Archives for category: Climate Change

Image: Torontoist.com

It was while I was bailing out the back yard that I realized that this was quite a rainstorm. Like a lot of people, I was neither expecting nor prepared for the amount of rain we got and what it did to Toronto.

I see the storm as one of those events that makes us realize we are now firmly in a new weather paradigm – one that is shaped by climate change.

For years, I worked in the sustainable energy sector. Occasionally, I would meet someone who insisted that all the evidence on climate change wasn’t in and that there’s not much we can do about the weather in any case. I don’t see much point in debating the science with someone like that, but this week’s storm made me think about what happens even after we acknowledge climate change.

Acceptance is one thing, but action is another. And even if we still can’t put a price on carbon and manage to find ways to reduce our use of fossil fuels, there is still the issue of how to deal with what we face right now. If you thought the storms of the past while (Calgary, Toronto) are outliers, think again. In fact, the city’s Parks and Environment Committee already considered this question, and came up with a report that says our city’s infrastructure is not adequate for Toronto’s new weather paradigm. By the way, the chair of that committee was Councillor Norm Kelly, who suggested we not make a big deal about it, since climate change is still “contentious.” I wonder if Norm’s opinion is shifting after the rainiest day in the city’s recorded history.

We should not balk at answering the hard questions about how we now understand the impact of global warming and extreme weather and our state of preparedness. Part of this is about looking at how we build and develop our city and what mitigation measures we can integrate to protect us and our infrastructure from flooding. Another part is about ensuring the city’s entire ecosystem can absorb water, or simply have it run off concrete and asphalt and flood our basements, backyards, subways, underpasses, hydro system and major highways.

A third part is about how we understand weather forecasts, what they mean and how they impact our decision-making. Monday’s deluge was an excellent example of the entire city getting caught in the rain. Somewhere between the meteorological scientists at Environment Canada and the weather reports you get, something is lost.

I could go on about this, but I would just be getting in the way of you reading this excellent blog post by The Grid’s Ed Keenan about this exact topic.

The storm revealed a lot about how unprepared we are, as individuals and as a city. It almost makes the transit debate looks minor.

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The wind energy sector was abuzz earlier this week, with news of a new study that sheds some light into the thorny issue of how humans perceive the health impact of wind turbines.  The study suggests that people who claim to suffer health problems from living near turbines could actually be suffering from a psychogenic response, prompted by anti-wind farm campaigns – or, to put it less delicately, scaremongering – that say that noise and vibration from wind turbines cause health problems.

More specifically, the study finds that the vast majority of those who live near wind farms in Australia suffer no related health problems (frequently cited complaints like sleeplessness, headaches, and stress  are grouped into “wind turbine syndrome”) and that those who do claim adverse impacts mostly live near five specific wind farms that have been targeted by anti-wind campaigns.

Feeling sick already? (Image: London Free Press)

The study comes from Dr. Simon Chapman, a public health professor at the University of Sydney. Dr. Chapman has been questioning the “science” used by anti-wind groups, and looking at the issue from a risk communications angle. Chapman calls wind turbine syndrome a “communicated disease”.

His study, the conclusions of which imply that this is an area worthy of further work, sets out the case that communications – through such activities as media and public information campaigns – could be one of the strongest determinants of how humans perceive wind turbines and their impact on health and quality of life. Thus far, the scientific work done on the topic continues to find no link between wind turbines and adverse health impacts.

Given the opposition to wind farms in Ontario, the study should be very relevant to the debate here. For wind energy advocates, this study promises an interesting new direction in the challenge to better understand and manage the interaction between wind turbines and humans and to build a fact-based regulatory approach. It also supports the need for the wind energy industry to be more communicative and transparent about the annoyance issues associated with wind turbines.

Globe and Mail image

I am getting used to hearing a familiar refrain about the idea of a carbon tax in Canada: “It’s a tax! It’ll kill jobs!”

It’s proof of the success Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have shown in communicating and framing the issue to Canadians. Tories, though, use the description “job-killing tax on everything”.

His government is under no real political pressure to do anything more than tinkering around the edges on climate change – and why should it? A poll  done by environment Canada earlier this year suggests that there is a lot of public hostility to a carbon tax. Most of us see a carbon tax primarily through the lens of personal economic security.

The relevant question in that poll, however, seems to suggest the issue is fundamentally one of “What will it cost me?” It reads (the underline is mine):

I’d like to know how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements. Please use a 10-point scale, where 10 means you strongly agree, and 1, means you strongly disagree.  Canada needs to implement a federal carbon tax to promote energy efficiency and protect the environment, even though it means increasing the cost of things like gas and groceries for consumers.

The results indicated that 43.5 per cent of respondents were on the “strongly disagree” part of the scale, while only 19.1 per cent were on the “strongly agree” side.

I wonder what the response would have been if the key part of the question was more like this:

Canada needs to implement a federal carbon tax to help replace the energy generated by fossil fuels with cleaner energy and reduce the impact of global warming and also to help Canada to adjust to the inevitable low-carbon economy.

Ok, this is slightly exaggerated, but I hope you get the point. When you contextualise issues not as transformational, but instead as a raid on your pocketbook for some intangible benefit (“Sure, we want to protect the environment, but not if it makes gas and groceries more expensive.”) you can see why more than 43 per cent are strongly opposed.

What if those who are actively involved in debates on climate change and reducing fossil fuel emissions consider the former approach; you can tax carbon and use it to support and develop the technologies that will provide us with clean energy. But that’s just the tree-hugger take on a carbon tax; even growing numbers of companies in the oil and gas sector think it’s sensible policy.

I was reminded of this when recently reading a Jeffrey Simpson column, where he examines Australia’s carbon tax and its lack of catastrophic economic impact. In the column, Simpson suggests – and this is hardly a new idea – that a carbon tax is the most efficient market mechanism to shift behaviour and reduce emissions.

But when so many people see a carbon tax as a bottom-line pocketbook issue, it’s no wonder that it seems a long shot – no matter how appropriate it is as public policy, and no matter how many in the oil patch think it’s an idea whose time has come.  Unless, of course, those who support a carbon tax, including the oil and gas sector, start contributing more actively to the public debate and challenging the misperception of a carbon tax. Yes, it’s a complex issue, but some voices carry a lot of weight. I think they should be talking more about this, and they should be doing it loudly.