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.
It’s a recurring theme in our weekly roundup, but it’s difficult to talk about climate change during the summer without some mention of wildfires. And on that front, Alberta has suffered more than its share of fire damage. Roughly 600,000 hectares have been destroyed so far this year, about four times the province’s 10-year annual average. Within it all, the Fort McMurray wildfire back in May stands out as the costliest in the province’s history. In fact, the Insurance Bureau of Canada just estimated the total bill at $3.58 billion. That would confirm it as the most expensive disaster in Canadian history, nearly twice as costly as the January 1998 ice storms that robbed residents of eastern Ontario and southern Quebec of lighting and heating. “Ultimately what we are seeing is that our climate is changing, and the long-term trends are directly a result of some of those dynamics," bureau vice-president Bill Adams said on a conference call. He said we could all do a better job of anticipating and reducing those damages, whether through improved building codes and land-use policies — or simple common sense. “Historically, we have not done that well in Canada and perhaps less so in Alberta,” said Adams. “Unfortunately, we're living with the consequences.”
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After the fires, more deciduous trees are moving onto coniferous turf
Scientists from the University of Saskatchewan and NASA have taken a closer look at how all these wildfires are affecting the boreal forest, and they’ve found that warmer global temperatures are changing the kind of new growth that emerges from the ashes. Where conifers such as spruce and pine have typically grown, deciduous trees are springing up in their place. Over time, if boreal forests come to be dominated by deciduous varieties such as maple, oak and birch, it could dramatically affect animals that rely on conifers. And because deciduous trees hold more water and release more moisture into the atmosphere, scientists speculate they could begin to change weather patterns — both locally and around the world. Radio Canada International interviewed research team member Jill Johnstone, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, to learn more. You can listen here.
Canada can take on much more wind power: report
Love it or hate it, wind power has proven an important part of Canada’s plans to lower greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation. By the end of 2015, more than 11,000 megawatts of wind power capacity existed across the country, enough to supply about five per cent of Canada’s electricity demand. Put another way, we capture enough energy from the wind to meet the power needs of more than three million Canadian households. Ontario remains the largest wind market in Canada, accounting for 40 per cent of the country’s wind capacity. But how far can we go? How much wind can be added to the grid before it becomes too difficult to manage and affects the reliability of the electricity system? A new report, the Pan-Canadian Wind Integration Study, concludes that up to 35 per cent — and potentially much more — of the country’s electricity could come from wind by 2025 without comprising grid reliability. The only caveat is that investment in new transmission and backup generation (for when the wind isn’t blowing) would be needed, but even there, “costs would be recovered within a few years” and new backup generation required “is shown to be modest, amounting to a small fraction of total wind generation capacity.” The report, put together by a panel of technical experts led by General Electric, was co-funded by the Canadian Wind Energy Association and Natural Resources Canada.
Meanwhile, south of the border…
As governments in Canada ramp up their climate action efforts, it’s unclear what U.S. efforts might look like after Nov. 8, when Americans select their new president. If Donald Trump wins, it doesn’t look good. The Sierra Club, one of the most influential environmental groups in the U.S., looked at the public statements of leaders from 195 nations and found Trump, if he were to become president, would be the only climate denier on the world stage. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz signed on to a Paris climate agreement that Trump has vowed to undermine. The sad thing is, almost every single contender for the Republican leadership had the same perspective as Trump — that human-caused climate change is an exaggeration or hoax. Indeed, as if to defy climate action efforts, a draft of the Republican pre-election platform declares coal “an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource.” Coal-fired power plants, of course, are the biggest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in the world.
The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has gone in the opposite direction. Its draft platform has significantly strengthened its language on climate action, thanks to pressure from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former Democratic candidate. The platform calls for the use of “every tool available to reduce emissions now.” It also turns its back on natural gas a “bridge fuel” between coal and renewables, and hints at putting a price on carbon emissions.
2016 likely another record-hot year, but don’t blame El Niño
Month after month, year after year we’ve broken global temperature records. But those who are suspicious that human-caused climate change is the cause quickly point to El Niño as an explanation for these hotter-than-average days. El Niños, which happen every two to seven years, are short periods when trade winds that influence ocean currents across the Pacific weaken or break down. When that happens, warm surface temperatures normally pushed westward across the equatorial ocean instead build up along the coasts of California and Chile, resulting in a lot of rain and storms. They also destabilize weather systems around the world.
So is the most recent El Niño really the main cause of recent warming? The Guardian newspaper decided to compare the most recent El Niño event with the El Niño between 1997 and 1998. It found that average global temperatures have increased by 0.3 degrees Celsius in the intervening 18 years. It also concluded that the 1997-98 El Niño, while it marked what at the time was the warmest 12-month period on record, would only ranked 60th hottest today. So clearly, El Niño doesn’t come close to explaining the past couple of years of record temperatures. In fact, 2016 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record. “It will be without precedent: the first time that we’ve seen three consecutive record-breaking hot years,” reported the Guardian.
The Big Picture: Are investors getting full climate risk disclosure?
Big investors met in New York City on Monday for a meeting organized by the Task Force on Climate Related Disclosures, a group established last year by Bank of England governor Mark Carney (who as we know is the former governor of the Bank of Canada). At the event, Barclays energy analyst Mark Lewis warned that government regulations and global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will “inevitably” cut demand for fossil fuels, so much so that stranded assets will be a hard reality and the industry risks losing out on $33 trillion in revenue over the next 25 years. Anne Simpson, investment director of global governance at the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which is the biggest public pension fund in the U.S., said fossil-fuel companies aren’t being upfront with their investors. “We have boards of directors who will not talk to their shareholders about this issue.” The comments, according to Bloomberg News, “are part of a growing chorus calling for more transparency from oil and gas companies about how their balance sheets may be affected by the global shift away from fossil fuels.”
Research Spotlight: If the clouds could only speak
It’s not quite like reading tea leaves, but scientists are reading clouds to get a better sense of whether earlier climate predictions are coming true. A new study in the journal Nature looked at nearly three decades of weather activity. The scientists behind this research found that earlier climate models have been fairly accurate at predicting the effects of global climate change. “Continental storm tracks — think jet stream — are shifting poleward, leaving populous subtropical latitudes uncovered. And the clouds that are forming more often aren't the low-lying, reflective ones that cool the planet — they're the huge cottony anvils that rise high in the sky, trapping more heat,” according to an explanation of the research from Bloomberg News. The good news is that climate models are robust. The bad news is that we kind of wish they weren’t. As the study’s authors wrote, “As cloud tops rise, their greenhouse effect becomes stronger.” The stronger the greenhouse effect, the warmer the planet gets. Ugh.