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a nation's paper

The Globe has often, if not always, been a fierce advocate for environmental solutions proposed by our best scientific minds

This is an excerpt from A Nation’s Paper: The Globe and Mail in the Life of Canada, a collection of history essays from Globe writers past and present, coming this fall from Signal/McClelland & Stewart.

When record-breaking rains fell on British Columbia in November, 2021, Wayne and Rhonda MacDonald braced for the worst. It had been that kind of year.

Four months earlier, the couple watched anxiously as a massive wildfire approach their Bar-FX cattle ranch in the Nicola Valley, in the province’s southern Interior. This was after another earlier blaze levelled the town of Lytton on June 29, a day after the small community saw the temperature soar to a Canadian record 49.6 Celcius. The BC Coroners Service later said that 619 people in the province died from the extreme heat that lasted from June 25 to July 1, the deadliest weather event in Canadian history.

The MacDonalds lost 32 animals and 70 per cent of their rangeland in the fire that raged through the Nicola Valley but they managed to save their home. Others weren’t so lucky. Wildfires throughout B.C. that month forced thousands to flee their properties and placed tens of thousands more on evacuation alert, ultimately destroying nearly 9,000 square kilometres of forest – about 1½ times the size of Prince Edward Island.

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Floodwaters cover farmland in Abbotsford, B.C., after the 'atmospheric river' landed in November of 2021.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Then the rains came. On Nov. 13, an elongated strand of moisture-laden air – known as an atmospheric river – unleashed its cargo on the province. More rain fell over three days than normally falls in the entire month of November, destroying highways and bridges and cutting off vital supply links to the rest of the country. The damage totalled in the many billions of dollars.

In the valley, the Nicola River spilled its banks, swallowing two hectares of the MacDonalds’ property, including a calving barn. The flood destroyed their irrigation system. The fire-scarred landscape couldn’t contain the moisture, repelling much of it down mountainsides to create even greater devastation. A half-dozen neighbouring homes were washed away.

“We were so afraid of the fire,” Rhonda MacDonald told The Globe and Mail in the aftermath. “But it was the flood that ended up taking us out.”

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Rhonda and Wayne MacDonald spoke with The Globe about the flooding that ruined the Bar FX Ranch in B.C.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

If the country needed an illustration of what the future might look like as the planet continues to warm, it was on full display in B.C. that year. “Extreme heat, fire, drought, record rain, floods: It feels biblical. And it is all interconnected and made worse by climate heating,” The Globe’s editorial board wrote on Nov. 18, 2021. “Canada is heating twice as fast as the global average. … The No. 1 thing to do is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly and as soon as possible.”

Throughout its history, The Globe has chronicled the many environmental threats facing Canada. Beyond reporting on these events, the paper has often, if not always, been a fierce advocate for changes proposed by our best scientific minds, as the country and the world confronted everything from the use of the insecticide DDT to acid rain and the growing hole in our ozone layer.

But The Globe’s position on some matters, especially climate change, would anger parts of the country, particularly Alberta, where governments accused the paper of being out of touch with the province’s economic realities even while global fossil-fuel production put the planet in an increasingly precarious position.

Others would point to the contradiction of warning about global warming on one page while endorsing the latest proposed oil or gas pipeline on the other. The paper has often struggled to balance local interests and global concerns.

A motorist stops on the Trans-Canada Highway near Lytton, B.C., to watch the mountainside burn on July 1, 2021. The fire had levelled Lytton three days earlier in a summer of record-setting tempertures. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press
Lytton, shown in 1889 or 1890, started life as a settlement for gold prospectors bound for the Fraser Canyon. In 2022, a year after the fire, Lytton was a ghost town; only some properties were cleared of debris and residents did not know when, if ever, they could return. C.S. Bailey and Co./City of Vancouver Archives; Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

In the 1880s and 90s, The Globe’s environmental coverage largely concentrated on the proper management of the country’s forests. The mentality of the time was to “clear them as speedily as possible,” said a story on May 31, 1875, titled “The destruction of forests.” But the story offered hope for a day “when their preservation and renewal will have to be as much a matter of public policy as of private advantage.”

In the first half of the 20th century, environmental coverage focused on the protection of habitat. “The United States and Britain both teach a lesson that may be studied with advantage by those who would open the way to timber and game pillage and expose our Northern heritage to needless fire hazards,” said a 1933 editorial. Bison, whooping cranes and other species – even the iconic beaver – were all at risk.

The publication in 1962 of Silent Spring, a book by U.S. biologist and ecologist Rachel Carson, helped launch the modern environmental movement, with its warning of the deadly effects of the pesticide DDT. Carson’s findings alarmed The Globe, which warned in a July, 1962, editorial that insecticides “dangerously disturb the balance of nature and may release upon humanity more harmful forces than the pests they destroy.”

