Living through a heatwave without air conditioning isn’t easy. I’m sure I could get one, if I so desired, but I still stubbornly refuse – a position which requires equal parts principle and masochism. As someone who’s worked outside in all seasons for over a decade, I’m not usually one to let weather take me out of commission, but the human body has its limits. The week-long heat advisory Hamilton is currently enduring has reached painful levels, even for friends of mine who’ve lived in places far, far south of here.
Welcome to the paradox presented by global warming – anything you do to make temperatures better for yourself in the short term will probably make things worse for everybody over the long run. Cranking the A/C, driving everywhere, drinking lots of refrigerated fluids with ice cubes and turning on every fan in sight all fit this bill, belching ever more CO2 into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, as temperatures start to reach levels people literally die from, “sweating it out” isn’t always an option.
This heatwave extends from Ottawa and Montreal to the Texas/Oklahoma border and is said to be visible from space. This supercharged weather system brought with it a severe thunderstorm that just knocked out power to 9000 in Montreal, with similar warnings issued over large parts of Ontario. Other power grids are taxed purely from the heat, Guelph Hydro, for instance, may have beaten their all-time record twice already this week. This heat will be with us for days to come, and there’s already talk that a couple of recent deaths may have been related. On a related note, according to NASA, Earth just experienced the second warmest June on record, and I shudder to think how many records will be set this month.
Even without global warming, there are many ways in which our cities ratchet up the temperature. Concrete stores and radiates heat, while trees absorb sunlight and seed rainclouds. Air conditioners and refrigerators only move heat, usually dumping it nearby. And of course, all the energy we use, whether as electricity or petrochemicals, ultimately ends up as heat (basic thermodynamics). Add to this buildings designed without a thought for things like “solar gain” and “thermal mass“, which pump out heat when they function but become ovens or iceboxes when their climate-control breaks down. As far as this kind of heat is concerned, being in a city isn’t all that different from a desert covered in mid-day campfires.
This state of affairs might be forgivable if it wasn’t for the trajectory. In almost every respect, what we build has been getting steadily worse for most of a century. Victorian-era homebuilders and city-planners manage to build walkable, energy-efficient buildings, as had their ancestors for at least a millennia. By the 1950s, we’d largely given up, and still haven’t yet managed to begin again in any large-scale fashion.
There is no easy or immediate way out of this mess. Decades of short-sighted planning and architectural decisions have been effectively set into stone and can’t be replaced overnight. Our city continues to demolish buildings and cut trees over 80 years old with reckless abandon, while leaving drywall-and-stucco boxes in their place. We’re pissing away the legacy of generations past, all the while building a new legacy with which our children will have to cope.
If this week’s heat proves one thing, though, it’s that something has to change. Even if it takes decades (and it will), there’s no better time to start than the present (or perhaps once it cools down a bit…). As they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The easiest way to begin, of course, is by planting trees. A tall leafy tree just south of a house can do wonders to block incoming solar energy, but lets almost all of it through once the weather turns cold. Trees with needles placed to the east and west will shelter buildings from prevailing winds year-round. They also help to shade and mulch soils, helping them to maintain vital moisture at this time of year and sink deep roots into the ground to draw upon (and transpire) otherwise unaccessable groundwater.
Failing that, we could adopt a far easier approach, and simply let them grow. This latter approach isn’t just easier and cheaper, it also brings a lot of biological advantages. It offers trees which are already adapted to local microclimates, soils and pests. The seemingly random placement means that only those suited to thrive in an area will survive for more than a year or two. Where land is particularly degraded, we see the same kind of fast-growing “weed” trees which begin recovery and “natural succession” after forest fires, which in turn create shade and shelter for others.
We could also stop cutting them down, something we’re likely to witness a lot of in coming years as the City of Hamilton ramps up plans to fight the Emerald Ash Borer with their beloved chainsaws, with tens of thousands of trees on the chopping block. We could also stop chipping the trees we do cut and turn it over, instead, to be milled. With heat like this, drying the boards in solar kilns (which also kills any insects) should be a snap, something that doesn’t really require much more than plastic sheeting and a thermometer. This would cut down our dependence on logging and provide a wealth of woods which are otherwise now considered almost “exotic”. Try to buy some maple, ash or chestnut at Rona or Home Depot, and you’ll find yourself referred to “Exotic Woods” in Burlington (and shortly thereafter, broke). On your way home, you’ll likely see at least one of the above being fed into an oversized shredder.
In terms of what we build, we need to start thinking about ways to keep buildings cool without massive energy bills. While LEEDS certification is a bit of a joke, others, like the German “Passivhaus” standard aren’t. They’re far cheaper to implement (and world’s cheaper to certify) and cut down ~90% of a standard building’s energy consumption with simple measures like heat exchangers. There’s also a lot which could be done in terms of decriminalizing (real) green building techniques as far as the City’s building codes are concerned, to allow the use of materials like strawbale and cob which offer better, cheaper insulation. We could cover our roofs with plants instead of asphalt, which has a lifespan not unlike thatch in some parts of the world. We could avoid the temptation to build glass skyscrapers and instead focus on building and preserving high-density low-rise development, as is seen in so much of the rest of the world.
The current construction boom Hamilton is witnessing shows that this kind of transformation is possible. What if the resources currently being put into hotels and condominiums were instead “invested” to make all of our homes a little more efficient? Given how volatile energy prices are getting, it’s gotta be at least as likely to bring in a reasonable “return”. We have the knowledge, the know-how and the resources to accomplish all of this and more, so why not start now?
This won’t happen, of course, because “we” aren’t the ones making these decisions. From the design of new buildings to the care and maintenance of old ones, this power is held by a tiny fraction of Hamilton’s people who benefit directly from the current state of affairs. The development, automobile, energy and financial industries depend directly on such choices for their incomes, and to them, every penny we save is one they Heatwaves and climate change are a direct result of the way our society functions, and it’s going to continue until we see some serious social change.
Truck routes (red hill, desantis), train yards closing etc