Skip navigation

Welcome to the new climate

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Paris is forecast to be unseasonably warm next Friday. The current long-term prediction is 8 degrees, significantly above the historic high for early February of closer to 5. And it is expected to be raining for a third day in a row at a time of year when precipitation is supposed to be at its lowest in the French capital.

Perfect weather, then, to welcome the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest report on our warming planet, a document that will be released to much fanfare in Paris, and which by all advance accounts will lay to waste any remaining doubts that human activity is causing the globe to warm at an unprecedented rate.

And perfect timing, too, as it falls at a moment when the world, including Canada, has undergone a massive shift on climate change.

If political issues have recognized tipping points, where one day the problem doesn't matter and the next it's seemingly at the top of everyone's mind, there is little doubt we're in the midst of one now on global warming and the environment.

Here in Canada, where only a year ago the environment was a blip on the radar screens of pollsters, the issue has suddenly emerged as the most important one facing the country, according to polling conducted for The Globe and Mail and CTV.

As first reported Friday, the environment was cited as the top issue by 26 per cent of respondents in polling conducted in mid-January, supplanting the perennial favourite, health care, now the No. 2 issue, at 18 per cent. The shift amounts to the equivalent of a public-opinion earthquake — last May the environment was on the minds of a mere 3 per cent of Canadians.

What is more, Canadians feel so passionately about the topic that they say they don't want half-measures. The Globe's polling has found support for an array of tough actions against global warming: 56 per cent even say they would support rationing the amount of fossil fuels an individual can use each year.

This tipping point has arrived quickly and convincingly.

Its impact is apparent at the top ranks of the government, in the Prime Minister's Office. Stephen Harper, never a global-warming cultist, has got religion. He and his ministers have blanketed the country with a flurry of green initiatives over the past month.

But the effect is also being felt on the street. When Canadians look out the window these days, they say they're seeing global warming. An overwhelming 78 per cent of respondents to the Globe poll, nearly four out of five people, say they've personally noticed climate change. The same number fear it is going to harm future generations. And nearly as many — 73 per cent — say the warming is due to human activity and isn't a natural phenomenon.

The change has been apparent in the reception environmental activists are receiving. John Bennett heads Climate Action Network Canada and has long been used to feeling as welcome as a telemarketer ringing at dinner time. But no longer. “I've never experienced it like this in terms of the public interest,” he says.

The same political shift is being felt in Washington, where the cherry blossoms were months early and a newly aroused Democrat-controlled Congress now has more than a dozen climate-change laws before it. On Tuesday, the former climate-change-skeptic-in-chief, President George W. Bush, used his State of the Union speech to call for reductions in gasoline consumption to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and slow global warming, something he now considers a “serious challenge.”

The same day in Hollywood, An Inconvenient Truth, former U.S. vice-president Al Gore's influential documentary on climate change, received two Oscar nominations.

In the snow-starved Alps last week, world leaders gathered in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum annual meeting, the yearly get-together of 2,400 rich and powerful people, and were greeted by an agenda that included 17 sessions on climate change.

If the momentum on the environment seems large now, it's likely to be unstoppable as 2007 progresses.

One reason is that the current year stands a good chance of going down as the hottest since modern recordkeeping began in the 1850s. Britain's Met Office, the government weather forecaster, says the year is likely to be the hottest ever, eclipsing the previous record set in 1998, due to rising greenhouse-gas concentrations and the El Nino condition warming the Pacific Ocean.

Then there's the IPCC report, the anticipated release of which has to get some of the credit for spurring the Harper government to make a series of major announcements on climate change this month. But it's not the biggest reason: It is all but certain there will be a federal election this year, and climate change is looming large as a ballot-box issue.

Then, at the end of the year, in Bali, Indonesia, the world's environment ministers will attempt to develop a new plan for controlling greenhouse-gas emissions after the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012. Kyoto and its obligation to cut greenhouse gases goes into effect next year, and currently there is nothing to replace it, even though the scientific evidence on climate change is more compelling now than when the protocol was negotiated in 1997.

Taken as whole, it is hard to argue with Mr. Bennett when he says, “This is the issue of our generation.”

Pinpointing why environmental worries have suddenly become so important that Canadians are telling pollsters they're willing to contemplate even Draconian steps such as gasoline rationing is difficult to answer with a single cause.

Andrew Weaver is one of Canada's most influential thinkers on global warming, an expert on how oceans shape climate and editor of the prestigious Journal of Climate, published by the American Meteorological Society. At the end of a long interview, the University of Victoria professor is grasping for an event that would explain the abrupt change of public mood.

“This has happened since the spring. I don't know what it is,” Dr. Weaver says. He cites some possible causes, such as hurricane Katrina, or Canada's long string of freaky weather, or the widespread interest in An Inconvenient Truth, a film that nearly a quarter of a million Canadians saw in theatres last year.

But regardless of whether it's because of one event or many, Dr. Weaver says: “Right now it's resonating. It's the No. 1 issue in Canada.”

Among those Canadians saying climate change is happening, literally outside their homes, is Adam Zita, a naturalist at Ontario's Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre near Midland. He says early January was so warm that mosquitoes, the pests of summer, were still active. On the East Coast, blueberry grower Wendy Robichaud, who runs a farm near Truro, N.S., says winters are becoming so mild that they're often not cold enough to kill crop-threatening bugs.

The mood of the times harks back to the political awakening that launched the environmental movement in the 1960s, when the publication of Rachel Carson's book on pesticides, Silent Spring, and the heralded death of Lake Erie through pollution, became powerful symbols of an environment in trouble.

They eventually helped lead to programs to clean up the Great Lakes, the first modern pollution laws in Canada and the United States, and bans on DDT, among other far-reaching changes.

