Toronto got a lot of rain last week. A record amount, actually: Over 3 hours the city saw about 126 mm of rainfall. That beats the 121.4 mm single-day record set by Hurricane Hazel in 1954 – and that amount took an entire day.
It caused a lot of chaos. Subway service came to a halt, and flooding diverted and stalled many streetcars. Power failures put much of the city in the dark. Cars wound up submerged in pools of water and abandoned, including a $200,000 Ferrari ditched in a pool of water in the Lower Simcoe Street underpass. And our worst nightmares were realized as the dreaded Snake-on-a-Train scenario came to life on a stalled and flooded GO train.
You can’t definitively connect this kind of thing to global climate change – not directly. But it’s certainly symptomatic of some of the kinds of changes we expect to see as the climate warms. And the Toronto Environment Office has warned that this kind of thing is going to get worse. As the excellent city hall journalist/wiseacre Matt Elliott has noted, the TEO recently gave a presentation to Toronto’s Parks and Environment Committee outlining the pending increases in extreme heat alerts, extreme storms, and other extreme things. And the Reckoner talked about this a couple of years ago too, when Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, hired consulting firm KPMG to find potential efficiencies in the city’s budget, and one of the areas the group highlighted for cuts was the TEO. The dangers of doing so were quite obvious then, and appear even more alarming now.
We should probably take a more proactive approach to climate change.
Other major cities are taking big steps. Rotterdam and Bangkok, for example, are arming themselves with byzantine systems of waterways to divert and soak up water from heavy rainfall and increasing sea levels. And in the wake of last year’s devastation resulting from Hurricane Sandy, New York City‘s mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced a $20 billion climate change plan revolving around the construction of a network of flood walls and bulkheads. The plan also aims to strengthen the city’s power grid, which is a great idea since the US Department of Energy recently sounded alarms about the vulnerability of the country’s power infrastructure as climate change worsens.
There’s been a bit of controversy over Mayor Bloomberg’s plan in particular since, first of all, he’s Mayor Bloomberg, and second, $20 billion sounds really really expensive. But when you consider that Hurricane Sandy is estimated to have done about $19 billion in damage, and that the proposed measures could potentially protect New York City from many such storms in the future, it starts to look like a pretty wise investment.
It’s hard to get penny-pinching mayors like Rob Ford to think in those terms, but there are encouraging signs. Recently he agreed to support a small increase in taxes to raise money for new subway line construction,which many astonished pundits took to be a sort of miracle. Though he stubbornly maintains that he opposes all such revenue tools, he did refer to the tax as “an investment” – a very encouraging sign with respect to other costly infrastructure projects. Also helpful is the fact that Ford hasn’t staked much of his ideological posturing on climate change issues, which leaves open space for reasonable discussion. And new data is starting to demonstrate that significant economic and health benefits can result from adaptation to climate change, which could help to defuse some of the concerns that cost-averse politicians tend to trumpet in opposition to measures aimed at climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Hopefully there will be a shift in Toronto’s attitude toward climate change planning. Now is certainly the time for it. But this kind of planning requires a bit of foresight and pragmatism, of course. It requires leadership, and a city that takes itself and its future seriously.
Is Toronto that kind of city?