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Sink or swim 

Tim Bousquet watches the waters rise.

Nova Scotia is sinking, and, thanks to global warming, the oceans are rising. We here in Halifax, sitting on the edge of both Nova Scotia and the ocean, have a geologist’s word that Nova Scotia sank between 21 and 47 centimetres over the last century, a continuation of a process that’s been going on for thousands of years and shows no sign of slowing. The recently released report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a sea-level rise of 38.5 centimetres by 2100. The combined forces will likely cause a relative sea-level rise of about 80 centimetres for Halifax.

In theory we should be able to figure out which local neighbourhoods are going to end up under water (Rockingham, watch out!) and where the new shoreline will be (my hilltop house looks like a better investment each day).

And in fact, that’s what the city is doing. About $200,000 has been budgeted for mapping Halifax’s shorelines and low-lying areas with something called a Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging system. Airplanes will fly over the city this spring, before the trees leaf out, and LIDAR will take elevation measurements accurate to about two centimetres.

But not so fast, says Stephen King, the city employee overseeing the effort. “I’d hate to think we’re only reacting to global warming and not trying to something about it.”

To be sure, measuring sea-level rises in the face of global warming without doing anything else is like figuring out what damage will be caused by your overflowing bathtub without first turning off the running water.

King refers us to Halifax’s Climate SMART—which stands for Climate Sustainability Mitigation and Adaptation Risk Toolkit. Once you get past that snooze-inducing bureau-speak, Climate SMART deals forthrightly with the problem, recognizing that the city, and the citizens and businesses within the city, are part of the problem. Greenhouse gases are the primary cause of climate change, and we’re producing way too much of them.

King put together a primer on the issue, which details the problem as well as the city’s response to it, and posted it on the city’s website:

To the city’s credit, Halifax has already contracted with wind-energy producers to supply 40 percent of the city’s electrical needs. (To my relief, this is real energy from real wind farms, not some bogus green credit scheme.)

More, the city is working with hospitals and universities in the Robie Street corridor on a project that will burn natural gas instead of the current fuel oil, and use the excess heat to warm buildings in the area. And there’s talk of heating and cooling all the government buildings on the Dartmouth waterfront with a heat-exchange system from the depths of the adjacent harbour.

Still, as laudable as these projects are, they are a drop in the budget compared to what private businesses and individuals in Halifax need to do to address climate change. The city government itself—all of the municipal buildings, city hall, the garbage trucks, street lights and so forth—now emits 110 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually, compared to seven million tonnes by all the rest of Halifax. We need to cut those numbers by at least 80 percent.

So far as rising sea levels go, Halifax will have to constrain development in some places. A higher likelihood of storm damage will result in increased insurance costs. And owners of buildings along the waterfront might end up losing their investments. It’ll cost us “billions of dollars,” says King.

But the IPCC projection for sea-level rise—the 38.5 centimetres that city is using for planning purposes—is a mid-range projection, and doesn’t consider such cataclysmic scenarios as the sudden melting of the Greenland ice cap or the collapse of the Antarctic ice fields. What, I ask King, would happen if those nightmare fears come to pass?

“Then all bets are off,” he says.

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