With Canada warming twice as fast as the rest of the world – and some of its northern areas warming at even faster rates – the country’s newly released “Canada’s Changing Climate Report” lays a strong foundation for two subsequent government reports to be released over the next two years.
The aim of the new governmental report isn’t just to be a reference for scientists and officials. Its creators hope every-day Canadian citizens will read it and learn more about climate change, referring back to it on what is happening around them.
“While scientists have known that northern latitudes have warmed and will continue to warm more than the global average, most Canadians did not realize this,” says Elizabeth Bush, senior climate science advisor for the Climate Research Division of Environment and Climate Change Canada. “So this headline really struck a chord and I think got people to sit up and pay attention to how much change Canada will face,” Bush said.
As the first in the series, the report provides a foundation of knowledge. The next two are to focus on climate change impacts on the country’s regions and economic sectors and explore topics such as health impacts. The reports are also expected to address actions governments and communities can take to adapt to and reduce risks.
The report delves into issues related to Arctic ice and to drought-fueled wildfires that have swept through huge swaths of British Columbia, Alberta, and other provinces. The authors cite incidents like the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire that forced 80,000 residents to evacuate and caused $3.5 billion Canadian in insured losses, with a total expected financial toll to be much higher. They note also that wildfires affect residents far from the flames as plumes of smoke cause health impacts in communities hundreds of miles away. The report also mentions the 2013 flooding in southern Alberta and its heavy impacts in Calgary, causing $6 billion Canadian in damage. Coastal cities, like Vancouver and Halifax, are also facing the threat of sea-level rise.
While the impacts of a warming climate are being felt throughout the country, Canada’s northern communities are facing the brunt of those impacts.
Most severe impacts now in northern Canada … and on Inuits
“The parts of Canada that are warming the fastest are the least inhabited, obviously in northern Canada, but this is incredibly important for Inuit communities that depend on the land and depend on sea ice for travel and for food, and we’re seeing rapid changes in ice cover in the Arctic,” says Simon Donner, climate scientist and geography professor at the University of British Columbia. “The Inuit people are seeing the most dramatic changes in the climate of almost anyone in the world, really.”
While the PDF of the report comes in at a whopping 444 pages, the authors prioritized an easy-to-use digital interface to make it more readily accessible.
“The real emphasis was on getting the information to the public in an easily accessible and appealing way through an interactive website,” Bush says.
She and her research team took three years total to produce the report and have it reviewed internally and externally. While the United States has a congressional mandate to conduct a National Climate Assessment every four years, Canada doesn’t have the same requirement. Instead, it produces reports periodically at the choosing of the government in power, and not on a set schedule. In preparing this report, the Canadian team traveled to Washington D.C. in April 2017 to collaborate with the U.S. national assessment team.
A time for action … amidst some sobering concerns
The report itself carries its share of grim predictions, but it also offers some reasons for hope.
One of the report’s headline statements reads:
The rate and magnitude of climate change under high versus low emission scenarios project two very different futures for Canada …. Scenarios with limited warming will only occur if Canada and the rest of the world reduce carbon emissions to near zero early in the second half of the century and reduce emissions of other greenhouse gases substantially.
Bush says the report authors hope it will encourage Canadians to do what they can to reduce their contributions to global warming immediately. She points to the fall 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report “Global Warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
Preparing for a future ‘that is different than the one we’ve adapted to in the past.’
“The key message that came out of that report was half a degree’s difference really matters,” Bush says. “It’s certainly urgent, and all action is needed to try and limit the amount of global warming, and that will, of course, limit the amount of warming that Canada and the U.S. and other countries experience.”
Forget about national borders – ‘No wall you can build’
Donner points out these impacts don’t just affect a single country or localized region, but rather transcend borders. He points to wildfire smoke from Canadian fires drifting into the U.S., and says U.S. communities rely on Canadian hydropower, agriculture, and other resources.
“Climate change doesn’t obey national borders – there’s no wall you can build,” Donner says.
Whatever actions people take to reduce their impact, it’s also crucial to focus on adaptation, the Canadian report authors emphasized.
“Further warming is unavoidable,” Bush says. “We know that because we can’t stop the problem tomorrow, and so in parallel with taking action to reduce emissions, it’s really critical to have conversations around the need for adaptation. And this is true in Canada, and I’m sure it’s true in the U.S. as well. We need to prepare for a future that is different than the one we’ve adapted to in the past. Adaptation is critical to build resilient communities and to anticipate and minimize the risks that are coming.”
Actions now affect ‘planet today and for future generations’
“Decisions we make now about reducing emissions have a long legacy,” Donner says. He points out building a coal burning power plant today doesn’t just impact emissions for the short term: It can have a lasting impact for decades. “The longer we delay action, the harder it’s going to be, so we just have this incredible opportunity right now,” he says.
“We live in an incredible time,” Donner says. “We have the ability in the next 10 to 20 years to set the path for the future of the Earth’s climate and what it’s going to mean for people here on the planet today and for future generations.”
Kristen Pope is an Idaho-based freelance writer who frequently covers science and conservation-related topics.