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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Chilly climate for climate change

This blog is extra long. It's a complex subject which requires a great deal of concentration to comprehend, something that too many of our current crop  of councillors seem to be ill prepared to do. I have tried to simplify the issue for purposes of clarity, something that was made more difficult by the fact that file containing the notes I took at the council meeting was corrupted and inaccessible. I compensated by making more notes while watching it on Rogers but it's not the same.

Until I served on city council, I had always thought of climate change as something that happens out there, slowly melting ice caps and endangering polar bears. I hadn’t really thought of being able to observe or predict it at the local level, although I subscribed to the philosophy of “think globally, act locally”. My actions, however, were generally geared to preventing global warming or at least slowing it down. I tended to think of adaptation as an admission of failure which would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That all changed when I attended an informal presentation on the effect of climate change on the risk of flooding by Slobodan Simonovic at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. An engineer at UWO, he had just completed an investigation funded by the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences of the vulnerability of water resources to extreme weather events in the Thames Basin. His findings were for the broader region but had potential for identifying localized areas of risk. If extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, which structures and populations will be most at risk? Assuming we can’t prevent severe storms from becoming more frequent and intense, and of longer duration, if we can identify our points of vulnerability, and locate our infrastructure and vulnerable populations in relation to it, perhaps we can identify some engineering techniques to minimize the impacts and reduce the risks.

That takes research. Which areas of the city are most vulnerable to flooding in a severe weather event? What infrastructure do we have there? Can it cope? Which people will be most at risk? 

In the past, we have identified the time of greatest risk as spring, when the thaw and spring rains converge. But increasingly we are witnessing severe weather events in the summer that appear suddenly and with increasing ferocity and heavy rainfall. All we have to do is look around at what has been happening across Canada.

His work provided a great opportunity for the city to have some of these questions answered without having to re-invent the wheel. By piggybacking onto work already undertaken, we could partner with others and take advantage of a research team of graduate and postgraduate engineering students under the direction of a renowned principal researcher, Dr. Simonivic. 

On the recommendation of staff, council voted to undertake a two part Climate Change Adaptation Strategy: first, to update the information on the changes in the intensity, duration and frequency of severe rainfall events (IDF curves) and identify the related vulnerable infrastructure and then to develop short and long term plans to offset the impacts through planning and engineering.

Not everyone was thrilled with the direction being taken. Taking into account environmental impacts and compensating for them is not something the development industry is keen on. Therefore it was no surprise that over the next couple of years, whenever the climate change work was under consideration, those most beholden to the industry- Gosnell, Polhill, Hume, VanMeerbergen, Caranci, and Miller- would vote against it.

However, the work preceded as most of council understood what was at stake, the security of their constituents and their property. Room was made in the budget to cover the research, workshops were held to ensure that council members as well as other interested parties in the community were kept up to date. Those who were interested attended, which pretty much eliminated the aforementioned persons.

Following a number of delays in the timing of the workshops, the matter was finally brought back to council for an update and a direction to move forward. A report came forward to the most recent Built and Natural Environment Committee, at the end of the evening following a long agenda. Everyone was tired. Media had left. No one, save the mayor, had much to say.

Pat McNally, executive director of planning, environmental and engineering services, provided a brief report outlining the background for the current recommendations to accept the reports on the two completed studies and to move ahead to apply the projected increased IDF curves to specific areas for the purpose of ultimately planning an adaptation strategy in consultation with interested parties.

McNally pointed out that London has had five severe flooding events in the last 30 years. The research to date suggest that these will become more frequent and of greater intensity and duration. Much of our infrastructure is not designed for this eventuality, therefore, our residents’ safety and the security of their property is at risk. Currently, flooding accounts for 50% of all insurance claims across the country. In London, that means about $13M in insurance payouts. Such claims have a significant impact upon insurance rates paid by the city and its taxpayers. The completed studies point out specific areas and infrastructure at risk. The next phase of the project is to apply the increased risk to existing infrastructure.

The mayor sprang into action. He didn’t like the speed at which things were proceeding.  Things were moving too fast. He especially didn’t like action words like “incorporate, adjust, proceed, develop”. He had been talking to the development industry. They wanted some input before there were any more studies. This could have a significant impact on them. Staff had identified adjusting the IDF curves by 21%, the mi point of the potential range generated by the existing studies. Fontana doubted that was a good number to use, it would have too much impact on the industry. He wanted everything referred to a public meeting.

Staff tried to explain that there had been consultation with the various agencies and authorities throughout and everyone had been updated and invited to the workshops. Further dialogue with interested parties was already included in the recommendation.

It is doubtful if any members of the committee except Joni Baechler had read the report. Joe Swan was absent. It was late. In order to appease the mayor, a motion was made to add a public participation meeting upon conclusion of the subwatershed studies. It was redundant, but all present supported the motion.

That should have ensured passage of the recommendation at council on Monday evening. But no, the development industry had been busy contacting their ambassadors on council.

