Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault answers your questions on climate change in Labrador

Climate change is shifting the landscape of coastal Labrador, as the early departure of sea ice affects everything from local teachings to food security and mental health.

CBC Newfoundland and Labrador has highlighted the region’s changing climate through Thin Ice, a series detailing the shift on Labrador’s north coast and the Indigenous-led responses to it.

The series prompted questions from our audience about what is being done at the government level to address climate change, so the CBC’s Peter Cowan brought them to federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault.

The discussion has been edited for length and clarity. If you’d like to watch the full conversation, you can do so in the video player above.

Charlotte Wolfrey, Rigolet: The ice and the snow are really important to the Inuit. We have a lot of cultural teachings and information that we’ve gathered over the years that was passed on to us from generation to generation. What are your plans to slow down climate change to ensure that future generations of Inuit can maintain our culture and our way of life?

Steven Guilbeault: To fight climate change we have to fight our dependencies to fossil fuels. In every sector of our society, we have to find new ways of doing what we’re doing. Transportation,for example. We are in the process of ensuring that every new car that is sold by 2035 in Canada will be a 100 per cent non-emitting vehicle — so either a hydrogen vehicle or electric vehicles. It’s not going to happen overnight. Our goal is to have 20 per cent of new sales by 2026, and in provinces like Quebec and B.C., we’re already at 13, 14 per cent.

We’re working with companies in different sectors: steel, cement, aluminum, oil and gas, to find ways to really reduce the amount of carbon pollution that goes into the atmosphere that creates global warming and the climate change that we’re seeing in Canada and around the world. We’re investing a lot of money — in fact, record-level investment in greening the economy. More than $110-billion that our government has been investing over the last six years, and we’ll continue to do so. So it’s a combination.

There’s a number of things that we have to do, but we also have to recognize that we’ve already entered the era of climate change. The faster we can reduce our pollution levels, the less we’ll have to see the impacts of climate change.

Novalee Webb, Nain: It’s easy to pay lip service to stopping climate change, but we need action now. What are the specific plans, including actions and timetables, for helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a substantial amount, and how will you fund and implement them?

When we came in power in 2015, Canada’s targets for 2030 were to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent. Unfortunately, the previous government had made no plans whatsoever to achieve those targets. So what we realized when we came in … is that far from going down, emissions and pollution levels were going up in Canada. And by 2030 instead of being 30 per cent below, we would have been 12 to 14 per cent above.

We’ve flattened that curve, and in the last couple of years … the emissions, the pollution levels has started coming down. We now have a more ambitious target for 2030, which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 per cent. The curve has started shifting downwards, but we need to accelerate this trend downwards in the coming years.

How do we know that we’re getting there? Well, every year the government of Canada has to publish what’s called a national inventory. All of the figures we have on the amount of pollution we’ve created, the different measures we’ve put in place to reduce that amount of pollution, and this is something we have to submit that to the United Nations … to keep our feet to the fire.

Peter Cowan, St. John’s: What about Bay du Nord? It seems contradictory to say we’re cutting emissions and then approve a big oil and gas project that will produce a lot more oil that will be burned and put into the atmosphere.

It could seem counterintuitive. When you look at the studies from organizations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the International Energy Agency, both of these organizations say that we have to reduce the amount of pollution, the amount of fossil fuels that we use. But both organizations also recognize that in 2050 we will still be using fossil fuels.

We need to make sure that the oil that is going to still be produced in 2050 is as low-polluting as possible. And that we are compensating the emissions … so that these projects are carbon-neutral or net zero.

Michelle Saunders, Happy Valley-Goose Bay: What policies are the federal government implementing to protect sea ice as a critical habitat, both ecologically and culturally?

When we came into power in 2015, Canada was not even protecting two per cent of its oceans and coastlines. Today, we’re at almost a little bit over 14 per cent.… Our goal is to get to 25 per cent protection by 2025, 30 per cent by 2030.

About a month and a half ago, for the first time in the history of Canada, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the local government on Nunatsiavut to start the creation … of a new conservation area near the Torngat Mountains.… We’ve just signed an agreement with the government of Newfoundland and Labrador to create four new protected areas around Newfoundland. Once these areas are protected, there can be no oil exploration, no oil production in these areas.

Sea ice is pictured in March 2021 near Rigolet, Labrador. (Eldred Allen/Bird’s Eye)

James Tuttauk, Hopedale: Our primary source of heat up here in Nunatsiaviut is wood, but with global warming the weather is very unpredictable. We had a really mild year, and we can’t get any wood. Some of our electrical bills have gone sky high, so will the federal government step in with a better price for our electricity rates?

There’s a number of things we’re doing to address those concerns. We’re in the process of modernizing the building code in Canada to ensure that new buildings are much more efficient from an energy point of view. Today with current knowledge and technologies, even in cold climate we can build buildings that require almost no heat. They’re doing it in Sweden, and they’re doing it in other countries.

We’re investing massively in a large retrofit program so that existing buildings across the country are retrofitted to be more energy-efficient — which is good for the environment, but it’s also good for people because they get to pay less on their energy bill. The third thing we’re doing, specifically for Northern communities, is working to help them reduce their dependency on diesel-generated electricity … by investing with them in hybrid projects where you will couple your diesel generator with wind turbines or solar panels, which will help reduce the amount of diesel that is consumed.

Caroline Nochasak, Nain: The rapidly decreasing sea ice is shortening the hunting season for Inuit. This greatly affects our food availability and our cultural traditions. What ways are you going to help mitigate the loss of available food for hunting families ensuring these measures are affected?

That is a difficult challenge. If we act quickly enough, we can mitigate the loss of sea ice but it will take a long time for sea ice to come back, if ever.… The federal government has put in place a number of programs to help Northern communities have access to food that is healthy and nutritious for communities. Unfortunately, I can understand those who would say this is no compensation for the impacts on the traditional way of life of hunting and fishing. And that is one of the many tragedies of climate change.… I’m not saying the programs are keeping up necessarily [with the rising cost of food], but we’re getting there.”

Samantha Sagsakiak, Nain: Climate change can affect mental health through direct and indirect exposure, such as watching a disaster unfold from afar or reading a scientific report. The rates of mental health issues in Labrador are already alarmingly high, so has there been any consideration of the long-term effects of climate change on a person’s mental health and well-being?

Mental health is certainly a growing concern for the federal government. We have now a minister that is dedicated to this issue.… As part of the renegotiation of the health agreement with the provinces and territories, we’ve put on the table that provinces and territories as part of the transfers from the federal government need to invest more in mental health.

Are we aware of the long-term mental impacts of climate change? I think the honest answer is no. Collectively, we’ve only recently started studying the impacts of climate change on human health, on mental health and on ecosystems. We only have a few decades of body of evidence, and mental health has only been studied more recently. So we don’t know what these impacts will be, but we have started investing into research to better understand what those impacts could be or what they will be.

Thin Ice is a special CBC series about the changing climate along Labrador’s north coast, and the Indigenous-led responses to it.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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