New protections for 500 species

This article was written by Kathia Martinez and was published in the Toronto Star on November 27, 2022.

Delegates at a recently held UN wildlife conference also rejected a proposal to reopen the ivory trade.

An international wildlife conference moved to enact some of the most significant protection for shark species targeted in the fin trade and scores of turtles, lizards and frogs whose numbers are being decimated by the pet trade.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES, ended Friday in Panama. In a record for the conference, delegates enacted protections for over 500 species. The United Nations wildlife conference also rejected a proposal to reopen the ivory trade. An ivory ban was enacted in 1989.

“The Parties to CITES are fully aware of their responsibility to address the biodiversity loss crisis by taking action to ensure that the international trade in wildlife is sustainable, legal and traceable,” Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero said in a statement.

“Trade underpins human well-being, but we need to mend our relationship with nature,” she said. “The decisions coming from this meeting will serve the interests of conservation and wildlife trade, that doesn’t threaten the existence of species of plants and animals in the wild, for future generations.”

The international wildlife trade treaty, which was adopted 49 years ago in Washington, D.C., has been praised for helping stem the illegal and unsustainable trade in ivory and rhino horns as well as in whales and sea turtles.

But it has come under fire for its limitations, including its reliance on cash-strapped developing countries to combat illegal trade that’s become a lucrative $10-billion-a-year (U.S.) business.

One of the biggest achievements this year was increasing or providing protection for more than 90 shark species, including 54 species of requiem sharks, the bonnethead shark, three species of hammerhead shark and 37 species of guitarfish. Many had never before had trade protection and now, under Appendix II, the commercial trade will be regulated.

Global shark populations are declining, with annual deaths due to fisheries reaching about100 million. The sharks are sought mostly for their fins, which are used in shark fin soup, a popular delicacy in China and elsewhere in Asia.

The conference also enacted protections for dozens of species of turtle, lizard and 160 amphibian species, including glass frogs whose translucent skin made them a favourite in the pet trade. Several song birds also got trade protection as well as 150 tree species.

Splitting air

Our only choice is to work together — our future depends on it

This article was written by Jerry Levitan and was published in the Toronto Star on November 26, 2022.

Are people giving up on having a say in their lives and are resigned to survival? If that is true, where in heavens are we all headed?, Jerry Levitan asks.

“For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

—John F. Kennedy, commencement address at American University, Washington, D.C., June 10, 1963

What goes through the minds of those with power and influence who make the decisions that affect people’s lives? Given the overwhelming existential challenges humanity faces, we have more in common than ever before, including how imperilled we all are.

None of us can escape from our deteriorating environment, contagions that spread and mutate so quickly, economic dysfunction and the reckless selfishness that characterizes our species. All the while, the powerful make decisions that impact us, many times with devastating consequences.

Most of us have no choice but to focus on our day-today struggles. We do not have the time or capacities to keep up with all the swirling havoc that surrounds us. The powerful have that time and the resources to define our economic and social systems to reflect their interests, priorities and perspectives.

Nothing proves this point more than the atrocious election turnouts in Ontario’s and Toronto’s past elections. Is the reason as simple as people are giving up on having a say in their lives and are resigned to survival? If that is true, where in heavens are we all headed?

A decades-old scientific theory explores why we have not yet discovered any sign of alien life on Earth or in the vast reaches of the universe. “The Great Filter” postulates that nobody else is out there because intelligent life inevitably reaches a stage at which it destroys itself.

A great piece in the Daily Beast highlights NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s examination of that theory, developed by economist Robin Hanson in 1996, who wrote: “The fact that our universe seems basically dead suggests that it is very, very hard for advanced, explosive, lasting life to arise.”

Assuming this theory has validity, astrophysicist Jonathan Jiang and his co-authors are quoted in the piece to say: “The key to humanity successfully traversing such a universal filter is … identifying those attributes in ourselves and neutralizing them in advance.”

This brings me back to my question: What goes through the minds of the people who make decisions that impact us? Imagine having the opportunity to decide on how to treat workers in our educational system and how to fund it, the system that takes care of and nurtures our children.

