Canadian Enthusiasm: Remembering Toronto ‘88

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

Changing Atmosphere Conference Statement, Toronto, 30 June, 1988.

With the Greenhouse scare turning thirty this month, we remember the conference that launched it onto the global stage as the flagship cause of the Sustainable Development movement. 

Before Paris there was Kyoto, but before Kyoto there was Toronto. Most climate activists today would be too young to recall where it all began thirty years ago this month. It was at the Changing Atmosphere conference, Toronto, 27-30 June 1988, that ‘greenhouse’ warming exploded onto the global stage, with demands for an immediate policy response. So successful was this event that the ‘Toronto Target’ remained the benchmark for any government response to the climate emergency until the ‘protocol’ finally agreed in Kyoto, 1997.

The Guardian, 28 June 1988

A report from the opening of the Toronto conference in The Guardian, 28 June 1988

In the old days before the warming scare, convention deemed that local weather observations could not pronounce on local climate until the ledgers ran down a continuous 30 years. And perhaps this could be our measure of global climate scares. Compare the cooling scare: launched in 1972, it was all over by the end of the decade. That was pretty much when the build-up to the warming scare began. But this one stuck around. It grew and prospered while the promised signs of catastrophe remained ever deferred.

If some sceptics are now sounding its death knells, then we do well to remember their premature ringing many times before. This horseman may be riding for an apocalyptic fall, but ride on he does; and with tremendous institutional inertia in the science, the science funding and energy policy. That this scare continues to evolve is all too evident when we consider that there has never been a greater impact on energy policy for major economic players like Germany, Britain and Australia. And this impact is in direct opposition to what would be our agreed economic, political and security interests if there were no scare. Make no mistake, this is a major social phenomenon, the full power of which we are only coming to appreciate as it arises stronger from every successive blow to its credibility.

The first summer of the warmers

The opening weeks of the summer of 1988 was when greenhouse warming arrived as a geo-political phenomenon. In the USA, the foundation event is usually seen to be NASA scientist James Hansen’s congressional testimony on 23 June, where he called for immediate action based on a 99% statistical certainty that the warming is already happening now. Hansen’s performance was a well-orchestrated part of the Dukakis presidential campaign. But Dukakis was defeated. And so perhaps more important was the responding commitment to greenhouse action by the presidential victor, George Bush (senior). Late in his campaign, Bush famously suggested that he would combat the greenhouse effect with the ‘White House Effect’.

Once elected, Bush proved an enthusiast for climate action, although a treaty would have to wait; he agreed with that other conservative enthusiast, Margaret Thatcher, that treaty talks should only commence after completion of an assessment by an UN intergovernmental panel, the IPCC. The British and US diplomats had to fight hard against the impatience for immediate action that arose like a thunderous tide in the wake of Toronto.

Before Toronto, while enthusiasm for global environmentalism was peaking, greenhouse warming was no leading concern. Air pollution had long been on the campaign agenda and the Toronto conference was called to address those pollutants of global consequence. It was only during the conference that greenhouse came to the fore.

The majority of the folks invited to Toronto were scientists, only a handful of whom had raised concerns previously. The environmental NGOs also sent delegations, but it would be some time before greenhouse warming was raised high on the agenda for any of them.

What first brought media interest to this Canadian conference was the strong ministerial representation among the delegations from 46 countries. The 29 government ministers included the two Prime Ministers who opened the conference: Canada’s Brian Mulroney and Norway’s Gro Brundtland. Brundtland had been returned to power after completion of the UN Sustainable Development report that bears her name.

McMillan Brundtland Mulroney Toronto 1988

Canada’s Minister for the Environment Tom McMillan (left) with the two prime ministers who opened the Toronto conference, Gro Brundtland (Norway) and Brian Mulroney (Canada).

The Brundtland Commission submitted its report to the UN General Assembly with much fanfare in 1987. Our Common Future, as it was titled, included calls to shift towards Sustainable Development on all its complex and varied fronts. The Canadian government’s special interest was air pollution, and so it organised their ‘Changing Atmosphere’ conference in a collaboration with the UN Environment Programme to specifically address the management of the atmosphere as a global ‘common’. At the time, Brundtland and others were calling for a general ‘law of the air’.

The Woodstock of CO2

A ‘law of the air’ was envisaged on the model of a ‘law of the sea’, but progress towards agreement on that treaty remained bogged down in negotiations over the funding of ‘technological transfer’ to poorer countries. With so much complexity already introduced into the matter of atmospheric pollution, in the end agreement on a general law seemed just too ambitious. Better to focus on individual concerns. The Toronto conference would emphasis three pollution effects on the global atmosphere: acid rain, ozone layer depletion and climate warming due to carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. After this last issue came to dominance, one scientist-activist famously dubbed Toronto ‘the Woodstock of CO2’.

