Political climate: B.C. Green Party leader’s former life as environmental scientist

Long before Green Party leader Andrew Weaver found himself as the middleman amidst the partisan crossfire of the B.C. Legislature, he was a world-leading climatologist. Here's our 2011 profile


Long before Andrew Weaver found himself amid the partisan crossfire of the provincial legislature, he was a world-leading climatologist. Here’s our 2011 profile

How much rain is going to fall into BC Hydro’s Williston Reservoir, say, in 2065? Even Stephanie Smith, BC Hydro’s manager of hydrology and technology services, bridles at the question – and she has budgeted $300,000 in the next four years to try to get an answer. Smith is in the crystal ball business. In the midst of B.C.’s complicated geography, changeable climate and burgeoning population, it’s her job to forecast how much water is likely to flow through the utility’s dams and generating stations, so BC Hydro brass can decide how much capacity they will have to add (or how much to dampen demand) to meet market expectations.?

This has always been a difficult task: Mother Nature seems to take great delight in violating the guesstimates that we make on the basis of what usually occurs. But climate change is making the job tougher still. A weather system charged with more energy (the increasing heat from global warming) is expected to be capable of greater extremes. For example, Canadians and Canadian businesses have been warned to expect both more rain – more spring and winter floods – and longer droughts. Rising temperatures are wearing away at B.C.’s glaciers and mountain snowpack, elements that currently smooth out the flow of water through Hydro’s catchment systems. And bigger, more violent storms come with additional wind, a particular nuisance for a utility that has more than 70,000 kilometres of transmission and distribution lines hanging in the increasingly turbulent air.?

“This is not something that BC Hydro can deny or ignore,” Smith says. “We have to identify potential risks and take action to mitigate them. We have to be prepared.”?

Cue the Boy Scout? Not quite. BC Hydro’s guide through the bumpy climate of the 21st century is, rather, a rumpled academic: 49-year-old University of Victoria professor Andrew Weaver. Weaver is the Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis, which means that he’s an expert at asking impossibly complicated questions and then coming up with a credible array of answers. It happens that he has also become a national target for the critics who want to ignore, deny or (in their fondest dreams) debunk climate science.?

For those lacking in patience or understanding – or those who, for ideological or business reasons, have declared war on climate scientists rather than climate change – Weaver’s job can seem like impractical magic. He and his team load reams of raw numbers into a vast and expensive computer, flip a switch and then come back weeks or months later with something that looks like a weather forecast stretching out to the end of the century. Given how frequently Environment Canada screws up the forecast for next week, this can seem a little hard to swallow.?

But as Weaver and Smith are quick to point out, he is not really researching weather. He’s looking at climate, systems and circumstances that are bound by Newton’s laws of motion, by the laws of thermodynamics. When Weaver and his team at UVic’s Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium (PCIC) run a climate-model simulation, they’re basically asking a computer to work out a series of equations that explain how the atmosphere moves, how heat is exchanged, how air currents swirl through the valleys and ravines of B.C.’s mountainous interior. And PCIC and BC Hydro are not alone. Funding partners on this four-year project include the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), which is paying about half the $1.1-million total budget, and industrial partners Hydro-Québec and Rio Tinto Alcan Inc.?

On the science side, PCIC is working with the Quebec climate- research consortium Ouranos – another not-for-profit organization including government, academic and industrial partners. Between PCIC and Ouranos, using two separate climate models, Weaver and his colleagues plan to run 5,200 years of calculations, assessing climate across Canada in 15-kilometre squares. At the end, they may even be able to offer a highly educated guess as to how much it’s likely to rain in the Williston Reservoir, not just in 2065, but in every year between now and 2100.?

When talking about BC Hydro’s responsibilities and its decision to fund this project, Stephanie Smith said specifically of Weaver, “We want to work with the people we see as tops in their field.” Even had Hydro not worked with PCIC before, Weaver’s 109-page curriculum vitae might give them confidence.?

