Does Preparing for Climate 2100 Require “Risk Management of Atmospheric Terrorism”? A View From New Brunswick

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"Preparing for Climate 2100." From the conference program.
“Preparing for Climate 2100.” From the conference program.

Valuing the future, and the past; one environmental historian’s experience at the “Preparing for Climate 2100” conference in Fredericton, NB.

I am still on the come-down from “Preparing for Climate 2100.” You know how after a conference, your house can seem so quiet? So lovely, and yet, wouldn’t it be nice if there were ten other people to sit down and eat lunch with you? “Preparing for Climate 2100” was a two-day+ event in Fredericton, New Brunswick (14-16, November 2012). It was organized by the provincial branch of the Atlantic Climate Adaptation Solutions Association (ACASA) and was focused on community adaptation projects that are already underway, and the multiple tools that communities in the region are developing – or can access – to support effective and efficient adaptation measures.

The event swung into high-octane from the get-go. On Wednesday night, a number of delegates and other community members gathered for the first public screening of Climate,Communities, and Adaptation. (For live streaming of each film, extra footage, and more, visit the “Climate Change in Atlantic Canada Multi-Media Project”.) These films, which work together as a whole, represent a conversation among local knowledge holders – including fishermen and women, a snow-plow operator, First Nations community members and a wastewater treatment specialist – and scientists, policy-makers, and staff at the Insurance Bureau of Canada. Their observations are woven together to communicate the regional manifestations of climatic changes that have already arrived. Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns are having far-reaching influences, contributing to increased coastal erosion, northward movements by plant and animal species, and a decrease in the return times of major floods. More extreme weather (what we in the 21st century call “weather events”) is visiting the region, including hurricanes, which appear to be making landfall here more frequently. The year 2010 was the warmest on record in Canadian history. More is in store.

In fact, according to UPEI climatologist Neil Comer, who is involved with the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2013 report process, global emissions of greenhouse gases have trended higher than the highest assumption on which past models were based. Therefore, Comer asked, should we focus on the higher model projections being developed for the 2013 report? His question reflected the paradox of history which was evident in other presentations as well. While the past can no longer be taken as a proxy for the future, it can provide clues as to the potential scale and increased frequency of major weather events and to the types of challenges faced by particular communities. Yet, after witnessing successive power-point presentations showing graphs projecting scenarios of flooding, warming, etc. to 2100, I recalled another acute limitation of our present models. According to Paul Edwards, historian of science, “scientists speculate that we will never get a more exact estimate [of “possible climate futures”] than we already have, because all of today’s analyses are based on the climate we have experienced in historical times.” He quotes scientists Myles Allen and David Frame, who argue that once the Earth has warmed by 4 degrees Celsius, none of our models will be able to foresee an end to the warming, because conditions will be so different from those on which all of our models are based. [1]

In my work as a climate history consultant with the Fundy Biosphere Reserve, I encounter a distinctly different challenge: history has been undervalued. I am searching for concrete data about the past climate of the Upper Bay of Fundy that can be used to corroborate the observations of local knowledge-holders, some of whom were featured in the films shown Wednesday night. Yet, despite the fact that generations of lighthouse keepers recorded observations of the weather, the mechanization of ‘light stations,’ combined with shifts in personnel and priorities, meant that most of these records were destroyed or were preserved in small museums and collections. Furthermore, related libraries and archives have been consolidated or faced recent funding cuts. While the past may now be an imperfect guide, it is the one beacon that communities have to contextualize current changes and imagine particular futures.

Twenty municipalities were represented at the conference. Some representatives shared findings and introduced tools – including reports, plans, and assessments – that they have developed to understand risks and the range of adaptation strategies at their disposal. Others were there to learn about this work so that they could return to their communities and develop their own projects. Ernie MacGillivary, risk manager, reflected on the gathering of multiple levels of government and university researchers, community organizers and NGOs such as the Conservation Council and the New Brunswick Environmental Network, and engineers and educators: ‘we are never all in the same room together.’ For a number of people, this was an opportunity to put their own work in context and identify the knowledge, skills, and people to which they could turn to further their understanding of relevant issues and actions. The event was thus a terrific example of ‘feeding the beast,’ a key that was identified by ACASA director Glenn Davis, who stated that: “collaboration is a living thing.”

That beast was well fed in Fredericton last week – including on delicious local food! Marinated mussel salad, Kingsclear mushroom soup, apple chutney on local pork… Talk about the fruits of labour. Many of us also shared laughter during comedian Marshall Button’s sketch, “Helter Smelter.” Button’s character, Lucien (think, Rowan Atkinson and Mr. Bean), is an Acadian mill-worker whose homegrown philosophy takes on multiple issues of import to Canadians – and I would argue, humans – everywhere. This sketch, for example, not only derided promoters of “Global War-ning” for flying around the world in their jumbo jets while telling the common people that they shouldn’t put gas in their four-wheelers. It also touched on the realities of melting sea ice, cell phones, microwaves, gender politics, symbols of Canadian identity, and sources of contentment in life.

So what’s with the title of this post? David Phillips is a meteorologist for Environment Canada and is also a darn good public speaker. It was he who suggested that, if “climate change” isn’t earning rapid and effective responses (such as in international negotiations), then maybe we need to be gaining support for “Risk Management of Atmospheric Terrorism”! Although Phillips is in agreement with the Insurance Bureau of Canada that “water is the new fire,” his tongue was firmly in cheek here. Despite his report that 6 weeks ago, aerial images of Arctic ice showed it to be at its lowest extent in recorded history, neither Phillips nor anybody else at the conference advocated conceptualizing climate change at a pitch anywhere near “terror.” Rather, whether it was discussing a 300-year history of flooding on the Tantramar marsh, or the formation of well-rounded community work-groups to identify priorities for climate change adaptation in Acadian coastal communities, the tone was pragmatic and clear. We have the tools and information that we need. This is the dawning of the age of action.

[1] Paul N. Edwards, The Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010): 439.

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Teresa Devor

Teresa Devor is a resident of New Brunswick and likes to get her boots mucky in that good Fundy clay. When she is not reading about, or being in, local ecologies, she teaches environmental history at the University of New Brunswick. She is a Phd Candidate in history studying the development of local weather ecology through the diaries of inhabitants of the Maritimes and Newfoundland. Teresa is also integrating mindfulness techniques into the classroom to enrich student's abilities to meet Einstein's stated quandary: 'You can't solve a problem with the consciousness that created it.'

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