Nature pays no attention to politics

(March 13, 2018)

There have been a lot of recent headlines about climate and Manitoba, quite apart from winter storms, but little action from different levels of government.

Manitoba finally signed on late to the federal climate strategy, so $60 million of funding did not fly south, though how we will spend it remains a mystery. Premier Brian Pallister continues to mutter and do nothing about a “made-in-Manitoba” climate plan, while the Business Council of Manitoba murmurs against the financial impacts of a carbon tax — hardly a surprise, as its former executive director is now our “minister of pipelines,” Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr.

The city of Winnipeg continues with its last minute, pop-up, flash-mob “consultations” on a climate plan for the region — leaving the skeptical to wonder whether anything they have contributed will make a difference to decisions likely already made.

All the while, temperatures in the Arctic soar, freak storms dump snow on the Vatican and drought ravages east Africa, warning anyone who cares to notice that our petty politics mean less than nothing to Mother Nature.

Get with the program, please! A sea change is needed in how we live together, because — literally — the sea is changing, along with everything else.

Climate change is a real and present danger, everywhere. Pretending that seven-plus billion people can live the way we do without having major negative impacts on planetary ecology is sheer idiocy. Continuing to do nothing is worse — especially if you are a politician responsible for managing the society in which we live.

People who say things are not so bad are shills for the fossil-fuel industry, employed to troll people such as me to make people such as you think there is some doubt about what is going on, or to dispute the urgency of doing something about it.

I would tell you to count the number of bird songs or frog calls in Manitoba this spring and compare them to what you remember, even 20 years ago — but that would mean you had to find some birds and frogs to count. In too many places, even outside the city, silence greets the dawn after a spring rain.

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B.C. wine snub leaves foul taste

(February 28, 2018)

To the dismay of comedians across the country, cooler heads have prevailed. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has rescinded her boldly comic move to single-handedly rescue the wine industry in British Columbia by blocking sale of its beverages from her province. Covering herself with the fig leaf of letting the courts rule on B.C.’s right to block the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, she has (for now) escaped further ridicule.

After years of drought, forest fires and uncertainty about who wanted to drink Okanagan anyway, Notley’s boycott of B.C. wines was an answer to a prayer. Only the unfortunate timing of the NDP National Convention, Feb. 16-18, spoiled things. No doubt, after NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh contemplated the mutually assured destruction of his party’s only two provincial governments, the two leaders were convinced to sit down for a cup of some neutral beverage and talk.

Going back a week, after B.C. Premier John Horgan inexplicably fulfilled an election promise to block the Trans Mountain pipeline, Notley took out her frustration on a handful of Albertans in petulant fashion, banning B.C. wines in Alberta and declaring, “Let them drink beer!”

Speaking as a native-born Albertan and an environmentalist (not the oxymoron Notley seems to think it is), the boycott made no sense. There is no wine bar on Chuckwagon Row at the Calgary Stampede, so most Albertans would not feel the loss.

I suspect the $70-million B.C. winery bill was being paid by ex-pats from other places, people with more money than judgment. The few local Albertan wine-drinkers only drank B.C. vintages because they found it hard to swallow wine (or anything else) from Ontario. They would be the only ones crying in their beer.

In fact, Alberta’s premier has given the B.C. wine industry tons of free advertising (“They seriously make wine in British Columbia?”) and, even more importantly, a huge reason for many Canadians and others to pick some up at their local liquor store.

What better way to twist the lion’s tail than to serve B.C. wine at every Liberal Party function across the country? Serve it guerrilla-style at banquets, get a photo of Prime Minister Trudeau quaffing a glass and then post it on social media next to the B.C. bottle? Tweet that picture to Rachel Notley?

The comic possibilities were endless. After her announcement, I immediately bought my first bottle of B.C. wine in years, a quaintly labelled “Reincarnation” by the Diabolica label, for my initial glass of Liberal red protest.

