HALIFAX -- A way must be found to bridge the tense political divide in Canada over climate change, or some citizens and political leaders will just keep avoiding the topic, panellists said Monday during a public forum in Halifax.

Megan Leslie, the chief executive of the World Wildlife Fund-Canada, said there are "extreme outliers" among political parties on the issue, and efforts must be made to shift people from denial to discussion.

"It is on us as civil society ... to work with people who have those beliefs and bring them into the conversation," the leader of the conservation group said during the MacEachen Institute of Public Policy and Governance event

During her presentation, Leslie focused on her organization's call to preserve wild areas and habitats to reduce the rapid decline in species abundance. That would also keep these areas -- whether wetlands, coastal estuaries or grasslands -- as landscapes where carbon continues to be absorbed.

"A third of our global emissions comes from the destruction of nature .... As a wildlife area we want to protect those areas where we know carbon is locked in the soil," she said.

Leslie said when Canadians learn that protecting wilderness also reduces carbon in the atmosphere, it opens fresh horizons for discussion on the climate change topic.

She also said in an interview there's been too much divisive rhetoric thrown around during the current federal campaign.

"I think the conversation is very polarized now because it helps politicians get certain votes, so they can yell and scream at one end or the other end of the spectrum, and we pay attention and we follow based on where we're at," Leslie said.

In an interview after the presentation, she cited Alberta Premier Jason Kenney as an example.

Kenney recently said he didn't attend September's day of global action on climate change because "much of it" was "coming from the radical left" -- a view that organizers have described as untrue.

However, Leslie said if people make climate adaptation efforts at a local level, then political leaders will follow.

She cites work WWF-Canada is doing in the St. John River watershed to preserve natural wetlands, stabilize river banks and forests to help communities adapt to flooding.

"Now that we're getting to be successful, politicians of all kinds are lining up to support that .... If we as civil society start figuring it out, I think political leaders will follow us," she said.

Panellist Kate Sherren, a professor at the school for resource and environmental studies at Dalhousie University, said in her research coastal residents in Nova Scotia struggle to accept the need to adapt to a future of rising sea levels and more intense storms.

However, when coastal dwellers were asked to imagine the changes as helping future generations enjoy the coast, "it helps citizens remember the way their communities worked together in difficult times," she said.

Dr. Robert Strang, the chief medical officer of Nova Scotia, said one of his approaches is to mention the impact of climate change on health, whether he's discussing the spread of infections or the need to act to prevent damage from intensive storms hitting the coast.

There has been growing evidence that climate change is already having major impacts on Atlantic Canada.

The Canada's Changing Climate Report released earlier this year projects that the region will experience extreme sea-level change in the coming years. This will result in more frequent high water-level events, causing damage to coastal infrastructure and ecosystem, the report said.

Last year, floods in New Brunswick affected 12,000 properties and caused $80 million in damages, according to government estimates.

In a telephone interview from Alberta, Martha Hall Findlay, president of the Canada West Foundation, said she agrees with Leslie that the climate change debate has become too polarized and the current election campaign has worsened the situation -- casting Albertans in a negative light.

"None of this is going to change tomorrow. Imagine if we stop driving cars, stop driving buses," she said.

"The key is how do we actually figure out how we get to where we want to go in a time frame that works and also one that doesn't hurt a lot of people in the process."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2019.