The disappearing permafrost

Navigating a thawing landscape

The disappearing permafrost

Stepping out onto the sidewalk from Robarts Library, it’s obvious that winter is in full swing. The air has gone cold, turning that pleasant fall nip into a winter bite. And although it would seem that the freeze is inescapable, not all temperatures are dropping.

Despite the frigid weather, global warming is still in effect. Since 1975, average global temperatures have been increasing at a rate of roughly 0.15–0.20 degrees Celsius per decade, prompting consequences such as rising sea levels, extreme weather, disappearing Arctic ice, and severe droughts and floods.

Another major unseen consequence of this climb lies deep beneath the tundra soil. The frozen expanse known as permafrost is beginning to thaw.

According to Dr. William Gough, a climate change researcher at UTSC, the thawing process occurs annually. “The surface area actually thaws and then refreezes and thaws… and that’s called the active layer.” The active layer supports vegetation and wildlife and acts as a buffer for the area underneath, allowing it to stay frozen even during the summer.

This subsurface expanse is called permafrost, soil that remains continuously frozen for two or more years, though it can be thousands of years old.

Although associated with the frosty expanse of the Arctic Circle, variations of permafrost can be found in in almost all provinces and territories with the exceptions of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia.

Approximately 40–50 per cent of Canada is underlain with permafrost.

Gough studies the effects of permafrost shrinkage along the James Bay coastline in Northern Ontario, searching to see if permafrost is still present in the region.

Due to the loss of snow and ice caused by the warming, the darker ground absorbs more solar energy, resulting in a heated active layer that no longer protects the permafrost. The amount of permafrost decreases as the soil thaws, and eventually the layers collapse.

From 2007–2016, permafrost temperatures were found to have risen approximately 0.29 degrees. This has already started to have lasting consequences.

In the Sakha Republic in Russia, the ground has begun to collapse under itself, resulting in a half-mile-long opening in the ground known as the Batagaika Crater. Measurements of the crater have indicated that it has doubled in size within the past five years.

The Batagaika Crater “was a disturbed system. So they had taken down a bunch of trees that reduced the amount of shade and so the surface warmed and then there was a positive feedback and the crater formed,” said Gough.

“It illustrated how fragile the system is…that’s an analogue to much of what the climate system may be experiencing where it’s fragile in the sense that if you push it, it will sort of gallop off into a positive feedback.”

As the ground begins to warm, large volumes of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon would be released as organic material stored within the permafrost begins to decay, accumulating in the atmosphere and accelerating the pace of climate change.

Neurotoxins such as anthrax and methylmercury are emerging from the mushy soils as predicted in a 2011 study, five years before the 2016 anthrax outbreak in Siberia. These toxins have the potential to spread and cause outbreaks for wildlife and eventually humans.

Across the land, tilting forests, thaw pools, collapsing craters, and landslides pockmark the regions where permafrost has begun to disappear, turning an invisible phenomenon into a very visible problem. Structural integrity and storage of organic material are benefits of permafrost, which have started to unravel as temperatures increase.

In addition to the devastating environmental effects, these consequences have also found their way into the lives of people living in the affected regions. The daily bustle of life also results in the gradual heating of the once permanently frozen soil beneath, causing buildings to lean, roads to buckle, and slopes to fail.

“Historically, you can build on permafrost. What you do is you put a pylon down and the pylon… sits on that piece of permafrost below, which is always frozen,” said Gough. “Now, the problem with global warming is that the active layer is getting deeper so… the foundation of the pylon is lost because then it’s just dangling in air and so the building will sink or shift…It’s been engineered for a certain active layer depth.”

In some cases, such as for the inhabitants of Shishmaref, Alaska, the loss of permafrost will result in complete collapse of the soil, leading to an annual seven-metre recession of the shoreline and the evacuation of a town that can no longer be occupied.

Currently, there are plans to slow the consequences of climate change. Governments entered into the Paris Agreement in 2016, pledging to limit the global average temperature rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

However, the following year, a 2017 United Nations report indicated that if newer, more rigorous carbon goals aren’t set by governments by 2020, we will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030.

At the local level, there are attempts to curb the thaw of permafrost in human inhabited regions. During the construction of the Qinghai–Xizang Railway, a transport corridor running across the Tibetan Plateau, crushed rock served as an aid to lower the ground temperature and prevent the permafrost from thawing and, in some cases, increase the height at which permafrost occurs. Similar designs for the stilts that prop up buildings use convection currents to bring cooler air down into the ground to maintain the freezing temperatures.

