April 10, 2020

Seven profs confront climate change at THEMUSEUM in Kitchener

From the falling ice of Antarctica to urban floodwaters, seven local professors brought their perspectives on climate change to THEMUSEUM in downtown Kitchener on Wednesday, Feb. 5. Styled “Ideas to Shape the Future: Fighting Climate Change,” the event saw researchers from the University of Waterloo’s Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change and Water Institute discuss their work as part of THEMUSEUM’s ongoing exhibition ALARM: Responding to Our Climate Emergency.

“It’s important to provide a community stage to the great research that’s happening in our region and have some of those speakers showcase their knowledge on the climate emergency and things that we can do to help alleviate it,” Katelynn Dietrich, THEMUSEUM’s director of strategic initiatives, said in an interview.

With about 160 people in the audience, she said it was probably the best attended of THEMUSEUM’s regular Wednesday evening speaker events so far.

The speakers were from disciplines as disparate as mathematics, public health and communications. Yet each had something to say on interacting with the changing environment.

Air pollution and public health

“When you’re fighting climate change, you’re also protecting yourself from one of the biggest threats to public health,” said Rebecca Saari, a civil and environmental engineering professor.

She said outdoor and indoor air pollution are the sixth and eighth greatest risk factors for premature death worldwide, accounting for about four million deaths annually.

Reducing carbon emissions more than pays for itself in savings from better health, she said.

Research she co-authored estimates a hypothetical cap-and-trade system in the northeastern United States would save 844 per cent of the cost of implementation by reducing death and illness.

Flood management

“There’s no such thing as a natural disaster,” said environment, enterprise and development professor Jason Thistlethwaite. “Disasters are the result of poor policy decisions.”

He said about one in five Canadian households face a flood risk, and that this calls for a managed retreat from flood areas, compensating those displaced and preparing receiving communities — perhaps like Kitchener-Waterloo.

In an interview, Thistlethwaite praised southern Ontario’s flood defence: “In Ontario, we have conservation authorities, which are these unique organizations — no others exist in Canada — and they’ve been granted authority to regulate the land that is deemed to be a flood plain,” preempting damaging flooding by denying permits for at-risk construction.

Seven ways to confront climate change from local experts

1. Recognize it’s not averages that matter, like rising temperatures, but specific consequences, like algae toxifying a city’s water (Marek Stastna, Applied Mathematics).

2. Become a leader, like this Fort McMurray native now helping petition for Antarctic protections (Kirsten Müller, Biology).

3. Reduce emissions, because the health benefits more than make up for the cost (Rebecca Saari, Civil and Environmental Engineering).

4. Understand and guard food systems, like those in food-insecure northern Canada (Kelly Skinner, Public Health and Health Systems).

5. Restore water systems, like urban streams or Tobago’s wetlands, by revising built environments (Luna Khirfan, School of Planning).

6. Manage flood risks by resettling people away from flood plains (Jason Thistlethwaite, Environment, Enterprise and Development).

7. Emphasize systemic changes over individual resolutions (Imre Szeman, Communication Arts).

The Schneider Creek flood plain in downtown Kitchener, with THEMUSEUM’S
location at 10 King St. W. pinpointed, from Jason Thistlethwaite’s presentation.
Climate Risk Research Group, University of Waterloo (2020).

The ALARM exhibitions

ALARM consists of four exhibitions across three sites, offered until Sept. 7. Agents for Change | Facing the Anthropocene (the work of ten female artists), Melting Ice (Arctic and Antarctic photography) and Extinction (live frogs and reptiles and an octopus) are at the museum building at 10 King St. W. in Kitchener. Two more artists have work featured at the University of Waterloo Art Gallery (until March 7). Spectrum | The Climate Emergency Experience (opened on Feb. 12) is located in The Shops at Waterloo Town Square, at 75 King St. S.

TheMuseum will hold another panel, titled Water Is Life: Indigenous Voices, on Wednesday, March 4. Family Night at THEMUSEUM 2020: Taking Action on Climate Change takes place Friday, Feb. 28. And TheMuseum will host Peter Mansbridge and three panelists at Bingemans in Kitchener Friday, April 24.

Top photo credit: Kirsten Müller.

Correction: A previous version of the story indicated the Spectrum exhibit wasn’t open yet; it opened Feb. 12.

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