Reflections on living high in the sky

SarahBy: Sarah Prescott

Last year I moved into my first ever high rise. I now wake up every day in a bedroom that is 20 stories above the ground. I take an elevator every time that I leave or come home. While the view is great, this sudden increase in elevation reminded me of how dependent I am on so many systems – on having electricity available all the time to power that elevator, on having water pumped up every day to my faucets, and on having regular access to maintenance staff to fix all of the small things that wear out over time. How well would I do if there were ever a prolonged power outage or a water shortage? The systems in our lives are often invisible to us until they stop working, at which point they become very important.

This kind of thinking – about the systems in our lives and how well they would manage under stress – is needed as our society starts to grapple with the reality of climate change and how it is likely to affect the way we live. Communities around the world are already starting to see the effects of climate change, from building foundations failing in the Northwest Territories due to melting permafrost (pdf) to a higher frequency of serious hurricanes than we would normally expect to happen.

Even more significant than the changes that have already happened is what we can predict will happen over the next several decades. In a ‘status quo, high carbon’ future, we could anticipate climate change in Canada (pdf) to reach 4 degrees Celsius by 2050 and 8 degrees Celsius by 2090. This will affect the weather uniquely in different places. The Climate Atlas of Canada has prepared reports on how local weather might change in communities across Canada from 2051-2080, and a few of these results are summarized below:

 

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In Vancouver:

  • the number of days warmer than 25 degrees Celsius could increase from 16 days a year to 69 days a year
  • the number of days warmer than 30 degrees Celsius could increase from 1 day a year to 13 days a year

In Regina:

  • spring precipitation could increase by 30%
  • the number of days warmer than 30 degrees could increase from 16 days a year to 50 days a year
  • the length of the frost free season could increase from 118 days a year to 148 days a year

In Iqaluit:

  • annual precipitation could increase by 23%
  • the number of days below 0 degrees Celsius could drop from 266 days a year to 223 days a year

 

All of these changes would have many different effects on the operations of the city – some positive, some negative. More frost free days in Regina could increase the number of crops that could be grown in the area – but this could be offset by the higher potential for drought due to the increase in very hot days. Hotter summer temperatures could lead to generally better temperatures for local tourism, but there would also be a higher risk of heat waves, such as the one in Quebec in 2018. More spring precipitation could lead to more spring flooding, although it could also be an opportunity to capture more water for use later in the summer. Fewer days below freezing could reduce the demand for shelter beds in winter for homeless individuals, but it could also make it more difficult to maintain outdoor community ice rinks.

Many communities around the world are beginning to adapt to these changes, with the goal of helping their communities to become more climate resilient. Becoming climate resilient can mean a lot of different things: it can be as mundane, yet critical, as upgrading a stormwater drainage system so that a community will be less likely to flood during an extreme rain. It can look like the provision of back-up power sources in critical facilities (like hospitals or fire stations) so that operations can continue if a storm knocks out a powerline. Or, it can look like the consideration of climate change impacts in community planning, land use planning, and in economic development decision making. Climate resilience is about ensuring our local communities are ready for the new challenges that a changing climate will bring.

But what about flying and driving less?

It’s important to make the distinction between climate resilience and climate mitigation. Resilience is about planning for the changes that we can anticipate happening. Climate mitigation is about reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses that are emitted into our atmosphere, and therefore reducing the effects of climate change. Mitigation actions you might have heard about include generating electricity from renewable sources like wind or solar, driving and flying less, and turning down your thermostat. Government actions like instituting a tax on carbon and restricting the amount of methane that can be vented at industrial facilities are also climate mitigation.

You can see the interaction between mitigation and resilience in the diagram below:

 

So what does resilience actually look like?

As I mentioned above, every community will experience climate change in different ways. So, the first action a community should take in their journey towards resilience is using the best available scientific models to predict a likely range of local weather outcomes over the next several decades. Then, a risk-based approach can be used to identify the implications of those weather outcomes and what the most critical areas for adaptation might be.

For example, New York City has identified that it has a high risk of future flooding. Their analysis anticipated that “by the 2050s, 37 percent of properties in Lower Manhattan will be at risk from storm surge. By 2100, with over 6 feet of projected sea level rise, almost 50 percent of properties will be at risk from surge, and 20 percent of Lower Manhattan streets will be exposed to daily tidal inundation”. The city released a plan in early 2019 to spend more than $500 million to reinforce coastal areas and to extend the Manhattan shoreline. By taking these actions, the city hopes to protect the city and its citizens from sea level rise and storm surge. While expensive, the $500 million they plan to spend is still a fraction of the estimated $19 billion that Hurricane Sandy cost New York.

The country of the Netherlands is also susceptible to flooding, a risk which is expected to only increase in the future due to rising sea levels. One way the country is addressing this is by making more room for water in rivers through their ‘Room for the River’ Programme. This is expected to both slow down the speed of water in high flow situations as well to reduce the nearby risk for flooding. As well, to prepare for more heavy rainfalls, the country plans to spend 600 million Euros in activities such as removing pavement from urban areas, planting more greenery, and creating additional water collection facilities.

In the fall of 2018, the city of Edmonton, Alberta released a comprehensive climate resilience adaptation strategy and action plan. Edmonton anticipates that, among other changes, the number of extreme weather events is likely to increase over the next 30-60 years.  This includes an increase in freezing rain and rain-on-snow events, high winds, lightning, and wildfire. As a result, the city now plans to integrate climate change considerations into emergency management planning. Priority backup power locations will be identified and evaluated. This will increase the likelihood that the city will have emergency management personnel with appropriate resources, training, and overall ability to respond to future extreme weather events.

These examples just begin to show the many ways that climate resilience planning is happening across the world. It will become even more important in the coming decades as we start to more acutely feel the effects of climate change.

Back in my apartment, I’ve taken some small steps of my own to prepare for any temporary loss of the services that make my life run smoothly. There are several days worth of food and water in the pantry at all times, as well as candles to read by and a barbeque to cook with. I’ve also started taking the stairs more often instead of the elevator, mostly to know that I can do it if I need to. It turns out that it only takes 5 minutes to climb the whole building (with a lot of panting), which I could probably cut down if I tried. Still, I know that I can only do so much if there were a true emergency, and that the ability of the city’s infrastructure to bounce back from a disaster would be critical to my quality of life. Resilience to climate change is a multi-faceted project, and it will take all of us working together to get there.

The All One Sky Foundation has helped a range of small and large communities to plan for and to increase their climate resilience. If you have any questions about our work, you can contact our Executive Director at wendy@allonesky.ca

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