However, these projects require frequent monitoring, which may make them costlier in more ways than one. Research done at McMaster University has also found that peat and additional forest cover can aid in keeping temperatures lowered; however, this can increase the likelihood of fires, which will in turn cause warming of the ground.

Despite these gloomy trends, people may start moving into these vulnerable permafrost regions, not for prevention, but for gain. At the direction of the Trump administration, the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska is being auctioned off in the largest lease sale of public land in the history of the United States.

Fossil fuel companies are being given access to land, some of which is environmentally sensitive, to extract the potentially recoverable 89.9 billion barrels of oil and 1,668.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas present in the Arctic regions.

Canada’s northern territorial governments and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation are also looking to make use of the resources as the Trudeau government’s 2016 ban on Arctic drilling is up for review in 2021. While there are obvious social benefits for the communities involved, there may be some long-term consequences to be mindful of.

“There’s a range of potential disasters and impacts… It’s really what kind of infrastructure you’re bringing into an area that’s been sort of pristine [that’s] been used for many generations by a native population. We know what an urban structure does… it totally and radically changes the nature of the environment,” said Gough. “So I worry, and I worry about the infrastructure that’s needed to be there to do the drilling.”

He stressed the environmental consequences. “You only have to only see one oil spill to see how devastating it is on a local level. The Arctic ecosystem is a fragile one, it doesn’t have a lot of redundancies… [the ecosystem] is much more sensitive to change and so you do something devastating, it takes a long time to recover.”

And although living in southern Ontario may protect us from the physical consequences of permafrost, we are not exempt from the financial consequences. The release of carbon dioxide and methane from the thawing permafrost will result in economic impacts that total $43 trillion USD, increasing the total cost of climate change to $398 trillion USD, a 13 per cent increase.

But perhaps it is best not to think of these consequences in terms of money. Our economy can be revived, but our environment can’t. Permafrost has many roles, not only for wildlife, but also for the people who live in surrounding areas. For some, such as Indigenous peoples, leaving their traditional land as it breaks down is not an option.

We can’t abandon a sinking ship when there are no lifeboats to separate us from the frigid water below. Combatting climate change is a decision made by governments and the people who vote for them.

It’s a choice that we must make.

Simulating climate change in the lab

New chemistry experiments teach students the effects of greenhouse gases

Simulating climate change in the lab

The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is often misunderstood by the public. Most people know that climate change is caused by increased emissions of greenhouse gases. However, many don’t understand how — for example — carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. 

U of T chemistry professors Jessica D’eon, Jennifer Faust, Kristine Quinlan, and Scott Browning are acutely aware of this knowledge gap and have developed a lab to address it. Their findings were published in the Journal of Chemical Education. 

The researchers designed a first-year chemistry laboratory on the greenhouse effect that provides a topical and engaging introduction to the undergraduate student laboratory. 

The relatively simple experimental design allows students to focus on grasping complex, big picture concepts without feeling anxious about measurements or dangerous chemicals.

Despite climate science being taught in primary and secondary schools, researchers from Purdue University found that most students enter post-secondary education with a fragmented understanding of the climate system. 

D’eon agrees with the findings of this study, writing that many of her students have “put [the mental model] together in a way that is not scientifically sound” and that generally “the greenhouse gas effect has been identified as a poorly understood concept in climate science.”

Now, these tangible experiments are giving students the ‘aha’ moment that they rarely experience when untangling complex and abstract concepts. As students move on from this course to pursue careers in science and non-science disciplines, they will do so with a fundamental understanding of greenhouse gases.

In the first experiment, students are asked to recognize phase changes using dry ice —  solid carbon dioxide. Here, they develop a sense of scale while improving their qualitative observation skills. 

In the second experiment, students compare types of radiation and energy, discussing their relative importance for the greenhouse effect.

 They then apply this knowledge by comparing the heating rates of two ‘beaker Earths’ — one containing a normal atmosphere and another enriched with carbon dioxide. The students observe firsthand the faster rate of warming in the latter beaker, which they can relate back to their studies. 

Reflections before and after the experiments indicate that, upon completing this lab, 87 per cent of students significantly improved their mechanistic understanding of the greenhouse effect.

