Without artists and humanists, science is frequently lost in translation, while artistic work that disregards science risks irrelevancy. This one day symposium will bring together climate scientists, humanists and artists to bridge this disciplinary gap. The School of the Environment, in partnership with co-sponsors the Jackman Humanities Institute (JHI) and the Centre for the Study of the United States (CSUS), will welcome guest scholars and artists who are committed to – and practiced in – the current paradigm shift to less siloed climate change thinking.
Strange Weather: The Science and Art of Climate Change
Quantifying the climate crisis: how changes could impact road maintenance
U of T instructor Dr. Piryonesi on studying the climate using probabilistic models over deterministic models
Road management, the climate crisis, and machine learning are three things which may not seem connected, but they do to Dr. Madeh Piryonesi, a University of Toronto civil engineer who defended his PhD this year.
This June, one of his papers, co-authored by Professor Tamer El-Diraby at U of T’s Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering, titled “A Machine-Learning Solution for Quantifying the Impact of Climate Change on Roads,” won the Moselhi Best Paper Award at the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering’s annual conference. Piryonesi created a model to predict how roads would deteriorate due to change in climate, and implemented it as an online tool that will be accessible to policymakers.
Piryonesi’s research has been funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Ontario Good Roads Association.
How roads may be impacted by the climate crisis
In Piryonesi’s model, users are treated to a visual interface where they can input a road’s name and see that road pop up on Google Maps. They can then enter the parameters for a future climate — such as an increase in temperature and precipitation — and see the projected future deterioration of the road.
The model can make predictions for roads in many locations, thanks to the wealth of data Piryonesi had access to. His machine-learning algorithms were trained on data provided by the Long-Term Pavement Performance program, which is managed by the US Federal Highway Administration. The program stores data — including traffic and weather information — on more than 2,500 road sections across Canada and the US, and dates back over 30 years.
“Using this very well-spread data kind of makes sense for climate change analysis,” said Piryonesi to The Varsity.
The model’s predictions depended strongly on location. He tested the tool on roads in both Texas and Ontario. While it projected that, in a certain climate-change scenario, roads in Texas would be badly hit, it actually predicted that some roads in Ontario would fare better with a change in climate than without.
Piryonesi stressed that this doesn’t mean the climate crisis is good for Ontario roads, only that, under the model’s specific assumptions, Ontarian roads should not be badly damaged.
Nevertheless, the model highlights how the climate crisis varies by region.
The theory behind Piryonesi’s work
Many models already exist for predicting road quality in order to aid municipal governments in maintaining their infrastructure. However, Piryonesi diverged from most previous work in two ways.
While existing models use a variety of techniques, the use of machine learning in road modelling is relatively new. Tailoring these models to incorporate changes in climate is also novel.
Piryonesi explained that the reason this interesting combination is useful is that change in climate is inherently a stochastic process — that is, it involves randomness.
According to Piryonesi’s paper, this puts deterministic models, which spit out a single value, at a disadvantage compared to models that can consider a range of possibilities and predict their likelihoods. Machine learning falls into the latter category.
At its core, Piryonesi’s work is based on a decision tree algorithm. In everyday life, decision trees — a kind of flowchart — let us visualize how outcomes or costs depend on sequences of events that take place.
In machine learning, decision tree algorithms are fed existing data, learn from it, and reverse-engineer a decision tree that predicts unknown data. To amplify the low accuracy of a single decision tree, Piryonesi’s model also uses ‘bagging,’ a process in which hundreds or thousands of ‘learners’ construct separate trees, and then hold a ‘vote’ on the best one.
This approach can produce predictions that are not single numbers. “If our model has five outcomes, being the road staying in good condition, medium, and so on,” said Piryonesi, “the tool can give you, for example, a probability of 98 per cent good and the two per cent being in the other conditions.” Deterministic models can’t make these probabilistic predictions.
However, Piryonesi is aware that some users do not see this as advantageous. “Most customers or most municipalities that we are working with are using deterministic tools,” he commented. “The problem is, they don’t get the notion of probability and probabilistic things; they want one number.”
