The climate crisis: "Yes, we should be scared."

What will it take for popular opinion to catch up with the terrifying science? We talk to Canada’s top climate change experts.
Oyster Bed Bridge in Queens county PEI during a storm surge on December 21st, 2010. (Don Jardine)

This article is part of a special climate change issue in advance of the federal election. This collection of stories offers a comprehensive look at where Canada currently stands, what could be done to address the issue and what the consequences might be if this country continues with half measures. Learn more about why we’re doing this.

At first there’s only the blue of the sea divided from the green of the countryside by an emblematic stripe of red sand beach. Then, right on cue, a lobster boat moseys into the frame, heading homeward to nearby Savage Harbour, P.E.I., with the morning’s haul. It’s just Prince Edward Island doing its job—delivering the sweet illusion that here, at least, everything remains just the way it’s always been.

Taking in the postcard scene is Adam Fenech, director of the University of Prince Edward Island Climate Lab, in shorts and sunglasses, nursing his Tim Hortons. He recognizes the boat as belonging to Roy Coffin, a fisherman who has agreed to meet us here. No hurry, naturally. The island lulls more than a million visitors a year into briefly believing that their smartphone alerts matter less than the timeless rhythms of fishing, farming and another summer run of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical in Charlottetown.

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Yet Fenech is here precisely to obsess over change. Since he took up his post at UPEI seven years ago, after a long career studying climate in the federal government, he has drawn increasing attention to our tiniest province as a sort of laboratory for what the planet’s warming, rising oceans portend.

For instance, the sea ice, which has always buffered P.E.I.’s soft sandstone against rough winter weather, has shifted to arriving months later, and lasting not as long, thus exposing the coast more often to the full brunt of seasonal storms. Fenech’s team guides camera-equipped drones over the island’s perimeter, meticulously monitoring the vulnerable shorelines being chomped away by the waves.

At the very spot he’s standing, enough dry land has been lost to erase cherished cottage lots. Red boulders were recently dumped along the shore as a bulwark against further theft of vacation property. Fenech nods toward the red dirt road that skirts the beach. “That road has been wiped out once, wiped out twice, then a few more times—we better do something about that,” he says. “Nature is convincing people who haven’t thought about climate change that they need to plan for the future.”

Coffin, 55, doesn’t need persuading. Having tied up his boat, he drives over our way for a matter-of-fact chat out the window of his pickup about the unease fishermen feel about changing waters. They all recognize it, Coffin says, and he gladly co-operates with Fenech’s researchers. “With today’s technology,” he adds, “it would be negligent for us to not look into what’s going on, to just say, ‘It’s cyclic.’ ”

He knows it’s not. Coffin has been fishing full-time for 25 years. Sure, the island has been enjoying bumper lobster harvests. In fact, Fenech predicted as much a few years ago: the crustaceans favour warmer waters, up to a point. But he warns that still more warming—which is inexorably happening—will likely push their prime habitat further north.

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Variations on that story abound in P.E.I., and elsewhere in Canada, too. A notch warmer isn’t unwelcome, but where does it all end? Tourists have flocked here in record numbers during recent hotter, drier summers. The changing growing season is better for certain crops, like vinifera grapes that didn’t used to thrive on the island.

Still, farmers are worried. Rising average temperatures and less rain in July and August aren’t ideal for P.E.I.’s famous potatoes, and the need to conserve groundwater makes irrigating an untenable solution. At the same time, wetter falls have made harvesting harder, at times impossible, as heavy machines bog down in soggy fields.

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Ray Keenan, 69, is a big-time potato grower who carries himself with an air of pragmatism. “Climate change were two words that came into our vocabulary in the last few years that could be not very well understood,” Keenan says. “We can’t change the weather, but we can change the way we deal with the weather.” So he welcomes Fenech’s students flying their drones over his farm and studying how his fields respond to heavier autumn rains. “We had acres we could not harvest last fall because they were too wet,” he says. “Never were before—never happened.”

