Robert Sandford

Robert Sandford holds the EPCOR Chair in Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, which is located in Canada on the campus of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

Please tell us about the work you’re engaged in as EPCOR Chair in Water and Climate Security.

In my work, in Canada at least, my role is to help dispel the myth of limited abundance of water. I also work to translate scientific research outcomes into language the average person can understand and that decision makers can use to craft timely and durable public policy. I also work abroad and bring international examples to bear on Canadian and North American water issues.

Why is water important?

Water is important in this country [Canada] for so many reasons. First of all, it is a country that has in its own mythology a sense of abundance. We are one of the really water-rich countries in the world. Unfortunately, however, much of our water is concentrated in the southern part of our country, particularly in the Great Lakes, and most of our population is concentrated there also. But there are vast resources in the North where there are few people and also other parts of the country that are deeply water scarce, including the Canadian prairies and the south and central parts of British Columbia.

Water is important to us because it’s upon water that we have based our initial economy and fur trade and all subsequent economies in terms of agriculture and industry. Water is important to us, too, in that we have to understand that we have taken it for granted and now what we’re fighting is that despite the relative abundance of water, the kinds of problems that have occurred elsewhere that have caused a global water crisis are beginning to appear here as well. By virtue of our population growth and our economic expansion, we’re beginning to see limits on how much water we have for all the purposes to which we want to put it. We’re beginning to see that that we have to rethink water in our economy and our way of life and also rethink how important water will be in our future.

Could you reflect on the importance of water in relation to climate change and other environmental changes?

What is important about water in the context of climate change is that one of the signature impacts that climate warming is having is on the acceleration of the rate and manner in which water moves throughout the hydrologic cycle. As temperatures rise water is moving more quickly through that cycle. The atmosphere is able to hold more water vapor. Changes in the pattern and behavior of the jet stream are altering precipitation patterns and what we’re seeing also are changes in the variability and reliability of water resources, with serious consequences on our economy and way of life in some areas.

Water and climate change are inextricably linked. Warming atmospheric temperatures are causing an acceleration in the rate and manner in which water moves through the global hydrologic cycle. So when were talking about climate change, what were talking about centrally is changes in hydrologic regimes. Warmer atmospheric temperatures allow the air to carry more water vapor and as a result of changes in the extent and nature of arctic sea ice, northern hemisphere jet stream behavior has been altered. Precipitation patterns have been changed. So when were talking about climate change, we are really talking about its impact first on water. As many people have said, ‘climate change is the shark’ — well, water are the teeth of that shark. And we need to pay very close attention to how those changes in the hydrologic cycle manifest themselves in ways that affect not only human economies but also affect biodiversity and ecosystem health widely, not just in Canada, but around the world.

How does the health of water systems affect biodiversity?

It’s important to recognize that we live and are permitted sustainability of our entire culture as a consequence of the biodiversity that exists on this planet. We have a biodiversity-based earth system that permits relative stability and all of the conditions that we need to sustain our society. By causing massive extinctions of species we are reducing and changing the function of that biodiversity to such an extent that we may create conditions that are no longer habitable for many species, including our own. Consequently we have to recognize that biodiversity is central to whatever kind of sustainability we might aspire to do in the future. As it happens, much of the biodiversity that exists in the world is found in aquatic systems. And what we’ve also found is that much of the extinction that has taken place is occurring in freshwater systems in both tropical and temperate regions. We’ve lost vast biodiversity, for example, in North American systems and it’s that biodiversity that we must work through all sustainable development efforts to restore.

What are the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and what is their significance?

In my view the United Nations 2030 Transforming Our World Sustainable Development Agenda is probably the most important common initiative that humanity has embarked upon since civilization began and in my view also it is the most important thing we have done for ourselves in the world since we created the United Nations.

While we focus a great deal of our attention on climate change, climate change is only 1 of 9 major earth system functions that are threatened now by human numbers and needs. And what we find from this is that we may have to address climate change to sustain and repair much of the earth system damage upon which we depend for the stability of our society. So as a result of that, then we have to look very carefully at how the world is responding to a growing earth system threat. The most important way that the world has responded is through the expression of the United Nations 2030 Transforming Our World Sustainable Development Agenda.

