IN THE YEAR
Summers lost to fire and smoke. Biblical floods. Dying forests. Retreating coasts. Economic turmoil and political unrest. It’s going to be a weird century. Here’s what it will look like—and how Canada can get through it.
By Anne Shibata Casselman
The aftermath of the White Rock Lake wildfire in B.C. in 2021. (Photograph by Darryl Dyck/CP Images.)
It’s Armel Castellan’s job to know the weather 24/7. As Environment and Climate Change Canada’s disaster preparedness meteorologist for B.C. and Yukon, he’s constantly on the lookout for extremes: subtropical cyclones, arctic cold fronts, floods, heat waves and fire weather.
When he looked at the weather models in mid-June of 2021, he felt his heart beating in his throat. The skull-crushing ridge of high pressure he saw headed toward B.C. was so powerful, he knew immediately it would blanket a vast area in deadly heat. The models were forecasting temperatures so far outside of normal that the map interface on Castellan’s computer was displaying all new colours—greys and whites on a spectrum of intensity he’d only ever seen go to dark red. Within days, European, American and Japanese weather models converged on a consensus: a record-breaking pressure cooker would soon envelop western North America.
“We knew records were going to be broken,” says Castellan. “But that doesn’t give you the reality of what was about to happen.” Temperature records typically break by tenths of degrees, like speed records for the 100-metre dash. At its apex, the heat dome that engulfed B.C. that month eclipsed some records by more than five degrees, driving temperatures up to 25 degrees beyond seasonal averages.
Across the region, roads buckled, car windows cracked and power cables melted. The emerald fringes of conifers browned overnight, as if singed by flame. Entire cherry orchards were destroyed, the fruit stewed on the trees. More than 650,000 farm animals died of heat stress. Hundreds of thousands of honeybees perished, their organs exploding outside their bodies. Billions of shoreline creatures, especially shellfish, simply baked to death, strewing beaches with empty shells and a fetid stench that lingered for weeks. Birds and insects went unnervingly silent. All the while the skies were hazy but clear, the air preternaturally still, not a cloud in sight. The air pressure was so high they’d all dissipated.
Then came the fires. For three days in a row, the village of Lytton sustained temperatures more typical of the Sahara Desert or Death Valley, setting new Canadian records each day, before peaking at 49.6 degrees. On the fourth day, the village burned to the ground. The day of the inferno, the B.C. Wildfire Service’s Fire Weather Index, which usually tops out at around 30, hit 132. In the days that followed, smoke-fed thunderclouds formed over two conflagrations, generating 121,000 lightning strikes in a single evening, igniting more fires. Air pollution levels in some communities reached more than 40 times the safe limit.
That week, the province recorded the largest number of ambulance dispatches ever. Kyle Merritt, an emergency doctor at Kootenay Lake Hospital in Nelson, saw a wide range of cascading health effects: heat exhaustion, of course, but also acute psychological crises, including suicidal ideation and panic attacks. Something about breathing that noxious air for so many days on end was deeply destabilizing. On the chart of one patient suffering from heatstroke, he wrote “climate change” as the underlying cause—as far as he knows, a world first. Others developed respiratory problems that, even after the fires abated, never went away. All told, the heat dome directly killed more than 600 British Columbians, making it the deadliest weather event in Canadian history. Mortality rates among the elderly remained elevated for months afterwards.
As the heat crescendoed at the end of June, Castellan’s days were packed with dozens of media interviews from his home office in Victoria, which was unwisely located in the hottest part of his house. He hydrated between speaking to the New York Times and Reuters. At night, he set up a tent in his backyard so his three young children’s bodies could cool down. When Victoria set a record high of 39.8 degrees, he tried not to think too hard about what that meant for the future his kids would inherit.
“There’s an apocalyptic feel to something that different,” says Castellan. “It’s like when you witness an eclipse. There’s that very strange sensation: all of a sudden it gets dark in the middle of the day, and the birds go quiet, and everything is strange. It was like that, on a multi-day level. It’s like the sun just grew in size.”
Soon after the heat dome, a team of international climate scientists used computer modelling to estimate how likely it would be for it to occur on a hypothetical Earth, where human-caused warming had never occurred. They found it would have been virtually impossible. In that sense, the heat dome was a foreshock of the world to come, with impacts both immediate and long-lasting. Yet it occurred in a world that has only warmed, on average, about 1.2 degrees since 1850. We’re now racing to 1.5 degrees and are likely to cross that threshold by the mid-2030s. Even if carbon emissions peak soon, as projected, we’re probably headed for two degrees of warming by mid-century, unless that peak is followed by rapid reductions. A recent study by Stanford University scientists, using machine learning to analyze climate models, projected two degrees warming by mid-century even if emissions fall quickly.
