Canada is getting warmer faster than the rest of the world. Why is that?
Earlier this week, the federal government released a report suggesting that Canada is experiencing warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world — and that in Canada’s North, it might be three times the rate. Andre Mayer spoke to Dianne Saxe, the former environment commissioner for Ontario who now runs the green consultancy Saxe Facts, about how climate change is playing out in this country.
Why is Canada warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world?
Canada’s refrigerator, the Arctic, is warming fast. The Earth’s climate warms faster near the poles. Why is still being studied, but the reasons include feedback cycles that are internal to the climate system, such as the positive feedbacks that occur when snow and ice melt to reveal darker, warmer surfaces below, and when more energy in the air and water currents are transported to the high latitudes. Also, land warms faster than oceans, and Canada has a huge land area that is away from the oceans.
We often read that Canada has some of the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world. Why is that?
Reasons include Canada produces very large emissions from its industries, especially oil, gas and petrochemicals. Canadians drive the least efficient vehicles in the world, use a lot of heat during cold winters, fly often and far, eat a lot of beef and use up and throw away immense amounts of stuff of all kinds. Some provinces still burn a lot of coal.
How effective have politicians been in recent decades in helping Canadians understand their carbon footprint?
Some have tried very hard, but the majority continue to ignore, underplay or misstate the issues. Worse, some politicians have made climate change a partisan, divisive issue, when it should be something we work on together.
Climate scientists have known about this warming trend, but the broader public most likely has not. Do you think this recent report could change the conversation in Canada?
All across Ontario, my experience has been that more and more people already see the impacts of extreme events, and are starting to understand how climate change multiplies risks. I hope that this most recent report will encourage more people to translate their justifiable fear and outrage into action. But, like smokers who won’t quit till they get cancer, some people seem unwilling to do anything until they personally experience a climate disaster.
Is Canada prepared to adapt to the effects of warmer temperatures?
Absolutely not. The costs of adaptation, and of response to extreme events, may quickly mount up far beyond the ability of governments, individuals and communities to pay for. Insured losses from extreme events are already rising sharply, and uninsured losses are probably growing even faster.
Canada doesn’t even have much sense of where we are most vulnerable. People still react with outrage and disbelief to climate-related disasters and extreme events, and expect government to look after them whatever the circumstances or the costs. Meanwhile, we continue to worsen our vulnerability, for example by destroying the wetlands and woodlands that help us moderate floods and droughts, and by building more homes in vulnerable areas.
This interview has been edited and condensed.