Arno Kopecky’s latest book is The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: Promise and Peril in an Age of Climate Crisis.
It had already rained every day of November, so when the pace picked up on Sunday it didn’t seem so strange. There would be some flooding, we were told. By Sunday evening, the first reports of stranded drivers started coming in, but nothing we hadn’t heard before. On Monday morning, I went to wake my six-year-old daughter up for school and found her staring at the ceiling – truly an outlier event.
“The rain is too loud,” she said, and although we were perfectly safe, that’s when I started to wonder how the day would unfold for those outside Vancouver.
Then I started looking at the news.
The deluge was extraordinary not just in terms of intensity (the town of Hope quintupled its previous highest rainfall) but also for its geographical extent: 20 new rain records stretched from Vancouver Island to Yoho National Park on Alberta’s border. It was the wettest 24 hours on record in parts of southern British Columbia.
By now you’ve seen the result. Highways, bridges and train tracks all obliterated by a landscape in revolt. Farmland reclaimed by lakes that were drained in the 1800s. Waterfalls bursting from dry mountainsides. Merritt, submerged and evacuated. Hope, poetically cut off from civilization. Metro Vancouver’s 2.5 million residents likewise deprived of all rail and road contact with the rest of Canada.
This will likely be, by far, the most expensive climate disaster in our country’s history. The cost of fixing all those roads and railways alone will be staggering, to say nothing of insurance claims or the catastrophic impact on supply chains. The full implications of this catastrophe alone would merit a prolonged national conversation.
But of course there’s no considering this in isolation. It was just two months ago that B.C.’s third-worst wildfire season in history wound down (the top two happened in 2017 and 2018); at their height in August, the wildfires were even more apocalyptic than this week’s floods, forcing the provincial government to urge citizens to avoid all non-essential travel through the interior, both for their own safety and to keep hotels free for evacuees. And just two months before that, a record heat dome smothered more of the province than is currently underwater, killing 600 people and turning the town of Lytton into a household synonym for climate change.
The way to think about these events is to know that climate change means not just heat, but also volatility. Think of increasing swings between drought and deluge, fire and flood. Seen in that light, this rapid trifecta of climate disasters makes B.C. look less like a shocking outlier than a poster child. Or if you prefer, the call from inside the house.
I’ve been writing about climate change for almost 20 years. Now that it’s here, I find myself in thrall to a strange blend of emotions.
One is a dread-tinged grief. Maybe you know it.
I moved to British Columbia straight out of high school from Edmonton, drawn to the very mountains, forests, and rivers that are now causing so much havoc. Like many who call this province home, I spent time in various communities throughout the interior and the coast before settling down in Vancouver, where I live today.
The B.C. I fell in love with is a province bound by community; there are hippies and rednecks and farmers and ski bums, tree planters and loggers and climbers and students, fishermen and actors and smugglers and artists. There are 198 First Nations in which more than 30 languages are spoken between them. For all our differences, that constellation of communities forms a cohesive macro culture that’s woven into the mosaic of landscapes they inhabit. Visiting friends in Penticton or Nelson, Squamish or Ucluelet, has always been a simultaneous act of connecting with people and place.
Now our places of pilgrimage are perilous. A road trip to the interior on any given day last summer involved the startling possibility of coming round the mountain – any mountain – into flame. Rivers posed the same unpredictable danger in recent days. Of course it’s far more intense for those living in the towns and cities where evacuation alerts are starting to flare multiple times a year. I’m grateful that no one I know has yet been harmed or lost a home in these disasters, but it feels like a matter of time. Either they’re forced out, or they move before it comes to that, and then? Then a twinkle in the constellation goes forever dark.
Not that many of us could go anywhere right now, no matter what happens in the coming days or weeks. The roads aren’t just closed, they’re … gone.
That erasure, so graphically captured on film, serves as indelible proof of the thing that’s here to stay. Climate change is undeniable now in a way that wasn’t true even three years ago. Of course some will always deny it, in the way certain deniers refuse to believe they have COVID even as they’re being intubated; but while that mentality still runs a province or two in this country, it doesn’t get the votes it used to. As these calamities pile up, the deniers pipe down, bringing me a silver-lining hope that the general public is starting to feel what it’s known for a long time. The hope that Canadians will demand radical action from our leaders, and that more leaders will be emboldened to deliver it.
As others have observed, we’re the first generation to suffer the effects of climate change, and the last that can prevent it from spinning beyond control. If that’s not a thought to summon hope and dread in equal measure, I don’t know what is.
So, what now?
Earlier this week, thousands of negotiators, activists and advocates left Scotland with the Glasgow Climate Pact in hand. Their combined efforts at COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, put civilization on track to warm the Earth 2.4 degrees by century’s end. Wherever that landed on the margin between failure and success, all agreed the real work of lowering emissions lay ahead.
So while B.C. rebuilds, while the Glasgow Climate Pact gets debated in a hundred parliaments and congresses, while 1.1 degrees ticks up to 1.2 then 1.3 – what should we be doing?
One painful truth that feels essential to acknowledge: Canada’s contribution to global emissions is so tiny, less than 2 per cent of the world’s total, that anything we do will be largely symbolic. There are very good arguments for investing in public transit or eliminating free parking (two measures Vancouver recently rejected), but reducing global emissions sadly isn’t one of them. Canada could cease all production of oil and gas today, and the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide would hardly flutter.
You know what would flutter, though? The world’s imagination. At this point, climate change is a crisis of imagination above all – a failure to imagine both the consequences of runaway global warming, but also the possibility of a different future. We’ve finally reached a point where we don’t have to imagine the former – nature is spelling it out for us, now. But what about the positive flip side? Imagine if Canada were to seize this moment and turn it into something truly radical – maybe, say, a mandated cap on fossil fuel production? To be followed by an aggressively managed decline? And matched by a commensurate investment in renewable energies? Imagine if by “energy superpower,” Canada meant something more than oil and gas, and inspired other countries to do the same.
But there are also any number of pragmatic actions we could take, in B.C. and beyond, to protect ourselves from the worst effects of climate change. These range from building better dykes to improving B.C.’s deplorable emergency warning system. But there’s one preventive measure that went largely unmentioned in the mainstream coverage of B.C.’s floods: industrial forestry reform.
This is a complicated tale that boils down to a simple fact: Healthy forests keep mountainsides intact and reduce flooding. Unhealthy forests, which include forests that have been clear-cut or burned, do the opposite. B.C.’s forests fall mostly in the latter category. This province has been clear-cutting with abandon for decades. The clear-cuts are replanted, but it takes generations for them to regain their absorptive capacity; even then, they are no longer forest so much as tree farms, highly susceptible to fire and infestation.
The place where this was most powerfully illustrated on Monday was Merritt. Visit Google Earth and see for yourself how the vast watershed surrounding Merritt was stripped of trees over the past 20 years. That’s not to say Merritt might not have flooded even if the surrounding hills had been more selectively logged. But it almost certainly wouldn’t have been so bad. A 2019 study found that removing just 11 per cent of a watershed’s trees doubles the frequency of floods, and increases the magnitude of those floods by 9 per cent to 14 per cent. The implications go far beyond Merritt, or even B.C.
That’s one of many answers to the question hanging over us. None of them will be easy to implement. But surely it’s better to confront what can we do now than to stare at the sky and meekly wonder, what will happen to us next?