In Prince Edward County we are still recovering from flooding as waves nibble at our shoreline. The County’s soon to be formed Environmental Committee will have its work cut out for it as it will be forced to reexamine past policies, revise them,and set out a vision for a new, local, and sustainable green economy . There is no doubt that climate change will be a ballot box issue.
Voters have long been unmoved by scientists’ dire climate predictions, but fires, floods and other catastrophic weather events might cause a shift.
A fire burns near High Level, Alta., in May 2019, forcing thousands from their homes (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/CP)
Back in the spring of 2016, when images of a voracious forest fire menacing Fort McMurray, Alta., were dominating the news, reporters asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau if climate change was to blame. As the unofficial capital of Alberta’s oil sands, Fort McMurray figures prominently in the bitter debate over fossil fuels and global warming, so Trudeau responded carefully. “It’s well-known that one of the consequences of climate change will be a greater prevalence of extreme weather events around the planet,” he allowed, before quickly adding, “Pointing at any one incident and saying, ‘This is because of that’ is neither helpful nor entirely accurate.”
Trudeau drew criticism from some who thought he had missed a chance to highlight the heavy price humanity is already paying for making the planet hotter and drier. But his answer was a pretty standard political dodge at the time. Even Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said “no credible climate scientist” would draw a neat cause-and-effect link between climate change and the Fort Mac fire. Then-NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said, “It’s not time to start laying blame.”
A lot has changed, though, in the past three years. During severe flooding in Eastern Canada this spring, for instance, Trudeau didn’t hesitate to raise the alarm about climate change. “Canadians are already seeing the costs,” he said.
Other Liberals were even more outspoken. “Yes, climate change is real,” said MP Will Amos, whose Quebec riding, on the Ottawa River, was hit badly by the floods. “Yes, it is wreaking havoc on our infrastructure.” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, the senior voice from Western Canada in Trudeau’s cabinet, linked global warming to the floods, as well as fires on Prairie grasslands and in boreal forests. Goodale said he didn’t want to get into a partisan argument, but stressed, “I think we all have to learn the lessons of climate change—the impacts here are powerful and dangerous and damaging.”
The shift from pussyfooting around how climate change leads to more extreme weather events to talking about it so forcefully hasn’t happened by chance. It’s the result of a concerted effort by researchers to create a new field called “attribution science.” The challenge they faced was that climate is so complicated that teasing out a single cause for, say, a flood or a fire is impossible. So they devised methods for calculating how much climate change had contributed. The watershed report was published by researchers from the University of Oxford in 2004, explaining how global warming caused by humans had at least doubled the risk of the heat wave that baked Europe the previous year.
Since that landmark study, attribution science has taken off, including in Canada. The federal government’s “Canada’s Changing Climate Report,” released early this year, listed 14 Canadian attribution studies published from 2015-17, on everything from forest fires, to flooding, to thinning Arctic sea ice.
In a widely noted report, Environment Canada researchers analyzed the awful 2017 forest fire season in British Columbia, when 65,000 were driven from their homes and millions left breathing smoke-filled air. They concluded that the extreme summer temperatures behind those fires were made more than 20 times more likely by human-caused climate change. MORE