Blazes across Canada break historic records

Wildfires in Ontario continue a concerning trend of climate-related patterns

Blazes across Canada break historic records

Close to 13,000 square kilometres of land were scorched, blistered, and branded in British Columbia in 2018, and this year has set a new record for the largest area burned by fire in a season.

Even in Ontario, over 1,200 fires have broken out as of August 30, double the 10-year average for the province.

The number of fires and the damage that they inflict can vary over different seasons. But recent trends point to a worrisome pattern.

U of T Faculty of Forestry Professor Emeritus David Martell points to the worrying increase in the length of the fire season, saying that the science predicts the fire season will only get longer.

In a 2013 study, Martell and his colleagues reviewed fire seasons — the length of time from the first day of a reported naturally ignited fire to the last day that a fire is reported in a given year — from 1960 to 2009 in Eastern Ontario and Western Ontario and from 1961 to 2003 in Alberta. The fire season in Alberta lasted approximately 55 days longer.

Though less drastic, the fire seasons in Eastern and Western Ontario lasted around 15 to 20 days longer by the end of the 50-year period.

This points to a growing body of evidence that worsening global warming leads to longer fires and more disastrous fire seasons. There are now larger portions of each year when a wildfire can occur.

Prolific wildfires are not only confined to Canada, but also across the western United States, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Longer fire seasons and related trends are attributed to drier soil conditions, which have been linked to global warming.

The fire triangle is a simplistic explanation of the requirements for a fire: heat to ignite, fuel, and oxygen. While lightning provides the ignition for a fire, the vegetation on the ground acts as fuel.

Temperatures are notably progressing past historical norms, and a profound impact has been observed in the global water cycle. Warmer conditions increase the amount of evaporation from the soil and the ocean. The atmosphere can hold an excess of water at these elevated temperatures that would otherwise return to the surface as rain or snow. For certain vulnerable regions, the extra evaporation can lead to drier soil conditions that require much lower heat to ignite and provide suitable fuel for a fiery outcome.

As fires continue to rage, there are fire management systems in place for the allocation of resources to protect people and limit the damage wrought by such disasters. Tools such as the Fire Danger Rating System and the Fine Fuel Moisture Code provide information to the public and fire managers on the likelihood of fires in forested areas. Provincial wildfires services, such as the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in Ontario, monitor lands for and organize a response to observed fire events.

Martell, whose research focus is on forest fire management systems, notes that there are other programs being developed to improve the efficiency in the monitoring and management of wildfires.

However, management systems are analogous to a band-aid solution: they do not address the root of the problem.

As the effects of climate change worsen, the main concern is that there will be greater areas susceptible to wildfires. This increase will lead to the release of more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the positive feedback loop of warming, drying, and blazing will continue.

Op-ed: We must organize against the Trans Mountain Pipeline

The Canadian government’s investment in the oil industry exposes the pitfalls of centrist politics and the dire need for mass resistance

Op-ed: We must organize against the Trans Mountain Pipeline

On May 29, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline from Texas oil company Kinder Morgan at a price of $4.5 billion. Kinder Morgan’s plans to add a second line to this pipeline, which carries oil from the Alberta tar sands to the BC coast, have faced months of active resistance from Indigenous nations and allies in BC and across the section of Turtle Island now known as Canada.

After a series of delays since the construction was expected to start in September, the company decided the expansion was not worth the effort and expense. The week after the Trudeau government’s decision, snap actions at MP offices took place around the country as part of a National Day of Action against it. One of several Toronto actions was organized by climate justice group Leap UofT outside the office of Chrystia Freeland, the University—Rosedale MP and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In the lead-up to the action, as one of the organizers, I talked with friends and family who have supported the Trudeau government, and who had been willing to overlook Trudeau’s support for the pipeline as, at worst, an unfortunate political necessity. Until this recent decision, such discussions would generally stall: I would talk about how building a pipeline without consent from impacted First Nations communities violates inherent Indigenous rights, and about how committing to decades of further tar sands extraction is incompatible with doing our share to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. They would have agreed, but they responded that politics requires compromise. In other words, as long as it looked like the pipeline might be economically viable, the centrist position — which avoids declaring any action as simply unacceptable — could appear justified.

