A November 2018 Angus Reid national survey found that almost 20 per cent of Saskatchewan residents (second only to Alberta) don’t subscribe to human-caused global warming. The same survey indicated that Canadians do, however, look to university scientists to provide accurate information on climate change. So, this past January, a group of University of Regina researchers embarked on a series of public lectures that looked at climate change from a variety of perspectives – providing Prairie detractors with a combination of science-based evidence and Indigenous ways of knowing.
If one is inclined to look, there’s some alarming science regarding climate change out there. Average temperatures in Western Canada are rising at two to three times the rate of the rest of the world; there is a clear trend of 50 years of warmer-than-normal months in Regina; pests and invasive species have been detected in regions where they have never been seen before; there are more frost-free days in Western Canada; and, our Winters offer more rain and less snow.
With scientific evidence for climate change mounting and climate protests grabbing headlines around the world, University of Regina faculty members Sarah Abbott, Britt Hall and Sean Tucker knew the time was right to reach out and provide members of the public with access to reliable information about climate based on cross-disciplinary research and Indigenous ways of knowing. The Academics for Climate Community Lecture Series was born.
The result is that both land and ocean temperatures have been increasing since 1976, with the devastating consequences we see regularly in the news.
Abbott, an associate professor in the Department of Film who taught the first course on climate change last semester in the Faculty of Media, Art, and Performance, was encouraged when a list of possible presenters with expertise in different climate issues, including Indigenous perspectives, quickly emerged.
Hall, a professor in the Department of Biology, adds that the three knew right from the start that the lectures had to be compelling without being confrontational. To keep audience interest piqued, plenty of informative visuals would be necessary, as well as engaging question and answer sessions. One of the goals of the series, she says, was providing information without political bias and avoiding the polarization that affects so much of the discussion on climate change in the public sphere.
Tucker, an associate professor of Business Administration, points out that the effort soon involved many different areas of the University, as colleagues stepped up to support the series with funding for promotion and to provide technical support.
Hall kicked off the series in January 2020 with her presentation called, "The Consensus is in: Evidence Supporting Human-Induced Climate Change." That first event was held at Regina’s Bushwakker Brewpub as part of the monthly Science Pub Series hosted by the Faculty of Science. The rest of the lectures were held at the University of Regina’s College Avenue Campus.
The result is that both land and ocean temperatures have been increasing since 1976, with the devastating consequences we see regularly in the news.
In front of a full house, Hall shared basic information on how the Earth’s atmosphere works, followed by evidence supporting the consensus among scientists that the climate is changing due to increasing concentrations of the greenhouse gases that regulate temperatures on Earth.
She also explained how oceans, trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide, illustrating it with data gathered from the Mauna Kea Observatories located in Hawaii. The data shows lower concentrations of carbon dioxide in the northern hemisphere during the summer, when trees and plants capture carbon dioxide, followed by higher concentrations in the winter, when they release carbon dioxide.
“The records show the variations from season to season, and also the overall trend line over years, which is up,” Hall said. The result is that both land and ocean temperatures have been increasing since 1976, with the devastating consequences we see regularly in the news. These include reports of warmer Arctic temperatures causing increased ice melt and a more unstable jet stream which pushes polar air further south more often than in the past. We are also witnessing more unpredictable and intense wildfires (think Australia, Fort McMurray), drought (think Saskatchewan), and flooding (think great swaths of the U.K.) events.
We are also witnessing more unpredictable and intense wildfires (think Australia, Fort McMurray), drought (think Saskatchewan), and flooding (think great swaths of the U.K.) events.
“What we can do is join a collective to take action, reduce consumption where possible, vote for progressive governments, learn more and spread the word.”
In her conclusion, Hall conceded that conveying all of this distressing climate information – whether to the public or to her students – can be depressing. She optimistically noted that studies show that when researchers add a stressor to a model of an ecosystem and then remove it, the ecosystem often has enough resilience to rebound. However, she cautions, these are models and there are no guarantees. During the question and answer session following her presentation, Hall said people can expect to experience a transitional period in how society and the economic system operates as the world adapts to a lower-carbon future.
“What we can do is join a collective to take action, reduce consumption where possible, vote for progressive governments, learn more and spread the word,” Hall said.
One of the strong themes of the series was the recognition that understanding climate change and its associated issues can be difficult for people to grasp. It is particularly trying because the volume and range of scientific information coming at us can be overwhelming. The information often comes from several fields of study and requires people to consider a complex interplay of factors to gain a full understanding. In addition, cultural and ideological baggage can influence how people reach conclusions. The issue can be further complicated because, in this digital world, we have immediate access to climate change information that ranges from the truly reliable, to the utterly unreliable, to disinformation.
The signals included in Sauchyn’s presentation are compelling – since the late 1970s, the world has experienced only one month that was colder than the historical long-term average.
The understanding that climate change is a difficult subject for people to get their heads around was a theme in David Sauchyn’s January 23 offering to the lecture series, What does climate change look like in Saskatchewan? Sauchyn is a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies and the director of the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative (PARC). For the past two decades, PARC has been gathering data on changing climatic conditions – in some cases dating back hundreds or thousands of years – and tracking the resulting impacts around the globe.
Sauchyn’s presentation was filled with information gleaned from observations of tree rings, glaciers, and lakebed and ocean sediments. He acknowledges that convincing Saskatchewanians that his research provides indisputable evidence of climate change might be his biggest challenge. The largest concentration of those who are skeptical, or uncertain about human-induced climate change, is on the Prairies. Sauchyn is not surprised by this, in part, because our weather can be dramatically different on what seems like a minute-by-minute basis.