Why greenhouse? Why carbon dioxide? The reasons are not as straightforward as they may seem in hindsight. For example, Why not acid rain? After all, this was the issue that Prime Minister Mulroney emphasised in his opening address, and it remained the cause of international tension while major polluters such as the UK and the USA had refused to commit to an emissions reduction treaty protocol. Perhaps acid rain was not a sufficiently global problem, and the threat was not sufficiently catastrophic in its imaginings.

As for the ozone threat, it continued to capture geo-political attention, but anxieties had been mollified by the 1987 Montreal Protocol for ozone layer protection. Indeed, the triumph of that agreement to curb CFC emissions imbued the new campaign with confidence that a more ambitious agreement on carbon dioxide could be realised. As it happened, the course of the negotiations to protect the climate would soon follow the path of acid rain and ozone protection; that is, from agreement on a convention ‘framework’ towards agreement on an emissions reduction ‘protocol’.

Whatever the cause, there was no doubt about the effect: coming out of the Toronto conference the Sustainable Development movement had a new flagship cause. That this propelled climate protection to prominence, there can be no doubt. But there would be a price to pay. After launching the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) at the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ in 1992, the institutions previously established by the UN to save the climate then also took on the development goals of that summit. The trouble was not only that these goals sat awkwardly with the IPCCs scientific objectives. They also legitimated the efforts of some poor country delegations to transmute the climate negotiations into negotiations for development aid.

The Toronto Target

The Guardian, 1 July 1988

The Toronto Target(s) served as the policy bench mark for almost a decade. The Guardian, 1 July 1988

The organisers of the Toronto conference could never have anticipated the course of its influence, but yet they were not short on ambition. They drafted a conference statement bulging with alarming claims on a variety of threats, and these were paired with demands for immediate and suitably drastic policy responses. On greenhouse warming, the statement called for the rich industrialised countries to stabilise carbon dioxide emissions at 1988 levels by 2000. By 2005 they should each reduce emissions by 20%. This ‘Toronto Target’ became the policy goal of the greenhouse movement leading into the Rio conference in 1992. But then, while the FCCC still lacked a protocol, this 20% reduction target persisted as the headline policy goal right up until Kyoto in 1997.

Mustafa Tolba and the scientist-activists

The importance of Toronto to the greenhouse scare, to both its character and its success, can hardly be over stated. But this is not to say that this breakthrough came entirely out of the blue. It came after a long and sometimes lonely campaign by a small group of scientist-activists following the (first) World Climate Conference of 1979. At that meeting much was made of the warming threat. The trouble was that the meteorological establishment did not want to know about it. This was especially true of the World Meteorological Organization (UN WMO) and its World Climate Research Programme, where key players worked hard to resist all attempts to give this issue any special attention. Indeed, if it weren’t for the persistence of a few scientists, there would never have been Toronto.

The campaign for greenhouse policy action was ably led by the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, Mustafa Tolba. He launched it at a now-famous meeting of selected scientists convened in the Austrian town of Villach in 1985. The plan for the Villach meeting was to achieve a consensus on the scientific basis for policy action, and that is what it duly delivered. Even still resistance continued. But the scientist-activists maintained momentum with funding via Tolba and from the Swedish Monarchy and the Rockefeller Brothers—who supported the development of policy response options at two workshops to be convened late in 1987 (the ‘Villach-Bellagio’ workshops). This policy entrepreneurism fed rising concern among country delegates that the WMO leadership found hard to ignore at its World Meteorological Congress, May 1987. Following a discussion of the Villach consensus, a compromise was reached: there would be a new assessment, this time by an intergovernmental panel, the IPCC .

This was all before Toronto. After Toronto, while the IPCC was compiling its report, tremendous public excitement was generated, not the least by two ministerial-level international conferences in Europe during 1989. Political will for immediate action to ‘save the climate’ grew so strong, that the outcome of the IPCC assessment hardly mattered. Indeed, its report released in 1990 was decidedly subdued, with a distinct lack of empirical evidence found to support the model predictions. Not that anyone in the policy arena seemed to care, and the treaty negotiations went ahead as planned.

The Canadian climate ‘mafia’

Howard Ferguson (1930-2015) speaking in Toronto.