Andrew Weaver’s early days

From the days in the early 1980s when he captured the Governor General’s Gold Medal for scoring the best marks at UVic while securing his honours degree in math and physics, Weaver has been setting the bar in academic overachievement. Spending his summers in fancy undergraduate research projects (TRIUMF and the Defence Research Establishment Pacific) and his winters at an impressive list of universities and institutes (UVic, Cambridge, UBC, University of New South Wales, University of Washington, McGill), Weaver has published more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles, which other scientists have cited more than 7,000 times. In 20 years, he has attracted research funding, from public and private sources, in the neighbourhood of $35 million. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, of the American Meteorological Society and the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society. He’s also a member of the Order of British Columbia and he has a plaque on his office wall announcing his status as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.?

This all might summon the image of the stodgy mathematician in a tweed suit, but it would be wrong. Weaver is casual and gregarious and generally dresses like a 1980s graduate student (sneakers, jeans, rugby shirt), but there’s something about his person that you might immediately identify as determination.?

Take, for example, the angle of his nose. The first time he broke it he was skiing on Vancouver Island’s Forbidden Plateau. The second time he was playing rugby. (Hoping for a ?bloodstained anecdote, I ask him for the details of the second break, but the answer is both telling and disappointing. “It’s rugby,” Weaver says, with a “d’uh!” in his tone. “I have no idea what happened. I just came off the field and it was broken.”) Weaver played the game in high school, at UVic, UBC and on the same team as Prince Edward (yes, that Prince Edward) on the Jesus College team at Cambridge.?

Weaver with rugby teammates,
including Prince Edward (the prince is
the circled one standing).

With his parents and then-premier Bill
Bennett when he received his
scholarship to Cambridge.

If the sport scars cast Weaver in a different light – perhaps as the belligerent combatant, ready to engage attackers on or off the field of play – that, too, lacks subtlety. At the same time that he was playing out the caricature of the high school tough guy, storming across the rugby pitch, Weaver was also lead nerd on the Oak Bay High School Chess Club – still competitive, but in slightly more restrained circumstances. And he was, in any case, more likely to be a defender of the underdog than a boisterous aggressor. His father, John Weaver, a geophysicist and former dean of science at UVic, recalls a young Andrew on a Victoria soccer field, standing between his teammates and his own goalie. The goalie had let a soft shot through his legs, losing a tight game, and the players were bent on revenge. Weaver wouldn’t have it – “bullies piss me off,” he says now – and when they realized that getting to the goalie meant fighting their way past the biggest player on the team, the others decided that forgiveness was in order all around. “I was never more proud of him than for that,” says Weaver Sr.?

This, in turn, might begin to explain another aspect of Weaver’s professional calling. He is not just a scientist. He is an activist. Though his father says he started out as “rather a shy boy,” Weaver has found his voice, striding boldly – perhaps even courageously – into the public conversation about climate change. He has answered hundreds of media inquiries about climate change and written dozens of opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines across the country. He is also the author of a popular science book, 2008’s Keeping Our Cool: Canada in a Warming World.?

This is not generally the scientific way. “There is a lot of shabby stuff being written and said [about climate change] by people with no qualifications and shady funding,” says UBC glaciologist Garry Clarke, adding, “but most of us [in the scientific community] would rather hunker down and pretend these people away. Otherwise, you risk turning yourself into the centre of the story.”?

This is something Weaver knows all too well. He is, even now, in the grip of two libel suits. One he launched against the National Post for a long series of articles that questioned his methods, his funding, his honesty and his loyalty to the IPCC. The other is against the retired geographer and popular climate-change denier Tim Ball for a single (though culminating) article published in January (and since removed) on the website canadafreepress.com, in which Ball dismissed Weaver as someone who is unqualified to teach or talk about climate science.?

The fact that Weaver keeps his lawyer on speed-dial has created a libel chill among the professor’s detractors, making it difficult to round up critics. But we can still get a sense of their criticism. Weaver’s lawyer, Roger McConchie, summarized the National Post’s hostile views in the April 20, 2010, statement of claim against that newspaper and several of its writers. McConchie says the paper had presented an argument that, “The plantiff [Weaver] is so strongly motivated by a corrupt interest in receiving government funding that he willfully conceals climate data which refutes global warming in order to continue alarming the public so that it welcomes inordinate government regulation and new government funding for climate scientists such as himself.”?

