Canadian cities

Canadian Cities' Vulnerability to Climate Change Apparent after Alberta Floods

Flooding swept over Southern Alberta, Canada from Calgary to Canmore in mid-June. Evacuation orders were issued in towns and cities as rivers like the Bow and the Elbow swelled and spilled over their banks. Historic water levels were reached in Medicine Hat, downtown Calgary was emptied and underwater, and towns like High River were completely evacuated for days as police patrolled the flood ravaged streets. 

The Alberta flooding is one of the many climate change impacts already being felt around the world, but it also foreshadows the rise in extreme events that is on the way. The frequency of weather disasters will continue to increase as long as we keep recklessly pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As the climate warms, we will see extreme events like the flooding that push the boundaries of our built infrastructure. Since it has hit so close to home this time, in Canada it should be a call to arms.

In the flooding that hit Alberta, the resiliency of Albertans has taken centre stage. The stories pouring out of the province have been full of neighbours helping neighbours. One water engineer and entrepreneur that I met in Alberta last week was nearly sleeping as he stood after a soggy, scary and sleep-deprived week. He had been setting up basement pumps across downtown Calgary, helped by roving bands of volunteers descending on homes and businesses to help clean up the mess. It's clear that the social fabric of society is the key to our ability to respond and rebuild. However, that's not the only factor affecting vulnerability to climate change.

The emergency has called into question the resiliency of our cities' built infrastructure. In addition to energy infrastructure that is still too waterlogged to turn back on in downtown Calgary, the most drastic infrastructure failure was the collapse of a rail bridge in Calgary that was undermined by the flooding. When a train crossed it days after the flooding started, the crumbling bridge caused several train cars full of petroleum products to derail and hang perilously over the swollen river. The incident stressed the emergency services of a city already stretched to the edge. It is obvious that a failure to adapt to climate change will continue to result in incredibly costly impacts on Canadian cities.

Adaptation is immensely important. We have already committed ourselves to some degree of global warming and we must prepare for the climate change impacts that are already on their way. It will be particularly important to protect the most vulnerable in our societies. Canadians are the lucky ones compared to the entire globe; the country has the resources, support systems, and wealth to deal with emergencies. However, to adapt without addressing the cause of the problem would be like bailing out a boat without plugging the gaping hole in the bottom. We have to do both.

We need to stop the rapacious growth of greenhouse gas emissions in order to truly protect our cities from climate change impacts. Canada's greenhouse gas emissions are still rising and the commitment to the expansion of the tar sands promises even greater greenhouse gas emission growth.

No amount of resiliency can protect from catastrophic climate change. Our best defence is a good offence.