Think big: The best climate solutions embrace integration

The complexity of the challenges ahead mean we have to scale up our solutions.

Photo by K Kendall

It’s hard to think of a bigger, more complicated challenge than successfully transitioning to a low-carbon economy while the climate changes rapidly around us.

The implications are wide-reaching. Climate change will affect Canadians’ health and the places we love, while the transition away from fossil fuels will affect our lives and livelihoods. And an effective response requires transforming the way we develop our infrastructure, use our energy grids, manage our transportation networks, and build our communities. 

Yet too often, we’ve focused narrowly on one part of the problem or one part of the solution. Narrow problems are usually easier to fix. And knowledge and data—the underpinnings of sound policy—are often fragmented across disciplines. But narrow framing also leads to incomplete solutions.

We need to think bigger. It’s time for a more integrated approach to developing climate policy: one that addresses the causes and effects of climate change while also keeping life affordable, reducing health risks, and making Canada’s communities, infrastructure and economy more resilient to what’s coming.

The transformation of all transformations

Consider the complexity and scale of the challenges ahead.

Avoiding costly and potentially catastrophic climate change requires making urgent and deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions. For wealthy countries like Canada, this means moving toward net-zero emissions by the middle of the century.

But reducing emissions is only one part of the story. Transitioning to a low-carbon economy will have big implications for Canadian workers, affecting both the types and availability of jobs. The most emissions-intensive industries could face big challenges, while lower-carbon industries could flourish. New technologies and energy systems will also affect how local governments plan and build transportation systems and how businesses invest.

At the same time, the physical impacts of climate change pose risks to our health and well-being. Even if we succeed in reducing global emissions, extreme weather events are expected to become more frequent and severe.

The integration imperative

These challenges are formidable, but not unsolvable. In many cases, Canada already has the tools necessary for success. Governments at all levels have already started to take action. And hundreds, if not thousands, of Canadians have been working tirelessly on climate research and policy. We’re not starting from scratch — far from it.

But it’s also clear we can do better. 

Climate research is often fragmented and siloed, almost by necessity, to grapple with the size and complexity of the problem. Different disciplines often use their own methods and vernacular and don’t always talk to each other. In some cases, important connections—between economists, scientists, engineers, public servants, and social scientists—are not fully realized, or worse, are never made. In other cases, policy successes are poorly communicated from one jurisdiction to the next.

The current approach to climate research has accomplished a great deal. But it’s time to push further. Creative and innovative ideas grow best when people with different knowledge, backgrounds, and perspectives work together.  

Putting words into action

Integration is easy to preach but difficult to practice. It puts a premium on engagement, dialogue, and communication. It requires pushing back against traditional ways of exploring problems and solutions. It’s about recognizing blind spots and correcting course to be even bolder and more inclusive.

The Canadian Climate Institute is built on integration. Our research will take a systematic and broad approach to climate change, acknowledging that climate change will affect nearly every aspect of Canadian life and that these impacts are complex and dynamic. We will also serve as a vehicle to connect thinkers, ideas, and solutions across Canada. We aim to spark conversations that are both difficult and necessary.

Integrated research and policy advice on climate change isn’t easy. But it is essential if we want to identify a path for Canada to a low-carbon, resilient, and prosperous future for Canadians across the country.