The island’s historic lighthouses have become almost literal beacons of climate change danger. Fenech says 28 of them, perched on crumbling shores, are at risk. The lighthouse at Wood Islands had to be moved in 2009, the one at Cape Bear in 2014. A recent federal report projects up to a one-metre rise in sea levels this century, which Fenech says would make many P.E.I. roads, bridges, causeways and buildings just as vulnerable. A two-metre rise—not at all far-fetched unless the world somehow comes to grips with climate change—slices P.E.I. into three islands.

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Still, all the islanders Fenech introduced me to were can-do sorts, talking up possible adaptations. He is much the same. Fenech grew up in Toronto, studied and built his climatologist credentials there, moving only in middle age to accept his current university post. Clearly besotted with P.E.I., he says he’s here to stay.

There’s another level to his patter, though, like a treacherous current beneath gentle waves. It surfaces when he widens his field of vision from P.E.I. to polar sea ice receding, ice over Greenland melting. More destructive hurricanes, more intense forest fires. Punishing drought this spring in India, another heat wave baking Europe.

Asked what message he aims to convey, he laughs and says, “I really am a positive person, but I have been called Dr. Doom recently.” He adds that “every single scientific journal” he’s assigned his students to read lately points to a coming climate catastrophe, generally by around the year 2050.

All of the troubling developments he rattles off were predicted by researchers in his field, he says, although they’re often coming to pass sooner than expected. “All of these things point in the ‘I told you so’ direction,” he says. “But we don’t like to be right.”

The climate change debate is often cast as a clash between alarmist experts and skeptical average folks. That’s not how it feels in P.E.I., where local experience and peer-reviewed research are mutually reinforcing. But is that convergence unique to a low sandstone island exposed to the elements, or is the perspective an early indicator of how public awareness might scale up all over?

With climate change emerging as a possible defining issue for this fall’s federal election campaign, Maclean’s sought out some of the most committed experts—a climate modeller, a doctor, an economist, even an election strategist. They’re all desperately hoping that a willingness to face this challenge—the attitude Fenech claims he finds all over P.E.I.—is about to spread across the country.

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For the basics on how we really understand climate change, Greg Flato, a senior scientist at the federal Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria, is a good guy to ask. Flato, 58, started out more than a quarter-century ago studying Arctic ice. His initial interest was in what he calls “operational issues,” like shipping in far northern sea lanes.

But worry about global warming was taking hold back then. In 1988, NASA climatologist James Hansen delivered his wake-up-call testimony on the greenhouse effect to a U.S. senate committee. By the early 1990s, Flato was helping build the Canadian government’s model for simulating past climate variations and projecting future change, then one of only a handful like it scattered around North American and European research institutes.

In those pioneering years, he says, the models were only about the atmosphere. A typical experiment might try to test how much the planet would warm if carbon dioxide levels, mainly from burning fossil fuels, doubled over a given period. That now looks simplistic. The models have grown progressively more elaborate. Crucially, they allow for the capacity of oceans to sequester carbon.

Then there’s Flato’s specialty, ice. Models must account for how, as polar ice recedes, darker seas and land masses are exposed, which amplifies warming. Flato says the mechanism is familiar to any Canadian who’s watched backyard snow shrink in spring. “The snow starts to melt, exposing dark ground underneath it, that dark ground underneath it absorbs sunlight, warms up, causes more snow to melt, which exposes more dark ground, which causes more warming, which causes more melting,” he explains.

Today’s climate models—including the huge program Flato’s centre puts through its paces on a federal supercomputer just outside Montreal—encompass the atmosphere and oceans, land masses and living systems. Flato is a vice-chair of Working Group 1 of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the group tasked with assessing the physical science behind the IPCC’s authoritative findings.

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That includes the IPCC’s latest report, released last October. In case you missed it, a brief review: terrifying. It warns that unless humanity cuts back drastically on burning fossil fuels—what’s being called “deep decarbonization”—coasts will be inundated, forest fires will grow more insatiable, droughts and the resulting hunger will spread dangerously, coral reefs will fade to white, and much more.

All this will happen by 2040, which is, when you think about it, tomorrow. Some warming is already irreversible. To avoid far worse, serious steps must be taken—fast. For example, the IPCC says coal-fired generation needs to all but cease by mid-century; it now accounts for about 40 per cent of the world’s electricity.

