Waterworld in Lotusland

Feeling wet? Get used to it.

The storms battering the B.C. coast this fall are a small taste of what our climate-altered future has in store for us. And although scientists have been steadily churning out increasingly troubling predictions about our changing climate, it seems that our development-minded politicians have had little time to read them.

This is leaving parts of the Lower Mainland woefully unprepared for the one-two punch of increasingly violent storms and rising sea levels.

A case in point: the city of Richmond and the tiny South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu both have an average elevation of only one perilous metre above sea level. Scientists are predicting eventual worldwide sea-level increases of more than seven metres. The government of Tuvalu is so alarmed by this that they have negotiated an arrangement with New Zealand to evacuate their entire population as their country disappears under the waves.

You certainly don’t hear about any plans to evacuate Richmond. In fact, nowhere in Richmond’s official community plan does the phrase "sea level" make an appearance.

The only reference to climate change is a commitment to “continue to monitor environmental trends and adjust city policies and programs as required”. This document was last amended in 1999.

However, there are signs that this elephant in the room is attracting some notice. A recent city-staff report to Richmond city council cited the need to amend Richmond’s flood-protection management strategy, which dates back to 1989.

The report appears to be the first effort to include climate change in city planning and assumes that sea levels will rise 35 centimetres by the next century. However, the authors also note that Canadian government researchers estimate that there is now a “high confidence” that the world’s oceans will rise by almost double that amount by 2100.

The challenge facing low-lying municipalities such as Richmond illustrates the implications of our changing climate and how many impacts will be felt very close to home.

In the past few years, climate scientists have drastically increased the predicted sea-level rises caused by climate change. Rising waters are due to both the thermal expansion of the world’s oceans as they warm and the release of massive amounts of water from melting ice sheets.

A recent NASA analysis of data from its GRACE satellite shows that Greenland’s ancient and massive frozen storehouse of water is pouring into the ocean faster than anyone anticipated, leading to predictions of an eventual long-term sea-level rise of almost seven metres from melting Greenland ice alone. Although it is highly unlikely that sea levels would rise that much in the near future, the long-term trend is very bad news for low-lying areas throughout the world, including Richmond.

So why haven’t these startling findings found their way into Richmond’s urban planning? One possible explanation is the blistering pace of growth in the city. Housing starts in the city increased by a record 40 percent between 2004 and 2005. The total value of building construction for permits issued in 2005 hit an unprecedented $499 million.

Richmond now has a population of more than 180,000, with a growth rate of four percent over the past two years. With that kind of increase, who wants to hear about a coming deluge?

If anyone is wondering, climate experts are clear on the local implications of rising sea levels. In a phone interview from Ottawa, James Bruce, a former Environment Canada scientist and expert on climate change, described Richmond as “a disaster waiting to happen…within 50 years, [rising sea levels in Richmond are] going to be a very significant problem.

“Our best estimates are that sea levels have been rising by about three centimetres in the last decade, and it seems to have accelerated in the last decade. That suggests that sea level might go up by somewhere between 20 and 40 centimetres by 2050.”

According to Bruce, even that projection may be overly optimistic. “Some people think that is a very conservative estimate and that the recent evidence of more rapid melting of the ice in Greenland, for example, suggests that we might well exceed those figures…”

It is important to remember that Richmond is not in the open ocean like Tuvalu and is not currently threatened by tropical cyclones. Low-lying areas such as Richmond are not one day simply under water due to rising oceans—the initial threat comes first from storm surges like the one that overtopped levees in New Orleans with tragic results. That makes increased storm activity and rising sea levels a deadly pairing, and something we should be keenly aware of here in B.C.

Last fall, about 200 waterfront homes in South Delta were damaged when a vicious storm breached the berm in front of the structures, causing more than $2 million in damage. The recent storms drenching the coast and flooding the Fraser Valley are a further sign of things to come.

A recent study out of the University of Washington shows that winter storms in the Pacific Northwest are predicted to dump 15 percent more precipitation on the B.C. coast by the end of the century.

“The atmosphere becomes more energetic because of climate change. It’s not just the temperature increase, but the increased temperature drives a more vigorous circulation,” Eric Salathé, a scientist with the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Oceans (which published the study last month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters), stated in a release.

That is bad news for B.C., Salathé noted ominously: “Alaska will really get it—Alaska and the British Columbia coast.”

