Canada in 2020 - Environment: The long view

Roberta Bondar’s unique vision of science, the need for education, and more.

Few have seen what Dr. Roberta Bondar has seen. As the first neurologist and first Canadian woman in space, she has looked at our planet from beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. She also sees through the eyes of a scientist, a medical doctor, an accomplished photographer and a business adviser. Hers, then, is a unique vision of the environment — and of the important role Canada could play in a rapidly changing world.

Currently Canada’s honorary patron for UNESCO’s International Year of the Planet, in 2007 Bondar was appointed chair of the Ontario government’s Working Group on Environmental Education. In 2000, she photographed all of Canada’s national parks — another first — and those pictures were published in her third book, Passionate Vision.

Bondar, 62, spoke with Upfront editor Alex Mlynek about what we can learn from our changing planet, and how Canada can best prepare for the evolution that is bound to occur.

What do you believe is the most pressing environmental issue Canada faces today?

Canada, like the rest of the world, is facing the environmental issue of energy, and renewable energy and how that fits into the economy. We have so many options in Canada. We’re far better situated than most countries are, but nonetheless, in spite of our rich resources, I think the demands of the future and being able to help other countries comes down to not just developing stuff for Canadian use, but also in being able to export technology to other countries who are not as rich in resources. The development of new technology is quite critical for Canada.

In about 20 years, if we don’t change things about how we are approaching the environment, how do you envision Canada?

There are so many ways of looking at this. One big way is to look at the distribution of our population. Another would be how the climate is going to change and affect that population if there is a continuing change of the planet, which I assume there would be — it’s an evolution, it hasn’t ended its evolution. We have to look to our Aboriginal population and the individuals who have lived in the Arctic for many years, and have had their life impacted. So 20 years down the road, we’re going to be looking at not just where human beings are distributed, but how smartly we’re distributed. And how smartly we can buffer changes.

We’ve been in a very quiescent time in the history of the planet, and the history of population. We’ve had small little ice ages, and we’ve had temperature spikes and temperature change quite markedly within a period of a decade. We don’t know what the long-term evolution is going to be. We try to take our history and try to understand what our future’s going to be, and of course that’s fraught with difficulty. So if you ask me what Canada is going to be like in 20 years, hey, if I knew that I’d be sweet, man, I could sell it to the rest of the world. But if I were to be truthful, what I feel in my gut is that Canadians have a much better base from which to operate in order to buffer these changes.

Also, in 20 years we’re going to be looking at the Arctic even more because ecology, with the warming of the planet, is going to be changing substantially, and if we have a continued opening of the Northwest Passage, for example, it’s going to change quite drastically how we move goods across the world.

This summer there were major changes in the Arctic ice shelves, with the calving of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf. Why should Canadians be concerned about those changes?

The Ward Hunt Ice Shelf has been shrinking for 100 years. It’s about 10% of the size it was when Peary was exploring the Arctic, and back, oh, maybe 2002, they noticed the first crack in the ice. And the ice shelf itself has cracked in two, and now more bits and pieces keep coming off. It used to be an ice shelf that fringed around Canada and the Arctic edge thousands of years ago. So when we’re seeing this drastic change within our lifetime, everyone thinks, “Oh, something’s happened in the last week that made it happen.” When we look scientifically back, we understand that as a piece of ice gets smaller it’s going to melt more quickly, and I think that’s what we see.

When we look at the importance of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, it’s certainly a bellwether for the rest of the world. It is obviously not where the majority of the ice is — it’s in Greenland and Antarctica. But nonetheless, those areas themselves are having calving of their ice shelves. More glaciers are receding, and we have more ice pack falling into the oceans.

For Canada to have the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf means we have the ability within our geographic boundaries to try to understand some of these climate changes, and look at how it’s going to affect distribution of wildlife, distribution of human populations. For example, there are woodpeckers up in the North now. There were never woodpeckers there before. There are no trees. It’s beyond the normal treeline, so the woodpeckers are going after telephone poles. So we start seeing this change, this flux of biological material, whether it’s human beings, bacteria — whatever. There’s much that goes into arctic research, and we’re just taking baby steps right now. We’re trying to go to Mars and understand it, when in fact we’re living on a planet that’s evolving all of the time with life forms that are being heavily influenced by this evolution.

We need, as Canadians, to understand what the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf is. Most people don’t realize that when you look at it, there are these rivulets of turquoise ice melt in July and August. And in those ice melts we have ecosystems of freshwater animals living on this shelf on top of salt water. And these — what are called extremophiles — their DNA is helping them be resistant to changes in temperature. Imagine if we could take some of this information that is embedded in these creatures, and then try to develop plants that are more resistant to cold. We have this potential up north to understand not only the complex cyclical nature of seasons and temperatures, but also to understand the encroaching evolution of our planet. We also have this extraordinary opportunity to look at what lives up there to give us insight into the kinds of things we could develop for the rest of the population in the world.

How do we ensure Canadians are prepared to deal with and fully understand environmental issues?

One of the things I’m quite keen on is science literacy, and I don’t mean that in a condescending way. I’m speaking about updating — and I do this all of the time — updating our knowledge base.

