||May/June 2006 issue||
ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENTIST OF THE YEAR
Lab radical David Keith is challenging the entrenched wisdom
of the oil patch and the blinkered idealism of the environment movement. Meet
Canadian Geographic’s first Environmental Scientist of the Year.
Story by Brian Bergman
When he was 23, climate scientist David Keith worked as an assistant to a wildlife biologist,
spending four months doing field research on Devon Island in Nunavut. That’s when his
passion for the Arctic really took hold.
"We lived in this small plywood hut overlooking some open water," says
Keith. "Using hydrophones, we tried to identify walruses by their calls,
and we branded them so we could later identify and observe them through binoculars.
We saw a lot of polar bears too. We stayed in one spot, watching the season change
before our eyes. It was a very magical time."
Keith, now 42, has witnessed other magical Arctic moments over the years, canoeing
on the Yellowknife River, hiking on Holman Island and skiing on the rugged sea
ice from Iglulik to Arctic Bay.
"I love the High Arctic, and I really do think it matters," he says. "The North is part of the Canadian imagination. People have the sense that they live in a wilderness
Keith’s relationship to his "wilderness nation" goes far beyond the rhetorical.
An internationally recognized authority on energy policy and climate change, he is bringing
his considerable brainpower to bear on this era’s most pressing environmental challenge:
Officially, Keith’s current assignment is to build a topnotch research unit on energy
and environment systems at the University of Calgary. But his true gift lies in challenging
others to think in unconventional ways about planetary issues — carbon-dioxide capture,
wind energy, geo-engineering — while encouraging industry, government and environmental
advocacy groups to work together toward practical solutions. And he is motivated, at least
in part, because his beloved Arctic is at the eye of the climate-change storm.
“One of the most fundamental reasons for working on the climate problem is to protect
some remaining natural wilderness in the world,” says Keith. “As a species, we’ve
intensively managed a third of the planet’s land surface. There’s just not much
nature left. But there are places, like the Arctic and Central Australia, we haven’t
yetmessed withmuch.These are important, not just biologically but spiritually.”
But then, immediately following this homage to pristine nature, Keith shifts to consider
the contrarian view.
“Economically, it’s not even clear that global warming is all negative,” he
says. “There are energy executives already thinking about how they could drill for
oil in an ice-free Arctic summer. The same logic applies to the rest of Canada. People like
to go where it’s warm, and you are a fool if you think there aren’t benefits
to a place like Canada getting gradually warmer. It’s just not true that the climate
we have is automatically the best one — and you have to be straight about this.”
Keith’s mental gears are turning in a way that defines the man. He enjoys functioning
on several intellectual tracks at once, seeing many sides of an issue with equal clarity
and insight. But this doesn’t make him indecisive. He states his opinions clearly,
and if anything, his frankness sometimes takes people aback.