Even as hundreds of heat-related deaths and an entire village reduced to ashes have brought home the urgency of protecting Canada from the ravages of climate change, the federal government is in only the early stages of developing a comprehensive plan to build resilience.
Promised by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals late last year, a national climate adaptation strategy is to be released in broad strokes this year. A more detailed version – featuring more specific plans to deal with everything from wildfires and flooding to extreme heat and stability of electricity grids – is not expected before the end of next year, meaning funding commitments may not flow from it until 2023 at the earliest.
The frustrating lack of immediacy in that process is explained by its complexity. In separate interviews on Wednesday, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna underscored that Ottawa needs to bring together many partners closer to the ground – including provincial, municipal and Indigenous governments. And given this country’s geographic diversity, they will be attempting to land on priorities and targets for a very diffuse range of climate-related risks.
But this summer’s tragic events have made clear – as it should have been already – that Canada can’t afford to wait years for the strategy’s development to be completed, before significantly raising its investments in safeguarding its people, communities and infrastructure. Not when some forms of necessary spending have long been obvious.
The evidence of that need isn’t just anecdotal, no matter how galvanizing the recent plight of Lytton, B.C. – destroyed by wildfire after enduring the highest temperatures recorded in Canadian history, as part of an unusually deadly heatwave across the Pacific Northwest.
As acknowledged by various federal reports, including an inventory of climate risks released by Natural Resources Canada last week, Canada’s temperatures are rising at roughly twice the global average. Disasters related to extreme weather seem to be increasing at an even more striking rate, reflected by catastrophic insurance payouts skyrocketing from about $400-million annually until 2008 to an average of nearly $2-billion. And that doesn’t fully capture what the human costs could be.
In the interviews, the ministers pushed back on the notion that their government hasn’t to this point given adaptation the attention it deserves.
“I think for the general public, there certainly is a heightened degree of awareness of some of the issues around adaptation” because of the recent tragedies, Mr. Wilkinson said. But “the urgency of this issue has been clear for a number of years” to those in government, he said.
But while there have been some resiliency investments to date, they have been only a fraction of what has been committed to emissions reduction. This year’s budget was a case in point: The government boasted a total of $17.6-billion toward green spending in the years ahead, of which only $3.8-billion is related to adaptation.
Some of that spending really doesn’t need to wait for a couple more hellish summers to pass.
The obvious place to start would be the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund, which helps municipalities make their infrastructure more resilient. After $2-billion provided through it during the Liberals’ first term proved nowhere near sufficient to meet demand, it was allocated only an additional $1.4-billion over the next dozen years in the budget. It seems inevitable that the national strategy will call for that sum to be much higher, so the government might as well get on with it.
There’s also no good reason to wait through further wildfire seasons before doing more to help save vulnerable homes and communities. For example, experts point toward the opportunity to build off the work of FireSmart – a coalition of governmental and other organizations that have developed programs to raise awareness of wildfire protection options – through funding of home safety audits and necessary expenditures that they identify. Likewise, there could be greater investment in firebreaks around high-risk towns.
Flood protection has received somewhat more federal attention recently, partly attributable to lobbying on adaptation being led by an insurance industry for which that’s the biggest concern, but there is still plenty of room for more immediacy in measures such as updating flood-risk maps.
The surplus of available options, to tackle these and other risks in the near term, doesn’t mean the national strategy is a waste of time. On the contrary, it points to its potential usefulness in helping to prioritize.
It could also involve setting specific targets, as with emissions reduction. That’s a tougher undertaking with adaptation: There isn’t the same sort of single overarching goal that can be set, and it’s not obvious how progress on something like flood or wildfire protection should be measured. But it may be essential for accountability, and bringing different levels of government together in common purpose.
There is further potential value, Ms. McKenna suggested, in attempting to reckon with various potential scenarios depending on how much temperatures rise, and developing practical potential responses to them.
But the patient work that Ottawa wants to put into planning is a “double-edged sword,” as Blair Feltmate, who heads the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, and previously chaired a federal expert panel on the subject, puts it. Long-term strategy is needed, but it can’t mean delaying any action at all.
That latter danger is amplified by the prospect of a federal election in the coming months, which could slow the strategy’s development as government stops in its tracks.
If there is a campaign, though, it could at least involve federal parties competing with each other on plans to ready the country for environmental crises ahead. That’s never really happened before, but after what they are experiencing or witnessing this summer, Canadians would be right to demand it.
Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.