster and emergency management specialist at Royal Roads University, said even the second-hand experience of witnessing events like the B.C. floods through media reports can be profoundly upsetting to the psyche, especially if viewers live in an area that might one day face a similar threat.

Vicarious trauma is another risk, notes CBC. It’s an impact that is “typically experienced by those working with victims of trauma, such as a psychologist or doctor” and who are not directly affected. Vicarious trauma can also be experienced by people whose loved ones are under direct threat.

Katie Hayes, a senior policy analyst for Health Canada who interviewed survivors of the 2013 flooding in High River, Alberta, said trauma-through-distance (whether in space or time) is a real phenomenon that needs to be anticipated and understood.

As the climate crisis increasingly leaves its tragic calling card in communities across Canada, Hayes said everyone must attend to the painful emotions we may be feeling, and our children may be feeling, in response to all that is taking place.

As Cehun’s own emotional reserves run dry, she said she’s afraid of “running out of tools” to help her kids reframe all the scary things happening in the world. “Yes, they need more mental help, but how do you supply that when everybody’s buckets are empty?”

Cox recommended not shying away from painful conversations and meeting difficult events head-on, but in age-appropriate ways.

But, importantly, everyone needs to take care of their own hearts and minds first. “Put your oxygen mask on first and then help the person beside you, whether that person is a child or somebody else,” she advised.

Climate Policies Put Steel at a Crossroads, Spell Decline for B.C. Coal Mining

The steel industry is at a crossroads, with government policies like carbon pricing designed to combat climate change hitting manufacturers’ bottom lines and international pledges likely to seek further concessions from companies that burn fossil fuels.

And the CEO of Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario is hoping the company’s costly (and federally-backed) investment to make “green steel” will help to insulate it from the kinds of sector-wide downturns that previously threw it into bankruptcies, The Canadian Press reports.

“I would never say never, but we are certainly doing everything in our power to certainly minimize, if not eliminate, that risk,” says chief executive Michael McQuade, who has plans to reduce the company’s carbon emissions by about 70%.

That kind of activity is already reverberating through the coal industry, with CBC pointing to British Columbia coal’s vulnerability as the industry decarbonizes, and the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) reporting that global steel production may already have reached peak emissions.

B.C. Bets on a Declining Industry

“Ninety-five per cent of B.C. coal is metallurgical as opposed to thermal. Thermal coal is used to make steam that produces electricity. Metallurgical coal, or coking coal, is mined to produce the carbon used in steelmaking and is shipped mostly to Asian countries for that purpose,” CBC explains.

“But just because B.C. doesn’t produce and export thermal coal—which is nearly universally maligned for its high emissions—it doesn’t mean the province is not contributing to a massive amount of carbon emissions,” the national broadcaster adds. “In developing countries such as China and India, where infrastructure like railways, roads, bridges, and buildings is being built en masse, steel is crucial to continued growth.”

With annual sales approaching C$4 billion, CBC says coal is B.C.’s most valuable mined product, and the province accounts for nearly half of Canada’s coal production. But steel also accounts for an estimated 7% of global carbon pollution, according to researchers at Net Zero Steel.

CBC says even a fast transition to green steel will take time, with the first two facilities in Sweden now a few years away from commercial production. But “it’s quite feasible that starting, say, five years from now, all new steel plants are using some version of this technology,” said Net Zero Steel’s Chris Bataille, an IPCC lead author and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University. “It’s not even a matter of how much coal is there.… Eventually, if we’re serious about decarbonizing the steel industry, there won’t be any demand for coal.”

But while that technology shift is just beginning, IEEFA sees some prospect that demand for steel—and therefore for metallurgical coal and the emissions it produces—will begin falling off sooner. China produced 57% of the world’s crude steel last year, and “it’s possible that Chinese steel production—and hence China’s steel sector carbon emissions—peaked in 2020,” write analysts Simon Nicholas and Soroush Basirat.

The article cites national policy requiring steelmakers to keep their total production this year below 2020’s, troubles in the country’s real estate sector, and an attempt to shift steel production to electric arc furnaces as factors that weigh against coking coal and in favour of lower emissions.

Algoma Steel Electrifies to Cut Costs

CP says Canada’s steel industry is currently in a position of strength as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 downturn and a period of punishing tariffs imposed by the Trump administration in the United States.

The $15-billion industry produces about 13 million tonnes of primary steel, steel pipe, and tube products in more than 30 facilities in five provinces.

Profits are soaring as production destined primarily for sale in Canada and the U.S. fetches elevated prices during a moment of strong demand from an uptick in oil drilling and infrastructure spending. That has not always been the case, as rivals have previously flooded the market when transportation costs were lower, sending the commodity price of the metal lower.

