Albertans must accept new normal

Plenty of Albertans push back from any suggestion of global warming as if they were being served a dish of raw bitumen, garnished with coal shavings.

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Plenty of Albertans push back from any suggestion of global warming as if they were being served a dish of raw bitumen, garnished with coal shavings.

It is a conundrum that besets societies around the world — science is muted, discredited, disavowed or ignored by those who fear the loss of well-being, a shift in their belief system or some sort of social upheaval as a result of that science.

In energy-driven economies such as Alberta’s, particularly during a nasty and enduring downturn, they astonishingly stay on the road built on quicksand. To veer onto stable ground, and embrace the inevitability of science, is to similarly accept the notion that change is imperative. And change might mean a loss of income, a shift of profession or other similarly cataclysmic U-turn of social circumstances.

So too many Albertans — even some who grudgingly accept the science of climate change — can’t assent to the evolution of our social and economic foundation. When in doubt, bury your head in the tarsands.

But it’s increasingly difficult to ignore the signs in Alberta, little and large. The environment is under attack, and our reference points for quality of life and economic stability are fading.

Red Deer, an idyll of parks surrounded by rich farmland (and mammoth petrochemical plants), has deplorable air quality, according to years of testing. The mysterious source (or sources) of particulates will finally be fully studied. The province has just invested $810,000 in a refined air monitoring project for the city. What happens next will depend on the study results (that’s good science — find the source, then act).

Edmonton’s popular Gold Bar Park is, in the words of neuroscience professor and park user David Bennett, “sandwiched between a sewage treatment plant and … refineries.” Bennett recently told CBC News that he conducted his own air quality tests and discovered particulate levels two and a half times the accepted levels. Now Alberta Environment is involved in further testing.

The City of Edmonton is working on a $2.4-billion project to protect vulnerable neighbourhoods from what were once known as one-in-100-year floods. The project is being driven by devastating flooding in 2012, and by the rising threat that climate change carries. “These raging cloud bursts that we get all of a sudden dump a ton of water and our infrastructure just wasn’t built for that climate,” Heather Mack, Alberta director of government relations for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, told the Edmonton Journal.

The people of Calgary, and High River, know all too well about the devastating impact of heavy rain and rising water levels. The damage from 2013’s catastrophic flooding is still being repaired. And the province is still scrapping with landowners about how to spend the billions necessary to prevent a repeat of one of the costliest disasters in the history of Alberta. When 350 mm of rain falls on mountain snowpack within two days, the downstream impact will always be astonishing unless new runoff reservoirs are established. And, based on climate change, another monstrous deluge is not 100 years away.

But climate change isn’t just about devastating rainfall. It’s also about the long, unnatural dry periods in between the flooding. It’s a kind of environmental boom and bust. As many Alberta communities broke century-old warm weather records in March and April, the wildfire risk urgently pushed upward. Alberta’s winter precipitation was about 85 per cent below normal. That meant fire season began two months ahead of schedule. And with every blaze, valuable resources are depleted, never mind the cost of fighting the fires.

None of this means Albertans shouldn’t be concerned about the painful impact on this province from depressed world oil markets. The job losses are expected to continue — PetroLMI, a Calgary-based industry analyst, predicts another 16,000 Alberta jobs will be lost this year. Heavy equipment idled by the energy industry is being sold off at unprecedented rates, for bargain prices.

The human devastation will be deep and enduring for many. So too will the impact on business.

We have invested too much in this province, economically and socially, to quit now.

But we need to accept the reality of climate change, and we need to do it quickly. We need to realize that ideas like carbon tax are not meant to penalize us; they are meant to change our habits and encourage new technology that will give renewed life to a cleaner version of our energy industries.

The new normal in Alberta means accepting the global problems we have helped create and joining the movement to reverse the devastation. Now.

Troy Media columnist John Stewart is a born and bred Albertan who doesn’t drill for oil, ranch or drive a pickup truck – although all of those things have played a role in his past.

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