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Islanders with an eye on future generations push P.E.I. candidates for climate change action

Regardless of which party forms P.E.I.’s next provincial government after April 3, climate change watchers and land-use reform advocates say policy makers need to act now to protect the Island’s forests, waterways and shorelines.

Prince Edward Island’s topography, geology and position in the Gulf of St. Lawrence make it especially vulnerable to a changing climate that includes rising tides, warming sea levels, and more frequent and extreme weather events like ice storms, hurricanes and heat waves.

Climate change threatens the Island’s unique ecosystem, as well as its primary industries — tourism, agriculture and fisheries.

Hannah Gehrels is an ecologist and co-ordinator of P.E.I.’s Wild Child program, which educates kids about nature. And that work increasingly involves talking to children about climate change.

“Anyone who has kids in their life was grappling with this in the fall when [post-tropical storm] Fiona came and we saw such destruction in our forests and natural environments here on the Island,” Gehrels said. 

“When I think about climate change, I do think about the future generations and what responsibility we have.… Children need to trust the adults in their lives to think about these issues.” 

Three kids in snow gear play in outdoor hammocks in the snow
The Wild Child program educates kids about nature, and that work increasingly means talking about climate change and extreme weather like post-tropical storm Fiona. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

Gehrels said it’s an issue everyone needs to get on board with — especially policy makers.

“We really need to think about and live in hope … hope that is built off of actions and not just words,” they said. 

“As the grown-ups in this situation, that is our role, that is our responsibility and that is what we need to do. That is what we’re asking our leaders and lawmakers to do as well.”

They’d like to see legislation on the Island to protect species at risk, and the implementation of an environmental bill of rights. 

Here’s what the parties are pledging

While all four major political parties address climate change, land use and environmental protection in their platforms, the issue hasn’t generated the same volume of promises as issues like health care and the rising cost of living on P.E.I. 

Here are some of the party promises.

The Green Party platform promises to bring in Island-wide land-use planning with a strong focus on making communities more sustainable by reducing emissions, protecting shorelines and forests, and moving development away from areas prone to erosion or flooding. The platform also commits to making land purchases more transparent and ensuring the Lands Protection Act is properly enforced. As well, it promises a moratorium on shoreline development until new shoreline protection legislation is in place.

The NDP is pledging to triple P.E.I.’s energy efficiency targets and implement a fiscally neutral carbon tax. The NDP says it will establish a Green Jobs Task Force and launch an energy retrofit program, targeting three per cent of the Island’s buildings each year with a goal of cutting emissions and creating new jobs. The plan will also include a step code for buildings to reach net zero by 2032. 

The Progressive Conservatives say they would work with UPEI’s School of Climate Change and Adaptation to create a 25-year coastal management plan and increase setback requirements around shorelines and other sensitive areas. The party has also committed to creating a land-use plan for development and protection, increasing nursery tree production by 30 per cent, and continuing to invest in Fiona clean-up efforts. The PCs have also committed to expanding access to the province’s electric vehicle charging network, especially in rural areas.

The Liberal Party has promised to expand the buffer zone program and double payments to farmers who take environmentally sensitive land out of production, as well as implementing a farm renewable-energy program. The party would also commit to establishing a permanent and independent land-use commission, with Indigenous and geographic representation, that reports to the legislature. The party also promises to encourage the development of community-owned wind farms with the goal of achieving wind generation for 50 per cent of Islanders’ electricity needs. 

Protecting coastlines and waterways

Charlotte Large, program manager with the P.E.I. Watershed Alliance, spends a lot of time walking the Island’s coastlines — an area she said faces the brunt of climate change damage head-on.

“It’s an issue that can’t be ignored, as it affects every part of our lives in many ways,” she said. 

Watershed groups like hers are increasingly concerned about rising sea levels and the impact of more frequent and severe storms like Fiona. 

A short haired woman stands outdoors with a waterway in the background
P.E.I. Watershed Alliance program manager Charlotte Large says climate change can’t be ignored. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

“I think all watershed groups across the Island — especially on the North Shore, where we have such intense wave action — it has such a high impact on the coastlines not only up to, say, people’s properties, but also with our salt marshes and estuaries and the mouths of a lot of our large waterways.” 

Watershed groups are watching as salt water encroaches on other inland ecosystems and changes those environments, she said.

“People are just very aware that our coastlines are moving in,” she said. “How are we going to adapt, not only our built infrastructure, but also how we’re managing things?”

Call for land-use plans

One way to ensure that happens, Large said, is through land-use plans.

“P.E.I. is a very developed province. We’re very unique in Canada in this way, being very small and having the greatest population density in Canada,” she said. 

“So how we use our land and how it’s developed for a number of different industries really affects our waterways and our environment.” 

