Time is running out

Even skeptics who have for years dismissed warnings about climate change that will produce serious, if not disastrous consequences, must surely be taking the issue more seriously now.

Apart from a growing body of credible, well-documented scientific studies, the unusual, even bizarre, weather patterns across Canada over the past few years should convince everyone that something is seriously amiss, that Al Gore is right, and we have to modify the ways we live and work. Soon.

Not only by using “green” products, developing sustainable buildings and energy-efficient spaces, recycling water and so on, but also, if possible, by living in houses and apartment buildings that embody conservationist principles. Low-rise home and high-rise condo builders are aware of their responsibilities, and routinely install tighter insulation materials, but they must also yield to buyer preferences for familiar, conventional housing. Buyers may go for energy-efficient furnaces and low-flush toilets, but seldom take the whole green package.

Natural forces have become quirkier across Canada, and are becoming more violent – tranquil Vancouver Island can expect an earthquake, tornadoes are touching down more frequently on the prairies and in eastern Canada, and the tail ends of hurricanes are hitting Newfoundland and Nova Scotia with greater force and damage. Who would have imagined so many ripped out mature trees in Vancouver’s Stanley Park and in Point Pleasant Park in Halifax recently.

(A sad, little-known historical footnote: a deadlier than usual hurricane struck Newfoundland on Sept. 9, 1775, killing more than 4,000 people. In more recent memory, on Oct. 16, 1954, Hurricane Hazel roared into Ontario, creating a flash flood that destroyed 20 bridges, killed 81 people, 35 of them on a single Toronto street, and left more than 2,000 families homeless.)

Still in the Maritimes, in February this year, The Globe and Mail ran a story about a couple in Prince Edward Island who built a fortress-like home with windows designed to resist 200-km-an-hour winds, tougher shingles and steel reinforcing – the first of its kind in Canada. It wasn’t their idea entirely; insurers and the industry-backed Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction absorbed much of the higher cost of the construction.

They’re hoping this will inspire greater structural defences against increasingly extreme weather and the damage it causes – catastrophic losses have in fact increased 20 times over the past 30 years. The chairman of Lloyd’s of London described climate change as the top issue facing the industry. Three quarters of Canadian insurers’ claims payments have been made over the past 10 years.

“We are seeing more storms, and as a result more damage,” Bryan Seaton, spokesman for ING Canada, the country’s largest property and casualty insurer, was quoted as saying. ING’s water-damage claims alone doubled between 2000 and 2005.

The industry is indeed alarmed at the claims payments pouring out of its coffers, so much so that the Insurance Bureau of Canada is forking over $500,000 to support The Insurance Research Lab for Better Homes at the University of Western Ontario in London. The lab is a simulated 1,900-sq.-ft., typical two-storey house enclosed within a corrugated steel shell, in which researchers study damage to houses attacked by wind, snow, rain and affected by mold.

The federal government is mindful of the challenge, and supports the research and development of improved home building materials and technologies at the Canadian Centre for Housing Technology in Ottawa. Two mock-up houses are used for research, testing and demonstration that result in superior new materials and systems, which is also behind much of the content of national building, fire and plumbing codes. Some provincial codes are based on much of that information.

It all comes down to a race – between the uncontrollable forces of nature reacting to the poisoning of earth’s atmosphere, water and soil, and our willingness to change the way we live, work and play, the homes we inhabit, the products we use and biting the bullet on the price of climate control.

The readers of this magazine no doubt share the realization that we are gambling with the well-being of this generation, not to mention future ones, but there is little any of us can do individually. It will take enormous pressure on governments at all levels and the acquiescence of polluting industries and enterprises now, to avert disasters yet to come.

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