World Environment Day is hosted by Canada this year but are we worthy?
Here's a gloat-worthy fact: Canada has more lakes than the rest of the world's countries combined (okay, Finland may have more but we're up there). We're almost 9% lake. This next fact gives us fewer bragging rights: our lakes rank, in varying degrees, from not so polluted to "don't drink, swim in or look at that water too long" polluted. We aren't fully sure how polluted they all are yet, but we're working on it. As things pertain to the environment, we're working on a bunch of tricky stuff. Trudeau's been theatrically vocal about much of it. I'm all for a little showmanship and I can appreciate what Trudeau brings to the table, but the thing about making peace with politics being a kind of show business is that you can't forget the business end of it in favor of the show (environmental issues being just one part of that business, of course). Let's put a pin in that for a cosmic minute.
June 5th marks World Environment Day and we're hosting, in spirit at least, the world. The theme this year is connecting #WithNature. Fitting that it's also our 150th, so, I'm into it. Who doesn't like a celebration? Huzzah. Catherine McKenna, our Minister of Environment and Climate Change says our "Canadian spirit of collaboration is only one of the reasons Canada is a natural choice to host" the event. It's also, she asserts, an opportunity to "blend Canadians' pride in our environment with our determination to address climate change challenges." True, our epic love of nature, unreal landscapes and natural resources (we're top 5 globally) are also pretty good reasons. McKenna has said we're "looking forward to showing the world the made-in-Canada approaches that will make our country cleaner and more competitive for businesses." I'm all for that too. But the challenges she mentions are real and here's an inconvenient truth (footnote Gore, Al): we need to look at some of the messes we've made in our own backyard, and really get on that whole cleaner country thing. Sharpish.
I'm a proud Canuck so forgive me for doing something decidedly un-Canadian and impolitely pointing out a little egg on the face of our natural landscape. Note that I do so with an aim to instigate some positive planetary change, bolster Canadian pride and elevate our worthiness as a global environmental force for good so that we can metaphorically crack a beer with the rest of the planet without being sheepish about it (sheep — not endangered here).
Still, here are a few Canadian areas where we really need to roll up our sleeves and get green to avoid being red in the face for the wrong reasons (I tried to keep it light, dear reader, but by all that is sciencey on Neil deGrasse Tyson's green earth, it wasn't easy):
Death from above. Air pollution kills thousands prematurely every year.
Nearly a decade ago in 2008, a report confirmed that unnecessary deaths from air pollution stood at (rested in peace at?) around 1,500 a year. Not that bad but still not as great as a more ideal number of say, zero deaths from toxic air. How are people dying from air pollution in Canada!? *fights impulse to insert thumb in mouth, curl into fetal position, and rock self* If you're hoping things have improved, don't hold your breath. Recently, that same study was revisited and the impact was found to be grossly underestimated. How grossly? Pretty gross. Disgusting really. Premature deaths caused by air pollution is actually closer to 7,700 people a year. "The morbidity and mortality is much worse than we thought," says Robert Smith, senior associate at the International Institute for Sustainable Development. What's more, it's costing Canadians (aside from their lives, I mean) a lot of money. Estimates put the price tag at a heart stopping $36 billion for Canadian families shelling out to cover illness and premature death. Let's hope the data is final and we can start sanitizing the skies but Smith says, "the more scientists look at the costs of air pollution, the more they find those costs are large." Side note: a gas mask will run you anywhere from 30 loonies to 30 Queen Elizabeth IIs.
SNAFU (Situation Normal, All Fracked Up)
This is a tough one. LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) does burn cleaner than other gases and it's hella lucrative but exporting it means fracking sh*t up. Each province has their own rules governing frack attacks but much of it happens (sometimes unauthorized) out west in Alberta and B.C., most notably. Fracking, if you're not in the know, is a process that uses sand, water and chemicals to blast through rock to get at previously inaccessible natural gas deposits. It also kind of sucks. One decent frack can deplete colossal amounts of fresh water (5 million to 100 million litres worth of our lakes or about 2,000 exhausty truckloads). All of that water gets contaminated and then has to be disposed of somehow. Typically, it gets injected deep underground or squirted into toxic storage ponds.