Despite all this, Flato resists being prodded by a reporter into apocalyptic talk, maintaining a contemplative tone. Skeptics scoff at models like his. Some vilify the IPCC as a sort of leftist scheme. Others might claim to accept the science, yet wave off pleas for deep decarbonization as crazy talk.

Flato knows all this, but the closest he comes to agitated is to muse on inadequate public education, saying, “I don’t think we—and I don’t even know who the ‘we’ is, whether it’s the scientific community, the scientific community plus the media, the scientific community plus the educational system—but we somehow have not done a very good job of educating the general public.”

From her home in Nunavik, Watt-Cloutier emphasizes the human impacts of global warming (Photograph by Isabelle Dubois)

Sheila Watt-Cloutier agrees that educating the public has far lagged mounting evidence of the danger at hand. She can’t be faulted for not trying. Back in the mid-1990s, around the time Flato’s modelling was taking off, Watt-Cloutier was starting a long run as president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. At first, she campaigned to ban persistent pollutants like PCBs, which had found their way into the traditional Inuit diet.

But she soon turned to global warming, an even more fundamental threat to the old ways based on hunting on the sea ice (now alarmingly diminished) and a landscape defined by permafrost (not so perma, it turns out). She called her 2015 book, a combination of memoir and manifesto, The Right to Be Cold—the title capturing her argument that combatting climate change should be recast as a human rights imperative.

Watt-Cloutier is in demand. She recently addressed a hipster crowd in Paris on climate change before a techno concert. When she spoke to me by phone, though, it was from her two-bedroom house in Kuujjuaq, in Quebec’s far north, near where she was born in 1953 into a family that still travelled by dogsled. Asked about the place, she emails a phone picture taken from her front window. The black spruces and tamaracks along the Kuujjuaq River are lusher than when she was a kid. “The roots are able to go deeper,” she explains, “because of the permafrost melting.”

Stories about the Arctic have disproportionately dominated the climate change conversation. Warming is happening faster there, and the immediate implications are more apparent. It’s amplified Watt-Cloutier’s voice. Yet she has misgivings about the way her home latitudes have been used, especially those iconic images of polar bears on precarious-looking floes. “It’s really raw, deep human issues that we’re dealing with here,” she says. “It’s not just about polar bears, it’s not just about the ice, although those are really important, of course.”

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She contends that focusing on how climate change threatens the Inuit way of life now is a better way of hammering home the warning that it will menace the rest of us later. Or sooner. Recent years of awful forest fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornados seem to be doing what polar bear images couldn’t for public opinion. “They’re starting to see a human, personal connection to the breakdown of the cooling system, which is the Arctic’s ice and Greenland’s ice sheet,” Watt-Cloutier says.

Connections don’t get more human and personal than at a kid’s birthday party. Dr. Courtney Howard will never forget her daughter’s first. It was during 2014’s “Summer of Smoke” in Yellowknife, where she is an emergency doctor, when a staggering 3.4 million hectares of forest burned across the Northwest Territories.

Howard and her husband, a pediatrician, had planned the party for kids and parents in a park. When the day rolled around, however, the Air Quality Health Index, a 1-10 scale, rated Yellowknife’s air at 10, the level deemed a “high health risk” by the federal government.

They went ahead and threw the party outside anyway, despite the smoke and fine particulate. “We’d been inside for almost a month and a half by that point,” Howard says, adding that “cabin fever” brought on by weeks of avoiding the smoky air outside had grown oppressive. Not that she took the decision lightly. Over eight years practising in Yellowknife, Howard, 40, who grew up in Vancouver, has made the health hazards brought by climate change her cause.

She has researched the risks associated with forest fires made more frequent and ferocious by hotter, drier weather. She credits Indigenous patients and advisers to her hospital with teaching her about how warming means declining caribou herds to hunt, less reliable winter ice roads to drive on. She mentions that Yellowknife’s annual Snowking Winter Festival, which runs through March, had to be cancelled mid-month this year when the king’s snow castle melted.

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Howard was the lead author of a 2018 climate change briefing for Canadian policy-makers produced by The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal. As president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, she aims to leverage the credibility edge that health professionals enjoy over, say, politicians and economists.