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Toronto municipal workers collect more than a ton of pesticides on Dec. 11, 1969, ahead of Ontario's ban on most uses of DDT.Barrie Davis / The Globe and Mail

In the 1970s, The Globe’s first environmental beat reporter, Peter Whelan, covered topics such as high mercury levels in Ontario lakes that contaminated fish stocks. Then came Victor Malarek, who warned in a July, 1979, story that “as many as 50,000 Canadian lakes may be seriously endangered over the next two decades because of acid rain.”

In many respects, the debate that enveloped acid rain was a harbinger of things to come with climate change. The federal government warned that industries needed to clean up their act or Ottawa would step in with punitive action. Many corporations blamed pollution wafting up from the U.S. for the problem, but science didn’t bear out that claim. “A report from the Great Lakes Advisory Board has estimated sulphur dioxide is responsible for $1.7-billion in health costs and $2-billion in architectural damage annually in the United States,” a Globe editorial said in October, 1979.

Eventually, industries on both sides of the border began drastically reducing toxic emissions, even as Canada and the U.S. established an air-quality agreement in 1991 to address transboundary pollution.

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Gaps in the South Pole's ozone layer, caused by human-made chemicals, spurred governments to act and ban the damaging products.NASA

Along with acid rain, a growing hole in the Earth’s ozone layer alarmed environmentalists and government officials. Scientists determined that hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) – gases used in refrigeration, air conditioning and aerosol products – were damaging the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer, vital for protecting humans from potentially deadly ultraviolet solar radiation.

Then-prime minister Brian Mulroney helped spearhead what became known as the Montreal Protocol, signed in September, 1987. As of this writing, nearly 200 countries have ratified the accord, which phased out several gases that were depleting the ozone layer.

“We like to think that this moves us down the road to the day when industry and the environment will not be locked in combat, each blindly defending or promoting a set of interests,” a Globe editorial said of the accord. The ozone layer continues to gradually heal and recover.

In the 1990s, the eyes of the environmental world focused on a pristine swath of old-growth forests on the west side of Vancouver Island known as Clayoquot Sound. The B.C. NDP government of Mike Harcourt announced a plan to allow commercial logging in almost half of the area and limit logging in another 18 per cent of the territory. The decision touched off the War in the Woods, one of the largest environmental protests in the country’s history, culminating in the arrests of 856 people in the summer of 1993.

In a July, 1993, editorial, The Globe acknowledged the balancing act the B.C. government faced between allowing commercial logging to take place and protecting virgin forests. However, the government “leaned too far toward placating an already existing local industry and not enough toward protection of an ecologically valuable resource.” That said, the paper had little appetite for histrionic protests, stating in a July, 1995, editorial that demonstrators needed to stop equating logging “with the rape of the environment and recognize it for what it is: a sensible, sustainable way of taking wood from the woods.”

A compromise in 1996 saw the area in which logging could occur drastically reduced. In 2000, UNESCO designated the entire sound a Biosphere Reserve.

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Police in Vienna carry a Greenpeace supporter away from the Canadian embassy in 1993, during a protest against logging in Clayoquot Sound.Ronald Zak/The Associated Press

The protests at Clayoquot typified the growing phenomenon of aggressive environmental activism. Young Canadians in particular considered themselves guardians of the Earth, giving rise to numerous environmental organizations, particularly in B.C. The most famous was Greenpeace, which had its beginnings in Vancouver in 1971.

In one of its earliest expeditions, a boat crew headed for the Aleutian island of Amchitka in Alaska, seeking to disrupt U.S. plans to detonate five megatons of nuclear explosives below the Pacific Ocean. In a September, 1971, editorial, The Globe called the protest “a useful gesture by a courageous group even merely as a means of drawing world attention to the Amchitka experiment.”

The paper was also on Greenpeace’s side when one of its vessels was rammed by the French navy in 1971 during an excursion to protest nuclear testing at the Mururoa atoll in French Polynesia. “We don’t usually have much sympathy for Greenpeace, whose grandstanding tactics usually induce companies and governments to do the wrong thing (curtail the Atlantic seal hunt; scrap, not sink, a North Sea oil platform). But in this case, the cause is good and the tactics, so far, acceptable.”

In the following decades, The Globe would often support Greenpeace’s position on various environmental issues, while opposing its tactics.

The organization held a particularly profound meaning for Globe reporter Justine Hunter, whose father, Bob, co-founded the organization. In a poignant piece published in 2015, she talked about finally finding peace with the distant relationship she had with her father, who was so often away on one long adventure after another, leaving her missing him.

Ten years after Bob Hunter’s death from cancer, Justine brought his ashes to Hanson Island, one of the gateways to the Great Bear Rainforest and a place that held a special meaning for him.