In Piryonesi’s opinion, industries and academia alike should better communicate the fact that everything in the real world is probabilistic.
“Having a probability doesn’t mean that it’s bad; [only] that we are not sure,” he said.
The impact of the tool’s findings
The findings were interesting to Piryonesi for two reasons. For one, understanding how badly roads are affected by changes in climate compared to other types of infrastructure can inform governments on what infrastructure demands the most attention and funding.
Climate justice also interests him. He sees value in determining quantitatively which regions would be hit worst by the climate crisis. “I think this could be a good basis for carbon pricing, for tax.”
Although change in climate was not originally his area of expertise, he was drawn to it because he saw the need for more evidence-based research.
“Politicians, men of religion, everyone, people on the street, they talk about [the climate crisis]. And oftentimes they have anecdotes [but] they’re not super accurate,” he said. “So I thought maybe I would want to touch a little on this [topic].”
We need to continue to talk about the climate crisis
A month after Greta Thunberg’s UN speech, we are still marching
On September 27, thousands gathered in Queen’s Park to take part in the Global Climate Strike to demand action on the climate crisis. The Fridays For Future movement, which originated from 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg’s protest outside Sweden’s parliament, has now spread worldwide. Since the march in Toronto, Thunberg is still touring, having supported marches in Denver, Edmonton, and Vancouver in the past weeks.
Many of the protestors on the marches were teenagers who brought their youthful energy with them. The swathes of people marching were impressive, and many older people seemed encouraged by the youth turnout.
Yet when I attended the climate march in Toronto, I could not shake a feeling of disenchantment. In between the chants and speeches, the question of, “so what now?” lingered in my mind.
A protest is meant to invigorate and inspire, but it is not the be all, end all of a political movement. It can be a start, but much more tangible action is needed for these marches to have any significant meaning beyond performative action.
On September 23, Greta Thunberg made an impassioned speech at the United Nations, which has now gone viral. With tears in her eyes, she criticized world leaders, condemning their excuses, inaction, and “fairytales of economic growth.” Those very leaders whose actions she was condemning applauded and cheered throughout her speech with stunning obliviousness.
Thunberg met with Justin Trudeau four days later at the Montréal climate strike, and told him that he and other world leaders were not doing enough for the environment. Later that afternoon, Trudeau marched alongside the crowd of activists in Montréal, though the activists and marchers were protesting his government’s inaction on the crisis.
What was our prime minister protesting? His conscience?
After being re-elected, Trudeau reiterated his support for the Trans Mountain Pipeline, claiming that it falls in line with the Liberal party’s climate plan, and that the significant economic benefits will offset the environmental impacts and risks. Further, during his campaign he announced his party’s plan to plant two billion trees in Canada.
Unfortunately for Trudeau, building pipelines and planting trees will not save the climate. Drastic structural action is needed, one which has no place for pipelines. Apparently, Thunberg’s warnings of liberal economic fairytales did not reach the prime minister. There will be no economy for the government to worry about if we are all dead.
The marches were primarily made up of young people; inevitably, this meant that everyone was using social media. Signs referenced memes, people were taking snaps, and I was even asked to take a few Instagram pictures.
Admittedly, the performativity of social media can call into question people’s dedication to climate activism: protesting is cool, and environmentalism is sexy. Posting on social media does not indicate a challenge to the status quo, but instead, it presents an opportunity to gain online clout and receive a surge of serotonin from the flood of likes.
However, a protest can’t be completely discredited because people are posting about it on social media — so long as we don’t expect the Climate Strike to be the end of our climate activism in Canada.
Youth are always the future, and they turned out in droves — young people are animated and excited and want to see change. So long as that drive remains, stronger climate policy is coming.
Climate action requires radical policy changes and shifts in public life. Energy corporations like Canadian-based Suncor produce tens of billions of dollars of revenue a year, and by virtue of that they yield huge amounts of political power.
While individual choices to reduce consumption should be encouraged, changes are needed on a grander scale. It makes no sense to tell people to stop driving their cars to work when there is a lack of reliable public transportation. Public changes drive private choices.
