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Canada in 2050? Future's so bright . . . you know the rest

I'd like to go all sci-fi on you, I really would. It's 2050, climate change happened, and this should mean the world is following the post-apocalyptic Hollywood horror script you environmentalist doom merchants wrote in the early 2000s.

You know what I'm talking about: floods, famine, infestations, solar death rays, endless riots, maybe even a few mutant attacks. Well, sorry to disappoint, but things have turned out not too bad. At least up here in Canada.

There's no Hollywood horror show, and not just because there's no Hollywood - as the rest of Los Angeles dried up and overheated, it just made sense to bring what was left of the movie business up to Vancouver and Toronto. The most unbelievable thing about 2050 is that the grande dame of the Canadian stage, Miss Lindsay Lohan, is still alive and kicking butt at the Iqaluit Panarctic Shakespeare Festival - so you got her wrong too. The Russians, bless their cultured souls, are serious fans and hover all the way from Murmansk for a matinee of her Queen Lear. But I digress.

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If those sci-fi stories really had come true, I'd be teleporting this message to you just so you could see the future for the rosy thing it seems to be. Granted, I'm wearing rose-coloured glasses, standard issue for us senior analysts at the Fort McMurray Utopia Institute. But when I look back at the projections you guys conjured up back in the dark days of eco-prophecy, with your scare stories that made the Book of Revelation look like Goodnight Moon, I pride myself on my more optimistic fashion sense.

I can't time-travel my hopeful truths back to you, and yet I feel your fears for a future you refuse to see. So all I can do is record my thoughts here on the off chance that sci-fi will eventually come to the rescue and figure out how to transcend the laws of time and space long enough for you to hear what I'm saying and come to your senses.

As if. But stranger things have happened, as your children will soon discover. Canada in 2050 isn't utopia - not yet, though we're working on it. With that said, I think you'd find it pretty incredible.

Arctic dreams

The country is warmer, it goes without saying. And, big surprise, the resilient Canadian people (the very same ones who once learned how to wear tuques and long johns) figured out how to adapt. Couldn't folks in the early years of the 21st century understand why a little more heat might just be a good thing? But you were so fixated on seeing the negatives, on fearing change rather than making it serve you, on feeling globally without thinking locally. And so you took your eye off the prize and almost knocked Canada off the podium that was ours to own.

For example, look at the Arctic, where we're born to rule. The focus 40 or 50 years ago was on cute polar bears and winsome seals, the pristine waters and traditional ways of life that were about to be no more. Well, yes, progress brings risks, and we've done our best to manage them - we're not in a state of denial. But prosperity was ours to take in the Arctic, thanks to warmer temperatures, and we seized it.

Or rather the native people did, for the most part. The hunting isn't quite what it was, the elders all insist, as elders do, but the young people aren't complaining. They're thrilled to have good jobs waiting for them when they leave school - schools that are much stronger and more competitive thanks to the tax money raised from opening up the deep-water Arctic ports and setting loose the resource industries to extract natural gas from the seabed. You didn't think all that money would just go back to Toronto and Vancouver the way it used to before the Arctic peoples started flexing their muscles? Hey, you talked aboriginal rights, but we did it.

And in a transformative way, none of this stratified documentary-era lifestyle of ancient rituals and regrets. If you want that in 2050, you can go to Siberia where the cagey Russians still keep the native Other repressed in the glorious past while happily pocketing the oil and gas profits for themselves.

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Our Arctic used to look like an outpost, a place the rest of the world came to for a brief moment of opportunity, and then left as fast as it could. Now, it behaves more like a settlement where people live their lives to the fullest. As the coastal waters have warmed up and the ice pack has receded, there has been a huge increase in maritime activity - what New York and Boston used to be like, if I recall correctly. The Northwest Passage isn't a year-round thing, granted, but for weeks at a stretch there's clear sailing across the Arctic, which shaves thousands of kilometres off the southern routes and saves millions of dollars for the big tanker companies (minus what they pay to us to pass through, of course).

Sea Change

The bigger change you'd notice, and the greater benefit so far is the increased activity within our Arctic sea itself - we're not just a sail-through zone but a place to work and play (if I'm quoting the Arctic Imperative Co.'s ad correctly). On a given day in September, you'll see cruise ships by the dozen, the military in strength (got to fly the flag - good photo ops for the PM), the big liquid natural gas tankers that have been developed to serve the huge reserves off the Queen Elizabeth Islands, regular visitors from all the other allied Arctic powers (wealth-sharing makes people pretty peaceful, it turns out), fishing boats tracking the species that have migrated north to find water and food sources more to their liking. I've heard that Disney is in negotiations to run a chain of protected polar bear parks, which could take tourism to the next level, especially if they can hook up with the casino resorts. Or does Disney still frown on that sort of thing? Climates may change, but morality endures.

We also made it a policy to move people from remote communities into the coastal towns and cities. This, you could say if you were so inclined, was the result of a climate-change negative: Higher temperatures disrupted the winter ice roads that kept these places supplied, to the point where it was too costly to maintain them (apart from those roads serving high-revenue generators like the Diavik Diamond Mine, which is going even stronger with South Africa being in such bad climatic shape). So we moved people to the coasts where they could find the jobs and social services they needed.

