Boiling point

Boiling point

In 40 years, the GTA will be almost unrecognizable. Brownouts will crush the economy, water will be a luxury good, and only the rich will have air conditioning. Toronto, in other words, will be a Third World city

Illustration by Norm Li

This article was first published in the June 2007 issue of Toronto Life.

David Miller’s plan to save Toronto from the effects of global warming—by decreasing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 80 per cent by 2050—may sound good. But the seeds of Toronto’s climate future have already been sown, and there is no escaping the fact that global warming will change the city dramatically. We can limit the damage, but without radical action, Toronto in 40 years will be hot, poor and overcrowded. Disparities between the wealthy and the indigent will have expanded enormously. Water, electricity and food shortages will be common, and disease and hunger rife. Already, more people die from exposure to heat than from the ravages of winter; in the future, that figure will soar beyond sight.

Toronto could be like any number of large cities in the subtropics today. The downtown core might become an empty, historical shell, mostly government offices, bank buildings, and expensive shops and hotels for tourists who come up every summer from the south. Driving will be a nightmare, but it will be too hot to walk outside, and except during rush hour, public transit will be patchy. During the day, the streets will be crowded with vendors selling local crafts or shoelaces or plastic combs. Armed doormen will guard the entrances to the more exclusive shops. At night, when the temperature drops a few degrees, hybrid taxis will edge down the dark, narrow streets. Restaurants with interrupted power because of rolling brownouts will empty their fridges into back alleys, and no one will pick up the rotting fruit and vegetables; there won’t be enough fuel for garbage trucks. Packs of starving dogs will patrol the parks, where the homeless will sleep and vultures will roost in the dead trees.

Outside the centre, away from the polluted lakefront, will be the barrios, former middle-class residential districts that have been taken over by the poor. Experts estimate that 7.7 million people will be crammed into the GTA by 2025, and the numbers will continue to rise as “climate refugees” emigrate from hotter countries. They’ll work in the hotels and hospitals, holding two jobs but unable to afford to move to the 905. Here and there a street light might still be working, when the power is on, illuminating rows of wrecked cars on treeless streets lined with high concrete walls. On the corners, behind metal grilles, will be the blank-faced welfare offices, the liquor stores, the food banks, the blood donor clinics. During the heat of the day, mothers will bring their children to air-conditioned community centres, where volunteer nurses will give them water and treat them for asthma, melanomas, viral infections and other consequences of climate change. Forty times a day, on average, an ambulance will pull up to one of the residential buildings in the barrios and remove a corpse, sometimes that of a baby, more often that of an elderly man or woman who has expired from exposure to extreme heat during a brownout.

It will be cooler out in the suburbs, where the lucky live. Each suburban community will likely have its own generator, so that when the main power is out, the air-conditioners and area floodlights will continue to work. The suburbs will be divided into gated communities surrounded by chain-link fences and patrolled by security guards armed with pepper spray and attack dogs. The hospitals in these suburbs will be quiet, cool and well equipped, run by the state but operated more like private clinics—just as they are in Havana today. Gardeners and city foresters will maintain the grounds and the public areas, keeping the lawns and perennial beds watered, planting thousands of new trees each year: pawpaws, shumard oaks, hackberry trees. Perhaps a few familiar species, maples, for example, will be genetically engineered to withstand severe drought. In July and August, most suburban dwellers will be able to get away to the cottage on Lake Nipissing or, even better, fly to one of the new resorts on James Bay. They’ll avoid the hottest weeks, when plants will shrivel and ravines will dry up, when birds will fall from the trees and fish will wash up on the beaches, when everything will reek of death and decay and the noise of insects will keep you awake at night.

The forecast sounds far-fetched, but it’s not. Scientists believe that summers in Toronto at mid-century will be like the hottest days of 2005, only every day, and year after year. In 2005, the city experienced the warmest, most humid June, July and August on record. Ordinarily we have 14 days above 30 degrees: in 2005, there were 41. There were also 48 smog advisories, including one that lasted an unprecedented eight days. The nighttime temperature stayed above 20 degrees for 25 nights, and of the 26 heat alerts called by Toronto Public Health in 2005, 18 were extreme heat alerts—another first.

It was also the wettest summer on record in Canadian history. On August 19, a line of severe thunderstorms rolled over the northern edge of the GTA, bringing golf ball–size hailstones, winds up to 250 kilometres per hour, 1,400 lightning strikes per minute, and in some places 103 millimetres of rain in one hour, nearly twice the amount brought by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The fierce, straight-on wind, known as a derecho, spawned two tornadoes: one near Elmira and another north of Guelph, where on one farm, the twister drove a ballpoint pen seven centimetres into the trunk of a tree. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the storm caused half a billion dollars’ worth of damage to private property and battered major roads, sewers and 75 bridges.

When scientists predict a two-degree rise in average global temperature above pre-industrial levels, they don’t mean that a 26-degree day in July 1980 will be 28 degrees in 2030. At the North Pole, where the sun sometimes shines 24 hours a day, more solar energy will be absorbed as the ice cover melts. The summer temperature could rise there by as much as four times the global average. At mid-latitude locations such as Toronto, the rise will be about double the global mean, or four degrees. The comfortable 26-degree day in 1980 will be at least 30 degrees in 2030—a heat alert day, if we’re still bothering to call them.