Or, health care workers who risked their lives during the pandemic to protect strangers and funding that system for our well-being. Would you want these workers to be treated fairly and show gratitude and support for what they do? Would you want your tax dollars to go to those systems so they could operate effectively for our collective benefit? Or would you rather spend taxpayer money elsewhere, like giving motorists rebates for licence plate renewals before an election, or building billion-dollar highways? Remember, this is our money.

Imagine the thought process and discussion that leads to decisions to open up Ontario’s Greenbelt to development, or using the notwithstanding clause to suspend the applicability of our Charter of Rights. How about diminishing the power of councillors, who we just elected by empowering the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa to force passage of bylaws that align with provincial priorities, whatever that means, if more than one-third of council members vote in favour.

Are these the decisions you would make if you had power and influence? Do you want your children and their children to get used to this kind of exercise of arbitrary power in a mutated form of democracy?

We have the ability to replace the Great Filter and not succumb to Hanson’s theory. We can replace that filter with one that neutralizes our destructive attributes. We can find our common ground recognizing that we breathe the same air, cherish our children’s future and know that we are all mortal.

To do that, we need leadership of courage and vision, dedication to addressing our existential challenges and we need, all of us, to vote.

Hydrogen op-ed needed context

This opinion was written by Donovan Vincent, the Star’s public editor, and was published in the Toronto Star on November 26, 2022.

While opinion pieces afford writers a forum to present more of their point of view, when it comes to important and complex issues that some readers may not be overly familiar with, there’s also a duty to inform.

Earlier this month, the Star published an opinion article that said the oil and gas sector has “bamboozled” this country’s politicians into supporting Canada’s hydrogen industry.

The contribution from freelancer Taylor C. Noakes, a journalist, historian and regular contributor to the Star, argued Canada’s goals for hydrogen as an alternate energy source are based more on “myth than reality” when it comes to fighting climate change.

Noakes believes that rather than being the fuel of the future, as proponents are calling it, hydrogen use is still in the “highly experimental” phase and lacks the critical infrastructure to be transported widely, whether by land or sea.

Intended to coincide with the timing of the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt and pegged to news earlier this summer of a hydrogen export pact signed between Canada and Germany, Noakes’ article started on the front page of our Insight section and provided lots of fascinating facts that seemed to back up his main thesis.

Noakes argued hydrogen is a complicated solution given the existence of simpler options, including solar and wind power. He went on to say hydrogen is being touted by the fossil fuel sector because that sector derives financial benefits from it — primarily, because they have natural gas in abundance that they can use as the feeder fuel to create hydrogen.

He later quoted a manager from Environmental Defence who slammed hydrogen as a way for fossil fuel interests to “lock in more natural gas infrastructure.”

Near the end of the article, Noakes pointed out that earlier this month, the federal government committed several hundred million dollars to a hydrogen facility in the works in Edmonton, operated by Pennsylvania-based firm Air Products, a company that calls itself the world’s largest hydrogen producer.

A reader couldn’t be faulted, therefore, for concluding that politicians from our federal government had just wasted a fortune in tax dollars on a new hydrogen facility after being hoodwinked by the oil and gas lobby.

But some experts, including representatives from Air Products and a local environmentalist who has for decades studied hydrogen and clean energy, contacted the Star to say Noakes left out some important context in his story — salient details readers needed to fully grasp what is actually happening with our hydrogen industry.

After hearing their arguments, I tend to agree.

Opinion articles are just that: an opportunity for writers to tell readers how they feel about issues. Like I do with my column.

But it’s a delicate balance. While opinion pieces afford writers a forum to present more of their point of view, when it comes to important and complex issues that some readers may not be overly familiar with, there’s also a duty to inform.

Noakes spent a lot of time delving into blue hydrogen, which he wrote is being “championed” by the oil and gas sector as a stepping stone to greener hydrogen.

