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Chris Turner: The History of Climate Change

"We live in the age of climate change. Every story is a climate change story. Climate change is not an issue, but rather the roiling sea in which all issues now swim."

Book Cover How to Breathe Under Water

Talking History focuses on a wide range of topics in Canadian history, and it consists of articles by Canada's foremost historians and history experts. Our contributors use the power of narrative to bring the past to life and to show how it is not just relevant, but essential to our understanding of Canada and the world today. "Talking History" is a series made possible through a special funding grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Chris Turner is one of Canada's leading writers and speakers on sustainability and the global green economy. His most recent book is How to Breathe Underwater: Field Reports from an Age of Radical Change, a collection of his award-winning essays and feature writing. In 2013, his The War on Science was a co-winner of the Writers' Union of Canada's Freedom to Read Award.


There is a standard narrative arc to most environmental stories—a more or less tidy progression from discovery to awareness to resolution—that has endured through most of the history of modern environmental stewardship. A problem is identified, most often some grave side effect of industrial activity. The cause is hypothesized and then proven, an alarm sounded—by scientists working with politicians or by a crusading journalist or through grassroots activism, or all of the above—and in due course the problem is mitigated, reduced, in the best cases fully fixed. If such stories have sometimes taken decades to unfold, the overall progression has been a linear one nevertheless. The rise and fall in use of the insecticide DDT, its demise beginning with the publishing of the classic environmental treatise Silent Spring by Rachel Carson,is a textbook case.

Anthropogenic climate change can be wedged into roughly the same narrative frame, but it takes considerable effort and obscures the confounding complexity and scale of the problem.  Indeed our limited successes and catastrophic failures at tackling climate change to date are a product in no small measure of our reliance on that frame. In treating climate change as a discrete, containable “environmental issue,” we diminished its gravity and marginalized its import. Climate change bears considerable resemblance to other environmental crises—it is a story of discovery, awareness and resolution, in its way. But all three parts of the story are unfolding at once and in parallel, looping back on each other, intersecting, chasing each other down dead ends and through backtracks.

The most important lesson of the first quarter century of the climate change story is that climate change is not, at its core, an environmental issue. It is a paradigm, a frame all its own within which all discussions of environmental issues—and economic and political and social ones as well—must by necessity now take place. When the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen first proposed renaming our time on the geologic scale as the Anthropocene Era—an age wrought by human hands—it seemed like a rhetorical flourish. It is now understood as a scientific reality. The only correction to Crutzen’s suggestion has been to propose classifying it formally as an epoch, not an era.

Or think of it this way: We live in the age of climate change. Every story is a climate change story. Climate change is not an issue, but rather the roiling sea in which all issues now swim. Economic issues—all of them—have a climate change dimension. So do public health issues. And infrastructure. And foreign affairs. The only silo large enough to contain climate change is the size of the planet itself.

"We live in the age of climate change. Every story is a climate change story. Climate change is not an issue, but rather the roiling sea in which all issues now swim."

The first part of climate change’s arc—the discovery phase—has hewed closest to the standard story. It teased us with the promise of an orderly resolution.

The atmospheric chemistry of the “greenhouse effect” was an emerging scientific fact by the end of the 19th century. Its bookends were French physicist Joseph Fournier’s initial 1824 description of the process by which the earth’s atmosophere regulates temperature and Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius’ discovery in 1896 that industrial pollutants—the emissions from burning coal in particular—could enhance this greenhouse effect. British engineer Guy Callendar identified a correlation between greenhouse gas emissions and global temperature rise in 1938, and Dave Keeling began the first systematic measuresment of atmospheric carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, in 1958.

The term “global warming” first appeared in a scientific paper in 1975, and the World Climate Research Programme was set up at the first World Climate Conference in 1979 to coordinate international research. In 1988, the UN established its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and NASA climate scientist James Hansen sounded the alarm about the impending catastrophe in congressional testimony. That same year, the Canadian government hosted a major climate conference in Toronto. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney delivered the keynote, and the conference closed with a stark joint statement: “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war.”

This was the status of the climate change conversation in the late 1980s. Conferences organized with great urgency, heads of state presiding, warnings issued with little in the way of qualification or prevarication. This was the gravest environmental issue humanity had ever faced, and now we were fully awake to it.   

