Vancouver's Stanley Park was severely damaged by a wind storm in 2006 (flickr photo)

Carbon Costs


During nearly three decades of fruitless negotiating, the political leaders of the international community have failed to find an effective way to price carbon dioxide emissions and thereby ameliorate global warming and climate change. But simple causality guarantees that we will pay a carbon tax, even if we don’t have an official one. So a carbon tax is levied and collected by nature, usually inequitably and sometimes very cruelly.

In anticipation of this rising tax, the cities of Toronto and Halifax have already instituted expensive “adaptation” strategies to accommodate an increase in street flooding, storm water runoff, sewer backups, heat-related illness and storm emergencies.

Vancouver is the latest city to consider costly preventative measures that should reduce the astronomical costs associated with more active weather. The city is still stinging from a 2006 windstorm that left 250,000 people without electricity and required infrastructure repairs of $10 million. Then a 2010 rainfall flooded many homes, which resulted in lawsuits against the city. Said Sadhu Johnson, the deputy city manager, “The key for us is to be proactive. It will save us billions in the next century” (The Vancouver Sun, July 21/12).

And how much will it cost Vancouver to be “proactive”? Just the risk assessment studies for coastal flooding, urban forest management and fresh water challenges could be $1.3 million. The “adaptation” strategy is expected to cost $84 million for the years 2012 to 2014. All these re-engineering costs can be attributed to global warming. “The climate is clearly changing,” concludes Vancouver’s study, “and, in many instances, we are observing changes at the most extreme end of the projections made a decade ago.”

And what are the expected changes? Wetter winters with a 28 percent increase in “extremely wet days” by 2050. Heavy rainfall events that occurred every 25 years will occur every 10 years. Summers will get correspondingly dryer. Temperature increases will average 1.7°C by 2050 and 2.7°C by 2080. “Extreme heat events” that occurred every 25 years will occur every 8 years. Sea level rise, difficult to predict because of so many variables, could be from 1 metre to 2 metres by 2100, a change that could cause havoc with drainage systems, wharfs, buildings, roads, waterfront facilities and low-lying residential areas.

Although inland cities do not have to contend with rising sea levels, they often have to contend with flooding rivers, and may be subjected to more extreme weather because of their continental location — Manitoba recently spent $1 billion on dikes and flood management. So multiply Vancouver’s initial “proactive” costs by the number of other cities in Canada to get a vague estimate of the hidden carbon taxes that will either be payed in prevention or repairs. Then add the rest of North America’s cities and those of the world. “Adaptation” is a term describing people’s efforts to make the best of a bad situation. Call these costs a carbon tax.

Other carbon taxes are more severe. The four people who died in BC’s Johnsons Landing mudslide on July 12, 2012, were just a few of those paying a heavy carbon tax. Unusually heavy winter snowfall and torrential rains during warm summer weather created the conditions that brought down a mountainside on their idyllic homes in the Kootenays. But floods in China, Thailand, Brazil, France, Poland, Japan, India, Australia and the Philippines in the last two years have exacted a much heavier toll.

The floods in Pakistan in 2010 drowned thousands, submerged one-fifth the country and displaced 20 million people. These floods were followed by record high temperatures of 53.5°C. Saudi Arabia had temperatures exceeding 47°C in 2010, and Mecca had rain this summer when the city was sweltering at 42.8°C — the highest temperature at which rain has ever been recorded. Russia had 172 casualties from extreme rainfall on July 7th. Britain ended an extraordinary spring drought with incessant rain. A drought is presently parching much of the US corn belt, more damage to add to the $5 billion that Texas recently lost to drought.

Climate change deserves so much attention because the impacts are pervasive and fundamental, affecting almost everything related to our security and prosperity. The science of this process is indisputably clear. More than 40 different supercomputer models consistently predict nearly identical weather outcomes for rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, confirming repeatedly that the extreme weather events we have been experiencing in recent months and years are wholly consistent with the new reality we are inflicting upon ourselves. Much of this damage can be counted as carbon tax.

This tax cannot be negotiated or postponed. It is levied in accordance with the laws of physics. A rise of a single degree in temperature increases humidity by 8 percent. Humidity over oceans has already increased by 5 percent. More humid air coupled with higher temperatures transfers greater amounts of energy into storm systems and causes more extreme weather. More heat means more evaporation. Climate science requires that increasing amounts of evaporated moisture must eventually come down as precipitation. For some places, this means more droughts; for other places, this means more floods. The distribution is not based on any human notion of fairness. Nonetheless, it is a carbon tax, duly levied and dispassionately collected. Our own version would likely be less painful and more equitable — if ever the international community should find the foresight to implement one.


About Ray Grigg

Ray Grigg is in his ninth year as a weekly environmental columnist for the Campbell River Courier-Islander on BC's Vancouver Island. Before this column, titled Shades of Green - now appearing on as well - Ray wrote a bi-weekly environmental column for five years. He is the author of seven internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically Zen and Taoism. His academic background is in English literature, psychology, cultural history, and philosophy. He has travelled to some 45 countries around the globe.