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Aug. 15, 2020 | Saturday
Editorials and Opinions
Op-ed: Let’s encourage youth voices in climate change discussions

 

Reid MacWilliam

Special to The Lake Report

We’re in a climate crisis. Truth is, we’ve been in a climate crisis for years; unfortunately, we’re only now admitting it. It’s become the latest cause de rigueur among political candidates, many of whom spoke little about it until the past year or two.

 A year ago, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in a report that by 2030 carbon emissions must be reduced 45 per cent from 2010 levels, with further reductions beyond that to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Any greater rise would be disastrous for the world’s coral reefs and huge areas of animal habitat with resulting extinction risks. It would also put millions of people worldwide at greater health and serious economic risk due to climate-related threats. The actual severity of these impacts increases with every small, incremental increase above 1.5 degrees.

The Paris accord goal is no more than 1.5 degrees, or at least well below 2 degrees. The current emissions trajectory will likely produce 2.7 to 3.4 degrees of warming.

Since the time of this report, the public climate change conversation has greatly increased in volume. We’ve seen engagement by activists and participants in climate action demonstrations, around the world and right here in Niagara-on-the-Lake just recently, in particular with the Global Climate Strike. Maybe you’re one of them. Over 7 million people worldwide were part of this movement.

I’d like to congratulate two young activists in particular, Molly Shara and Hazel Norris, who have vowed to continue monthly “climate strikes” at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Town Hall until our council declares a climate emergency.

They have endured some criticism from adults, who should instead consider offering support and maybe advice. Yes, the climate change crisis is complex and demands systemic change that won’t happen easily or quickly. And although a declaration recognizing a climate emergency would be largely symbolic, these young activists are helping to expand the dialogue and discussion, which is beneficial.

They are in good company. 11,258 scientists from 153 countries signed a letter published Nov. 4, 2019, in the journal Bioscience, stating “... clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.”

The effects of the climate crisis are already evident. The Niagara Region should expect more extreme weather, such as flooding in the spring, heat waves and drought in summer, more numerous and more dangerous algae blooms that may affect swimming and availability of safe drinking water in places.

Climate patterns will also affect agriculture significantly. There will be more extreme storms like the “Halloween Storm” this fall that brought hurricane-force wind gusts in places and an evacuation in Port Colborne due to storm surge flooding. Even our recent cold winter weather is a product of altered atmospheric circulation patterns that are likely connected to climate change.

My personal engagement on the front lines has been most memorable in Northern California. I witnessed the extreme drought from 2012 and have “been up close and personal” with several catastrophic wildfires in 2017, 2018 and most recently the Kincade Fire. On Saturday, Oct. 26, as 5,000 firefighters massed to attempt to contain the fire perimeter, especially to protect the cities of Windsor and Healdsburg, gale force winds threatened to push the Kincade Fire all the way to the Pacific, through tinder-dry forests and vegetation.

I stayed awake on the night of Oct. 26-27, tracking emergency advisory notifications on my cellphone. Alone in the house in a densely forested area, I involuntarily fell asleep, exhausted from my emergency preparations of the previous 36 hours.

Pacific Gas & Electric had turned off power to my area the day before, so I relied solely on my cellphone for notifications. Nearly a million homes were without power that night, affecting about 2.7 million  people.

I awoke to the sound of large tree branches crashing onto the roof. It was 6:50 a.m. I checked my phone. Why had notifications stopped? “No service.” 

I later discovered that cell towers in my area had depleted their emergency power sources and gone dead. I had no communication. Thick smoke swirled around the house as I gathered some key items and got out within five minutes. Through the kitchen window, I saw only a long, low orange glow through the smoke. There was no way of telling whether this was the fire advancing, or the sunrise, or both.

I did make it out safely, although this was truly a frightening experience. And I was definitely one of the very lucky ones. Of the 185,000 evacuated, a good number lost their homes, businesses or vineyards. I have friends and acquaintances that have suffered both personal and property loss in the fires since 2015.

In the Tubbs Fire that ravaged parts of Santa Rosa in 2017, 22 people died; as the Camp Fire swept through Paradise in 2018, 86 perished and nearly 15,000 homes were reduced to ash.

If there’s a positive side to this story, it’s how California firefighters have used past shortcomings to improve their performance and were able to hold back the Kincade Fire against those fierce winds on Oct. 26-27. They and all other first responders deserve praise for their effectiveness, perseverance and courage.

But here’s the point for Niagara-on-the-Lake: California has learned from its climate-driven disasters, primarily droughts, fires and floods, and communities have adopted strategies that have enabled a much more effective response. In addition, private citizens have adopted emergency preparation and response practices that are saving lives and protecting property.

Niagara-on-the-Lake has wisely partnered with six other Niagara municipalities and Brock University’s Environmental Sustainability Research Centre to establish Niagara Adapts, which will enable adaptation planning and the development of greater resilience to climate change impacts for the Niagara region. 

While mitigation plans seem to be primarily a federal priority at this time (Ontario doesn’t appear to have a credible plan, at least to date), Niagara Adapts will develop strategies that have significant mitigation impacts. Surely there are opportunities for local youth like Hazel and Molly to be engaged somehow in a meaningful and productive manner.

NOTL resident Reid MacWilliam is a retired business professor and marketing executive who has researched environmental issues for over a decade, attending numerous events and conferences as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

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