Gain or loss? Depends on whether you're a glass half-full or glass half-frozen kind of person. Still, if Arctic emptiness is what you prize, it's even more available now, at least in the depopulated interior. (Though keep in mind that the mosquitoes are even worse now than in your time - they too like warmer, wetter weather.)

Going south

Of course, like most conscientious Canadians of your era, maybe your relationship with the Arctic is more theoretical than real. How will climate change affect me, the concerned Torontonian asks. Will they still be able to make icewine in Niagara?

There, there, don't you fret. If not Niagara, then somewhere - both now and in the warming future, we'll still have more than enough subzero locations to delight the fastidious connoisseur and consolidate Canada's reputation for wintry hardiness. But don't forget the wine regions that once had difficulty ripening grapes for red wines, like Prince Edward County in Ontario: They're now awash in some very serious 100-point cuvees, at the very moment in wine history when the old guard in Spain, Italy, France and even California are watching their crops shrivel up in the desiccating heat of climate change. The B.C. desert vineyards? They're talking about switching to dates, or paying more for irrigation drips.

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Unlike California, we've still got a lot of water and, what's even more crucial, we've got the will to charge top dollar for it. Especially on the export market. It's hard to understand why exporting water was such a big deal in your time, but the laws of supply and demand finally caught up with us. You could call it greed, if you like, but it seems to me just as much a humanitarian gesture to keep those dried-out American cities in life's necessity - plus, they pay so much better than the prairie farmers who've had to abandon the parched and eroded land where wheat used to grow.

This being Canada, of course, there's still the ever-present debate about whether we're just draining ourselves of a precious raw material when we'd be much better off turning our water into boxes of mesclun salad greens for value-added export to the Whole Foods of the world - what high-minded types like to refer to as "virtual water." In the end, this being a keep-it-real Canada you'd still recognize, we take the easy way out.

Costs, benefits

But here I am talking wine and food when many of you are still stuck on the life-and-death questions of 2010. If we're just talking benefits, which is our official mandate at the Utopia Institute, then it's clear that the rate of cold-induced winter deaths went down as Canada got warmer - fewer pneumonia-induced deaths, fewer homeless people freezing, car fatalities probably fewer (though increased rain and ice and flood patterns complicate the stats somewhat), much lower use of road salt (which may not be a life-or-death issue to you, but it is to the plants and animals). And while talking about depression is discouraged in 2050, it seems obvious that most people would be happier and more life-affirmed as Canadian winters grew shorter and warmer.

Fortunately, the corresponding hot-weather spike in death caused by climate change isn't high enough to nullify the gains - we can still afford air conditioning in a relentlessly prosperous country like ours, we've learned to cool our overheated cities with plantings and water features and white-coloured roads, disease and disaster are no worse than what they've been over the previous centuries of Canada's history. And admittedly, we've developed a bit of a laissez-faire attitude toward the more beleaguered parts of the world, because they need what we've got: water, food, jobs galore in the oil sands, which are now 10 times larger than in your time. For which, like the great industrialists of the Victorian age who saw prosperity in their belching smokestacks, we make no apology. Business is its own kind of benevolence, in the end.

It's just not in our human interest to sit there and let bad things happen. Like the salmon that kept migrating north as its habitat disappeared, we recognized the need to adjust our lives. Mobilizing the political will to change, that proved to be more difficult. Generally speaking, people were willing to spend their money once they realized their assets were being devalued, which is why we saw much of Charlottetown and the Fraser Delta being shored up against the climate-change floods. But rural PEI and Nova Scotia, not so much.

If there were going to be losses, as there were, then, damn it, we were going to look for gains. The potential for hydroelectric power generation decreased in the south, as water-runoff volume decreased. But it rose in the north. If heat stress bothers chickens and cattle, then you improve shading, introduce air-conditioning and sprinkling systems - and make the consumer pay for such acts of humanity. Warmer winters increased pest populations, but that was manageable. Meanwhile, fragile, high-income fruit trees and grapes thrived as the killer cold subsided. Freshwater trout suffered as their water warmed, it's true. But lake sturgeon flourished, and it was easier to do without smoked trout when you found some good Ontario caviar on the menu - until, of course, it was snapped up by the French and American merchants whose traditional Russian and Iranian sources were decimated by this very same climate change.

The winner within

Caviar - do I sound callous? But you have to be in this business sometimes: Climate change forces decisions, upsets the established order, makes you choose between losers and winners. We may have become a less sensitive people, it's true, somewhere between 2010 and 2050. Am I a sellout, by your safe and exalted standards? Yeah, maybe. But believe me, I'm the one who kept it real. It's you, with your prophecies of gloom, with your denial of prosperity, who is living in the fantasy world. There are no votes in despair, no profits in pessimism. The future, sad to report, turns out to be happy-faced. And remember what they say, or what they will say once you start coming to terms with your good luck: The 21st century belongs to Canada.

John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. 

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