Policies around the climate crisis are also inextricable from Indigenous land rights. While Greta Thunberg has found herself at the face of the movement, Indigenous activists have been saying the same thing for decades — that they were ignored, criminalized, and killed for their words and actions.
The climate marches are a good sign — there’s hope. But behind that hope there needs to be a powerful call to action through voting and civil disobedience, not just protests promoted by the institutions we criticize.
Why do we strike and what happens next?
A month after the Global Climate Strike, a U of T student reflects on the place and power of mass non-cooperation
It was still dark when I arrived at Queen’s Park to set up for the Global Climate Strike, the sun rising from behind the tall shapes of the Financial District in the distance. At 6:00 am, the stage crew was just beginning to unload, but already a steady line of media vans had filled up the Queen’s Park side lot.
Hours before people from all corners of the GTA would stream onto the park lawns with their signs demanding climate justice for all, journalists and organizers like myself stood in the cold morning air, waiting to see the story of September 27 unfold before us.
To pull a term from the organizing theory of Mark and Paul Engler, the Global Climate Strike on September 27 represented “a moment of the whirlwind.” The whirlwind can be described as any instance of mass non-cooperation which draws participation from all corners and all walks of life, building an irresistible wave of momentum that everyday citizens are compelled to join.
Such whirlwinds are the driving force behind mass disruptions of institutional power. To name some well-known examples: the moment of the whirlwind was a key trigger for the collective breaking-down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the explosion of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, and, more recently, the flood of protests during the women’s marches in 2017.
Put into context alongside past whirlwind moments, it is easy to understand the considerable weight of a 50,000-strong Climate Strike in Toronto, even though the city does not have a notable history of mass protests.
Looking back at the strike nearly a month later, I remember my early-morning anticipation at Queen’s Park, and my initial uncertainty regarding whether we’d have even 10,000 people show up — it is crucial that we remember the strike as an extraordinary social moment for climate justice.
Criticism and interrogation have their own place looking back, but using critique as a tool to promote cynicism and disillusionment about the power of social movements is not helpful or useful.
Cynicism does not win social goods.
That kind of criticism does not win a liveable planet, Indigenous sovereignty, or status for all. The criticism that social movements need should focus on the movement’s ability to put Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities at the front, to interrogate and unsettle white power within movements, to confront and improve the movement’s inclusion, and improve access to ensure no community is left behind. This criticism is not just useful, it is necessary.
Let us look back at the strike and imagine how we can continue to improve our social movements, and not look back and suggest that the 50,000 bodies on the streets of Toronto were just an Instagram opportunity.
50,000 is a movement. 50,000 is a whirlwind.
The power of a social movement is measured through its ability to retain members of the public and install them into the fabric of the movement in the weeks, months, and years to come, following the moment of the whirlwind.
Although the moment of the whirlwind is critical in launching mass protest, it is the work of building relationships which allows any mass movement to achieve its goal.
The youth groups which backed the strike, like Climate Justice Toronto or Fridays For Future, are plugging young people across the country into the fight for a liveable planet and you can join us.
In other words: if you left the Climate Strike feeling dissatisfied or disillusioned, you can find power and bravery by diving into the work that is being done on the ground in solidarity with frontline communities targeted by the climate crisis.
Disclosure: Grace King was a Climate Justice Toronto organizer during the climate march.
UTSU hosts environmental debate for University–Rosedale MP candidates
Chrystia Freeland, Tim Grant, Melissa Jean-Baptiste Vajda discuss climate, other issues
Content warning: mention of suicide.
The University of Toronto Students’ Union held an all-candidates debate for University–Rosedale MP candidates focused on the environment on October 3. The debate was a part of the 100 Debates on the Environment, a non-partisan initiative which aims to organize environmentally-oriented debates ahead of the federal election.
Liberal candidate and incumbent MP Chrystia Freeland, New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate Melissa Jean-Baptise Vajda, and Green Party candidate Tim Grant were present. Conservative candidate Helen-Claire Tingling was unable to attend due to illness.
Tensions over climate crisis
As part of the 100 Debates on the Environment initiative, the candidates were asked four questions on the environment which covered greenhouse gas emissions, water, wilderness conservation, and pollution.
