Extreme weather may finally make climate change 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.

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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.

READ: Bill McKibben on how we might avert climate change suicide

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.  

Megan Kirchmeier-Young, an Environment Canada climate scientist and one of the report’s lead authors, said the research team ran 50 sophisticated computer simulations, modelling the way B.C.’s climate changed depending on tiny tweaks. “We can run the simulations of our climate considering all of the emissions that humans have done, and we can also run simulations without humans, with just natural factors, and then we can compare the types of extreme events we see in the two scenarios or how frequent they are,” she said.

The researchers working on attribution studies like Kirchmeier-Young tend to be acutely aware that their work isn’t the typical kind of scientific study that’s conducted without much attention to political debate. These studies are in part intended to make the public see climate change not in terms of vague impacts in the hazy future, but about fresh memories and real damage done. “It can help people relate to climate change,” said Kirchmeier-Young. “You’re talking about climate change in terms of how it increased the odds of an extreme event that they’ve either heard of or experienced themselves.”

READ: Canada’s climate change sideshow

But is the message getting through? According to a poll released early this year by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, fully 74 per cent of Americans say their opinion of climate change has been influenced over the past five years by extreme weather. Polling by EcoAnalytics—a Canadian joint venture of charities, non-profit groups and academics, meant to provide research support to the environmental movement—found that in 2017 and again in 2018 more than half of Canadians thought that climate change was already harming people in Canada, up dramatically from about a third of those polled in 2014.

Erick Lachapelle, an associate professor of political science at the Université de Montréal and an EcoAnalytics researcher, said personal experience seems to be driving more Canadians to conclude that climate change is already upon them. “They are concerned about seasons shifting and weather becoming increasingly severe, unpredictable and unreliable,” Lachapelle said. “Whether or not this concern about weather and climate translates into a ballot-box issue remains an open question, but a distinct possibility. We’re likely to experience more extreme weather in Canada before the [fall 2019 federal] election, and that may prime the issue in the minds of voters.”

Exactly what it would take for climate change to become a powerful vote-driving issue isn’t clear. Increasingly urgent warnings from scientists stretch back at least to the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was hatched. In the 2008 federal election, then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion ran on his “Green Shift” plan to tax carbon—and lost badly. But maybe successive years of fire and flood and weird weather will turn out to matter where solid science and innovative policy proposals failed. There are hints that in places where climate change already feels like an undeniable local problem, attitudes change.

Prince Edward Island is a prime example. After the province’s election earlier this spring, some outsiders assumed the new premier, Conservative Dennis King, would join forces with fellow Tory premiers in New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta to oppose Trudeau’s carbon tax. Instead, King said, “I don’t think Islanders want us to fight the carbon tax; I think Islanders would like to work toward carbon reduction.” Adam Fenech wasn’t surprised. The climate researcher moved to Charlottetown from Toronto seven years ago to head the University of Prince Edward Island’s climate research unit. “People always ask me, ‘What’s the community like? Many climate change deniers?’ ” Fenech said. “And I always say, ‘Well, I haven’t met one yet.’ ” 

The reason isn’t that Islanders are somehow more alert to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose terrifying report last fall estimated humanity has about a dozen years to severely reduce carbon dioxide emissions and keep global warming in check, or subject the planet—and millions of people—to a future of extreme heat, punishing droughts and rising sea levels. Fenech said that P.E.I. is the place in Canada, other than the Arctic, where the effects of climate change are most readily apparent. “It’s a low-lying island made of sand and sandstone. It’s gotten appreciably warmer, appreciably drier, especially in the summer, and coastal erosion has been an issue that folks have suggested to me is increasing year after year,” he said. 

So, rather than having to persuade ordinary people to take the issue seriously, Fenech said farmers and fishermen approach him in bars when they recognize him. They might mention a relative whose cottage property is losing shorelines to the sea, or how unusually hot summer weather lowered the quality of the island’s famous potato harvest. “It’s made my life easy,” he said. “They tell me what’s going on.” Far from being skeptical of research, they look to it as validation of what they are already experiencing, and even propose new lines of research.

The aim of attribution science is to make everybody, everywhere more like those islanders who realize climate change is upon them. Politicians on the side of taking serious action have already dropped their former reticence about linking extreme weather events to the bigger climate-change challenge. The question now is how many voters—long unmoved by scientists’ predictions—will follow.