Warmth, wins, and way forward: Climate Change and Canada in 2017

Atiya Jaffar
6 min readMar 7, 2017

We’re barely 3 months in and 2017 is already breaking records globally. From the Arctic and Antarctica facing record heat, to countries as far apart as Iceland and Australia reporting skyrocketing temperatures. Just down South in the United States, the month of February delivered over 2,800 record highs and some of the strangest weather patterns in decades. These alarming trends have become the new normal as the world spirals towards 1.5°C of global warming.

This animation shows the accelerating rate of global temperature change from 1850 to 2016.

As climate change impacts hit the world with full force, Canada also experienced some unsettling trends. No less than 15 communities in Saskatchewan saw record-setting high temperatures by mid-February. They weren’t alone. Edmonton broke a 100-year-old record when it hit a jaw-dropping 15.4 C mark on February 15th. And no one needs to point out the absurdity of Ontario being the warmest place in Canada at one point this winter — with Toronto seeing its hottest ever February day and Ottawa closing the Rideau Canal skating rink after one of its shortest ever seasons.

Classic wintertime activities in Ottawa were cut short this year when warm weather forced the Rideau Canal skating rink to shut down for the season, and ice sculptures at the annual Winterlude festival started melting. Photo Credit: Ashley Fraser
This infographic shows the extent of Arctic glacier melting over a decade.

Although many Canadians likely celebrated a rare opportunity to swap their parkas for t-shirts, the unfortunate reality is that this uncharacteristically warm winter doesn’t necessarily bring good tidings. One of the most dramatic implications is the terrifying rates at which Arctic glaciers are melting — warm temperatures are leading to 1000% increase in loss making Canada’s melting glaciers one of the biggest contributors to global sea-level rise. And even within Canada, warming weather contributes to Northern lakes nearly doubling in size leading to many disruptions, including a loss of habitat for bison (which join moose on the growing list of Canadian species losing their home to climate change).

The Canadian Arctic is also experiencing massive levels of thawing permafrost. As its name suggest, permafrost is a layer of rock and soil that’s meant to remain frozen year round — so this is bad news. As permafrost melts, it releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and contaminates water bodies, choking fish populations which comprise an important food source for Indigenous communities.

From one coastline to another, climate change poses a burgeoning threat to aquatic life. Warming waters on the East Coast of Canada have led to an 80% decline in Snow Crab populations since 2013. Bringing what was once the world’s largest snow crab fishery to its knees.

Yet as temperatures climb, glaciers recede, and wildlife populations decline, Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government insist on upholding the status quo while trying to convince the world they are practicing a novel approach of striking a balance between the economy and the environment.

Even though Prime Minister Trudeau secured a majority government by promising to overturn nearly a decade of regressive climate policies pushed forward by his predecessor, it’s apparent, now, that he does not intend to keep those promises. To an almost satirical extent, since taking office just over 500 days ago, the Trudeau government backtracked on every promise they made on climate action and Indigenous rights.

Suspicions were raised when the Liberals failed to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, and mysteriously neglected to deliver millions of dollars pledged for green infrastructure and transit. But Trudeau’s charade most notably fell apart this Fall when he approved two massive tar sands pipelines (Kinder Morgan going West and Line 3 going South East), and a gigantic fracked gas expansion project. In the simplest terms, building these projects is completely incompatible with meeting Canada’s climate targets that the government pledged to meet by ratifying the the Paris Agreement. It’s also making a bad situation worse: even without these projects, Canada is already the worst country by far for per-capita carbon emissions.

The GHG emissions of new tar sands pipeline make it impossible for Canada to meet its global climate commitments Graphic by Rodrigo Samayoa

The world is fast approaching a point of no return for the climate. In order to “preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed” we need to have no more than 350 PPM of carbon in the atmosphere. The latest data shows that the world will likely hit 410 PPM this month. There are no two ways about it: Canada must stop expanding the fossil fuel industry. Yet even though the Canadian government is stumbling down a path of repeated failures, hope is blossoming in the people’s movement for climate action which has seen many triumphant moments since the start of this year.

This February, the University of Laval became the first Canadian university to commit to full fossil fuel divestment. This big win signifies that major institutions across the country recognize that the age of fossil fuels is over — and it adds to the pool of over $5 trillion divested from fossil fuels globally.

Thanks to people-power, the Energy East pipeline faces significant delays. Photo Credit: Robert van Waarden

On the infrastructure front, the largest pipeline ever proposed in Canada, the Energy East tar sands pipeline, ran into a massive delay when the government announced that its review would have to start again from the very beginning. This is in no small part, thanks to the Indigenous-led, people-powered opposition to this pipeline which continues to grow as the project faces new obstacles. Just last week, a coalition of grassroots organizations struck an unexpected partnership with local microbreweries in Quebec to launch an “anti-Energy East” beer which raises awareness about the repercussions of the pipeline for the provincial economy and waterways.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip from the Union of BC Chiefs speaks at a fundraising event for First Nations taking the Kinder Morgan approval to court.

As for the pipelines already approved by the government, legal challenges have been picking up steam. First Nations taking the Kinder Morgan approval to courts have received a tremendous amount of support from across the country — raising close to $100,000 in just a few months. And last month, the City of Vancouver committed to taking the Kinder Morgan approval to court as well.

At this point, there’s no debate in Canada about whether or not climate change is real. 88% of Canadians agree that the government should commit to ambitious climate action. Trudeau and his cabinet ministers never miss an opportunity to tweet about new data on climate impacts. The fight ahead lies in overcoming the false notion that serious action on climate change can happen simultaneously with the expansion of the fossil fuel industry.

The Environment and Climate Change Minister frequently tweets about climate change impacts — but refuses to acknowledge climate scientists calling on world leaders to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Approving new fossil fuel infrastructure is a new form of climate denial at a time when climate scientists tell us we need to keep the majority of oil, coal, and gas reserves in the ground. And it’s a type of denial that Prime Minister Trudeau has cozied up to — to the point that Big Oil front groups are quoting his feeble attempts to refute climate science.

Moving forward, there’s work to be done to move masses of people in this county from voicing support for climate action to actually participating in the broad-based political movement to stop new infrastructure projects and take action to keep fossil fuels in the ground. We need to show Prime Minister Trudeau that people in Canada expect him to actually deliver on his promises for real change.

How do we get there? Let’s talk to our friends and family members about the seriousness of climate change and what’s necessary to move ahead. Let’s think about ways that we can work within our communities to effect high-level political change. And let’s build bridges across our communities to protect the places we all love and stand to lose because of climate change.

With Justin Trudeau turning his back on Canada’s climate commitments, people-power will have to gear up for the fight against fossil fuels.