In other words, more heat domes are inevitable—as are many more extreme events and disasters that were once unimaginable. By the time we reach two degrees, our Great White North will look like the Great Wet North, as precipitation increases and winter’s edge is blunted. The summertime flow of rivers that bring water to prairie cities will decline. Rain, heat and hail will be biblical in scale, with no god to blame. Wildfires will burn hotter, larger and longer, poisoning the air for millions and potentially hastening the decline of our vast northern forests, which will already be stressed by rising temperatures. These disasters will lead in turn to declines in prosperity, productivity, well-being, social cohesion and physical health. Even the unborn won’t escape: in-utero exposure to wildfire smoke, for example, will leave an indelible, lifelong mark on babies’ health.
What follows is a portrait of Canada in a world warmed by two degrees. This is not what our country will look like if the world fails to reduce emissions—this is our future even if we do. Everything in these pages comes from peer-reviewed scientific studies and conversations with dozens of experts in climate science, political science, history, health and economics. Some of the specifics may be hazy, but the basic picture we can divine is clear and sobering. The question facing us now is twofold: how to live in this future we’ve already created, and how to make sure it doesn’t get any worse.
2021: A wildfire destroyed Lytton, B.C., in July of 2021. It followed a record-breaking heat dome, which killed more than 600 people in B.C.—the deadliest weather event in Canadian history. (Photograph by Jackie Dives.)
2060: More heat domes will spawn more wildfires, which will burn hotter, larger and longer, leading to a decline in prosperity, social cohesion and physical health.
Heat will blanket the country, and winters will melt away
First things first: it’s going to get hot. While the planet has warmed 1.2 degrees since the 19th century, when humans first started burning fossil fuels at an industrial scale, Canada has warmed at twice that rate, and the Arctic at four times. In part, this is because wintertime snow and ice act like huge nation-sized solar reflectors, bouncing heat from the sun back out of the atmosphere. As winters grow shorter and warmer, snow and ice cover shrinks, and the land becomes darker, absorbing more heat. An Earth that’s two degrees hotter translates to a Canada at least four degrees hotter, on average. That may not sound so bad in a country where winter can flash-freeze your eyelashes. But we aren’t simply raising the national thermostat. “A hot, dry summer sounds wonderful,” says Robert McLeman, a geographer and environmental scientist at Wilfrid Laurier University. “But in the Canadian context that means forest fires, that means crop failures, that means urban drought.”
By the 2070s we will be living in a fundamentally different climate than the one our country was built for. Cities across the country will begin to reach “climate departure”: a symbolic rubicon, after which a climate falls completely outside historical norms. Even the coldest year, going forward, will be hotter than the hottest in the past. The concept was defined in 2013 by researchers at the University of Hawai’i, who crunched computer models of 39 different planetary futures to arrive at their predictions. In a scenario consistent with roughly two degrees warming by mid-century, Montreal is estimated to reach its departure point in 2072, Toronto in 2074 and Vancouver in 2083.
Of course, warming isn’t an on/off switch. Long before these departure points, unprecedented hot zones will emerge in the valleys of British Columbia between the Pacific and the Rockies, on the southern Prairies and in Ontario, from Lake Erie to the St. Lawrence River Valley and into Quebec. Montrealers will experience, on average, 37 days over 30 degrees every year, up from 13 today. Torontonians will get 39, up from 12, and Calgarians 20, up from five. The interior of B.C. and deep southwestern Ontario will experience more than 50 days every year with temperatures above 30 degrees—more akin to today’s Maryland and Missouri. But that’s not the worst of it: as averages go up, so do extremes, and it’s the outlier heat events that will pose the greatest danger.
The hotter it gets, the harder our hearts beat to circulate blood, resulting in more strokes and heart attacks. Eventually the body loses the ability to cool itself through perspiration, and the brain, heart, kidneys and other organs suffer permanent damage. It won’t just be the hotter days we need to worry about; it’s also the lack of respite at night. Nighttime temperatures rise faster than daytime ones, leading to more “tropical nights,” during which temperatures remain above 20 degrees. During Quebec’s 2018 heat wave, which claimed 86 lives, overnight lows stayed above 20 for a week. Nights like this will increase from a handful per year to roughly three weeks’ worth in Montreal, and nearly a full month in Toronto, by mid-century.