 Prior to the experiments, most students gave an unscientific description of greenhouse gases or were too vague in their explanations. After the experiments, students gave more detailed, scientific responses. 

Improving students’ fundamental understanding of greenhouse gases contributes to a better-informed future generation of voters who will make critical decisions about how our society tackles climate change.

Students, climate activists protest provincial climate plan at Queen’s Park

Ford’s plan lowers carbon footprint reduction target, includes funds for big polluters to cut emissions

Students, climate activists protest provincial climate plan at Queen’s Park

Students and climate activists braved the cold weather on January 11 to protest Premier Doug Ford’s climate plan at Queen’s Park as part of Fridays for Future, a global environmental movement started by 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg.

The movement encourages students to protest outside of federal or local government buildings on Fridays to urge politicians to create better policies addressing climate change and ensure a sustainable future. In a speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference last December 14, Thunberg called upon world leaders to act on the effects of climate change, particularly targeting the personal interests of the one per cent.

“You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet,” Thunberg said in the speech, which went viral.

Her words inspired a movement of young people including Ava Lyall, a 17-year-old Grade 12 student at Adam Scott Collegiate in Peterborough, Ontario.

Lyall arrived at Queen’s Park with a number of elementary and high school students, some from as far as Peterborough, others from schools downtown, who skipped class Friday morning to support efficient climate action at the greater municipal, provincial, and federal levels.

“We have seen the choices of our parliament affecting what’s going on in Peterborough,” said Lyall. “Programs that were supposed to address climate change, such as bike lanes, that were to be implemented in Peterborough have been cancelled from cap and trade.”

Local politicians were also in attendance at the strike. MPP of Spadina—Fort York Chris Glover addressed the crowd, criticizing the decisions of the Ford government for combatting emissions and abandoning an effective climate action plan.

“This government has made a number of decisions, jeopardizing our future, our environment, and cancelling the cap and trade agreement,” said Glover.

“That’s had a really negative impact,” Glover said. “Not only on our environment because we are not reducing our carbon emissions as fast as we should be — it’s also had an impact on our economy because the money that was coming from the cap and trade system is going into environmental measures.”

Allie Rougeot, a member of the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council’s Sustainability Commission, was also present at the protest. “As older students, it still really matters for us to show that we’re going to support them,” Rougeot said. “And also say that we’re also part of that generation that’s going to get severely impacted by the effects of climate change.”

Background on the climate plan

The Ford government unveiled its much-anticipated climate change plan on November 29. The plan is modelled after Australia’s carbon emissions reduction fund and features the Ontario Carbon Trust, a $350 million allotment toward large corporations to develop clean technology and reduce emissions overall.

The trust also includes a $50 million Ontario Reverse Auction, which awards businesses for sending in proposals to combat emission reduction.

Ford has been a perennial critic of the federal carbon tax plan, which he claimed was a main cause behind the November announcement that the General Motors plant in Oshawa would be closing this year, though there is no consensus on this.

The new plan was met with scrutiny from Ford’s opponents, including Mike Schreiner, leader of the Green Party of Ontario, who criticized its inefficiency and lower outcomes.

“We need a climate plan, not a litter-reduction plan. This is not a climate plan,” Schreiner said.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna was also quick to criticize Ford’s plan, calling it “backwards.”

“All I know about Doug Ford’s plan — Premier Ford’s plan — is that they’re going backwards on climate action, that they’re making it free to pollute,” she said.

Ford’s government has reduced the 2030 provincial target for carbon footprint reduction to 18 megatonnes, or 30 per cent below 2005 emission levels. While this is lower than the previous government’s target of 37 per cent below 1990 levels, it remains in accordance with federal and international targets.

Planet, not profit

The university cannot waste any more time — it must divest from fossil fuels

Planet, not profit

In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report, raising serious concerns about the future habitability of our planet. The release of this report and the subsequent attention it received in the media and among world leaders has galvanized public awareness of anthropogenic climate change, and focused attention on the main culprits — fossil fuel companies.

The National Climate Assessment, a report published by 13 US federal agencies, concluded that the increasing severity of hurricanes and other weather events could cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars a year by the end of the century. On top of that, this year’s United Nations climate change conference, COP24, starts this Monday, December 3, with countries coming together to show how they plan to adhere to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

The serious and sudden panic about climate change is warranted. It is not an exaggeration to say that climate change is an existential threat to our species and our planet.

