The Slow Burn

Climate change is harder to spot in Saskatchewan

by Ashleigh Mattern

At the beginning of January, much of Canada and the United States were hit with a cold wave. You might have heard the terms “polar vortex” and “snowpocalypse” being thrown around, and stories of Manitoba being colder than Mars.

You may have also heard that the cold snap was “proof” that global warming isn’t happening. After all, how could the world be getting warmer when we’re experiencing such cold weather?

The global climate is determined by adding up worldwide average temperatures over time — it has nothing to do with weather patterns like the 2014 snowpocalypse.

Climate change is happening, and it’s caused by humans — that much is no longer debated in the scientific community. But the masses find the scientific data less convincing.

Dave Sauchyn, research professor with the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative out of the University of Regina, says he understands their doubt.

“I’ve been studying climate change for 31 years, and when people say, ‘I don’t believe,’ I don’t mind,” he said. “I don’t blame you, because you live in Saskatchewan.”

Saskatchewan has an unusually variable climate. There are few places on Earth where you go from minus-20 to plus-20 in a few weeks. Or minus-25 to plus-five in one day, for that matter.

The general thinking is, the first people who will notice climate change in the weather patterns will be people living in the tropics.1 In a place where the weather is the same every day, they notice if it goes up by a degree.

In Saskatchewan, we never get an average temperature. The weather is all over the place.

“It’s either too hot or too cold or too dry or too wet,” said Sauchyn. “It makes it really hard to see the gradual change.”

But our climate is changing. Already, our winters are warmer. Sauchyn says that we don’t get the same kind of snow melt off that we used to get. Winters used to stay cold all season, allowing snow to build up for months and months; come April, that build up of snow would melt and create floods. But snow doesn’t get a chance to build up like that anymore because our winters are warmer. There are still floods, but they’re due to rain, not snow — a change from the province’s historical patterns.

That change is ridiculously mild compared to some of the catastrophic situations expected in other parts of the world. In fact, PARC’s SaskAdapt document says Saskatchewan isn’t getting hotter, just “less cold”. The change could mean longer growing seasons (though also an increased chance of drought).

But the mild impact of climate change on Saskatchewan doesn’t mean we get a Get Out of Jail Free card.

“On a per-person basis, the highest production of greenhouse gasses in the world is Saskatchewan,” said Sauchyn. “We’re off the charts. Saskatchewan is ahead of Alberta on a per person basis. But half the year we have to use it, or we die. There’s certain limitations on what we can do, but we have to do something because we’re contributing to the problem.”

He says if you’re a citizen of the world, you will be concerned about how global warming is impacting other places, especially because those other places will be looking to Saskatchewan for help when the shit hits the fan — and there’s no doubt that it will sometime in the next 100 years.

“We have a lot of resources, and not just natural resources, but money, technology, a good education system, a relatively good government,” said Sauchyn. “We have a lot of resources to apply to the problem, and as they get hammered by climate change, they’re going to come here. One way or the other, we have to help them out. We either help them deal with climate change, or they’re going to come here because it’ll just be intolerable there.”

We know that global warming is caused by the use of fossil fuels, and if everyone walked more and drove less, those actions would make a difference. For Sauchyn’s part, he walks to work every day. But he’s realistic about his minimal personal impact.

“As I look up and down Albert Street, I don’t see another person… Virtually nobody walks in Regina.”

As a climate change scientist, he says he’s come to realize solving the global warming problem is not a scientific one; it’s a social one, because people discount the future. It’s called hyperbolic discounting, and it’s a tendency for humans to prefer smaller payoffs now over larger payoffs later.

What we’re doing now is going to cause a worldwide catastrophe in 50 years, but today, it’s so much handier to drive than to walk.

So does a scientist who’s been researching climate change for 30 years feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

“It depends on the day,” said Sauchyn. “I think basically we’re screwed. But you gotta try anyway.”

[hr]

1. Then again, North Americans, Asians and Europeans who’ve been hammered by erratic weather might beg to differ. For more on that, read Gwynne Dyer’s column on page 11.

2014-02-20