Environment Secretary Steven Guilbeault answers your questions about climate change in Labrador

Climate change is shifting Labrador’s coastal landscape, as sea ice disappearing prematurely affects everything from local teachings to food security and mental health.

CBC Newfoundland and Labrador have highlighted climate change in the region through Thin icea series detailing the shift on Labrador’s north coast and the Indigenous-led response to it.

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

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

Charlotte Wolfrey, Rigolet: Ice and snow were very important to the Inuit. We have many cultural teachings and information that we have gathered over the years which are passed down to us from generation to generation. What are your plans for slowing climate change to ensure that future generations of Inuit can sustain our culture and way of life?

Steven Guilbeault: To fight climate change, we must fight our dependence on fossil fuels. In every sector of our society, we must find new ways to do what we do. Transportation, for example. We are in the process of ensuring that every new car sold by 2035 in Canada will be a 100 percent zero-emissions vehicle — either a hydrogen vehicle or an electric vehicle. It won’t happen overnight. Our target is to have 20 percent of new sales by 2026, and in provinces like Quebec and BC, we’re already at 13.14 percent.

We work with companies across a wide range of sectors: steel, cement, aluminum, oil and gas, to find ways to actually reduce the amount of carbon pollution entering the atmosphere that creates the global warming and climate change we see in Canada and around the world. We invested a lot of money — in fact, record level investments in greening the economy. More than $110 billion has been invested by our government over the last six years, and we will continue to do so. So it’s a combination.

There are some things that we must do, but we must also realize that we have entered an era of climate change. The sooner we can reduce our pollution levels, the less we will have to look at the impacts of climate change.

Novalee Webb, Nain: It’s easy to pay small bills to stop climate change, but we need action now. What are the specific plans, including actions and timelines, to help reduce significant greenhouse gas emissions, and how will you fund and implement them?

When we came to power in 2015, Canada’s target for 2030 was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent. Unfortunately, the previous government did not make any plans to achieve this target. So what we realized when we came in … was 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 will be 12 to 14 per cent above.

We’ve flattened that curve, and in recent years… emissions, pollution levels have started to fall. We now have a more ambitious target for 2030, which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 percent. The curve has started to shift downwards, but we need to accelerate this downward trend in the coming years.

How do we know we are getting there? Well, every year the Canadian government has to publish what is called a national inventory. All the numbers we have on the amount of pollution we create, the various actions we take to reduce that amount of pollution, and this is something we have to hand over to the United Nations … to keep our feet on the fire.

Peter Cowan, St. John’s: How about Bay du Nord? It seems contradictory to say we cut emissions and then agree to a big oil and gas project that would produce more oil that would be burned and released into the atmosphere.

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

We need to ensure that the oil that will still be produced in 2050 is as low as possible. And that we compensate for emissions … so these projects are carbon neutral or net zero.

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

When we came to power in 2015, Canada didn’t even protect two percent of its oceans and coastlines. Right now, we are close to 14 percent.… Our goal is to achieve 25 percent protection by 2025, 30 percent by 2030.

About a month and a half ago, for the first time in Canadian history, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the local government in Nunatsiavut to begin the creation of … a new conservation area near the Torngat Mountains.… We recently signed an agreement with the governments of Newfoundland and Labrador to create four areas new shelters around Newfoundland. Once this area is protected, there will be no oil exploration, no oil production in this area.

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

James Tuttauk, Hopedale: Our main source of heat in Nunatsiaviut is wood, but with global warming the weather is very unpredictable. We had a very light year, and we couldn’t get any wood. Some of our electricity bills have skyrocketed, so will the federal government step in with better prices for our electricity rates?

There are several things that we do to solve this problem. We are in the process of modernizing building codes in Canada to ensure that new buildings are much more efficient from an energy point of view. Today with the latest knowledge and technology, even in cold climates we can build buildings that require almost no heat. They did it in Sweden, and they did it in other countries.

We are investing heavily in major retrofitting programs so that existing buildings across the country are refitted to be more energy efficient — which is good for the environment, but also good for people because they can pay less on their energy bills. The third thing we are doing, specifically for Northern communities, is working to help them reduce their dependence on diesel generated electricity … by investing with them in a hybrid project where you will pair your diesel generator with wind turbines or solar panels, which will help reduce the amount of diesel consumed.

Caroline Nochasak, Nain: Rapidly shrinking sea ice shortens the Inuit hunting season. This greatly affects the availability of food and our cultural traditions. What ways would you do to help reduce the loss of food available for family hunting ensuring these measures are affected?

It is a difficult challenge. If we act fast enough, we can reduce sea ice loss but it will take a long time for sea ice to return, if ever.… The federal government has implemented a number of programs to help Northern people have access to healthy and nutritious food for the people. Unfortunately, I can understand those who would say this is not compensation for the impact 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 that these programs have to go on [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 occur from afar or reading scientific reports. The rate of mental health problems in Labrador is already very high, so is there any consideration of the long-term effects of climate change on a person’s mental health and well-being?

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

Are we aware of the long-term mental impact of climate change? I think the honest answer is no. Collectively, we are just beginning to study the impact of climate change on human health, mental health and ecosystems. We only have decades of evidence, and mental health has only been studied recently. So we don’t know what this impact will be, but we have started investing into research to better understand what the impact is or what it will be.

Thin Ice is a CBC series special about climate change along the northern coast of Labrador, and the Indigenous-led response to it.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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