Even in our perfect Eden we are experiencing drought, ravaging fires, disappearing salmon and a viral plague.
SO, HOW ARE WE LIKING the unwelcome drop-ins by a variant of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse?
Let’s see, here in our “perfect Eden”—as the first Europeans to lay eyes on the landscape of Garry oak and wildflower meadows described what they promptly paved over and turned into an endangered ecosystem—we’ve had recent unannounced visits from Pestilence, Drought, Fire, Flood, Heatwaves, Wind Storms, Deep Freezes and that rider on the pale horse we generally don’t like to talk about, Death, who generally canters in to clean up after the others. It’s been a busy time in Eden for Thanatos over the last 18-months what with (by mid-August) at least 1,800 dead from COVID 19 in BC—and that’s an almost certain undercount; 500 more heat deaths; wildfire deaths; flooding deaths and so on.
Forest fires and smoky air are just a couple of the apocalytic outcomes of global heating (these flames from the Chutanli Lake Fire, July 30, 2018 were fuelled by clearcut slash)
It used to be that the Horsemen show up every couple of generations, sometimes longer. Now they are as persistent as spam robocallers or ill-disguised overseas call centres demanding pre-paid gift cards if we want to avoid prison sentences for tax evasion or unpaid duties on stuff we never ordered.
War and Famine haven’t yet rung the doorbell but don’t worry, the main takeaway from the UN’s latest depressing memorandum on global warming and what we’re generally not doing about it provides ample evidence that the heavies are almost certainly waiting in the wings for their own grand entries.
Indeed, the Pentagon now classifies climate change as the source of “catastrophic and likely irreversible global security risks” for what’s generally conceded to be the most powerful military machine assembled in human history. And the Centre for Strategic and International Studies characterizes climate change as a strategic “existential threat” to global food production and distribution.
There’s big science behind these big fears of growing global instability, too. One major paper published in the journal Science back in 2013 correlated increases in interpersonal violence and intergroup conflict directly with major changes in rainfall triggered by global warming—whether in prolonged droughts or floods. Too much or too little—dramatic swings from wet to dry and back again have major impacts of food production and distribution.
In the meantime, here in Eden, we cope with tens of thousands of fire-dislocated environmental refugees, hundreds of vulnerable people dying in urban ovens, a plague disrupting everyday life, and whole economic sectors facing massive job loss because of our environmental mismanagement, of which there is a great deal. It ranges from rapacious harvesting of natural resources (“Trees pay for our hospitals!” “Fish pay for our highways!” “Coal pays for our universities!”); to heedless me-first pollution (“That’s jobs you smell, not pulp mills!” “LNG exports mean jobs, jobs, jobs!”); and the corruption of public policy by private interest groups that empower regulatory capture of the very agencies which supposedly protect us from environmental excess.
How long, then, before the Horsemen all decide not merely to visit every few years like that badly-behaving party-animal relative we all dread, and instead just move in permanently? Not long, says the data tabulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
As I write, we’re told that the present heatwave, the second scorcher in a month, has put 150 million people at risk across North America as extreme weather generates lethal temperatures that in turn spawn tornado swarms—one mid-western state got 14—and are driving huge wildfires, one of them now the largest in California history.
Here in BC we’ve had 1,231 wildfires since April 1, 253 were burning last week. So far they’ve blackened an area about twice that of Luxembourg.
It’s not just here, either. Conflagrations have swept through Greece and Turkey and are laying waste to Siberia. Entire underground subway systems were drowned during floods in China and rainstorms of mind-numbing intensity roared through Germany carrying away whole town centres in flash floods. Oh, yes, Campbell River got a flash flood, too.
Campbell River's flash flood in August 2021 (photo by Mike Maxwell)
On top of all this we learn that the Gulf Stream may be about to stop carrying warm water from the tropics to New England, Atlantic Canada and Western Europe. If that happens, Halifax is going to feel like Iqaluit in mid-winter and Trafalgar Square in London may feel more like Red Square in Moscow.
The message in last Monday’s IPCC report really does signal an apocalypse that’s coming for all of us.
IPCC's latest report warns of Code Red for Humanity
“It’s just guaranteed that it’s going to get worse. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide,” one of the report’s authors told Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press last week.