All candidates agreed that party leaders should work to move beyond addressing the climate crisis as a partisan issue. They also found common ground in wilderness conservation, agreeing that Canada needs to move toward protecting a higher percentage of water and land. All agreed to protect 30 per cent of land, ocean, and fresh water by 2030.
The Liberal Party’s environmental plan includes planting two billion trees by 2030, reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, and banning single-use plastics. However, the incumbent Liberal government received criticism from the other two candidates for inadequate environmental action made under Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. “We have about 10 or 11 years to reach our [environmental] targets. Right now, the Liberal government has put us 200 years behind that,” said Vajda.
“All three of the major parties support one or more pipelines across Canada,” said Grant. “We are the only party that can’t offer you a pipeline in this election.”
Responding to criticisms about the pipeline, Freeland said, “I think that decision was probably one of the most difficult for our government to make,” adding: “we recognize that we have to find a policy in which the environment and the economy can go together.”
Vajda said, “We are committed to moving away from relying on pipelines, [and] we aren’t in favor of expanding any pipelines.”
Regarding the Green Party’s environmental plan budget, Vajda said, “Their budget doesn’t even add up. Their numbers do not work.”
The Green Party’s environmental plan includes more regulation on industrial farming, increasing funding to implement endangered species recovery, and restoring the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
Education and housing
Both the Green Party and the NDP want to move toward a free postsecondary tuition framework, while the Liberal plan involves a two-year interest-free grace period for loan repayment.
In response to both a question about education and youth unemployment, Grant advocated for a basic income, saying, “[it] is going to be a huge benefit to students across the country.”
To combat the housing crisis, the NDP wants to build 500,000 rental units across Canada and impose a 15 per cent buyers tax on non-Canadians and non-permanent residents. The Liberal Party would impose a one per cent tax on vacant properties owned by non-Canadians who do not reside in Canada.
“We are the only party that would not offer a first-time homeowner’s grant,” said Grant. “We think rental housing, social housing, co-op housing in particular is the critical need and that’s where all the federal resources should go.”
Both the NDP and Liberals are committed to a $15 minimum wage on all federally-managed jobs, and the NDP wants to move further to a $20 “liveable wage.” In addition, the NDP wants to ban unpaid internships, as “young people shouldn’t be taken advantage of.” Freeland also wants to create 60,000 more co-op jobs for students, and implement a “right to disconnect” for employees, which will allow them to ignore work-related tasks outside of their work hours.
Health care and mental health
When addressing student mental health, Freeland acknowledged, “I am very aware of the extreme pressures on your generation, on students across Canada, and on students at the U of T.” The Liberal plan will invest $66 billion over four years into mental health, primary care, and in-home supportive care.
“The New Democrats will establish a national suicide prevention action plan that will take this very seriously… it is part of our universal health care plan,” said Vajda, responding to the same question about mental health.
Grant criticized the NDP’s implementation of its pharma care plan by 2020 as being unrealistic. The Green Party’s pharma care plan “is vastly more expensive for two years,” said Grant, meaning that the Green Party would pay the provincial share for two years before shifting the responsibility back to the provincial government.
Concluding the debate, Freeland said, “I leave this conversation very optimistic about our country,” while Vajda responded, “I have a little bit more of a sense of urgency here. I am running for office because I feel we need a change right now.” In their closing remarks both Vajda and Grant criticized the Liberal government for failure to implement electoral reform since the previous election.
Local, provincial governments best positioned to address climate crisis, says U of T-affiliated study
Research analyzes impact of government responses to climate crisis in British Columbia
Provincial and municipal governments could be more influential in fighting the climate crisis than the federal government, according to a study co-authored by Dr. John Robinson, a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
The research examined climate policies in 11 municipal governments in BC. They looked at the governments’ responses to provincial policies, identified the drivers and barriers that affect local political action, and analyzed the impact of these strategies on emissions reduction.
The study outlined the important components for effective municipal climate policy, as well as 12 future steps that BC’s provincial parliament should take to continue its fight against the crisis.
