No denying climate change anymore
We can’t leave it to governments alone, individuals must also make major changes
The havoc Hurricane Harvey has wrought on Houston may seem like a distant catastrophe to Montrealers, but it should be a wake-up call that the long-predicted hazards of climate change are now on our doorstep.
Here at home, the spring flooding in Quebec, including parts of the island of Montreal, the microburst that ravaged Notre-Dame-de-Grâce a week ago, the tornadoes that touched down in Lachute and the crummy summer weather that featured frequent heavy thunderstorms are far less extreme, but no less alarming.
They must be considered alongside the heat waves frying the West Coast, the smouldering forests of British Columbia, the inferno that engulfed Fort McMurray, the ill-explained deaths of endangered right whales, the near monthly shattering of world temperature records, the bleaching of coral reefs, the heating of oceans suffocated by plastics, the collapse of the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica and the mass extinction event that some scientists say is now underway.
These events are no longer foreshadowing some far-off dystopian future, this is climate change in action. The hurricanes and wildfires are our ominous welcome to a dangerously warming planet.
And we have no one to blame but ourselves for the increasingly inhospitable conditions we are now confronting.
Harvey is a harbinger of the new urgency with which we must put aside our differences and act, even as President Donald Trump pulls the U.S. out of the Paris Accord, guts the Environmental Protection Agency and unravels the kind of flood standards for federal infrastructure projects that might mitigate the impact of future hurricanes.
Cities like Montreal have promised to take the lead. And so they must, working both in unison with other levels of government and industry, as well as alone to reduce emissions and help citizens live greener lives.
First we must learn from the mistakes of Houston: lax zoning, rampant construction on flood plains, minimal infrastructure to stem the risk, vast urban sprawl, a deeply entrenched car culture.
All of this certainly contributed to the unprecedented destruction, although nothing could have fully contained the biblical rains that poured from the heavens.
We in Quebec have no lessons to give.
We learned after the terrible flooding in riverside communities this spring that our own flood maps are hopelessly out of date, useless or non-existent. The Quebec government, which is doling out aid, will not let homeowners rebuild in floodprone areas, which is certainly wise. But decision-making is inhumanely slow.
Meanwhile, Montreal is simultaneously entertaining a proposal to build 5,000 homes in the l’Anse-à-l’Orme area of Pierrefonds. This is pristine wetland, a stone’s throw from the flood zone, that acts as a sponge when rivers rise and rains fall. If the city allows it to be paved over, even in part, it will defy all common sense.
But wetlands across the region are under threat as Montreal sprawls. Despite zoning laws and a plethora of agencies like the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement, wetlands, farms, forest and fields continue to be devoured by booming carcentric exurbs that are difficult to service by public transit.
Montreal is investing heavily to update its archaic water and sewer infrastructure, a necessity. It is densifying, as it must, but it is not setting aside enough new green space to let a more tightly packed city breathe. Boroughs like the Plateau-Mont-Royal and Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie are attempting to reduce the heat island effect, one ruelle verte, one white roof at a time. But green initiatives and not big box stores need to be the norm on a city scale.
Plans to divert waste and build compost facilities are way behind schedule in Montreal. Recycling programs are not being optimized. Mature trees being lost to pests or storms are not being replanted quickly enough to expand the tree canopy. City streets are jammed with cars, our highways are perpetually clogged, ample parking continues to make driving the most convenient transportation option.
Quebec extols the virtues of its “clean” hydro power while Quebecers remain among the most gluttonous per capita consumers of energy in the world.
We can’t just leave it to government to stave off the worst effects of global warming, we also have to act ourselves. Walk, ride a bike, take transit. Retrofit your house, kick that bottled water habit, drink out of a reusable mug, eat less meat.
Anyone who continues to deny global warming is a fool. Anyone who isn’t focusing on what we can do — collectively and individually — to change course is living in denial.
This is the moment we need to realize it can’t just be business as usual anymore — that any of us could soon have to flee for our lives as rising waters deluge our homes.
As the editor of the Houston Chronicle wrote, our best hope is that the devastation of Harvey becomes a turning point in the fight against the ravages of climate change, which leaves right and left, rich and poor, urban dwellers and suburbanites, politicians and ordinary people equally vulnerable.
Residents of an apartment complex in Houston could only wait and watch on Wednesday as flood waters persist across much of the city. Hurricane Harvey roared into Texas five days ago and has dumped nearly 50 inches of rain in and around Houston since.