The Globe's polling has found that Canadians say they're in the mood for the same kind of dramatic actions to fight climate change.

More than half of respondents told the pollsters that Canadians would support banning electrical-generation plants that use coal, placing carbon taxes on industries, rationing or setting limits on the amount of fossil fuels consumers can use in any one year, and forcing consumers to switch to fuels that produce lower carbon emissions. Nearly half want to slow down or reduce the development of tar sands in Alberta. About one in three wants significantly higher prices for gasoline and home-heating fuel.

The views are backed by personal commitments. More than nine out of every 10 people say they're willing to make sacrifices, with 55 per cent saying they'd accept major ones and 38 per cent minor ones in the fight against global warming. Only 5 per cent say they won't do anything.

Clear majorities also say they would be willing to pay more for fuel-efficient cars, reduce the amount they fly, cut the amount they drive in half, and have the economy grow at “a significantly slower rate” to help clean up the environment.

While many Canadians say they want these kinds of grand actions, the Harper approach to climate change has been timid, such as Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn's announcement last Sunday of $300-million over four years to make residences and other buildings more energy-efficient.

Given predictions of a federal election before the year is out, Canadians may soon be able to test politicians against the lofty environmental expectations they've told pollsters about.

“There is a good chance that this will be the first time that we have climate change as a major election issue in Canada,” predicts Matthew Bramley, global-warming expert at the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank in Ottawa.

Indeed, climate change may be the defining aspect of the campaign, as Mr. Harper, like Mr. Bush only a recent convert to the importance of things environmental, tries to fend off Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, a former environment minister and Kyoto champion, who is also competing on the issue with the NDP and a newly emergent domestic political force, the Green Party.

In trying to burnish his environmental credentials, Mr. Harper axed former environment minister Rona Ambrose and has pledged hundreds of millions for programs to fight climate change, reversing the course his government took in its first year in office of cutting environment spending.

Mr. Bramley thinks the government, by rejecting Kyoto and killing funding for such high-profile climate programs as the One Tonne Challenge, inadvertently helped create the widespread public anxiety over the state of the environment they're now scrambling to address.

“I think the blunders that the Harper government has made on the environment and on climate change in particular have, in a funny way, helped focus public concern,” he says.

The focus on climate is likely to take another big jump next week in Paris with the publication of the latest report by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a collective effort by more than a thousand of the world's leading scientists to explain what is happening to the planet's climate.

Over the past two decades, 19 years have counted among the warmest on records going back more than a century, a string of hot weather unlikely to have occurred due to chance.

The IPCC has issued three previous assessments, each one highlighting with mounting certainty and concern that humans are influencing the climate by adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The first report was back in 1990, when hardly anyone worried much about global warming, followed by one in 1995 that concluded the “balance of evidence” suggested humans were changing climate, a finding that gave impetus to the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol two years later.

In the third assessment, in 2001, scientists went even further and expressed certainty that “most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse-gas concentrations.”

The new report will summarize the research conducted since then, including the finding that scientists are for the first time able to detect the fingerprints of climate change on the scale of regions and continents, rather than just globally.

What is more, the changes are being found almost everywhere, whether it be in shrinking Arctic sea ice, the melting of mountain glaciers, or even in increasing forest-fire counts in Western Canada.

“You can now detect climate change in virtually every region of the globe,” said Dr. Weaver, one of approximately 30 Canadian scientists with major contributions in the IPCC report.

Canadians are in tune with the scientists and give little credence to the views of skeptics who say global warming isn't happening or its cause is unknown. Nearly three-quarters of those polled say human activity is to blame.

Of course, no poll can discover whether there is a disconnect between what people say about an issue with such emotional overtones as the environment, and what they might actually do.

Some observers say Canadians already have had the opportunity to take such greenhouse-gas-sensible steps as buying more efficient cars and cutting back on air travel, yet roads are packed with SUVs and airports are full.

“People do have options at this point in terms of fuel efficiency, engine size, performance, and also the kind of gasoline,” says Ross McKitrick, an associate economics professor at the University of Guelph. “You can already look at the kinds of tradeoffs people are willing to make.”

That there is urgency to the need to cut emissions is underscored by the busyness with which humans are trying to double-glaze the planet. It is truly awesome, and what's more, a collective activity.

In 2004, the latest year for which figures are available from the U.S. government's Energy Information Administration, total greenhouse-gas emissions spewed out of all the world's smokestacks, chimneys and tailpipes was a staggering 27 billion tonnes, or about the weight of 1½ Hummers for each man, woman and child on the planet.

Canadians do a lot more damage than the average planet dweller because they consume so much more energy, releasing about 758 million tonnes in 2004, or just under the weight of eight Hummers apiece.

The emission figures give some indication of the scale of what will be needed to confront the global-warming problem. Those polled, by a figure of 83 per cent, fret that humanity's tinkering with the Earth's climate system has the potential to harm future generations.

Yet scientists say that to avoid dangerous climate change, Canadians and others in advanced countries will have to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by amounts variously estimated at between 50 per cent and 90 per cent.

Mr. Bennett, the environmentalist from the Climate Action Network, predicts that fighting climate change is about to dominate the work of an entire generation, and define that generation, much like those in the past have been shaped by such events as the battle against fascism in the Second World War.

Canadians are ready to get on with the challenge, in his view. “There is a huge appetite to do it,” he says. “Our parents and our grandparents took on global issues in the past. There were wars, the whole of Canadian society has been mobilized.

“This is the same kind of threat, the same kind of death and destruction is going to be wrought by climate change, and we need to have the same kind of mobilization.”

Recommend this article? 65 votes

Back to top