The bedside manner she brings to the issue isn’t exactly calming. “Essentially,” she says, “the message from the health community is climate change is the greatest health issue of our time.” That’s not just about Canada, of course. Like every expert I interviewed, Howard eventually gets around to pointing out that the implications for the developing world are far more extreme.

She’s worked with Médecins Sans Frontières on the danger climate change brings to countries already strained by political instability and poverty. “When you look at the increased potential for drought and for famine, and you know when people are hungry or their kids are hungry they’ll do almost anything, so they may move, and other people might not like that, there’s potential for conflict and essentially failed states.”

Her prescription? “We need to acknowledge that we can’t adapt to where we’re going,” she says, her voice getting more insistent the longer she stays on the phone outside the ER in Yellowknife, “and therefore we need to mitigate urgently.”

Adaptation means trying to adjust to change, like dumping a load of boulders along a P.E.I. beach. Mitigation means trying to slow the change itself, mainly by reducing the fossil-fuel burning that pumps heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The fiercest battles on climate change in Canada have been about taxing carbon, and no Canadian political strategist carries more scars from those fights than Andrew Bevan.

Back in 2008, Bevan was Stéphane Dion’s chief of staff when the then-Liberal leader ran on his “Green Shift” platform—a daring pitch to offset a new carbon tax with equal tax cuts and credits—in that year’s campaign to oust Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservatives. A decade later, Bevan was Kathleen Wynne’s chief of staff when the then-Liberal premier of Ontario ran for re-election, defending her cap-and-trade policy for pricing carbon against Conservative Doug Ford’s vow to scrap it.

Harper labelled the Green Shift “Dion’s tax on everything.” Ford slammed Wynne’s carbon-pricing system as “a tax grab that made everything more expensive.” Dion and Wynne both lost badly. Bevan says pricing carbon wasn’t the definitive factor in either election. No doubt he’s got a point. Still, those outcomes—reinforced by a string of other provincial elections recently won by anti-carbon-tax Conservatives—sure don’t make it look like an easy sell on the hustings.

Over a morning cup of tea in a downtown Toronto restaurant, Bevan mulls over the gap between the expert consensus that carbon taxes make sense, and the uncertainty of political pros about how to sell the idea. Between Dion and Wynne, he was executive director of an environmental think tank at the University of Ottawa. “I spent almost three years, purposely and with intent, trying to figure out, firstly, what the right policy frameworks are, and, secondly, what the right communication frame was,” Bevan says. “The first is easier than the second.”

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Taxing carbon pushes industry and individuals to figure out the cheapest ways to burn less fossil fuel, or switch to renewable alternatives. How high must the tax be to do the trick? The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates $102 per tonne of emissions would achieve the cuts Canada committed to at the UN’s Paris climate conference in 2015. Right now, Ottawa’s controversial carbon tax stands at $20 per tonne, and is slated to climb to $50 by 2022.

And Environment Minister Catherine McKenna recently said the Liberals don’t plan to push it higher, signalling that they’re worried about what voters will tolerate. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer promises to scrap the tax and substitute his own suspiciously vague plan to require big industrial emitters to invest unspecified amounts in green innovation if their emissions exceed unquantified levels.

It has the makings of a defensive, evasive, unedifying campaign clash. Bevan is no stranger to tactical, measured messaging. On climate change, though, he wonders if a less conventional approach might be needed from parties and governments that genuinely favour action. “Most of those people—most of us—have been trying to propose sensible solutions in a pragmatic way,” he says. “Maybe there’s a mistake in saying, ‘Look, we can get this right if we do X, Y and Z.’ Maybe you actually do have to instill some more fear and panic.”

All the noisy, divisive attention lavished on carbon taxes drives Mark Jaccard up the wall. It’s not that the Simon Fraser University professor doesn’t think they can work. Jaccard, 63, even helped design British Columbia’s widely praised carbon tax, brought in by then-premier Gordon Campbell in 2008. It’s often held up internationally as proof carbon taxes can cut emissions without crimping economic growth.