Drone view of a huge rock breakwater being built around a new home on a red-sand shoreline.
A large rock breakwater being built on the shore of a property at Point Deroche on Prince Edward Island’s North Shore galvanized proponents of stricter land-use planning in 2022. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Land-use planning was also a focus during the leaders’ debate hosted by the Environmental Coalition of P.E.I. last week. A number of people in the crowd pointed to a new development along the shoreline in Point Deroche, asking how that work was permitted to go ahead and why community members’ calls for a stop-work order went unanswered. 

The province said In the P.E.I. Legislature last fall that the project followed all provincial development and buffer zone rules. Earlier this year, the province implemented a shoreline protection order to limit coastline development until a formal policy can be drawn up. 

Large said watershed groups want to see more regulation around what types of developments are allowed — and where — in order to help prevent shoreline erosion and contamination of waterways. 

An overhead shot showing destruction on a red sand beach
Post-tropical storm Fiona left huge swaths of the P.E.I. National Park coastline forever changed. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

She said effective land-use planning will also help protect future homes, businesses and infrastructure by making sure they’re built in the right places and in ways that adapt to our changing climate.

“Not only to protect, but to enhance our ability to adapt to a future that’s coming,” she said.

Reforestation and biodiversity 

That coming future is also threatening the Island’s forests, a reality that post-tropical storm Fiona left in sharper focus. But P.E.I. forests were in decline long before Fiona. 

The province issues a report on the health of Island forests every decade. P.E.I.’s 2020 State of the Forest report won’t be released until later this year, but the province said a preliminary analysis showed the amount of forested land in the province had fallen 20 per cent since 1990, with most of that decline occurring between 2010 and 2020.

The idea that we’re going to grow forests as we grow corn or potatoes never made sense here.— Gary Schneider, Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project

That kind of decline is something Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project founder Gary Schneider has spent the last three decades trying to prevent. He’s also a member of the newly established Forestry Commission, formed earlier this year with an aim to provide forestry policy recommendations to the province.

“I think all the planting should be done through a lens of climate change and look at, you know, are we planting things that are going to do well over the next 30, 40 to 100 years?” he said. 

A man with glasses stands outdoors looking at the camera
Gary Schneider with Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project says the province needs to learn from the past, and increase the biodiversity on the Island. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

He said the province needs to learn from what hasn’t worked in the past to effectively look to the future.

“We really need to look at bringing back forests — not plantations, not sort of tree farms — but actual forests that have some actual health to them. That means diverse forests, a mix of hardwood and softwood trees, lots of shrubs, lots of other wildlife,” he said.

Shallow-rooted trees were the hardest hit during Fiona, he said, including stands of white spruce and entire plantations of red pine. He said the province needs to focus on increasing biodiversity and incorporating as many of the 26 native species of trees on P.E.I. as possible.

Giant tree root system torn out of red dirt ground.
The loss of so many shallow-rooted trees during post-tropical storm Fiona will change the look of Island forests for decades to come. (Kirk Pennell/CBC )

Boosting diversity in plants and animals in forested areas means those forests will be more resilient in the face of climate change.

“The idea that we’re going to grow forests as we grow corn or potatoes never made sense here,” Schneider said. 

“This isn’t a six-month crop. It’s something that provides incredible habitat for a bunch of different things and can produce value and store carbon and can clean air.”

Fears for future generations 

No matter who forms the next provincial government, advocates say climate action needs to happen fast.

Mi’kmaw elder Methilda Knockwood-Snache lives in Lennox Island and has watched the effects of climate change transform her community. She’s also an elder with the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority.

She says post-tropical storms Dorian and Fiona did more than knock down trees across P.E.I. The powerful weather systems also caused significant damage to the sand dunes surrounding Lennox Island, in places like Hog Island to the north.

A woman stands outdoors looking at the camera
Mi’kmaw Elder Methilda Knockwood-Snache says she and other elders have been warning about the dangers of climate change for years. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

“Those are the kind of things that protect our little island. What’s happening is our little island is shrinking. Even P.E.I. itself is shrinking every year,” Knockwood-Snache said.

Many Lennox Island residents live along the shoreline, where the community also has much of its infrastructure.

“It makes me feel afraid for the future generation for sure,” she said. “Even in my past I’ve never seen such devastation. I’m afraid for the children that are coming.

We have to start acting and doing things. That’s what I have to say about climate change: Do it now, don’t wait until tomorrow.— Methilda Knockwood-Snache

“We have to start acting and doing things. That’s what I have to say about climate change: Do it now, don’t wait until tomorrow.”

She said elders in the community have been warning about the dangers of climate change for years, and it’s time for everyone to come together to find a path forward — a path that includes input from the Indigenous community, fishers, and others who are impacted by climate change every day.

“I think they should stop fighting and start working together.”

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