Already in Toronto, roughly 1,820 people die from exposure to extreme heat and air pollution each year. Another 6,000 people end up in hospital. Soaring temperatures and air pollution affect everyone but have the highest consequences on the poor, the elderly and the very young.

A study by the Hospital for Sick Children found that the prevalence of asthma in children in Ontario rose by 35 per cent from 1995 to 1999. Although the increase seems to have levelled off since then, Toronto Public Health estimates that today about 12 per cent of kids in the province—one in eight—have asthma. An increase in poor air quality days can only exacerbate the problem, and as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels go up, plants like ragweed produce more pollen, which triggers asthma.

Elderly people suffer from a range of respiratory problems, as well as a host of other troubles—such as high blood pressure and diabetes—that are aggravated by heat. In France in 2003, of the 14,802 people who died as a direct result of the heat, 80 per cent were over 75 years old. Apart from not being able to get to cooling centres without help, seniors have a physiological incapacity to deal with heat. Their bodies have difficulty regulating temperature to keep cool. And with the boomer generation now entering their 60s, the vulnerable elderly demographic is expanding quickly. A full 19 per cent of Toronto’s population will be 65 or older by 2031.

In extreme heat, the second most vulnerable population is the indigent, whose numbers are also on the rise. Each night, an average of 3,757 people make use of the city’s homeless shelters; 829 of them are in the shelter’s family system, meaning they arrive as multi-generational units. Daily Bread reports that in the months between April 2005 and March 2006, food banks served nearly 900,000 clients, an increase of 79 per cent since 1995. Twenty-four per cent of those people were the working poor, families with an address and at least one person employed. Most of the increases were in the 416 suburbs: Scarborough, North York, Etobicoke, York and East York.

Those neighbourhoods, like all of downtown Toronto, act as heat reservoirs, virtual asphalt and concrete ovens in summer. It’s what Monica Campbell, the manager of the Environmental Protection Office at Toronto Public Health, calls “the heat island effect.” A brisk, compact woman in her 50s with a warm smile, she works out of a seventh-floor office at the corner of Dundas and Victoria that overlooks Dundas Square. “Downtown, we produce a lot of air pollution from cars, home heating and industry,” she explains. “Plus, we’re downwind of a great many American coal-fired power plants.” The combination of extreme heat and this “chronic pollution” is killing more Torontonians each year.

The problem, she says, is that the daily average lows are going up even faster than the highs, which means people who suffer from extreme heat are getting less relief during the night. This strongly affects the mortality rate, which increases exponentially as the duration of a heat wave lengthens. During a one-day heat wave, three people on average die from exposure to heat; during a two-day wave, however, seven people die. An eight-day heat wave kills 44 people. By 2050, heat waves will last 30 or 40 days, or all summer, with no let-up at night. People will be keeling over in the streets.

Those who have nowhere to go to escape the heat and pollution will be caught in a collision between the city’s efforts to remain livable and its need to cut energy consumption and costs to manageable levels. The social consequences could be serious. As the disparity in living conditions between the rich and the poor widens, there is the real possibility of Toronto becoming rancorously divided, with small, defensive groups of haves, and restless, resentful hordes of have-nots; people who can afford to beat the heat and those who are continuously beaten by it.

Projected weather patterns resulting from global warming call for short periods of intense rainfall separated by long stretches of near desert-like aridity—conditions that are bad for crops and trees. In the early summer months of 2005, some parts of southern Ontario received only one quarter of the normal amount of rain. Then came the deluge in August. Heavy rain washes out or erodes soil rather than nourishing it, and with warmer air temperatures, longer warm seasons and drier conditions, more moisture is transpired by plants and evaporated from lakes, rivers and land surfaces.

In winter, with reduced ice cover, Lake Ontario and the other Great Lakes will lose more water to evaporation. Future water levels in the Great Lakes, based on climate change projections for the 2050s, are expected to drop from 30 centimetres to more than a metre. If you stand at the edge of Lake Ontario today and walk out into the lake until the water reaches your waist, that’s where the shoreline will start in 2050.

Apart from the consequences such a drop will have on aquatic ecosystems, there will also be severe economic impacts. The cost of shipping will increase, as fully laden ships will no longer be able to navigate the canals or enter some Great Lakes ports, including Toronto’s; one estimate has shipping costs on the Great Lakes increasing by as much as 29 per cent by mid-century, with increasingly more traffic from the West flowing through the port of Churchill, Manitoba, which by then will be ice-free.

With less water running through the turbines, the cost of hydro will also spike. In 1998, the hottest year on record before 2005, Ontario Power Generation experienced a 13 per cent decrease in hydroelectricity production because of lowered water levels. The same thing happened again in 2005. Independent Electricity System Operator, the entity that manages Ontario’s hydro, had to make up for a shortfall during the July heat wave—when electricity consumption in the city shot up from a normal 3,500 megawatts per day to more than 26,000 megawatts—by importing power from American coal-fired generating plants.