Blue hydrogen is created through a process called steam reforming, breaking methane — a hydrocarbon and primary component of natural gas — into hydrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2), and coupling that with another process that is supposed to capture the CO2 before it gets into the atmosphere.

The article quoted an expert in the area, Robert W. Howarth, a professor at Cornell University, who basically dismissed blue hydrogen. Howarth said in part there are only two blue hydrogen plants “anywhere in the world,” and that the plants “have not even tried to capture the large amount of carbon dioxide generated from burning the natural gas that powers the steam methane reforming process.”

No experts working in the hydrogen industry were quoted in this story. (Tim Fryer, the Star editor who handled the piece, says he erred in not pushing Noakes to do this.)

By making a quick call to Air Products, the company that received the whopping federal subsidy earlier this month for their new $1.6-billion facility (it will be operational in 2024, the company says), Noakes would have been able to mention that Air Products plans to put in place an auto-thermal reformer, a different process based on advanced technology the company says will allow for a greater capture of CO2, at over 95 per cent. Electricity powered by hydrogen will offset the remaining five per cent of CO2 to get to net zero, the company says.

The advanced gasification process uses oxygen, which allows for the capture of a more concentrated form of CO2, explains Simon Moore, a vicepresident with Air Products.

Hydrogen is largely used to clean transportation fuels such as diesel, reducing harmful sulphur in the fuel, thus reducing those emissions. Edmonton is using hydrogen-powered buses. Those in the industry also argue that for transporting purposes, hydrogen can be converted to ammonia, which has higher storage capacity. Ammonia can also be easily converted back to hydrogen.

In its report, “Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector,” the International Energy Agency says one of the key pillars of decarbonization — achieving the quick reduction in CO2 over the next 30 years — includes electrification, renewables, and hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels.

“If we can sequester — (i.e. isolate or cut) — carbon, then we have a huge advantage as a country economically,” argues Dennis Gazarek, a reader who reached out to the Star after going over Noakes’ piece.

Gazarek describes himself as a “practical environmentalist” (pro-wind, nuclear and solar) who has studied the hydrogen industry closely for decades. The world will need a mix of energy solutions in the future, he says, including hydrogen.

To me, hydrogen clearly has its pros and cons, and remains a work in progress if it’s to truly become a “fuel of the future.”

But when you’re telling a story about a topic this nuanced, there are important elements that readers need to be given upfront.

Finding hope for bringing babies into a climate anxious world

Director discovers power in action while making documentary about what to expect when you’re expecting the climate crisis

This article was written by Victoria Lean and was published in the Toronto Star on November 26, 2022.


Payton Mitchell sees her activism as a form of family, writes documentarian Victoria Lean, and an expression of love for the people and places she cares deeply about.

Being young today means never knowing a time when the world wasn’t warming.

Along with temperature, climate anxiety is on the rise. A global survey found that more than half of people aged 16 to 25 believe that humanity is doomed. And I sympathize with that feeling.

I was born in the 1980s, with environmental scientists for parents, and so oil spills and ozone hole depletion were dinner table conversations. How humanity is trashing the planet — and what we can do about it — drives my work now as a filmmaker but is also on my mind when thinking about starting a family of my own.

Nothing ties you to the future like a child in your life, or a child you want to have. Despite knowing climate facts for years, it really hit home when I found an interactive tool that plotted key family milestones alongside the dramatic rise in global temperature. If I had a child now, they could face up to seven times more extreme weather events compared to my mother’s generation.

Deciding whether to have kids is a personal process that involves many factors. For me, grim forecasts for the planet add in some more. Recently, I wrote, directed and produced a docuseries about existential risks, called “We’re All Gonna Die (Even Jay Baruchel)” on CRAVE. While thinking through nuclear war, pandemics and climate change (among other apocalyptic scenarios), I was wondering how all this existential dread was permeating the most personal of existential decisions. To work through an existential double whammy, I made “The Climate Baby Dilemma” for CBC, a documentary about what to expect when you’re expecting … the climate crisis.

