Ontario on front line of climate change
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario
Ontarians got a taste of what climate change is like this summer, and most of us didn’t worry about it, as we enjoyed the hot, sunny days, uninterrupted by rain.
But in my annual report released today, I maintain there are storm clouds gathering on the horizon. Due to our latitude, global warming is occurring faster in Ontario than the global average; while the average temperature around the world went up by 0.75 degrees Celsius in the past century, average temperatures in south-central Canada increased by an average 1.2 degrees Celsius.
Most experts predict this warming will accelerate. And if you take into account the lowlands of Hudson’s Bay, it could speed up even more. There’s a vast expanse of wetland peat in the lowlands, composed of centuries of decayed vegetation. A shift in the water table could release methane and carbon dioxide, both of them greenhouse gases. The province’s Expert Panel on Climate Change Adaption has warned: “Losing that carbon to the atmosphere as GHG’s is a risk of global proportions.”
All of this threatens to dramatically alter the landscape of the province, wiping out familiar plant and animal species, and introducing alien species that have never been seen here before.
The first signs of this change are already literally posted outside Long Point and Rondeau Provincial Parks. They warn campers and visitors about deer ticks, a species of pest Ontarians haven’t had to worry about before, because the ticks couldn’t survive Ontario’s frigid winters.
However, warmer winters have brought the deer ticks north, and with them an increase in the incidence of Lyme disease. There were predictions they would spread throughout all of southern Ontario by the end of this decade, but these are already outdated. Deer ticks testing positive for Lyme disease were found in Thunder Bay this summer.
The ecology of Ontario will be radically reshaped by a profound territorial shift in the province’s climate zones. The weather that people now enjoy in southern Ontario will move 500 kilometres to the north by the end of the century. Take the mild climates of Toronto, London or Windsor and think about what will happen when they shift to Marathon, Wawa and Thunder Bay: Warmer and drier conditions will wreak havoc in what is already a fire-prone forest; grasslands will overtake parts of what is now the northern boreal forest.
Many of Ontario’s animal species are not going to be able to survive the province’s shift to warmer temperatures. The biggest casualties are likely to be Ontario’s polar bears. The 900 to 1,000 polar bears that currently live in Hudson’s Bay will likely be gone from the province in 45 years due to decreases in sea ice. Moose are threatened as well; increasing numbers are expected to die from hypothermia when snow in northern Ontario is replaced by freezing rain.
Further south, the warmer temperatures will mean an increase in the range of white-tailed deer, which are already a problem for many farmers. The change in climate could also cause shorter hibernation periods for black bears, producing a mismatch in the available food supply when they emerge. The bears could face another food shortage, months later, due to berry crop failures. Even species such as opossums, which were historically restricted to the southern United States, are already present in Ontario due to recent milder winter temperatures.
And the Great Lakes could end up being the not-so-Great Lakes. Water levels of the four lower Great Lakes are expected to drop by as much as 115 centimetres over the next four decades. The water that’s left will be warmer, changing the range and abundance of fish. The habitat of the province’s lake trout will shrink by almost a third by the end of this century.
The magnitude of these threats cries out for action on a number of fronts. In Ontario, for instance, there is no law that specifically requires the government to conserve the province’s biodiversity, let alone monitor it. More fundamentally, the problems posed by global warming undermine the credibility of the reigning conservation philosophy of “sustainable growth,” which promised that we could continue to grow without degrading the environment or harming future generations.
People everywhere now need to embrace a new definition of conservation. If that happens, we can reduce the impact on plant and animal species that will come with climate change.
The new conservation ethic must take into account the cumulative impact of our activities, use a precautionary approach every time a decision is made, and ensure we don’t penalize future generations. There is no alternative to this; we must make do with less, and use what we have more wisely. Because this is not a choice, but a reality imposed on us, on our children and on our children’s children, by the world we have created.