Howard Ferguson (1930-2015) speaking in Toronto. Ferguson was one of the Canadian scientist-activists who were instrumental in bringing the greenhouse scare onto the global political stage during the late 1980s.

That the greenhouse scare had been launched in Canada was no accident. Canada’s dependence on fossil fuels was relatively low with their vast hydroelectricity resources and then their recent shift to nuclear power. Canada also had a special connection with the Sustainable Development movement through its Canadian patriarch, Maurice Strong. Strong was the first Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme before handing over to Tolba in 1974. He continued to be active, and active on this issue, up until the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ (1992) and beyond.

But during the mid-1980s a whole new contingent of Canadians came forward to actively promote this one new cause. They were led by Jim Bruce, head of the Canadian delegation to the WMO. He almost singlehandedly pushed the WMO into taking a lead on the issue. In 1986, after chairing the Villach Conference, Bruce moved to Geneva, where he coordinated WMO activities on climate protection. Also prominent among Canadian scientist-activists was the meteorologists Howard Ferguson. He was on the steering committee of the Villach-Bellagio policy workshops, and he went on to coordinate preparations for the second World Climate Conference (scheduled for 1990). These and other Canadians had the ear of the Mulroney government, especially though its enthusiastic environment minister, Tom McMillan.

Jim P Bruce

Jim Bruce, the Canadian meteorologist who swung the WMO around in support of the climate scare.

The Canadian climate ‘mafia’ (as they were affectionately known) were especially important in promoting the climate cause to its flagship role in the Sustainable Development movement. While Strong did play his part, perhaps more important was the collaboration between Jim Bruce, the chair of the Villach climate conference, and his countrymen Jim McNeill, the Secretary General of the Brundtland Commission. The 1987 Brundtland report repeated the alarming Villach consensus, although greenhouse was not yet the movement’s flagship cause. Brundtland herself gave it no special emphasis when promoting the report. That would change in Toronto. In her opening address Brundtland headlined greenhouse warming in the strongest possible terms:

. . . it is established beyond doubt that we will experience a global change in climate. . .The impact of climate change may be greater and more drastic than any other challenges that mankind has faced with the exception of the threat of nuclear war.

The obstinacy of the meteorological establishment

Brundtland’s comparison with the nuclear threat was on message with the theme of pollution-as-a-security-issue. This was up there on the banners in the subtitle of the conference: ‘implications for global security’. And then the conference statement played this theme to the hilt: climate change ‘may well become the major non-military threat to international security’ but, so the statement claimed, it may itself also cause wars…

The best predictions available indicate potentially severe economic and social dislocation for present and future generations, which will worsen international tensions and increase risk of conflicts between and within nations. It is imperative to act now.

With the conference statement packed with so many scary scenarios based on what the meteorological establishment regarded as, at best, flimsy speculative science, it must be asked why there was not an outcry from all those meteorologists present at Toronto. In fact, to some extent the resistance continued at the final plenary where the statement was to be agreed.

The small group assigned to draft the conference statement was led by Stephen Lewis, a Canadian politician and broadcaster who was then ambassador to the UN. It was only at this final plenary that the majority of scientists and other delegates got a chance to read it. During the discussion a number of meteorologists raised concerns that they had been asked to endorse without proper debate very strong assertions of alarm that they did not find sufficiently grounded in science. One of these protesters was the Third Vice President of the WMO and the head of the UK Met Office, John Houghton. Another was the First Vice President of the WMO and the head of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, John Zillman. Their appeals were to no avail—the outrageous scientific claims were not weakened. Houghton and Zillman could only go on to ensure that the IPCC assessment remained true to the science (which it did, at least for the first assessment).

The atmosphere in Toronto was rather more charged than during the dour deliberations of the WMO in Geneva. Not everyone would compare Toronto to ‘Woodstock’, but, by all reports, the conference was an exciting and exhilarating experience. The Australian delegates were surprised by the enthusiasm of the meeting and also cognisant of its historical significance. Both these impressions they tried to convey on their return to Australia, where the conference had received little coverage. In a published conference report they explained that it was ‘impossible not to be affected by the suddenness with which climate change issues are moving centre stage in world affairs’. At Toronto they sometimes felt…

… a sense of being swept along in a tide driven more by the Canadian political agenda and emotions born of the contemporary North American drought than by strongly objective assessment of the scientific evidence and arguments. . .

At Toronto, political enthusiasm drowned out the voice of sciences. After that, the science became an inconvenient obstacle to policy action—an obstacle that a new generation of scientist-activists would soon be working hard to overcome.

For more detail and comprehensive referencing see Searching for the Catastrophe Signal.


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