One would think I’d have even more dread now, but quite the opposite. I’ve realized that these are complex global problems, but problems — even the toughest ones — are meant to be solved, and solutions do exist. It’s technically possible to limit temperature rise from reaching catastrophic levels. Every action matters because preventing every additional amount of warming matters.

What I learned, emotionally, making this film was far more beautiful and hopeful than I expected, but it was also more deeply heartbreaking than I could have imagined. Over three years, I followed the groundbreaking researcher Dr. Britt Wray, as she wrestles with the question of whether or not to have a child, all while writing her book, “Generation Dread,” about the psychological impacts of the environmental crisis. Wray’s own work and multiple surveys have since confirmed that the concern about having kids in the climate crisis is widespread — 39 per cent of people aged 16 to 25 in 10 countries express that the climate makes them hesitant to have children, and another survey of just gen Z respondents in the U.S. put it as high as 78 per cent.

Their reasons are diverse, but generally people express more concern about the world a child would be inheriting, than the additional carbon footprint a child would add. In the film, I also met student activists like Emma Lim, who helped organize the 2019 youth climate protests in Canada. At the time, she also launched a pledge called No Future, No Children. For her and the thousands of youth who signed, forgoing parenthood is both an expression of their fear and a plea for action. To be clear, no one featured in the film is interested in telling others to have kids or not, and this is not about population control. It is an urgent indicator of how young people are feeling.

In nine years, unless emissions are brought down, the planet will exhaust its 1.5 C carbon budget. Coincidentally, within nine years, I’ll also have to make a definitive call on biological children or not. But I’ve realized that a specific answer to this question about kids in the climate crisis isn’t what ultimately matters. There’s no right or wrong answer here. It’s the very fact of the question that my generation (and younger) is presented with, and how we go about making sense of it with those we love. This reproductive decision — for those fortunate to be able to make one that’s in line with their wishes — is also just one in a long line of questions that the climate crisis presents us for the rest of our lives.

While many are increasingly connecting kids and the climate crisis, it’s mostly done in private. Parents, nonparents and the undecided can feel alone, isolated and helpless in their anxiety. But I’ve learned that there’s so much power in talking with others about it. By giving shape to something so personal, I hope the film encourages more people to have these conversations. It not only helps manage the emotions, but it personalizes the stakes of the crisis and plugs us into what will keep children safer: advancing justice-oriented approaches to climate action and the transition off fossil fuels.

At one moment in the film, Sarain Fox, an Anishinaabe mother and activist, articulates how bringing kids into an extremely insecure and uncertain future is only actually new for those of us “who have had the privilege to live outside of genocide.” Indigenous as well as Black and racialized families have been raising children under the horrific shadow of racism and colonialism for hundreds of years, while finding ways to resist and build resilience and joy.

Fox highlights how the pain many now feel about the future can serve as “a kind of window into so many demographics who live with that same fear every day because of the world they live in.” Channelling this pain about the future toward solidarity and building deep and profound systemic change is fundamental — and frankly, true climate resilience requires it.

Throughout the documentary, Wray and others find ways to reframe their anxiety and grief toward transformative action. For many, the best antidote to feeling powerless is activism — and that can take many forms, including the decision to not have a child, focus on climate work and help to build more resilient communities. Like Payton Mitchell, who sees her activism as a form of family, and an expression of love for the people and places she cares deeply about.

On the heels of COP27, I’m thinking about where the process began 30 years ago.

At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, 154 states signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. There, a 12-year-old Severn Suzuki gave an impassioned speech that ended with: “You grown-ups say you love us. But I challenge you, please make your actions reflect your words.”

In the film, Suzuki, who is now an activist and mother of two, shares that the meaning of those words have only deepened for her and if we can embody the love we have for our kids as a society, then of course we can deal with these challenges. Making the film has connected me more intentionally and deeply to that sense of love for the next generation, and it has also introduced new set of questions involving what’s now required to truly demonstrate that love to them.

