i2eye with Andrew Weaver

i2eye with Andrew Weaver

One of the world's leading climate scientists talks about Canada's contribution to climate-change research
December 9, 2009
Andrew Weaver

Andrew Weaver
Andrew Weaver

As a child growing up in Victoria, if Andrew Weaver had to choose between watching a hockey game or a Jacques Cousteau program, the ocean explorer won out every time. Now a professor and Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria, Weaver has joined a crew of international scientists that are helping us navigate through the sometimes rough waters of climate-change research.

An internationally recognized scientist in his field, Weaver has applied his mathematical training to outline changes in our environment as a result of melting permafrost, sea-ice and ice shelves, along with sea levels which have risen five centimetres in the past 15 years. Leading up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which runs from Dec. 7-18 in Copenhagen, Denmark, Weaver and 25 scientists from around the globe published The Copenhagen Diagnosis, a compendium of the most up-to-date scientific research available on the effects of global warming. Weaver believes Canadian climate scientists are doing their part to contribute to the sea-change in policies necessary to keep ocean levels from rising too high. 

InnovationCanada.ca (IC): Why are so many Canadians leaders in the field of climate science?

Andrew Weaver (AW): It started back with Brian Mulroney and his Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard when they put forward their Green Plan. Embedded in the plan was funding geared specifically to reduce uncertainties in climate science. In 2000, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences took over, and all this funding went under their umbrella. Money from these grants has allowed research institutes like ours to train the next generation of thinkers and decision-makers — the post-docs and fellows. Because of this, in terms of being informed by the science, Canada is second to none.

IC: Can you speak about those who have put Canada at the forefront?

AW: At the Université du Québec à Montréal, we have a world class regional climate modeling group. At the University of Toronto, we have a world class group in atmospheric sciences, stratospheric processes and paleoclimate. At the University of Victoria (UVic), we’ve built an international reputation in climate modelling and analysis. There’s great expertise in ice sheets at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of Calgary. Canada is at the forefront of how ice sheets work. There are sea-ice observational groups and sea-ice modeling groups across Canada. We have people who are very involved in the role of land surface and climate interaction at McGill, UBC, UVic and across the country. There’s an awful lot of expertise in many aspects of the climate problem and much of it has been built in the last 15 years of federal funding.

IC: And how does their work — your work — filter out into society?

AW: Let me give you an example. Let’s suppose I’m a hydro company and I get most of my electricity from water. Well, I need to understand how my water’s availability is going to change in the future. I’m making a hundred-million-dollar decision based on assumptions that climate is stationary. I need to understand how that climate will change and how that change will affect me in a probabilistic sense so I can do risk analysis work. There are a whole bunch of people getting hired to do that kind of risk assessment work for industry. There are people in research labs trying to understand predictive capabilities of the environment and to reduce the uncertainty in terms of seasonal and long-term predictions. And there are also science teachers educating the next generation.

IC: You helped write The Copenhagen Diagnosis to present to world leaders at the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen. The last UN conference was in 2007. What do we know now that we didn’t know then?

AW: The single most important development in science over the last year is that we now have developed a comprehensive understanding of the carbon cycle and we can transfer that directly into policy relevant science. We now know what matters in policy framework is not the emissions in any individual year but the cumulative emissions. Scientifically, that suggests that the most appropriate approach to developing policy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to discuss things in a cumulative emissions framework. It’s the total amount — not the amount in any given year. This understanding has only happened in the last year. Three papers were published on this: two by international teams, and one was done by Canadians.

IC: What’s the advantage of this strategy?

AW: It’s a better framework to work from. Pick a warming threshold, and we can quantify how much more we can burn. We can create quotas of emissions for each country and then they can determine policies on how they will burn their quota over a period of time.