The scientists and the politicians could not have spoken more strongly. In the closing statement of the Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in Toronto, they wrote, "Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment, whose ultimate consequences are second only to global nuclear war."

That was 20 years ago on a sizzling day in June, 1988. A sizzling year, in fact — a year of   blazing forests, devastating prairie droughts, and Arctic permafrost melting into mud. The world was suddenly alert to warnings that carbon dioxide emissions could potentially raise global temperatures and change climates.

Canadian researchers at this international conference had the backing of their government. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney opened the event. Environment Minister Tom McMillan told the 400 delegates that "humanity has no choice but to act."

Canada set the diplomatic agenda with that conference. In its wake came the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.

Twenty years later, scientists are still warning about climate change, but with considerably less optimism. This week, 130 Canadian climate scientists signed a letter to the prime minister, opposition leaders and premiers (the letter is at the bottom of this story). And on June 26, some of the scientists, politicians, media and environmentalists who attended the 1988 conference met to "refocus attention on government's role in addressing this looming threat."

This wasn't the first letter; in 2006 scientists had called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to address climate change. Now, with greenhouse gas concentrations increasing and Arctic ice decreasing faster than projected, the scientists asked political leaders "to display the urgency and determination that we believe is required."

The man who organized both letters, Gordon McBean of the Institute for Catastrophic Risk Reduction, and one of the Nobel-winning scientists on the IPCC, talked with CBCNews about why scientists are once again moving into the political arena.


Gordon McBean of the Institute for Catastrophic Risk Reduction. Why the need for the letter?

Gordon McBean: The climate is changing even more dramatically than we had thought. The projections for the future are of more concern.

The pace of action being taken in Canada does not adequately reflect the urgency of the threat.  

The letter references the Changing Atmosphere meeting 20 years ago. What was its significance and what is the significance of what hasn't happened in the 20 years since?

This was first of all a very important meeting in the history of climate as an international diplomacy and political issue. It moved the agenda of climate change from a scientific discussion issue to an issue of governmental concern. It also called for a 20 per cent emission reduction target by the year 2000. Our government at the time … spoke about how Canada would undertake these kinds of things. In the end in Canada and basically in most countries, nothing happened, except that the political process continued.

The more things change....

It's amazing how the language from that conference hasn't changed: predictions for dry areas being drier, wet areas being wetter, forests vulnerable to insects, species can't adapt, polar ice melting.

The knowledge was there that we were affecting the climate in ways that we didn't have details of the way we do now.  That's why when we wrote this letter to the leaders this time we used this quote: "Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment, whose ultimate consequences are second only to global nuclear war."  It is no longer unintended and uncontrolled because we know this, it's not as though we're doing something we didn't know about any more.  

'"We could do something about it. As a collective global community we have chosen not to.'  —Gordon McBean

Unintended is not an appropriate adjective anymore in my view, nor is uncontrolled, because we could do something about it.  As a collective global community we have chosen not to.

That declaration 20 years ago talked about an action plan that should be financed by a world consumption tax on fossil fuels, which we are still talking about.

We said in this letter that we wrote that a polluter pay approach is required. If you take a bunch of garbage and dump it over your neighbour's fence, your neighbour will be very ticked off with you and demand you either remove it, or call the police and have you charged, or will charge you a fee for dumping it there. Why is it then when we stick things in the atmosphere, we consider it as some infinite wastebasket? 

If so much was anticipated, suspected, feared 20 years ago, why is it we are still having a discussion about the conclusions of that meeting 20 years ago?

I think partially because our political system favours present re-election objectives rather than the future. As a society we are more concerned with our need to buy goodies rather than worry about [the future].

One has to wonder if in 20 years another letter will be written. Where do you find reason for optimism?

I was perhaps overly optimistic over the last year up until recently because the polls showed, starting in the spring of 2007, that environment was the … top of mind issue for Canadians. From what I'm reading in the media, environment is still there but the concerns about the economy, people fussing about the price of gas, it just makes me quite frankly revolted, to think that that's their biggest concern. Gasoline is still what, less than half what it costs in France or Germany, and they're fussing about it? Give me a break. 

'One of his expressed intentions was to convince the Europeans to slow down on climate change …I found that appalling.' — Gordon McBean

And quite frankly, I was appalled when I read the press coverage of our prime minister heading off to these meetings in Europe and one of his expressed intentions was to convince the Europeans to slow down on climate change. At least that's what the media reported. I found that appalling. And that, along with some other things, resulted in this letter.

To get back to your question, I am optimistic because I feel I have to be. I have to keep working because if you just accept that nothing can be done, if you become totally pessimistic, then the natural human tendency is to walk away. And I'm not willing to do that yet.

(The following is a copy of the letter sent this week to the prime minister, opposition leaders and premiers by more than 100 Canadian climate scientists. Click here  to return to the story.)


An Open Letter on Climate Change Science to all Canadian Elected Government Leaders, June 2008

Twenty years ago, Canada, as a leader in international environmental issues, hosted a conference in Toronto entitled "Our Changing Atmosphere:  Implications for Global Security" The participants concluded that: "Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment, whose ultimate consequences are second only to global nuclear war."

Two years ago, climate science leaders from the academic, public and private sectors across Canada, conveyed in a letter to the Prime Minister their views on the current state of knowledge of climate change and called for national leadership in addressing the issue. 

In our opinion, tackling climate change has become an even more urgent concern since that 2006 letter. 

The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change placed before the global community definitive scientific evidence regarding the threat of climate change.

In awarding the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to IPCC, the Nobel Committee, a committee of the Norwegian Parliament, framed climate change as an issue of global peace and security.  It stated "Action is necessary now, before climate change moves beyond man's control." 

New analyses show that global greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing, sea level rising and Arctic sea ice decreasing faster than projected only a few years ago. Water shortages are predicted in the western Prairies, the Okanagan and in the Great Lakes basin. Earlier targets to avoid human interference with the climate system are now seen to be inadequate. 

Addressing greenhouse gas emissions will require a polluter-pay approach and absolute emission caps.  Adaptation to the inevitable impacts of climate change is now imperative and we need a national adaptation strategy to minimize those impacts and gain whatever benefits there may be. We are concerned that the pace with which action is being taken in Canada does not reflect adequately the urgency of the threat.

Finally, we believe that sound policy continues to require good scientific input. There is need for further investments in research and systematic monitoring to track the rate and nature of changes, to understand what is happening now, to refine projections of future changes and to analyse the opportunities and threats presented by these changes.

In less than 18 months, the global community will convene in Copenhagen to put in place a new agreement to address climate change.  We sincerely hope that, based on the compelling science at hand, our political leaders display the urgency and determination that we believe is required.

Yours sincerely:

Signed by 130 Canadian climate science leaders from the academic, public and private sectors across the country

Canadian Climate Science Leaders