Toronto now consumes 20 per cent of all the electricity used in Ontario, more during peak hours and heat waves, when air conditioning eats up half the electricity that flows into the city. When lake levels drop and Ontario’s hydroelectric generators are off-line, more power will have to be imported from coal- and gas-fired plants, and not just during peak-demand hours, but all the time.

Power outages have a mushrooming effect on the economy. The one that hit Toronto in August 2003 cost the city $200 million in lost revenues. Grocery stores and restaurants had to throw out $16 million worth of perishable goods. It forced the cancellation of 500 Air Canada flights. Regular blackouts would be a disaster: the city earns nearly $3 billion a year in tax revenue from airport traffic.

Hydro outages could also lead to water shortages and rationing. It requires an immense amount of electricity to pump water out of Lake Ontario and into the city’s homes and cooling systems. Toronto uses more electrical energy pumping water than it does for street lighting, the transit system and lighting city-owned buildings combined.

Faced with such massive changes, it seems almost churlish to add that the extra reliance on fossil fuel for electricity will increase carbon dioxide, ground-level ozone and particulate matter emissions, therefore multiplying deaths from chronic air pollution. Air pollution in 2005 cost the province an estimated $8 billion, according to the Ontario Medical Association, a figure that will reach 
$13 billion by 2026. In Toronto, the current annual cost is $118 million in health care and $81 million in lost productivity.

Every day will be a health alert day, but as costs rise and revenues drop, Toronto may no longer be able to afford the extensive social programs needed to protect its vulnerable populations from the consequences of global warming.

Climate change may also cause a rapid swelling of the population. Vast areas of the planet are experiencing drought, loss of forest cover and increased flooding. There is evidence that the conflict in the Darfur region, for example, is partly the result of loss of grazing land due to climate change. Under such conditions, areas like Toronto that are politically stable, are not coastal and are not turning into deserts are going to receive huge influxes of climate refugees. Rising sea levels, increased drought and monsoons are expected to displace 150 million people by 2050, creating more refugees than those fleeing genocide and war. They’ll desperately want to live in Toronto, even with its oppressive temperatures.

The sudden warming of the planet that brought about the end of the last ice age, 11,000 years ago, allowed human beings to settle in permanent cities, raise crops and domesticate animals. It made civilization possible. But what the climate gives, the climate can take away. The magnitude of the changes coming at us now is at least equal to that of the warming that melted the glaciers at the end of the Pleistocene. Just ask someone from the east coast of Florida what weather can do to a city.

“Everything about our lives is going to determine and be determined by the climate,” says Gord Perks, a city councillor on the Parks and Environment Committee and the Board of Health. “I often ask people to name one single thing they do that does not impact the climate; the best answer I’ve had so far is singing.” An energetic, athletic-looking man in his 40s, Perks is the main author of The Canadian Green Consumer Guide and was an adjunct professor in the University of Toronto’s environmental studies department. Toronto, he says, is faced with a choice between two futures. In one, we decide that we have to change the way we live, and we make the massive social and economic adjustments necessary to stave off disaster.

In that future, we ban private cars from the downtown core. We could follow the lead set by such cities as Singapore, Rome and Oslo. In London, congestion in the downtown area was costing £1.2 billion due to lost sales and slow deliveries. The mayor, Ken Livingstone, recently passed a law mandating all drivers to pay a fee if they wanted to enter a 40-square-kilometre area designated as a “congestion charge zone.” Beyond the zone, he has also discouraged people from driving by making it illegal to stop on major thoroughfares during rush hour: cars caught breaking the rule are slapped with a £100 penalty. Traffic in central London has decreased by 20 per cent and the revenues from fees and fines are invested in public transit, roads and pedestrian services.

We could also mandate that all taxis be hybrids, invest heavily in mass public transit, redesign the city to include more mixed-use neighbourhoods with green spaces and triple the urban forest. Green spaces and trees are a major part of improving the economic outlook. “We’re going to need trees for natural air conditioning,” explains Perks.

Most significantly, we have to cut greenhouse gas emissions, not to 65 per cent below 2003 levels, as Stephen Harper’s much-vaunted plan has specified, not even 80 per cent by 2050, as David Miller has suggested. We need to cut emissions by 90 per cent. And we need to do it by 2030.

Otherwise, we get the other future, the more likely one, the one in which we do some of those things but not the ones that hurt. We follow what climate forecasters call the “business as usual” scenario. We make a few gestures toward habitat restoration and energy efficiency, change a few light bulbs, put up some windmills off the Scarborough Bluffs, place green roofs and solar collectors on some of the larger buildings, and tell ourselves that these measures will allow us to carry on the way we have been since the Industrial Revolution. “If we do that,” says Perks, “I believe there will be a sharper division between people who live in comfort and people who don’t; between people who can afford air conditioning and quiet, shaded properties, who can avoid extremes of heat and pollution, and those who will have to suffer from hotter weather, more storms, and a fragile economy.”

And they are the ones who will be waiting at the gates.