But Jaccard emphasizes that Campbell’s far less celebrated regulations on generating electricity delivered three times the emissions cuts of his carbon tax. And that former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty’s phase-out of coal generation delivered Canada’s biggest cuts to date. And that California is leading the way with regulations that require more zero-emissions vehicles and more renewable power.

In all this, his point is that carbon taxes, even if they make more sense from the perspective of pure economic theory, are not essential. As well, they’re an easy target for the politicians he accuses of “climate-insincere lying.” (He specifically asks for that phrase to be quoted.)

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Jaccard is far more enthusiastic about McKenna’s outward-looking strategy for getting rid of coal. Most Canadians, who can’t have missed all the war of words over carbon taxes, haven’t even heard of the Powering Past Coal Alliance. Launched by Canada and Britain in 2017, the alliance now has 30 countries signed up to phase out coal power. “It’s the answer,” Jaccard says, “to the Conservative who says, ‘We’re only a small part of the solution, so we shouldn’t do anything.’ ”

He’s referring to the familiar argument—among Scheer’s top talking points—that since Canada accounts for less than two per cent of global carbon emissions, what we do domestically hardly counts. Jaccard argues any serious policy should be sold to Canadian voters on its chances of influencing international action. “I don’t hear enough in our discourse, whether it’s from Elizabeth May or the NDP or the Liberals or environmental advocates, of being clear with Canadians: we are doing this because it has the highest chance of global spillover,” he says.

Once those spillovers start becoming clearer, Jaccard thinks what must be done, while still daunting, won’t look so intimidatingly complicated. (He makes that case in his upcoming book, A Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success, slated for publication late this year by Cambridge University Press.) “We need to get to an era where the production of electricity is at very low emissions, and we’re not using gasoline in our cars and diesel in our trucks,” he sums up. “If I go even a little further, I’d say and not natural gas in our buildings. And then we’re there.”

But “there” can seem a long way off.

After driving me around P.E.I. to meet locals concerned about the shoreline, the soil and the sea, Fenech circles back to his cluttered professor’s office. He opens a presentation on his desktop computer screen. I take notes. P.E.I.’s shores eroded 28 cm a year on average from 1968 to 2010. Some 1,000 homes and 126 bridges are at risk.

It’s late in the day, and we’ve gotten a lot of sun. Seeing my attention waning, he pulls out his phone, finds something, and hands it to me. I expect more data, maybe an aerial drone photo. But it’s his three adult children, 19, 23 and 27, dressed up and smiling. They’ve got a lot more decades of climate change to live through. “Now, the positive side of me says humans will always adapt,” Fenech says. But for once he doesn’t sound so positive.

Politicians habitually mention how they’re doing it all for their kids. It’s not something policy wonks often bring up. Except on climate change. Howard, of course, has the story about her daughter’s first birthday. Watt-Cloutier states, rather abruptly while explaining her advocacy strategy, “I’m a mother and a grandmother,” evidently feeling that needs saying, and perhaps it does.

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In interviews on this topic, I’ve come to await the moment. Occasionally a nudge is needed, but not more than that. Bevan has a reticent quality, so I ask outright if fatherhood comes into his thinking on climate change. “I know my kids are fearful; I talk with them about it,” he says. “It doesn’t mean I panic, because you have to get this right, here and globally. But, boy oh boy, yes, we should be scared.”

Flato brings a modeller’s long view to contemplating his 22-year-old son’s future. “He will potentially see the year 2100. He would be 103 years old, but by 2100 maybe that’s not so unusual,” he says. “Even if he doesn’t live to be 100, he will live to see near the end of the 21st century. And when I look at the projected changes in climate associated with high-emissions scenarios, that is worrisome. It’s a world that looks very different from the world that I grew up in.”

The official campaign running up to the federal vote scheduled for Oct. 21 will last a mere 50 days at most. The next fixed election date will be set for just four years later. Any parent’s hopes—for decades of security at a minimum, maybe a century—extend way beyond those compressed political timelines. Unless we slow down to squint into the distance—something like the mental downshifting P.E.I. induces—solving climate change will remain beyond us. It’s not hard to find teachers with vital lessons to offer on this extreme challenge from every angle, but there’s no sign yet that we’re ready to pass the test.

This article appears in print in the August 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “‘Yes, we should be scared.’” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.