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
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
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
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.