October 26, 2011

Making Erin more resilient in a harsher climate

As published in The Erin Advocate

An enthusiastic crowd gathered at the Legion hall last week, looking for ideas on how Erin can prepare for climate changes that are expected to alter our foliage and wear down our infrastructure in the coming decades.

The "Making Erin Greener Than Our Shamrock" event was co-sponsored by the Environmental Advisory Group of Erin (a Town committee) and the Climate Change Action Group of Erin (activists known for film nights and other awareness-raising events).

The guest of honour was farmer Don MacIver, the mayor of Amaranth Township (between Orangeville and Shelburne) and a senior climate change scientist with Environment Canada. As part of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he and other federal scientists shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

Mayor Lou Maieron welcomed MacIver, noting the seriousness of the challenge faced by our species: "If we don't adapt, we may become extinct," he said. "It's the generation coming behind us that we have to educate."

MacIver no longer speaks of stopping climate change – that battle was lost many years ago. He also leaves to others the on-going battle to mitigate the changes by reducing greenhouse gases to slow global warming – the current goal is a 17 per cent reduction below 2006 levels by 2021.

He focuses on the urgency of improving our defences against inevitably more severe weather, caused by the unforgiving mechanics of the atmosphere. Mean temperatures at Toronto (Pearson) are up about 2.7°C since the late 1800s, with minimum temperatures up about 4°C, though the pace of change varies by region. Compared to the 1961-1990 period, temperatures are expected rise another 2.6-4.0°C by 2050, with 6-15% more precipitation.

"Have you noticed there's less frost over the last few decades? You can grow more crops in the spring," he said. "You need to understand how your community has changed in terms of its warming profile, its precipitation profile, especially if you are going to grow trees. And remember the take-home message here, 1°C is significant for biological growth – 2 and 3 and 4 degrees warming, that's a complete disaster when it comes to native tree species."

While there may be less snow, the area in the lee of the Great Lakes is getting more precipitation overall. The weather variations are also more severe, with more dry spells and intense storms with flooding and high winds. Buildings, bridges, roads and dams will not last as long and will have to be built to higher standards.

"We are in tornado alley, they are expected to get more severe," he said, noting that as of 2015 the National Building Code will require more resilient construction. "It's not a question of whether you're going to get one, it's a question of when."

Disaster planning is becoming more important, including reserve funds for repairs, and a registry of vulnerable people who need to be checked on during ice storms or heat waves.

He said conservation authorities need to not only defend native species, but to engage in "planned adaptation", to support biodiversity while encouraging growth of desirable new species from the northern US that can flourish in our altered climate.

Environment Canada has two websites to help municipalities gather data on local atmospheric hazards (hazards.ca) and to develop local climate change scenarios (cccsn.ca). The federal government is planning to shut them down, however, and MacIver urges anyone concerned about this to write to Environment Minister Peter Kent (Minister@ec.gc.ca). MacIver is also concerned that many federal climate change scientists in contract positions have been notified that they could be laid off.

Making "green" changes at the local level is difficult, especially when we already have a hard time finding money to maintain or upgrade roads and infrastructure. Are we willing to pay higher taxes or accept fewer services in a harsher climate? Erin would love to have a greener reputation, as long as it could be done cheaply, or better yet, with money from other levels of government.

These are issues that we cannot leave entirely to scientists and politicians. They need to be directed. As organizer Heather Gentles said: "The purpose of tonight's meeting is to begin the process of re-imagining Erin in a more sustainable and resilient way. It's up to us, the residents of Erin, to begin planning."

Sarah Peckford, Environment Progress Officer for Caledon ("Greenest Town in Ontario") was a guest at last week's meeting, explaining their climate change planning process. Also speaking was Linda Sword, who described efforts by Eden Mills residents to make their community carbon neutral. Both of these projects will be the topics of future columns.