IS THE CALGARY-ALBERTA MEGA-FLOOD OUR WAKE UP CALL?

BY Jim Harding

Calgary-FloodWhen the energy capital of Canada has no energy and thousands working in the head offices of the oil giants can’t get through the flood waters to work, it’s an ecological wake-up call. When the federal Conservatives have to cancel their Calgary convention, where they hoped to circle the wagons and lick their wounds after taking such big losses in the polls with the Senate scandal, is this a political wake-up call?

Since the 2005 Alberta flood we’ve seen the quick rise of the new Conservative Party, from opposition to minority and then majority government, going full-speed ahead to expand the fossil fuel industry. All talk of extreme weather events such as mega-floods, fires and tornadoes which arise from steadily increasing carbon pollution have been drowned out by the barrage of political ads about Canada’s Economic Action Plan.  Some may think there is some logic at work that Alberta’s Premier Alison Redford, after lobbying for approval of the Keystone pipeline through the U.S., had to then oversee Alberta’s recovery from the most damaging floods that Canada has ever seen.

Will Albertans see any connection between the expanding tarsands and this super-flood? Or will we all return again to business-as-usual? Politicians aren’t likely to range very far from popular consciousness. In making his defense of even more bitumen exports, Harper’s Resource Minister Oliver downplayed the percentage of total global carbon coming from the tarsands. It’s only a tiny percentage, “.01”, he said. This, of course, is faulty thinking. What percentage of the global rainfall did it take to shut down the oil capital of Canada?

ATMOSPHERIC RIVERS

The warmer the global atmosphere gets from burning fossil fuels, the more moisture it holds. This comes down somewhere, as it did in Alberta. With global warming we are seeing “rivers” forming in the sky that hold more water than those flowing on the land below.

We were lucky this spring in Saskatchewan where people worked so hard preparing for yet another spring flood, on the scale of 2011. A dry fall and a slow melt of the record snow pack saved many from flood disaster. Southern Alberta was not so lucky, getting six months of rainfall in just two days. Parts of Manitoba were not so lucky either, with an unprecedented 250 mm (10 inches) of rain in one area leading to local flooding. What if we’d gotten such a mammoth rainfall as the huge snow melt was peaking? Or when Alberta’s flood waters were coming through our province? The chances of such extremes converging increase with climate change.

CONSERVATIVE RESPONSE

The magnitude of Alberta’s flood is hard to fathom. The 2005 flood was the “flood of a century”, yet eight short years later another flood, initially reported to be three times the size and speed, was ravaging southern Alberta. It grew even larger, some say to ten times 2005.The torrential waters made Calgary, the economic powerhouse, powerless. Harper, who typically tightly controls his words, seemed sincerely stunned, saying “I never imagined you could have a flood of this magnitude in this part of the country”. Trained as he is to mostly imagine economic growth and oil profits and consistently undercutting climate agreements, he’s done everything possible to keep all of us from imagining what comes with catastrophic climate change. Remember that Calgary, Harper’s political homeland, has long been the headquarters of industrially-resourced, climate change denying networks such as “Friends of Science”.

Calgary MP, Minister Jason Kenny was uncharacteristically lacking in words. “People didn’t quite believe it was happening”, he said, “evacuation is not a term we are used to hearing.” Stunned that this happened in the “core of Canada’s energy industry”, and had totally shut down critical infrastructure, he fast-forwarded into his economistic bravado saying they intended to reschedule the Conservative convention as soon as possible to “send a message that Calgary is back”, and “open for business.” This is easy to say, but it will be smaller businesses that have property damage, lost valuable inventory as well as losing customers and cash flow that will be the hardest hit.

WARNINGS

Premier Redford was clearly broadsided saying “it would be nice to have two months notice but that’s not how floods work”. The government actually had nearly a decade’s notice after 2005, including a report on how to better prepare for such an event but in all the hype about Canada becoming an energy superpower it was shelved and forgotten until just last year. It recommended that Alberta stop allowing building in flood plains but this practice continued. Redford’s $1 billion provincial bailout will barely start to cover the many billions in reconstruction costs and Alberta may not see balanced budgets until long after Redford is gone. Will Calgary’s Conservative MP’s Harper and Kenny now support a federal deficit to bail out the homeland of the Reform Party?

Twenty-seven communities declared a state of emergency. After Calgary, the plight and frustration of 13,000 people driven from their homes in High River got most media attention. It took nearly a week for reporting of the ordeal faced by First Nations’ communities.

Seventy-five thousand in Calgary were initially left homeless; 24,000 others were without any power. Story after story emerged showing that a bubble had broken. A man whose dream home for his coming marriage had been ruined said without emotion, that his “world had been turned upside down.” A woman deeply shocked by the scale of events, said “those are the things that happen in other countries.” Apparently not.

AID AND INSIGHT

What will be the impact on Albertans? Will their well-known bravado outpace their insights? The organizers of the Stampede quickly commented that this event, never cancelled in its 100-year history, will go ahead “hell or high water”. As it turned out some events had to be moved or cancelled. This “spirit of Calgary” can also lead to collective denial. As the torrents of water were hitting Calgary subdivisions, people were still rebuilding homes lost from the mega-wild fire in Slave Lake in 2011. And elsewhere a record heat wave sparked mega wild-fires in Arizona killing 19 firefighters.

The rallying of so many volunteers to help others is inspiring and Calgary’s Mayor Nenshi deserves huge credit for his robust leadership. As extreme weather events compound, we will all be challenged to dig deep into our reserves of compassion. But there must be insight and change. There were about twice as many Albertans driven from their homes by this super-flood as there are Canadians, on any one night, left homeless by poverty, unemployment and the emotional and family breakdown that comes with the stresses of our society. Will the solidarity shown amongst Albertans generalize? After all aren’t we all in the same planetary “boat”?

Perhaps it’s too soon to pose these questions. But if they aren’t asked in the aftermath of this disaster, they may be buried again? Day in and day out, people somewhere on the planet continue to scramble from the torrents of water unleashed by the atmospheric rivers brought on by global warming. Perhaps the people of small-town Alberta could now twin with the villages in India ravaged by flooding at the same time. There, 3,000 people are still missing and at least 800 are confirmed dead from unprecedented early monsoons compounded by climate change, fueled by fossil fuels, some of which inevitably come from Alberta’s booming economy. One world requires one solution.

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