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Alberta government took six months to release alarming climate report

Click to play video 'Alberta government releases report on province’s climate future' Alberta government releases report on province’s climate future
WATCH: Alberta government releases report on province's climate future – Feb 26, 2020

Alberta will warm faster than the rest of the planet because of human activity, causing a range of profound impacts on the province’s economy, infrastructure and public health, says a new report, prepared by climate scientists and published on a provincial government website.

“Projected changes will profoundly impact Alberta’s natural environment, and have the potential to affect the province’s agriculture, infrastructure, and natural resources, as well as the health and welfare of its inhabitants,” said the report, co-authored by Canadian climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and postdoctoral research fellow Anne Stoner from Texas Tech University.

The projections from the report, entitled Alberta’s Climate Future, are similar to projections for other parts of Canada that are warming faster than the rest of the world.

Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government released the report more than six months after it received the final draft, leading some critics, such as former NDP environment minister Shannon Phillips who had commissioned the report, to suggest her successor tried to bury it.

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The government’s Environment and Parks Department also refused at least two freedom of information requests for the report — including one request from Global News in December — before posting it online. In addition, the Alberta Federation of Labour, which filed the other freedom of information request for the report, noted that someone in government backdated the entry of the report into a provincial “open government” portal to Sept. 1, 2019, making it more difficult to find on the website.

Click to play video 'Alberta government releases report on province’s climate future' Alberta government releases report on province’s climate future
Alberta government releases report on province’s climate future – Feb 26, 2020

But a government spokesman said it hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary, and that the report was queued up for release in the fall but delayed as the department waited for backup data.

The two scientists said in their report that their conclusions about Alberta are consistent with the projections of other scientific research about impacts throughout north-central North America in response to human-induced climate change. The report also said that the government could use the list of anticipated changes “to quantify the impacts of a warming planet on both human and natural systems, and to inform long-term planning, education, and outreach.”

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The release of the report comes at a time when oil-rich Alberta continues to argue with the federal government over the best approach to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and prevent dangerous changes to the climate. Conservative governments in Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan have been contesting the centrepiece of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s climate policy in a court battle over whether the federal government can impose a fee on heat-trapping carbon emissions in provinces that fail to meet national standards to reduce pollution.

Courts in two provinces have sided with the federal Liberal government, while an Alberta court rejected Trudeau’s approach, setting the stage for a final battle at the Supreme Court of Canada.

The report is also coming to light days after Teck Resources announced it was pulling out of a major oilsands project for a variety of reasons, including uncertainty surrounding resource development and government’s climate change policies.

Alberta has tens of thousands of jobs that are powered by oil and gas companies, which are one of the planet’s largest sources of climate-warming pollution.

The new research by Hayhoe and Stoner says that for each degree of global mean temperature increase, Alberta could expect:

  • A 2 C increase in average winter and a 1.5 C increase in average summer temperature.
  • An increase of about 3 C in the temperature of the coldest day of the year and an increase of about 2 C in the temperature of the warmest day of the year.
  • A two-week lengthening of the frost-free season, and between a two- to four-week lengthening of the growing season, with greater changes for more southern locations.
  • A five to 10 per cent increase in precipitation between September and April, with between five to 10 per cent more falling as rain compared to snow.
  • A 50 per cent increase in the number of very wet days (more than 25mm in 24 hours) and a 20 per cent increase the amount of precipitation on the wettest day of the year.
  • Proportional decreases in heating degree-days and increases in growing degree-days and other cumulative heating indices.

Hayhoe said there is some uncertainty surrounding projections due to the natural variability of the climate, but that the biggest uncertainty revolves around what action humans decide to take to tackle the issue.

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“We are the ones who are driving this change for the first time in the history of the planet,” she said in an interview from Lubbock, Texas. “It isn’t volcanoes. It isn’t natural cycles. It isn’t the sun. It is us. And our energy choices will determine our future. So the further and further we go out into the future, the more we see decade by decade, the 2050s, the 2070s, 2100, the more we see the influence of the choices that we make today.”

President Barack Obama, right, arrives with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, left, and Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, to talk about climate change as part of the White House South by South Lawn event in Washington, D.C., Oct. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama, right, arrives with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, left, and Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, to talk about climate change as part of the White House South by South Lawn event in Washington, D.C., Oct. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster).

Hayhoe added that the climate report also shows exactly how Alberta’s choices today will affect its future.

“If we wait until we see those impacts, it’s going to be too late to make the choice,” she said. “Just like if we are being loaded onto the ambulance, being taken to the hospital for a heart attack, it’s too late to say, ‘oh, I’ll join a gym and I’ll eat healthy.’ We have to make those decisions earlier in the same way.”

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Phillips, now in opposition, said she commissioned the report because she felt that the province had more work to do to prepare for what was coming.

“I think it is fair to say, when I reflect back on those four years in government, that there were fundamental blind spots in government and within the public service around infrastructure planning,” she told Global News in an interview at her office at the provincial legislature in Edmonton. “And I think that’s not something that you’re going to fix over four years. In the end, it’s because climate change is new, because there’s so much to think of, because there are so many different factors that go into planning and modelling.”

