Climate Roundup: Should Ontarians have a right to air conditioning?

By Tyler Hamilton - Published on Aug 17, 2016
A child runs through a fountain on one of Toronto's increasing number of summer days above 30 C. (NISARG MEDIA/Canadian Press)

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Every Wednesday, climate journalist Tyler Hamilton gathers up the latest Ontario climate news and cutting-edge research on how climate change is shaping the world.

Hydro One, like many other utilities, has a policy of not cutting off power in the winter if bills go unpaid. Enbridge Gas and Union Gas have similar policies with respect to natural gas service. Some cities have bylaws that specifically forbid disconnection of service during the winter.

It’s the only humane thing to do: We don’t want people to freeze.

But as average temperatures climb in Ontario and across Canada (oh, did I mention July has been declared the hottest month ever recorded, and possibly in human history?), many are wondering why similar protections don’t exist during the height of summer to ensure people can stay cool. In other words, should air conditioning or access to cool spaces be a right, particularly in cities where some citizens struggle with an urban heat island effect? “I think a lot of people, especially seniors who don't have a lot of support, feel very vulnerable,” Jane Meadus, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, told CBC News.

Toronto officials estimate the city will have an annual average of 66 days above 30 C by 2040, compared to an average of about 20 days between 2000 and 2009. The number of heat waves per year is also expected to quadruple during this time. 

Canadian scientist Katherine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, recently discussed how extreme heat affects human health in a Huffington Post commentary. “People — particularly the very young and very old — don’t cope well in these conditions,” she wrote, citing recent deadly heat waves in Europe and Southeast Asia. The heat also causes other problems, such as worsening air pollution, spread of disease and destructive storms. It’s something Ontario policymakers will need to keep in mind as average temperatures climb and heat waves become more frequent.

At the same time, more air conditioning creates its own problems…

The flip side of this is that rising use of air conditioning, while making it easier to cope with climate change, will make it harder to mitigate climate change. That’s because many of the air conditioners used around the world still rely on hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas that we’re only now beginning to seriously tackle. And, of course, the more we use air conditioners, the more electricity we consume. If that additional electricity is dirty — that is, it comes from fossil fuels — then we’re heading in the wrong direction. Ajay Mathur, the head of India’s bureau of energy efficiency, has said air conditioners have to become two to three times more efficient if the world has any chance of meeting greenhouse gas targets set under the Paris climate agreement.

Wildlife, plants also feeling the heat

Humans aren’t the only ones feeling the heat this summer. Trees and plants are also suffering from the hot and dry conditions in Ontario, and the impact is being felt through the food chain, experts say. Todd Norris, a biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, told the Belleville Intelligencer that trees are withering, leaves are falling much sooner than usual, and berry growth is expected to be low this year, meaning less food and more stress on the animals that rely on these food sources. Some animals, he added, will seek nutrition from less common sources, such as tree roots and bark, or will invade food crops. “There may be some human-wildlife conflicts,” he told the newspaper. Dr. John Hancock, a veterinarian and farmer in Prince Edward County, said farm animals are also struggling because grass in the pasture isn’t growing. Meanwhile, the price of a bale of hay has more than doubled, he said. The extreme heat “really has ramifications all through the ecosystem,” John Smol, a biology professor at Queen’s University, told the newspaper.

First big cruise ship begins navigation of Northwest Passage

For better or for worse, Tuesday was a big day in the history of Canada’s Arctic. That’s when the Crystal Serenity, a 1,700-passenger cruise ship, started its 1,500-km journey through the famed Northwest Passage. Until recently, such a voyage couldn’t be done, at least not safely. When temperatures were colder in the Arctic, sea ice made navigating the passage a treacherous ordeal. Warmer-than-average temperatures and diminishing sea ice have opened up the passage, and along with it the possibility of commercial shipping and tourism. Other ships have gone through it before, but none the size of Crystal Serenity, which is massive at 250 metres long. The ship disembarked Tuesday from Seward, Alaska, and is expected to arrive 32 days later in New York City. It will make a stop in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut’s “gateway” to the Northwest Passage, on Aug. 29. Another Nunavut stopover will take place at Pond Inlet on Sept. 5.

Rod Downie, a spokesperson for environmental group WWF-U.K., called the voyage risky. “The unique wildlife is already stressed by a warming climate and the loss of sea ice, and the arrival of mega-cruise ships in this part of the world could push it further towards the edge,” said Downie, acknowledging the irony that climate change is what’s making the trip possible. He also said that tourism is likely to play a greater role in a warming north, so urged the industry to minimize its impact. “If tourism is not sustainable, we risk ruining the very thing that tourists would come to see.”

The Big Picture: Why the social cost of carbon matters

An association of American refrigeration manufacturers sued the Obama administration in 2014, claiming the government’s formula for calculating something called a “social cost on carbon” was flawed, arbitrary and capricious. As Bloomberg columnist Cass Sunstein wrote last week, “The social cost of carbon is meant to capture the economic damage of a ton of carbon emissions. The assumptions that go into the analysis, and the resulting number, matter a lot, because they play a key role in the cost-benefit analysis for countless regulations.” Those regulations include Obama’s Clean Power Plan, fuel-economy standards and a number of efficiency regulations in the United States and elsewhere in the world, including in Canada.

The social cost of carbon is meant to rise over time, but it currently sits at US$36  per tonne of carbon emissions. The manufacturers challenging the formula didn’t like the fact that it was based on global economic damages, not just impacts in the United States. A U.S. federal court, as we learned last week, didn’t accept that challenge. It embraced the U.S. government’s argument that climate change is a global problem and that action on it results in both global costs and benefits. The ruling, Sunstein wrote, is “massively” important: “It upholds a foundation of countless regulations designed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.” As a result of the court’s decision — and assuming the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t intervene — “the social cost of carbon is likely to play a defining role in the coming years,” he added.

Research Spotlight: Warming puts squeeze on Olympic venues

As reported in last week’s roundup, the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics shone a bright light on climate change and its global effects. One impact it didn’t highlight is how much a warming world is expected to limit where the Olympics are held in the future. A new study, covered by Nature World News, concluded that by 2084 most major cities around the world — that is, cities in the northern hemisphere with populations of 600,000 or higher — will simply be too hot to host the Summer Olympics. Looking at factors such as temperature, humidity, heat radiation and wind, researchers determined that only eight northern hemisphere cities outside Europe will be cool enough to host the games, and only three of those cities will be in North America— Calgary, Vancouver and San Francisco. The article goes on to highlight trouble with the Winter Olympics, citing the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, which is now considered “one of the warmest Winter Olympics ever.” Daniel Scott, Canada Research Chair in Global Change and Tourism at the University of Waterloo, told Nature World News that only half of cities that hosted past Winter Olympics are expected to be suitable hosts by mid-century. There just won’t be enough — if any — snow.

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