Could Alberta's Crisis Help Us Head Off A Global One?

Photo: Yahya Khwaja, Flickr

Early Thursday morning, my dad texted me to say he fled his home in Canmore, Alberta shortly before the town declared a state of emergency. By noon, my brother was told to evacuate his home in Calgary’s Mission District, near the Elbow River. Later, friends near the Calgary Stampede grounds were told to leave their apartment, bringing enough supplies for a week away.

As the day went on text messages, and Facebook and Twitter updates chronicled a province in chaos as more friends and family were forced from their homes. I watched their videos and updates, feeling helpless here in Vancouver as my hometown was inundated by floodwaters.

By the start of the weekend, at least 100,000 Albertans were displaced and a wide area of Calgary’s central core had been evacuated. At least three people have lost their lives near the town of High River and cities and towns across the province remain in states of emergency.

Growing up in Calgary, I remember many floods, heavy rains, hail and tornadoes. But today, these events are more frequent and intense–as climate change models have long said they would be. The world’s biggest insurance company Munich RE told us three years ago: “the only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change.” Experts are urging journalists to incorporate climate change in their coverage of floods and say any uncertainties about its impact must not delay adapting our communities to a warmer world.

In 2011, climate activist Bill McKibben wrote about severe flooding in Missouri, noting that the disaster wasn’t just about the power of nature but about the power of man. McKibben was referring to our extraordinary experiment combusting fossilized energy stored in oil, gas and coal. Combusting these fuels is overheating the planet and affecting our weather. For years, climatologists have warned that warmer air holds more water than cold air. As our planet warms, the result is more snow, winter runoff, and rain. In other words, these Alberta floods are the face of climate change.

Global warming didn’t cause these floods. We can’t attribute any single weather event to one factor like our hotter, wetter atmosphere. Instead, man-made climate change is intensifying precipitation and our land use and development practices are worsening its impact. Knowing this, it is deeply irresponsible to diminish climate change factors in urban and emergency planning–doing so puts lives and communities at risk.

The reasons may be familiar to you, but it is important for even more people to understand how climate impacts extreme weather events like these floods. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are emitted from burning fossil fuels and these gases keep more energy from the sun in our atmosphere. Adding this energy is like putting the planet on steroids. In performance-enhanced baseball, no single record-breaking home run is directly due to steroid use. But the chances of a powerful hit at bat are far higher. By radically changing the chemical composition of our atmosphere we’ve changed the likelihood and strength of extreme events like these terrible floods. If we don’t urgently reduce our greenhouse gas emissions we’ll face the consequences of our “juicing” in uninsurable homes, damaged communities, and public expenditure for disaster response.

But don’t take my word for it. Just last month the Insurance Bureau of Canada told Albertans to prepare for more floods and other disasters as a result of global-warming. In 2010, the Bureau linked the rise in flood damage claims to climate change. Their research director at the time said, “municipal infrastructure has not been designed to withstand what we are experiencing, and the fact that the climate has changed.”

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities at the time urged cities to adapt to climate change:

“For most of the country, the infrastructure is not built for the climate that we are now starting to see… Climate change is on our front steps. It’s in our communities. We see it. We have to adapt. We can’t wait for some global agreement and we can’t just try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions only.”

Just last month, John Pomeroy, the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change told the Calgary Herald:

“[Multi-day rain events] are increasing in their intensity and frequency and we’re fast learning that our roads, our bridges and even some of our towns aren’t any match for the rainfall and the overflow that results.”

Pomeroy pointed in particular to climate-driven flood risk at Cougar Creek–the very creek that forced my father and so many others from their homes in Canmore last week.

There should be no optimism about the safety and resilience of our communities. Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, warned last week that if we let the coal, oil and gas industry implement their business plans, the increase in global temperature would be as high as 5.3 degrees Celsius. Two-thirds of all proven fossil fuel reserves need to be left in the ground, he said, to avoid “devastating effects on all of us.”

It’s difficult to even imagine the dangers that a world 5.3 degrees warmer will pose.

What is to be done?

If you live in Alberta, obviously focus on the immediate safety of your family and neighbours and restoring your homes and communities. But after the waters recede and the dehumidifiers are returned, we must not forget this catastrophe.

Call your city councillors, MPs, and MLAs and insist they act urgently to repair and upgrade our infrastructure and continually develop climate change adaptation plans. Acknowledge that preparing for and responding to climate emergencies requires collective action and we need taxes to fund it. Governments are being starved of urgently needed resources to protect our communities . Canadians must immediately price carbon pollution and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, then put these funds to work protecting our communities.

And most importantly–and I understand that this will be very difficult for many Albertans to hear–we must leave two-thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground and immediately stop exploring for new oil, gas, and coal deposits. The first rule of holes is that when you’re in one, stop digging.

Alberta’s flood emergency will soon pass; the global state of emergency won’t. Climate change is the emergency we’ll be dealing with for the rest of our lives. We must all quickly wake up to the dangers of our warmer planet.

Mike Soron is a Vancouver-based climate advocate and the executive director of Sustainable SFU, a nonprofit society working to make Simon Fraser University more sustainable. He was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta. This post originally appeared on Steady City, Soron’s blog, and is republished here with his permission. Photo: Yahya Khwaja (Flickr).

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