The process also leaks the greenhouse baddie methane into the atmosphere at rates almost three times as high as B.C. has been admitting to. Sorry, to out you, Beautiful B.C., but that's not cute. Another thing fracking does? Brace yourself. Actually. It causes earthquakes. Yup, earthquakes, once only the acts of god or restless tectonic plates depending on your belief system, are now handily made by man via fracking, stacking natural disaster on natural disaster. We're not done. Once the gas is out of the ground it still needs to be liquefied for transport through an energy intensive cooling process that plunges its temperature to -161 degrees Celsius. The cooling only happens with more hydro power, or in an ironic twist, by burning even more gas (a process that is unsurprisingly dirty AF) to generate enough electricity for refrigeration. I'll let better minds examine the science and draft up a proper cost benefit analysis (costs and benefits will vary based on personal politics of course) but first I need a stress nap.
The end is still pretty nigh for Orcas and Polar Bears
On the off chance you've missed the memo, Polar Bears and Killer Whales are aggressive predators that don't mix well with humans. They will eat your face. But that's only because your face is made of meat, you have the relative strength of a baby bear or whale, and, your face is delicious, I'm guessing. If you have a tough time sympathizing with Canadian creatures that toothy and deathy, think of Polar Bears and Killer Whales like I do: as Snowflake Furbies and Sea Pandas, respectively. The truth is, they're in real trouble.
As it stands (swims?), only 78 Killer Whales remain in the Salish Sea. There are probably more Kardashians than Killer Whales right now and that cannot stand. Busy port cities like Victoria and Vancouver contribute, in part, to a recent and marked decline with noise pollution of all things. The underwater noise caused by what is essentially a major marine vehicle highway makes it difficult for orcas to navigate, communicate, and find their favourite food (Chinook Salmon, not human faces). Sadly, in a watery domino affect, the Chinook are scarce due to overfishing and climate change (which pushes them ever further north in search of the colder water they like).
To be fair, two important initiatives to control marine vehicle noise pollution and traffic have been implemented just last year (still, that's after 15 years of the federal government realizing that Orcas are in trouble). But barring crucial changes in their habitat, numbers could very realistically drop to zero reducing Sea Pandas to museum oddities. Under the most favourable conditions (read the opposite of what is happening), starting now, their recovery will still take more than 25 years. Meanwhile, shipping traffic in the Salish Sea is only projected to get even more aggressive over the next decade. So, you know, whatever "f*ck" is in Orca. As for Polar Bears (Snowflake Furbies), it's just as grim (reaper). The short version is there isn't enough sea ice for them to hunt on, again due to extreme climate changes, so, they starve to death or meander into cities looking for, you guessed it, human faces. Because we're the ones with the guns, that typically ends poorly for them. The scientific community agrees that unless we get aggressive with how we're managing climate change, they too will become the stuff of legends peppering natural history museum exhibits. Ugh.
Ya. I'll stop there (I don't want you to wrap your lips around an exhaust pipe — not that you'd need to if you read the section on air pollution) but we still haven't covered freshwater pollution, the current status of the ozone layer over the Canadian arctic or the fishing industry. To put it mildly, we've got some mother (nature) effing work to do.
Okay, so you stop contemplating hanging yourself with rope made from sustainable materials, there is some good news brought to us by the World Wildlife Federation that points to 2017 being a pretty positive year for the planet. This year we'll see the start of the largest (ever) natural aquatic ecosystem restoration project benefiting our wetlands and their dependant species. The government has also committed to hitting international targets for marine protection of 5% this year and, eventually, 10% by 2020. We're at about 1% marine protection right now so that's a big jump. Lastly, one thousand Canadian companies will adhere to Living Planet @ Work, a program promoting sustainability in the workplace while bolstering ecological goals that don't impair profitability. I'll take it.
So, let's cling to hope like a Snowflake Furbie to an ice flow, Canada. And get active for the love of Neil deGrasse Tyson, and this decidedly impressive space rock we've been hanging out on for a cosmic minute. It's a point of national pride and global emergency, whichever of those motivates you more. Christ, do it for the Sea Pandas.
Marc Beaulieu is a writer, producer and host of the live Q&A show guyQ LIVE @AskMen