NDP finance critic Shannon Phillips, in her prebudget media conference Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, trotted out footwear: a nurse’s sneakers, a teacher’s high heels, a child’s runners and the work boots of a laid-off oilfield services worker.
NDP finance critic Shannon Phillips, in her prebudget media conference Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, trotted out footwear: a nurse’s sneakers, a teacher’s high heels, a child’s runners and the work boots of a laid-off oilfield services worker. Cam Cook, Global News

Phillips also noted that she was unable to get a copy of the report, prior to Alberta’s April 2019 election, even though her department had received a draft version.

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“I asked for this report to be prepared, and it was supposed to be delivered to me and it never was. And now we see just a sort of comedy of errors in terms of its release,” said Phillips, who represents a Lethbridge riding in the Alberta legislature. “It certainly seems that people don’t want to talk about this within the Government of Alberta.”

Phillips said that the government can no longer afford to ignore these issues after insurance companies paid record payouts following major weather-related events such as the Fort McMurray wildfires of 2016 and southern Alberta floods of 2013.

“You can bury your head in the sand. You can pretend that this isn’t happening. You can put your fingers in your ears and go la-la-la, but the science is very, very clear.”

“Investors are very, very clear. Global capital flows are increasingly sending us signals that we cannot ignore and weather events are more frequent and more severe,” said Phillips.

Hayhoe, the report’s co-author, confirmed that she sent the original draft report to the government at the beginning of 2019, and then a final version in August. But she acknowledged that she was late in sending background data requested by the government, which may have prompted it to delay its release.

However, the government went ahead and published the report, before she was able to deliver the data, she added.

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When asked about the comments by Phillips and McGowan accusing the government of trying to bury the report, the office of Environment Minister Jason Nixon responded by saying that it was common practice to release research of this nature through the provincial Open Data website.

“Our government takes climate change seriously, which is why we are taking action to reduce emissions,” said Nixon’s press secretary Jess Sinclair. “Our approach to emissions reduction is one that favours working with our large emitters and investing in technology and innovation.”

Sinclair added that the government’s Technology, Innovation and Emissions Reduction program would reduce emissions by an estimated 57 million tonnes by 2030 and that the federal government had also accepted that provincial methane regulations meet federal standards “cementing Alberta’s status as one of the most environmentally responsible jurisdictions in North America.”

Nixon’s office also confirmed that the government received the report in August, without some of the backup data.

“Dr. Hayhoe has indicated that she was keen for the Government of Alberta to have her backup data before the report on Alberta’s Climate Future 2019 was released publicly,” said Sinclair. “However, mounting public interest in the report, including two freedom of information requests prompted us to make the report public this week on our Open Alberta site without that data, as we wanted to make sure its important contents were available publicly.”

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Alberta premier Jason Kenney shakes hands with Jason Nixon, Minister of Environment and Parks after being sworn into office, in Edmonton on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. Alberta has introduced a new climate plan for the province’s big greenhouse gas emitters. Nixon says it will achieve what he calls similar emissions cuts to the old government’s plan but at less cost to industry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta premier Jason Kenney shakes hands with Jason Nixon, Minister of Environment and Parks after being sworn into office, in Edmonton on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. Alberta has introduced a new climate plan for the province’s big greenhouse gas emitters. Nixon says it will achieve what he calls similar emissions cuts to the old government’s plan but at less cost to industry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.

Gill McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said his research director requested the report through freedom of information legislation in August, but Alberta Environment and Parks responded in August, saying it was refusing to provide a copy since it expected to publish it, at that time, within 90 days.

The provincial Environment Ministry provided a similar response to Global News in January. 

The Alberta government is also spending $30 million in spending on a war room that is supposed to promote the oil and gas industry, as well as $2.5 million on a public inquiry to investigate environmentalists that Premier Kenney has accused of spreading lies about the province.

“As a province, we should be preparing for change,” McGowan said. “But instead, we have a government that’s playing games like this, burying reports, doing as little as possible … as opposed to making robust plans for change.”

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McGowan added that he was concerned that the government hasn’t understood the economic implications of the report. In October, Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews told a lunchtime business crowd at a Calgary Chamber of Commerce event that the province could only diversify its revenue streams outside of fossil fuels after balancing its books.

McGowan said this approach could affect hundreds of thousands of people who could lose their jobs and their retirement savings.

There is an economic freight train bearing down on us, with the words, ‘climate transition’ emblazoned on the side,” McGowan said.

“If they take money from the public sector, from the public purse and use it to prop up oil and gas projects that have been rejected by global investors, that’s money that’s being taken away from education, health care, infrastructure, all those things that are already being underfunded. This is a recipe, from our perspective in the labour movement, for economic disaster.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 10:26 a.m. MT on Feb. 27, with additional comments from the office of Environment Minister Jason Nixon.