Just weeks before the federal government intends to release its long-awaited strategy to brace Canada for climate-change consequences disastrously experienced around the world, industries and organizations that have engaged with Ottawa in developing the plan are warning that it’s on track to be too little and too late.
Climate Proof Canada, a coalition that is led by the Insurance Bureau of Canada and includes members ranging from the Canadian Red Cross to the Business Council of Canada, will publicly release a letter on Monday that accuses Environment and Climate Change Canada of getting bogged down in long-term aspirations rather than addressing immediate threats such as floods, wildfires and extreme heat.
“Federal officials are proposing a National Adaptation Strategy that only focuses on vague and distant goals without any national plan to address them,” says the letter, obtained in advance by The Globe and Mail.
“While the longer-term impacts of the climate crisis must be addressed, considering the increasing number of near daily extreme weather events already occurring across Canada, we cannot wait until 2030 to limit the impacts of climate change in this country.”
The coalition is calling for the strategy – which Ottawa plans to release at or before November’s COP27 international climate summit, an edition of the annual United Nations conference to be heavily focused on adapting to climate-change effects that are already too late to prevent – to provide a five-year implementation plan for safeguarding homes and other buildings, protect vulnerable communities and strengthen public infrastructure.
A similar call was made last week by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, or FCM, which is also a member of Climate Proof, when it released its recommendations for the strategy. Although the tone of that document is less critical, it proposes that 2025 targets be set for priorities such as infrastructure investment and better access to climate-risk data.
That contrasts with Ottawa’s intention, through much of the National Adaptation Strategy’s development, to have it revolve around “transformational goals” for what the country could look like in 2050, with mid-term 2030 objectives.
“Communities are feeling the impact right now,” FCM president Taneen Rudyk said in an interview. “So we can’t wait.”
The complaint by Climate Proof that Ottawa still plans to deliver a plan that only looks far into the future, in a high-level way, is disputed by the government.
Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said in response to the criticism that the government is working to “lay out a path that delivers results in the short term as well as the long term.”
Others within and outside government say that Mr. Guilbeault, along with cabinet colleagues such as Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, have indeed been recently pushing for near-term and actionable measures to be included.
But there is also a common sense that, having squandered much of the year-long period that was set aside for the strategy’s development, Ottawa is now struggling to land on a sufficiently comprehensive and urgent plan.
“They’re not ready, but they are scrambling,” summarized Blair Feltmate, the head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, who is one of the resiliency advocates most engaged with Ottawa (and is a member of Climate Proof).
The lack of readiness seemingly owes partly to the process that the government established at the outset. Its early months, last winter, were taken up by the work of five advisory tables that the government appointed to advise on various aspects of climate adaptation (infrastructure, disaster response, nature, health, economy), which were given vague marching orders and in some cases delivered broad recommendations that did not significantly move the ball forward. More recently, the summer months were devoted largely to public consultation.
By some accounts, there has also been bureaucratic resistance to implementing near-term measures, including targets to which the government would be held to account.
Whatever the cause, Ottawa has been left with mere weeks to land on specific policies.
The government has given indications of what some of those could be. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letters to ministers after last year’s election set expectations for the implementation of new adaptation measures, such as a new auditing program to help homeowners identify needed climate-resilience investments, expanded home-retrofit subsidies, a national flood-risk portal to make such data more easily accessible, and increased investment in climate-resilient infrastructure.
But it’s unclear how many of those policies, many of which were pushed by organizations such as the Insurance Bureau of Canada, are ready for roll-out this fall. Some of the most significant ones, including a new national flood insurance program for homes at such high risk that private insurance could become unavailable or unaffordable, are seemingly some ways off.
Meanwhile, climate-resiliency advocates have lists of what they consider ready-made policy commitments that could flesh out the strategy.
Mr. Feltmate, for instance, itemized policies and targets that could be introduced for each of the major disaster risks. They spanned from homeowner education programs about risk mitigation, to the protection of a specific number of homes at highest risk of flooding (in some cases through relocation) within the next five years, to new building standards for homes in areas prone to wildfires, to getting new heat alert and response systems up and running in every province.
At the moment, the prodding from policy experts to quickly and measurably improve resilience in those sorts of ways is not being matched by comparable pressure from the broader public.
A relatively modest year for Canada thus far in terms of climate-related disasters, compared with a previous year marked by devastating floods, deadly heat waves and an entire town burning to the ground, has somewhat lessened the focus on how the government will provide safeguards.
But what has happened in recent months elsewhere – including catastrophic heat waves across Europe, Asia and Africa, California’s highest temperatures on record, drought in China and one-third of Pakistan being underwater – points toward the likelihood of a more brutal toll here soon, too, and mounting frustration if the government proves unprepared.
In a matter of weeks, it will be revealed whether Ottawa has proven capable of delivering a strategy with enough credible near-term measures to protect Canadians, assuage the concerns that are being raised, and match the moment.