But this time was different. At the last Kinder Morgan rally I attended before the buyout decision on May 7, the message was clear: the Trudeau government is selling our futures to the oil industry. This time, we prepared an oversized eraser labelled “Kinder Morgan Buyout” so that MP Freeland could ‘erase’ Canada’s signature from the Paris Agreement. While this message was clear — if we buy pipelines, we forfeit our international climate obligations — it was also less targeted. Who, in this scenario, is the Trudeau government selling us out to?  

The language of Trudeau supporters generally focuses on his promise to back Alberta’s energy sector and create “thousands of good, well-paying jobs,” in the words of Bill Morneau, the Minister of Finance. However, the Canadian government vastly inflated its job creation numbers, and it is unclear how a project a Texas oil giant couldn’t profit from would benefit Alberta. There is no political calculus, no matter how cynical, that necessitates sacrificing the interests of the global community for Alberta’s oil industry. That inability to locate a clear target was palpable at the rally, and culminated in a general sense that we have crossed a line. Trudeau’s supposed simultaneous support for the tar sands and ‘climate action’ is a whole new level of centrist hypocrisy.

Instead of supporting a company waging war on Indigenous rights and the climate, Trudeau has taken up this battle himself, beyond economics. Until now, it was possible to understand the political calculus: being hostile to oil companies can make leaders look dangerous to all the powerful interests that contribute to upholding the economic status quo. In the air of bewilderment and cynicism surrounding the Day of Action, there is an emerging awareness that the centrist response — that there are always ways to compromise with those driving the crisis, that one can always pick and choose which promises are kept and which are sacrificed — is self-destructing and devolving from sinister political calculus into equally terrifying political farce.

In buying an unviable, unneeded, unconsented pipeline that locks us into extractions we cannot afford, especially after the company itself ran away, Trudeau has compromised with the economic status quo. His government has acceded to the dangerous logic of extraction and colonialism without an oil corporation to force his hand.

But if the politics seem farcical, the results of such decisions will be real and destructive. If the 173 billion barrels of oil in the tar sands are dug up and burnt, Canada will have used up a third of the carbon the entire world can afford to burn without exceeding two degrees of warming. As students, if we want a future where politics are anything other than outright rule by corporate oligarchy, we need to get out of the crumbling centre, quickly, and call out those who try to keep us there; we have to build a different kind of politics, one that refuses to accept untempered centrism.

In less than a month, the buyout will be finalized — but there is time. Rallying outside Freeland’s office, we were linked not only to more than 100 other actions that day, but to the years of organizing both in and out of BC that made it possible to pull together that many actions in only a few days. In the coming days, weeks, and months, it is imperative that we grow this resistance, that we make clear the political consequences of decisions like the Kinder Morgan buyout — that we do not allow the Trudeau government to cling to its eroding middle ground.

Julia DaSilva is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Literature and Critical Theory, Philosophy, and Indigenous Studies. She is a co-founder and core team member of Leap UofT.

U of T joins 12 other universities to combat climate change

Coalition committed to reducing carbon footprints, pushing for research-driven climate policies

U of T joins 12 other universities to combat climate change

U of T has joined 12 other North American universities in the University Climate Change Coalition, also known as UC3.

The coalition, announced on February 6, consists of research universities in Canada, Mexico, and the United States that have committed to reducing their carbon footprints and pushing for the adoption of research-driven climate policies and solutions in their respective communities.

The goal is to foster greater interest in climate change mitigation and to work with partners, both in private and public sectors, to make the region more sustainable. In a recent development, U of T committed to switching UTSG’s current steam-based heating system to a more efficient system that uses hot water.

