Sharing his frustration around changing climate for science

Western News file photo

Last month, Western Geography professor Gordon McBean assumed the role of president of the International Council for Science. He is only the second Canadian to take up this office.

It’s probably an understatement to say Gordon McBean is frustrated.

The Western Geography professor, a scientific leader on climate change, disaster risk reduction and environmental issues, is tired of being on the defensive. Internationally recognized for decades of renowned research and policy work in the field, McBean has faced challenges where one might least expect them – on the home front.

“Recent years, since the beginning of the Harper government, have been very frustrating. One of the big hurdles has been the unwillingness of the government to even to talk to scientists like me, to take action on climate change,” said McBean, chair in Policy Studies for the Institute of Catastrophic Loss Reduction and co-director of the Centre for Environment and Sustainability at Western.

“The only minister of environment who would ever meet with me was Jim Prentice. And one of them told the CBC, as far as they were concerned, I didn’t exist,” he added.

In 2007, McBean shared in the Nobel Peace Prize as a lead author and review editor for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Last month, he assumed the role of president of the International Council for Science at the conclusion of the organization’s General Assembly. He is only the second Canadian to take up this office.

In his inaugural address, McBean said he was “proud of the role the council has played, and will continue to play, in planning, coordinating and ‘making happen’ global scale research for the benefits for all societies.” He emphasized the council “will continue to provide societies and governments with policy relevant science that can and should form the basis policy making.”

But the biggest challenge, McBean stressed, might be keeping the focus at home.

As issues pertaining to climate change and the environment increase in urgency, McBean is watching them erode from the public’s concern at home. He remembers three times, none of them recent, when environmental issues were top of mind for Canadians, with the longest period lasting from roughly 1988-90.

“If you polled a Canadian on the street and asked what would be the most important issue (at the time), they would say the environment. The ozone layer was a big issue, climate change was a big issue, but it petered out,” he explained.

Those were the days of strong government participation, McBean explained. The government was interested in issues pertaining to the environment.

“Canada is seen to be the worst performer on climate change in the world now. We repeatedly get what is called the ‘Colossal Fossil’ award, from a consortium of environmental groups, asking, ‘Which country did the most to make sure nothing happened today?’ Canada has won (the award) five years in a row,” he continued.

McBean, who started his career as a government scientist with Environment Canada, is widely recognized for his international leadership, serving on a number of climate committees, including chairing the boards of the Canadian Climate Forum and the Ontario Climate Consortium. His work and input are highly valued and have been sought from Kyoto to Leningrad. His awards are extensive and include the Orders of Canada and Ontario.

But all this doesn’t quite prove to be enough for climate change deniers, including some who reside on Western’s campus.

Deniers who call themselves ‘experts’ on climate change often make false claims of expertise, McBean said, ones easily debunked by simple research. Often with no credentials or publications to their name, some deniers hurl accusations at him, attempting to discredit his work or claim his motives are to mislead the government, he noted.

“We must check to see if these people have any academic credentials in climate change,” McBean said, adding only solid science will hold up at the end of the day.

“It’s very frustrating, but there are skeptics who are well-funded, who put up things on websites and create names for themselves. There’s an essential need for us to take action on climate change,” he continued.

“Why do anything when nothing will happen between now and next election? Because you have children and grandchildren, like I do. There is a large movement of activity leading up to 2015. It will be the most important year in recent times on issues that do with the environment.”

With a series of meetings and panels on the agenda around the world, McBean is calling supporters to take a stand and do something.

“It’s the year in which we either make a difference or we’ve lost another opportunity. I think it’s important to Canadians, and Canada, to move in a positive way and make sure things are based on good science. We shouldn’t have agreements on sustainable development that are not based on sound science.”