The climate crisis is a political fight
The threat of rising temperatures and sea levels, extreme weather events, and depleting resources continues to grow more urgent. With eco-anxiety and environmental protests rapidly mounting, it’s undeniable that the climate crisis is at the forefront of the Canadian public’s awareness.
According to a recent National Observer poll, most Canadian respondents think that the climate crisis is one of the three most important issues facing the world.
“It’s impossible to ignore the evidence that things are just not happening in the way that they used to,” said Robinson to The Varsity. “Increasingly, the changes in ecosystems are, if not totally caused, heavily influenced by [humans].”
Many look to federal governments for a solution, but the “Meeting the Climate Change Challenge (MC3)” research project, which resulted in the study, suggests that we should be looking closer to home. Local communities have a vital role to play in mitigating the climate crisis and have the means to effect direct change.
Canadian cities often have control over their own emissions, and the municipal political process is more accessible to community members than federal politics. Robinson emphasized the advantages of the experimental nature of municipal climate policy.
“Cities become hotbeds of experimentation. We don’t know all the answers; we have to try things out.”
The Government of British Columbia, together with its municipal governments, are leaders in Canada’s fight against the climate crisis. The researchers were interested in how its approach could be extended to the rest of the country.
“Cities really pay attention to what other cities do,” said Robinson. “The lessons from these 11 [municipalities] are generally applicable in other cities.”
The study’s findings
In the first phase of the MC3 project, which took place from 2011–2013, the researchers conducted interviews and detailed case studies in each of the 11 communities and developed a policy document identifying 12 steps that the Government of British Columbia should take to further its efforts. The communities were Victoria, Vancouver, Prince George, Dawson Creek, T’Sou-ke First Nation, Eagle Island, a neighbourhood of West Vancouver, City of North Vancouver, Campbell River, the Kootenay Regional Districts, Revelstoke, and Surrey.
They found that the major drivers of local climate action include strong municipal and provincial leadership, access to funds through the province and other organizations, the mainstreaming of climate policy, and first-hand experiences of extreme weather induced by the climate crisis.
Barriers to action consisted mainly of funding limitations, human resource constraints — particularly in smaller communities — social resistance, and electoral cycles causing leadership and mandate changes.
The MC3 project resulted in a policy document that included suggestions such as updating BC’s Climate Action Charter, which is a voluntary charter that “mandated that signatory local and regional governments become carbon neutral in their operations by 2012.” It also suggested an expansion of the carbon tax to industrial production, and the addition of climate vulnerability assessments to all provincially-funded infrastructure projects.
The second phase of the study, from 2014–2018, revisited the communities to assess the progress of their initiatives. It found that progress was too slow to cause significant change, with only two of the original case studies making a meaningful reduction in emissions. Provincial leadership changes and societal resistance were identified as major barriers to change in these cases.
How climate action can move forward
The study’s conclusions yielded several insights into how change can be driven, outlining systematic necessities in both government and society to combat the climate crisis.
They stressed the importance of cooperation between municipal and provincial governments. Strong leadership at multiple levels and partnerships between regional governments, according to the study, is vital for supporting, sustaining, and accelerating local action.
Policy alignment between provincial and municipal governments is key to transformative change. The institutionalization of these policies is another effective counter to the inconsistency of leadership swings; embedded provincial mandates can’t be turned around by a new premier.
Social engagement was also identified as a major force behind government climate innovation. Community involvement and a collective sense of urgency can push local governments into action. Public acceptance and support for climate action initiatives are also important factors in driving these projects forward.
“There is a way”
“Massive change is happening everywhere,” Robinson said. “The issue isn’t how to create change; it’s how to steer all the change that’s already going on in a more sustainable direction.”
Though the study was focused on governments, Robinson was clear on the point that there is “no limit” to what an individual can do about the climate crisis, whether that means eschewing plastic straws and bags, looking into sustainability measures in the workplace, or directly contacting the city about energy efficiency.
Robinson placed emphasis on the importance of social attitudes toward the climate crisis, calling the normalization of sustainability the “endgame.”
“People need to feel that sustainability isn’t a sacrifice,” he said. “When the behaviour people are doing without thinking is sustainable, it’s automatic, it’s the default — when we get there, then we’ve achieved sustainability.”
