It was pure coincidence, but it seemed appropriate that city councillors should meet to talk about the effect of climate change in a week that saw balmy temperatures in late January. "Climate change is looking at us straight in the eyes," said first-term Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon. Councillor Shelley Carroll said we face not just global warming but "global weirding."
In fact, most climate experts are careful not to attribute one or another incident of weird weather to climate change. Peculiar weather has been the stuff of barbershop chit-chat since long before scientists started to look at the effects of greenhouse gases on the global climate.
Even Gord Perks, the environmental activist turned city councillor, concedes that one warm day in January is not proof that global warming is upon us.
What he does say is that the number of bizarre and extreme weather events is piling up as a result of climate change and that Toronto had better get ready. He points to a study, presented to the city's parks and environment committee this week, that predicts more heat waves and heavier downpours in the years ahead as the climate warms. "Our staff just told us that our climate will become untenable, that people will die as a result of the changes anthropogenically caused to our climate here in Toronto."
Well, that's not quite what they said. The Toronto Environment Office summarized a study by SENES Consultants. Climate changes, it says, "will continue to create different weather patterns across Toronto in the future. Some changes can be regarded as being positive – longer growing season, generally more pleasant weather and fewer city resources required for winter snow clearance. However, other changes can be regarded as being negative."
It actually predicts fewer heavy storms, but says a small number of those storms will be very intense "and produce much greater amounts of rainfall in short periods than previously seen, with clear impacts on city infrastructure (culverts and drainage management) and an increased potential for flooding."
There is no talk of people dying. But Mr. Perks is not making any apologies. He says 70,000 people died in a 2003 heat wave in Europe. If Toronto gets longer periods of summer heat above 40 degrees, "that's when people start to die." If the worse-case scenarios for global warming unfold, he says, then the worldwide death toll is projected to be in the hundreds of millions. "If I have to point out that people will die in order to get their attention, then, yeah, I'm going to."
Franz Hartmann, head of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, said that Toronto is facing some "very, very scary summers." By 2040, he said, we could have more than 40 days a year with 40-degree humidex readings. The electricity grid is not ready for that, he said, "and if we're not ready, we're going to have brownouts, blackouts – people are going to die."
It was all a bit much for Norm Kelly, the veteran Scarborough councillor. He is skeptical and, in the mildest sort of way, dared to say so. He probed the presenters of the climate-change report with questions about the science behind their predictions. He even had the cheek to suggest that global warming might improve the city's tree canopy.
After the meeting, reporters crowded around him to try to get him to admit he was a climate-change denier. "Maybe next time someone will bring forward a motion worshipping leprechauns," said Mr. Perks, remarking on Mr. Kelly's unorthodox point of view.
All he was trying to do, said the gentlemanly Mr. Kelly, was point out that the science is complex and the forecasts only educated guesses of what might happen. "We interpret the past but we imagine the future," he said, waxing philosophical.
If he is skeptical, it is over "the degree to which the climate is changing and what lies ahead." Still, he said he took the report seriously and didn't oppose studying how Toronto should prepare for the climate of the future.
Somewhere between alarmism and disbelief lies a way for Toronto to think sensibly about global warming.