U of T has recently received $26.7 million in provincial funding to invest in a tri-campus reduction of current and future greenhouse gas emissions. Such commitments can be critical to creating long-term change. With over 80,000 students, U of T is one of the largest polluters in Toronto.

Initiatives like the coalition are considered bottom-up approaches in which local communities take the lead. This was once considered an unconventional route for dealing with a global environmental crisis when international treaties were generally thought to be more effective. The Montreal Protocol is an example of a bottom-up approach that effectively addressed ozone depletion.

However, Kim Strong, a professor in the Department of Physics and director of the School of the Environment, said that the differing nature of the two phenomenon led to the need for separate solutions.

The science was clear, the potential harmful impact on the ozone layer was obvious, industry was able to develop substitutes, and adopting them did not require major changes to people’s behaviour,” said Strong.

Climate change, however, goes beyond the efforts of industrial responsibilities and therefore demands not only government participation through the formation and negotiations of treaties, but greater participation from communities.

“Climate change is obviously much more complex, as meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions require significant changes to attitudes, behaviour, and the economy,” explained Strong. “The system has much inertia, given all the infrastructure involved in the production, transport, and use of fossil fuels.”

Combined efforts of individual projects pave the way toward the future of a low-carbon economy. While larger decisions are being made higher up the ladder, individuals can also create impactful change.

Growth for greener pastures

Sustainable environmental policy and economic development are not mutually exclusive

Growth for greener pastures

There is a persistent notion in Canadian discourse that pits the environment against the economy. According to this train of thought, resource-based economic development must necessarily diminish in order to prevent further environmental degradation. On campus, this argument has been propagated by groups such as Toronto350, which calls on the university to divest its holdings in fossil fuel-producing companies.

This argument, however, is misguided. The economy and environment do not have to be caught in a zero-sum game. With the implementation of the proper policy mechanisms, economic development can actually progress in tandem with environmental preservation. On the other hand, a dogmatic focus on superficially “green” initiatives can actually promote economically and consequently ecologically damaging results.

It is first important to recognize that environmental degradation is a product of market failure. Carbon emissions produced from fossil fuels produce a cost to the general public; yet, producers of carbon emissions don’t need to shoulder that cost. In economics, carbon emissions are labelled a “negative externality” — costs incurred by the community who has no choice but to incur them, and produced by those who are not compelled to reimburse the cost.

Since producers need not shoulder the cost of externalities, the price of production is artificially low. In turn, the resultant goods are too cheap and people will over-consume them. This eventually leads to environmental harm, such as the drastic increase of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

The aim, therefore, should be to implement policy mechanisms whereby producers of fossil fuels are incentivized to reduce their emissions. In other words, a producer is entitled to produce fossil fuel emissions, but they would be better off if they didn’t. This can only occur if the producer “internalizes” the externality — that is, producers are forced to shoulder the cost of the externality.

As it happens, there are policy mechanisms that do just that, and Canada is arguably the world leader when it comes to implementing them.

Most notably, British Columbia became a global leader in environmental policy when it announced its revenue-neutral carbon tax in 2008, earning praise from the OECD, the World Bank, and The Economist. Quebec and Ontario followed suit when they announced their cap-and-trade policies in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Most recently, Alberta announced a BC-inspired carbon tax last November.

Because BC’s carbon tax has been in effect for almost eight years,  a significant body of evidence has culminated in an unsurprising conclusion: it works. Because it is revenue-neutral, any revenue accrued from the carbon tax is channeled into corporate and income tax cuts, which fosters economic growth in other sectors. Since 2008, the BC economy has out-performed the rest of Canada every year. Simultaneously, from 2008 to 2014, fuel use declined by 16 per cent in British Columbia, compared to a three per cent rise in the rest of the country.

Many organizations, such as Toronto350 and The Leap Manifesto, argue that carbon pricing does not go far enough towards staving off the effects of climate change. The Leap Manifesto is an online campaign which advocates including indigenous communities while making economic decisions. They call for a drastic scaling back of the Canadian economy, increased investment in goods and services provided by the public sector, such as high-speed rail, and a complete end to fossil fuel use within our generation.

