Nature’s Past Episode 31: Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues, Part 1 – Global Warming

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Episode 31: Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues, Part 1 – Global Warming

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Since the World Conference on Changing Atmosphere was held in Toronto in 1988, Canadians have participated in discussions of climate change prevention and adaptation. The UN-established and Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change includes Canadian members and Canada supported the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, though it withdrew from the treaty in 2011 when faced with financial penalties for failing to meet its greenhouse emissions reduction goals. The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) Act established and maintains the NRTEE as a federal agency, advocating adaptation and suggesting Canada must “adapt and prosper” in the face of climate change, seeking out the “opportunities” climate change offers Canadians. The Canadian government recently announced that the NRTEE will be eliminated as of March 31, 2013. In spite of this and other political setbacks, Canadian climatologists have continued Impact and Adaptation Studies among Canadian communities, and historians of climate change in Canada examine the ways in which these biological, political, and social changes have taken place, providing context for assessing their efficacy. Organizations such as the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE) continue to support projects examining climate change in Canada, such as the Early Canadian Environmental Data Project.

Changes in Earth’s climate have always occurred and have varied over time, with no consistent pattern of warming or cooling emerging until the 1820s. Before the Industrial Revolution, eras such as the Medieval Warm Period could be followed by periods of cooling, such as the Little Ice Age, though the effects of climate change have not been consistent around the globe. After the Industrial Revolution, however, a pattern of consistent global atmospheric temperature increase due to human activity, called anthropogenic climate change, became apparent. The scientific community began discussing this phenomenon and its causes as early as 1896, with Svante Aarhenius’s calculation of atmospheric warming due to industrial gases released into Earth’s atmosphere. As the twentieth century progressed and patterns of anthropogenic climate change became more apparent and alarming to the scientific community, the discussion moved into the public realm as scientists, politicians, and bureaucrats attempted to address climate change through public policy. Nations and international agencies then began formulating regulations in attempts to curb climate change. The discussion increasingly focused on economics and has now shifted from finding ways to fight anthropogenic climate change to creating means of adapting economies to its effects.

Historians have credited historical climate change with creating environmental opportunities for human action, including Norse exploration of the Canadian Atlantic coast, the Thule peoples’ movements across the Arctic, eighteenth-century adaptations of South Saskatchewan River Basin peoples, and economic diversification of contemporary logging communities in British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alberta, to name a few. Climate change and knowledge of the environment in Canada now exist in a colonial context that includes local knowledge and indigenous participation as climatologists and policy makers seek ways of creatively adapting to changes in the Canadian climate.

On this episode of the podcast, we hold a round-table discussion about the role of climate in Canadian and global history with James DaschukJoshua MacFadyen, and Dagomar Degroot. We also speak with Ross Coen, author of the recently published book Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage.

Image of book cover by Coen, Ross. Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage.

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Ross Coen
James Daschuk
Dagomar Degroot
Joshua MacFadyen

Suggested Readings:

Coen, Ross. Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2012.

Cohen, Stewart J. and Melissa W. Waddell. Climate Change in the 21st Century. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009.

Cruikshank, Julie. Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters and Social Imagination. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005.
Daschuk, Jim., and G. Marchildon. 

Climate and Aboriginal Adaptation in the South Saskatchewan River Basin, AD 800-1700.  Institutional Adaptations to Climate Change Project, 2005.

Fagan, Brian M. The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. 1st U.S. ed. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008.

Hare, Frederick Kenneth, and Morley K. Thomas. Climate Canada. Toronto: Wiley, 1974.

MacFadyen, Joshua. “Breaking Sod or Breaking Even? Flax in the Northern Great Plains and Prairies, 1889-1930,” Agricultural History 83(2) (Spring 2009): 221-246.

McKibben, Bill. “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” Rolling Stone Magazine, July 19, 2012

Ministère des Transport, Direction de la Météorologie. Le Climat du Canada. Ottawa: Canada, Ministère des Transport, Direction de la Météorologie , 1960.

National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. Degrees of Change: Climate Warming and the Stakes for Canada. Ottawa: National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, 2010.

Riedlinger, Dyanna and Fikret Berkes, “Contributions of traditional knowledge to understanding climate change in the Canadian Arctic” Polar Record Vol.37 (2001), pp 315-328

Simpson, Jeffrey. “Canada and climate change: all plan, no action.” The Globe and Mail, May 12, 2012. Accessed May 22, 2012.

Smith, Jesse and Julia Uppenbrink, eds. “Earth’s Variable Climatic Past.” Special Issue of Science292 (27 April 2001): 657-693.

St. George, Scott and Dave Sauchyn. “Paleoenvironmental Perspectives on Drought in Western Canada.” Canadian Water Resources Journal 31.4 (2006).

Weaver, Andrew. Keeping Our Cool: Canada in a Warming World. Toronto: Penguin, 2008.

Works Cited:

Sean Kheraj, Canadian History & Environment
McKibben, Bill. “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” Rolling Stone Magazine, July 19, 2012
Coen, Ross. Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2012.
Real Time Farming
Climate History Network
Early Canadian Environmental Data Project

Music Credits:

“Could Be – Instrumental Mix” by Jeris
“Day by Day” by CSoul
“Autumn Flavors” by wnm
“PC04″ by unreal_dm

Photo Credit:

SS Manhattan at Port of Chester, Philadelphia, 1969. Credit: United States Federal Government or Humble Oil & Refining Co.


Kheraj, Sean, Stacy Nation-Knapper, and Andrew Watson. “Episode 31: Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues, Part 1 – Global Warming” Nature’s Past: Canadian Environmental History Podcast. 26 September 2012.

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Sean Kheraj

Associate Professor and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University
Sean Kheraj is a member of the executive committee of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at

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