Jim Kennedy, president of the London Development Institute had sent an email complaining that he had not been adequately consulted. Where were the provincial agencies in all this? Had the Ministry of the Environment, of Natural Resource, and the Upper Thames Recreation and Conservation Authority (UTRCA) reviewed the studies? What would all this cost? Who would pay for it? He wanted it referred back for a public consultation.

As well, in a separate email Jeff Brick, a planner and a coordinator with UTRCA, suggested that UTRCA was not sufficiently involved, although it was invited to all the workshops and sent all the reports (as were all the other government agencies) and was one of the parties with whom a “dialogue” would be held prior to proceeding according to the recommendation. He worried about a “peer” review, although he would hardly be considered an appropriate peer. In fact, the studies had been peer-reviewed by persons with the appropriate scientific and engineering backgrounds and published in several prestigious academic and professional journals. His comments had all the earmarks of a turf war.

Councillor Baechler led off the debate with pictures of the devastation inflicted by recent severe storms and flooding in Peterborough, Toronto and London. To move this forward, she suggested identifying the UTRCA specifically as one of the interested parties to be consulted. Her motion was supported by Matt Brown when he was reassured that there would be meaningful consultation with UTRCA prior to proceeding with the additional studies.

It was Councillor Denise Brown who proposed a referral back to staff. She had had a lot of phone calls. A lot of people were not happy. Landowners, developers. It could affect the development along the 401.

Councillor Dale Henderson backed her up. The report from Western hadn’t been peer-reviewed. There would be lands we couldn’t build on. We haven’t heard from the experts, it’s not our jurisdiction, he rambled. He wasn’t impressed with flood pictures, he needed good information. What would it all cost? He didn’t think the studies were based on scientific information. It appeared he was reading phrases from Jim Kennedy’s letter. He certainly wasn’t reading from the report or he would have known better.

He was followed by Councillor Sandy White, also reading from the letters rather than the report. She had an added complaint: Joni Baechler. Joni championed public consultation but not for this. Joni was in the London Free Press saying we didn’t have money for the 401, then she was in the media saying we had money for climate change! It is clear that for White, the political is personal.

Councillor Nancy Branscombe tried to bring them back to what this was all about, a scientific study to gather the information so that they could go to the public to consult on how to deal with the outcomes. “There isn’t enough money to do everything,” she noted. There are hospitals in her ward. “In the event of a flood, how do we get {the patients] out?

“This is not about the development industry,” she continued. “We need to get the scientific information, not personal opinion. Then we do the policy work with public consultation”.

The mayor didn’t get it. He had met with some consulting engineers. Climate wouldn’t change much in a couple of months.

“Heck, we gave the chicken people a consultation. This is a lot more important.” He wanted the public to weigh in on what they thought of the project and the studies so far. And he didn’t want to leave out the stakeholders.

He was particularly incensed about the proposed 21% increase in the IDF curves for the modelling, chosen because it was the midpoint of the range. “That’s how we’re going to do the modelling?” he demanded. “I don’t even know what that means! Come on, people. I want to do this right!” 

I presume by this last statement that he was suggesting that the general public is better qualified to determine the appropriate increases in the IDF curves, which few will have ever heard of, than is the acknowledged expert from the engineering department at UWO.

“Come on”, he entreated again. “That is not the way we should do business.” Unfortunately, he forgot that he was supposed to be doing science, not business or politics.

Denise Brown concurred. “The public has to be involved. There’s experts out there.”

Councillor Joe Swan, who had not been at the committee meeting, decided to make up for the missed opportunity to influence the debate. He pointed out that part c) of the motion clearly stated that there should be consultation with the land development community and experts. As for the general public, “Most people in Ward 3 are thinking about their jobs and how to provide for their families.” He went on to point out that if you’re going to set a policy, you have to do some research first.

Denise Brown was adamant; the public needed to be consulted before the research could go ahead. Several that called told her so.

Swan wanted to know who these members of the public were. Could she name them?

Put on the spot, she named Jim Kennedy of LDI whose letter was before the council. My guess is there were discussions with other members of the industry as well.

Swan responded, “That’s what brings the suspicion to the table. What is the intent of LDI?”

There were still a couple of others to add their wisdom.

Councillor Paul VanMeerbergen, who has consistently opposed any research on climate change which he believes does not exist, suggested he wanted to “hear from other scientists, not just Slobodan, not just one contract team we hired in 2008.” He worried about the money that would have to be spent upgrading sewers when we need to build more roads. He wanted to refer it back. He also suggested that Simonovic had received $1.3M for the work on this project. In fact, that is the total that has been set aside for the entire project, most of which has not been spent, and only a small proportion to compensate the principal researcher. When asked to apologize for impugning the reputation of the researcher, he tried to justify his comments.

Councillor Bud Polhill, who was presenting the report, wanted to add something to the referral, but the mayor had had it. “I can’t deal with any more referrals." The question was put.

The motion to refer back was lost on a 6 to 8 vote. Voting to refer back (and hoping to put it on hold permanently) were Fontana, Polhill, Henderson, VanMeerbergen, Denise Brown and White. Orser was absent. The remainder- Armstrong, Swan, Baechler, Branscombe, Matt Brown, Hubert, Usher and Bryant  voted against the referral. This was followed by a show of hands to support Baechler’s amendment and the the go ahead for the research.

