07/15/2013 04:21 EDT | Updated 09/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Extreme Weather Heightens Need For Sustainable Development

With the realities of climate change becoming all too clear, an economic shift is needed, towards a more sustainable economy. While protests and concerns about actions such as fracking are important, and needed, there also needs to be a positive message on sustainable economic development.

This has been a summer marked by erratic weather, as evidenced by those in my home province of New Brunswick who experienced what seemed more than a month of constant rainfall - when, in June, the sun seemed virtually absent - followed by extreme heat.

Of course, in other parts of the country, the situation has been worse. In Calgary and large parts of Alberta, there was heavy rainfall and floods, something that has not been a common occurrence in that region. In Toronto, there were flash floods after what Global News stated was the heaviest one-day rainfall in the history of the city, where the amount of an average monthly rainfall was experienced in less than two hours.

These extreme weather occurrences bring with them monetary and economic costs, from cities shut down, to traffic and commerce obstructed, to clean-up efforts.

These instances of extreme and erratic weather are bringing home the realities of climate change, the problems associated with our fossil fuel dependent economy where emissions are increasing carbon dioxide levels which, in turn, are leading to changes in weather patterns.

Earlier this year, in January, the City of Toronto's Environment Office delivered a presentation to the city council's parks and environment committee. This presentation warned of the pressures on city infrastructure from climate change in the coming decades, of extreme weather events to come. In particular, the presentation stated that, in thirty years, there would be more days of extreme heat, tripling from twenty to sixty-six in a year.

Also, particularly pressing in light of the recent rainstorm and floods, the presentation warned that, by the 2040s, while Toronto would have fewer rainy days overall, those days of rain would be more extreme, with storms bringing 166 millimetres of rain. The recent rainstorm which brought on flash floods, by comparison, consisted of 126 millimetres of rain.

At this point it is not about preventing climate change - but about mitigating it - as it is already happening. When considering the economic costs of the recent storm, and the prospects of future storms, it is clear that the effects of climate change are very real, and will get worse. Infrastructure improvements already are needed for Toronto to cope with these new (and future) climate realities.

In all this, the move towards an environmentally sustainable economy becomes more urgent, as does the need for a positive message on sustainable economic development, a new vision for jobs and economic progress that is in harmony with ecological realities.

There is a need to promote high-tech sectors - something that has spin-off benefits in non-IT fields. There is a need to promote green and sustainable enterprises, opportunities in areas such as environmentally sustainable building and retro-fitting. A great example of the former are Thoughtful Dwellings and Southern Exposure Construction, which have worked together in the construction of the Naugler House near Fredericton, a "passive house" which sets new standards in sustainability and energy use, with energy consumption reduced by up to 90 per cent. There are opportunities in the green economy across a range of fields - from new entrepreneurial enterprises promoting sustainable practices, to engineering and high-tech occupations, to construction sector jobs such as installing solar panels.

Another means to promote sustainability - and benefit the local economy - is to promote local agriculture, to cut down transportation costs. Furthermore, in a wider context, sectors such as agriculture and forestry can explore means to promote sustainable practices, promote niche avenues to market local products.

There are already examples of successful local food enterprises in New Brunswick, such as Covered Bridge Chips in Hartland, New Brunswick.

Furthermore, in the case of New Brunswick, the province's natural environment -- natural beauty and outdoor activities in close proximity to urban centres -- can serve as an attraction for not only tourists, but also young professionals and entrepreneurs who want to live a more rural lifestyle but be in close proximity to an urban centre - already places like the Nashwaak River Valley serve as this kind of attraction for cottagers and potential/existing residents (something to consider in debates over fracking in that area). Qualitative research by Elizabeth O'Brien, on Vermont, has found that many opt for proximity to nature, an alternative to a big city environment, even if it means lower wages.

Also important are sustainable urban planning practices that curb car-dependence - and, in turn, curb infrastructure costs on additional roadways as well as carbon dioxide emissions. Such urban planning practices that prioritize walkability, promote downtown-like developments, also have the economic benefit of providing the kind of environment conducive to entrepreneurship and start-ups in the 21st century.

Research from the University of Toronto's Martin Prosperity Institute has shown that urban San Francisco has overtaken suburban Silicon Valley in venture capital investments. This is a notable indicator of the environment for start-up enterprises, of the shift from suburban to urban.

With the realities of climate change becoming all too clear, an economic shift is needed, towards a more sustainable economy. While protests and concerns about actions such as fracking are important, and needed, there also needs to be a positive message on sustainable economic development, a positive vision for our economic future - something emphasized in the speakers series earlier this year in Taymouth of which I was a part.

A new vision is not only possible, it is needed.