Tackling climate change with humility and hope

By Jenn Watt

Norman Yan has great hope that we can harness knowledge and human ingenuity to solve some of the world’s biggest problems including climate change.
The scientist with five decades of experience including at the Dorset Environmental Science Centre has seen proof.
“We have fixed all kinds of problems” he told a packed room at Fleming College in Haliburton on Saturday for Environment Haliburton’s annual general meeting.

The rain in Muskoka is now at least 50 per cent less acidic than 40 years ago – Yan estimates it’s likely closer to 70 per cent less acidic. Gravenhurst Bay is four times cleaner than it was 40 years ago. Eagles which were once endangered are now rebounding in the United States. Pesticides found in human breast milk have fallen substantially in the last few decades.
Yan explained that during his career he discovered his time was best spent problem solving rather than seeking broad understanding of the environment. Starting out as a population ecologist Yan had been encouraged to study species so thoroughly that he could predict the abundance of that species in the future. That goal he found was impossible.

There are simply too many other factors that play into how a population fares including weather thousands of other species and human behaviour.
Instead Yan decided to turn his attention to addressing specific environmental problems that had a good chance of being solved with the proper study and attention.
In one such project Yan worked with biologist Andrea Smith on the question of whether Canada was ready to deal with the threat of invasive species.
“It followed 10 years of work on the spread the establishment and the impact of spiny waterflea on lakes in Ontario” Yan told the audience.
Spiny waterflea is a type of predatory zooplankton that reproduces quickly. Their presence in a lake jeopardizes biodiversity as they eat up the food supply (other zooplankton) of small and young fish.

Smith reviewed the curriculum of Canadian universities; worked with teachers on creating new modules for teaching on invasive species at primary and secondary levels and then reviewed all Canadian and Ontario legislation. Their work caught the attention of the Ministry of Natural Resources.
“We ended up writing a briefing report for the minister of natural resources of the current limits of legislation in Ontario … I never thought as an ecologist I’d do anything like that” Yan said.
Today Ontario has new invasive species legislation.
There is plenty of cause for optimism Yan said. He quoted the late Canadian poet Richard Outram who said the cardinal human values are humility and hope.
He surmised the inverse of humanity’s best traits would be the great human failings of arrogance and despair.
“To solve environmental problems in a functioning democracy takes only two things: knowledge and will” he said. We must first determine the facts and then exert the pressure to get important things done.

“We could solve climate change for the cost of the Iraq War” he said.
Yan ended his presentation by reminding the group of the importance of keeping the region’s water bodies healthy.
“In Haliburton and Muskoka we have a unique responsibility to do this for the lakes of the world.
“We have in Canada more than half of the area of the world that’s more than five per cent freshwater. If we let things go wrong with our freshwater we’re affecting a globally significant resource.”