Roundtable marking 20th anniversary of first international climate conference releases statement

The first international conference on climate change was held in Toronto in June, 1988. Sponsored by the government of Canada, the conference, “Our Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security,” brought together hundreds of scientists and policymakers from across the globe to Toronto with the goal of initiating international action on climate change.

Twenty years later, on June 26, 2008, a group of scientists, journalists and other original conference attendees gathered in Toronto for a roundtable discussion to analyze the lack of progress on climate change in the 20 years since the issue gained global attention. Today, the group released a closing statement from the session.

To view the video of this Climate Change Conference, please follow this link:


Closing statement from an ad hoc roundtable marking 20 years since the landmark Toronto climate conference

Twenty years ago today, June 30, 1988, 500 international scientists and policy makers meeting in Toronto at the historic “Our Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security” Conference issued a stark warning to the world:

“Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war.”

The 1988 conference, hosted by Canada, put climate change on the global agenda and proposed a specific initial target for a global reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases – 20% below 1988 levels by 2005 – on the way to a much larger ultimate reduction, to be set following further research and debate.

A gathering last week of some of the Canadians who organized and participated in the landmark 1988 Toronto conference agreed that two decades of opportunity have been squandered by Canada. Far from reducing emissions by 20% against 1988 levels, the growth in Canadian emissions is unabated. In fact, we have increased greenhouse gas emissions by more than 25% against 1988 levels.

Canada formally accepted, in the Kyoto Protocol in December 1997, a target weaker than that adopted by the 1988 Toronto conference: a 6% reduction below the 1990 level in the period between 2008 – 2012. Canada is now 32% above that target and emissions continue to rise.

In fact, the most pessimistic projections for global greenhouse gas emissions estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been outpaced by increasingly worrying trends.

In the last twenty years, the science has become more certain, the threats more clearly understood, and the need to reduce emissions more urgent.

The Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC placed before the global community definitive scientific evidence regarding the threat of climate change.

New analyses show that global greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing, sea level rising and Arctic sea ice decreasing faster than projected only a few years ago. In fact, in the summer of 2007, the Northwest Passage was open for the first time. Human induced climate change has already caused the loss of two million square kilometers of Arctic ice – a 10 – 20% decline of summer sea ice cover over what was present thirty years ago. The remaining ice is also thinner. The glaciers are in retreat. Water shortages are predicted in the western Prairies, the Okanagan and in the Great Lakes basin. The forests in British Columbia are already suffering devastating impacts due to insects that are now able to survive the milder winter conditions. Whereas in the 1960s we witnessed 60 extreme weather events worldwide per year, we now see on average one per day. Earlier targets to avoid human interference with the climate system are now seen to be inadequate.

It is increasingly clear that our past greenhouse gas emissions and the energy infrastructure we have installed commit the planet to ever increasing temperatures, on the order of 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade for the next few decades and at least 0.1C for the rest of the century – even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases. With continued emissions, the destabilizing of the global climate could worsen to reach a “point of no return.” The conditions on planet Earth could, as the 1988 Toronto conference statement suggested, place the survival of human civilization in doubt.

Despite clear evidence of the urgency of determinedly tackling the threat of climate change, successive governments have so far failed to meet the challenge and have enhanced Canada’s contribution by the environmentally unsustainable exploitation of one of the world’s most carbon intensive fossil fuels – the Athabasca Tar Sands.

There are lessons to be learned in the last 20 years of collective failure to address the threat. The way forward must be radically different than the approaches of the last lost 20 years. Canada could learn much from successes such as the experience in Sweden and in large urban centres, such as Berlin.

Short-term targets, such as the Kyoto Protocol, are an important first step, but only in the context of a long-term target of significant emission reductions which may need to be in the order of 80% for industrialized countries such as Canada. Precious years have been wasted in arguing about 6%, while emissions continued to rise. Progress to reduce greenhouse gases has been held back by a lack of political leadership, the promotion of the myth of serious scientific dissension, fear of change and protection of vested interests by some in industry, and by a focus on incremental steps. We must launch a fundamental shift away from our dependency on fossil fuels.

Finally, we believe that sound policy continues to require good scientific input. There is need for further investments in research and systematic monitoring to track the rate and nature of changes, to understand what is happening now, to refine projections of future changes and to analyze the opportunities and threats presented by these changes.

In 2009, country representatives will convene in Copenhagen to negotiate a global climate agreement to succeed Kyoto. Therefore, we urge that a government-sponsored national conference take place soon before the Copenhagen meeting to provide the momentum for a quantum leap forward in this country. This exercise should better prepare Canada for making the crucial international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen next year a success. The conference should focus on describing the new low emission economy of the future. It should focus on identifying the barriers to implementing the cost-effective technologies. We must make the structural changes to allow rapid implementation of a new approach to energy policy, one defined by a focus on demand-side management, maximizing efficiencies while increasing renewable energy. We must engage all participants in a collective effort. Therefore, it should be followed immediately with an extraordinary Federal/Provincial/Territorial First Minister’s Meeting to include mayors from major cities. Without direct governmental response at all levels that will take decisions and ensure accountability, we will be waiting another 20 years. Individuals, small communities, the large urban municipal governments, Provincial and Territorial governments, First Nations, industry and corporations, and the federal government all have important roles to play. We still have time, but it is measured in years, not decades.

In less than 18 months, the world will put a new agreement in place in Copenhagen to succeed Kyoto. Scientific advice, including that of the International Energy Agency and the IPCC, has emphasized that we are literally running out of time. Unless global greenhouse gas emissions peak and begin to fall no later than 2015, we may pass the point of no return.

The roundtable notes that the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize framed climate change as an issue of global peace and security. It endorsed the statement of the Nobel Committee that
“Action is necessary now, before climate change moves beyond man’s control.”

If the warning of twenty years ago was an alarm bell, the current situation is a siren that screams through our day from dawn to dusk. We have a moral obligation, to those least responsible for the crisis living in the developing world and to our children and grandchildren, to heed those warnings.

We sincerely hope that, based on the compelling science at hand, our political leaders display the urgency and determination that we believe is required.


Dr. Jim Bruce, Soil and Water Conservation Society
Dr. Howard Ferguson, then Assistant Deputy Minister, Atmospheric Environment Service
John Hollins, member of Environment Canada planning team for the Toronto conference
Phil Jessup, Executive Director, Toronto Atmospheric Fund
Paul Kovacs, Executive Director, Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, University of Western Ontario
Karen Kraft-Sloan, former Liberal MP and Ambassador for the Environment and Sustainable Development
Julia Langer, then Executive Director of Friends of the Earth Canada, now Director of Climate Program, World Wildlife Fund - Canada
David MacDonald, former Progressive Conservative MP and Chair of House of Commons Committee on Environment
Dr. Jim MacNeill, Secretary General of the World (Brundtland) Commission on Environment and Development
Dr. Jag Maini, then Assistant Deputy Minister, Canadian Forest Service
Elizabeth May, now leader of the Green Party, then Senior Policy Advisor to federal Environment Minister Tom McMillan and member, conference organizing committee
Professor Gordon McBean, Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, University of Western Ontario
Judy Smith-Torrie, then Smith-Torrie Associates, now deputy leader, Green Party of Ontario
Dr. John M. R. Stone, Carleton University, Vice-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Ralph Torrie, Energy Workshop coordinator at Toronto conference