Algoma is taking advantage of that situation to pursue initiatives it says will position it as a low-cost producer in the future.

Just three months after again becoming a public company and three years after emerging from bankruptcy, the largest employer in Sault Ste. Marie, announced a $703-million plan to go electric by converting its greenhouse- gas-spewing blast furnace to an electric arc furnace.

The move, supported by $420 million from the federal government and US$306 million from its merger with Legato, would reduce the 120-year-old company’s carbon emissions by about 70%.

The new furnace would primarily convert scrap metal into molten steel using Ontario’s electricity grid, which is largely sourced from non-fossil fuel sources.

McQuade said the electric arc furnace is a proven technology that would allow Algoma to adjust output to market demand, something that is not easily achievable with traditional blast furnaces that heat iron ore with coking coal at high temperatures. Its annual capacity would also increase more than 50%, to 3.7 million tonnes from its current capacity of 2.4 to 2.5 million tonnes.

A big driver for this conversion is planned increases in the federal carbon price to spur a reduction in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. The price per tonne is set to rise from $40 today to $170 in 2030.

Spending more now to go electric instead of relining its blast furnace would cut carbon, improve Algoma’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) profile, and help make the company a supplier of choice, McQuade said.

Worries About Local Job Cuts

Still, the move to electric arc furnaces isn’t without concern in a border city where generations of workers have been employed at the plant.

Suspicions have surfaced among local workers that the new technology will further cut employment, which has dipped to 2,500 because of automation. In Canada, direct employment in the steel sector has declined by more than half since the 1970s, and from 35,000 in 1990 to about 22,000 today.

“It’s possible that there will be very little impact if they do it properly. The problem was that they didn’t consult with us, and so there’s just a lot of fear among workers, like am I going to lose my job,” said Meg Gingrich, assistant to United Steelworkers Canada national director Ken Neumann.

McQuade won’t say how many positions will ultimately be shed, but he notes hundreds of employees are eligible for retirement. He said the company has been transparent about why the conversion is needed and noted there would be a hybrid phase in which the existing and new technologies will run together. It may take until 2029 for a full transition to occur.

Canada’s second-largest steelmaker isn’t alone as the industry adjusts to what McQuade describes as a new paradigm.

The federal government is also tapping into an $8-billion program supporting industrial decarbonization by investing $400 million in ArcelorMittal Dofasco, which is pursuing a $1.7-billion project to phase out coal-fired steelmaking at its facilities.

Canada’s largest producer of flat-rolled steel and the largest private sector employer in Hamilton said the project would reduce CO2 emissions by up to three million tonnes per year by 2030.

Higher Carbon Price Brings ‘Existential’ Change

Canada’s steelmakers say they are already among the greenest in the world, but the industry is striving to become net zero by 2050 when global demand is expected to soar by more than a third from current levels.

“When you have 16 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year and $170 carbon price coming at you, we know we need to address it,” said Catherine Cobden, president and CEO of the Canadian Steel Producers Association.

She said the two conversion projects are part of a journey to net zero that is not going to be easy.

“I think for us it’s almost existential. We’re living in a country that has got significant climate objectives and strong regulatory and carbon pricing mechanisms to back those objectives.”

Cobden said achieving net zero is going to require a lot of investment and additional policy support from government. That includes procurement requirements that support the purchase of low-carbon steel and stimulate the transformation even further, she said.

At the recent COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow, Canada signed on to the Industrial Deep Decarbonization Initiative, whereby countries would require green factors to be considered for the purchase of materials, including steel.

The United States and the European Union also recently announced a commitment to negotiate the world’s first carbon-based sectoral arrangement on steel and aluminum trade by 2024. The deal, which would be open to other interested countries, would restrict access to their markets for dirty steel and limit access to countries—namely China—that dump steel and contribute to worldwide oversupply.

A carbon-based arrangement is expected to drive investment in green steel production, while the new US$1-trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal in the United States holds promise of increased demand for years to come, provided there are no limitations on cross-border trade, said Cobden.

Steel producers currently don’t receive a price premium for lower-carbon steel, but tighter procurement rules could boost demand for it, said Clean Energy Canada Policy Director Sarah Petrevan.

“Certainly as the market becomes more and more competitive, there might be a premium offered to who could ever produce the cleanest at the highest quality,” she told CP.

Achieving net zero will require the adoption of different clean technologies, particularly the use of green hydrogen, that is at the early stage of technology readiness, Petrevan added. “Right now, some of those technologies that the steel industry needs are not commercially available, or they’re commercially available but not commercialized to a point where they’re readily affordable.”

The main body of this report was first published by The Canadian Press on November 21, 2021.