What may work in Tokyo, however, may not work in Timmins. The fact is that oil and natural gas, as sources of energy, are incredibly good at what they do. They are energy dense, easy to store and transport, and easy to use. Today, 99 per cent of personal transport journeys in the United States use some sort of fossil fuel.

Properly designed, carbon-pricing solutions like that of BC can create an incentive for firms to reduce their fossil fuel emissions, while enabling economic growth.

What’s more, the reality is that fossil fuels are market-based commodities that will continue to be produced and used around the world. The United States currently imports over nine million barrels of oil per day, roughly a third of which comes from Canada. Imports from Canada have been growing since the early 1980s, and, regardless of pipeline decisions, this figure will likely continue to rise so long as oil remains an economical energy resource. To fail to recognize this point is to disregard the principles of market economics.

This is not to mention that “green” initiatives pursued without economic considerations often have detrimental ecological consequences. Germany, which invested vast sums into wind and solar energy, has seen its carbon footprint climb because wind and solar cannot produce reliable levels of electricity. Since it closed many of its nuclear power plants, the country has had to fill the gaps with electricity produced from cheap lignite coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels.

Another example would be that of lithium, the critical element in the batteries powering electric vehicles. Though it may seem appealing to envision a world of electric cars, lithium is starting to face questions over the carbon-intensive production process required to extract and turn it into the chemical compound used in batteries.

Getting the entire Canadian population, let alone that of the world, to make a drastic change in their behaviour on appeals to “green” norms alone is unfortunately unrealistic. It remains, however, our responsibility — particularly as the generation who will bear the costs of climate change — to examine corporate and government actions to combat climate change, and consider the macroeconomic effects of those actions.

There are policy mechanisms that can provide a win-win solution. Properly designed, carbon-pricing solutions like that of BC can create an incentive for firms to reduce their fossil fuel emissions, while enabling economic growth.

Jonathan Wilkinson is a fourth-year student at University College studying international relations.

U of T president to decide fate of fossil fuels by March 31

Meric Gertler sets deadline to rule on divestment

U of T president to decide fate of fossil fuels by March 31

The possibility of targeted divestment from fossil fuels will hang in the balance until March 31, the date when University of Toronto president Meric Gertler will decide whether or not to accept the recommendations of the ad-hoc committee on fossil fuel divestment. Members of UofT350, an organization devoted to mitigating climate change impacts, met with Gertler on February 1 and confirmed the deadline.

Indigenous rights

Lila Asher, UofT350 outreach chair, explained that the meeting was intended to address three issues: the timeline for the divestment decision; the interpretation of the committee’s criteria, and the addition of a criterion for divesting from companies that violate the rights of Indigenous peoples.

“Our goals were to encourage him to divest, push for the decision to be released this semester, get him to consider our input on the criteria, and agree to work on a criteria based around Indigenous rights,” said Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, UofT350 campaign lead.

“Indigenous rights were clearly addressed in our brief on divestment and in a presentation we gave to the committee, and so we were disappointed when there was no mention of this in the committee’s recommendation,” she explained. “The committee acknowledged the social injury caused to people worldwide from the direct impacts of climate change; however, the committee failed to acknowledge the social injury caused by extraction and pollution, which disproportionately impacts Indigenous people.”

At the meeting, Gertler agreed to bring the topic of Indigenous rights to the newly-struck Truth and Reconciliation Commission committee at U of T. “[Gertler] agreed to ask the U of T committee that is currently forming to discuss the implications of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission if they will think about a divestment criteria,” said Asher.

The timeline

Both Asher and Harvey-Sanchez believe that the meeting was positive. “Getting to this point has been a long time coming,” said Harvey-Sanchez.

Harvey-Sanchez stated that she was “generally pleased” with the outcome of the meeting. According to Harvey-Sanchez, Gertler was receptive to their concerns and he recognized the importance of U of T taking meaningful action on climate change.

