As an economist I don’t make predictions about climate change. I do try to understand what climate change means for the economy, though, because I need to know where the climate is going to make predictions about the Northern economy.
Of our two major industries, mining is not likely to be affected much by climate change. Forestry is a different matter. The band of forests across the middle of Ontario produces most of the province’s dimensional lumber, pulp and paper, plywood and oriented strand board. It put the bread and butter on the table for most Northern communities.
The Ontario Forest Research Institute has been studying the effect of climate change on the Northern forests. The results are pretty scary. Summer temperatures in our major forest production areas will be four to five degrees higher. Winter temperatures will be five to six degrees higher. In the western half of northwestern Ontario, precipitation will drop by almost 10 per cent. These changes will result in considerably drier soils and slower growth. The length of the fire season will increase by up to 25 days.
By 2070, the 'climate envelope' for the Boreal forest will have moved far to the North. The trees won’t move, of course – they will sit where they are as insects and diseases increase. With no or little increase in precipitation, evaporation will increase, resulting in increased frequency of uncontainable forest fires and more large burns. Essentially the trees will die and rot or burn – they will literally vanish into thin air.
Growth conditions will improve in the Far North of the province, but trees migrate very slowly. Based on historic migration rates, the butternut populations need 450 years to expand their range by 90 km. In 50 years the climate envelope for our Boreal forest will be more than 900 migration years to the north.
All this is based on a relatively moderate change forecast. Many – maybe most – analysts expect more extreme warming because there is virtually no chance of slowing carbon emissions in the next 10 years.
The moderate forecast used by the Ontario Forest Research Institute has a dramatic economic implication: cut more trees now! Use it or lose it. We should start to salvage the existing wood before we lose it.
Forestry Economics 101 provides another reason why we should accelerate the Northern harvest in the face of climate change. Each year a tree adds a certain amount of wood. If the value of the new wood is greater than the interest you would get if you sold the log and banked the money, you let the tree grow. Otherwise, you cut it down. With high temperatures and drier conditions, trees will grow more slowly. The value of the new wood is lower so you harvest sooner.
Rapid harvest will provide jobs for Northerners. It will also open the way for 'assisted migration.' Assisted migration is the new term for helping populations move from places that won’t support them to places that will. In forestry, assisted migration means planting species that will be adapted to the new conditions instead of waiting for the birds to do the job for us. It's also an opportunity to make sure that the new forest includes lots of high-value species and gives us a forest that is ready to harvest again sooner. Assisted migration would mean more jobs for Northern communities.
Foresters are wary of assisted migration. We don’t understand the ecology of forests nearly well enough to do a really good job. Of course, we don’t have a lot of time to be too fussy. The alternative seems to be letting big chunks of forest die and burn, then waiting a century or two for natural replacement. It is better to start experimenting and just accept the fact that we will make some mistakes. If the Ontario Forest Research Institute is right, nothing we can do will be worse that what we have already done.
The 'wait and see' approach will lead to a steady decline in the population of Northern Ontario. The 'salvage and assist' approach could actually increase the region’s population and expand the economy. And it changes the relationship between the people of Northern Ontario and the forest - Northerners will finally take responsibility for the forests they depend on.