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Fire and Flood: When Risk becomes Reality

From October 31st to November 12th 2021, over 100 leaders from across the world met in Glasgow, Scotland for the 26th annual conference of parties (COP26). The conference ran into overtime as everyone from politicians and fuel industry lobbyists to Greenpeace and David Attenborough, met to discuss initiatives for mitigating and reducing the risks of Climate Change. COP26 was particularly important, as this was the conference in which the parties revisited their landmark commitments to change made in the Paris agreement of 2015.

(photo from the Guardian)

During the Paris conference, governments made limited commitments, however even then they acknowledged that the plan would likely fall short of its goal of keeping the rise in global temperature under 1.5 degrees Celsius. They had decided then to recommit and assess changes in 2020 (COP26 had to be delayed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). COP26 produced mixed results; while countries such as the United States and China made promises to work closely together in order to defeat climate change (something that they had yet to commit to until this point), as it stands, the commitments that were made are still not aggressive enough for meaningful change.

If recent history has shown us anything, it is that even the limited commitments made at COP26 may not be fully put into practice. Within the agreement made in 2015, richer countries had made promises to provide $100 billion dollars annually by 2020 to developing countries that will ultimately feel the worst of the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, this promise was not met, and as a result leaders of developing countries are growing more tired and frustrated by the inaction of wealthier countries. Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley called the inaction “unjust and immoral”, as while developing countries have lower emissions they often face the brunt of the changing climate with more floods, heat waves, and droughts.

(photo from BBC, graph sourced from University of California, Berkeley)

Climate Change is not just a problem for developing countries. In 2020, natural disasters caused $210 billion in damage worldwide. The impacts have been felt acutely in British Columbia, the province has declared a state of emergency twice within a 140 day period due to extreme weather. BC's millions of square kilometers of forest have been subjected to increasingly regular heatwaves. Last summer's record breaking temperatures lead to a devastating wildfire season; as authorities struggled to get the blazes under control, fires raged and destroyed entire communities such as Lytton, leaving thousands displaced. CBC reports that a “total of $565 million has been spent on fighting wildfires this year, and 181 evacuation orders were issued” (October 4th 2021, Kulkarni).

One extreme weather event can lead to another; as the freshly burnt ground becomes hydrophobic, leaving water to run off vegetation that would have otherwise absorbed it. Fire-induced rock is also prone to cracking, which then increases the likelihood of landslides creating debris which overflows into rivers, potentially damming the river altogether, and boosting the flood risk. The wildfires last summer are suspected to be one of the causes of the recent devastating flooding in the communities of Abbotsford, Merritt, Chilliwack and Hope. As large parts of these communities are built on or near floodplains, there is a high risk of this happening more regularly in the future.

(photo from CBC news)

The time is now to defend our livelihood by enacting policies that will attempt to repair the damage done to our climate. It's more important now than ever before to keep sustainability in mind, whether that’s in how we get to work, what we eat for dinner, or how our structures are built. By using all of our sustainable tools available, doing things like protecting our structures so we can make them last for decades to come, we can reduce the waste and pollution overall. Assessing risks and making plans to be proactive is fine in theory, but we're passed the point of thinking about risks as a future or worst case scenario. World leaders have historically seen risk mitigation as a novelty, when it should be respected as a necessity. What the last few years have shown us, locally and globally, is that concrete action is needed to repair the damage done by climate change, and preventative measures need to be put in place to prevent worse disasters in the future. The longer we wait to act, the worse the situation will get.


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