Weather and climate: failure to connect the dots
There have been a lot of media stories about freak weather lately, all tacked on with comparators like “worst in 18 years” or several decades or ever. The latest from London is a snowstorm that shut down the city. Here in Vancouver we had a few weeks of heavy snowfall bookending the Christmas period that brought our rainy city to its knees. Around the world things have been much worse than a snow day: a drought persists in Australia with heat wave temperatures in major cities; a wind storm in Spain caused a great deal of damage and some deaths; the driest year since 1971 in Argentina; and on it goes.
I like to gawk at the extreme weather porn of floods, twisted roofs and snowed-in cities, as much as anyone. But missing from the deluge of coverage is any recognition of global warming or climate change. This story in the Globe chronicles a lost day in London, with economic losses estimated at almost $2 billion, along with some of the other extreme weather events I mention above. True, one cannot blame a given snowstorm on global warming. But it is the pattern that is important, in particular locations and across the world, and that pattern is totally consistent with what scientists predict from a changing climate.
All of this with a temperature rise of 0.8 degrees C above pre0-industrial levels. Even if we stopped pumping out CO2 and other greenhouse gases tomorrow, the planet is locked in for that much of an increase again over the coming decades. At least.
Even if you dismiss the costs of extreme weather today as not due to global warming, they make a good case for action in that more of this and worse is likely to come in the future. But we have to start by recognizing the problem and the hit to our economies, and then reflect that in meaningful government actions. With last week’s federal budget taking a pass on climate change action, it leads me to scratch my head. In BC we have seen the devastation of the forestry base due to the mountain pine beetle, definitely abetted by climate change since it is not cold enough in the winter to cut back the next season’s litter. Two years ago, we narrowly missed about $6 billion of flooding damage in the Fraser Valley. Salmon runs have been decimated all along the coast. This is not something several decades away.
BC has made some small but important steps on climate action, but recently relegated its Climate Action Secretariat to the minors, and seems to have lost interest in finishing the plan that would get us to a 33% reduction in emissions by 2020. So our governments are really planning on dealing with the symptoms as they come on a case-by-case basis rather than seeking the fundamental changes required to address the core problem of our addiction to fossil fuels. Even worse, we appear to be actively thwarting the international negotiations to address climate change. Perhaps Obama really means it and will carry us kicking and screaming along a greener path. Until then, the costs are adding up.
It’s a pity. Green infrastructure perfectly dovetails with the stimulus question “what would we spend billions of dollars on in a single shot to the arm, where we could halt the spending after 6-18 months?” Windmills, building upgrades, subsidies for fuel-efficient vehicles, transit spending, eco-density (TM), a transition to organic agriculture… the list could go on and the government can play an active role.
If only we had a list somewhere of shovel-ready green projects, with a corresponding cost estimate (for one-time and ongoing expenses) plus the odd RFP or piece of draft legislation. I predict the sudden creation of another small environmental non-profit with dubious party loyalties.