The Interview

David Miller: Why conservation needs to be king

In conversation with David Miller, the former Toronto mayor and current WWF-Canada CEO, about troubling new statistics and more

David Miller, CEO of WWF-Canada, in conversation with Chris Sorensen. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

David Miller, CEO of WWF-Canada. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

As Toronto’s mayor from 2003 to 2010, David Miller championed numerous environmental causes that ranged from building light rail transit to taxing plastic bags—policies that were roundly mocked by his successor, the late Rob Ford. Now Miller is charged with saving the animal kingdom as CEO of the World Wildlife Fund’s Canadian chapter. It’s a similarly tough slog. A WWF report released this week suggests global populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles declined by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012, and are on track to experience a 67 per cent decline by 2020. But there’s hope, too—and Canada may be able to play an outsized role in finding a solution.

Q: This report paints a shocking picture for wildlife—a nearly 70 per cent drop in global populations is predicted between 1970 and 2020. Why is this happening?

A: It is shocking, and it’s because of us. It’s human activities: deforestation, pollution and, increasingly, climate change. In a nutshell, we’re taking more from the planet than it can support.

Q: Can you give me a few Canadian examples?

A: Sure. Caribou have declined over 90 per cent. The cod fishery off Newfoundland was once the richest fishery in the world. John Cabot’s sailors wrote that they could walk across the backs of the fish to land. Now, that was probably an exaggeration, but there were massive amounts of fish and by 1992 we fished them all out. But Canada is complicated. Thanks to climate change, we’re also seeing wildlife migrate north. We were in Iqaluit a few weeks ago speaking to Inuit leaders. They’re seeing whales and other species they’ve never seen before.

Q: Not to trivialize the impact on wildlife, but does all this have an impact on us humans, too?

A: Yes. Our fresh water is very much impacted by the 81 per cent decline in fresh water species. All life depends on fresh water. In addition, if people can’t eat fish because of pollution and people can’t farm because of climate change, they’re going to try to go somewhere where they can do those things. So there’s a very significant impact on people.

Q: Most Canadians take pride in our country’s vast wilderness. Yet, the report had another jarring statistic: the world’s annual consumption outstrips the planet’s “regenerative capacity,” which is how quickly renewable resources can be renewed, and CO2 can be absorbed, by about 1.6 times. But in Canada it’s more like 4.7 times. Are we really that wasteful?

A: We’re blessed in Canada. We have amazing nature here. We’re home to significant parts of the last temperate rainforest. We have very significant fresh water. But the statistic is accurate. It’s partly because we’re an increasingly urbanized country, but also because we exploit our natural resources. We need to change the way we consume those resources, particularly energy.

Q: With climate change pushing more species northward, it sounds like Canada has the potential to act as a sort of North American wildlife sanctuary. Is there any sign we’re stepping up to play that role?

A: Historically, we’ve done not a bad job on land. Some of the protections achieved for our boreal forests, which are also important for climate change, have been good. But we haven’t done nearly as good a job protecting our fresh water and oceans. From WWF’s perspective, there are a range of things we could do right now that would provide important protections—like declaring Lancaster Sound, in Canada’s Arctic, a protected marine zone. It’s an incredibly rich area for a variety of species and the last obstacle was removed when Shell surrendered its oil permits there. Just north of that is what we call “the last ice area,” where projections show sea ice will remain the longest. It will be a very important habitat for polar bears and other ice-dependent species. We could declare that a protected area in the Canadian Arctic archipelago.

Q: Not everyone shares Canada’s views on Arctic sovereignty. The U.S., for example, says the Northwest Passage is an international strait. Does that pose conservation hurdles in the North?

A: I don’t think so. In fact, we see it the other way around. If Canada fulfills its environmental obligations to declare Lancaster Sound a marine conservation area, it might bolster our argument for sovereignty. The same goes for the last ice area in co-operation with Greenland and Denmark.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Q: The federal government came back from Paris last year with a climate agreement and Trudeau has just promised to force a carbon tax on provinces if necessary. But significant hurdles remain. Are you heartened to see the direction Canada is moving, or do you think we’re still dragging our feet?

