It’s Dec. 31, 2066, and for a little while the prime minister of Canada is trying not to think too much about a troubled world.
After all, it’s time to celebrate. In a few hours she’ll be on Parliament Hill to usher in the year that Canada turns 200.
As a nod to the past, the event will echo a similar scene that took place exactly a century before when Lester B. Pearson, her distant predecessor, lit the Centennial Flame.
Feeling the weight of history and looking for inspiration, she uses her digital aide to call up the speech Pearson gave that night. But when the file flashes across her sleeve, what catches her eye is the black and white photo that pops up along with the text.
There stands Lester B. in his hat and overcoat on a brisk December night. The snapshot has captured the cloud of breath at his chin while, behind him, officials and flag bearers stand shoulder to shoulder like they’re closing ranks against the winter cold.
What a difference, she thinks. On the eve of Canada’s bicentennial year, Ottawa no longer feels so much like a nordic city. While the capital still experiences blizzards, cold snaps and – increasingly – severe ice storms, there are now long stretches when daytime temperatures are above freezing. Most years, the Rideau Canal is open for skating for just a week or two.
Born in 2014, this future prime minister inhabits the Canada we can expect to see under the highest-emission scenario considered by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest assessment of climate impacts, released on March 31.
On Sunday, the IPCC will release its follow-up report on mitigation, focusing on the emission reductions needed to avoid the worst-case scenario of unchecked climate change. But given the political challenges that stand in the way of co-ordinated international action, it’s worth considering what will happen if, 53 years from now, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is still on the rise.
A climate projection for Canada in 2067 conducted for The Globe and Mail based on the IPCC’s high-emissions scenario paints a picture of a warmer and stormier country. In this possible future, the average global temperature is about 2 degrees Celsius warmer than it was at the beginning of the century. In Ottawa, the change is more like 3.5 degrees. For old-timers, it feels like the city has migrated a few hundred kilometres south.
Ironically, this is the world that international climate negotiators had hoped for when, in 2009, they set two degrees of warming as a global safety limit. If warming could be held to two degrees, the IPCC has said, the worst impact of climate change can be avoided.
But under the IPCC’s high-emissions scenario, two degrees of warming is not good news. Rather than a stable endpoint where global warming tops out, in 2067 it will be a fleeting signpost that humanity blows through on its way to a much hotter planet.
So while 2067 is no climate apocalypse – at least not for Canada – it is a time of growing uneasiness as the unavoidable consequences of a high-emissions future rattle a world already beset by inequality and geopolitical tension.
Whatever issues and worries are keeping Canada’s prime minister awake by then, it’s a good bet that climate change will be one of them.
Floods, wildfires, chablis
While the ability to simulate the atmosphere in massively complex computer programs has improved by leaps and bounds over the past 25 years, anyone hoping to gaze into Canada’s climate crystal ball is confronted with some big unknowns. Chief among them is the question of how far the world will go along its current path before shifting in a meaningful way from fossil fuels – if it ever does.
“We have a lot more faith in what the models are telling us, but the uncertainty comes from not knowing what the greenhouse-gas emissions are going to be,” says Adam Fenech, director of the Climate Research Laboratory at the University of Prince Edward Island.
The lab is one of the few places where the outputs of all the world’s major climate models can be readily combined to provide an outlook for specific regions; it is where Dr. Fenech created an outlook for Canada in 2067 for The Globe and Mail.
The general implications for Canada are laid out in the IPCC’s report, including the growing likelihood of extreme heat, flooding and drought in summer and increasingly snow-free winters in much of the country.
But the biggest temperature shifts in Canada, according to Dr. Fenech, will occur when most people aren’t paying attention – in the form of average nighttime lows that are as much as 10 degrees warmer than today. Warmer nights are a hallmark of the growing presence of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. “You could say climate change happens at night,” he says.