Higher temperatures will lower labour productivity, dull cognition and fuel upticks in aggression, mood disorders and crime. The potency of some medications, including insulin and aspirin, will be diminished, while the side effects of others may become more dangerous. In the very worst heat waves, planes will be grounded, their wings unable to generate lift in thinner, hotter air. Power outages will become more common as well, as rising temperatures reduce the capacity of electrical transmission lines—right when demand for AC is at its peak.
Our bodies, and the society we’ve built, evolved to thrive within a narrow and stable temperature range. As temperatures depart ever further from that comfort zone, every system we rely on—from our circulatory systems to the transportation networks feeding our supply chains—will be endangered.
And as summers become hotter, winters as we know them will begin to disappear altogether. Damon Matthews is a climate scientist at Concordia University and review editor for the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Though heat will be the greatest threat to our well-being, he sees the decline of winter shaking our national self-identity the most. “Winter will be redefined,” he says. Backyard shinny games and pond hockey will fade into lore. In much of southern Ontario, the number of “viable rink-flooding days” may reach zero by mid-century—a staple of Canada’s sporting culture and childhood erased. (That future is already coming into shape; for the first time in its history, the 7.8-kilometre Rideau Canal Skateway in Ottawa didn’t open last winter.) Ski seasons will be shorter, and white Christmases rarer.
In 2005, Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht first coined the term solastalgia to describe the feeling of being homesick while still at home. It’s that feeling of loss and melancholia that kicks in as your home environment changes before your eyes, and it will come to define the deep emotional and psychological distress that more Canadians will confront as global warming drives their climate past recognition.
2023: One of the strongest tornadoes in Alberta’s history tore a path between the towns of Didsbury and Carstairs this July. (Photograph by Jeff McIntosh/CP Images.)
2060: The Canadian Climate Institute projects that Alberta will be especially hard hit by extreme weather caused by climate change, including tornadoes, torrential rain and hail, droughts, floods and fires.
Hotter, harder-to-contain fires will burn indefinitely
In the summer of 2017, wildfires in western Canada burned with such intensity they created their own weather: enormous, fire-fed clouds known as pyrocumulonimbus that can spawn hail, lightning and even tornadoes. Such storms had occurred before, typically after volcanic eruptions, but the three that erupted over megafires that August powered chimneys of smoke that rose over 13 kilometres into the stratosphere, higher than any previously produced by wildfires. The smoke was so intense that scientists studied it to understand the firestorms that could follow nuclear weapon strikes. A later analysis found that the area burned that year—more than 12,000 square kilometres—was made seven to 11 times larger than it would have been if climate change were not a factor.
It was the worst fire season in provincial history. It was eclipsed the very next year, and again this year, on a national scale, as an explosion of fires in B.C., the Northwest Territories, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia have consumed, as of this writing, more than 100,000 square kilometres. That’s about the size of South Korea.
Within decades, the summer of 2023 could look more like a normal one than an outlier. Last year, scientists at the Canadian Forest Service and the University of Alberta projected that the annual footprint of charred land in Canada will more than double by 2050 and increase four-fold before century’s end. Some of the steepest increases will be in already hard-hit Western Canada, but also in swathes of northern Ontario and Quebec.
And those fires will be fundamentally different—more beastly and less controllable—than the fires we were previously accustomed to. Pyrocumulonimbus can dispatch lightning strikes dozens of kilometres from the main burn, starting more fires. (By this July, almost 100 pyrocumulonimbus clouds had powered up from Canadian wildfires, doubling the previous record and triggering more blazes.) Larger, hotter fires also create more embers, vaulted aloft to drift long distances. These self-sustaining qualities can keep large fires burning indefinitely, until cooler weather and rainfall temper them. A hotter climate will create more intense rainfall events but longer dry spells in between, allowing fire-friendly conditions to last longer.
Again, this year was a preview, as fires in northern Quebec burned for months, periodically dispatching vast plumes of smoke into southern cities—a new experience that will become a more common feature of Canadian summers as the century progresses. It will exact a toll on our well-being that is difficult to comprehend. A study of wildfire seasons conducted by scientists working with Health Canada and other federal departments estimated up to 240 deaths from short-term exposure, and up to 2,500 premature deaths in the long run, from fire events in 2017 alone. In parts of B.C. hardest hit by that year’s wildfires, the smoke was estimated to reduce average life expectancy by a full year.
Wildfire smoke is toxic—a witches’ brew of gases, hydrocarbons and microscopic soot particles that travel deep into the lungs and pass into the bloodstream. Research has shown that smoke exposure is correlated with greater cancer risk, cardiovascular disease and respiratory problems.
But its most unsettling impact may be the lifelong toll it takes on the youngest among us. Research out of Stanford University in 2019 found that children exposed to wildfire smoke in California had changes in the expression of a gene vital to immune system functioning. During Australia’s Black Summer bushfire season three years ago, women gave birth with blackened, diseased placentas. And in Canada, some 30,000 children who were in utero during B.C.’s 2017 wildfire season were later studied by public health scientists. Those whose mothers lived in areas with the worst smoke exposure were likelier to be born smaller and pre-term; they were also sicker, developing croup, laryngitis and bronchitis at higher rates than other children. We talk about climate change as a future threat—a bill that will be collected as our children enter adulthood. But for increasing numbers of our kids, its destructive effects have already indelibly marked their growing and vulnerable bodies.
2022: Hurricane Fiona caused more than $800 million worth of damage in 2022. (Photograph by Frank Gunn/CP Images.)
2060: A hotter North Atlantic will fuel stronger and more frequent hurricanes in the decades to come.
Canada’s geography will be irrevocably transformed
Inuit Nunangat is the homeland of Inuit in Canada—the vast northerly reaches of the country, comprising more than one-third of its land area. Here, the sea ice that forms beyond the shore is an extension of the land itself: critical infrastructure used to hunt, travel between communities and access sites of traditional camp sites. The relationship to the ice, and the freedom to travel it provides, is a defining part of Inuit culture. So is the knowledge, passed between generations, about how to navigate the ice safely. As it shrinks and thins—and it has already declined about 40 per cent, on average, across Inuit Nunangat—it becomes unsafe. Travel routes used for generations are already dangerous or impassable, disconnecting Inuit from traditions and experiences vital to an entire way of life. These conditions also pose immediate physical danger: experienced hunters and travellers have fallen through sea ice and drowned.
Natan Obed is president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national organization representing Inuit in Canada, and is originally from Nain, in northern Labrador. He is especially aware of how warming is endangering relationships that Inuit have with the other living beings. “I’ve never been caribou hunting with my boys,” he says. “That is a fundamental difference from the way that I was raised, and how all of my ancestors were raised.” Labrador’s caribou population has declined from more than 800,000 animals in the ’90s to around 7,000 today, in part due to warmer winters which have reduced food available for forage. To Obed, the future is clear: “We are going to have to live in a completely different environment than our parents and grandparents did, and create new ways of being Inuit in the Arctic. All because countries couldn’t figure out a way to act more responsibly, so as not to make these massive changes to the global environment.”
Within a few decades, Canadians in every part of the country will be faced with an inescapably altered geography. Sea levels will rise up to half a metre on the East Coast by 2060 and approach a full metre by century’s end. Levels on the West Coast will rise more slowly, but the more urbanized coastline around Vancouver and lower-lying communities will require massive upgrades to the dikes keeping them dry. Rising seas will also transform—or perhaps destroy—a vast portion of Canada’s ocean-facing beaches. A study published in 2020 by the European Commission Joint Research Centre found that, at about two degrees warming, Canada is on track to lose around 15 per cent of beaches by 2050, and more than a quarter by 2100. That’s 6,400 kilometres’ worth of the beaches that sustain seaside towns and vacation hotspots on the East and West coasts.
“Some years we’re going to have to restrict water and essentially ration it. And there’ll be other years when we’ll perhaps be one of the few places in the world that can still produce food reliably.”
Prince Edward Island stands to be particularly devastated—most of its coast is made up of sandy beaches. Thousands of people, and some of the province’s top tourist attractions, are directly adjacent to them. The shore could retreat in some places by hundreds of metres, sending the iconic red sandstone cliffs of Prince Edward Island National Park crashing into the sea. And as the North Atlantic warms, hurricanes will become stronger and more frequent, exacerbating the damage.
The Prairies will deal with an opposite problem: water scarcity, thanks to shrinking glaciers and snowpacks that feed the region’s cities and farms. In 2015, researchers determined that the Rocky Mountains would lose up to 90 per cent of their glaciers by 2100. As it turns out, that was probably too optimistic. John Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan, says faster-than-expected melting in the past few years makes it likely that all the glaciers of the Rockies—including the famed Columbia Icefield, upon which a thriving tourism industry depends—will all be gone by the end of the century, save for a few remnants. That means reduced flows to rivers that millions of people depend on, and in one of Canada’s fastest-growing regions. More than half of Calgary’s water comes from the Bow River, fed by the Bow Glacier. And while that glacial contribution to the river is modest—about 13 per cent at the late-summer peak—it comes at exactly the right time of year, when rainfall are low and spring snowmelt is gone. There is little margin for reductions. Warmer winters will also produce smaller snowpacks, which will reduce runoff in the spring.
As spring snowpack declines and the glaciers wink out altogether, water supplies will come to depend to a dramatically greater degree on rain—which will be far more variable in a warmer world, alternating between periods of deluge and drought. Pomeroy foresees years of abundance and others when there simply won’t be enough to go around. “Some years we’re going to have to ration water,” he says. “And there’ll be other years when we’ll perhaps be one of the few places in the world that can still produce food reliably.”
These landscape changes will produce domino effects that will have tremendous consequences for animal life, including extinctions. A study last year by European and Australian researchers found that in a scenario roughly consistent with two degrees of warming by mid-century, one in 40 land animal species will go extinct by 2060; by 2100, that number of extinct Canadian species will rise to one in 16. The iconic Canada jay is a case in point: as the birds face longer and warmer autumns, the food they store to last the winter is more likely to rot, which reduces their ability to breed. Some of the impacts will seem small in comparison to the major shifts. Hotter summers will create ideal growing conditions for toxic blue-green algae—fatal to some animals and children and tentatively linked to neurological disease—to spread with greater frequency over lakes, rivers and estuaries. Likewise, ticks will more readily survive warmer winters, spreading Lyme disease and illnesses to record numbers of Canadians. Even maple syrup won’t escape: the ideal habitat for sap-producing sugar maples, dependent on very specific conditions and reliable freeze-thaw cycles, will begin to shift north.
Other changes will affect the entire country. There is evidence that, already, the boreal forest—the world’s largest intact biome and carbon sink—is marching northward. A widely publicized study published last year by researchers at the University of Northern Arizona analyzed satellite images taken between 1985 and 2019. They show that large parts of the boreal forest have “browned” (i.e., died) in the south and greened with trees and shrubs in the north. If this shift, long hypothesized as a future outcome of warming, is already underway, the effects will be profound, transforming natural habitats, animal migration and human settlements. Beyond this century, parts of the southern boreal, weakened by fire and drought, could be replaced by steppes and grasslands.
2023: The smoke from forest fires makes sea ice melt faster in Hudson Bay. Wildfires in Canada have begun accelerating ice melt thanks to a feedback loop: soot, drifting from fires, settles on the surface of ice and darkens it, causing it to absorb more heat. (Photograph by Paul Souders/Getty Images.)
2060: The Prairies will face water scarcity due to shrinking glaciers and snowpacks that feed the region’s cities and farms.
Thousands of people will be displaced from their homes
By mid-century, parts of the world will have become too hot, too chaotic or simply too submerged for people to live in. The World Bank projects the number of people internally displaced within their own countries to reach 140 million by 2050, a figure that does not include those who will flee their homelands altogether. Climate migration will be one of the defining forces of the 21st century—but contrary to some expectations, Canada is not likely to end up on its front lines. Thanks to our remote shores and single land border, we probably won’t see climate asylum seekers arriving en masse.
Instead, record numbers of Canadians will be displaced on the home front by disasters both sudden (fire, flood, storms) and slow (drought, coastal erosion, sea-level rise). A permanent class of the internally displaced will require care, shelter and other resources from a government already buckling under the strains of the disasters’ immediate effects. There’s no research yet that quantifies exactly how much displacement we’re likely to see, but the potential scale becomes apparent as we contemplate the extreme weather and other disasters that will become increasingly common.
Historically, fires have burned about 21,000 square kilometres in Canada. A three- to four-fold increase, as projected, suggests that a typical year later this century will look more like 2023, in which more than 150,000 people—as of this writing—have been forced from their homes.
If not fire, consider floods. Official estimates project that, by the end of the century, a flood of the Fraser River running through Metro Vancouver would displace more than 300,000 people in one shot. In Prince Edward Island, more than 1,000 houses lie in coastal zones projected to be erased by erosion over the coming decades. We will call these displaced people evacuees, but that downplays the duration of their exile. After fires tore through suburban Halifax this June—the first such disaster ever to befall the city—more than 16,000 people evacuated. Most returned within days, but hundreds remain in temporary accommodations. Likewise, rebuilding the homes destroyed in the Lytton fire of 2021 only began this summer. And some families from the Lake St. Martin First Nation in Manitoba, displaced in the 2011 floods that inundated their community, have not been able to return home for 12 years.
