The bookshelves in Gordon McBean’s office are overflowing. Every surface in the room is covered with books, awards and photos of his family. On the wall across from his desk, in a wide black frame, is a Nobel Peace Prize from 2007, which he received for his involvement in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change alongside Al Gore.
Gordon’s credentials run so long that his career is hard to summarize. When I ask him what he does, exactly, he takes a moment to think of his answer.
“I do things with climate change and disaster risk reduction both nationally and internationally,” he says. “I think it’s very important that scientists reach out to communities so they better understand these issues and take what are, I hope, the right actions.”
For decades, Gordon has been speaking out about the dangers of climate change. In 1988, he had a hand in setting up the IPCC, a group of scientists appointed by the United Nations. From there, he became the Assistant Deputy Minister for Environment Canada in 1994, which made him the IPCC’s Canadian delegate.
Though Gordon is no longer directly involved with the IPCC, the group continues to play a huge role in warning governments about global warming. A few weeks ago, the IPCC published a report that has sparked an international conversation about sustainability.
“The IPCC was set up to establish a formal process that had scientists driving it, not taken over by governments as some people wanted,” Gordon explains.
Growing up, Gordon never imagined that he would become a scientist, let alone a global advocate against climate change. As a first-generation student growing up on the edge of the University of British Columbia's campus, all he knew for sure was that he wanted to get a UBC degree.
“My parents encouraged us to go to university, and when I was a kid, I could bicycle out to UBC to use the swimming pool; it was that close,” he says.
Gordon ended up studying physics. During his fourth year, he was offered a scholarship to study atmospheric science and meteorology at either the University of Toronto or McGill University. Though he had never considered studying meteorology, he took a chance and accepted the offer, choosing McGill over UofT for one simple reason: he preferred the Montreal Canadiens to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In the late '60s, Gordon went back to UBC to pursue a doctoral degree in oceanography. It was during this time that he started becoming more aware of climate change related to human activity. From there, his career in atmospheric science took off.
Gordon attended international conferences everywhere from Kyoto, Japan, to Geneva, Switzerland, working with a variety of different groups and scientists from around the world. In 2006, he and two others penned a letter to Stephen Harper urging for policy changes to make Canada more sustainable. The letter, signed by 90 climate scientists, gained national recognition.
Now, when asked what he’s most proud of, Gordon doesn’t mention the Nobel Peace Prize, nor does he mention receiving the World Meteorological Organization’s top award last year. He doesn’t mention being the president of the International Council for Science, teaching at Western for 15 years before becoming an emeritus professor or receiving the UBC Alumni Award of Distinction. Instead, he swells with pride when he discusses the work he’s done to teach others, whether they be his doctoral students or the high school students he volunteers with annually at Oakridge Secondary School in London.
“I’m most proud of working with my colleagues to raise awareness of the issues of climate change and disaster risk reduction and to help increase the science knowledge that we all collectively have," he says. "I’m most proud of the things we do collectively."