Shortly thereafter, it was noted that the original recommendation included the following:

c)   Planning, Environmental and Engineering Services BE DIRECTED to proceed with consultation with the public and interested parties with respect to increasing the City's existing Intensity Duration Frequency (IDF) Curves;

It had been there all along.

“You mean we went through all this for nothing?” the mayor demanded.

Perhaps he should have read the agenda and report. He and at least five others.


Anonymous said...

It's damn tough to find the time to read these high-faluting agendas and reports when you're busy selling lots down by the 401.

It's a question of priorities.

Anon one

The Cynic said...

It is so nice to see the LDI has such shinning lights representing them on Council

Full-Time Genius said...

It's probably a good thing that Steve (Full-Time) Orser was absent. Could have been a different outcome.

That's not like him to miss a big feed in the roof-top cafeteria.

Eaton Kwan said...

Gina this was a very good record of the cleavage that exists between the scientific/engineering and policy work. As someone who's been on both side of the fence (science vs. policy, not the climate change debate), it's difficult to ensure the retention of the transmission between the engineering need and the policy support. As much of the previous comments has shown, most laypersons are more interested in turning policy into politics, there they will find something tangible to praise or blame. I think we are all guilty of that to a fault.

I am familiar with Dr. Simonovic's research and his predictions are right on, where the destructive power of storms increase and the nurturing power of weather decreases (flash floods come to mind). The issue in 2011 is no longer mitigation, rather it is adaptation. Mitigation ought to have cost less money and we've already seen the non-regimes that's come out of the annual IPCC plenary, adaptation will cost billions, if not trillions, MORE than the cost of mitigation. I can only imagine when that happens, the blame game that will take the spotlight instead of the actual adaptation measure or the natural disasters that's happening.

I am 32 as of today, no kids but will likely have some before I turn 40 and it sickens me that I will bring my children in a far different place than when I was growing up in the 80s.

Bernie Koenig said...

What always gets me--in a negative way--is how the business community can't see that such study is in their interests as well.
All they know how to do is think in small, short vterm ways, with no regard for their future, let alone the future of anyone else.
No wonder our economy is in a mess.

Robert Austin said...

Eaton Kwan,
I think you have it backwards. Adaptive measures such as designing our infrastructure for events more extreme than presently entertained will certainly be expensive. On the other hand, mitigation costs are absurdly and mind-bogglingly high. Absurd in that Canada could revert to a stone age economy and it would not make a measurable difference to the atmospheric CO2 concentration. So even though I am skeptical of the "increased frequency of extreme weather events" mantra, at least with adaptive measures, we get something worthwhile for our money. Then we can sensibly decide on measures based on the concept of insurance. If the value of the adaptive measures in preventing damage exceeds the cost of premiums, then employ the measures. Otherwise, cost/benefit says that you just live with the possibility of the rare event that exceeds the design parameters of the infrastructure.

Sean H. said...

While the mayor and his backers on council prefer the short-term, risky jobs of land speculators selling more debt to the already deeply indebted, preparing for climate change would instead represent an investment in the long term viability of the city and its infrastructure that would in turn generate jobs across multiple layers of the local economy.

But doing the right thing is at times difficult, especially when one's loyalties are to those whose incomes are dependent on "business as usual" no matter how destructive or bankrupting such a course will ultimately prove.

But the mayor and council need not fear the consequences of their actions. It is their grandchildren who will pay that price. Hopefully they can at least explain to them why the financial interests of minority economic sector trumped the best interests of the entire city and its future inhabitants.

Why's woman said...

Hi Gina,
Thanks for the update. You are clearer than the paperwork. I'm still lost, however.

Is there going to be a public participation meeting on this? Is the work being done by environment services and other agencies still going on?

Could you phrase it starting with: "the next things to happen are" ...


Why's Woman

Insurer said...

The part of this that is troubling is that the upfront costs of being prepared for "flashier" storm events would generally be paid as growth related expenses, that is to say, by higher development charges. However, if Council caves to the developers, when the current standards are insufficient to protect property, the city taxpayers will pick up the whole shot of the damages because the insurers will say the city was negligent in not being prepared.

Gina Barber said...

For clarification, as it stands now there will be consultation with interested parties- LDI, UTRCA and possibly others prior to undertaking the next set of studies. Once the information is in and potential impacts are assessed, there will be a public participation meeting.

Anonymous said...

The Environment Canada weather data that is given in the UWO report can be found on the internet. It is tabulated in the UWO report. The thing is… if you:
1. Do NOT run this pure data through the “Global Climate Model”.
2. Do NOT run this pure data through the UWO’s “Weather Generator Model”.
3. Plot the unadulterated data on a time-series graph and produce the “average” line from 1943 to 2003 (all data available),
One would rightly conclude that the intensity, duration and frequency of all storm events for this data illustrate a “flat-line” attribute.
Odd, no?

Eric Townshend said...

Thank you for an excellent and enlightening article Gina.