Most people update their knowledge base, out of the curiosity, on the Web, or there’s some program on TV or some fiction thing that they come up with, and then everyone thinks we have warp speed, which of course we don’t. People think we train for space flight by floating around in anti-gravity chambers — we don’t. Some people think we have artificial gravity in space stations — we don’t. There are lots of things that people are not really up-to-speed on in terms of what that science really means.

It’s very hard to see a CEO of a company who doesn’t understand the basic things, to be able to really have enough vision for the company, and enough passion to bring people along on a common page. I totally believe that we can communicate complex scientific things in a different way than we do in science. Sometimes science — and I can say this because I’m in it — folds itself around terminology that’s basically used to communicate efficiently very specific ideas. You try to fling that out to the average soul who does not have a B.Sc., and it’s very hard to understand what some of these terms mean. We have to be able to somehow use words that are more common in communication to be able to understand, and explain what these issues are. So for solar power, people have to understand what it takes to get solar power, and why there are limitations.

A lot of people have expectations beyond what we’re capable of at the moment producing. There’s a lot of excitement and curiosity about developing these new things, but without understanding what these terms mean, it’s very hard to get that enthusiasm going that will basically go to young people who are going through the system to become scientists.

How do we prepare the next generation for the future?

We shouldn’t just focus on young people for science literacy; we have to also focus on adults, because kids aren’t stupid. They can see what the adult world appreciates and values, and if the adult world does not appreciate and value lifelong learning, and understanding technology rather than just using it and pitching it, kids can’t help but get the wrong idea. Sure, one way of science education and environmental education is to go into the schools and make things more accessible for them, and have outdoor programs, and have workshops, and have students included as young scientists. These are all great programs, but at the end of it they go home, and they see parents who don’t understand, maybe who don’t care to understand. We have to value education forever.

It doesn’t end whenever we finish that last year of school. I’ve had 18 years of university without repeating one of them, and I can tell you there are many, many courses I wish I still could take, because I don’t understand some of the basic concepts. But if students come home and they don’t see their parents avidly looking for information, or avidly reading or excited and curious about the world, why should they ever be?

Which system do you prefer for curbing GHG emissions: carbon tax or cap and trade. And why?

Well, I can’t really answer that. I’m not an economist, first of all. And I feel that I don’t have the building blocks yet to answer that. I do understand the concepts, but I’m really not sure the average person — even the average scientist — quite understands how this is going to impact the economy. There are all kinds of things that go into these very, very complex systems of dealing with carbon, because it is the byproduct of existence on the planet. When we look at the products we make — for example, computers — there’s carbon embedded in all of them. And how do we get rid of it? We dump it into developing countries, and then they put it into the river, and then people come and scavenge the metal out of it.

When we manufacture something, we have to have a plan about how we eventually get rid of that product. How does a company that manufactures a widget get rid of that widget at the end? Because not only is there carbon embedded in the material, but there’s carbon freed up because of emissions when you’re producing the widget. But then at the end you’ve got to get rid of the widget.

We don’t really think through the full cycle of all these things. So when you ask me about carbon tax, and I think about some of the things that people have come up with that so far have not worked, I start thinking I’d really like to see a bunch of economists and scientists get together in a big think-tank and go through some scenarios. And also involve countries that are producing it in mass amounts, like China. They have to be included. Just because there’s an issue with human rights, you can’t block them out, because it ends up hurting us anyway. Regardless of what human rights issues there are, there are other issues that deal with other rights — like the right to breathe clean air, which should be the right of every life form on this planet.

Water seems to be another one of those issues many Canadians don’t really understand.

You put on the weather channel, and there’s no water-quality advisory, unless it’s the beaches in the summer, especially in Lake Ontario in Toronto. Those are the kinds of things people hear about. But people don’t hear about — I mean look at Houston now: they just had a boil-water advisory because of Hurricane Ike going through. We have huge amounts of fresh water in Canada, and you’re quite right that people ignore it sometimes because there’s so much of it around.

They think it’s limitless.

And people don’t understand what aquifers are. And how tapping into ancient water that’s 10,000 years old, or more, can’t be replenished in a rainfall. People have very little understanding of how the United States is so dependent upon old fossil water, as are some of the countries in Africa. Once that water’s gone, unless there’s a new technology developed to desalinate water more efficiently, it’s very difficult to understand how people are going to get proper drinking water, and water to support crop production.

If you were asked to convince a skeptic about the importance of protecting the environment, how would you position your argument?

I’d have to know what the skeptic’s background was. I’d have to understand what words I would need to communicate with that person. I guess before I would even try to convince a skeptic, I’d really need to understand why that person was skeptical, where their information was from. I know that’s not the answer you want. I think you were looking more for arguments I would press on that person. But it’s not even a matter of arguments; it’s how to communicate that information.

People like you who write these articles are extremely important in order to communicate ideas. People don’t feel like they are getting hit on the head with a hammer. When you’re trying to change someone’s opinion, that person has to value what it is that you’re telling them. We need to understand exactly what that person considers the most important thing that is related to the environment. And it is that important issue one then has to address. Because unless it’s really valued by a person, they will never be less skeptical, they will never believe you, they will never change.

It’s a matter of technique more than just the message. The messages are out there. They’re out there all of the time. People just want to ignore them, because they’re either too much effort to understand or too large to comprehend. People feel they can do nothing, so they will do nothing.