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The growing financial and social costs of climate change across Canada have raised a simple question that we have been struggling to answer.John Morris/John Morris/

Blair Feltmate is head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo. Prashant Shukle is the former director-general of the Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation.

Newly released data from the Insurance Bureau of Canada showed $3.1-billion in insurable losses resulting from the impacts of extreme weather in 2022. This ranks as the third-worst year for catastrophic losses in Canadian history, following 2016 ($6-billion) when wildfire ravaged Fort McMurray and 2013 ($3.9-billion), when Calgary and Toronto suffered flooding.

The costly weather events of 2022 were not restricted to one area of Canada – they hit the Maritimes with Hurricane Fiona ($800-million in insured losses), a summer derecho (massive windstorm) caused devastation in Ontario and Quebec ($1-billion) and a series of storms battered Western Canada ($300-million). Geographically dispersed storms are what climate change models predict, and that is what Canada is getting.

The growing financial and social costs of climate change across Canada have raised a simple question that we have been struggling to answer: What can be done today to make better investment decisions so that we don’t waste billions of dollars annually through lack of preparedness for extreme weather?

Perhaps some solace can be found in the National Adaptation Strategy (NAS) announced with fanfare by Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Steven Guilbeault, in November of 2022. It identifies 22 targets aimed primarily at limiting the effects of flooding, wildfire and extreme heat, generally in the time frame of 2026-30. The NAS also recognizes that responsibility for meeting these targets does not reside just with governments, but also with the private sector, professional associations, communities and individuals – in short, an all-hands on deck approach.

Where specifically should this all-of-society effort on adaptation begin, and how are we all to be empowered? Let’s look at one target identified in the NAS. It is the provision to create flood-hazard maps for 200 out of Canada’s 250 highest-risk flood areas and make them available to Canadians by 2028. This target is material – right now the No. 1 cost of climate change in Canada is residential basement flooding. For a peril of this magnitude, one would think that flood-risk maps would already exist. Still, a goal to have them in hand even five years from now may be optimistic if past performance by the federal government is any indicator.

Canada showed serious interest in limiting flood risk in 2017, through a series of roundtables hosted by then public safety minister Ralph Goodale. As participants, it was not lost on either of us that the promise of flood maps would not only provide benefit to the residential housing market, but they would also serve to better inform billions of dollars of investments in new infrastructure, telecommunications capabilities and transportation activities.

Despite this promising pathway to prepare for extreme weather, momentum failed. Why? In 2018, Mr. Goodale provided a part answer when he said “government budget-makers are under huge pressure to fund projects that bring quick political gratification rather than build on longer-term objectives.” He was, and continues to be, right.

It would seem that no jurisdiction or institution wants to take on the task of telling Canadians that their home is at risk (and not just from flooding, but depending on location, such impacts as wildfires or storm surge).

First, it is simply not politically expedient. Second, financial liability for homes at risk has led to a game of bureaucratic hide-and-seek, where no one wants to assume responsibility. Third, as is the case for Canada’s costliest peril, this risk-aversion has fuelled fragmented investments in flood-mapping websites, information portals and, in some instances, “modelling” activities that do anything but provide property owners and businesses with a clear picture of their risk.

Trying to cheat climate risk through political pandering does not work. Events of 2022 should serve as a $3.1-billion wake-up call.

To avoid repeating a history of stops and starts on adaptation, Canada should commit to reporting progress on the NAS annually and recognize that success also means that the time to deliver is now, not another five years down the road.