Canada Is Starting To Actually Acknowledge Climate Change

Whether Stephen Harper likes it or not, a Canadian government study says climate change in Canada is inevitable

Jun 29 2014, 1:30pm
Image. ItzaFineDay/Flickr

Natural Resources Canada just released an exhaustive report on Canada's changing climate—the first since 2008. The report gathers over 1,500 academic, government, and industry sources and is meant to serve as a manual to deal with the present and future realities of climate change. The statistics collected are sobering, acknowledging Canada's climate has already shifted in a variety of ways and that future change is inevitable.

All of the symptoms of climate change, something Prime Minister Stephen Harper rarely addresses and is frequently accused of ignoring, are on full display in the report.

The annual temperature in Canada has risen 1.5°C since 1950, and the frequency of extreme weather events, both hot and cold, has risen over the same time span. Things are getting wetter, with precipitation up, and arctic permafrost melting. Oceans are rising, about three millimeters per year on the Atlantic side, and our coastal waters are less oxygenated and more acidic. Every single one of those changes is predicted to continue or intensify as climate change progresses.

These changes have already had a variety of negative effects. Over 20 common bird species have seen their populations decline over 50 percent since 1970 due to changing habitat conditions. The Canadian insurance industry has broken payout records in 2011 and 2013 with over $1.7 billion dollars in claims for property damages arising from extreme weather events, a trend that is expected to continue. In fact, just last year Calgary was almost swallowed by a biblical flood.

The report holds that, in the future, few aspects of Canadian life will remain unaffected. Industry will deal with extreme weather and uncertain supply routes, while food producers will face changing habitat conditions and increased disease to crops, all of it tied to warmer weather.

Human health is similarly vulnerable—Lyme disease cases are increasing with the temperature, as ticks make their way north in droves for new warmer, Canadian landscapes. A series of credible studies cited within the report suggest that diseases associated with warmer climates, like malaria, could also become prevalent in southern Canada.

The report also stresses the "opportunity" presented by climate change, and believes Canadian industry can adapt. Golf is frequently brought up as a sector that people may profit from due to "increased season length and demand". Similarly, changing arctic conditions will allow easier exploitation of natural resources in northern Canada.

Coastal areas may benefit temporarily from warmer ocean conditions and increased fish stocks, but the prairies will be struck with more frequent and intense droughts. Vulnerable communities with poorly-maintained infrastructure are expected to suffer, and native communities that rely on subsistence hunting or fishing may see their food sources disappear entirely.

The most concerning aspect of the report is its consistent admission of uncertainty when predicting the effects of climate change. Each section contains asides calling for more study, or direct admissions that researchers are unsure of how bad things will be.

The unexpected consequences of climate change are already on display in Canada's western forests, where the mountain pine beetle population has exploded due to mild winters, destroying 18.1 million hectares of pine trees. By 2020, the trees killed by the beetles will have released enough carbon into the atmosphere to account for five years of Canada's auto emissions.

Adaptation is a major theme of the report, and this fits with the current government's approach to climate change. While Canada shows little interest in hitting emission targets, or creating a market for carbon trading, it has nearly doubled its spending on adaptation programs, from $86 million in 2007 to $149 million in 2001.

I asked Dr. Adam Fenech, a climate researcher and director of the Climate Lab at UPEI, about Canada's commitment to climate change research. "Canada has devoted much of its climate research funding over the past 10 years to determining how Canada should adapt to the inevitable changes from current and future climate," he said. "Canada's commitment to climate change adaptation research is equivalent or greater than other countries."

Deputy Environment Minister Bob Hamilton displayed passivity typical of this government when taking questions on emission reduction at a recent parliamentary meeting: "We're 2 percent of the total global emissions… …if we went down to 1 percent; I guess that would have an impact, but it's not going to change the course of events."

The report comes after President Obama has made multiple overtures to the Harper government to begin acknowledging and combatting greenhouse gass emissions. So far, Harper hasn't appeared particularly interested in working with his American counterpart to change anything.

Climate change is inevitable, and adaptation is both smart and necessary. Early warning systems for extreme weather and a better understanding of changing populations and disease risks are all vital. But the Harper government has been notoriously slow on reducing carbon emissions, and while better data and better survival plans will be helpful in the short term, they won't slow or halt the climate crisis.

Stephen Buranyi is a scientist living in London. Say hello to him as he types away at the Dalston Library, or follow him on Twitter.