Decisive inaction

U of T students are directly linked to the problem: our tuition is invested in fossil fuel companies.

In 2012, UofT350 was established to lobby the university to divest funds from those companies. Thanks to the activism of this group, in cooperation with students and faculty, the Governing Council convened an ad hoc committee to determine whether the university should divest.

In 2015, the committee returned a pro-divestment verdict. UofT350 had argued that the university could present itself as a leader among other Canadian universities and in the broader movement to fight climate change.

Instead, President Meric Gertler rejected the committee’s recommendation, penning a report titled “Beyond Divestment: Taking Decisive Action on Climate Change.” The actions the university proposed in that report pale in comparison to the contribution that divestment would’ve made.

When I participated in rallies for the UofT350 campaign, I was heartened by the dedication of those who showed up, but disappointed that more did not share that commitment. In an institution of over 90,000 students, a rally of a couple hundred makes climate activism on campus seem insignificant.

After all, if only a small minority of students show up for a protest, the university might feel justified in not listening. As it turns out, it didn’t matter that the university didn’t listen; the larger student body didn’t even know that UofT350 lost its campaign.

In the words of Andrea Budgey, Chaplain of Trinity College and climate activist, U of T is “obliged to a lot of corporate supporters on a lot of fronts and I think that often hampers movement.” The university is a conservative institution. It doesn’t like change.

That much is evident from the campaign to get the university to divest from apartheid South Africa decades ago. U of T held onto its investments there until it was the last university in Canada to divest. We as students have to hold the university to account for its almost obscene reluctance to change its ways.

A kind of consolation prize

Nonetheless, the university did some good when it created a committee to implement the initiatives it set down in its report.

I spoke to Professor John Robinson, the Presidential Advisor on Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainability. One of these initiatives is to undertake six building projects across U of T to create “test beds” of sustainability, Robinson said. “We are going to treat each of them as a living lab,” he said, in order to “figure out how students can get involved in studying, or contributing to the retrofit.”

Another goal of the committee is to implement curricular changes incentivizing involvement in sustainability groups, and enrolling in certain courses, with tiered roles such as “sustainability citizen,” “sustainability scholar,” and “sustainability leader,” based off of a student’s involvement in environmental initiatives on campus.

U of T made concessions to activists by creating initiatives that distracted from its involvement with companies that actively contribute to climate change. While increased funding for climate research seems like a good thing, it fosters complacency about the university’s role in climate activism, and precludes real action.

Nonetheless, the programs the university seeks to introduce will likely increase student awareness and engagement with sustainability issues.

Speaking to Robinson, it was evident that these projects were very much in their beginning stages. It may take years before the report’s initiatives are fully implemented.

Cash for carbon

In July of this year, the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM) published its first Carbon Footprint Report. It estimates that, as of September 2017, U of T’s investments are responsible for around 570,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, mostly in Asian industries.

China is responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s emissions, and a large portion of that is through coal. The report suggests that U of T is investing in the world’s worst emitters, a stark contrast to its rhetoric about promoting green technologies.

For reference, U of T’s entire downtown campus produced 92,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2015. This discrepancy may be why the administration is so willing to make changes on campus, rather than in its investments. The initiatives laid out in “Beyond Divestment” cost the university very little, and help much less than divestment.

UTAM currently manages almost $10 billion, and the money explicitly allotted to sustainable practices by the president’s report totals $3.25 million. Robinson’s committee has good intentions, but the university itself has been undoubtedly more cynical in terms of how it advertised its decision.

The “Beyond Divestment” report states, “We have embraced the spirit and followed the logic of the [ad hoc] Committee’s recommendations, while taking what we believe to be a broader — and ultimately, even more impactful — approach to the question of investment and fossil fuels.”

That approach is to evaluate the worthiness of investments based on environmental, social, and governance factors. While this seems an appealing, if vague, concept, it gives the university a get-out-of-jail-free card. Gertler’s report states that this approach is “consistent with the Committee’s recommendation in favour of… divestment.”

The Carbon Footprint Report indicates that this isn’t quite true. “It may take many years before conclusions can be drawn” from the initial carbon emissions estimates. If that’s the case, U of T could be far from divestment.