We are still learning about the true toll of the climate crisis. But the future is not doomed — it is still unwritten. Regardless of the level of climate devastation ahead, I’ve learned that we must now to find new tools as parents, as aunties and uncles, as godparents and community members to support the youth in our lives. It also means preparing for the day when a child looks you in the eye and asks if you did everything you possibly could.

Seed storage

The Global Seed Vault’s mission is to ensure Earth’s biodiversity

This article was written by Lex Harvey and was published in the Toronto Star on November 26, 2022.

The vault, operated by the Norwegian government and a German nonprofit called the Crop Trust, is only opened a few times a year to make way for new seeds.

You’ll need to carry a rifle if you wish to visit the world’s biggest collection of agricultural diversity. Here on Norway’s wild and vast Svalbard archipelago, polar bears outnumber people — and you can never be too careful (though of course, killing one is strictly a last resort).

In the icy tundra of Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town, few crops grow. But deep within its permafrost — layers of soil, gravel and sand, frozen in place — lay the keys to securing the world’s food supply, in the form of more than one million types of seeds.

Dubbed the “doomsday vault,” the Global Seed Vault has a certain scifi quality to it. The concrete structure jutting out of the hillside is built to withstand the most severe natural disasters, and even a nuclear bomb, according to its manufacturer. But at its core, the vault’s mission is quite simple.

“It’s just seed storage inside the mountain,” says Åsmund Asdal, the vault’s co-ordinator and only fulltime employee. Still, since it was built in 2008, the vault has acted as something of an insurance policy for Earth’s biodiversity, a role of increasing importance in a world ravaged by political instability, war and the urgent threat of climate change.

At 78 degrees N, about 1,000 kilometres away from the North Pole, you’d be hard pressed to find a more remote (yet still accessible) place to safeguard the world’s seeds. The vault sits just outside Longyearbyen, up the hill from the world’s northernmost commercial airport. For three months of the year, the vault resides in complete darkness, after the sun sets for the Arctic’s long polar night.

The seeds live in a chilled room, carved more than 100 metres into the rock, through a long tunnel and behind a large steel door that keeps out unwanted visitors. The vault is closed to the public, and its doors are only opened a few times a year to make way for new seeds. But the shimmering exterior, dressed in a design of steel and mirror shards by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne, hints at the magic that lies inside.

The Global Seed Vault, which is operated by the Norwegian government and a German nonprofit called the Crop Trust, is part of a broader network for seed storage. About 1,750 gene banks scattered across the globe hold the genetic codes to the world’s crops, both past and present, in the form of seeds or other plant tissues called germ plasm. Together, these facilities contain about 7.4 million types of germ plasm, according to the UN’s food and agriculture agency.

Around the world, crop diversity is decreasing, as food production converges around a globalized diet. A 2019 University of Toronto study found just four crops — soybeans, wheat, rice and corn — occupy nearly half of the world’s agricultural lands. The researchers also pointed to a lack of genetic diversity within individual crops; for example, in North America, just six individual corn genotypes make up over half of all corn crops. When a small number of crop genotypes dominate globally, that makes our food supply more vulnerable to disease and disaster.

Preserving living crop genotypes in gene banks means plant breeders can tap into that diversity to create new, resilient crops. “We need diversity to create something new,” Axel Diederichsen, a researcher for Agriculture and AgriFood Canada, who works at Canada’s plant gene bank, in Saskatoon. “If we only have one type of wheat and we want to make a new wheat, it’s very difficult. But if we have a collection with diverse wheat, then we can make crosses.”

Canada also has two other gene banks: one in Harrow, Ont., which holds fruit trees and small crops; and another, in Fredericton, which stores the genetic material for more than 200 types of potatoes.

But gene banks are fallible. “Many gene banks all over the world have lost seeds, due to flooding, due to fires, due to war and conflict, due to electricity failures, lack of resources,” said Asdal, the vault’s co-ordinator. Anything from a dropped envelope to a natural disaster can threaten the preservation of seeds in gene banks.

