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Once-rare weather events in N.L. could become more common, says climatologist

As temperatures rise, once-rare weather events like post-tropical storm Fiona could become more common, says climatologist Joel Finnis.  (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press - image credit)
As temperatures rise, once-rare weather events like post-tropical storm Fiona could become more common, says climatologist Joel Finnis. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

A Memorial University climatologist says if global temperatures continue their rapid rise — and if governments don't take urgent and sufficient action — what were once considered rare or unprecedented weather events will become more common.

Joel Finnis told CBC News this week that while people are increasingly aware of the importance of mitigating climate change, not enough is actually being done yet.

"I think what we're recognizing is that while we are beginning to galvanize around this issue," said Finnis, "we still aren't getting anywhere close to where we need to be."

In a report released Monday, the UN said the world is heading toward catastrophic warming, which has already resulted in more frequent and extreme weather events in every region of the world — including Newfoundland and Labrador.

Two of the province's most beloved winter events — snowmobile race Cain's Quest and the Labrador Winter Games' Labrathon —  were cancelled due to mild winter weather conditions.

Six months ago, post-tropical storm Fiona swept through Newfoundland's southwest coast, destroying homes and leaving hundreds of people displaced in the town of Port aux Basques.

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

The UN's international science panel on climate change released a report Monday stating that the world is inching closer and may surpass 1.5 C of warming above pre-industrial levels by the 2030s — a critical limit, particularly for small islands and mountain communities, said Aditi Mukherji, one of the authors of the report, in a press release issued by the panel Monday.

"In the last decade, deaths from floods, droughts and storms were 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions," she added

Exceeding the climate target, which countries aimed not to surpass when they signed the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2016, could have adverse and catastrophic consequences, said Finnis, but it doesn't mean the planet is doomed. What's needed, he said, is urgent action from all levels of government.

What happens next?

Some people may feel a sense of distress or dread, also known as climate anxiety, when thinking about the adverse effects of climate change.

Finnis says things can be done at an individual level, such as limiting one's car use, but the biggest hindrances to addressing climate change are physical and structural barriers, as well as government inaction.

For instance, says Finnis, while someone living in St. John's can decide to sell their car or drive less, the city was designed for car use and its physical infrastructure often demands car ownership. Essentially, he says, cities have been designed around fossil fuel consumption, and structural changes will need to be made to make cities more sustainable.

Normand Mousseau, an expert on energy and natural resources at the Université de Montreal, says Newfoundland and Labrador's fossil fuel emissions are slightly above average per capita in Canada because the province's economy relies on fossil fuel production. As the world moves away from oil and gas over the next decade, Mousseau said, the province will need to diversify its economy.

Rob Greenwood, the director of Memorial University's Harris Centre, says he's optimistic that the province is on the right path. He said the province is positioned quite well to transition to green energy, especially hydrogen and wind power, compared with many other areas in the world.

Although making the transition is challenging, said Greenwood, the fact that the province is already working toward that goal is reason for hope, as well as the fact that there's significant demand for Newfoundland's wind power.

"We have a long ways to go, but we don't and shouldn't feel helpless, because there is adaptation happening," said Greenwood. "We just need to keep our resolve, keep it as a top priority and keep innovating."

Darrell Roberts/CBC
Darrell Roberts/CBC

Finnis said it's crucial for people to pressure every level of government to take climate change seriously, and to vote for politicians who have clear and concrete climate solutions.

He said the way the province is structured isn't sustainable — and to prevent the world from surpassing its temperature targets, that will have to change, quickly

"Ultimately, without political will, we're not going to get there," said Finnis.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador