Canada one of the fortunate countries, according to damning climate change report
By Margaret Munro
CanWest News Service
Posted on canada.com on April 6, 2007
Canada stands out as one of the luckiest countries on Earth in a grim report on the world's changing climate to be released today.
"In the big scheme of things, we are very fortunate," said Ian Burton, a leading climate scientist and member of the Canadian delegation helping to shepherd the United Nations report through its final review before being released in Brussels this morning.
"While there are big changes coming in Canada, we are very well equipped to deal with them," Burton said in a telephone interview.
What is missing, he said, is a comprehensive strategy to cut the country's greenhouse-gas emissions and deal with the "destabilizing" changes underway. Burton and his colleagues said Canadians need to get serious about adapting in this country, and also reach out to regions of the world on track to be inundated by the rising seas and parched by climbing temperatures.
Burton, scientist emeritus with Environment Canada one of the lead authors of the report, is one of many looking for "enlightened" leadership and action from Ottawa.
"Let's not just talk about it, let's put a game plan in place," said Duane Smith, Canadian president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which represents 150,000 Inuit in the Arctic. He said he welcomes today's report that will highlight the Arctic as one of fastest warming and changing regions on the planet.
"We are bearing the brunt of the changing environment as we speak," said Smith, who lives in Inuvik in the Western Arctic where many homes and buildings are sinking and shifting in the melting permafrost.
Thinning ice and changing ecosystems, which have resulted in drastic declines in Canada's caribou herds, are also threatening the traditional Inuit way of life, said Smith, who is calling on the federal government to be more "proactive" in cutting emissions to try slow the warming.
The federal government also needs to work more closely with northern communities and governments to better track the change underway and devise long-term solutions and adaptive strategies, said Smith: "We're dragging our toes, and need a more co-ordinated, working together approach."
Today's report is the second of four to be released this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations network of close to 2,000 scientists. The first report, released in February, said global warming is "unequivocal" and human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, are the main driver.
The second report, which Burton describes as being at the "conservative end of the spectrum," will describe how climate change is re-arranging the global landscape and poised to wipe out creatures, ecosystems and human settlements unable to adapt.
Drafts of the reports say billions of people will face drinking water shortages this century and "hundreds of millions" could be flooded as seas rise, inundating low-lying and densely populated coastal regions in Asia and Africa.
The forecast for Canada includes twice as many forest fires, more deadly heat waves, and looming water shortages as glaciers and snow-pack in Western North America shrink and water levels in the Great Lakes plunge. There are also potential benefits for Canada, such as shipping through the Arctic as the summer ice melts away, less people freezing outside in the winter, and farms and forests expanding northward.
The report lays out how the changes will grow more pronounced and deadly if greenhouse-gas emissions keep increasing in a degree-by-degree projection that Canadian climatologist Andrew Weaver described as the "highway to extinction."
"This is showing you where the road is heading," said Weaver, at the University of Victoria and one of the lead authors February's report.
A rise in the average global temperature of two degrees Celsius - now widely expected to occur in coming decades - corresponds to a risk of losing 20 to 30 per cent of species, and two billion people facing water shortages. If emissions keep climbing and temperatures rise four degrees Celsius, a "major extinction" of 40 to 70 per cent of known species is expected - up to three billion people will not have enough water to drink, and millions more will be flooded and face starvation.
The policy implications are "massive," Weaver said.
He said drastic cuts of between 60 to 90 per cent in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 are needed to slow the warming already underway.
He also said Canada has both a moral and international obligation to do more to help internationally.
"We are a wealthy nation," said Weaver. "We have a lot of money, we have a lot of water, we have a lot of land and we have a lot of food."
People in low-lying island countries such as the Maldives, or in heavily populated deltas such as Bangladesh are the losers in the climate-change equation. "So what do you do, say their lives on this planet are not as valuable as ours," Weaver said. "Or do you help?"
Burton and Barry Smit, a lead author of today's report and Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Change at the University of Guelph, agreed, saying Canada needs to offer assistance to regions and people at risk.
Canadians are among the biggest per-capita producers of greenhouse emission in the world, Burton noted. The country has also signed an international treaty committing to help less fortunate nations impacted by climate change, Smit said.
Many of Canada's most effective climate change and adaptation programs, both internationally and at home, have been "snuffed out" or scaled back in recent years and need to be revived, Smit said.
He also said climate change needs to be "mainstreamed" and made part of everyday policy, business and personal considerations - by checking on sea level rise when buying waterfront property, planning new sewer systems for a municipality, or allocating funding for international projects, Smit said.
Burton agreed and said he hopes the Conservative government's long-awaited climate-change policy, expected this spring, will be comprehensive, creative and multi-pronged.
"I think there is more reason to hope as governments and people are waking up to the problem and starting to deal with it seriously," Burton said. "Despair is no good to anyone."
©CanWest News Service 2007