That’s where the Global Seed Vault comes in. Gene banks are invited to store duplicates of their seeds in the Svalbard vault, as a backup. Canada has about 32,000 envelopes in Svalbard, each containing about 200 seeds, to grow crops like barley, oat and wheat, Diederichsen said. Since 2008, Canada has made seven deposits in the Global Seed Bank, he said, and has another planned for October.

The vault currently hosts 5,947 plant species, many of which no longer grow on this earth, from 91 gene banks, according to its website. With each new deposit, the vault’s library grows richer. In June, Lithuania and Spain backed up seeds in the Global Seed Vault for the first time, as part of a large deposit that welcomed varieties of rice bean, lablab and a yard-long bean.

The vault’s value has already been tested. In 2015, after Syria’s bloody civil war forced an important gene bank in Aleppo to relocate to Beirut, researchers retrieved more than100,000 seed samples from the Arctic to replant in the new facility.

The Global Seed Vault’s far-flung location in an Arctic territory of politically stable Norway makes it a comfortable and safe home for the world’s seeds. Svalbard’s chilly climate and hundreds of metres thick permafrost make it a good choice, too. When seeds are frozen, they can stay alive for centuries, Asdal said. The mountain permafrost has a stable temperature of between -3 and -4 C, and the vault uses artificial cooling to keep the seeds at an icy -18C. But even if the cooling system were to fail, the seeds would stay frozen, Asdal said.

But even this so-called doomsday vault isn’t immune to the world’s collective climate change. Svalbard is the fastest warming place on earth, heating at a rate five to seven times that of the rest of the world, and rapidly rising temperatures are causing the permafrost to thaw. After an unusually warm winter in 2017, a flood of meltwater breached the vault. No seeds were harmed, but the scare prompted the Norwegian government to spend about $30 million fortifying the vault.

Despite the existential threats Svalbard is facing — from melting glaciers, to avalanches, to landslides — the Global Seed Vault is safe, Asdal assures, though it may need to use a bit more electricity to keep things cool as the planet warms.

Still, the world will need to lean on the genetic resources in the vault and other gene banks as the climate crisis accelerates, to replant crops that are destroyed in major weather events, and to breed new, adaptive plant varieties. Our food security depends on it.

Thunberg-led activists sue Sweden

Lawsuit claims country violated its citizens’ human rights with its policies

This article was written by the Associated Press and was published in the Toronto Star on November 26, 2022.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg holds a placard that reads “Now we sue the State” during a demonstration by youth-led organization Aurora in Stockholm, Sweden, on Friday.

Hundreds of activists, among them Greta Thunberg, marched through the Swedish capital to a court Friday to file a lawsuit against the Swedish state for what they say is insufficient climate action.

More than 600 young people under the age of 26 signed the 87-page document that is the basis for the lawsuit which was filed in the Stockholm District Court.

They want the court to determine that the country has violated its citizens’ human rights with its climate policies.

“Sweden has never treated the climate crisis like a crisis,” said Anton Foley, spokespersons of the youthled initiative Aurora, which prepared and filed the lawsuit. “Sweden is failing in its responsibility and breaking the law.”

The action comes as scientists warn that chances are slipping away to limit future warming to 1.5 C since pre-industrial times.

At a recent UN climate conference in Egypt earlier this month, leaders tried to keep that goal alive, but did not ratchet up calls for reducing carbon emissions. Another activist, Ida Edling, said that Sweden “is pursuing a climate policy the research is very clear will contribute to a climate disaster in the future.”

Sweden’s parliament decided in 2017 said that by 2045, the Scandinavian country is to have zero net emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and is to have 100 per cent renewable energy.

Swedish broadcaster TV4 said the government declined to comment on ongoing legal action.

Climate campaigners have launched numerous lawsuits against governments and companies in recent years, with mixed success.

In one of the most high-profile cases, Germany’s top court ruled last year that the government had to adjust its climate targets to avoid unduly burdening the young. The German government reacted by bringing forward its target for “net zero” emissions by five years to 2045 and laying more ambitious near-and-medium term steps to achieve that goal.

