Extreme Weather – Are We Next?

by Theresa Peluso

Photo courtesy Environment Canada website
Photo courtesy Environment Canada website

Nearly every day we read of extreme weather events somewhere in the world – just in the first week in July of this year tornadoes hit Alabama and Mississippi, severe storms lashed the Maritime coast, a typhoon wreaked havoc in Japan, and flooding in Manitoba caused severe damage. And that’s just in one week. These news reports generally don’t include ongoing droughts and heatwaves in other parts of the world, which are getting worse with each passing year.

Not that long ago, extreme weather events were uncommon. There were the hurricanes in late summer travelling up the eastern coast of the U.S., typhoon season in southeast Asia between August and October, the flooding of the Red River in Manitoba in the late spring, and tornadoes in southeastern Ontario in the late summer. The news media would report on droughts and floods now and again, but not to the extent that we hear and read these days. In Canada alone, the number of tornado outbreaks increased from about 6 between 2001 and 2005, to about 12 in 2006 and 2007, then to about double that from 2008 to 2013 (Wikipedia, List of 21st-century Canadian tornadoes and tornado outbreaks). I’m sure Pakenham and Blakeney residents remember the mini-tornado that flattened fields and knocked down a swath of trees last July, although it isn’t listed in this reference – it probably was too small (in comparison) to report.

For the last 30 years or so, scientists have told us that global temperatures are rising and are to blame. Their many in-depth studies and analyses prove that this temperature rise is caused by greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels and from large-scale deforestation. And all this time, politicians and company executives have been denying this. Even at this stage, when we have banks concerned about the huge insurance payouts for weather-caused damage and the U.S. President confirming what 47 percent of Americans now believe to be true, our own Prime Minister and his ministers are dragging their feet. Yes, we need to build roads, buildings, power lines, etc., etc., to take into account the ever-increasing terrible weather that lies ahead, but how about changing the way we live to prevent global warming from getting even worse?

According to Andy Radia, in his column Political Points (Yahoo! News Canada 12 April 2013):

  •  58 per cent of Canadians, 47 per cent of Americans and 45 per cent of Brits believe that “global warming is a fact and is mostly caused by emissions from vehicles and industrial facilities.”
  •  Only 13 per cent of Canadians believe climate change has yet to be proven; 20 per cent of the Americans surveyed and 19 per cent of the British surveyed are of that mind.
  • 60 per cent of Canadians, 49 per cent of the Americans and 44 of the British surveyed support protecting the environment “even at the risk of hampering economic growth.

So what’s stopping us?

Back in 1997 the United Nations succeeded in having 191 states and the European Union sign the Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force on February 16, 2005. Developed countries were held to binding targets, whereas developing countries, including China, India, all of Asia (except Russia), Central and South America, and Africa, were not. In 2011 Canada withdrew from honouring the commitments it had made at that time. It is the only country in the world to have renounced the agreement. So much for Canada, with its high per capita greenhouse gas emissions, doing its part to combat global warming. (For details, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyoto_Protocol#Details_of_the_agreement.)

At the WTO (World Trade Organization) talks where representatives from 140-odd countries congregate to negotiate trade agreements, the subject of dealing with climate change has come up time after time. And time after time, nothing is ever agreed upon. The main sticking point seems to be that it’s unfair for developed countries such as Canada, the U.S. and Australia, to be handicapped by such restrictions, when emerging economies like China, India, Brazil, and Russia, are exempt. In the meantime global temperatures get warmer and warmer, and droughts, heat waves, flooding and high-intensity tornadoes and typhoons increase year by year.

My guess is that many vested interests have too much at stake to make it easy for us to change our current economic and political systems. If we all decided to drastically reduce consumption – for example, make do with one car instead of two, buy fewer clothes, furnishings and appliances, and cut down our plane travel (to name a few examples), many multinational companies would see a downturn in their profits. Also, there would be massive layoffs of employees — store personnel, automotive workers, pilots, flight attendants, travel agents, etc. So what are our options? Do we continue our high-energy consumption lifestyles and deal with increasingly severe weather catastrophes, or do we drastically change our consumption habits, and struggle with the resulting economic adjustments, in the hope that we and our children will have a more stable climate?