So far, so tidy, narratively speaking. The Toronto conference came together in the proud shadow of the Montreal Protocol, a global agreement to phase out the use of ozone-depleting chemicals—in retrospect perhaps the crowning achievement of pre-Anthropocene environmentalism. Toronto paved the way to the Rio Summit and the Kyoto Protocol, and surely the next phase—reckoning and resolution—would soon be at hand.

The writing of those years fit the standard stewardship mold as well. Books like Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) and Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance (published in 1992, just months before he was elected vice-president) were the natural heirs of Silent Spring, lamenting a great loss and calling for concerted action to end the climate crisis. Around the same time, though, the climate change story bifurcated dramatically into separate and increasingly disconnected arcs. One of these followed the usual arc, telling a story of mounting evidence and deepening alarm, best exemplified by Tim Flannery’s magisterial 2005 book The Weather Makers, probably the best single volume for a general audience on the science of climate change and its implications for human populations and public policy.

The other arc, however, has set the dominant tone of the climate change story in the public consciousness. It is a tangled story of political conflict, vested interest, social mobilization and industrial power set against a backdrop of complex, confusing and sometimes seemingly contradictory science, punctuated by a disjointed series of natural disasters. Owing to its all-encompassing scale, climate change exploded out of the conventional stewardship mould and became a tense, bitterly contested story about the future of human civilization.

This tangled web was perhaps inevitable, because no environmental crisis has ever challenged our most basic assumptions about order, progress and prosperity like climate change has. No vested interests have ever been so directly threatened, no status quo called more completely into question. In a pair of thoroughly researched books, 1997’s The Heat Is On and 2004’s Boiling Point, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ross Gelbspan detailed the often deliberate process by which the climate change conversation was mangled into a ferocious debate between conservatives and progressives and between industrialists and activists, calling into question the basic nature of scientific truth along the way.

The waters of that roiling climate change sea became muddy indeed. And as Gelbspan documents at length, much of the muddying was done by or at the behest of the fossil fuel industries—particularly American ones—whose bottom lines were most directly threatened by action on climate change. Throughout the late 1990s and early oughts, phony “grassroots” political groups were established, dodgy scientists given underhanded funding and undue credence, credulous journalists played like a symphony of fiddles by perhaps the most formidable misinformation campaign the free world has ever seen. (The only other one that comes close—the concerted effort of the tobacco industry to call into question the lethal nature of its product—served as a blueprint and training ground for the climate change debate.)

Even as other business sectors, other jurisdictions, even whole nations—from the entire insurance industry to pretty much all of Europe—acknowledged the fundamental and terrifying scientific facts of climate change and began the arduous process of rethinking their fundamentals, the trumped-up debate raged on across North America. And though much of the blame for instigating the debate lies with the primary producers of greenhouse gases, they were assisted, inadvertently for the most part, by a conventional environmental movement that was slow to awaken (and sometimes still seems as if it hasn’t entirely) to the fact that climate change is not merely another in their catalogue of environmental issues to be addressed, campaign by campaign. 

"Though much of the blame for instigating the debate lies with the primary producers of greenhouse gases, they were assisted, inadvertently for the most part, by a conventional environmental movement that was slow to awaken..."

Book Cover the War on Science

All the conventional tools of environmentalism—protest marches, awareness campaigns, calls for consumer boycotts and tighter regulations—have been brought to bear on the climate crisis. Climate change has been cast and recast—as a natural catastrophe, a moral imperative, a crisis obliging sacrifice of wartime scale, a case study in the fundamental flaws of capitalism or the irredeemable violence at the core of industrial society—and yet the first quarter century of awareness and action on climate change has to be deemed a false start at best and a failure at worst. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising; a rejection of the facts of climate change is quietly accepted by the party governing Canada and all but a requirement to become the presidential candidate of the one running both houses of the U.S. Congress; there is nothing remotely resembling a binding global climate agreement of the Montreal Protocol type even under discussion.

On the plus side, I’m optimistic that the bifurcated climate change narrative is finally beginning to reunify on the side of scientific consensus and appropriately scaled action. If heel-dragging and hairsplitting about the science and its import continue in some government houses and on certain op-ed pages, the general thrust of the conversation is now one about transformations at generational scale and the reinvention of the foundations of the global energy industry. Resolution of the crisis, in other words, at climate change’s actual scale. We speak less and less of saving the polar bears, and more and more about how to save our own stubborn hides. Which is exactly the question the next quarter century needs to sort out. 