The climate of climate activism

In the wake of Gertler’s 2016 report, UofT350 encouraged alumni not to donate to the university, as a protest of the President’s decision. UofT350 then fizzled out, with its last Facebook update in October of the same year. Since then, climate activism on campus has been nearly nonexistent.

The only comparable movement is LeapUofT, founded in the fall of 2016. It bases itself on the principles of the Leap Manifesto, a Canada-wide movement that advocates for “a Canada based on caring for each other and the planet, moving swiftly to a post-carbon future, upholding Indigenous rights, and pursuing economic justice for all.”

LeapUofT lobbies for divestment from fossil fuel companies at the university’s three federated colleges: the University of St. Michael’s College, the University of Trinity College, and Victoria University. Clement Cheng, a member of the organization, spoke about what the group hopes to achieve through its advocacy. “Hopefully, one or all three of these colleges… can demonstrate true leadership on climate change and that they actually are looking out for the students.”

So far, LeapUofT hasn’t attracted as much student participation as UofT350 did, partly because it isn’t a branch of the multinational climate advocacy group that is 350.org. LeapUofT faces challenges in its lack of exposure and the fact that its lobbying efforts are still in their infancy.

LeapUofT leader Julia DaSilva reflected, “We’re still growing as a campaign, so there are a lot of students who aren’t aware of our existence, but considering where we were a year ago… I think we’ve done pretty well.”

Student activists have limited their ambitions considerably since “Beyond Divestment,” focusing on sustainable practices within their own colleges. Some activists on campus think only in terms of stopping things from getting worse. This is an unhelpful approach to climate activism. It is imperative for activists to push institutions towards tangible change, rather than letting them get the better of us.

People power

On divestment, Robinson noted, “I think it’s inevitable, ultimately, the whole issue is… time is passing. The consequences are getting closer.” The university’s efforts pursuant to its 2016 initiatives are still largely unknown to the student community, and sustainability groups consequently have low participation.

The IPCC report is a golden opportunity for the 66 student groups identified by Robinson’s committee to reach out to students — to become agents of change, effectively represent students, and challenge the university’s reticence on climate change. After all, as Robinson said, “Students often don’t realize how much influence they have on the university.” The opportunity has passed for U of T and its administration to be leaders in the fight against climate change. Now leadership must come from the students.

There are inherent problems with advocating for widespread public engagement with climate change. I have the privilege of writing this article and dedicating some of my time to climate activism. Many students do not have that luxury, whether it is because of the nature of their program, personal life, involvement in other groups, or employment.

But if you have a moment to spare, stand with climate activists and let them know they’re not alone. As DaSilva stated clearly, “We have a moral obligation… to challenge injustice, and the climate crisis is fundamentally a justice issue.”

Our university has a responsibility to ensure the welfare of its students. Investing in fossil fuels and polluting our environment is an abdication of that responsibility.

William Cuddy is a fifth-year Political Science and History student at Victoria College.

What makes a building sustainable?

Looking into U of T's LEED-certified buildings

What makes a building sustainable?

The University of Toronto plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 37 per cent from its 1990 levels by 2030. This is part of the University Climate Change Coalition commitment, which U of T joined in February.

According to Ron Saporta, U of T’s Chief Operations Officer of Facilities and Services, around 50,000 metric tonnes of carbon emissions have been eliminated in the past ten years on the St. George campus alone.

Making changes to existing infrastrcture poses challenges, but according to Saporta, no challenge is insurmountable, and those that arise are expected from a campus of this size and age.

A new greenhouse gas project is in the works on all three campuses, part of an overarching project that is anticipated to be completed by the end of next March.

The Athletic Centre at UTSG will also acquire photovoltaic and photothermal panels, and a new 14-storey academic tower made of timber will be built above the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport.

Already, there are many sustainable buildings at U of T, 12 of which have attained a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. The Canadian Green Building Council (CaGBC) awards these ratings based on the type of building being assessed.

The Varsity ranked each of these buildings according to a standardized percentage score, calculated from comparing the points awarded to each building by LEED to a total possible number of points for each criteria.

Among the following buildings, six have Gold certification and four have Silver. Out of all certifications granted by the CaGBC, Platinum is the highest, followed by Gold, Silver, and Credited as the lowest.

Exam Centre (UTSG)

LEED Rating: Gold 63%

Certified in 2009, the Exam Centre uses rainwater to reduce water consumption by 62 per cent. In 2017, the addition of photovoltaic solar panels successfully lowered electricity needs, generating 75,000 kW-hours per year. The green wall on the first floor acts as a natural air cleaner.