He continued, “If we do succeed in this, we’re going to make a better world… It’s not just about staving off disaster, it’s about making things better. That’s the silver lining on this dark cloud of climate change: in order to address climate change successfully, we have to make a lot of things way better.”
Robinson ultimately views the study’s findings as hopeful, firmly asserting that action is in progress to counter the climate crisis.
“It’s easier to report disaster than to report transformative success. People feel overwhelmed and kind of doomed, because the message we keep hearing is how bad [the climate crisis] is and how we have to stop doing everything we like, and even then, we probably will fail,” he said. “But what’s less apparent is that people are doing work to address this problem.”
“There’s a way. There are things happening, and the study reinforces that. We’re not doomed.”
In Photos: U of T students join the Global Climate Strike in Toronto
Tens of thousands demand climate justice
U of T students gathering outside of Sidney Smith
The rally at Queen’s Park
The march in downtown Toronto
DINA DONG/THE VARSITY
Mayor John Tory calls for Toronto to declare a climate emergency
City Council set to vote on declaration adoption on October 2
On September 20, Mayor John Tory announced that Toronto will declare a climate emergency, which the Toronto City Council will consider at its October 2 meeting.
According to a series of tweets from Tory, the climate crisis “poses a major risk to our city’s residents and businesses.” The purpose of his declaration is “naming, framing, and deepening Toronto’s commitment to protecting [the city] from climate change.”
Tory’s announcement coincided with the first round of Global Climate Strikes and follows an open call by more than 50 community organizations for the City Council to declare a climate emergency. It also follows in the footsteps of increasingly severe weather events in Toronto, according to the city’s Resilience Strategy.
If the City Council adopts the declaration, Toronto would be joining over 800 local governments that have already declared a climate emergency around the world. However, the declaration is largely symbolic, and includes no new program or initiative proposals.
“Words are great. Symbolic politics is important. But the declaration of a climate emergency has to be reconciled with real climate conscious policies,” wrote Professor Teresa Kramarz, Co-Director of the Munk School’s Environmental Governance Lab, in an email to The Varsity.
Kramarz added that individuals have to “push the Mayor and city council… [to define] clear mechanisms of accountability that connect words of emergency to deeds that are commensurate with such a designation.”
Tory’s announcement also highlighted TransformTO and Toronto’s Resilience Strategy, which are two ongoing initiatives the city is using to address the climate crisis.
By 2050, TransformTO aims for an 80 per cent reduction in Toronto’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 1990 levels. Its strategies include ensuring that constructing new buildings produces less GHG emissions, increasing renewable energy sources, instigating more walking and cycling by Toronto residents, and diverting waste from landfills.
On September 26, Tory asked that the City Council commit to accelerating the goals laid out by TransformTO, including achieving net zero GHG emissions before 2050. This, alongside the declaration of climate emergency, will be considered on October 2.
Toronto’s Resilience Strategy is a broader initiative designed to help Torontonians adapt to a number of issues, specifically the effects of the climate crisis.
“Declaring a climate emergency will only be helpful if it’s backed up by aggressive policies to reduce emissions in the city of Toronto,” wrote Jessica Green, an associate professor at the Department of Political Science and the School of the Environment, in an email to The Varsity.
She suggested that the city should start with “more public transportation at low to no-cost, congestion pricing, and zero-emissions standards for all new buildings.”
“It will seem radical to many, but inaction will be worse,” noted Green.
Leap UofT, a climate justice and activism group on campus, was one of the signatories on the open call sent out to the City Council.
“I think we can get very focused on what we’re doing on campus and not look outward into the city as a whole,” said Julia DaSilva, a co-founder of Leap UofT.
DaSilva believes it’s important for university students to get “involved in community-wide organizing as well.”
On the shifting of language surrounding “climate change” to more urgent terms such as “crisis” and “emergency,” semiotics professor Marcel Danesi said that, “Every time you change a word you’re labeling a new reality, you’re bringing it into focus.”
“If it’s a crisis then it’s something different than a change, it’s a change for the worse and therefore we need to take action. Yes, words do matter,” Danesi explained.