How many more wake-up calls do we need?

  • National Newswatch

By Kirsty Duncan, M.P. | July 09, 2013Climate change is no longer about distant lands and future generations, but rather it is personal, about families we know, cities we live in, the schools we attend, and the pets we love. Eight-month old “Momo” the cat captured international attention swimming to safety during the devastating Calgary flood, and became “a symbol of hope” to thousands at home and abroad. We all remember the great European heat wave of 2003, which killed 70,000 people, and Hurricane Katrina which slammed into Florida and the Gulf Coast two years later in late August, 2005—when citizens and scientists alike asked what would it take for politicians to finally understand and act on climate change?At its worst, Katrina triggered a storm surge of 24-28 ft, spawned 43 tornadoes, put 1.2 million people under an evacuation order, and became the third-deadliest and costliest disaster, at $81 billion, in US history.But rather than these cold hard statistics, we remember the broken levees, bodies lying in the streets, families stranded on rooftops, and mothers holding their children above the water, begging for help.Data collected by Munich Re, one of the world's largest reinsurance companies, show that the number of disasters is rising; each year 700 to 1,000 events are added to the database. While the data show a small increase in geologic events since 1980, because of better reporting, the increase in the number of climate disasters is far greater.For example, 2011 proved to be the year of weather extremes in the United States. Fourteen extreme weather events caused losses of US$1 billion each. The worst tornado outbreak in history hit the southern states, with April recording a staggering 753 tornadoes, to beat the previous monthly record of 542 by a startling 39 percent.Previously, scientists cautiously explained that increases in extreme weather events were consistent with what would be expected with climate change. Their thinking has changed. Scientists now explain that specific weather events would not have happened in the particular manner without climate change.According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, “It is no secret that the frequency and severity of natural disasters is on the rise in Canada and worldwide. Hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires and severe rainstorms are happening more often than ever before and costing us dearly.”Despite the scientific and corporate evidence, some politicians continue to deny any link between climate change and extreme weather claiming the Earth has always had extreme weather.Canadians should therefore be asking whether the Harper Conservatives actually believe that climate change is real, and whether they will actually face the problem and act. The Prime Minister's opposition toward action on climate change is well known; before he ever took office, he once described the Kyoto Protocol as a “ socialist plot”. And his Minister of Natural Resources recently cast doubt on the science of climate change, and the significance of a 2 degree Celsius average warming.Despite the government's skepticism and stonewalling on climate change, we should all be concerned that our future weather will become more extreme, leading to the potential for loss of human life, damage to business and communities, and considerable economic losses. We are not adequately prepared.In the future, for example, the hottest day in 20 years for the 1960-1991 period will occur about every three years by 2050. The frequency with which Canada experiences heavy “rainfall of a given intensity (known as the return period)”, is projected to increase from once every 50 years to about once every 35 years by 2050.Canadians need to know what the federal government is doing to be prepared for our changing future, and to build a disaster-resilient nation. And why did former Public Safety Minister Vic Toews refuse to answer my written order paper question on disaster preparedness, response, recovery and resilience last fall? “Prevention pays” and investment in disaster risk reduction (DRR) protects lives and livelihoods, public assets, and private property.Are governments at all levels providing sufficient funding to renew basic infrastructure, such as municipal sewer and surface water infrastructure? Are Canadians being encouraged to take simple actions that can make a big difference to protecting their property, such as installing sewer back-up valves to guard against flooding, or using rain barrels to ease the burden of surface water runoff.What is the federal government doing to work with Canada's insurance industry, and ensure Canadians have sufficient insurance, as disasters have broad, persistent effects. The Geneva Association's June, 2013 report explains that, “When business is interrupted, skilled workers may leave, market share may be lost, relationships with suppliers and partners may be severed and reputation may be eroded. Once business is lost, it may never come back.”Canadians must all remember that throughout our history, disasters have tested the very fabric of our country. We will, no doubt, be tested again.When will politicians finally understand that climate change is real, that the risk of extreme weather is increasing, and that far more must be done? None of us can afford more crop failures, flooded basements, water shortages, or any other wake-up call.How many more wake-up calls do the Harper Conservatives need before they promote DRR in our homes, businesses, and communities to build a Canada that is more resilient than ever before?Dr. Kirsty Duncan, M.P., is a Liberal member of parliament (Etobicoke North, elected 2008 and 2011) and critic for the Environment. She has a Ph.D. in geography (University of Edinburgh, 1992) and has taught meteorology, climatology, and climate change at the University of Windsor, corporate social responsibility and medical geography at the University of Toronto and global environmental processes at Royal Roads University. She served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization that won the 2007 Nobel Prize with Al Gore and is the author of Hunting the 1918 Flu: One Scientist's Search for a Killer Virus (University of Toronto Press, 2003), and Environment and Health: Protecting our Common Future (2008).