Introduction

What I call the Apocalypse U of T calls The Distinguished Lecturer Series: one way to deal with fear.

What I call the Apocalypse U of T calls The Distinguished Lecturer Series: one way to deal with fear.

There’s something about waking in the still-dark hours of the night that causes me to lapse into a temporary bout of intense anxiety, in which I worry about any of the following things: 1) whether or not I really am standing naked before a wedding reception while waxing poetic about the bride. (Oh, the blighted power of the dreaming mind). 2) If I completely extinguished the embers in the fireplace at my cottage the last morning I was there (several weeks ago), before locking up. 3) The only other sensible thing to worry about while in one’s PJs at 3 am: the Apocalypse.

Hence the U of T Centre for Global Climate Change Science and its Distinguished Lecturer Series.

Chances are, if you are reading this you are going to die. Not immediately, nor horrifically (well, hopefully not), but inevitably. At some indeterminate point in the future. When I wake up in the night I worry about what the future holds for all of us, but (being honest) especially for me. Daily we’re inundated with news of global climate change, of rising sea levels, melting ice caps, ocean acidification, and dead zones in our lakes and bays: it’s hard to not be affected. Things are admittedly looking a little ominous. At 3 am I start to wonder where will we get potable water in 50 years? Who will stop big corporations from draining the Great Lakes when the US reaches a critical water deficit? What will stop fire ants and Lyme disease-ridden ticks from moving into my neighbourhood? What kind of government is going to move in decades down when food and water are scarce? And what will happen to my rights as a voter, as a woman, and as a property-owner?

The good news about climate change is that it doesn’t have to be so scary. I’ve come to realize that the scariest bits of my nightmares are derived mostly from a misunderstanding of exactly what global change is and what its repercussions will likely be. I’m not saying we can lay back and relax with a Mai Tai because in 50 years Toronto will be the new Palm Springs. What I am saying is that a lack of understanding of an issue as complicated as climate change can easily result in an overly-imaginative, apocalyptic view of what to expect from the future. I know from experience that extreme expectations result in stress and fear, so that people would rather not think about climate change at all, dismissing the need to become involved or alter their patterns of consumption, rather than attempt to participate in any constructive way. Apocalyptic views dissipate when the real potential outcomes of climate change are learned, and although these results are often still scary, looking at environmental change through reasonable eyes is of huge value when it comes to treating the phenomenon rationally, and believing that on an individual level, something can be done.

I went to the opening lecture of the Distinguished Lecturers’ Series, where Professor David Schindler of the University of Alberta opened this year’s series with The Boreal Ecoregion: A Global Change Time Bomb?, which outlined the climatic importance of North American and Eurasian boreal regions. Schindler made no assumptions about the audience’s depth of knowledge, outlining general concepts about the climate change before emphasizing how the boreal north will be affected, making the lecture intelligible and accessible to everyone, including the handful of undergrads who’d attended.

Briefly, the boreal forest is particularly vulnerable to environmental threats because only recently has it been recognized for its contribution to stabilizing the world’s climate, and so doesn’t enjoy the protection it deserves. A huge (25-50%) of the world’s carbon, one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for rising global temperatures, is stored in boreal forests and permafrost, but, thanks to human activities, is currently being released into the atmosphere, leading to global temperature increases. Warmer weather leads to more melting of permafrost, and to the release of further greenhouse gases, and then to more melting of the permafrost, etc. A positive feedback cycle. One repercussion of increased temperatures (among a few) is that insect populations normally kept under control by harsh winter conditions will multiply, leaving boreal forests susceptible to forest fires. Fires have increased in frequency by 74% to 118% over recent years, and are responsible for 80% of Canada’s annual carbon emissions.

Fresh water’s also really big, present the form of wetlands, lakes, and rivers. Fresh water sources are replenished by precipitation at a rate of about 1% per annum, an influx that only just replaces the water lost by evaporation. Local industrial employment of water, however, is currently using up water at a rate that has resulted in a drastic decrease of naturally-occurring levels. For example, near the Alberta Tar Sands, annual Athabasca River discharges have decreased by 40% to 60% over recent years, as water used for industrial purposes is too toxic to be returned to the river. Hydroelectric energy, agriculture, and oil mining are as equally culpable in their misuse of water. Cultural eutrophication, wherein the deposition of nitrogen and phosphorous into water sources creates anoxic lake conditions, further reduces water potability and aquatic viability, as can be seen in such hypereutrophized lakes are Lac La Biche and Lake Winnipeg. A lack of potable water has serious implications for any species dependent on these sources, including humans.

A useful aspect of the lecture was Schindler’s provision of a list of actions we can take to protect boreal forests. Policy needs to be implemented to protect the north, as does the establishment of conservation reserves, and controls on greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and  automobile access to the north. Research on northern boreal cycles and species adaptation is important. On an individual level (I perked up here a little), anyone can write to politicians in all levels of government, who’ll take such issues increasingly seriously the more letters they receive.

While climate change isn’t ever going to create a pretty picture, I think that there are constructive ways to approach and deal with something this magnanimous. And this lecture series is a great way to get informed and meet people working in relevant disciplines.

– Mary

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