North American ice storm shows extreme weather dangers

January 15, 2014
Toronto iced over, December 21.

The ice storm that struck central and eastern Canada and northeastern United States, on December 20-22 should be viewed not only an important news event, but also a big climate change story.

Not because the storm was a direct consequence of the Earth’s average warming temperatures. That would be a speculative claim. No, it’s because of the social crisis created by this weather emergency and what it illustrates about the challenges that are facing human society in a new and warming world.

Power loss

More than a million homes and businesses — about three million people — in the two countries lost electricity for many days in freezing, winter temperatures. That meant no home heating, no reliable refrigeration for food and, for most, no way to cook meals. More than a week later, tens of thousands of households are still without power.

In Toronto, the number of people affected was three times those affected by the massive flooding in Calgary last June.

In Maine and southern New Brunswick, another winter storm on December 29 brought winds and new, large snowfall. This sparked fresh emergencies.

The storm moved from west to east. In Michigan, where it began, more than half a million households were cut off. About 300,000 households lost power in Toronto and another 150,000 in the surrounding region.

Tens of thousands were cut off in Quebec and New Brunswick, and some 130,000 in Maine.

In Toronto, the pace of power restoration slowed markedly once reconnections of large networks were completed and work shifted to block-by-block, house-by-house reconnection or to hard-to-reach rural residences. A Toronto Hydro utility official compared the work to “hand to hand combat”.

In New Brunswick and Maine, repair crews needed chainsaws to clear fallen, ice-laden trees just to gain access to electricity wires and connections. One quarter of the population of New Brunswick — 82,000 homes and businesses — lost power.

Regardless of what caused the ice storm, the consequences of the extreme weather event should serve as another warning of the perilous course of human society as the extraction and burning of fossil fuels continues apace and global temperatures rise in consequence.

Extreme weather

The storm comes less than two months after a record, monster typhoon in the Philippines. Fourteen months ago, Hurricane Sandy devastated the US eastern seaboard.

Rising global temperatures are causing rising ocean levels and more frequent and stronger weather events that are already threatening human populations. Meanwhile, rising air pollution levels caused by the continued burning of fossil fuels are causing their own category of social crisis.

This year, Chinese cities are suffering their worst air pollution in memory. Due to the frenetic pace of capitalist development there and ever-rising demand for electricity, the air pollution crisis appears intractable.

So how are the people threatened by all this faring? Not well.

In the Philippines, Typhoon Haiyan killed more than 6000 people and displaced more than four million. UN officials recently issued a new appeal for relief funds, seeking US$600 million.

Shockingly, the Jubilee USA debt relief campaign has reported that since the typhoon, the Philippines has paid more money ($1 billion) in loan repayments to international lending institutions than it has received in relief aid ($350 million). Many of the loans were contracted during the highly corrupt 21-year Marcos dictatorship.

In Haiti, four years after it was devastated by an earthquake, hundreds of thousands of people are still living in tent camps or in dangerous and dilapidated housing. The promised rebuilding and renewal of the country through reconstruction aid has never materialised.

In Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford has refused to declare a state of emergency, notwithstanding compelling reasons to do so. Seemingly, the selfish political interests of him and of his backers have taken priority.

A key question being discussed once again as a result of the storm is why electrical service in Canada is so vulnerable to weather disruptions. For years, officials of Toronto Hydro, Ontario Hydro and Quebec Hydro have rebuffed arguments in favour of moving overhead electrical service cables and wires in urban areas underground.

This was one of the many recommendations of the Quebec government commission of inquiry following the January 1998 ice storm that knocked out electricity. It threatened transportation and water supply in Montreal for many days during harsh winter weather conditions.

“Too expensive,” say the officials.

Ten years after the Quebec ice storm, the editors of the Montreal daily The Gazette opined that the city and province have not adequately prepared for another such storm.

According to Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines, about one third of Toronto’s electrical service is delivered via underground. Recent figures for Montreal aren’t available; in 2006, the corresponding figure was 26%.

One reader of the National Post in Toronto last year foretellingly wrote to the newspaper: “When are they going to bury the huge high tension transmission wires that scar our city — even along our waterfront! — and open up the billions of dollars of land these monstrosities sit on?

“And while they are at it, they should also be burying all our above ground wire system — it’s CHEAPER in the long run!”

It turns out that an unforeseen victim of decisions to keep electricity lines overhead in urban areas is the forests. Trees must be constantly cut back to free space for hydro lines. Through the present crisis in Toronto, many were cut or trimmed as part of power restoration. Municipal officials say the city has lost 20% of its trees to the ice storm and its aftermath.

A glaring observation that emerges from this ice storm is the vulnerability of human populations when their electrical service is dependent on complex and capital-intense electricity grids transporting electricity over large distances.

This underscores what advocates for science are increasingly arguing–human society urgently needs to rapidly reduce its energy consumption and waste, end the burning of fossil fuels, switch to renewable energy sources, and localize energy production and distribution to the maximum extent possible.

Inconvenient message

This is an inconvenient message for fossil fuel advocates and other climate deniers. It’s best left unspoken. Indeed, media analysis of the broader lessons of the crisis has been scant. Outside of the storm regions, news reporting has been perfunctory. Vancouver’s leading, daily newspaper and a fossil fuel industry advocate in its own right — Postmedia’s Vancouver Sun — has not reported on the ice storm at all in its print editions.

For his part, the prime minister of the country has been silent and missing in action.

The complexity of the subject — how to reliably provide electricity in a world requiring simultaneous, huge reduction of energy use and waste — works in favour of the deniers. All the more reason for serious citizens to get engaged in asserting reason and science and fighting for an alternative and ecological path for human development.

Store owner Mark Carline in Titusville, New Brunswick told the CBC that the ice storm has caused him to reflect on life and society. “I think we were all reminded and humbled by the fact that at any given time, we could be set back to this state, where we’re scrambling [to get] the basic necessities.”

[Abridged from Roger Annis is an activist and socialist based in Vancouver.]

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