The impacts will reverberate long after people return home. A survey of 3,000 high school students evacuated from wildfire-ravaged Fort McMurray, Alberta, in 2016 found that, even 18 months later, almost half met the criteria for diagnoses of PTSD, depression, anxiety or substance abuse. In 2013 when 100,000 Albertans were evacuated by extreme flooding, prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications and sleep aids more than doubled in the town of High River. Experts have called for Canada to reform our refugee intake system, to create new pathways to residency for those around the world who may seek asylum here. And there may indeed be more pressures and urgency to welcome them. But by far the greatest pressures will be right here at home, as the costs of domestic disasters mount.
2023: Firefighters from France battle a blaze in northern Quebec this June. (Photograph by Getty Images.)
2060: As fires grow larger and hotter, they’ll become increasingly difficult to contain, and record-breaking years like 2023 will become more common.
Extreme weather will cost Canada $100 billion every year
There was a time, not that long ago, when some people imagined Canada would ride out climate change with relative ease. Longer growing seasons would prove a boon for agriculture. An ice-free Northwest Passage would open new shipping routes and opportunities for agriculture. Those visions have faded, as the scale of disorder we’re facing looms larger.
Last year, the Canadian Climate Institute—a federally funded, non-partisan research organization—made the most comprehensive attempt yet to quantify the effects of climate change on the Canadian economy. Accounting for increased health costs, supply-chain problems, falling crop yields, reduced exports and more, it estimated that the costs of climate change will knock more than five per cent from the national GDP by 2095, compared to what it would be in a world with a stable climate. That hit is roughly equivalent to the economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, except that it will be incurred every year, indefinitely. At that point, the annual cost of dealing with disaster after disaster, and the hits to health, productivity and more will add up to $100 billion annually.
It doesn’t take a lot of auditing to see how the bill will get so steep, so fast. The total cost of the 2016 Fort McMurray fire: $9 billion. The all-in price tag of B.C.’s 2021 heat dome, wildfires, floods and landslide, all linked to warming: up to $17 billion. Cleanup and repair after Hurricane Fiona, which bulldozed Atlantic Canada last year: $3 billion. The cost of upgrading the dikes that protect the low-lying Isthmus of Chignecto and prevent Nova Scotia from becoming a defacto island: $300 million. The bill for Richmond—the fourth-largest city in metropolitan Vancouver, which includes the Vancouver International Airport—to raise its own dikes against rising seas: $1 billion.
MORE: How climate change is costing us
It’s not just the toll on the public purse. By the 2060s, the CCI projects, Canada will have 500,000 fewer jobs than it would in a world without climate change. Railways and roadways, buckling in heat that exceeds their design parameters, will create transportation snafus. The physical and cognitive impacts of heat and deteriorating air quality will reduce labour productivity, as well as the number of workers in the economy (the CCI predicts premature deaths will shrink the labour force). All the while, taxes will rise as climate disasters eclipse other government priorities. Household budgets, already stressed by the rising costs of food and consumer goods caused by disrupted supply chains, will fall as taxation grows.
Governments will also be forced to invest in infrastructure that can better withstand climate disasters. This is already happening: Nova Scotia Power is spending millions to install more resilient electrical poles, after several years of increasingly powerful storms and hurricanes. In its last application to the provincial government to increase power rates on consumers, it cited climate change as a reason.
Debates surrounding climate in Canada will play out not only in Parliament but in the streets—more direct, disruptive and potentially violent than before
In Quebec, Hydro Quebec is also planning long term—the province’s power is produced almost entirely by hydroelectric dams in the province’s north and transmitted hundreds of kilometres to southern population centres. During the record- breaking wildfires this summer, nearly a quarter of a million customers briefly lost power when transmission lines shut down due to heat and smoke. Hardening that infrastructure is not optional: future heat waves could ignite fires that destroy vital transmission and generating infrastructure, just as the same heat waves trigger demand for air conditioning in the urban south. And so the costs will mount, year by year. A hotter Canada will be a poorer Canada—particularly in Alberta, projected by the CCI to be hardest hit by weather-related disasters, primarily floods and fires.
As the transition to renewable energy accelerates globally, Canada’s peer countries are already reducing emissions, with much deeper reductions planned. Thirty-nine jurisdictions have enshrined net-zero legislation in law, with most setting 2050 as the deadline for carbon neutrality. They have already made strides: the U.S. has cut emissions by seven per cent since 1990, the EU by 34 per cent. Canada’s emissions, however, have increased 11 per cent over the same time, largely due to our fossil-fuel sector.
This poses an existential economic risk that goes beyond disaster cleanup and higher insurance costs. The cost of stranding our fossil-fuel assets is tremendous—well over $100 billion. But the cost of doubling down on them as the world moves toward renewables and demand plummets is greater. The International Energy Agency reports that, for every U.S. dollar invested in fossil fuels, $1.70 now goes toward clean energy. Investments in solar will soon overtake investments in oil for the first time. The value of the global energy transition is enormous, up to $26 trillion by some estimates. Our fossil-fuel assets will risk being stranded, sooner or later, as the global economy moves on. We will need a national economy that can stand without them. For Wilfrid Laurier’s Robert McLeman, the choice facing us is clear: “Is Canada going to keep up or are we going to keep making horses and buggies when the rest of the world is driving Model T Fords?”
2023: The Toronto skyline was clouded in smoke one afternoon this June. (Photograph by Mert Alper/Getty Images.)
2060: As larger swaths of Canada’s boreal fires burn, the plumes of toxic smoke produced are likely to become a more regular feature of summertime life in the urban south.
Climate change will spawn political extremism
In February of 2019, a fleet of nearly 200 pickups and tractor-trailers departed Red Deer, Alberta, and drove to the foot of Parliament Hill. The United We Roll convoy occupied downtown Ottawa for two days, snarling traffic, blaring horns and holding rallies in support of oil pipelines and in opposition to measures like the federal carbon tax. Three years later, the Freedom Convoy arrived in town. Like many sequels, it was bigger, louder and longer, and though ostensibly about vaccine mandates, it served as a clearing house for far-right causes and conspiracies. It overlapped with the rage-fuelled, Fuck Trudeau vibes of the original, and its key figures—including Tamara Lich and Pat King—are long-time ringleaders in far-right, pro-oil activism (they were also involved in the United We Roll protests).
The convoy movement didn’t surprise Wilfrid Greaves. A political scientist and security scholar at the University of Victoria, he has studied the link between climate change, national security and social breakdown. The field is hot: there’s a fast-growing scholarship in what’s termed the “climate-security nexus,” describing the links between climate change, violence and extremism.
Canada’s social fabric won’t be immune to these fraying effects. Greaves suggests that, in our country, they will manifest in the polarizing politics that already surrounds climate. But, instead of playing out only in the halls of Parliament, they will play out in our streets, more direct, disruptive and potentially violent than before. The convoy movement represents one extreme. At the other end, climate activists will likely grow more confrontational, their frustration mounting in the face of government inaction. Already, in 2020, we saw mass demonstrations and sit-ins nationwide in solidarity with the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, who opposed the Coastal GasLink pipeline crossing their territory. The protests blockaded 30 rail lines nation-wide and dented the GDP by a modest but noticeable 0.2 per cent in the first quarter of the year.
We should expect more like that, especially as the toll of continued inaction becomes harder to bear. “That sense of disinvestment, that sense of abandonment and that sense of deep, broken trust is rampant,” says Greaves. “When a generation loses hope, those in its cohort become vulnerable to radicalization, which manifests either as a move toward fascism or all-out revolution.”
Thomas Boogaart, a historian at the University of Ottawa, has also seen a dramatic shift in his students as they contemplate their future. Starting 15 years ago, Boogaart asked his students at the end of every school year a series of questions about how they foresaw the future. Their written answers went into time capsules, to be sealed until 2030. In the first 12 years, he estimates about 60 or 70 per cent of students answered with optimism. Several years ago, that flipped—now, most envision a bleaker future. “They understand that their civilization can end, and it seems like there’s no escape hatch,” he says.
He ascribes that in part to a loss of faith in government to safeguard their future—a growing conviction that those institutions aren’t working for them. We know that Canada’s federal and provincial governments continue to stumble on the climate file. Few countries are on track to meet the emissions-reduction commitments made in the Paris Agreement, but Canada is the worst-performing among the G7.
That sense of hopelessness Boogaart observed has, in fact, been quantified. In a recent survey of 1,000 Canadians between 16 and 25, more than three-quarters reported that climate change is detrimental to their mental health; one-third said it impeded their day-to-day functioning. This is a rational response. Someone in Gen Z easily has 60 years ahead of them—they’ll live through the worst of Canada’s forecasted climate tolls. The average Canadian oil and gas executive, meanwhile, is 58; the average federal MP, 50.
There’s a flip side, though: another study examining climate-change anxiety in young adults found that countries with stronger climate action had lower rates of related anxiety. This suggests that political failures may exacerbate young Canadians’ malaise—but positive measures could cure it. Climate action doesn’t just stave off the worse outcomes of planetary warming. It can be a mechanism by which we safeguard the mental and emotional well-being of those who will one day lead this country
2023: As the far North warms, Inuit are dealing with enormous landscape changes, including permafrost thaw and the retreat of sea ice and glaciers, such as this one near Pond Inlet. (Photograph by Kay Nietfeld/Getty Images.)
2060: Sea ice will continue to shrink and thin. Travel routes used by Inuit for generations will become impassable, disconnecting people from hunting and trade.
Where do we go now?
Sarah Henderson is the scientific director of Environmental Health Services at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. For her, the defining moment of the 2021 heat dome was the night of June 28, when the interior of her East Vancouver apartment reached 38 degrees. She made a makeshift bed on her narrow balcony, but sleeping outside was a different kind of hell. Her apartment was two blocks away from a hospital that was being bombarded by victims of the heat. “I just lay there all night, listening to sirens screaming,” she says.
The previous week, Henderson and her colleagues had mobilized standard operating procedures for extreme heat. They proved entirely unequal to the severity of the event. The experience raised for her a critical question as the world plunges into hotter, uncharted territory: “How do we prepare for what we’ve never seen before?”
This summer, while I was writing this story, the world seemed to be accelerating toward any number of unseen things. The North Atlantic Ocean broke the record for the warmest June. From July 3 to July 6, the entire planet clocked the four hottest days in recorded history—which were also estimated to be hotter than any in at least 100,000 years. It was a global echo of the record-breaking three days that preceded the Lytton inferno. It is more apparent than ever that the world in which we took our first steps, learned to ride bikes, sold lemonade, got married and had children, is lost to us.
A clear-eyed view about what’s to come, and how to handle it, will take us far. Better emergency management, upgraded building codes, more resilient infrastructure and investment in public health and mental-health supports—all these things will help us live in the world to come. But that’s just to deal with the consequences already locked in: the masses of displaced people, the burning forests, the dying species, the psychological and physical toll of it all.
The good news is that the most dire “hothouse earth” hellscapes appear less likely than they did just a few years ago. Forecasts that brought the world to an apocalyptic four, five or six degrees of warming by the end of this century now appear unlikely. Renewable energy of all kinds is becoming the cheapest energy on the planet, and though the incumbent fossil-fuel industry is politically powerful, the energy transition has picked up too much momentum to be stopped: global fossil fuel use is expected to peak this decade. We can still choose how much the climate changes, especially beyond mid-century. But that depends not just on when fossil fuel use hits its apex, but how fast it declines. “Net zero isn’t like a political campaign pledge,” says Concordia’s Damon Matthews. “It is the tool by which we stop the runaway train.”
That means generating electricity from renewables and other zero-emission sources. It means transitioning other sectors to zero-emission fuels, electrifying car and truck engines, furnaces, water boilers and stoves. It means changing how we manage our forests for logging. The success stories are out there. Europe has reduced greenhouse-gas emissions by 35 per cent since 1990. Eight out of ten new cars sold in Norway are electric. The world’s second-largest steelmaker, ArcelorMittal, successfully used green hydrogen to reduce the carbon footprint of steelmaking at a plant in Quebec last year. And oil-friendly Alberta is quickly becoming the country’s solar-power capital, with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of solar investments flowing into our sunniest province.
In Canada, we’ll need to align ourselves with the sustainability of communities—like the Inuit who are seeing their way of life altered in front of their eyes—over the sustainability of carbon-intensive businesses. The same Indigenous communities disproportionately harmed by climate change are also on the front lines of the energy transition. Indigenous communities own, co-own or have a defined financial benefit agreement in place for almost 20 per cent of Canada’s clean electricity infrastructure. David Isaac, President of W Dusk Energy Group Inc., is at the forefront of that work, deploying community-owned wind, solar and tidal power systems. He sees these technologies as an embodiment of Indigenous values: “To decarbonize a community is to really decolonize a community.”
By the middle of this century, millennials will be in their 70s and 80s. Their kids will be in their 40s and 50s. It’s not that far off. Tens of millions of Canadians have had the forethought to squirrel away, collectively, $4 trillion into retirement funds to ensure their well-being until the ends of their lives. RBC has estimated the cost to fully transition Canada off of fossil fuels to be about $2 trillion.
If Canadians can prioritize our shared future and national well-being with the same foresight we save for ourselves, our future outlook will improve enormously. Those times that Canada has acted with this kind of foresight have gone down as our proudest moments: establishing universal public education, the Medicare Act, the 1991 acid-rain treaty with the U.S., which helped save our lakes and rivers, despite industry opposition.
It’s too late to stop all of the beasts climate change will unleash. They’re at the gates; we can hear and feel them out there, in the unknown to come. But if we work together to build our walls higher and stronger, we can keep them at bay.