The federal government is turning to Canadians, as it hurriedly tries to pull together a plan to make the country more resilient to the ravages of climate change.
Amid rapidly increasing incidences of floods, wildfires and extreme-heat waves, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault will kick-start public consultations Monday on Canada’s first National Adaptation Strategy.
The four-and-a-half-hour virtual launch event – featuring provincial and territorial ministers, Indigenous leaders and various policy experts alongside federal officials – seems intended to signal the scale of the undertaking and the seriousness with which Ottawa is approaching it.
In an interview, Mr. Guilbeault spoke optimistically of the degree of interest from other levels of government and the broader public – something he hopes will be reflected by a large volume of public submissions during a two-month consultation period.
He also reiterated that Ottawa is aiming to complete the strategy in time for November’s COP27 climate summit. That edition of the annual UN conference, which has previously focused primarily on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, is expected to have a heavy focus on adaptation. It will show that, as in Canada, governments are recognizing that they’ve been too slow to brace for some climate-change impacts that are already too late to avoid.
But to be done by then, the federal government has an enormous amount of heavy lifting to do away from the public eye.
Among the fundamental challenges with which Mr. Guilbeault and his colleagues are grappling is how to set meaningful targets for building resilience that can be used to hold themselves and future governments to account. They are also trying to strike a balance between short-term action to reduce immediate risk, and longer-term transformation to deal with more severe climate consequences to come.
And they need to establish better co-operation both across the many federal departments responsible for aspects of adaptation, and with lower levels of government that are closer to the ground.
Ottawa seems to have made limited progress on some of these fronts, during a strategy development process that was launched last year, and has been criticized by some of those involved for being unfocused and lacking urgency.
To date, the process has largely revolved around five advisory tables that the government established, to help shape the strategy around different aspects of climate adaptation: infrastructure, nature, disaster response, health and the economy at large. Each was co-chaired by an outside expert and a senior bureaucrat from the relevant federal ministry, and asked to identify “a transformational goal” and “medium-term objectives” to meet it.
A discussion paper pulling together those groups’ recommendations will be released by the government on Monday. But it’s possible to get a sense of what will be in it from preliminary reports by each table that the government quietly published online in April.
Some of those reports – notably the disaster-response one, which proposed goals such as ensuring that by 2030 every Canadian disaster victim can be returned to normalcy within a year of the disaster – were more specific than others.
But as a whole, the targets recommended by the tables – from halting biodiversity loss and protecting ecosystems, to developing tools to attract private-sector adaptation investment – are abstract and aspirational, with no roadmap for how to reach them.
That’s in keeping with the marching orders the tables were given by the government. But it’s prompted concerns about Ottawa not being much closer to a concrete plan, roughly halfway through the time it gave itself to develop one.
Those concerns seemingly came to the fore at a climate conference in Vancouver in late March. Climate Proof Canada – a coalition of non-governmental and private-sector organizations, led by the Insurance Bureau of Canada – convened a closed-door meeting attended by Mr. Guilbeault and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.
“The event was held as an intervention given that members of Climate Proof Canada felt that the National Adaptation Strategy was too amorphous and high level, lacked urgency and that political direction was lacking,” said Craig Stewart, the Insurance Bureau’s vice-president for federal affairs.
This week, the government-funded Canadian Climate Institute released a paper on the National Adaptation Strategy that’s in keeping with the tone of the Vancouver meeting, which its representatives attended. The gist is that the government needs to be more practical than the process has suggested to date, including a call for the strategy to feature concrete actions that will be taken between now and 2025.
While stressing that he’s not developing any “fixed views” until after the consultations, Mr. Guilbeault did offer indications of his thinking that may be encouraging to those calling for sharper focus.
That included a recognition that resilience-building is too urgent for the strategy to get overly mired in the long term and theoretical. “I suspect that, because we’re playing catch-up, there is going to be a willingness or a demand that we initially focus on the short term because there’s a lot of things to do,” he said.
He also suggested that he’s been persuaded that setting targets to drive and measure climate-adaptation progress – something that has bedeviled policy makers globally – is doable.
“It did take me a while to wrap my brain around what targets for adaptation could look like,” he said, but he’s since been given convincing examples. For instance, he said, it would make sense to establish a minimum number of households that will be protected from floods by 2030.
And he gave the impression that what he wants most, out of the consultation period, is agreement on which levels of government will be responsible for what, when it comes to implementation.
A cause for optimism, he said, is that there is no disagreement across governments or party lines about needing to make Canada more climate-resilient.
“Despite the public speeches and grandstanding that we see when it comes to reducing emissions,” Mr. Guilbeault said, “people get that we’ve entered the era of climate change and that we’re not prepared.”
Now, it’s a matter of finding out how much more ready this country can become, in the few months that his government has left before its self-imposed deadline.
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