Harvey-Sanchez added that although Gertler did not commit to divestment, he “seemed sympathetic to the idea.”  She added that UofT350 is happy with a guaranteed response by the end of March.

According to Asher, in addition to the March 31 deadline, Gertler committed to receiving input from UofT350 in the form of a report. This report is set to be delivered to him by February 25.

Committee recommendations

The main recommendations from the fossil fuel divestment committee include evaluating whether the actions of a fossil fuel company disregard the “1.5 degree threshold.”

The 1.5 degree threshold refers to any company whose actions contribute to a rise in the planet’s temperature by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The committee recommended that U of T come up with a method by which to determine which companies are at fault for a ride in global temperature.

Additionally, the committee emphasized that companies which “derive more than 10 per cent of their revenue from non-conventional or aggressive extraction,” should be considered for divestment.

The committee has left the definition of “non-conventional or aggressive extraction” to the university.

The second criterion focuses on firms ‘that knowingly disseminate disinformation concerning climate change science or firms that deliberately distort science or public policy more generally in an effort to thwart or delay changes in behaviour or regulation’.

The report listed ConocoPhilips Co., ExxonMobile Corp., Peabody Energy Corporation, Arch Coal Inc., Alpha Natural Resources LLC, Cloud Peak Energy, and Westmoreland Coal Company as examples of companies that meet the criteria listed above.

Campaign for fossil fuel divestment

The battle for fossil fuel divestment first began in March 2014, when the divestment campaign delivered a petition to the administration, asking for the university to “fully divest from direct investments in fossil fuel companies within five years and not make any new investments in the industry.”

The Presidential Advisory Committee on Fossil Fuel Divestment reviewed the petition. One year later, the committee released a report recommending ”immediate and targeted divestment from fossil fuel companies.”

Currently U of T has invested roughly $32.4 million into fossil fuel companies, the majority of which is in pooled funds along with a small number of direct holdings.

The petition asked for divestment only from the university’s direct holdings.

“There is no straightforward way to determine exactly how much the university may invest in fossil fuel companies,” explained Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of news & media relations at U of T. “The University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM), which manages investments on behalf of the University, identifies various investment strategies that are then carried out by fund managers. The majority of those strategies are complex and, as a consequence, are implemented largely through pooled investment funds.”

There are no current plans to schedule another meeting between UofT350 and the administration unless prompted by the university. Both Asher and Harvey-Sanchez maintain that they plan to ensure that Gertler keeps his promise of a decision by the promised deadline.

“UofT350 maintains that divestment is the right choice ethically and financially and is an important aspect of climate leadership for any respectable University, and we hope that President Gertler will fully agree with us by his deadline,” said Asher.

Climate change policy is costly, why don’t we take note?

Government commitment to action is hollow

Climate change policy is costly, why don’t we take note?

Students have a vested interest in the fight against climate change, not least because their age makes them among those mostly likely to be affected by it. Any actions that the current government postpones to a later date, creates an intergenerational transfer to the next group of taxpayers. There is little doubt that climate change is occurring, and few oppose the efforts to fight it, yet many do not care much about the fight either. 

I believe this disparity is a result of the vagueness around the costs and benefits that our government’s actions will bring. For example, elements of the recent COP21 Paris Agreement are vague. The statements indicating that parties will pursue efforts to limit global temperature increase to “well below” 2°C, or that developed countries should help developing ones reach their decarbonization goals, hardly spell out definitive action that the signatory countries intend to make.

Without any mention of monetary costs or other sacrifices that will be required of us, we cannot evaluate the significance of the agreement on a personal level or feel involved in the fight. We then have no other answer to it than a hollow “Hurrah!”  After all, what else can be said of a plan that contains lofty goals and nothing else? 

