The Folly of a War on Science

By Frances Russell | June 26, 2013

The Folly of a War on Science Signs of catastrophic climate change have yet to touch, let alone slow down, the richly-funded-anti-science and anti-environment climate change denial movement enthralling most North American governments - Canada's federal government in particular.

Now, given the catastrophic floods despoiling the Harperland heartland of southern Alberta, are the Conservatives having second thoughts about dismantling dozens of scientific programs and laying off 139 scientists/professionals at Environment Canada and 436 scientists/professionals at Fisheries and Oceans?

Are they regretting closing the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory in Nunavut that monitors the hole in the Arctic ozone, dismantling the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, and shedding key staff from the Canadian Centre for Inland Waters?

Are they prepared to reinstate their $253.8 million cut to Environment Canada since 2011 and their $79.3 million cut to Fisheries and Oceans with $100 million more cuts to come?

And are they finally going to rethink their "War on Science," which appears to be as much grounded in climate change denial and full-throttle tar sands development as it is in full-throttle determination to balance the federal budget while extending ever more tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy?

It's time to retire the comfy assumption that really catastrophic weather happens only occasionally, as in the commonplace adages about " one hundred year storms" and "floods of the century."

Now, both are happening somewhere in Canada and the U.S., not every century, or even every decade or so, but almost every year. And they are delivering an increasingly powerful double punch to humanity's frail defences.

The situation is so serious that the World Bank, hardly a haven of left-wing, tree-hugging, environmental wing-nuts, is committing billions of dollars to flood prevention, water management and other major projects to help alleviate the expected impact of climate change, particularly in Asia and the Global South.

"Bank officials said this week that those effects are not considered a distant risk any more, but rather are a near certainty 'in our planning period' of the next 20 years or so," writes the Washington Post's Howard Schneider.

The bank is now focusing much of its preparations on how to re-engineer cities and infrastructure to better withstand environmental stress.

Bob Sandford is director of the Climate Research Collaborative and an associate of the Centre for Hydrology which is part of the Global Water Institute at the University of Saskatchewan. He was also recently appointed a Fellow of the Biogeoscience Institute at the University of Calgary. He sits on the Advisory Board of Living Lakes Canada and co-chairs the Forum for Leadership on Water, a national water policy research group centred in Toronto.

He is also chair of the Canadian Partnerships Initiative of the United Nations Water for Life Decade and the author of Cold Matters -- The State and Fate of Canada's Fresh Waters. Last Friday, he was interviewed on CBC Radio's The Current by guest host Erica Johnson.

Over the past 200 years, Canadians built on flood plains because "we thought we had relatively stable climate -- the climate we experienced over the past century," Sandford told his CBC Radio audience. "We thought it would stay the same. We also thought we had a good grasp of how variable we could expect climate conditions to be based on what we've experienced in the last century.

"And now we've discovered that neither assumption was correct. We do not have adequate means to protect development in flood plains. Climate conditions are more variable than we thought. And that variability is increasing as climate changes and we've also discovered that our hydrologic conditions are changing."

In the North and through much of the Canadian boreal, water that's been trapped as ice in glaciers, permanent snow pack and permafrost is in decline. The Canadian Rockies alone have lost as many as 300 glaciers between 1920 and 2005. Landscape change is shifting precipitation patterns on the Great Plains. Simultaneously, warming temperatures are evaporating the water left on the land by the last Great Lakes glaciation.

"So you might ask where is all this water going?" Sandford continued. " A nd the place where it's going is into the atmosphere where it becomes available to fuel more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as the one you had in Toronto in 2005 that caused $700 million flood damage to infrastructure, roads and homes. And you may remember that in that year, Calgary dodged just the same kind of bullet. Well, not this time."

Rising temperature leads to a warmer atmosphere and a warmer atmosphere is more turbulent and can carry more moisture, making once predictable natural events much worse.

Today, the atmosphere holds about seven per cent more water vapour than before for each degree Celsius temperature increase. North America is also experiencing disruption of the jet stream allowing climate events to cluster and remain in places for longer periods, causing more intense floods and droughts.

Sandford's most graphic analysis came when he asked his radio audience to imagine the unimaginable - "huge rivers, great courses of water vapour aloft that can carry between seven and 15 times the daily flow of the Mississippi River"- now flowing through the skies above our planet.

When these 'rivers' touch ground or are confronted by cooler temperatures, "that water precipitates out and what we see is huge storms of long duration and the potential for much greater flooding events."

The old math and the old methods and predictions of flood protection won't work anymore, Sandford warned. "Until we find a new way of substantiating appropriate action in the absence of this hydrologic stability, flood risks are going to be increasingly difficult to predict or to price, not just in Calgary and Canmore, but everywhere."

Sandford called the loss of hydrologic stability a "societal game-changer. It's already causing a great deal of human misery...We're...going to have to invest more in science so that we can improve our flood predictions."

But investing in more science is exactly what the Harper Conservatives are committed not to do - to serve the interests of multinational oil.

Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.

She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan - The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible - Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.

She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.