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We have a problem

Sep 04, 2017

Houston, we have a problem, and so do cities and towns across the continent including Hamilton. The financial burden of the increasing frequency and intensity of severe weather falls mainly on local governments and individuals with limited capacity to pay.

It’s a parallel problem to the catastrophic climatic events currently battering parts of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa who make the least per person contribution to the fossil fuel pollution and other greenhouse gases driving global climatic change but are bearing the worst consequences. While North American attention has focused on the effects of Hurricane Harvey on Texas and Louisiana, hundreds are dying in South Asia from even worse downpours and flooding.

This year has seen extreme heat waves in the Middle East and southern Europe, the latter accompanied by more deadly forest fires than British Columbia has endured over the past two months. The Amazon rain forest has been hit with its third 100-year drought in a decade, and there’s even a major wildfire in Greenland.

Last week the Windsor area was hit with another round of extreme rain and flooding with a dump of 250 mm (ten inches) in two days. Thousands of homes were swamped despite the city spending $25 million a year for the last decade to upgrade its storm sewer system.

Windsor officials are hoping for provincial disaster monies, just as Hamilton sought unsuccessfully in 2009 after east end flooding swamped over 7000 homes and the Red Hill Parkway. The $30 million hit to municipal infrastructure ended up being carried by local taxpayers, and many of the individuals whose homes were flooded paid a steep price too. Since then the city has poured tens of millions into sewer upgrades.

The difficulty proving that a specific extreme weather event was caused by climate change also complicates municipal requests for senior government assistance. To this point, at least in Canada, none have attempted to go after the wealthy oil, gas and coal corporations whose products are the main cause.

Hamilton offers a “compassionate grant” of up to $1000 to flooded property owners. Spending from that fund has exceeded $5 million and is being tapped again after the Dundas flooding earlier this summer. Unusual amounts of rain are also forcing repairs this year to escarpment access roads, waterfront trails and other public infrastructure.

Senior levels of government have the legal tools to reduce fossil fuel pollution and other greenhouse gas emissions that could minimize climatic instability. On the other hand the jurisdictional costs of not acting come in the form of disrupted and damaged water and sewer systems, roads and other infrastructure that are mainly the responsibility of municipalities.

Several cities including London, Mississauga and Kitchener-Waterloo have established impervious surface fees to ensure that large parking lots pay a fair share of stormwater costs. This approach has been repeatedly advocated by Hamilton city staff and just as often rejected by city councillors, so those costs continue to primarily be paid out of water rates.

Cities can try to reduce some pollution emissions that are causing climate change. One obvious step is aggressively improving transit services. Another is directing growth toward increasing densities rather than facilitating more suburban sprawl. Both approaches are being strongly pushed by the provincial Wynne government as part of its climate efforts, but are running into lots of resistance in Hamilton – from both city councillors and many of their constituents.

Local government in Hamilton has also been only mildly opposed to new fossil fuel infrastructure such as the Enbridge Line 10 pipeline expansion project currently underway along a 35 kilometre route that lies entirely inside the city boundaries. It has been left to citizen groups to challenge the project including with a rally along its route in Mt Hope on September 15. That starts at 4 pm at the south end of Homestead (at Upper James).

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