How to respond to climate change poses a big question — for answers we need to support science 

A source of life and beauty, our environment — the air we breathe, the water and food we consume, the forests, quiet lakes, and the breaking waves of the oceans — is under siege and we, ourselves, are the assailants. But we could also become its saviors!  

Human existence has always benefited from nature’s bounty. We have used resources and extracted great wealth while causing considerable damage to the environment. We can take heart from the work science has accomplished undoing much of the harm. We have developed ways to remediate damaged landscapes and to use available resources with greater efficiency, and less impact on the environment.   

Look at water pollution. Last month, the mayor of Paris announced that, prior to the Olympics this summer, she will swim in the Seine to demonstrate its restored level of purity. We can certainly celebrate this kind of achievement. However, there is much more to be done.   

We face extraordinary challenges today: floods, droughts and wildfires have taken a serious toll and make it increasingly urgent to respond effectively to our changing climate, but they also make it increasingly difficult to do so. Like the child in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, we can place a finger in the dyke as he did, but today the crisis is much worse: we see that the entire dam is bursting.  

Where should we begin? We need fresh air, clean water, and adequate supplies of the appropriate nutrients to survive. Much has been said about our carbon footprint and governments around the world are setting targets to decrease carbon emissions to lessen climate change and its impact on this planet. This is excellent, but problematic. We are not achieving the targets. Countries do not even agree on the targets which are set by different agencies. While our knowledge increases, so does the amount of misinformation available and we are faced with a confusing number of choices. As responsible citizens, how do we decide?   

We need science to identify the best ways to preserve life, to determine when and what we need to remediate or improve, and where to begin. And where science does not yet know, we need to return to the lab and run experiments to test theories.   

We must pose the questions we did not ask in the past, like Kelsey Leonard, founder of the Wampum Lab at the University of Waterloo. She is asking: should bodies of water have the same legal status as people? As corporations? The lab is taking a wider look at threats to communities from climate change, including access to potable water and rising sea levels. Leonard’s research is blending Indigenous and Western ways of understanding the world in the fields of science, law and policy with the goal of finding solutions.   

To make better choices, we need the information gathered by scientists across the country. For example, it is useful to know about Dave Risk, a researcher at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., who has improved on a tool for measuring methane emissions. The team at his Flux Lab has gathered data on emissions from the melting Arctic permafrost, gas pipelines, farm fields and landfills. They provide accurate and unbiased data to government, industry, nongovernmental organizations, and the general public.  

Science has never been more important. It provides the information and evidence our governments require to make sound decisions about the environment. As individuals, we need to use this information along with clear national and international guidelines in setting our own priorities. This shared responsibility should become the foundation for action.  

This article was originally published in the Hill Times Environment issue on May 8, 2024.