By: Peter Denton
It seems every day there is another story about unusual weather somewhere in the world. The longest drought in California has killed 66 million trees in the Sierra Nevada. An airplane can’t land in Phoenix because the asphalt on the runway is so hot it would explode the tires. Palm Springs hits 50 C, like parts of India. We have our own serious forest fires (remember Fort McMurray?) that seem to start before the last one is extinguished.
Acute water shortages in urban areas (such as in Karachi, Pakistan) are becoming a serious threat to political stability as well as to human health. Ethiopia is facing its worst drought (and corresponding famine) in 50 years. Elsewhere, there are heavy floods yet again in Europe, while the Caddy Lake area in Manitoba is under water for the first time anyone can remember.
Tornado season is just spinning up here, but down south, it started early (there was even a tornado in China). No doubt any serious increase in the number of hurricanes this year will just be the fault of El Niño.
Global heat records have been broken every month for more than the last year, but again, it’s just a fluke, merely what happens every once in a while.
The words we use to describe “just bad weather” are evidence of a dangerous delusion. The bad weather we are experiencing is not an accident of planetary cycles, but the consequence of a warming planet with a changing climate. It will only get more frequent, not less extreme.
This statement will, of course, bring the Internet trolls out of their caves of denial, but I would challenge everyone to consider this different point instead of hacking away at the usual arguments.
By pretending extreme weather is just accidental, we are not accepting that this kind of weather is the new normal. The odd forest fire is bad luck, against which we can do little. The occasional flood is misfortune, best managed by Emergency Measures and some insurance. Drought? Unlikely, but we will just bring in some extra drinking water from somewhere else. Overflowing storm sewers dumping sewage in the Red River? Happens rarely and that’s just the price we pay for an old, combined system.
And so we do nothing to mitigate the future effects of similar extreme weather when it happens again — which it will. How many “100-year floods” have there been lately? It won’t be 100 years until the next one. How long until the next Fort McMurray fire? Next year? What about the next sewage overflow? Next week?
Disregarding mosquito biology, scientific evidence and common sense, we keep pretending that our 1950s chemical warfare approach to mosquito control is effective, despite our clay soil, wetter weather and warming winters. No doubt it will just be unfortunate when malarial mosquitoes start to appear in Manitoba in what, perhaps a decade?
It’s just not smart. Whatever the specific causes, it is clear extreme weather everywhere is the new normal. Our language needs to reflect this. Otherwise, people will not understand the urgent need to change policies and infrastructure to mitigate the worst effects of these extreme weather conditions on individuals and communities.
How would we deal with the kind of drought faced by California? By Ethiopia? What would it mean for commercial agriculture and for the food we eat?
We did not just hope that Duff’s Ditch (now extended) would save the city from a “700-year flood” — we did the math and made sure of it. But that still leaves communities such as Brandon twitching in the wind, remembering the sandbag wall that saved the city the last time.
Are we going to find ways of increasing wetlands around our lakes to take excess water (the way they used to) and filter it slowly back into the lakes after the spring floods are over, or do we move residents into Winnipeg hotels every year and wring our hands about it, yet again, because we can’t control the flows?
Do rural and remote communities have plans for preventing or managing forest fires, or do we instead expect them to manufacture a miracle when the inevitable fire hits the edge of town? And how would we deal with an extended heat wave of 40 to 50 C? With paper fans and extra Slurpees?
Extreme weather is the new normal. Whatever you think is causing it, we need to stop pretending it’s just bad luck and deal with what is surely coming at us over the horizon, while we still have time.
Peter Denton was an author of UNEP’s GEO6 North American Regional Assessment and chairs the Policy Committee of the Green Action Centre.
This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on July 7, 2016.