This has been a pretty common characterization among professional climate- change deniers (people like Tim Ball who are tied directly to the fossil-fuel industry) and ideologues (such as the National Post columnists and editorial board) who have decided that climate is a political issue and not a scientific one. The argument rests on two assumptions. The first is that the entire climate-science fraternity joined the academy because they thought they could get rich milking governments for research money.?

This almost sounds appealing in Weaver’s case, given the amount of research money he has attracted during his career. But as a get-rich-quick artist, he’s a failure. Out of the $1.1 million budgeted for his current PCIC project, a total of $6,000 is allocated to Weaver, to cover four years of travel expenses back and forth to the Ouranos lab in Montreal. Everything else goes to computer time and repair, graduate- student salaries and one day a week administrative time for Weaver’s own secretary.?

The climate change conspiracy

The second argument against climate science is the “watermelon” proposition, which holds that climate scientists, who are green on the outside but red on the inside, have created an international climate conspiracy in order to frighten the world into allowing the UN to seize power with a communist global government.?

On either count, Jeff Lewis, who teaches at Vancouver Island University and who did his master’s and his PhD under Weaver’s supervision, dismisses notions of conspiracy as ridiculous. “Top climate scientists are all Type A,” Lewis says. “They’re incredibly competitive. They don’t even collaborate as much as they should.” Lewis adds that the whole purpose of science is to find faults in other people’s studies. Scientists don’t get ahead by all getting together and agreeing to present corrupt data; they get famous by attacking the status quo, finding the elegant proofs that overturn old assumptions.?

David Suzuki, another activist scientist, is both admiring of Weaver’s passion and sympathetic to his predicament. ?“I’m a big fan of Andrew’s,” says the 75-year-old Suzuki. “He’s one of the few Canadian scientists right now who’s willing to put his life on the line and speak out.” ?

Suzuki says that he too has been roughed up – including by people in the academic community – for having had the impertinence to speak out on scientific issues: “I got a lot of criticism in the early days from people who said that scientists weren’t supposed to get emotionally involved.” Many of his colleagues said, in effect, that he should have been restricting himself to the lab where he could generate new findings – and let the facts speak for themselves.?

Except “the facts don’t speak for themselves,” says UBC journalism professor Candis Callison, whose doctoral research focused on the communications of climate change. Facts lie around like so much kindling, incapable of gathering themselves together in even the tiniest conflagration of meaning or understanding. And journalists struggle in an area that has become confrontational and controversial, one in which most of them have little personal expertise. They are left to rely on others to make sense of the facts. In those circumstances, Callison says, people like Weaver “make a valuable contribution to the public dialogue.”?

Among Weaver’s various identities – scientist, activist, teacher, soccer coach – there is one more that might be revealing on a couple of levels. He is a fierce collector of hockey cards. Indeed, sitting in his UVic office, answering questions about science, politics and a nascent business venture that he is working on with the activist and philanthropist Rob Dyke (The Carbon Solution, an effort to make behaviour modification both popular and profitable), Weaver breaks off suddenly and starts pounding the keys of his computer, searching for the status of a hockey card auction that’s coming to a close on eBay. Weaver’s O-Pee-Chee collection, now totalling “thousands and thousands” of cards, is staggering – too valuable to keep in his house. From Wayne Gretzky’s rookie card to full-league, 600-player, limited edition sets from the last few years, it is evidence of the obsessive care and attention that he seems to apply to everything he does.?

And as he waits and snipes with a last-minute bid, he reveals the characteristics that have helped make his professional reputation. “You see this guy,” Weaver says, in reference to one online seller. “He was obviously trying to put together this collection and he’s given up. Look how many cards he has up for sale.”?

Weaver is not giving up. He’s waiting his turn, patiently, persistently, making his calculations carefully and working methodically toward his goal. It’s likely why businesses such as BC Hydro and Rio Tinto Alcan bet their money on the accuracy of Weaver’s work. And for those who might otherwise be pessimistic about the current climate science conversation, it’s also a sign of hope.?

“There are times,” Weaver says, “when I think that we are . . .” and he trails off, mouthing an expletive that suggests a certain sloppy kind of “doomed.”?

But, standing like a stubborn 10-year-old soccer player in front of a planet worth defending, Weaver concludes, “I’m an optimist – and not a naive optimist. Society has risen to challenges before. We put people on the moon; we can deal with this. Certainly, I won’t give up without a fight.”