This July now goes into the books as the hottest in human history. I kind of guessed that when my thermometer hit 39 degrees on my back deck the other day. The rivers are running dry, particularly in regions where logging has denuded hillsides and the stream beds that filled with migrating gravel now look more like paved roads. Severe drought conditions grip southwestern BC from the Okanagan to Vancouver Island. And the south Okanagan has announced a Class 5 drought, which is the worst on the scale, with water rationing and serious risks from irrigation farming—that would be orchards, vineyards, mixed farms, etc.
The salmon are disappearing—the total return of steelhead to the once-abundant Chilko River system has just been tabulated, I’m told. The count was 19 steelhead—that was the complete return of the prized game fish to an area larger than 32 of the member nations of the UN. And salmon runs in general, one of the miraculous gifts of nature, are now in collapse almost everywhere from California right around the North Pacific to Japan.
Bears, eagles, orcas, seals, sea lions, sea birds are starving and dislocated as they try to adapt to the fish famine even as powerful lobby groups agitate for a restoration of trophy hunting of grizzly bears, and culls of seals and sea lions so that the vast recreational fishing industry can enjoy business as usual.
Gardeners demand culls of urban deer that have fled to the suburbs in search of safety and browse from the wastelands we’ve made of their wild range.
The extinction of trout populations is deemed a fair price for the tax revenue generated by open pit coal mining.
Wells run dry in the already arid and vastly overpopulated Gulf Islands. Entire lakes that supply water to the even more densely populated Sunshine Coast are drying up. Water rationing is now in place from California to BC. Indeed, one of the dire warnings in the IPCC report is a confirmation of what earlier models forecast. As more energy gets injected into the vast machinery of the atmosphere in the form of heat, swings in the water cycle can only become more extreme, more erratic, more frequent and more intense. The laws of physics compel. You can’t bargain, negotiate or deny them away.
The new norm that’s emerging is for once-in-a-century events to start happening every 10 years, then every five, then every year. As air heats up, it expands and that creates more space for moisture, which means higher humidity (this is why the tropics are muggy and the Arctic experiences dry cold), which makes heat waves far more unpleasant and also means that when that atmosphere cools there’s the potential to shed rain in Biblical volumes.
But the corollary to more frequent rainfall extremes in places that already get a lot of rain is extended hot spells and prolonged, more intense drought in the dry season. If this scorching, smokey summer spell of abnormally low water on the South Island seems inconvenient, consider that you may look back on this one with nostalgia as the good old days. As one web wag puts it, think of today’s scorcher as the coolest summer of the rest of your life. The new normal is going to be a lot more brutal than you imagine.
This is just the foreplay.
Forests surrounding our urban centres on Vancouver Island and which thread through our Shire-like urban sprawl from Coombs to Hornby and from the Discovery Islands to the Outer Gulf Islands are as dry as a tinderbox in the midst of what’s now the second worst drought in recorded history (it would be the worst but for one brief afternoon spray of rain that evaporated as it hit the ground).
Those of us on the city margins await a dreaded spark—one Island fire was deemed to have been started by a broken piece of glass that focused the sun’s rays—to set off some conflagration like those that have already consumed small towns like Lytton, Paradise, Monte Lake, Greenville and Fort McMurray.
Which brings me back to what we’re not doing about it. Well, hats off to the fire fighters, smoke jumpers, rap attack crews and pilots who are trying to limit the damage but a big raspberry to the woman in the white SUV who left me gaping as she cruised down a road in the Saanich Peninsula last week, puffing away on her cigarette, window down, flicking her ash and who knows what embers into the breeze.
I’ve spent enough hair-raising—perhaps that should be razing—time on fire lines to know how quickly an ember in the dry grass transmogrifies into a 50-metre high wall of flame coming toward you at racehorse speed while whole trees explode in puffs of vaporizing flame. One recent fire whose dynamics were analyzed by comparing satellite images was found to be consuming a hectare every 10 seconds.
One has to see a fire tornado to fully absorb the power of a forest fire under optimum fire conditions. And, if you actually look at the fuel load of dry grass and underbrush in our urban parks, gardens and untended ditches, patches of scrub, vacant lots and even unwatered back yards, you quickly realize that the urban fire conditions are optimum.
In a way, perhaps that heedless SUV smoker serves as a fine metaphor herself—for those of us who don’t seem to have quite grasped the magnitude of what the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change signifies for what’s coming if we continue to suck our collective thumbs and wait for somebody else to do something about it.