A: I was in Paris. When the Canadian government intervened to set a goal of [limiting warming above pre-industrial levels to] 1.5 degrees, it was an extraordinary moment and everyone was talking about Canada positively. I think they’re also right about a carbon tax. But we do need to see action. It’s been a year now. It’s time to get a climate change plan out the door. As we can see from this report, the needs are urgent. And it’s not just climate change. We’ve been studying the health of Canada’s fresh water and one of the significant conclusions is there isn’t enough data monitoring by the Canadian government. These are really serious issues. If we don’t know the health of our fresh water, wildlife and people are at risk. This government has shown real leadership and said all the right things, but it’s now time to put those words into action.

Q: Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump suggest we’re in a period where some want to pull back from globalized trade and, one would think, other potentially costly international agreements. Are you concerned support for global climate action might wane?

A: The international agreement on climate change, from our perspective, is solid and is likely to be upheld as we move forward for a couple of reasons. First, we’re seeing the impact of climate change now—and not just in reports like ours. We’re also seeing impacts in sub-Saharan Africa that are going to cause even more refugees, and increases in the severity and frequency of storms that will cost cities hundreds of billions in infrastructure fixes. Even in China the government has realized, because of pollution in Beijing, that it needs to act on environmental issues. These are all real impacts on real people, with real costs for governments. People used to say we can’t afford to act on climate change. Now it’s the other way around.


Q: Getting back to the Arctic, the Crystal Serenity, a big luxury cruise ship, sailed through the Northwest Passage this summer and seemed to herald a new era of commercial activity in the Far North. That’s good for local communities that need economic opportunities, but potentially bad for the fragile environment. How should Canada respond?

A: The economic development needs to benefit locals. That’s really important. At the moment it’s difficult for cruise lines to do this because there’s no real infrastructure. Communities don’t have proper piers for commercial purposes, including for low-impact fishing. We’ve also got a study out about shipping and the need for clean fuels in the Arctic. If there’s a significant spill, the oil will go all the way to Russia because of the currents. It’s very serious. Plus, it’s almost impossible to clean up because it’s so remote. But, as sea ice recedes, you’re going to see more shipping. There’s no question about that. So what we’ve been trying to do is work with freight shipping companies and ensure the lowest possible impact. Let’s be clear: shipping can be an environmentally friendly way to move goods. But you do have to be careful.

Q: The WWF is sometimes criticized for its partnerships with corporations, that it’s a type of greenwashing for giant corporations like H&M or Ikea, who churn out a lot of cheap, throwaway products. Do you wrestle with this?

A: Of course. It’s very difficult. We live in a society that tends to be far more throwaway than it is sustainable. Phones used to be indestructible. They lasted decades. Now you get one every one or two years. On the other hand, when Ikea says we’re not going to use products made from unsustainable forest practices, it has a massive impact throughout the supply chain. It’s very important to find the right partners. I believe WWF in Canada and internationally chooses its partners wisely, but it’s a fair question and a difficult issue.

Q: When we talk about protecting the environment, there always seems to be a message that you can have it all—that economies can still grow while reducing their footprints. But won’t we need to start making serious sacrifices at some point? Will Canadians have to come to grips with idea that we can’t save the planet and still live in a big house with a car or two in the driveway?

A: I think we can still live prosperous, fulfilling lives in cities or smaller communities while being sustainable and in harmony with nature. But it’s going to be different. If we don’t change, we’re not going to solve these problems. [My family] doesn’t own a car. We used to, but now we rely on car sharing and transit. But you know what? My life has improved. Not only does it cost less, I’m healthier because I walk more. So will the economy and how we live be different? Yes. Will it be better? I would argue absolutely.

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