In the summer of 1988, a heat wave baked Toronto as 300 international scientists and policymakers gathered to discuss a worrisome observation — the growing amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would warm the planet and choke life on Earth if left unchecked.
One of the most enduring quotes to date of the climate change era is cradled in a statement drafted for the end of that conference.
“Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war,” it reads.
One of the hands that wrote the now famous quote was veteran climate scientist Jim Bruce, who at the time was serving as the acting deputy secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Having retired from Environment Canada in 1985, he was continuing his work with one of the first expert bodies to study climate change.
Now 93, Bruce is reflecting on a career packed with lessons for the era of climate change. From how to build international agreements that work, to protecting our communities from floods, Canada’s National Observer sat down with Bruce to hear what it will take to pull human society out of its death spiral.
Sometimes, 1988 is held up as a turning point for the planet. It was the year the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 350 parts per million, the threshold considered unsafe for human life. The Toronto conference that year called on industrialized countries to reduce emissions 20 per cent by 2005, marking the first time a target was set to help guide countries to a climate-safe future. It was also the year the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), now the world’s leading scientific body on the issue. At the apex of his career, Bruce was involved in just about all of it.
Bruce’s friends and colleagues have described him as “humble” and “unassuming,” but are quick to note his impact has been enormous. In the fields of hydrology and meteorology, for instance, Bruce is seen as “one of the fathers of both fields in Canada,” said Canada Research Chair in water resources and climate change John Pomeroy.
Similarly, former Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who first met Bruce in Ottawa in the 1980s, called him one of the “biggest water brains you could find anywhere on the planet” whose “brilliance” served the government well.
In fact, in recognition of being at the forefront of the country’s understanding of climate change, Bruce was awarded an Order of Canada in 1997.
Pomeroy said beneath Bruce’s “warm, welcoming and friendly” demeanour was a determination to build programs that served Canadians — and ultimately, people all over the world — well.
“He approaches difficult issues without rancour, but there’s also a steel core in there,” Pomeroy said.
“Always that smiling presence, but always several steps ahead intellectually… A brilliant strategic thinker.”
Perhaps one of the most high-profile examples of Bruce’s determination to build a better understanding of the changing climate came in the months following the Toronto conference in 1988.
Bruce remembers sitting in the basement of a Geneva convention centre that year to lead the development of what would become the IPCC. His signature can be seen on the founding documents of the leading United Nations climate research outfit, spelling out the organization's three working groups, studying the environmental science, its impacts, and the social and economic dimensions of climate change.
The IPCC provides detailed reports about the damage that has been done to the climate and what it means for our future to world governments. And in 2007, the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to raise the issue of climate change among the public. That year, with An Inconvenient Truth recently released, Al Gore was jointly awarded the prize.
Bruce’s work to help launch the IPCC earned him an invite to Oslo to be part of the delegation to accept the award.
“I was sleeping in bed, and there was a phone call. They said, `Do you want to come be part of the IPCC delegation?’” Bruce said.
He said he’d think about it, but it was his wife Ruth who encouraged him to go.
“I said, ‘What do you mean? We're going!” she says.
The two travelled to Oslo for the award ceremony. Bruce remembers sitting in the second row, behind Al and Tipper Gore, but the standout memory for him came on the way back to the hotel after receiving the award.
“A crowd had gathered outside chanting, ‘I-P-C-C, I-P-C-C,’ and I thought that only happened to hockey teams or football teams, but, no, there we were being chanted at,” he said. “They wouldn't quit until the … chair went out on the balcony and waved.”
Bruce called it “pretty remarkable” and a “good thing” that the IPCC’s findings have been so influential on improving the collective understanding of climate scientists, but conceded it hasn’t been as influential as he’d hoped.
“Now it hasn't been very successful in getting real action, in my view, but that's a political problem,” he added.
In many ways, the political dimension of climate change remains the biggest impediment to cutting emissions, given the science has been clear for decades, and many ways to address the problem already exist.
Bruce’s career, spanning from his early days forecasting weather to his experience at the forefront of international climate diplomacy, was devoted to finding solutions to current problems. It also reveals what has been lost over decades of government inaction.
When it rains, it pours
Only a few years into Bruce working as a meteorologist, the trajectory of his career was forever changed. It was the middle of October in 1954 when a major storm travelling north met a cold front moving east. Called hurricane Hazel, the storm dropped nearly a foot of rain on southern Ontario causing severe flooding on the Humber River, running through Toronto. It killed 80 people and caused more than a quarter-billion dollars worth of damages, in today’s dollars.