Model Fossil Phaseout on Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Berman Urges

Today’s question: Are fossil fuels at the table when decisions under the Paris Agreement are being negotiated? And what are the best ways to promote the Fossil Fuel Non-Treaty Initiative?

With fossil fuel companies facing their last gasp, and people around the world living the climate emergency, it’s time for citizens to push their countries to ban fossil fuel proliferation—just as a previous generation of politicians did with nuclear weapons, said Tzeporah Berman, Vancouver-based chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (FFNPT) initiative.

“A lot of people don’t realize that 86% of the emissions that are trapped in our atmosphere today come from three products: oil, gas, and coal,” Berman told The Energy Mix, in the last in a series of #COP26TinyExplainers interviews.

A generation ago, “we had weapons of mass destruction that could destroy the planet six times over, but we were still producing more and more and more and stockpiling them,” she added. “That’s what’s happening with fossil fuels today. So modelled on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, we’re calling on countries to negotiate a fossil fuel treaty that constrains the production of oil, gas, and coal.”

After 30 years of international talks and a Paris Agreement that “doesn’t even include the words oil, gas, coal, or fossil fuels,” Berman said, “we are not at all negotiating who gets to produce what fossil fuels and how much. So we’re on track to produce 110% more fossil fuels in the next decade than we can ever burn” and still hold average global warming to 1.5°C. That means the priorities are “first, to stop the expansion, then wind it down, then fast-track solutions. And to do that, we’re going to need international cooperation.”

Although the final decision at this year’s UN climate conference, COP 26, was a lot less assertive than many negotiators and observers wanted, “for the first time we started saying the F words, fossil fuels, and now we have the word “coal” and a reference to fossil fuel subsidies in the text of the Glasgow agreement,” she said. “It’s a start. We also have the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance,” a group of a dozen countries led by Denmark and Costa Rica that acknowledge the need to phase out all fossil fuels, not just coal.

Slow and incremental as that progress might be, “it’s on a growing trajectory,” Berman added. “We’re living that tipping point moment where people are starting to realize that we have enough. We have more than enough oil and gas, and existing installations are under construction to use while we transition.”

But the shift won’t happen on its own.

“Let’s be clear,” she said. “The oil and gas industry is still very, very powerful. They spend billions of dollars on advertising and lobbying to try and convince politicians that they need to keep them alive. And they’re successfully doing that. We’ve seen increased subsidies in almost every wealthy country, and they’re trying to convince the public that we can’t do without it, that we’re going to freeze in the dark.”

The reality to counter that “fear-mongering” is that “some of these companies are not going to survive,” Berman said. “They’re not made to be renewable energy companies. And the system of renewable energy and electrification for transportation and heating is not going to be controlled by five big global companies. It’s going to be controlled by millions of people. It’s going to be controlled by hundreds and thousands of governments at the municipal and state and federal levels, and the oil and gas industry doesn’t like that: it’s a transfer of power in every sense of the word power.”

“And so, they’re going to fight it.”

The Energy Mix reader Frances Deverell of British Columbia asked whether fossil fuel representatives are at the table when deals like the Paris Agreement are negotiated.

“They’re not formally at the negotiating table, but there were 100 fossil fuel companies or organizations representing fossil fuel companies at the COP, more than 500 delegates,” she said. “They were the largest single body at the COP, twice as many people as Indigenous nations globally.”

So even if fossils aren’t physically present at the table, “they’re in every room. They’re lobbying daily. I was speaking to someone recently from one of the [Canadian] provincial governments who said, ‘look, you know, you’ve got to get in here. Shell’s in here every day’.”

But “the environmental sector doesn’t have that kind of capacity. So we need our politicians to stand up to these fossil fuel companies, and we need Canadians to recognize that… what’s good for these companies is not what’s good for the public.”

Days before our interview with Berman, a British Columbia-based policy analyst in the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office tweeted from the midst of the province’s epic rains and floods that she didn’t want to hear from fossil lobbyists about why we need to slow down the transition off carbon.

“They are not going to design their own demise,” Berman said of the fossil lobby. But with their promise of “technological unicorns” like industrial carbon capture and storage, “the oil companies have gone from denial to delusion, they’re pulling our governments along with them, and we can’t afford it. Our planet is literally on fire and flooding. We are living it here in British Columbia. So many people I know are still stuck in evacuation centres or hotels, or spending days in their cars with their kids. So every tonne of carbon matters.”

Deverell asked how Canadians can support and promote the treaty initiative. “First of all, make it yours,” Berman replied. “No one owns the idea of a fossil fuel treaty.” She pointed to the campaign hub on the FFNPT website, noting that communities and organizations around the world are signing on so fast that she has trouble keeping track.

Soil — dull and dirty? Think again …

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