I don't think I'll get to visit the Toronto Islands this summer, since they were closed for all of my July vacation. Last spring's historic rains resulted in unprecedented flooding and some of the beaches are still too soggy to return to.
The situation on the islands isn't anything close to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Harvey, of course, the biggest rainstorm in U.S. history. It's hit hardest in Houston, a metropolitan area of more than six million people that lies just 15 metres above sea level, as images of desolate families waiting to be rescued make all too clear.
At least 30 people have died so far in Houston, which thankfully wasn't a fear on the islands. No senior citizens here had to balance on their walkers through muddy, knee-high water. But scrolling through the distressing news out of Texas, I was reminded of Toronto last spring. That's when Mayor John Tory and his executive committee decided to ignore a report on how to cope with excess stormwater. The proposal was an individual lot fee based on roof size, since hard surfaces contribute to stormwater overflow. A similar fee in Mississauga raises about $30-million annually and goes directly to designing relief for an overloaded system, which can flood basements and contaminate drinking water.
In mid-May, almost simultaneous with the announcement about the islands' truncated summer, Mr. Tory and his committee rejected the idea of introducing a new fee entirely. They shelved the issue for two years, which as you might guess means they won't be dealing with it until after the next election. It seemed a delusional time to procrastinate, but it also seemed familiar. Politicians everywhere are refusing to be pro-active about climate change and the extreme weather that it will inevitably bring. That includes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a supposed climate hawk who also happens to like pipelines. This past April, in Houston of all places, Mr. Trudeau said that "no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there," which surely contradicts his dedication to decarbonization.
In Australia, new coal mines are approved even as a warmer ocean kills the Great Barrier Reef. The United States has climate-change-denying President Donald Trump, of course, but its problem soundly predates him.
On Monday, meteorologist Eric Holthaus called out Houston and Texas for refusing to stormproof for "decades": Oil and gas refineries have continually been built on the risky coastline. Harvey has since damaged the country's second-largest refinery, which is now spewing petrochemicals into the environment, though ExxonMobil won't specify which ones. The easy analysis is that politicians value fossil-fuel economies over environmental stability, which might be true. But "sustained under-reaction" to a problem is also a deliberate political tactic, according to Michael Howlett of Simon Fraser University. Under-reactions – either doing nothing, or making symbolic but meaningless gestures – are designed to maintain the status quo, writes Mr. Howlett, a political science prof at the school's Burnaby, B.C., campus. Politicians want to avoid rocking the boat, which hurts their chances for re-election. Climate-change issues are particularly ripe for under-reaction, he says, since people are less likely to blame politicians for events seen as unavoidable or unpredictable, such as the weather.
The calculation is that it's easier to swoop in with heroic promises to help rebuild after a "natural disaster" than admit that we need to spend money now, because fully addressing the threats of extreme weather would mean dedicated investment. The price tag for upgrading Houston's failing drainage system, for example, was estimated in 2016 at a staggering $26-billion (U.S.). Compared to that, Toronto's proposed stormwater charges were ludicrously low, topping out around $500 for a 100,000-square-foot mansion, and coming alongside a 20-per-cent reduction in water fees.
And still, no one on Mr. Tory's executive team stepped up to educate and convince the public. Instead they quashed discussion before full council and the public could take part, hoping that only dedicated policy-watchers might remember this lack of pro-activity the next time the floods come. It's not as dramatic as the historical refusal of Texas politicians to contain sprawl in Houston, but it's related.
The rain, the destruction, the political cowardice: All of it is sadly predictable.