In 2005, the Progressive Conservative government of Nova Scotia under Premier John Hamm released a 105-page report called “Adapting to a Changing Climate in Nova Scotia: A Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Options.”

It included detailed maps and scenarios of the impacts climate change would likely have on the province depending on various scenarios for the amounts of greenhouse gas emissions that human beings would continue to pump into the atmosphere with the burning of fossil fuels.

Not only did that report involve an inter-departmental climate change adaptation committee, it also clearly identified gaps in local knowledge that needed to be filled, identified priority areas for research and action, and recommended that a Climate Change Adaption Strategy be drafted for Nova Scotia.

That was 17 years ago.

Fast forward to December 2022, under another Progressive Conservative government, this one under Premier Tim Houston, whose government just three days ago renewed the Industrial Approval for the continued operation of the Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton.

Cloe Logan reports for the National Observer that after a full year, the Donkin mine “will produce enough coal to spew about eight million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when it is burned,” creating “as many greenhouse gas emissions as the yearly energy use of over a million homes — more than the entire population of Nova Scotia.”

So the province approving operation at the mine is, as Tim Bousquet notes, “hypocrisy of the highest order.”

But the hypocrisy just got a lot worse.

Three days after issuing that industrial approval, Houston’s government released an all-new “climate risk assessment.”

Platitudes when deafening alarm bells are needed

A press release from Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change informs Nova Scotians that “Nova Scotia is getting warmer, precipitation patterns are changing, Nova Scotians are experiencing more frequent and intense storms, sea levels are rising and the oceans are changing.”

Well … duh.

Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change minister Timothy Halman is quoted:

We need to take a holistic view and recognize that climate change will affect the province and Nova Scotians in many ways — our economy, the environment, and our well-being. Together, we have an opportunity to make positive change and work to protect each other and all that we value.

But perhaps the report itself offers some substance with fewer platitudes and less understatement, and the sense of urgency that countless thousands of scientists have been trying to impart to governments and people about the immense risks that the climate crisis poses to the very survival of human populations?

Something along the lines of the “Code red for humanity” tone and language in recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? Or stark warnings like this one from United Nations secretary General António Guterres?

The evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions are choking our planet and placing billions of people in danger. Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many changes becoming irreversible. We must act decisively now to avert a climate catastrophe.

Unfortunately it doesn’t. The report’s language is studiously neutral, not likely to put an end to business-as-usual in the province, or even a dent in it.

Nova Scotia’s 2022 44-page climate risk assessment report, “Weathering what’s ahead: climate change risk and Nova Scotia’s well-being” offers no new maps showing what will happen to our coastlines as the sea levels rise, and it introduces climate change in patronizing language that avoids sounding the alarm bells about climate chaos that should be deafening every single person in the province, the country, and around the world.

To wit:

The world is now feeling the effects of greenhouse gases emitted in the past. We will continue to live with these effects well into the next century. We have a short time to make the changes needed to avoid some of the worst effects. We also need to act now to respond and prepare for our well-being.

And:

According to climate change experts from around the world, we have a rapidly closing window to make the significant changes needed to avoid some of the worst effects.

We learn that “different top hazards will emerge over time,” which the report says are:

2030s: Flooding poses the top concern

2050s: Warmer temperatures make wildfires the biggest threat

2080s: Extreme temperatures and their potential to harm food production infrastructure, human health, and ecosystems.

The casual reader of the new Nova Scotia climate risk assessment — someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time looking at the latest news and science on what is already happening around the world, such as crop failures, droughts and famines, devastating floods affecting millions, conflicts and climate refugees, Arctic warming and glacier melt, ecosystem collapse and biodiversity loss, increasing risk of infectious diseases — might be lulled into believing we here in Nova Scotia have all kinds of wiggle time left.

“Climate change is going to continue to change Nova Scotia, but the future is ours to shape,” says the report soothingly, as if Nova Scotia were somehow going to be immune to the societal and environmental chaos that global heating will bring around the world.

The report acknowledges that “not all Nova Scotians will be impacted equally,” and that those “already facing disadvantages will be at greater risk” (it avoids using any superlatives like “greatest,” as if allergic to such realities).

“This includes racialized and marginalized groups: African Nova Scotians, Mi’kmaq, immigrants, women, older Nova Scotians, individuals living on low incomes, and individuals living with disabilities,” it states.

And while it is a report about climate risks in Nova Scotia, it could still have spared a line or two to make it clear that the industrialized western world that benefited the most over the past century of fossil-fuel-guzzling industry and lifestyles, and grew immensely rich from them, has a moral obligation to help other countries and continents that contributed almost nothing to climate change – such as Africa – adapt and cope with the enormous suffering that global heating is already causing.

The appendices and synthesis report offer an ‘excellent picture’

However, today’s “Weathering what’s ahead” climate risk assessment is just a summary, which skims over a great deal of detail that is contained in two companion documents. One of those is the 44-page Appendices, which contains all the reference materials and methods used. Another is the much longer 214-page synthesis report, “Understanding climate change impacts in relation to wellbeing for Nova Scotia: final synthesis report” dated February 2022.

Cover of the technical report "Understanding climate change impacts in relation to wellbeing for Nova Scotia" with Lunenburg waterfront with lots of colourful buildings and houses, and sailboats in the water in the foreground.
The technical report that led to the summary of Nova Scotia’s 2022 climate risk assessment

Both of these documents, according to Will Balser, coastal adaptation coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre, do contain “far more, and finer-grain data” as well as “the scale of severity of the impacts under the scenarios RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5” than was available back in 2005 in the last climate risk assessment.

RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5, Balser explains, are two global emissions scenarios.

RCP 8.5 is the “high emissions” or worst-case scenario that, according to the technical report, would mean Nova Scotians should expect an average mean annual temperature increase of up to 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2065-2095, and sea level rise of 68 centimetres to one metre by 2100. The RCP 4.5 scenario assumes emissions would peak around 2040 and decline after that.

In Balser’s vew, the separate Appendices section of the report “does offer an excellent picture of the timeline and development of climate change impacts specifically for Nova Scotia, which should prove very useful once integrated into the upcoming Climate Plan.”

But, Balser says:

I think it falls short on community resilience and climate grief as the top priorities for disaster preparedness — communities are already facing housing loss and the destruction of common spaces, which can be deeply traumatizing.  

Today’s report also speaks of purported “benefits” that climate change could bring to Nova Scotia, calling them “climate change opportunities.” Balser is concerned about this, saying:

There needs to be greater attention paid to framing in terms “opportunities.” I see it as more of an imperative to change rather than just an opportunity, and in doing so, we need to be very clear on what we value most and are preparing to protect. This report acknowledges that the impacts will be more severe on vulnerable groups; so it’s time to reprioritize and put people and the environment ahead of corporate interests.  

According to the Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change press release, the climate risk assessment released today will be updated in 2025 and then every five years.

It also “helped inform” the province’s climate plan, which will be released Wednesday, December 7, 2022.

“What really matters is how this assessment is translated into action in the upcoming climate plan,” says Balser. 

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Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website: www.joanbaxter.ca;...

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