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Do You Need a Climate Map? Here’s an Atlas We Can All Use

Canada has a climate atlas with science, media expertise, and Native knowledge.

Mapmakers of the 16th and 17th centuries occasionally compensated for gaps in their knowledge of the world by populating “unknown” seas and lands with pictures of whimsical yet terrifying creatures. These “map monsters” signified mortal danger ahead, warning curious travelers, while inciting imperial bullies.

Maps continue to help us imagine places and people we have yet to visit. But although there may be no mythic animals lurking at the edges, maps do tell us where danger resides and caution is advisable. This is especially true for people imagining new ways of charting a greener future.

We’ve all seen maps showing the oil pipelines that cut through North America, from the Arctic to the Yucatán Peninsula. They tend to represent the land as if no one lived there, and there were no fragile ecosystems, waterways, or aquifers in the path of pipelines.

Thankfully for environmental activists and green citizens, geographers are at work to provide North Americans with richly detailed maps about our planet and its inhabitants, plus scientific news about how global warming affects our lives. Fossil-fuel companies have become the map monsters of green cartography — but this time, they’re for real.

Consider the new, online Climate Atlas of Canada, which debuted a month ago. The product of interdisciplinary scholarship, filmmaking, and community engagement at the University of Winnipeg’s Prairie Research Center, the Atlas emerged slowly and incidentally from Ian Mauro’s decade living with indigenous communities in regions that are "remote" in the discourse of his fellow white folks.

After witnessing climate change with his own eyes, and with his ears attuned to stories spreading around the ridges, Mauro made documentaries with indigenous leaders, from the noted filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk to local figures. He was aided by the kind of federal research funding that is increasingly hard to get south of the border.

Based on that initial support, Mauro’s team brokered direct funding from the Federal Government of Canada. The resultant Atlas was launched in early April by Catherine McKenna, the nation’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change.

The Atlas’s unique blend of “interactive web design with climatology, cinema, and cartography” addresses some of the problems of communicating climate science we have discussed before in this column. Changing public perceptions of global warming is hard; and even among people who acknowledge the reality of climate change, there can be a lack of urgency about ameliorating the situation.

The Atlas offers video vignettes that show firsthand how global warming is affecting different cultures within Canada. The climate science and maps come from academic geographers and meteorologists. The storytelling is done by local scholars, municipal officials, community leaders, and indigenous fishing folks, who share tales that provide both evidence of climate change and answers to it.

This communication strategy is supported by research that shows how personalized stories can help shift public opinion, if accompanied by strong imagery. The Atlas shows equivalent respect for data that clearly demonstrate the country is getting hotter and experiential tales that illustrate it. The participant observation of native Canadian villagers is deemed to be as scientific as the participant observation of urban scholars.

The lesson here is to give voice to people in ways that appreciate their local, orally shared knowledge, as well as — and as part of — the work done by climate scientists to alert us to our past, present, and probable future.

Mauro’s team at the Climate Atlas of Canada is on to something.

Within days of its release, the Atlas had encouraged countries, activists, and scientists around the globe to engage the expertise of the Prairie Center.

By contrast, just a little way south of Canada, a nearby federal government hasn’t called.

The U.S. has a climate atlas. It’s fine for experts and students, but doesn’t integrate different kinds of information, as per the more democratic and media-savvy Canadian version.

This is not to say that Canada and the U.S. diverge on environmental politics. Canada is as contradictory as the U.S. Both an imperial outpost and a civilized place, it is simultaneously ecologically criminal and environmentally aware, as displayed in support for brazen ecocide alongside subvention of the remarkable Atlas project.

Canada thereby shares the classic mosaic psychology of white-settler colonies: guilt and triumph from the foundational crime of dispossessing First Peoples; difference, via the mixing of Anglo and French colonizers and Native Peoples to "produce" the Métis; economic desire, because early immigrants were poor; and later, newness, thanks to a multicultural population of voluntary migrants from across the globe.

That makes it very similar to the U.S., Australia, and Aotearoa/New Zealand. All four countries must deal with a shared heritage of fighting First Peoples for their land that leaves a powerful stain on the collective consciousness. The U.S. differs slightly in that while that history is just as important and troubling, it has additional structural violence and emotional scars wrought by African slavery and the incorporation of Mexican land, plus a much larger immigrant trend from Europe, Latin America, and Asia than the other three nations.

But because Canada has maintained direct links with France and Britain for longer than the U.S., it displays many more of the post-World War II civilizing tendencies that weighed against those nations’ imperial pasts — most notably, a functioning welfare state. And it has kinder, gentler politics than applies further south (if you can forget the Ford brothers).

Today, we see those dual and dueling tendencies at work — the ethic of care that distinguishes Canada from the U.S., and their shared, violent mineral extraction. On the credit side of the ledger, Canada stimulates environmental consciousness very effectively. On the debit side, a febrile desire for development at any price produces such follies as the Trans Mountain oil pipeline.

When serious attempts are made to merge indigenous, municipal, and scientific knowledge, to see how they intersect and can inform one another, the best of the nation is at work, confronting both the reality of climate change and its own history as a white-settler colony. And this can be achieved in a positive way; in promising a “move from risk to resilience,” the Atlas invites those of us with similar heritages to embark on a collaborative pursuit of the truth and what to do about it.