Jen Gerson: Missing the forest for the trees — until the forest burns and then floods
Another severe ice storm, or a real blizzard and people could starve in their homes for lack of resources to dig them out.
Poring over news reports of the damage caused by catastrophic flooding in British Columbia this week, one in particular stood out: a wash out of the TransCanada highway just outside Lytton.
The town of 250, you may recall, became internationally infamous over the summer; first for breaking global heat records, and then for burning to the ground a few days later. Residents who had lost their homes were kept out of the townsite for months because of safety concerns, and much of it was reportedly barricaded by fencing and security.
Now this. The major road link near the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson rivers is severed, and who knows how long it will take to repair. The town of Lytton has burned four times in the last 150 years, and I can't be the only one wondering whether it makes sense to rebuild it again in a world where a more volatile climate will put environmentally precarious population centres at greater and more frequent risk.
We would all like the world to go back to what it was, but that's not going to happen. Hard questions need to be posed. At what point does rebuilding look less like resilience, and more like willful blindness?
Lytton's not the only town that is going to need to start confronting the future that is. I wrote a few weeks ago that all of us are facing a period of compounding crises, in which our historical failure to seriously address our problems are going to build upon one another.
No great prescience is required to figure this out. Just pay attention.
So now here it is. We have flooding so acute that we are airlifting food supplies to small towns in British Columbia cut off by destroyed transport routes that it may take weeks to repair. The damage has cut off rail and road links from the city of Vancouver to the rest of Canada. Not only does this trap all the rail and truck resources now stranded in the isolated areas, it also cuts off one of the largest ports in North America in the midst of a global supply chain crisis.
On top of that, many of those economists who told us inflation was not going to happen are now hedging their bets. Oh, and we are still dealing with a pandemic, and its lingering health and economic damage.
Once again we have proven ourselves utterly dependent on the military to manage a domestic crisis — a military that is so profoundly underfunded and under equipped that it has reached a state of generational decline. (For more on that, read Matt Gurney's piece in The Line from yesterday.)
Meanwhile, we've been writing here at The Line about the utter collapse of our institutional capacity; the unavoidable fact that our governments seem totally unable to anticipate obvious, immediate, and pressing disasters. A recent example of that came from the federal government's failure to sound the alarm on COVID-19 back in 2020. However, the residents of British Columbia sure didn't get the same kind of notice of imminent danger that their American counterparts surely did.
God help us if a really bad winter storm hits somewhere in this country over the next six to eight weeks. Another severe ice storm, or a real blizzard; I genuinely fear we would have people starving to death in their homes for lack of resources to spare to dig them out.
I am a 37-year-old woman who had never seen an empty shelf in a grocery store until COVID-19. Now I'm seeing scenes out of Kamloops supermarkets that look like something out of The Walking Dead. No serious shortages in 35 years — and now I've seen two episodes of panic buying clearing out the shelves in the past two.
We keep on acting as if this disaster is the peak. This is the worst year ever, and we're going to get back to normal any minute now.
But what if we don't?
A 1-in-500 year flood may be rare, but it doesn't exist in isolation. Every collapsed bridge is a chain of failures; the design parameters that failed to consider the worst case scenario; the failure to fund upgrades and adequate maintenance. A failure of this size and scope represents generations of the failure of imagination.
We have built trade and economic systems that are highly efficient and interdependent; and by min-maxing the strengths and weaknesses of respective geographies, we've built an incredible quality of life for ourselves. But what we're seeing now is that the cost of efficiency is resilience: when the systems we depend upon begin to fail, chaos metastasizes, creating larger and larger problems that we struggle to tackle with our current level of cultural and political complacency.
It's appropriate to talk about climate change in this context. Let's avoid the pointless debate about whether the flooding in B.C. is caused by climate change. That's irrelevant. Even if this single flood were not caused by climate change, we can expect more events like it in the future thanks to global emissions.
For the most part, our political classes treat climate change like it's a national problem, disconnected from the broader global issues. We talk about carbon taxes, and emissions caps, and whether we should shut down the oilsands.
Now, I support carbon taxes. I think they're a good policy, for reasons I can get into in a later column. But all of these policy proposals are fundamentally minor; they utterly fail to understand the scope and scale of the problem in front of us. We could get to Net Zero tomorrow — we could literally wipe all of Canada off the map — and it would make little to no difference to global climate change.
We should adopt carbon taxes to demonstrate global leadership, and because it will incentivize investment in greener technologies and infrastructure. But are our carbon taxes going to stop climate change? Nope.
We are a small, squeaky voice at a large global table and the course of emissions are ultimately going to be decided by China, Europe, the U.S., and India. We have no control over what these countries do.
Yet at the same time, we have massive vulnerabilities to climate changes. Weather patterns will open shipping lanes in the Arctic; a place in which we lack the military capacity to assert our sovereignty. Our nation spans an enormous landmass vulnerable to pretty much every single catastrophe likely to be exacerbated by climate change; flash flooding, rising sea levels, fires, and droughts. We have low population density, and many isolated towns and cities that can easily be cut off from basic supplies if local infrastructure fails.
And if a warming world is likely to correlate with increasing migration and political instability, we can't rule out becoming a host country to significant streams of people who will be dislocated by changing climate and weather patterns.
I don't mean to get really dark here, but if America goes to hell, where does that leave us?
But instead of thinking through these problems, we're spending years — literally years — fighting over which level of government has the right to levy a carbon tax, and whether that tax should be $30 per ton or $120.
You see what I'm saying, here? None of these problems is insurmountable, but we have to get a clue. We are a country that is missing the forest for the trees — right up until the moment the forest burns to the ground and the flood comes after it.
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