This agenda is very important in that it involves all countries, developing countries as well as developed countries. Within it are 17 goals that include climate change but [also] all other aspects of true human sustainability. And we recognize now a whole new definition, a complete and universal definition of what it will take for the world to be truly sustainable and to sustain human society long into the future. This particular sustainable development project has a number of components and what we realize now each country needs at the national level to embrace the sustainable development agenda and do its best to implement all 17 goals and 169 targets as quickly as possible, so that we can ensure that earth system damage doesn’t continue or get out of control and beyond our means of controlling after 2030.

It’s important to note that the Sustainable Development Goals came into existence and were embraced first and that COP 21 and the Paris Global Climate Agreement came into existence in a complementary way. It is nested within the larger Sustainable Development Agenda and this is very important because without addressing climate change it will be very difficult to address issues like ending poverty, ending hunger and a whole range of the other goals that the agenda holds to be critical to the future of humanity.

What concerns do you have about the phenomenon of climate-change despair?

There has been much talk about hope and how much hope we might expect to have given the accelerating rate of hydro-climatic change globally. In my view it’s very, very important to understand why we should not allow despair [to dominate our response]. Despair is a cop out. We need to be realistic in our expectations and fully understand the evidence before us. And I think it’s critically important also to understand that evidence within the context of what we are able to do in terms of changing our world in time to avoid hydroclimatic disaster. In my view the Sustainable Development Goals, if pursued seriously and implemented quickly, can help us address all of those problems and give us not wishful thinking, but genuine hope for the future.

What water losses or water security vulnerabilities in Canada are of deep concern to you as a scientist?

What many people have trouble grasping is the consequences of a warming atmosphere and its impact on water in its various forms. What we see with rising temperatures, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, is that glacial ice is disappearing very quickly. In the Canadian Rocky Mountain National Parks in Canada alone we appear to have lost as many as 300 glaciers between 1920 and 2005. This in itself is a loss of extraordinary natural features and also a loss of a thermostat in these particular regions that controls climate behavior on a seasonal basis. But what’s more important, and what’s not seen, is that this is a sign of a much, much larger problem.

The same warming that is causing glaciers to disappear is also changing the extent, nature and duration of the winter snowpack. More winter precipitation is falling as rain than snow and what we’re seeing is that it’s changing the entire water security picture for the entire continent, the Western part of the continent where our greatest rivers originate. So what we’re seeing are changes that are going to affect and alter the West permanently. And in our view the West will change as much as a result of these hydroclimatic influences between now and mid-century as it did during European settlement.

Could you explain the relations between loss of snow pack, drought conditions and the wildfires that have been experienced recently in Canada?

It’s important to appreciate the fact that even if we are successful in holding global warming to 2 degrees Celsius globally that parts of the world will warm much more than that, and one of those places is the central part of the North American continent, including the very important agricultural regions of the Canadian prairies. It is projected that with even a 2 degree Celsius warming globally that that region may warm between 5 and 9 degrees Celsius, and as that happens we’ll see likely not just greater extreme weather events in the form of tremendous rainstorms, but we may see deep and persistent drought. And we also have to notice that it’s not just too much water that’s a problem, it’s too little. And what we deal with is water’s symbolic and diametric opposite: fire. And we anticipate a very substantial increase in wildfire in the boreal regions of Canada, exemplified of course by the type of fire situations that existed in Fort McMurray that caused the largest natural disaster in the history of this country early in 2016. So what we’re going to see is variability beyond anything that we have experienced before, with fires and droughts on one hand, and extreme weather events and flooding on the other. And it will be a seesaw scenario to which we need to adjust. And the more we are able to reduce the changes in the composition of the global atmosphere, the less severe those variabilities will be in terms of what we have to address and what we have to adapt to in Western Canada.

What will the new normal be when the average global temperatures meet or exceed the 1.5 degree Celsius ceiling COP21 wants to stay below?

