’We need everybody’: Mitigating climate change requires creativity, thinking differently

Western s Brian Branfireun and Katrina Moser share their insights on how to tack
Western s Brian Branfireun and Katrina Moser share their insights on how to tackle climate change. (Rob Potter/Western Communications)
They’ve studied the effects of climate change for decades and seen its real-world consequences. They still believe a better future is within reach.

Katrina Moser and Brian Branfireun (Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications) Western biology professor Brian Branfireun and geography and environment professor Katrina Moser are alarmed by the changes they’ve observed in Canada’s waterways, forests and ecosystems.

But Branfireun and Moser remain fiercely hopeful the next generation of students, scientists and citizens will continue to tackle the crisis head on. It will take committing to a "completely new way of doing things on the Earth," said Branfireun, former Canada Research Chair in environment and sustainability.

"It means putting the brakes on a lot of what we consider necessary and crucial," he added.

"We always believe we’ll invent something to solve the problem in the future that will allow us to continue living as we currently do. There will be no technological solution like that. It will take work to undo the harms we’ve done."

Environmental evidence is undeniable 

Both Branfireun and Moser said last year’s drifting wildfire smoke, blanketing urban centres and entire regions, was a hard-to-deny sign of major trouble brewing. It was ominous.

Katrina Moser (Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications) "Even though I’m looking at climate change and thinking about it constantly, it was still a bit of a wakeup call," Moser said of leaving a workshop on Western’s campus to discover the dense haze.

"The scale of the problem and the creep of the problem makes it harder for people to grasp. We don’t have a lot of time to deal with this anymore - it is a critically urgent and global problem."

For Moser, an expert on water quality and quantity issues, and Branfireun, whose research focuses on environmental contaminants, ecosystems, and climate change, the evidence has been loud for decades.

Droughts, fires, floods.

Biodiversity in crisis.

The Great Lakes are seeing unprecedented, low ice cover, which affects the lakewater temperature, thermal stability of the lake, growing season, oxygen concentrations, organisms that live in the lakes and, ultimately, the people who live around the lakes.

"Warning bells are sounding. We need to listen. The changes that climate change are causing have major consequences on natural and social systems." irector of the Lakes and Reservoir Systems (LARS) Research Facility

Branfireun describes it as pushing ecosystems past their "safe operating space." They’re no longer on the brink - they’ve been pushed off the cliff.

"When it is within safe operating space, an ecosystem can bounce back from challenges" even forest fires or droughts, he said. "The Great Lakes, the boreal forest, the Amazon are moving outside of their safe operating space."

You can probably tell.

"We’re a winter country that’s not going to have a lot of winter," Moser said.

But collective action hasn’t followed. Even today, some audiences who hear the two experts are surprised by the urgency in their messages, they say. People often feel overwhelmed, and may not know how to help.

And experts are battling "a new, all-time low in trust in science," Branfireun said. COVID-19 exacerbated the problem. The speedy spread of misinformation and what he calls "manoeuvring" on social media hasn’t helped, either.

Despite the blatant spread of misinformation, most people in North America are on board to make changes for a better climate future, Moser said.

"We just need to figure out how to transfer that desire to action."

Keeping climate change in conversation, collective memory

Branfireun believes one of the missing ingredients is empathy.

The forest fires are a good example.

Brian Branfireun (Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications) "As a species, we have trouble empathizing with people who are elsewhere," he said. "It’s a bit out of the collective memory already. A capital city of a territory in Canada - Yellowknife - was completely evacuated this year. That’s absolutely profound. There are towns and villages that are completely gone because of wildfires.-

But do southwestern Ontarians who complained about the smoke for one summer really appreciate what it means to have daily life affected by those fires? Do they feel the pain of northern communities where climate change is eliminating sources of food and livelihoods?

Branfireun, former director of the Biotron Experimental Climate Change Research Centre at Western, said one of his group’s most useful experiments at the Biotron took wetland plants from higher latitudes and subjected them to warmer temperatures and higher CO2 ., as expected in the future. The changes in plant type and growth were dramatic. People really resonated with the drastic differences because they could see them, he said.

He wishes everyone could experience the climate realities further north, like in early spring when it should be -40C but instead it’s 3 C, or hunters who must now travel hundreds of kilometres to find caribou that have migrated right through their communities for generations.

Even if they don’t see the outcomes in their own daily lives, everyone has a role to play, the experts stress.

"It doesn’t really matter who you are, where you live, or what field you’re in, you’re going to be affected by climate change in the future. We need everybody involved, having climate change at the forefront of your decision making," Moser said.

That extends to engaging and educating families, workplaces and communities.

"What I hear a lot is ’what can I do about it’’ But everybody can be involved, whether it’s making your vote count, or getting involved with a group that’s doing something about climate change." - Brian Branfireun, professor of biology and former director of the Biotron Experimental Climate Change Research Centre  

Spreading knowledge

Moser tackled that very element - the overwhelming doom of climate change - with a free, publicly available and award-winning course , called Connecting for Climate Change Action.

The geography and environment department chair was teaching Western’s first dedicated climate change course when she saw the growing levels of despair among her students. The new course - which braids together Eurowestern science and Indigenous Knowledges and perspectives - educates on climate change and inspires learners to use that knowledge to take action, Moser said.

The next iteration starts May 6 and there are still spaces available.

And there are still many of those choices to make, Moser said.

"What do we really need? That’s a really important question to ask ourselves. We are a consumerist society. Nobody wants to give up things, but when you do, it’s not always as bad as you think," she said.

Students who pause their UberEats habits or take other small actions to reduce their carbon footprint often report the experiment was "kind of fun," Moser said.

Despite deflection to the carbon emissions of other world powers, Canadians have a big role to play, she added.

"We may have a relatively small carbon footprint overall, but we have a big responsibility in Canada; we are one of the worst countries in the world in terms of per capita CO2 emissions. We have to step up to the table and reduce our fossil fuel emissions. Yes, there will be some hard work to reduce our carbon emissions."

Branfireun agreed.

"We’re not committed to all’of these dire consequences. We have absolutely crossed the threshold for some of them, but adaptation is an important part of this story," he said.

With the world facing an existential challenge and a wealth of people seemingly resistant to taking the major steps required, where does the hope shine in?

"We are both still optimists. The world isn’t going to come to an end in a giant fireball in 2100. The earth is a very resilient thing," Branfireun said.

"Most climate scientists are optimists. I don’t think you’d stick in this field if you weren’t. What keeps me going is the inspiring and beautiful reflections from learners about their connections to each other and the land and the many actions they are taking in their communities towards a better climate future," Moser added.

What’s crucial now is to dedicate immense efforts and resources to the problem, the way the world’s scientists and leaders rallied to find solutions amid COVID-19, they say.

Complicated challenges can be met with passion and innovation, Moser said.

"It’s amazing the amount of resources we’re willing to pour into things if we feel like it’s truly life or death," Branfireun added.

"We can direct resources into things that are urgent. We have to believe that."

Our Warming Planet , a series featuring Western researchers and scholars addressing the great challenge of our time.


  • Global change is an emergency, but it’s not the end of the world. Connect with your community and talk about it honestly with friends, family and colleagues.

  • Vote for politicians and parties who have clear and effective climate action plans in their platforms.
  • Become part of change. What is your sphere of influence? What can you do to inspire and lead change in your community?
  • Make practical changes to reduce individual carbon emissions. Ride your bike to work, become a vegetarian, make changes to your home to reduce energy use. These small changes are amplified and become meaningful when everyone is involved, and they almost always come with additional benefits.