Tradition can guide climate strategy

(September 8, 2017)

Hurricane Harvey’s assault on Houston and other parts of Texas is the North American version of similar devastation elsewhere in the world. Extreme weather disasters are set to become as commonplace as traffic accidents, unexpected for those involved but, unfortunately, both frequent and inevitable.

It’s not just bad luck. It is the consequence of living on a warming planet. Every place will have its own local variation of what that means.

For some places, the temperature will get so hot that no plants or people will be able to live outside. Others will see droughts, or repeated flooding, or tornadoes and an overall disruption of rainfall and temperature patterns that have been more or less consistent for thousands of years.

Imagine what the United States would look like if there were several hurricanes a season — such as Harvey, followed closely by Irma, Jose and Katia — making landfall somewhere along the coast, accompanied by rising tides, especially when even now so much of the Eastern seaboard is at (or below) sea level.

Officials at the National Weather Service made a striking admission as the hurricane continued, saying they could no longer predict what was going to happen. Harvey was so far outside the parameters of their historical data and weather models that it had become a unique event.

Our data will be of little value, rendering our climate prediction models increasingly unreliable, because we continue to treat ecological systems as though they are linear and mechanical. Most days right now in Manitoba, we can’t even manage to predict Winnipeg’s weather 12 hours ahead of time, because there are too many variables.

In a climate-changing world, those difficulties are multiplied exponentially. Environmental risk analysis using current climate models effectively means getting lucky with a crystal ball.

We need to find other ways of approaching the problem — other tools, other methods, other perspectives — if we want to do more than just sit on the front porch and watch the horizon.

When it comes to human behaviour, we use dynamic systems to predict what is likely to happen and why. We can’t be sure where or when the violence will break out, but when racist rhetoric is combined with poverty, bad government and poor community leadership, a fight becomes inevitable. Lack of respect breeds more lack of respect, making the presenting issue only the trigger for the violence that will certainly happen. People eventually demand to be respected; how they choose to communicate that, and whether they are heard, will shape the future stability of any society, including our own.

When it comes to the Earth, it is much the same thing. How we live reflects a lack of respect for ecological systems, as we tear up the landscape, contaminate the water and pollute the air. Because we are woven into all those ecological systems right to the core of our physical being, disrespecting the Earth means disrespecting ourselves.

We are part of the Earth. Its air blows into our lungs; its water runs through our veins; its soil provides food to sustain us.

Our understanding of the Earth needs to be based on respect and on relationship if we want to live well with the planet that is our home. The irony, of course, is that this is what traditional societies have learned the hard way over thousands of years. They have learned that survival depends on respecting the Earth and honouring all our relations with which we share it.

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Time to take action on the north is now

(July 20, 2017)

As the weeks spin on, there are still no solutions in sight for that growing swarm of problems facing communities in northern Manitoba.

Problems such as closing the port in Churchill, cutting back and then suspending the rail service, a shrinking time frame for winter ice roads and limited local access to healthy food, medical care and quality education — even just having clean drinking water — are like the insects that make life miserable, but not impossible, for northern residents who live far from the Golden Boy.

News of some upgrades to cellphone service or access to the internet seem like public-relations maneuvers, leaving the main swarm untouched.

Foot-dragging on the problems of northern communities is inexcusable. Further, whatever the competing federal responsibilities might be, First Nations communities are equally part of our life together in Manitoba, and the provincial government should also address their basic needs.

First, the north is warmer than it was, and that trend is going to continue — likely even faster than has been predicted, because people are not transitioning to a lower-carbon lifestyle. We can blame that on other people, elsewhere, but in fact we are doing no better ourselves. The Manitoba government is not only shirking its responsibility to provide leadership on greenhouse gas emissions, but through cuts to public transit subsidies it is actually making things worse. Something constructive and substantial must be done, immediately.

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On environment, Pallister needs summer school

(June 20, 2017)

The end of the school year in June means students get the final evaluation of their efforts before heading off to summer vacation, summer jobs — or summer school, if the grades weren’t good enough.

It should be the same for governments. After 14 months managing the environmental portfolio, the Pallister government is like a disappointing student who shows promise in September, but has not done much the rest of the year.

Such students skip a lot of classes and neglect their homework and whenever there is a test, they perform poorly.

The first example was the review of the cosmetic pesticides ban, already one of the more anemic ones in Canada. Public consultations were announced, so environmental and public health groups went back into their files and pulled out the materials they thought were no longer needed. Neither the science nor the health concerns had changed — just the government — which eventually showed the ideological face its detractors had predicted by ignoring the evidence and announcing there would be “practical” changes sometime soon.

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