Since we are only on pause until the courts offer B.C. some vaguely apologetic constitutional refusal, we might as well share the experience with the hashtag #PinotBeforePipelines. Perhaps paparazzi could follow “Minister of Pipelines” Jim Carr around town, hoping to catch a picture of him toasting his own protest against Notley over dinner?

So, it’s game on. Serve a Liberal politician (hey, any federal politician!) wine from B.C. and post it. Pose with your friends and do the same. Rescue the B.C. wine industry from forest fires, drought and the politics of pipeline petulance.

After all, the prime minister himself dismissed B.C.’s objections in Marie Antoinette-ish fashion, saying the pipeline will be built, whatever they say or do, so this is only a momentary reprieve. We might as well get started.

The bitter irony in targeting the B.C. wine industry over the pipeline dispute — Alberta’s best efforts to terminate life on Earth by burning up the tar sands — is that climate change already threatens grape growers in the drier parts of the province.

#PinotBeforePipelines is actually iconic, a symbol of what precisely is at stake in a warming world threatened by governments that insist on subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, rather than finding ways to leave it in the ground.

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Is Manitoba prepared for a water crisis?

(February 5, 2018)

When you step out of a nice, hot shower, flush the toilet and sit down to a nice, hot cup of coffee over breakfast, the city of Cape Town, South Africa, seems a world away.

And it is, not just in terms of geography. As your day gets underway, they will be piling supper dishes in the sink, wondering if there is enough water to wash them.

No showers, no toilets flushing and even coffee is only a hope.

Day Zero approaches. Perhaps as early as April 12, the municipal water system will be turned off. After three years without rain, the wells are running dry.

Severe rationing — if everyone co-operates — will stave off Day Zero for a while.

But some residents of Cape Town feel the responsibilities of citizenship apply to everyone but themselves. While some go without showers (in the heat) for days, others still wash their cars in the driveway.

It would be nice if Cape Town could just blame all the car-washers for the problem, the people who have wasted the water that otherwise would be flowing through the taps, but they can’t.

There are more complicated reasons for drought. While water wasted on non-essentials is highlighted in an emergency, you have to drill deeper to get a better idea of what is going on.

Around the world, water resources tend to be poorly managed — not just drinking water, but fresh water in general. As cities grow — many without much in the way of urban planning — local watershed resources are depleted, or polluted past recovery.

Drinking water from nearby lakes or rivers flowing through the cities is problematic, because both sources of water become convenient dumping grounds for the chemical and human waste that cities produce.

Water can be pumped from underground, but it is never a good long-term solution. Fossil aquifers (water locked underground a long time ago) can be drained, but never refilled.

Other aquifers can be refilled, slowly, as excess surface water trickles down into them through the ground.

The residents of Swan River, Man., got a taste of water-crisis worries last week when the town’s well unexpectedly stopped pumping. It turned out to be a repairable problem, but it drove home the dire consequences a sudden water shortage can bring.

Worldwide, groundwater is disappearing. As it is pumped out, cities and entire regions are literally sinking into the ground. In North America, California’s long-standing drought is causing agricultural areas to sink as the wells are pumped dry, and the main aquifer under the central United States, the Ogallala Aquifer, is rapidly depleting.

Elsewhere, the problem is worse. Jakarta, Mexico City, Bangkok, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, and a growing list of cities — many close to the sea — are sinking, some below sea level, raising concerns about flooding, too.

Add the extreme storm activity we saw in 2017, which will only increase thanks to global warming, and urban disaster is no longer just a B-movie plot.

When it comes to getting the water we need, where we need it and when, it is clear Mother Nature is not getting the memo. It is either drought or flood, with too little in between.

There is no water for Table Mountain in Cape Town, but several thousand kilometres to the north, as the more famous Seine River continues to rise, Parisians are planning to boat on the Champs-Élysées and provide underwater tours of the Louvre.

Add changing weather to poor watershed management, the increasing stress on local ecosystems makes floods and droughts harder (or impossible) to manage.

Cape Town may be a world away, but neither its problems — nor the high-water perils of Paris — should be far from our minds.

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