B.C. isn’t ready for the next flood

This editorial was written and published by the Globe & Mail on November 26, 2022.

Ayear ago, a tidal wave of rain lashed British Columbia. Landslides and swollen rivers destroyed highways and, when inadequate dikes failed, a large swath of the Fraser Valley was flooded. The inundation ranks among the worst in the province’s history, alongside the floods of 1894 and 1948. Those disasters opened up short windows of political will to rebuild and better gird for the future.

That was the hope last year, too, as the waters receded, but the task is more complicated now. Defences need not only to be rebuilt and improved from substandard conditions but also bolstered for an era of climate heating in which extreme storms will be more common.

Change, however, has been slow to emerge. Look at one small example in Vancouver – far from the most serious but a symbol of the situation. When the storms hit last November, a barge became unmoored in English Bay. There were fears it could crash into a bridge but instead the 1.5-million-kilogram vessel lodged itself on the shore. And there it sat; it could not be moved so it was instead, eventually, dismantled. It took until this month, a year later, for the work to be finished.

Recovery times in general have been extended. It took a year to reopen Highway 8, a rural route that had been destroyed in several dozen places. The old Highway 1 through the Fraser Canyon, which has been patched up, won’t be fully repaired until 2024. The four-lane Coquihalla highway, the main connection between Vancouver and the rest of Canada, saw various bridges lost and numerous sections damaged. It was closed to regular traffic for two months, and permanent repairs are supposed to be finished this winter.

Preparing for future floods remains under discussion. Last month, the provincial government put out an “intentions paper” – an outline of the problems and possible solutions. It is the precursor to a provincial flood strategy later next year, further planning into 2024, and “implementation” between 2024 and 2030.

This initial paper contains a lot of what’s necessary, because what’s necessary is already widely known and well chronicled in previous reports. Ahead of the flood last year, there had been multiple warnings. The refrain was always the same: Many dikes were substandard, in disrepair and likely wouldn’t hold up against a deluge. And that’s what happened.

A key element going forward is leadership. In the early 2000s, the province, led then by the centre-right BC Liberals, mostly got out of direct oversight of flooding. But cities proved to be poorly equipped, and without the funds, to fill the gap. The province has indicated it will reassert its role but the details aren’t settled.

Other proposed actions include up-to-date flood maps, stronger dike regulations and improved storm forecasting. There’s the issue of “orphan” dikes, which number more than 100 and are overseen by no one. Beyond flood defences, there are decisions about getting out of the way – “flood avoidance” – such as making room for rivers to expand and contract.

There are also tricky bilateral issues. The 2021 flood happened in part because of the Nooksack River, south of the border, and long-standing questions remain unsettled.

Costs – whether for recovery or investments in mitigation – are counted in the billions of dollars. Ottawa, through a stretched program for disaster recovery funding, will pay out $3.5-billion to cover damages in B.C., most of the total bill. That’s a daunting figure, but so is the cost of being better prepared. Abbotsford, an hour east of Vancouver, saw the worst flooding. The city has plans for dikes and pump stations that could cost more than $2-billion, but it may be years before anything is built.

Spending today, however, can pay off tomorrow. The intentions report cites an analysis that suggests every $1million in public money invested in flood resilience in the 2020s and 2030s will save at least $7-million in “avoided flood damage and recovery costs” in the 2040s through the 2060s.

What’s more worrisome is that while last year was bad, it could have been worse, if a large Fraser River or coastal flood had occurred. A report in 2016 urged preventative measures, given “the chilling cost of inaction.”

This November in B.C. has been drier than normal, but big storms are certain to smash the province again. Its state of readiness needs to be strengthened as quickly as possible.

Time to kill off the big, fat COP climate conferences that accomplish almost nothing

The meetings started out as a good idea, but they ultimately accomplish almost nothing

This article was written by Eric Reguly and was published in the Globe & Mail on November 26, 2022.