Bruce agreed. “Winter storm activity has been increasing in the northern hemisphere for the last 30 to 40 years. That means that you could get quite significant storm surges on top of that rising sea. The evidence is very strong that wave heights have risen significantly in the Pacific and the Atlantic as the climate was warmed in the last 40 years.”

Given all that, Bruce feels, “You have a scenario that could easily give you problems in Richmond fairly frequently by 2050.”

Is there anything from an engineering point of view that will solve this problem in the long term? “No,” said Hadi Dowlatabadi, a Vancouver-based Canada Research Chair in global change at UBC and an expert on the impacts of climate change. “Not really. Not forever—unless we stop climate change in its tracks.” He believes that in the long term, overreliance on engineering solutions such as sea walls can make the daunting situation like the one facing Richmond even worse.

“The problem is that the more we rely on sea walls, the more we will be under the illusion that we are safe. The safer we feel, the more we will invest in capital behind a wall that eventually will collapse just like in New Orleans…The [U.S.] Army Corps of Engineers, by building the levees, set New Orleans up for exactly the disaster that happened. It’s sad, but it’s predictable.”

Dowlatabadi said that the most effective strategy in the short term is to ensure protection from big storms, something that is already partly there in the form of Vancouver Island. “I can imagine highly valued areas and highly influential property owners requesting construction of ever more prominent sea walls…But these will get overwhelmed by sea-level rise and storms eventually.”

The Dutch are world experts at reclaiming land from the sea by building dikes and then farming below sea level. But in recent years, they are rethinking this expensive practice. “The Netherlands is actually allowing many of their sea walls to collapse because they are finding their continued maintenance costing too much compared to the income these generate,” Dowlatabadi said. “Even though Amsterdam [Schiphol] Airport is six metres below sea level, the Dutch are careful not to develop towns in areas of high risk.”

He also pointed out that we currently lack insurance mechanisms that reflect the true costs of increasing flood and storm damage due to climate change. Earlier this year, this led a number of insurance companies in the U.S. to cease offering insurance in areas that are prone to such risks because of large storms and hurricanes, from the Florida Keys to New York state’s Long Island.

“Our research shows that development strategy on the coast has a huge effect on the eventual cost of sea-level rise to the community. If you have a community that allows repeated repair of shoreline properties after each damaging event, the total repairs will grow to be much larger in value than the cost of abandoning the land earlier on,” Dowlatabadi said. “It is like having a clunker that you keep repairing instead of buying a newer, more reliable car.”

He noted that rising sea levels also raise an important issue related to social justice. “The poor are in the same pool of risk as the rich who are living on the waterfront, and the premiums the poorer households pay reflect repairs to the damages of the rich…It’s ridiculous. We need bands of insurance risk that are much more specific than the [projected] 50-year and 100-year floodplains. In Florida, super-expensive shorefront homes are no longer included in the insurance pool underwritten by private companies. We need to signal the magnitude of risk to residents of each area through higher insurance premiums and perhaps higher taxes where the city has undertaken risk-reduction measures such as sea walls. However, this is where reliance on simple market forces may not be enough, and urban planners should step in—and with growth plans that reflect long-term risks of earthquakes and floods.”

This point is particularly poignant in Richmond, where homeowners are not even able to buy flood insurance. The recent report to Richmond city council calls for flood covenants and indemnity clauses for all discretionary development. This indicates that although development is not yet being discouraged, the city—like insurance companies—does not want to be held responsible if things get wet.

According to the staff report, Richmond currently has a perimeter dike system “designed to withstand a 1-in-200-year flood event [that] has been constructed around Lulu Island, protecting most of Richmond from all but extraordinary flooding”. This dike system is designed to be two feet higher than the highest water level ever recorded—in 1894.

The problem is that sea levels have already risen by 20 centimetres since then. Making matters worse, the entire Fraser River delta is sinking at a rate of one millimetre per year due to the accumulated weight of fresh sediments being dropped by the river. Given the situation facing areas such as Richmond, one would think it would be wise to direct population growth to areas less at risk from rising oceans. Is this happening?

“No, the opposite is happening,” said Tom Lancaster, Vancouver manager of advisory services for Smart Growth B.C. “We are seeing Richmond emerge as one of the new regional growth centres, which it wasn’t designated as in the [GVRD’s] Livable Region Strategic Plan [LRSP].”

The LRSP is supposed to direct where population growth takes place in the Lower Mainland, but proposed revisions have proven so contentious it hasn’t been updated since being written in 1996. One of the things the plan has not done is stop the expansion of Richmond as a growth centre.