Some will undoubtedly retort that the international nature of the Paris Agreement necessarily limits its scope. But provincial-level plans like the Ontario Climate Change Strategy published last year suffer, too, from politicians’ unwillingness to flesh out the full costs of their plans. For example, the only economic cost of the cap and trade system Ontario will introduce is supposedly an increase of two to four cents per liter at the pump; emissions from our buildings, the source of 24 per cent of our total emissions, can simply be reduced through updated building codes and better city planning, presumably at no cost; emissions from transportation, source of 35 per cent of our total emissions, can be reduced by ensuring access to electric vehicle charging stations. 

While I do not know the efficiency of these measures, they certainly give the impression that climate change can be solved at next to no cost. No wonder many students feel apathetic and pay only lip service to the cause. Judging from our governments’ action plans, lip service seems all that is needed of us anyway. 

In a way, this is just politics as usual. When politicians announce new measures to fight climate change, they do not want us to think about any associated cost. They merely wish to appear progressive, and perhaps remind us of all the jobs these measures will create. This is a mistake. We will likely support climate change measures even when stronger ones are taken, and the costs are more clearly spelled out. Not doing so only leads to our disengagement from the process. After all, it’s not much of a fight if we can win it for free. 

Li Pan is a fourth-year student at Trinity College studying math and economics.

Op-Ed: Environmental protection is crucial for public health

U of T should be a leader in action against climate change

Op-Ed: Environmental protection is crucial for public health

Extreme temperatures, natural disasters, air pollution, the spread and emergence of infectious diseases, food insecurity — these are just some of the ways that climate change can impact our health. In fact, these concerns are so pressing that the World Health Organization named climate change the greatest public health threat of the twenty-first century. 

Against the backdrop of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21), it is important to consider the role of universities in taking action against climate change. 

COP21 conference held in Paris. CC Flickr by Arnaud Bouissou.

COP21 conference held in Paris. CC Flickr by Arnaud Bouissou.

At the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (DLSPH), our vision is “[a] world in which every person and community… can have the same opportunities to live a long and healthy life, as part of a sustainable planet.” As public health professionals, we are required to advocate for health, and especially against health inequities. 

Unsurprisingly, then, DLSPH recently signed on to a statement of commitment, which was spearheaded by the White House, to ensure that the next generation of health professionals are trained to tackle the health challenges posed by climate change. We joined more than 70 other health faculties in the United States and Canada in signing onto this commitment.   

Additionally, the DLSPH recently joined the U of T community, led by Toronto350, in submitting a statement of support for fossil fuel divestment to the Presidential Advisors Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels. DLSPH called for action in light of the “the dangers that climate change poses to health and the need for climate change mitigation to protect our livelihoods.” 

Over the December break, the committee released a report acknowledging that there are fossil fuel companies that “engage in egregious behaviour and contribute inordinately to social injury.” The committee recommends that the university set up a method to evaluate which companies fall into that category. If we as a university community are indeed committed to protecting our climate, and consequently our health, then it is imperative that president Gertler accept these recommendations. 

Despite ongoing research, education, and advocacy, we must recognize the urgency of the climate issue and the need to continue efforts to combat it. Complex problems require complex solutions; collaboration across faculties and disciplines is necessary to come up with innovative strategies that can collectively tackle climate change. While adaptation to and mitigation of climate change are touted as the greatest global health opportunities of our time, climate action produces co-benefits across sectors, including health, economy, transportation, and social institutions. 

U of T and the DLSPH have strength to contribute. We have been leaders in climate research. Our scientists are regular contributors to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading international body on climate research. We should continue to support research that not only quantifies and predicts the impacts of climate change, but puts forward tangible solutions. 

Our campus groups are tireless in their efforts, and we must join them in this cause. Divestment from fossil fuels presents a wonderful opportunity for U of T to be a leader. Led by U of T’s Sustainability Office, we should reduce carbon emissions on campus, putting our money where our mouth is. As members of the university, we must embrace the important role that we play as scholars and citizens of the world. Within and outside the university, we are obligated to put our strengths to good use in our quest for a healthy and sustainable planet.