Suggestions for Further Reading: 

Book Cover the Geography of Hope

The Geography of Hope, by Chris Turner

About the book: I began my research for The Geography of Hope with a simple challenge. I wanted to write about climate change and our collective response to it in a way that was not terrifying or despairing. The Geography of Hope was a sort of voyage of discovery, assembling nascent sustainable technologies and techniques around the world into a patchwork portrait of a low-carbon society.

Book Cover The Leap

The Leap, by Chris Turner

About the book: In The Leap, researched and written just a few years later, the newborn tech described on the first journey is ready for primetime and being rolled out at industrial scale. In examining the world being wrought by this new industrial age, I developed a handful of axiomatic lessons learned from sustainability’s pioneers, guidelines for the rest of the world as it embarks on its own epochal leap, ready or not, into a sustainable future.

Book Cover A Short History of Progress

A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright

About the book: Each time history repeats itself, so it's said, the price goes up. The twentieth century was a time of runaway growth in human population, consumption, and technology, placing a colossal load on all natural systems, especially earth, air, and water—the very elements of life. The most urgent questions of the twenty-first century are: where will this growth lead? can it be consolidated or sustained? and what kind of world is our present bequeathing to our future? In A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright argues that our modern predicament is as old as civilization, a 10,000-year experiment we have participated in but seldom controlled. Only by understanding the patterns of triumph and disaster that humanity has repeated around the world since the Stone Age can we recognize the experiment's inherent dangers, and, with luck and wisdom, shape its outcome.

Book Cover Happy City

Happy City, by Charles Montgomery

About the book: After decades of unchecked sprawl, more people than ever are moving back to the city. Dense urban living has been prescribed as a panacea for the environmental and resource crises of our time. But is it better or worse for our happiness? Are subways, sidewalks and condo towers an improvement on the car-dependence of sprawl? The award-winning journalist Charles Montgomery finds answers to such questions at the intersection between urban design and the emerging science of happiness, during an exhilarating journey through some of the world’s most dynamic cities. Rich with new insights from psychology, neuroscience and Montgomery’s own urban experiments, Happy City reveals how our cities can shape our thoughts as well as our behavior. The message is as surprising as it is hopeful: by retrofitting cities and our own lives for happiness, we can tackle the urgent challenges of our age. The happy city can save the world--and all of us can help build it. 

Book Cover The Once and Future World

The Once and Future World, by J.B. MacKinnon

About the book: In three parts, MacKinnon revisits a globe exuberant with life, where lions roam North America and 20 times more whales swim in the sea. He traces how humans destroyed that reality, out of rapaciousness, yes, but also through a great forgetting. Finally, he calls for an "age of restoration," not only to revisit that richer and more awe-filled world, but to reconnect with our truest human nature. MacKinnon never fails to remind us that nature is a menagerie of marvels. Here are fish that pass down the wisdom of elders, landscapes still shaped by "ecological ghosts," a tortoise that is slowly remaking prehistory. "It remains a beautiful world," MacKinnon writes, "and it is its beauty, not its emptiness, that should inspire us to seek more nature in our lives."

Book Cover This Crazy

This Crazy Time, by Tzeporah Berman & Mark Leiren-Young

About the book: This unique book—part manifesto from a leader, part humorous activist memoir from a soccer mom—offers a wryly honest, behind the scenes, ultimately uplifting look at the state of the planet. For almost 20 years, Tzeporah Berman has been one of our most influential environmentalists. A founder of ForestEthics and PowerUp Canada, she was instrumental in shaping the tactics and concerns of the modern environmental movement. 

In her early 20s she faced nearly one thousand criminal charges and 6 years in prison for her role organizing blockades in Canada's rainforest. With ForestEthics she took on Victoria's Secret with a photo of a chainsaw-wielding lingerie model, convincing the catalogue manufacturer to stop using paper made from old-growth forests. She then transformed her tactics and sat down with CEOs and political leaders to reshape their policies and practices. She participated in saving over 12 million acres of endangered forests, including Canada's Great Bear Rainforest, and has campaigned against the development of Canada's oil sands. In her new role at Greenpeace International she is fighting the problem of our time: climate change, including researching the impacts of the Gulf Oil Spill and protesting oil drilling in the Arctic. As a concerned mother, her book is an impassioned plea for a better world.

Chris Turner is the author of five books, including his most recent, How to Breathe Underwater. He was a Berton House writer-in-residence in Dawson City, Yukon, in 2013. Chris lives in Calgary with his wife and two children, where he is working on a book about the oilsands.

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