The first United Nations climate conference I covered was the 2009 COP15 dud in Copenhagen. Since then, I have worked the conference mob scenes in Paris, Madrid and, earlier this month, Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. They were duds, too, in the sense that none ended with formal agreements to reduce fossil fuel use – the only metric that matters as average global temperatures rise to dangerous levels.

The annual COPs have turned into chaotic, bloated carnivals where, in their final desperate hours (most of them go into overtime) the distraught host-country presidency produces a facesaving agreement that allows it to declare a victory of some sort – or at least deflect some of the criticism that the outcome was a total failure. Even a breakthrough that barely fits the definition is billed as a win, since these events operate by consensus; any one of the nearly 200 countries in the room can kill the whole show.

So it was at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheik, the string of gated-community resorts on the southern tip of Egypt’s Sinai desert. Instead of a realistic plan to phase down all fossil fuels, not just coal, the event ended with a vague commitment to launch a “loss and damage” fund. If this concept borne of richcountry guilt comes to life – big if – it would help pay for the damages inflicted in poor countries by catastrophic climate events.

I suspect accounting fudges might allow the fund to be launched officially at next year’s COP28 in Dubai. The temptation to finance it by diverting money from other climate funds, such as the prominent adaptation and mitigation fund, may prove tempting for some wealthy countries. That fund’s goal was to come up with US$100-billion a year, but it has always come up short.

And that’s the problem: these COPs (for Conference of the Parties) always come up short by almost every measure, from financing to emissions reductions. The Sharm el-Sheik event was no exception. It set some new lows that will be hard to beat.

To begin with, there was nothing environmentally sustainable about the conference itself, which was held in a village composed of enormous popup pavilions that were chilled to numbing temperatures by noisy, industrial air conditioners. The pavilions were routinely short of food and fresh water. For the vast majority of the 35,000 attendees, the only way to arrive was by airplane.

The conference was sponsored by Coca-Cola, one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters. About 600 oil and gas lobbyists prowled the halls. Their mission was not to see their industry go out of business. It was to keep the fossil-fuel era alive, a fairly easy challenge as the energy crisis sends many countries in Europe and elsewhere scrambling for new supplies of hydrocarbons even as they decry global warming.

And never mind that Egypt is a dictatorship that has no tolerance for most types of public dissent, including environmental protests, and whose prisons contain an estimated 60,000 political detainees.

The COPs started out as a good idea. They were the result of the launch in 1992 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the goal of which was to prevent global warming from triggering an existential crisis for the planet. The first COP was held in Berlin in 1995.

Since then, these events have expanded to the point that the actual negotiators seem like sideshows to the annual gabfest populated by tens of thousands of extras in the form of oil- and gasindustry shills, environmental groups, journalists, political hacks and fixers, PR men and women, assorted observers and government leaders, most of whom use fleeting photo-op appearances in an attempt to show they care about the environment (Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was a noshow in Sharm el-Skeikh but will surely show up at next month’s COP15 Biodiversity Conference in Montreal).

The whole idea of city-size COPs has become ridiculous, all the more so since their accomplishments are meagre to non-existent: emissions keep rising and are set to reach record levels in 2022. Their time has come. But what to replace them with?

At minimum, they should be slimmed down to their core pursuits, including negotiating emissions reductions, protecting carbon sinks such as the Amazon and Congo forests, and finding ways to help poor countries adapt to a problem not of their doing. This does not need a cast of thousands. It needs small, dedicated groups of negotiators who know their files and have direct access to their country’s environment and industry ministers. Call them mini-COPs

Here, potentially, is an even better idea. Why have COPs of any size at all? Why not replace them with specialized teams who would quietly negotiate all the time, not just at big events once a year, where they come under extreme pressure to announce anything.

A team responsible for the reduction of, say, methane (which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere) would be composed of negotiators from a broad variety of countries working under the UNFCCC umbrella. They would work for as long as it takes to get the job done. A small summit devoid of human clutter could be used to push any deal over the finish line.

Today’s carnivalesque events have proven expensive, climate unfriendly, chaotic, stressful – and largely useless. The results speak for themselves. Time to kill them off.