Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Manitoba Government a Victim of Climate Change?

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, November 17 / 14

Zack Gross

What does a secretly negotiated deal between the governments of the United States and China to cut greenhouse gas emissions have to do with the current problems plaguing our own provincial government?  Maybe more than you think!

Less than a week ago, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jingping, jointly announced measures to reduce emissions – the US by 25% by the year 2025 – and China capping and beginning to reduce emissions by 2030.  This agreement offers a huge boost to a planned United Nations environmental conference scheduled for Paris in December, 2015.

China is currently the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and, of course its economy and the US’s are the world’s largest.  This agreement is also a sign that potentially the US and China can find ways to cooperate on other issues.  In agreeing to expand zero-emission energy sources to around 20%, the Chinese are also committing to massive increases in wind, solar and nuclear generation capacity.

After rather poor election results in this month’s US mid-term elections, Obama can expect opposition from the Republican-controlled Congress, and already the new Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, has criticized the emission reduction deal as one that would kill jobs and raise utility rates.  Obama, meanwhile, says the agreement is ambitious but achievable and can be done with little impact on current economic or regulatory realities.

Environmental leaders are hopeful that such a major commitment by the two largest greenhouse gas emitters will encourage all other leading industrial nations to take steps toward reductions, for example Canada and the European Community.

Certainly, our planet has already been victimized by climate change – and, of course, the governments, businesses, consumers and other “actors” on our planet have been complicit in creating the conditions leading to global warming.  While economies have been powered by coal-fired factories and the clear-cutting and strip mining of resources, this has also now led to unusual and extreme weather patterns that have had disastrous consequences.

In the United States, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy have taken lives, destroyed property and caused billions in needed relief and rehabilitation of livelihoods and neighbourhoods.  Citrus crops have been hit by frost and snow in the US South while the storm belt in the American mid-West has become a summertime killing field of everyday tornadoes.

In Europe, abnormal amounts of precipitation have led to massive flooding in Great Britain and on the continent.  China has also suffered from flooding.  The effects of climate change are obvious and well documented and what is needed is immediate action toward long-term repair of the planet – a turning around of the Titanic, you might say.  While governments must pay for what disasters have already befallen their territories, and while more impact from global warming is on the horizon, they must also look at how to change and cover the cost of a more sustainable way of living.

And that brings us to the Manitoba government and its current dilemma.  How do governments balance today’s immediate needs – for health care and education – with the costs associated with climate change, in our province’s case, the floods of recent years that have caused such damage and expense? 

Manitobans have identified the rebuilding of infrastructure as their number one priority.  Partly, this is in response to years of struggling to keep up with aging sewer systems, roads and bridges and electrical grids.  Think about the urban issues of last winter – frozen pipes, crumbling roads – and of the inevitable traffic problems that arise when it rains and intersection lights cease to work properly. 

Interestingly, as the United Nations consults with world leaders on the next set of Millennium Development Goals, the number one priority for all nations is infrastructure.  Political leaders in Africa, Asia and Latin America ask:  How can we develop secure education, health care, business and governance, if we don’t have roads, electricity and sanitation systems that support our social and economic development?

Faced with massive property loss after flooding around Lake Manitoba and along the Assiniboine River, and billed for that crisis to the tune of billions of dollars, facing citizen priorities and frustrations around infrastructure, health care and education/training, decisions were made to increase our provincial sales tax, drawing ire both externally and internally.

This is not about defending that decision.  It is about how governments now have the added and sometimes unexpected burden, whether they are in Manitoba or Kenya or Bangladesh or Germany, of dealing with the cost of climate change – both in dealing with its effects and in “fixing” it.  Take away the floods in Manitoba or Great Britain, take away the drought in the Horn of Africa or the storms in the US, and everyone’s treasury would likely be much fuller!

We are on the cutting edge of destruction in our new world of massive and immediate environmental change.  With the announcements coming out of the US and China to change (hopefully) their behavior on global warming, we may also be on the cutting edge of new sustainability.

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of the Marquis Project in Brandon and agrees that on the Prairies (and elsewhere these days) if you just wait a few minutes, the weather will change!

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