That light ahead is growing, the IPCC is clearly warning us, not because we are nearing the end of the climate mitigation tunnel but because the global warming freight train is barrelling toward us so fast. Because it’s a fully loaded freight train and is moving so quickly, it can’t stop. The momentum it has will run right over the spot we now occupy. Our best hope is to try steering it onto a siding where it can slow down as it runs out of fuel.
That “runs out of fuel” phrase is the important bit. As long as we’re simultaneously playing rabbit frozen in the headlight while furiously stoking the speeding locomotive’s boiler—yeah, I know, it’s a mixed metaphor but bear with me—that train is going to barrel right over us and everybody behind us, too, a whole generation of young people, their children, their children’s children and their children’s children’s children.
The IPCC report warns us to expect “very large” temperature increases across the temperate regions of North America. We are going to know more frequent and far more intense heatwaves than the one that recently cooked a billion marine creatures in BC’s intertidal zone and brought temperatures sufficient to barbecue a steak to sidewalks in the Interior. The charred ruins of Lytton and Monte Lake are just the opening act in a show that’s coming soon to a major suburb near you.
Sea level rise is accelerating and will continue to do so for centuries to come. This does not bode well for neighbourhoods at sea level. Oak Bay, Sidney, Parksville, Richmond, Mission and Chilliwack—are you paying attention? You’ll soon be out of time.
Fresh water resources are dwindling. BC has always thought of itself as having a surplus of fresh water. The illusion has been fostered by the glaciers and the winter snows in the Interior mountains. They serve as a bank, storing fresh water from the winter and releasing it into the rivers that carve though the arid Interior rain shadow during the summer. This cool water flow in summer and fall is what has sustained salmon runs. But as it dwindles, water temperatures rise and oxygen levels fall. In recent summer they have frequently approached the lethal level for fish, amplifying the effects of parasites and pathogens and in some cases exceeding the physiological boundaries that dictate fish survival—not so different from the plight of those humans who perished in this summer’s heat wave (although fish can’t purchase air conditioners or escape from the heat in the local supermarket).
There’s an economic price tag here, too. Less water from winter snow and ice means less potential energy to be stored in the hydroelectric reservoirs which supply 95 percent of BC’s electricity needs
So what to do? Well, let’s start with what not to do—throw up your hands and do nothing. The runaway climate change can’t be stopped but it can certainly be slowed and that buys time for adaptive policies that we perhaps haven’t even thought of yet. Special interests that benefit from exploiting fossil fuels keep saying we have to focus on adapting. Indeed, we do. And one way of adapting is to reduce our profligate use of fossil fuels for inefficient transportation, technologically primitive heating, convenient but expedient recreation, cheap entertainment and so on.
It’s true that in the short term we can’t simply stop using coal, oil and gas. But we can certainly use a lot less. Which means addressing those who want us to use more coal, more natural gas, more methane and so on.
How do we get there? Go big, not small. Put the same kind of effort into the transition to clean, renewable energy that will help us avoid a runaway greenhouse effect that we put into developing an atomic bomb to incinerate cities.
“Think globally, act locally” is one of the mantras of the environmental movement. It has merit, incremental improvement is good. But when the IPCC report told us it was delivering a “Code Red” for humanity, it was warning us that we’re almost out of time.
Put another way, bike lanes in Victoria are certainly good but it’s equally certain they are not good enough. In fact, they primarily are a way for politicians to appear to be doing something. Getting cars with internal combustion engines right off the streets of Downtown is better. Truly adaptive thinking is figuring out how to enable people to travel to Downtown to shop, dine and enjoy themselves without using their cars. That means a major radical rethink of our attitudes toward public transportation and how we deliver it. Cost recovery models may be the exact opposite of what we should be considering. In the big picture, the cost of cars on the road may far outweigh the cost of subsidies to public transit.
The usual clamour of denialism from vested interest groups arises whenever a report like the IPCC’s comes down but the denial seems irrelevant now, marginalized and clearly delegitimized. Of much greater concern should be the political policy makers who so often seem willing captives of the agencies they are supposed to regulate.
So one thing everyone can do is tell elected representatives that we’re done with greenwashing and talk, talk, talk about reducing carbon emissions while carbon emissions continue to climb. Scientists are warning us of an existential crisis; we need our leaders to lead. And if they can’t lead, we want them to get out of the way and make room for somebody who can. That message needs to be delivered forcefully. Deliver real, quantifiable solutions or depart.
Delivering that message to leaders is something constructive that everyone can contribute to managing the climate crisis. There’s an election coming. Get involved. Hold the folks asking for your vote accountable.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.