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After Years of Watching Climate Disasters on TV, One Struck Home

06/24/2013 12:16 EDT | Updated 08/24/2013 05:12 EDT

Sitting thousands of kilometres from my home province of Alberta watching floods wash over memories, friends and family I was numb. Over years of working to raise the alarm on climate change I watched hundreds of extreme weather events wreck coasts, communities and lives around the world. I tweeted about Hurricane Sandy, donated to flood relief in India and connected dots across the globe between disaster and climate disruption. It struck home in the theoretical sense, but now it was literally striking my home, and I was paralyzed.

All I could see was another example of the increasing presence and prevalence of extreme weather. As the tragedy unfolded, my heart broke for those who have lost homes, loved ones and more. But now, I'm angry. I am furious that years of inaction in political impotence are fuelling crises that are costing lives, livelihoods, cities and towns in across the province I grew up in.

It's impossible to connect any single extreme weather event to a nearly one degree temperature rise, but there is no arguing with the correlation that as global average temperatures have risen by nearly a degree over the past century, so have events of climate disruption. Last year, major storms in Alberta alone cost over $500 million in insurance damages, more than half of all the claims made for weather damage in all of Canada for 2012. In Calgary alone, the same year saw 45 strong Chinook winds, nearly triple the typical average.

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Flooding in Alberta

A month ago, the CEO of the Insurance Bureau of Canada told media "here in Alberta you can expect more drought where you've had a history of that over the last 100 years or so...at the other end of the spectrum, you can expect more weather in the form of hail and rain."

Munich Re, one of the planet's largest re-insurance firms with a database of natural disasters stretching back to eruption of Mount Vesuvius told Scientific American in 2011 that "our figures indicate a trend towards an increase in extreme weather events that can only be fully explained by climate change."

Looking closer just at extreme rains and flooding, the physics of climate fuelled storms is even simpler -- warmer planet equals more evaporation, equals more moisture in the atmosphere, equals more rain that can fall. To date, global rainfall has increased 3 per cent, with extreme rainfall rising upwards of 7 per cent. This means that "hundred year" floods are happening more and more, like in Iowa where it's happened three times between 1993 and 2010.

Like I said, it's impossible to definitively link any single extreme weather event to climate change, but it's necessary to connect the dots between the increasing regularity and power of devastating extreme weather events. In the end, its going to be up us to bring the warming home to politicians and polluters.

On a planetary scale, we need to keep at least two thirds of fossil fuels unburned to continue to live on a planet that resembles the one that civilization developed on. For Canada, this means we can emit a sum total of roughly 20 gigatonnes of carbon, but the oil, coal and gas companies have nearly five times that much in their proven reserves.

It's an uncomfortable truth, given that most, if not all of us depend on fossil fuels in some way or another. It's an even more frightening prospect for corporations whose business model is based on breaking the planet. What keeps me up at night is what will happen if we fail to act.

How many lives will be lost, how much damage will be done, and how fundamentally altered our world will become if we continue to value the financial well being of an elite few over the survival of people, culture and the planet? Perhaps a better question to big polluters, and the decision makers that allow them to act with impunity is what are acceptable losses? How many jobs, homes, lives and livelihoods can be sacrificed?

These events seldom, if ever, damage the machines that are driving it. There may be some small irony that the lobbies of big polluters in downtown Calgary were flooded out, but there is no justice in comparing a few thousand dollars in water damage to the devastation faced by the rest of Calgary and Alberta in this flood.

This is not happening by accident. This is not a biblical disaster the result of divine providence, this is the result of the wealthiest corporations on the planet using our atmosphere as a collective dumping ground. This is the result of the active ignorance by governments like Canada's and Alberta.

This is not simply a natural disaster, it's a man-made catastrophe borne of political inaction and economic greed, and it's going to get worse and worse if business as usual continues.

Last week Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson told shareholders that reducing emissions within a 2C constrained world would be "detrimental" to our health and welfare.

In 2011, the Conservative party laughed and applauded in the House of Commons when they received critical Fossil "awards" for their climate inaction.

I wonder if they're still laughing.