VIEWPOINT: Ottawa temperatures expected to exceed two-degree increase by 2020s

By: Sidney Weiss  

The first day of spring has passed, but below-zero temperatures continued to hog the forecast well into the third week of March.

Ottawa has been taken for a ride this winter. Irregularly cold temperatures in December and January — separated by erratic days of mildness and sun — seems to represent the new, unpredictable norm for this city.

The random and sometimes extreme weather of these last few months has brought the city full-circle to the one-year anniversary of massive floods that washed out nearly 400 homes in the Ottawa-Gatineau region.

The Ottawa River reached levels it hasn’t for decades after the spring saw precipitation levels nearly double the average. Then, last October, Ottawa received half of the average monthly rainfall in one night.

We need to be cautious about extrapolating long-term climate patterns from season-to-season anomalies. But as the anomalies eventually add up, become more common than strange, it seems to confirm the consensus formulated among global scientists that we are entering a period of global climate change that will result in even more of these unpredictable events.

It will be difficult for cities all over the world to prepare for climate change expected in the coming decades and beyond. When monthly averages are no longer reliable, how do we prepare for the impacts of changing seasons?

According to a recent report by Columbia University’s Urban Climate Change Research Network, this may be the tip of the climate change iceberg for Ottawa.

The UCCRN’s team of climate scientists and professors — including renowned NASA researcher Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig  — examined 100 cities to determine temperature projections for the next few decades compared to temperatures from 1971 to 2000.

Ottawa placed third among 13 cities worldwide in terms of severity of change, with a temperature hike above the historical average that could exceed two degrees Celsius during the 2020s.

In 2005, the National Capital Commission led its own study on climate change impacts in Ottawa that predicted smaller temperature increases over longer periods of time than the UCCRN’s report forecasts. A two-degree increase wasn’t anticipated until at least 2050.

A United Nations draft report showed that despite global efforts, overall global temperatures are on track to rise above a 1.5-Celsius target.

The statistics and science are there, but policy and action are not. In the political world, those who aren’t still denying the reality of climate change are aware of its looming threats and agree that action needs to be taken.

What this “action” will actually look like is still something conservative and liberal politicians can’t seem to agree on.

Ontario’s goal to drop greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 by 15 per cent (below 1990 levels), and 37 per cent by 2030, seem reasonable, yet are anticipated to fall short of what’s really needed.

Global agreements were signed in Kyoto and in Paris — ambitious, yet necessary, targets that Canada continues to push back. We continue to hear from scientists that emissions need a drastic, immediate reduction, but somehow targets fall short, and commitments follow suit.

Government rhetoric and ambition to combat climate change are present, but actions are either too delayed or non-existent, while temperatures continue to rise.

Most of Ottawa’s initiatives to make the nation’s capital a greener place won’t even be completed until 2020. Without immediate action, researchers within the UCCRN said, Ottawa will be looking at a rise of 6.9 degrees by 2080, well beyond earlier predictions.

Climate change promises have been part of political discourse since scientists coined the term “global warming” and began researching the phenomenon. We’ve been promised a future with more electric cars; more wind turbines on farms; more public transit. And we’ve been told: reduce, reuse, recycle.

The more drastic, expensive initiatives we sometimes hear about —  completely remodelling city infrastructure, abolishing fossil fuel industries and building solar farms big enough to power an entire country — are often something politicians, even citizens, project into a future world they won’t be a part of.

Such notions convey a hope for the future, but imply a dismissal of the need for present-day action.

Our governments’ commitments and initiatives to combat climate change need to be extreme and their goals need to be clear, finalized and set-in-stone. Funding allocations for climate initiatives need to be a top priority and our timelines need to be shortened.

The science states we should have acted on this years ago, which means there is no choice now but to act fast.

Who is holding our governments accountable if these targets are not met? How can we assure our policy makers are truly doing enough to slow down the impacts of climate change?

The media and public activists can critique our governments all they want, but without concerted action, unseasonably cold springs and shoreline flooding may become the least of Ottawa’s worries.