Lassonde Mining Building (UTSG)

LEED Rating: Gold 61.4%

The Lassonde Mining Building was renovated in November of 2011, converting unused spaces such as the attic into “student design studios,” teaching spaces, and even a rooftop meeting room. Photovoltaic panels produce energy required for lighting and technology in the Goldcorp Mining Innovation Suite. Other measures such as thermal buffer zones for improved insulation, automated smart blinds, and skylights were also implemented to minimize energy consumption.

Environmental Science and Chemistry Building (UTSC)

LEED Rating: Gold 58.2%

This building houses UTSC’s Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences and features 2,890 square metres of research and teaching labs. An earth tube system ventilates the building while a geothermal pump cools and heats it. Materials with low Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), such as paint and adhesives, were used in addition to low-flow plumbing and rain water usage to reduce the building’s carbon footprint. Other green features include glazing on the windows to reduce heat transfer, electric vehicle charging stations, and a green roof.

Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre (UTSC)

LEED Rating: Gold 57.3%

This high performance sports facility was built with 30 per cent recyclable material. 95 per cent of all construction waste was diverted from landfills, and instead recycled, reused, or composted. The Sports Centre also uses geothermal heating, which supports 40 per cent of the building’s heating and 99 per cent of cooling demands. Its 1,854 solar panels generate enough energy to power 20 standard homes a year. As well, the building consumes around 37 per cent less water than a standard building of its size, and saves around 1.8 million liters of water per year.

Terrence Donnelly Health Sciences Complex (UTM)

LEED Rating: Gold 57.1%

The Health Sciences Complex was built in 2011 using low-emitting materials, which contribute to better indoor environmental quality. The building’s underground cistern houses rainwater for irrigation that has helped reduce water consumption by 50 per cent. Stainless steel panels were also configured to provide insulation during the winter, and the building’s exterior was designed to prevent heat gain to eliminate the need for cooling systems. The central district energy plant also eliminated the need for independent boilers, chillers, and cooling towers.

Rotman School of Management – South Building (UTSG)

LEED Rating: Gold 55.7%

The building features nine stories connected to existing Victorian era infrastructure, with measures to prevent the heat island effect, such as the rooftop garden, use of 30 per cent less water, and optimized energy performance. The building also diverted 75 per cent of its waste away from landfills, and used 32 per cent locally processed and manufactured materials in its construction.

Instructional Building (UTM)

LEED Rating: Silver 52.9%

The UTM Instructional Building was finalized in 2011, complete with a geothermal heat pump which stores heat in the ground during the summer and uses it in the winter to supply heating and cooling systems. A small amount of electricity is used to run the underground pumps, located in the wells field. A 21 kilowatt solar electric system is also in place, and solar panels reduce the cooling load. Other energy-efficient initiatives in place include using computers, lighting, and tech equipment with minimal waste, as well as using the orientation of the building to maximize on natural light. The building itself is made from local material that is durable, and renewable or recycled.

Hazel McCallion Academic Learning Centre (UTM)

LEED Rating: Silver 50%

This 24 hour building opened in 2007 on the site of an old parking lot, and is one of the 44 libraries at the university. It is home to an electronic shelving system that allows shelves to move on a track, and maintains a rooftop garden, which helps to counteract the urban heat island effect. It also has low-emitting building materials and low-flow plumbing to improve air quality and reduce water usage. A green cleaning program has been implemented, among other operations that target indoor air quality.

Munk School of Global Affairs (UTSG)

LEED Rating: Silver 47.1%

After renovations in 2012, the building features new green aspects like measures to reduce water use by 30 per cent, contribute to ozone protection, and use innovative designs such as low mercury lamps. The renovation of the building itself used low-emitting material, and diverted at least 75 per cent of water from the landfill. Part of the building was also built with wood, a sustainable resource.

Innovation Complex (UTM)

LEED Rating: Silver 45.5%

The Innovation Complex houses offices, classrooms, and study rooms. There is a green roof, a system of low-flow plumbing fixtures, and ample natural light to enhance energy savings. In addition, a number of exterior “fins” prevent heat retention and reduce the need for cooling energy. The Complex also features efficient lighting fixtures that sense when a room is empty and automatically turn off.

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.