An important lesson, one Canada has largely forgotten, was that too many homes and buildings had been built on a flood plain. In particular, Raymore Drive was near a bend in the river, and when the water rose past the banks, about 40 per cent of the street was washed away, killing 35 people. That section was never redeveloped and today is Raymore Park, hinting at the second critical lesson: green space helps mitigate flood risks. In fact, much of the park spaces and wetlands that remain along the Humber River can be traced back to hurricane Hazel blunting development in these sensitive zones.
As Hazel approached, Bruce was working with the Meteorological Service of Canada. He could forecast record rainfall, but the ability to forecast flooding didn’t yet exist. A hydrology expert, he was tasked with developing a flood forecasting system.
In Toronto, hurricane Hazel provided first-hand data, but that storm’s precipitation was extrapolated to other Ontario locations to predict how other rivers could flood. From there, solutions could be engineered to protect communities, including avoiding development in at-risk areas. Over the next two decades, Bruce refined the flood mapping and was tapped to develop a national flood damage reduction program.
The program got concrete results, for a time; dikes on the Lower Fraser in B.C. were built using funds from it. But management at Environment Canada scrapped the program after he retired.
“And the provinces, I guess, weren't willing to keep it up on their own, so the thing kind of fell apart,” Bruce said.
Ottawa was looking to save money, and didn’t believe they were constitutionally obligated to be involved in freshwater management, so it was an easier cut, Pomeroy said. But the result is “not very good,” he said.
Ottawa never developed a flood forecasting system for the country and failed to keep up with flood mapping as climate change progressed, Pomeroy said.
Now roughly 30 years later, the current Liberal government is promising to restore the agency with a new lick of paint, branding it as the Canada Water Agency.
The Green Party’s May said it “is all about trying to get remotely near what we had in the ’80s that was dismantled in the ’90s.”
“It blows my mind that a country with as many inland lakes and waters as Canada would decide to dismantle the scientific capacity to deal with it,” she said.
Pomeroy said as a country, we’re catching up on a quarter-century of neglect.
“It's akin to not paying your insurance company and letting your insurance lapse. You're OK for a while and then the problems come home to roost. And, of course, the problems are worse than anticipated because of climate change,” he said.
That is precisely what happened in November when a weather system called an atmospheric river pummelled British Columbia and widespread flooding wreaked havoc on critical infrastructure and communities alike. Calgary’s 2013 devastating flood can similarly be traced back to inadequate flood mapping and preparation, Pomeroy said.
Montreal to Paris to Glasgow
Having high-level experience with international conferences and organizations has given Bruce a unique perspective into what works and what doesn’t. From the get-go, Bruce said he was doubtful the Paris Agreement could bring emissions down to the level scientists said was needed for a safe planet. “It was a rather unhappy compromise.
“I figure an unhappy compromise (means) you don't have a good basis for strong international action,” he said.
That’s also partly why COP26 in Glasgow failed to make much progress, he added.
“It was mostly politicians who were trying their best to make sure their country didn't commit to spending very much money.”
Even if Glasgow left Earth on a path to devastating global warming, humanity has solved existential threats before. Ultraviolet radiation piercing through the ozone layer would have killed a lot of life by now had the ozone not been restored. It took concerted action, but in a generation, the problem was identified, addressed, and solved. Juxtaposing international deals like the Paris Agreement designed to slash emissions with the Montreal Protocol that has successfully helped restore the ozone layer, helps show what’s possible.
Bruce called the thinning of the ozone a simpler problem to solve than climate change because it required phasing out certain harmful chemicals, rather than upending a global energy system built on fossil fuels. But by phasing out the global use of ozone-killing chemicals, the Montreal Protocol solved the problem. That has lessons for today’s effort to phase out fossil fuels.
To address global warming, he said what’s needed is a significant change to traditional western economic thinking by incorporating environmental concerns. That means ditching GDP as the leading economic metric in favour of something that takes into account natural resource depletion, clean air, water and soil, and the health of insects, animals, plants and forests. It also means fully applying the polluter pays principle.
“The polluter pays principle is the only way to make the industrial sector pay for their use of raw materials, including the atmosphere, so I think it should be an essential underpinning,” Bruce said.