According to Canada’s Emissions Trends, Environment Canada, October 2013 (http://www.ec.gc.ca/ges-ghg/985F05FB-4744-4269-8C1A-D443F8A86814/1001-Canada%27s%20Emissions%20Trends%2020), the federal government is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to 612 megatonnes (Mt) by the year 2020. After reaching a high in 2005 of 750 Mt, Canada attained 700 Mt last year. The bulk of these emissions come from transportation and the oil and gas industry. While the federal government has implemented a few initiatives, such as banning the construction of coal-fired electricity units, and regulating emissions in passenger vehicles and light trucks, most of the changes have happened at the provincial level. Alberta’s emissions have increased by 63 percent (!!!) between 2005 and 2011, mainly as a result of the oilsands development. Ontario’s emissions have decreased by 29 percent during that time, mainly owing to the closure of its electricity-producing coal plants, implementation of a feed-in-tariff to encourage renewable sources of electricity, and efforts by provincial industries to decrease greenhouse gas emissions (resulting in a 21 percent decrease since 1990). But problems lie ahead.

In the article, Soaring Transportation Emissions Preventing Ontario from Meeting Climate Targets: Environment Watchdog, by Derek Leahy in DeSmog Canada (http://desmog.ca/2014/07/09/soaring-transportation-emissions-preventing-ontario-meeting-climate-targets-environment-watchdog):

(Gord) Miller, who is Ontario’s independent environmental watchdog, did not mince words in his report (July 9, 2014) on the province’s slow progress in reducing its overall carbon footprint. He says Ontario will not meet its 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets “because [Ontario] has taken very little additional action to implement the Climate Change Action Plan it released seven years ago.”

“We need to limit the increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius. But that can only be done if we leave two-thirds of the existing oil and natural gas reserves in the ground. People need to understand that brutal fact,” Miller warns.

Ontario’s 2007 Action Plan on Climate Change requires the province to cut its output of greenhouse gas emissions by six per cent by this year and 15 per cent by 2020 (from 1990 levels). Ontario will achieve its 2014 reductions goal largely because of the province-wide coal phase out, but is off track in meeting its 2020 target:

“GHG emissions will exceed the target by 28 Mt (megatonnes) in 2020. This is a significant amount; it is almost twice the total emissions from the electricity sector in 2012,” according to Miller’s report.

 The article goes on to quote from the report:

 “Partially offsetting these reductions, however, has been the 24 per cent increase in emissions from the transportation sector since 1990. The transportation sector remains the largest contributor to the overall provincial inventory,” the report states.

 “The 2007 Action Plan said the government would reduce transportation emissions by 19 megatonnes (Mt) by 2020. That goal, unfortunately, has now been cut by almost 80 per cent. I have been given no reason why, and no explanation about what the Ontario government plans to do instead,” Miller writes.

 Transportation currently accounts for 34 per cent of Ontario’s carbon footprint. The provincial government revised its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in 2012 for the transportation sector from 19 megatonnes to barely four megatonnes. The report insists “it is incumbent” upon the provincial government to explain why the targets for the transportation sector have been so “severely downgraded.”

 One explanation for this poor result is the fact that many Ontario residents switched from cars to sport utility vehicles (SUVs), pickup trucks and minivans following the relatively low price of oil in Ontario during the last several years. Miller makes the following recommendations: “British Columbia has brought in a carbon tax, Quebec has implemented a cap-and trade system for carbon credits. Meanwhile, Ontario appears to have lost the ambition it once had and won’t even look at directives to ensure more compact urban development or a serious commitment to using electricity for transportation.”

As I continue to read of the horrible weather-related tragedies happening elsewhere in the world, I keep hoping that many, many more people will join those who are already making huge efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. We also need to apply pressure to our government representatives to do the right thing. Time is running out quickly! As for these extreme weather events – it could very well be my turn – or yours – next.