Reflections on the Toronto Conference – 25 Years Later

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the Toronto Conference that launched the issue of climate change onto the global policy agenda. Sponsored by the government of Canada, the conference, “Our Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security,” brought together hundreds of scientists and policymakers from across the globe to Toronto with the goal of initiating international action on climate change. Starting on June 30, 1988, international scientists and policy makers met in Toronto to discuss emerging concerns about global atmospheric issues including acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion and global warming. While the previous decade had seen discussions of both global cooling and warming, the Toronto Conference was the “perfect storm” of events to launch the issue of global warming onto the international policy agenda.

i. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) research scientist Dr. James Hansen told a US Congressional committee on June 24, 1988 that he was 99 percent certain that a warming trend being witnessed was not a natural variation but was caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide and other artificial gases in the atmosphere. This received international media attention including the influential newspaper, the New York Times.

ii. The conference came one year following the successful negotiation of the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty to reduce and eventually eliminate pollutants causing depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer. Canada played a major role in this negotiation which has been heralded as the poster child for successful international environmental diplomacy.

iii. The appearance at the Toronto Conference of then Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney ensured that other international leaders would be in attendance and would bring their international media along with them.

iv. The international media remarked on the high level of scientific consensus at the Toronto Conference on the issue of global warming. The media was not accustomed to this amount of consensus on an environmental science issue.

v. The Conference occurred during a record setting heat wave for Toronto with daily temperatures at levels never recorded before in over 150 years of observation.

These events combined to generate an enormous momentum towards global discussion and global action on climate change. The 1988 conference, hosted by Canada, put climate change on the global agenda and proposed a specific initial target for a global reduction in the emission of carbon dioxide – 20% below 1988 levels by 2005 – on the way to a much larger ultimate reduction, to be set following further research and debate. The Conference concluded by issuing a stark warning to the world:

“Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war.”

Tomorrow, we’ll find out where we are today – 25 years later.

Questions? Contact Adam Fenech at or (902) 620-5220