Lack of Energy Strategy = Doomsday for Future Generations
Feeding our energy appetite is top of mind for many people these days. Some argue we should get coal, oil and gas out of the ground as quickly as possible, build more pipelines and make as much money as we can selling it here and abroad. Their priorities are the economy and meeting short-term energy needs so we can live the lives to which we’ve become accustomed.
Many others question those priorities. Do we gain comfort and happiness by driving inefficient automobiles, buying and scrapping and then buying more stuff that we must work harder to pay for, and selling resources to enrich the fossil fuel industry and to allow other countries to follow our unsustainable path?
Some governments and industry favor the short-term view. But it’s a “false economy”—it will cost us more in the long run. What about our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren? Do we not want them to live healthy and happy lives? If we pollute the air, water and soil that keep us alive and well, and destroy the biodiversity that allows natural systems to function, no amount of money will save us.
While rushing to exploit our valuable and diminishing fossil fuels, Canada’s government is simultaneously “streamlining” environmental regulations and review processes, cutting scientific staff and departments and limiting public debate on projects that could irreparably damage our rich natural heritage. Some provinces are attempting to water down hard-won environmental laws, like endangered species legislation, that act as a critical hedge against environmental degradation.
The federal government is also neglecting its legal obligations to protect species at risk. Ecojustice, on behalf of five conservation groups including the David Suzuki Foundation, recently launched a lawsuit to challenge the government’s multi-year delays in producing recovery strategies for species that would be affected by the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project.
If we don’t slow down and try to look at ways out of the mess, energy issues will continue to increase, like the Hydra of Greek mythology. With pipelines, the main issue is rapid tar sands expansion. But other massive energy projects are also coming down the pipe—from huge dams, like the Site C in northern B.C., to proposed drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Arctic. To what end?
Not only are fossil fuel companies making record profits, they’re being subsidized by Canadian taxpayers to the tune of $1.4 billion a year. Instead of giving them money, shouldn’t we be compelling them to put at least a small portion of their enormous profits into reducing the massive greenhouse gas emissions they cause?
A large part of the problem is that we are increasing our fossil-fueled ambitions at breakneck speed in the absence of a national energy strategy. No one seems to know where we’re going, but the end of the road is looming, and it might lead to a steep drop. We’re already harming precious ecosystems and are ready to put even more at risk without having an idea of the often irreplaceable value they represent. With climate change and its impacts, along with deforestation, pollution and increasing urbanization, we’re condemning millions of people to lives of poor health, desperation and even death.
Still, we’ve also created much that is good. We have political systems that encourage public debate and access to information. There are politicians and industry leaders who have joined countless citizens, First Nations, and environmental, labour and social-justice organizations to question current policies and actions. We have science, medicine and technology that have allowed many of us to live longer. We need to find ways to reconcile our existence with the limits of our finite planet.
What Canada really needs in the short term is a national energy strategy—one that goes beyond fracking and tar sands and pipelines to take into account these many other factors, including wiser use of fossil fuels. It must help us make the transition from our wasteful addiction to polluting and ever-diminishing fossil fuels to conservation and renewable energy. Globally, we need to shift from the outdated 20th-century notion of measuring progress with gross domestic product to a development paradigm that takes into account well-being and happiness, and that accounts for nature’s valuable services.
Visit EcoWatch’s ENERGY page for more related news on this topic.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.
Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.
For more insights from David Suzuki, please read Everything Under the Sun (Greystone Books/David Suzuki Foundation), by David Suzuki and Ian Hanington, now available in bookstores and online.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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