For 40 years scientists have been telling us that we should expect surprises in terms of steplike change perhaps in how climate change expresses itself in certain regions. And we certainly had that in the summer of 2016. In July of 2016 NASA reported that it had just observed the warmest temperatures that had ever been recorded, not just after 15 months of records being broken, but the warmest temperatures likely recorded since humanity began to keep records. And in fact when we look at that we realize that that month alone represents the fact that we have already for that month reached the 1.5 degree Celsius floor to which we aimed with the Paris Accord. We also observed that, depending upon how you calculate the numbers, the heat wave that occurred in February and March in association with the El Nino was such that it suggested that during that period we had already reached 2 degrees Celsius under those circumstances. And the bad news here, the troubling news, is that the UN is not scheduled to publish its serious scientific report on how to keep the world below 1.5 degrees Celsius until 2018. In other words, hydroclimatic change may clearly be accelerating and what we’ve seen from this is Earth system change is doing just that. In many ways, in terms of hydroclimatic change, 2030 is the new 2050 and 2050 is the new 2100. With accelerating changes we need to understand how urgent it is that we meet the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

How can we begin to build social capacity to mitigate climate change?

There’s several explanations concerning how we deal with what we know and don’t know. Of course, there’s what we know and what we know we don’t know. And there’s also what we don’t know we don’t know. And then there’s another area too—what we don’t want to know.

Our society unfortunately has been engaged in a battle, an ideological battle about whether or not climate change is actually occurring, which has been really centrally driven by those who would not have us know what’s really happening. And now, after repeatedly answering the same questions put forward by those who would not have us act on climate change, we have had 5 different global research networks that have answered those questions [in the 5 IPCC assessments] and each time they come back with greater certainty about the answers. We are in trouble. And we need to do something about it.

What we need now is to understand that the way we’re going to have to deal with this is from the top down, in terms of true and meaningful leadership at the national level. But we also have to start from the community level and work up. What we need most now is a common vision of what we wish to achieve and also common mechanisms for motivating and also collaborating in service of the common interest that we have in solving this problem. And our greatest challenge will not necessarily be science, but how we organize ourselves socially to meaningfully address these particular problems immediately and in the short-term.

I am greatly honored to be the senior water policy advisor for the Interaction Council, a group of some 35 former heads of state that meet each year to examine the present state of the world. And these people, having held the highest offices politically in their country, are experts and also statesman, in the truest sense of understanding how to get things done politically and what the issues are that the world faces. And I’m fortunate to be engaged with that particular group who are now very interested in water, water security, and water’s relationship to climate stability. And it is through that kind of larger wisdom that we get a sense of possibility in the world, and a sense of how political structures can be influenced to make what we need to happen happen in a realistic time frame.

Though it’s often very easy to think darkly about the future, what gives me hope is that we have good scientific evidence of where we’re going. We now have two very critical frameworks, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accord, to guide us in the right direction. But the thing that gives me the most hope is working with the next generation of people who are anxious to take on these problems — university students who are graduating, young people who care about these matters, and it’s into their hands that I trustingly put these issues, with the hope that they can manage them better than we have in my generation.

What roles can different institutions play in that process of organizing ourselves socially?

To address the kinds of earth-system problems that we have, including climate change, we all need to work together. And we have to get out of the silos in which we normally address these issues and live our way of life. In this particular instance we need to [enlist] the energies of all sectors and also all avenues of imagination that exist within our society. In my view the physical sciences are very important. The social sciences with respect to helping us understand how to influence and change behavior have become critical.

The arts have become central in that people believe artists. They are the type of people who make not just ritual, but actual sacrifices in trying to discover the truth. We need writers, we need poets, we need playwrights, we need filmmakers, but most of all we need the average person to see and understand the critical nature of the challenge that we presently face. And more importantly than anything, we need an organizing principle. We need a commonized mobilization of the same energies from the bottom to the top down. And only in so applying these on a national basis can we expect to make real progress.

The blueprint, however, exists for us. The 2030 Transforming Our World Global Sustainable Development Goal framework shows us where to start and it shows us the avenues that we need to go down to achieve the future we want.

Bifrost gratefully acknowledges Prof. Robert Boschman of Mount Royal University, the conference Under Western Skies 2016 and the leadership of the research network NIES for making this interview possible. Grateful acknowledgment is also made to the Peace and Justice Studies Association for transcription assistance.

Credit: Sandford, Robert, Steven Hartman (interviewer and editing), Peter Norrman (recording) and Lea Rekow (transcript and editing). Transcript of full Bifrost Interview. Originally published in, 18 June 2018 (CC BY-SA 2.0).