“I took a handful of ashes and swung my open hand over the waters of Blackfish Sound, and let go.”

Globe reporter Justine Hunter scatters her father’s ashes in the Pacific off Hanson Island in 2015. Bob Hunter was a co-founder of Greenpeace. John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

On Aug. 3, 1970, The Globe published its first story chronicling the concerns of scientists about the warming effect of pollutants on the stratosphere. At the time, the paper was skeptical. “The effect of increasing quantities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (believed to raise temperatures by the “greenhouse effect”) has resulted in little climate change this century,” the story concluded.

But as the decade unfolded, the tenor of those stories changed, warning with increasing alarm of the potential catastrophic impact of climate change. By the 1980s, scientists began removing all doubt about what lay ahead if action wasn’t taken to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

Michael Keating remembers his first major story on climate change, published on Oct. 22, 1983, under the headline, “Greenhouse effect: what happens in Canada?” It ran on the front page.

“Experts predict parts of Canada will be flooded, others turned into dustbowls and balmy temperatures could moderate the bitter winters,” he wrote. “Prince Edward Island will likely be cut in half by the rising Atlantic Ocean, but the Northwest Passage could open to summer shipping. There will be less water in the Great Lakes and droughts in the prairies.”

“What I find impressive is how well they were able to predict changes back then,” Keating says now. “It shows the science was already well established but had escaped public attention.”

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Climate protesters rally on Parliament Hill in 2019.Chris Wattie/Reuters

Between the formation in 1988 of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the start of 2023, The Globe editorial board wrote nearly 400 pieces that mentioned climate change. Many called for domestic and global action on the issue.

But provincial governments that depended on revenue from the fossil-fuel industry, such as Alberta, resisted aggressive action to cut emissions. There were some in the country who believed governments were creating a panic where one did not need to exist.

And as a business newspaper, The Globe often sided with industry over the contentious issue of pipelines. Over the years, the paper backed the building of plenty of them. In a September, 2011, editorial, the paper threw its support behind the Keystone XL pipeline expansion, which would have carried Alberta oil to points south. The paper said that pipeline opponents, including then-U.S. president Barack Obama, seemed intent on “blocking something that will create a continuing and jointly shared economic benefit.” An August, 2013, editorial called the proposed Energy East pipeline “a laudable initiative, one that the Quebec government should see fit to back.” A December, 2013, editorial said, “Concern about climate change should not be a reason to oppose” the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. Oil, the paper said, “is going to move, one way or the other,” and the degree of risk of an oil spill should determine whether a pipeline is approved. All three pipelines were cancelled or not approved.

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Margaret Wente rides the subway in 2006 for a Globe column, an experiment in living without her gas-guzzling Mazda Tribute SUV.Jim Ross/The Globe and Mail

No one stirred more ire over The Globe’s coverage of environmental issues than star columnist Margaret Wente.

A noted contrarian, Wente wrote about Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg, who questioned the “doomsayers” who maintained the planet was heading for oblivion because of global warming. In another piece, she wrote that serious scientists “have given up trying to explain why the entire edifice of global warming was an intellectual house of cards.”

She had letter-writers and bloggers up in arms.

In an interview, Wente stands by her columns. “Climate change and global warming account for more cultism and groupthink than any other issue of our time,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong. Global warming is certainly for real. … But the hysterical doom-mongering and predictions of apocalyptic collapse are not science-based.”

Some environmentalists were dismayed with The Globe for not taking a tougher stand on global warming. “On climate change, I would suggest that The Globe has … erred on the side of politics and short-term economic agendas over the science and urgency,” says Tzeporah Berman, co-founder of, and one of the world’s leading climate activists.

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Rhonda MacDonald checks on one of the horses at Bar FX Ranch, one year after the floodwaters came through the Nicola Valley.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

The climate-related calamities that hit B.C. in 2021 gave the country a look at what the future might hold if the planet continues to warm at current rates. The MacDonalds of the Bar-FX ranch in the Nicola Valley emerged from the year alive, but faced difficult questions about a way forward. Did they even want to stay where they lived?

Others faced the same dilemma, as they struggled to come to terms with surroundings that were now completely different.

“I saw in people, especially older folks, a kind of mournful disorientation with the world around them,” recalls Globe reporter Nancy Macdonald, who covered all three 2021 climate-related disasters in B.C. “I later learned there is a term for this – ‘solastalgia’ – which was coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht. It is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still home, but the environment has been altered and feels unfamiliar.”

We may all feel solastalgic in the years ahead, as climate change renders our world more unrecognizable by the day.

Gary Mason is a national affairs columnist at The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Lytton fire also destroyed the Bar-FX ranch. They were two separate wildfires. This version has been updated.

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