News And Horror from the last two weeks

The Burning North: Welcome To Global Warming

It’s been a hell of a summer so far.

As of July 6, there were 113 active fires turning our province to ash. Fifty-six of those are larger than 100 hectares. Fifty-one communities have been either fully or partially evacuated. And 720,131 hectares have burned so far. And most of the province is under an air quality advisory thanks to the plumes of smoke drifting southward.

And those are just the numbers for Saskatchewan. Fires have similarly devastated Alberta, B.C. and Manitoba.

And while it might be easy to write all this off by saying, “Welp, we had an unusual dry spell and some unlucky lightning strikes,” I think it’s time to play another round of “It’s Global Warming, Told Ya So.”

The connection between climate change and the wildfires ravaging northern Canada right now should be pretty obvious. Scientists have been warning for years that as the planet heats up, the Prairies will face long, dry periods that’ll turn scrub and timber into so much kindling. And while you can never directly attribute a particular weather phenomena to the changing climate blah-blah-blah, qualify-qualify-qualify — look, the relentless inferno we see in the north right now is 100 per cent consistent with what climate science has been predicting.

And climate science predicts extreme wildfires will increasingly be the summertime norm.

While the state of emergency in the north is horrible for a lot of people, a comparatively minor nuisance from earlier in the summer may also become more common in future thanks to climate change: the algal bloom at Buffalo Pound Lake.

That abnormal algae explosion strained our water treatment plant’s capacity so badly, Mayor Fougere had to plead with Reginans to restrict their water use by 25 per cent for over two weeks between May and June.

“Like all climate change questions, we can’t say that climate change caused the problem this year. But we do know that globally, algal blooms are getting worse and part of the cause of that is thought to be climate change,” says Helen Baulch, a professor in environmental science at the University of Saskatchewan and a member of the Global Institute for Water Security.

“Warmer water temperatures are real drivers of blooms. And [Buffalo Pound] saw warm water a lot earlier.”

According to Baulch, the several wet years we had before this likely caused a lot of fertilizer-rich agricultural runoff to make its way into Buffalo Pound along with loads of sewage. Combine all those “nutrients” with warmer temperatures this year, and you have the perfect conditions for algae to thrive.

And Baulch thinks we could expect to see similar problems with algae in the future, thanks to a warming climate.

“I would say yes. I think blooms within these prairie lakes are natural and have occurred over centuries. But increasing nutrient influx and increasing water temperatures suggest the problem will get worse,” she says.

Air you shouldn’t breathe because of smoke from wildfires. Water you shouldn’t drink because of the blooming algae. Welcome to the new normal, Regina. How’re you enjoying your global warming? /Paul Dechene

Climate Refugees: The Next Humanitarian Crisis

“Climate refugees” is the term that’s been coined to describe people who are forced to flee their homes and communities because of the impacts of climate change caused by drought, flooding and other weather-dependent catastrophes.

In Saskatchewan, the preferred term at present is “evacuees”. And while I’m sure everyone who has been displaced by northern Saskatchewan’s raging wildfires plan to return to their homes at some point, what they’ll find when they get there, and when they’ll face the next evacuation thanks to tinder-dry conditions (as climate models predict), is anyone’s guess.

For now, here’s a few numbers to ponder.

As of July 7, an estimated 13,000 people had been displaced from their homes in 54 communities. A total of 7,320 evacuees had registered with the Ministry of Social Services, and 6,636 have been placed in emergency shelters in Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert and North Battleford, with another 682 dispatched to Cold Lake, Alberta.

The Red Cross has set up seven shelters for evacuees in Saskatchewan. In Regina, Evraz Place and the University of Regina are the two main sites at which evacuees have been placed.

So far, 582 forest fires have been detected in the province compared to 210 all of last year. The fires have burned 7,362 square kilometres of forest land. Geographically, that’s an area larger than Toronto and it’s roughly 10 times the amount of land typically impacted by fire in a given year.

Are we having fun yet, Saskatchewan? /Gregory Beatty

Rock Steady: My Kingdom For A Decent Curling Pun

According to the Rules Of Good Journalism, I’m supposed to open this story about how two of Regina’s curling clubs were granted property tax exemptions at council’s June 22 meeting with some kind of pun involving curling slang. But I can’t. I know next to nothing about curling.

It’s like darts with rocks on ice, right?

Thanks to council’s decision, my chances of learning to play someday have improved. According to representatives from the Tartan and Highland curling clubs, they’re struggling to stay open. Their facilities are in need of maintenance, city grants have shrunk, and the national curling association is sharing less revenue with them when events are held here. Add to that a general decline in interest in the sport, and the clubs were in danger of closing without city support.

Which they got.

While the curling delegations hoped for long-term tax relief, council wouldn’t go that far. Instead, they granted two-year exemptions to give the clubs time to work out marketing and fundraising plans.

In total, the city will lose roughly $50,000 in property tax revenue from this move. /Paul Dechene

Busted Busses: B.C.’s Transit Referendum Flops

Regina isn’t the only place with transit troubles. Vancouver faces a gridlocked future, thanks to a referendum that might have been doomed from the start.

On July 2, the British Columbia government released the results of a regional plebiscite on funding for a $7.5 billion upgrade to public transit across Metro Vancouver. Lower mainland residents rejected the idea of a 0.5 per cent sales tax to cover the costs of things like a new bridge, a new subway line, light rail to the suburbs and a whole lot of new buses.

The vote highlights the dissonance between municipalities in B.C., who are demanding infrastructure upgrades, and the B.C. Liberal government, who seem preternaturally opposed to public spending unless it involves sports facilities or yoga demonstrations. Rather than simply working with the 21 municipalities that make up the Metro Vancouver region, Premier Christy Clark instead set the issue before the very same voters who had just four years earlier rejected the Harmonized Sales Tax in a similar referendum.

Because of course nobody wants new taxes. Especially in a region where, according to recent statistics from RBC, the average family spends around 90 per cent of its income on housing.

Unfortunately, what could have been an opportunity for Metro Vancouver residents to have a say in urban infrastructure planning instead became a referendum on Translink, the corporation that runs public transit in the lower mainland. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation launched a simple, aggressive, and focused campaign against the proposed tax that played into people’s fears and misunderstanding of Translink. It worked.

Meanwhile, the “Yes” side was almost invisible, despite spending $5.8 million on a campaign that consisted mostly of robocalls and ads on the inside of buses.

Translink did itself no favours, first forcing CEO Ian Jarvis to step down just before the campaign in a misguided play “to restore public confidence” (Translink’s words), then with a pair of major SkyTrain shutdowns in late May, as the voting deadline approached.

B.C.’s Transport Minister Todd Stone has already said that if Metro Vancouver municipalities still want to go ahead with the proposed transit improvements, they should look at raising the funds through increased property tax. Everybody knows that transit needs better funding; they all just hope someone else will levy the taxes to pay for it.

It’s a mess, but for transit supporters in cities across the country, it’s a mess that needs to be understood. /Emmet Matheson