According to Lancaster, “From the regional-planning perspective, the tail seems to be wagging the dog. The growth taking place in Richmond will probably force the GVRD to write Richmond into the next iteration of the LRSP as a regional growth centre.”

Richmond was never supposed to be a growth centre because of the enormous risk posed by areas with soils that will liquefy in the inevitable event of a large earthquake. Rising sea levels are just the latest reason to avoid densification there.

Lancaster also added that the $2-billion Canada line will not help. “A lot of that growth is being facilitated by the emergence of a new rapid-transit line connecting Vancouver with Richmond. In the context of risk-mitigation from rising sea levels, it’s one of the silliest things we could do.”

Why is regional planning not taking into account such an important issue? Lancaster offered these thoughts: “Planning in B.C. is limited by politics. Politicians don’t tend to want to work together for long-term goals. If they can be seen to be bringing in money to their municipality by doing development in places where development hasn’t happened before, they are dumping money into the coffers of their municipalities. Property developers don’t tend to look at long-term risks because once you develop a property and sell it, typically you walk away…From the paradigm of the development industry, there’s absolutely no point in looking at rising sea levels and the effect on properties that are being developed right now.”

Politicians have so far had the luxury of treating the enormous implications of climate change as mere hypotheticals that some future government would have to deal with. Much precious time has been wasted. Our changing climate is coming home to roost—whether we are ready or not. This will require fundamental changes in how we live and how we plan communities, not just in places like Tuvalu and Bangladesh but here in B.C.

The sooner we get on with that important work, the better.

Because it is going to get wet.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This was published in the Georgia Straight on November 23, 2006.


Bad Climate Theatre

Is it just me or are international climate conferences looking more and more like lousy theatre? Predictable plots, rigid scripting, boring outcomes - its all there. The latest outing in Nairobi was no exception - here's my review of this stinker:

The award for worst acting in a minor role must surely go to Canada's own Rona Ambrose. With so many political posers from around the world, the competition for this ignoble honour was certainly stiff. However, the pained attempts to deliver her lines with sincerity were excruciating for everyone, especially the audience. How about this for awful dialogue: “We are on track to meet all of our obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, but not the targets.”

Good absurdist comedy - or surrealism perhaps - but clearly not what the crowd was looking for. “What kind of misleading nonsense is this?" howled Steven Guilbeault, the climate critic from Greenpeace. "Completely idiotic” panned Liberal MP John Godfrey.

Admittedly, it was the rigid and wooden direction by Stephen Harper that was the real showstopper. Without any flexibility for improvisation, both the audience and the players may as well have gone home early.

Secretary General Kofi Annan who opened the event was the latest in a Greek chorus of world leaders to name climate change a leading threat to the future of humanity. This made the milquetoast commitment as the curtain came down - largely to hold more meetings - even more disappointing.

Then there was the backdrop that made this predictable set piece such an exploration in rich irony. The unfolding tragedy of global warming is very real and the victims with the best seats in the house will be impoverished Africans.

However, the world’s wealthy nations seemed to do little more than fill the luxury hotels of Nairobi for two weeks accomplishing almost nothing on a global emergency created largely by the western lifestyle that will disproportionately devastate the world’s poorest continent.

Fourteen countries in Africa already endure devastating water shortages. This number is expected to increase to twenty-five by 2030. Recent research shows that global warming will reduce overall rainfall in southern Africa 10% by 2050.

Small-scale farming produces most of the food in Africa. It also provides employment for 70% of the working people. Global climate change will dangerously undermine the ability of Africans to feed and support themselves by making these droughts far more likely. The last major drought in southern Africa in 2002 left over 14 million people in need of direct food aid.

It is also no small irony that human induced climate change is as much of an imposition on the developing world as the economic policies of the World Bank and the IMF.

The average American produces sixty five times as much carbon dioxide per capita as someone who lives in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, between 1980 and 2001, Africa was one of very few areas of the world to experience a decline in per capita carbon dioxide emissions – not because of conservation efforts but due to increasing poverty.

The world’s climate scientists are telling us that our choices in the next five years will determine nothing less than the fate of the planet – melodramatic I know, but the truth nonetheless. The script for a climate-altered Africa reads as a far greater tragedy than the present.

One would think that with that much at stake we would be treated to little more drama when the world’s leaders gather to supposedly hammer out a solution. The problem is that all the meetings to date have seemed hollow rehearsals for the day when we actually chose to take this issue seriously rather than just go through the motions. If the actors don’t care then why should the audience?

