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COMMENTARY: Creating the perpetually perfect storm

What happened in British Columbia and in the Canadian west during the summer of 2021 and what is happening now should be regarded as a 9/11 alarm that wakes us all up to the climate emergency we knew was coming.

What happened in British Columbia and in the Canadian west during the summer of 2021 and what is happening now should be regarded as a 9-1-1 alarm that wakes us all up to the climate emergency we knew was coming.

We have known for a long time this day would eventually arrive if we continued to ignore the warnings and the evidence of the risks we were taking by not acting on the climate threat. While this warning was immediate and impossible to ignore, the forces that led up to the alarm have been brewing for decades and are well documented.

Over the past two centuries, humanity has been slowly but inexorably altering the composition of and energizing the global atmosphere. We have also warmed the oceans, which has accelerated evaporation from their surfaces.

With each one Celsius of warming, the atmosphere can absorb and transport seven per cent more water vapour. Water in the atmosphere is also a greenhouse gas, the warming effects of which are added to those of carbon dioxide and the 29 other greenhouse gases we as a society emit.

These effects, in tandem, are reflected in more powerful atmospheric rivers and more frequent bomb cyclones capable of extraordinary rainfall. It is typically coastal regions that are hit first and hardest by the effects of atmospheric rivers and cyclones but now, because of the warming climate, atmospheric rivers are increasing in intensity to such an extent they are penetrating more deeply and powerfully inland.

Just as we are not ready for prolonged heat domes and summer temperatures of 50 C, we, and our built infrastructure, are not ready for this.

Because we did not, and still do not, heed the warnings of scientists, we have created a perfect storm of vulnerabilities. Our populations are highly concentrated, and in becoming so have hard-surfaced previously existing natural systems that used to absorb heavy rains.

We continue against all logic to build and rebuild in known floodplains. We build neighbourhoods right into the forest interface. Where we don’t log, we allow the build-up of flammable fuels. Where we do log, we clear-cut and expose thin mountain soils to erosion. No longer controlled by former extremes of winter cold, forest pests are destroying vast tracks of forests, adding to the wildfire risk.

Prolonged heat waves and extraordinary temperatures make wildfires, hotter, bigger, faster and far more frequent. Hotter fires make soils hydrophobic, which means the soil has been baked to the extent that water may not be able to penetrate it for months or even years.

When extreme rains follow, such soils cannot absorb excess water and are washed away creating massive landslides that, in tandem with flooding, destroy roads, bridges and other vital infrastructure while at the same time killing and displacing people, contaminating water courses, destroying crops and drowning livestock. Everything material thing and living being designed for a climate that no longer exists that cannot move or be moved out of harm’s way is damaged or swept away.

These storm events would not have been nearly so damaging had provincial governments not over time downloaded responsibility for flood warning and emergency response to inadequately funded municipalities. Without adequate warning, communities are on their own.

Many in B.C. found out about the worsening flooding conditions not from the provincial government or from the municipality in which they lived, but from Facebook. The absence of adequate warning forced unprepared communities to over-rely on inadequate emergency measures and overwhelmed and over-stressed emergency services.

What we saw in B.C. was both predictable and preventable.

If we here in Alberta should learn anything from the climate 9-1-1 that has unfolded, there is that we live in an often haphazardly constructed world only partially adapted to the relatively stable climate regime that existed in our time. That time is now over.

We have created the potential for a permanently and perpetually perfect storm in terms of the impacts of climate change here in Alberta, all across Canada and everywhere. We now exist in a climate regime humanity has never experienced before and to which anything less than a well-organized, aggressive and globally coherent response will be fatal to millions.

We waited too long, and now the hour is late. We squandered hope when we had it, and now hope is abandoning us. If we want to bring hope back, and we want to end this perfect storm – and this climate emergency – we have to wake up and act as though our lives and our futures depend upon immediate action. Because they do.   

Bob Sandford holds the Global Water Futures Chair in Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. He lives in Canmore.