“Our challenge is to tease out what is just natural variability and what is the effect of global warming, to separate the noise from the signals,” Sauchyn said. “And the Prairies is a good place to search for the signals because they are so strong; but so is the noise.”
The signals included in Sauchyn’s presentation are compelling – since the late 1970s, the world has experienced only one month that was colder than the historical long-term average. In Regina, over the same time frame, the daily minimum average temperature has risen more than four degrees Celsius. Long, harsh and cold winters, such as were experienced in the past, are now unusual, Sauchyn observed.
Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavioural science in the Faculty of Business Administration, also studies how people approach the topic of climate change. In his February 19 presentation, Fake news, political ideology and climate change, Pennycook noted that people with the highest intelligence are the most polarized around the question of whether climate change is real or not.
Studies show that people who believe fake news don’t think that much about what they see or hear. With regards to accepting the science related to climate change, there is evidence that people can change their minds, although such changes are usually gradual.
“These people are smart, but they are influenced by their ideological bent, and their intelligence makes them better at convincing themselves that the things they see are true,” Pennycook said. “Interestingly, in other areas where we also rely on science to shape our ideas – such as nuclear power or genetically modified foods – we don’t see the same pattern.”
Gordon Pennycook, assistant professor of behavioural science in the Faculty of Business Administration, studies how people approach the topic of climate change. (Photo by Trevor Hopkin)
In the ensuing question and answer session, Pennycook shared research about how people handle information, including misinformation. Studies show that people who believe fake news don’t think that much about what they see or hear. With regards to accepting the science related to climate change, there is evidence that people can change their minds, although such changes are usually gradual. Pennycook is grateful that movements such as the Global Climate Strike have encouraged people to join the conversation and have helped to normalize the issue. It will take persistent efforts to make the big changes required, he concluded.
Climate change, she explained, is the breaking of the natural law, or pâstâhowin in Cree, the concept that humans are exploiting the land, water, and animals, rather than living in relationship with them.
Michelle Brass CICA’02, BAJ’02(Hons), a member of the steering committee for the group Indigenous Climate Action, agrees that changes are coming. Brass titled her March 2 presentation Indigenous Climate Action: why land-based, Indigenous-led responses are crucial to addressing the impacts of climate change.
Climate change, she explained, is the breaking of the natural law, or pâstâhowin in Cree, the concept that humans are exploiting the land, water, and animals, rather than living in relationship with them. “Being able to adapt to our natural environment has been embedded in our teachings,” she says. “We are also taught to always think about future generations when making decisions.”
Michelle Brass CICA’02, BAJ’02(Hons), a member of the steering committee for the group Indigenous Climate Action, says that climate change is the breaking of the natural law, or pâstâhowin in Cree, the concept that humans are exploiting the land, water and animals, rather than living in relationship with them. (Photo by Don Hall)
Brass says finding solutions to the problems posed by climate change will require a shift in mindset, what she refers to as “Indigenuity,” a new way of approaching those problems by applying Indigenous stories and teachings. The solutions, she explains, are rooted in the land and the ecosystems, and each area or region has its own balance. This will require us to respect and restore ecosystems where possible and do a better job of protecting biodiversity. We will also need courage to face the changes ahead, she added.
“Those five pathways range from a completely sustainable future to one that continues to rely heavily on fossil fuels. Those can provide us with a lot of information, but they are only illustrations to help people get their minds around the subject.”
“We don’t know what our world will look like, but I think we place too much emphasis on what we might lose, and too little on what we stand to gain. There are opportunities for us to rebuild kinship systems and community; after all, we were all land-based people in the past,” she noted.
Margot Hurlbert BAdmin’87 is a professor in the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and Canada Research Chair in Climate Change, Energy and Sustainability Policy. She was the coordinating lead author for a chapter on land and climate in a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in 2019.
Using the data from the IPCC report, and applying it with a global and regional perspective, Hurlbert asked her audience to consider five climate change scenarios in her February 13 presentation "Climate Change: Where are we and What Might the Future Bring? Scenarios and Pathways."
“With the information we have from the social sciences and from economics, we can suggest future human pathways of what life might look like,” Hurlbert said. “Those five pathways range from a completely sustainable future to one that continues to rely heavily on fossil fuels. Those can provide us with a lot of information, but they are only illustrations to help people get their minds around the subject.”
The pathways, Hurlbert added, also challenge people to think about the degree of change they can imagine by asking questions about power production, the nature of clean technology, and how we will sustain our economy, infrastructure and communities. There will be difficult trade-offs, she notes; for example, in how land is used.
“We like forests because they absorb carbon and sequester it, but when we cut down forests to grow crops to feed the world, we regard that as also a good thing,” explained Hurlbert. “We also know that Saskatchewan farmers are good at managing crop rotations, which can be huge in sequestering carbon and nitrogen (two important greenhouse gases) in the soil. This is one way agriculture can help reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizer on crops.”
Climate disscussions have raged on for years as this 2014 photo attests. Parents carry children among thousands marching through central Oslo, Norway, to support action on global climate change. According to organizers of "The People's Climate March," the Oslo demonstration was one of 2,808 solidarity events in 166 countries.
(Photo by iStock)
At the time of writing, the series is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but all those involved are optimistic that the Academics for Climate Change Lecture Series will soon return and University of Regina researchers will continue to share the facts about climate change with Prairie audiences.
The videos can be found on YouTube by searching for Academics for Climate - University of Regina. For more information visit the Academics for Climate Community – Regina Chapter Facebook page.
Photos by Trevor Hopkin, University of Regina Photography Department, unless otherwise noted.