Extreme weather is focus as OBWB hears about mitigating climate change

By on September 12, 2017

Keynote speaker Maximilian Kniewasser, of the Pembina Institute, called the challenge of meeting climate change targets “daunting,” but he pointed to reasons why they are achievable as the switch is underway to clean energy. (Richard McGuire photo)

As extremely powerful hurricanes batter the southern United States and Caribbean, and record-breaking wildfires burn throughout western North America and even Europe, extreme weather is very much in the news.

But back in June, the spring of flooding in the Okanagan was just starting to abate, and the worst of Mother Nature’s fury still hadn’t hit.

A record-breaking fire season in B.C. was only starting.

That’s when the Okanagan Basin Water Board (OBWB) chose “Weathering Extremes” as the title for its 2017 Annual Report and the theme of last Friday’s annual general meeting in West Kelowna.

Prescience perhaps, but the recent extreme weather hasn’t just appeared out of the blue.

When 2015 turned into an extreme drought year, the OBWB was already talking about the impact global climate change will have on how water is managed in this arid corner of Canada.

In opening remarks, Anna Warwick Sears, OBWB executive director, cited a statement by John Holdren, science and technology advisor to former U.S. President Barrack Obama.

“We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering,” Holdren said back in early 2007. “We’re going to do some of each. The question is what is the mix going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.”

Sears admitted that the OBWB has been primarily focused on adaptation to climate change, but she said adaptation becomes more difficult and suffering will increase without serious mitigation efforts.

“We haven’t at the water board really spent any time talking about climate mitigation and what do we do to slow the pace of climate change,” said Sears.

Those comments came as Sears introduced keynote speaker, Maximilian Kniewasser, whose talk focused on the effort to mitigate the impact of climate change – the other side of the equation.

Kniewasser is director of the Pembina Institute’s B.C. climate policy program based in Vancouver. The Pembina Institute is a national non-profit think tank dedicated to seeking clean energy solutions.

Illustrating his talk with charts and graphs, Kniewasser pointed to the sharp increase in global energy demand since the end of World War II and how 85 per cent of global energy needs are still met with fossil fuels.

There is a global consensus that the average world temperature increase should not exceed two degrees Celsius compared to the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, Kniewasser said.

And that means levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which were 280 parts per million (ppm) at the time of the Industrial Revolution, must not be allowed to exceed 450 ppm, he said.

Currently it’s at 400 ppm.

While scientists are overwhelmingly convinced that climate change is caused by the accelerated “greenhouse gas effect” that results from humans burning fossil fuels, that view is not universal.

In November 2012, four years before he became the U.S. President, Donald Trump tweeted: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

At other times, he has called it “a hoax,” a term used by other climate change deniers who are often funded by coal and oil companies.

On June 1, Trump announced that the U.S. was pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which has been signed by 195 countries.

Asked by an audience member how the new U.S. position will affect climate change mitigation, Kniewasser said what is happening in the U.S. “is very upsetting,” because as the largest and richest economy in the world, if they don’t move on climate change, other countries may also question why they should.”

But, sounding a note of optimism, Kniewasser pointed out that the U.S. is making great progress on clean energy.

“California is the world leader on climate change,” said Kniewasser. “California is the only place that has a credible plan to achieve long-term (emissions) reductions.”

There were other notes of optimism as Kniewasser showed graphs illustrating the tremendous growth of solar energy in the past decade, as prices come down more rapidly “than even the most wildly optimistic assumptions.”

To stay below the two-degree Celsius target, global emissions will need to decrease by around 50 per cent by the middle of this century, Kniewasser said, adding that because the rich countries use much more fossil fuels, their reductions will need to be in the range of 75 to 85 per cent.

Exceeding the two-degree target increases the likelihood that extreme weather will become too damaging and the chance of irreversible climate feedbacks increases, he said.

The challenges of responding to increased energy demand while reducing emissions are “pretty daunting,” Kniewasser said. “But I like to say it’s not hopeless.”

Both the technical and policy solutions for a sustainable energy future exist, he said.

“We have a lot of the tools already,” he added, pointing to human success in dealing with such past environmental crises as acid rain, smog and urban air pollution, and ozone depletion.

In addition to falling costs of solar power, Kniewasser noted that the cost of lithium-ion batteries to power electric cars has similarly plunged.

“We’re almost approaching a 90-per-cent reduction in seven or eight years,” he said. “If that continues, it could get to the point – we’re very close to that already – where it becomes cheaper than internal combustion engines. So those are some of the exciting trends happening.”

Pointing to rising employment in B.C.’s clean energy sector, Kniewasser said: “The narrative of clean energy versus the economy is no longer true.”

Neither Kniewasser nor any of the other speakers explicitly connected the dots on how climate change may be directly causing weather events to be more extreme and more frequent.

But Brian Guy, who recently retired from Vernon-based Associated Environmental Consultants, suggested in an interview that scientists are becoming better at linking specific events to the general issue of global warming.

Guy was leader of a climate change task force and he is chair of the Okanagan Water Stewardship Council.

Guy noted that global warming isn’t affecting the world evenly. While average global temperatures have risen by one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, in Canada the average is 1.5 degrees and in the Arctic, it is 2.5 degrees.

With temperatures rising more sharply in the Arctic, the temperature gradient is becoming smaller, and this is causing the jet stream to become locked in place, Guy said.

This phenomenon prevented Hurricane Harvey from moving inland away from Houston, Texas, which would have caused it to dissipate faster, Guy said.

Meteorologists have pointed to the same jet stream blocking pattern holding a large ridge of high pressure over the B.C. Interior for a long period, holding in hot, dry air and contributing to wildfires.

The issue of atmospheric instability was mentioned by Tom Siddon, Area D director with the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen (RDOS), who held several federal cabinet positions in the 1980s under former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

In a question after Kniewasser’s talk, Siddon pointed out that another source of greenhouse gases is methane, which humans can’t control. As ice melts in the Arctic, additional methane is released, he said.

“Fifteen years ago, we used to talk about global warming leading to a rise in sea levels, but what we didn’t anticipate was instability in the atmosphere,” said Siddon, pointing to changes in the jet stream that are affecting climate.

Siddon questioned whether two degrees Celsius really is the tipping point.

“I believe given what happened two weeks ago in Houston and what is happening in the Caribbean and Florida now, that we may be beyond the tipping point,” said Siddon.


Osoyoos Times

Anna Warwick Sears, executive director of the Okanagan Basin Water Board, said the OBWB has been focused on adapting to the impact of climate change, but has not had much discussion on mitigating it. (Richard McGuire photo)

Shaun Reimer, the provincial official who oversees operation of the dam on Okanagan Lake at Penticton, spoke about the balancing act required as the lake flooded, but the needs of those downriver also had to be considered. (Richard McGuire photo)

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One Comment

  1. Simon

    October 4, 2017 at 10:16 am

    A famous quote from Rep Joe Barton (condensed) “Wind is a finite resource and harnessing it would slow the winds down which would cause the temperature to go up”

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