Over the past few weeks, Canada has been hit hard. Serious and unprecedented flooding has struck Calgary and Toronto, along with others from Fort McMurray to Kitchener-Waterloo. Petrochemical spills of nearly every kind have dumped crude, tailings and “sour gas”, culminating in last weekend’s horrific train-crash in Lac Magantic which levelled the centre of town and killed an estimated 50. As images and video roll in, showing a sunken Union Station and a burning Lac Magentic, virtually everybody I’ve seen or spoken to for days has been in a state of shock and awe.

How could this happen to us?

We all know, of course, how and why this is happening. Weather being the default subject for Canadian small-talk, it’s something that comes up in conversation with just about everyone I see, and for years aside from a very tiny fraction of deniers, there’s been an overwhelming consensus among everyone I’ve spoken to from all walks of life. “Yeah, we fucked it all up”, I hear over and over again, almost always followed, of course, with, “but what are we gonna do?”.

That’s a question we should probably answer sooner, rather than later.

Scientists have been warning for decades that climate change would bring about this kind of extreme weather. Other experts have been trying to warn about the dangers presented by oil development and infrastructure for at least as long. Similar disasters have been afflicting the Third World for years now, and even beginning to hit the shores of America. As frightening as this was, it was still largely academic – pictures came in from places we’d never heard of and could scarcely find on a map. Now that the places we’re seeing underwater are ones we know well and identify personally with, the threat becomes real in entirely new ways.

How would we be responding, I wonder, if this devastation had been wrought by dark-skinned foreigners who spoke a different language and worshipped a different god? If “extremists” blew up a few dams to let loose floodwaters, or snuck a “suitcase nuke” into a small town? On a global scale, “environmental refugees” already outnumber those displaced by war, and with a growing number of super-storms, droughts, heat-waves, freezes, crop-failures, wildfires and floods, the damage being done is already well beyond anything Al Qaeda could manage.

For now, this anger is muted, but that won’t last forever. People are losing homes, farms and communities, and as the damage starts to pile up, resentment will begin to build. Just as it took a couple of years of widespread layoffs and foreclosures before mass political action started to take hold of public spaces, I suspect it will take more time and suffering before people start to get really angry. Once that happens, though, it won’t take much to spark a reaction. When people see the fortunes made by oil company executives in relation to their shattered lives, they’ll draw the obvious connections and begin to see this theft for what it really is.

This crisis isn’t hypothetical any more. It’s happening, and it’s only going to get worse. It can no longer be spoken about only as separate “climate”, “energy” or “financial” crises, but as a converging set of consequences. As conventional oil supplies dwindle we’ll continue to see rising fuel costs, economic slowdowns and risky new drilling technologies. The current rush toward tar sands and fracking development is a clear result of both desperation to revive ailing industrial economies and the growing shortage of conventional crude. These new sources of oil, in turn, emit far more carbon and present a significantly increased risk of accidents and disasters. All of this is connected and there aren’t going to be any simple solutions.

How will people react, I wonder, when the first major North American city has to be abandoned for good? Rolling Stone recently published a convincing argument that Miami can’t survive rising sea levels, no matter how many walls it builds. What about farming communities, fisheries and areas dependent on forests? How will we react when one of these floods strikes before people are able to evacuate? When scientists start to agree that we’ve passed “the tipping point”?

There is, of course, a point where life as we know it starts to become untenable and “civilization” will start to break down. Large-scale centralized decision-making depends on the ability to assume that things like climate are relatively constant. This is the literal foundation for everything we build – roads, bridges and buildings are all built on the assumption the ground under them won’t turn to mud. Our agricultural system, now planted often in thousand-acre fields of a single crop (or even a single clone) and managed globally, are becoming colossal gambles on the stability of local climates. Our nationally-networked power grids have limits and depend on thousands of miles of transmission lines. “Just in time” delivery, the new mantra of “warehouses on wheels” which drives the big-box economy, leaves only days worth of supplies in stores at any given time. In short, we are woefully unprepared for the future we’re probably creating, in ways which strike at the very heart of our way of life.

Long before that happens, though, we’ll see regional impacts scattered seemingly at random. Like everything else, they’ll hit poor regions harder than most and bring with them a whole host of ugly social side effects. In his new book, Tropic of Chaos, Christian Parenti illustrates some of the consequences we’re already starting to see. In Afghanistan, years of drought led poor farmers to switch from wheat to drought-tolerant opium in defiance of the occupation, a move supported by the remnants of the Taliban and one of many reasons they still enjoy so much support from those communities. In Africa and the Middle East the Arab Spring was preceded by increases in food prices linked to droughts and crop failures. Ultimately, our climate isn’t the only mind-bogglingly complex system involved here, nor is it the only one threatened with losing stability.

This “apocalypse” isn’t coming tomorrow, but if recent events are any indication, it’s not a threat we can afford to ignore any longer. This isn’t just happening in Bangladesh and the Maldives anymore, it’s happening right up the train tracks. We still have time to make changes, but no way of knowing how much. The IEA suggests that we have until 2017 to stop building fossil-fuel infrastructure before we’re “locked in” to a level of at least 450ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere by the middle of the century, and a warming of at least 2 degrees Celsius. Given how much chaotic weather we’re seeing now, it’s hard to imagine how bad it might get past that point.

I don’t know about you, but I plan on being alive in 2050, and don’t wish to spend my last years watching this planet tear itself apart. Every time something like this happens, I ask how bad it’ll have to get before we collectively change our ways, and almost inevitably the answer is “worse”. That’s not good enough anymore. We aren’t changing our ways – we’re doing the opposite. Does a 28 000% increase in oil-by-rail shipments sound like the act of a country that’s serious about tackling climate change and oil dependence?

Big oil blew up a small town. That’s a wake-up call we can’t ignore. Blame whoever you wish – the railroad, the engineer, anonymous vandals or a lack of regulation, but ultimately this disaster comes down to the choice to increase oil production on a continental scale. Whether this oil is transported by train, tanker or pipeline, the risks will still be spread across the land, and even if companies miraculously manage to avoid any more accidents, burning this oil will still produce more droughts, floods, crop-failures and wildfires. One way or the other, we will have to stop using these infernal fuels, the only question is what we’ll be left with when we do.

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