I don’t have high hopes that when the curtain rises on the next climate conference in 2008 the show will be any more compelling. There is no doubt however that these wooden productions will one day be replaced with genuine desire for action - forced on us through the imperatives of an increasingly violent and unpredictable climate. The question is: how much precious time will be wasted in the interim?

I dearly wish international climate conferences were just lousy theatre - then we would only be out of pocket about two hours and $20. As it is, the real cost of such failed and boring productions is quite a bit more.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.


Our Fishless Future

Tuna, Salmon, Cod. Imagine trying to explain to your grandchildren what they tasted like. This grim scenario was laid out last week in a groundbreaking study published in the world’s most prestigious research journal, Science.

Dr. Boris Worm from Dalhousie University led the investigation, which predicts a near complete collapse of ocean ecosystems by 2048. While the scale of this catastrophe seems right out of science fiction, the implications are very real.

Scientists looked at records around the world and throughout history to get a picture of where the world’s fish stocks have been and where they are going. The projected line of steady decline hits bottom at 2048, the year Dr. Worm predicts the world’s oceans will largely be populated only by toxic algae.

This apocalyptic future is the twin prodigy of ever more efficient fishing technology, coupled with incompetent and shortsighted government policy. Far from leading the world in solving this problem, Canada is one of the worst offenders and our story is a telling study on how the world ended up in this mess.

For years, Ottawa has consistently opposed restrictions on the use of dragger technology, a widely used fishing method that is so wasteful and destructive that our fishless descendants may well marvel at our collective stupidity.

Dragger boats do exactly that, dragging a net weighing several thousand pounds across the ocean floor, with predictable and devastating impacts on sensitive bottom habitat. The net can be large enough to swallow a 747, and anything swept up by this maw is long dead by the time it is hauled up on deck.

“By-catch” is the quaint euphemism used by both industry and government to describe the enormous volumes of unwanted marine life dumped overboard, which can make up over 90% of the catch. It is akin to picking apples by first cutting down the tree.

Ottawa recently joined our traditional fishing foes, Spain and Iceland, to block a proposed international moratorium on draggers on the high seas. Canadian fishermen do almost no dragging in international waters, so why would our government collude with countries we have in the past called “fish pirates” in blocking the protection of international fish stocks? Even George Bush supports this UN sponsored effort.

Documents obtained through access to information reveal that Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is apparently worried that such a prohibition might undermine their ability to allow the continued scouring of the ocean floor within Canadian waters.

This latest incident illustrates a culture of incompetence within DFO that almost defies comprehension. Having presided over the obliteration of our once-legendary cod stocks, this moribund department then allowed west coast salmon stocks to be fished close to extinction.

The response to this self-created problem was to create yet another, when it became department policy to aggressively promote net-pen aquaculture, now implicated in the massive infection of wild fish with parasites from these so-called “salmon farms”.

The case study of a wealthy, developed country such as Canada destroying our own fisheries resources through shortsighted motives and sheer stupidity has been repeated around the world. Fishing in international waters, where virtually no laws apply or are enforced, poses an even more daunting challenge.

The challenge now facing the world is essentially one of morality. This is the first time in history that we have the ability to catch virtually every fish in the ocean. Because we can, does that mean we will? It seems that morality has become essential not only for our own survival, but for the survival of most other life now sharing the planet with its new childish gods.

While time is short to save the world’s oceans, there is much we can do - if that is our choice.

Marine protected areas that are off-limits to commercial fishing have been shown to be highly effective at restoring ecosystems and repopulating adjacent areas.

Selective commercial fishing methods that do not destroy bottom habitat are not only less wasteful, but produce higher quality fish and provide more employment than dragger boats.

Certain forms of aquaculture such as catfish, trout and shellfish are not dependent on fishmeal as food, and can buy us some time to restore global ocean ecosystems.

Lastly, we need bold and principled leadership, starting at home. Incredibly, some of the same DFO bureaucrats that presided over the collapse of the cod are not only still in positions of power, they have since been promoted. This department is long overdue for a complete overhaul and many of these individuals should quite simply be fired – if not frogmarched to the curb. There is no time to waste being polite.

The scientists at Dalhousie deserve our gratitude for so clearly and convincingly showing where past and present practices are leading us. Let us hope we have the courage to change that path before it is too late.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.