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.
Along with the heat will come more precipitation across the whole of Canada – a rise of 6 to 10 per cent annually for the most populated parts of the country. Depending on exactly how and when that precipitation occurs, flooding events like those experienced last year in Calgary and Ontario’s cottage country are expected to become increasingly common.
“Water is a big part of what’s changing in our climate and what’s expected going forward,” says Paul Kovacs, executive director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR), based in London, Ont., and a lead author on the North America chapter of the IPCC report.
When it comes to forests, warmer winters have already increased the survival of various beetles that can infest trees. And despite more precipitation on average, the IPCC notes, the growing severity of dry spells will increase outbreaks of wildfires.
Farmers will feel the impact too – as well as some of the potential benefits of longer growing seasons as temperatures rise. The benefits are undeniable, says Barrie Smit, an emeritus professor of geography at the University of Guelph. Farming will likely push northward in those locations where soils allow it, while the arrival of varieties of grapes and specialty crops previously unable to grow in Canada will be a boon to winemakers, among others.
But the upside may be offset by increased risk elsewhere, particularly on the prairies, where periodic dry spells could mean long-term trouble for grain growers, potentially overwhelming irrigation capacity and driving up prices.
When it comes to farming, “the issue is not average temperature at all. It the frequency and severity of droughts,” Dr. Smit says.
In Canada, the rate of warming will be most pronounced in the North, where Dr. Fenech’s analysis shows average temperatures climbing by 5 to 6 degrees mid-century in a high-emissions scenario. This startling shift will be the nail in the coffin for summer sea ice, and it guarantees profound changes for Arctic wildlife and the people who depend on it as a food source.
“The big thing is how will animal species be affected. … We just don’t really know,” says James Ford, a geographer at McGill University who studies climate change in the North.
At the same time, a warming Arctic will bring opportunities to the North in the form of resource development and jobs. Whether the region comes out ahead will depend on how well it can adapt to changes such as the loss of permafrost. This is a huge matter for a community like Tuktoyaktuk, which is built on a frozen river delta that may all too soon melt away into the sea.
Yet, the biggest climate challenges facing the prime minister in 2067 may be the ones that originate outside Canada.
By then, with a population somewhere around 60 million, Canada will likely be adapting to a warmer world, bearing the costs while enjoying whatever short-term gains aggressive climate change may bring.
But as the planet rapidly warms in the high-emissions scenario just as the world’s population nears 10 billion, the situation for much of the rest of the world will be less rosy.
“That’s when you’re starting to see areas that are already pretty hot pushing the threshold of habitability,” says Damon Matthews, a climate scientist at Concordia University in Montreal.
In the developing world, climate change spells food shortages and extreme poverty as rising sea levels and environmental stress overwhelm countries that do not have the resources to adapt. It is unlikely that Canada, a wealthy northern nation that could well be seen as having played a disproportionate role in causing the climate problem, will escape being drawn into a larger global crisis.
As Canadians cope with the climate’s impact at home, they may also be increasingly called upon to provide direct aid, some form of compensation, or to relieve affected countries by taking in economic refugees. The alternative will be no less troubling – become an isolated fortress while the rest of the world bakes in misery.
During his centennial-year address, Lester Pearson said that Canada had found “unity in diversity,” a model that mankind as a whole would need to emulate “if we are to survive the perils of the nuclear age.”
In 2067, when another prime minister prepares to address the nation, a different set of perils will be in play. On a national scale, it will have altered the weather and changed ways of life. On a global scale, it could challenge the meaning of what it is to be Canadian.