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Canadian Cities' Vulnerability to Climate Change Clear After Alberta Floods

Credit: PremierofAlberta

Flooding swept over Southern Alberta, Canada from Calgary to Canmore in mid-June. Evacuation orders were issued in towns and cities as rivers like the Bow and the Elbow swelled and spilled over their banks. Historic water levels were reached in Medicine Hat, downtown Calgary was emptied and underwater, and towns like High River were completely evacuated for days as police patrolled the flood ravaged streets. 

The Alberta flooding is one of the many climate change impacts already being felt around the world, but it also foreshadows the rise in extreme events that is on the way. The frequency of weather disasters will continue to increase as long as we keep recklessly pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As the climate warms, we will see extreme events like the flooding that push the boundaries of our built infrastructure. Since it has hit so close to home this time, in Canada it should be a call to arms.

In the flooding that hit Alberta, the resiliency of Albertans has taken centre stage. The stories pouring out of the province have been full of neighbours helping neighbours. One water engineer and entrepreneur that I met in Alberta last week was nearly sleeping as he stood after a soggy, scary and sleep-deprived week. He had been setting up basement pumps across downtown Calgary, helped by roving bands of volunteers descending on homes and businesses to help clean up the mess. It’s clear that the social fabric of society is the key to our ability to respond and rebuild. However, that’s not the only factor affecting vulnerability to climate change.

The emergency has called into question the resiliency of our cities’ built infrastructure. In addition to energy infrastructure that is still too waterlogged to turn back on in downtown Calgary, the most drastic infrastructure failure was the collapse of a rail bridge in Calgary that was undermined by the flooding. When a train crossed it days after the flooding started, the crumbling bridge caused several train cars full of petroleum products to derail and hang perilously over the swollen river. The incident stressed the emergency services of a city already stretched to the edge. It is obvious that a failure to adapt to climate change will continue to result in incredibly costly impacts on Canadian cities.

Adaptation is immensely important. We have already committed ourselves to some degree of global warming and we must prepare for the climate change impacts that are already on their way. It will be particularly important to protect the most vulnerable in our societies. Canadians are the lucky ones compared to the entire globe; the country has the resources, support systems, and wealth to deal with emergencies. However, to adapt without addressing the cause of the problem would be like bailing out a boat without plugging the gaping hole in the bottom. We have to do both.

We need to stop the rapacious growth of greenhouse gas emissions in order to truly protect our cities from climate change impacts. Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are still rising and the commitment to the expansion of the tar sands promises even greater greenhouse gas emission growth.

No amount of resiliency can protect from catastrophic climate change. Our best defence is a good offence.

Laura Tozer's picture

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Discussions

Sid Abma's picture
Sid Abma on Jul 12, 2013 11:57 pm GMT

North America consumes a lot of natural gas. Alberta more than states much further south, but from all this natural gas consumed is a lot of Hot Exhaust that is being blown into the atmosphere.

Will this affect Global Warming? Why Waste Energy when there are ways to Not Waste Energy.  Increased natural gas energy efficiency = Reduced utility bills = Profit.  (Who doesn’t want profit?)  Increased natural gas energy efficiency = Reduced global warming        (Recover it & Use it)        Increased natural gas energy efficiency = Reduced CO2 emissions

The technology of Condensing Flue Gas Heat Recovery has been in use in North America for the past 30 years. Proven technology. No moving parts to wear out. Little or No Maintenence. Little or No Electrical costs. Self cleaning on the flue gas side.

This Climate Change Action can be put off for another bunch of years, or if this battle against Climate Change is feeling important, then it is time to make a decision.

We can’t decide this for you.

Steven HJohnson's picture
Steven HJohnson on Jul 13, 2013 3:14 pm GMT

It’s time to sharpen the focus on the discussion of how to halt global warming and how to halt the climate change consequences that follow.  Let’s work upstream on the cause-and-effect logic chain to understand what we’re facing.  Humanitarian and economic disasters are caused by a changing climate and its more violent behavior.  The changing climate is caused by global warming.  Global warming is caused by rising levels of atmospheric CO2.  The rising stock of CO2 is caused by CO2 emissions.  CO2 emissions are caused by the consumption of fossil fuels.  We consume fossil fuels because today’s energy technologies require us to do so.    

We cannot halt the downstream effects – violent weather and humanitarian disaster – until we have altered the upstream causes.  We have to put a cap on total CO2 in the atmosphere to prevent further global warming and further climate change, and to cap total CO2 we first must replace our entire portfolio of fossil fuel energy technologies with clean alternatives.

This sounds like an exacting goal.  But it’s achievable – Stanford’s Mark Jacobson and his colleagues have described a plausible set of scenarios for an energy future that covers all the bases without using any fossil fuels.  If climate change is not to get worse and worse, CO2 has to be capped, and that can happen only thru complete elimination of fossil fuel technologies.  Is this a 30 to 50 year agenda?  Yes.  All the more reason to develop a Success Strategy now that will take us all the way to the finish line.

What about the rest of the world?  Industrial countries have to start the process, develop clean technology alternatives, develop the mass market, and reduce unit costs.  Once the key technologies are as affordable as possible, then the poor countries will be able to buy in at prices they can handle.  Everyone has to participate, but the wealthy have to take the initiative now.

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