Megan Leslie on turning ‘possibilities into realities’ in 2021

In last January’s Fieldnotes newsletter, we interviewed WWF-Canada president and CEO Megan Leslie about the year to come. (Let’s just say our foresight wasn’t 2020.) But we’re giving it another try, even though, once again, we’re a month in and the year has already been pretty tough.

Sunrise over icy landscape in Churchill
© WWF-US / Elisabeth Kruger

How do you handle everything that’s going on, and what makes you optimistic about 2021?

It’s unrealistic for us to think that we can stay positive all the time. There is a lot happening in the world, from the pandemic to politics to climate change and nature loss — and it can be overwhelming. I know I feel that way sometimes.

But I do stay optimistic because I know what’s possible. I know that it’s possible to fight climate change with nature. I know it’s possible to bring back the habitat that wildlife needs, and to reverse wildlife loss. I know it’s possible to work with Indigenous guidance and combine that knowledge with the best of science to protect and steward nature.

And that’s what we’re working on at WWF! So, whenever I get overwhelmed, I think about what’s possible and that inspires me to get to work turning those possibilities into realities.

What’s your takeaway of the environmental impacts of last year, what this global experience has taught us, and how we move forward on addressing the dual crises?

We’ve all heard the stories of people seeing wildlife reclaiming urban spaces — from wild turkeys going for a stroll in downtown Winnipeg to a family of foxes on the Toronto waterfront — and we know greenhouse gas emissions are down globally.

It’s like looking into a crystal ball that is showing us a potential future. But it’s a future we have to choose. It’s not going to just happen. The environmental impacts of last year — let’s call them “reverse impacts” — have taught us that we can do it, we can reverse nature loss, we can tackle climate change. And I want us all as individuals and as governments and as society to take this time to imagine that future and chart that course to make the crystal ball vision a reality.

What was your conservation highlight of last year and how will we be building on that?

Megan Leslie
© Meghan Tansey Whitton

After the findings of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission we asked ourselves: what is WWF-Canada’s role? Our current approach more fully embraces Indigenous-led conservation. In the past, conservation has ignored the power of Indigenous knowledge and experience at our peril, and there’s a lot of work to do to right this wrong — not only for reconciliation, but for the benefit of nature and the planet.

It also helped us continue conservation efforts when so much fieldwork was cancelled by pandemic restrictions. We completed a polar bear climate survey in Coral Harbour because the project was initiated and conducted by Inuit from that community.

I’m proud of what our Indigenous partners were able to accomplish — not to mention beginning a new collaboration with the Mushkegowuk Council to protect the globally significant carbon stores of the Hudson and James Bay lowlands — and look forward to continuing it!

What has you most excited about the year ahead for WWF-Canada?

The vaccine! I’m excited about a COVID-19 vaccine that can help us get past this pandemic, so we can put that energy back into fighting climate change and biodiversity loss.

I’m also excited about our carbon mapping work to find where the richest carbon stores are locked in the Canadian landscape so that we can protect them. Did you know 30 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from the destruction of nature? When we cut down forests and dig up wetlands, peatlands, and grasslands, we release that carbon into the air.

And this mapping will also show us where the potential is for carbon storage. We can restore lost nature to do the reverse: take carbon from the atmosphere and lock it back up. It will give us our marching orders: tell us where we need to focus our efforts for the biggest return on investment.

I’m also excited about how we’re finally taking biodiversity and nature loss seriously, and that it’s a discussion on the world stage. Our Prime Minister took the Leader’s Pledge for Nature and signed Canada up for the High Ambition Coalition.

This means that we’ve pledged to the world to do our part to reverse nature loss. We’ve waited for this kind of international recognition for a long time, and I’m pleased to see us taking the first steps. Now to go from taking steps to walking to running!

Any final words for our supporters?

This pandemic is hard for so many people, and I’m proud that our supporters have stuck with us, showing up for us in different ways. We had to cancel our CN Tower climb early in the pandemic, and people still raised money for us and did a virtual climb. We have almost 300,000 views of our Wildlife Wednesday livestreams on Facebook (watch archived episodes on YouTube here) and people have continued sharing our work across social media. And our donors have stuck with us, even in a global recession!

It’s more than we could have asked for, and it’s so motivating to see people redouble their efforts to support our work. We have the best supporters that anyone could ask for, truly.