Graphic by Elisabetta Paiano/ Production Editor
The threat of climate change was made clear by the fires that spread across Australia earlier this year. Heat waves and drought caused bush fires that permanently altered the country’s landscape, which were made at least 30 per cent worse by the impacts of climate change.
Australia’s devastating fires are only an early example of the consequences of the climate crisis. Although, across the world, Hamilton has its own possibilities for disaster. In November it came to light that 24 billion litres of sewage spilled into Chedoke Creek from 2014 to 2018, which the city kept hidden despite possible impacts on the local environment and residents.
In addition to the Chedoke Creek contamination, the city was charged in late 2019 to clean up toxic chemicals that had been seeping into local waterways. The city-owned John C. Munro International Airport had years-old chemicals in surrounding soil which leached into nearby water during wet weather. The spills make it clear that Hamilton needs to be prepared for the environmental impacts of climate change, especially flooding, which will become the city’s main concern along with extreme heat.
Rising temperatures bring the possibility for droughts. Conversely, increased precipitation could lead to flooding, rising lake levels and could negatively impact shoreline erosion.
Hamilton also has to worry about greenhouse gases, which are largely produced in the city by burning fossil fuels, transportation and industry. In 2018 the city committed to five points of action which include creating a greenhouse gas emissions inventory and an emissions reduction target.
In March 2019 Hamilton declared a climate emergency along with hundreds of other municipalities across Canada. Along with the declaration, the city committed to a climate vulnerability and risk assessment, which has yet to be completed. In December 2019 city councillors approved a climate action plan, but they have yet to include any deadlines or costs associated with the project.
One important change is that the city will try to apply a climate lens to future actions. According to Kate Flynn, the acting director at the centre for climate change management at Mohawk College, the city is using a climate lens to prevent some of the worst effects of climate change and adapt to impacts we can’t avoid. For example, when the city makes an infrastructure improvement, they must consider the future environmental impact of chosen supplies and processes.
Flynn also pointed out that infrastructure changes are necessary to prepare for climate change, specifically in transportation and public works. She noted that over time Hamilton will be at risk for increased precipitation which would lead to flooding and harm water quality, so updates to city infrastructure and residential homes are necessary to avoid damages.
“I think one of the things that's really important to dispel is this myth that Canadians are going to be okay,” said Flynn, “the thing about climate change is that it's a global issue, but the effects of it are going to be hyperlocalized.”
“I think one of the things that's really important to dispel is this myth that Canadians are going to be okay [. . .] the thing about climate change is that it's a global issue, but the effects of it are going to be hyperlocalized.”
While the economic and physical effects of climate change are becoming more of a concern for the city, the social impacts are still largely overlooked. Caitlin Thompson and Joann Varickanickal, volunteers with Climate Ready Hamilton, a community organization, stressed the importance of social cohesion for disaster preparedness.
Thompson and Varickanickal suggested that students get to know their fellow community members and think about how vulnerable populations, like elderly, homeless and low-income community members, will be disproportionately impacted in times of climate crisis. One project CRH worked on sought to map out spaces open to the public for food and shelter in times of disaster. If a heat wave occurred, vulnerable residents without air conditioning could find a place to cool down through the community-sourced resource hub.
Beyond cases of climate disaster, CRH also works to help communities improve the environmental conditions brought on by local pollution.
“Look at communities that are in the industrial core . . . we know that they have poor air quality, but a lot of people in those neighborhoods don't know that they can work together and you can report those things to the government . . . part of this project now can be going into neighborhoods and supporting neighborhoods and understanding their rights,” said Thompson.
Thompson and Varickanickal also noted the importance of preparing a 72 hour kit.
“If there's a massive emergency . . . aid will begin [about] 72 hours after,” said Thompson. “Basically you need to be able to be prepared and stay okay by yourself for 72 hours because you may not get help.”
According to the city of Hamilton website, residents should prepare a 72 hour supply of food and water, along with a “go bag” with items like a first aid kit, blankets and more.
Preparing for 72 hours only works in case of an emergency, but we have to prepare for a future where climate disaster is a regular part of our lives. According to the Centre for Climate and Emergency Solutions, climate resilience is a framework for thinking about climate change and our ability to prepare for, and bounce back from, climate-related disaster. Climate resilience accounts for the irreversible damage already done to our climate, along with possibilities for mitigating some of the worst effects we could see in the future. Flynn noted that climate resilience isn’t only about infrastructure, but also how we can improve our social systems to better support one another through the impacts of climate change.
“If you're talking about climate resilience, well we should be talking about resilience in other ways too? Like making sure . . . everyone has access to good food no matter what happens, right? So it's kind of a framework for thinking through solutions through the lens of equity,” said Flynn.
Despite possibilities for climate resilience, the state of climate change is dire and sometimes frightening. Flynn reflected on how she continues to work in climate change management despite the cataclysmic effects on the climate.
“I think why people are like, how do you get out of bed every day and think about climate change? And I'm like, because believe it or not, there's so many opportunities within climate change to just like do all the things that we've always thought about doing, but never really prioritized. There's no more excuses,” said Flynn.
"There's so many opportunities within climate change to just like do all the things that we've always thought about doing, but never really prioritized. There's no more excuses."
Hamilton will face unique challenges from climate change that the city will have to manage. To create a climate resilient city, community members will have to come together to care for one another. Whether it’s creating a 72 hour kit or a map of resources, knowing who needs help in your community and how will be integral.