Climate change brought Newfoundlander Gwynne Dyer home this week. The world-renowned strategic and political affairs journalist came for a short tour of the province, talking global warming and its effects on Newfoundland and Labrador. TheIndependent.ca bumped into him in Bonavista, of all places. And there were questions, naturally.
What are you doing here in Bonavista?
I’ve been in touch with the College of the North Atlantic — talking about how it really was worthwhile for someone like me to go around the province speaking to their various campuses and talking about what happens to Newfoundland in a climate change world. I don’t think anyone’s been doing that. So I set a week aside and did four gigs: St. John’s, Goose Bay, Corner Brook and Bonavista.
How long have you been chasing the issue of climate change?
In a big way for about three years. I basically realized about three years ago that the American military were getting interested in climate change, and that’s sort of up my alley — the military and all that stuff. And I thought, ‘well, why would they be getting interested?’
Then I went back to London [England] and then I found out the British military were getting into it. So I thought, ‘we’ve got a live one here — this is something which will reward a little bit for effort’, and it did because that whole geo-political aspect to climate change has basically stayed under wraps. The military is looking at it but they’re not talking to the public about it.
Why bring this topic to Newfoundland?
People here are definitely interested — there’s all sorts of information about what happens to the world (although some of it’s misleading) and there’s none about what happens to Newfoundland. So people know something’s going on and they’re interested and they do show up and listen. We had big crowds.
You look at the media and you think this issue is on the back burner, but it isn’t actually. It’s on the front burner as far as the people are concerned — quite a significant number of people.
“First of all, you have to understand that you can’t actually say, ‘this is what will happen’ because so much of what happens depends on what we do next. You’ve got a choice of futures there.” –Gwynne Dyer
What kind of questions were you getting from the people of the province?
A lot of them had to do precisely with what happens to this place when… when whatever’s going to happen, happens. First of all, you have to understand that you can’t actually say, ‘this is what will happen’ because so much of what happens depends on what we do next. You’ve got a choice of futures there.
You’ve got a choice of futures in the province as well and you can’t really decide which is which because it’s not going to be us who decides. It’s what people do in the bigger countries — the more highly emitting countries. Either they get it right; they worry enough and act fast, or they get it wrong because they didn’t act fast enough and we all pay a price for that.
What price do you see Newfoundland and Labrador paying with regards to climate change?
Newfoundland pays a smaller price than most places. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this; scientists and so on, and I’d say we’re one of the three or four most favoured places, that now have a significant population in the world, to withstand the ravages of climate change because of global warming.
Essentially, the oceans are cooler than the land here. We have an oceanic climate and we’re very far north as these things go. Put those two things together and what you don’t get in Newfoundland is what you do get in most land parts of the planet, which is: the heating over land is much higher than the global average.
People say we might never go through 2 degrees of warming. All the governments in the world have signed up to that over the last year. That doesn’t mean 2 degrees of warming over Manitoba; it probably means 3.5 degrees of warming over Manitoba because the further inland you go, the more pronounced the effect because you’re away from the cooling influence of the sea.
The Hadly Centre for Climate Change Prediction and Research in England was predicting a four-degree rise in temperature to be a likely outcome in 50 years’ time if we stay on the current course. What might this mean for inland provinces? Translates to about 7 degrees in Manitoba, which is killing. The dams have run dry and there are permanent brownouts from the electricity, and the old people are dying in the heat and some little people. It probably isn’t even raining in Manitoba anymore and even if it is, God knows what crops you’re growing there because at 7 degrees higher you’re not growing the crops you grow now. That’s Manitoba’s future, if they think it’s under control. Naturally, Ontario and Quebec’s future is not much different.
If it’s 4 degrees higher in 50 years’ time what might that mean for Newfoundland?
It will only be 3.5 degrees higher in NL, which is a pretty cool climate now you’ll have to admit, so it’s still not terrifying.
We’re very well situated because we’re a long way from major population centers. If really large-scale global warming happens, there’s going to be refugees looking for cooler places.
“We’re very well situated because we’re a long way from major population centers. If really large-scale global warming happens, there’s going to be refugees looking for cooler places.” –Gwynne Dyer
What do you foresee as Newfoundland’s fate if we get the emissions under control and it never goes past 2 degrees?
More or less where it is now except slightly better off. In the end we’re not going to be pumping oil because nobody’s going to be pumping oil, but the fields we develop now will probably go dry before we get to the oil, which will be before we run out of oil.
There will certainly be a better future for Newfoundland agriculture, and we have a long distance to make up because we used to feed ourselves on the island and now we certainly don’t. But there’s enough land for that and with a little bit warmer temperatures and a longer frost-free season you could do more with it.
What effect could climate change have on the fishery here?
The fisheries is a bit of an unknown because even at 2 degrees or 4 degrees warmer, if we lose a lot of the Arctic sea ice, what does that do to the Labrador current? It’s a good question — I haven’t met anybody who’s got an answer.
The rule of thumb is — the warmer the ocean, the less life it can take, and after about 20 degrees [surface temperature] there’s very little life in the ocean. We’re never going to hit 20 degrees in Newfoundland so it’s very likely that some fish will remain and it may not be the same fish and seafood that’s there now, but there will be something.
Our ocean definitely is warmer, maybe by only half a degree or so, but that could be a killer for the cod — not literally — but in terms of where they spend their time.
How could global warming affect tourism in Newfoundland and Labrador?
If you get into any kind of serious discomfort, of the sort that higher temperatures would bring in the more urban parts of the continent (but not so much that everyone’s up against the wall and scrambling for food) wouldn’t it be popular to go to cool, beautiful, rugged Newfoundland in the summertime?
What lasting impression do you hope to leave on minds that came out to your talks on climate change?
I’m out earning a living — doing what I do, telling people what I know. I’m not a missionary, I’m not a preacher, I’m not even a politician. I’m not in the business of leaving lasting impressions; I’m in the business of telling people what I know in case it’s useful to them.