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magazine / mj06

May/June 2006 issue


Climate contrarian
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

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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 nation."

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: global warming.

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.


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