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The Harper government could be facing the gravest crisis in its seven years in power, on account of the weather.
Catastrophic flooding in Alberta. Severe flooding in Toronto. Wind storms, wildfires, hail. Extreme weather is costing governments and insurance companies billions of dollars in losses. And everyone is suddenly worried about their basement.
"The Alberta event, and the Toronto event, and just the stormy summer we've had, on the heels of many other stormy years, has changed the debate," says Don Forgeron, president of the Insurance Bureau of Canada. "I think that individual Canadians are becoming more and more concerned about their security."
Voters will punish governments that don't address those concerns.
"If people see things happening in their own backyard, or in their own basement, governments run the risk of being punished if people blame them for not having done something about it, for denying it or not taking it seriously," argues David McLaughlin, who was head of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, before the Conservatives cut off its funding. "That's the frame they're stuck with, fairly or not."
But while Stephen Harper will never convince anyone that his government is serious about preventing climate change, he may be able to persuade voters that his government is serious about adapting to its effects. It will cost tens of billions of dollars over the coming years. But taxpayers will demand the money be spent, because nothing matters more than preserving the safety of your family and the value of your home.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities believes that "extreme weather is the single greatest threat to Canada's infrastructure and transportation system," according to its president Claude Dauphin, who is also the mayor of Lachine, Que.
A few years ago, the FCM estimated that it would take $120-billion to repair the nation's roads, sewers and other infrastructure. "I don't think we're making a mistake in saying we could double it, because of the climate-change threat," Mr. Dauphin said.
The problem goes far beyond people living on once-dry land that turned out to be floodplain. Severe rain and flash flooding can back up storm sewers, flooding the basements of homes in neighbourhoods nowhere near water.
Blair Feltmate is chair of the Climate Change Adaptation Project at the University of Waterloo. He foresees a future in which repeated chronic flooding renders vast swaths of real estate uninsurable, causing banks to revoke mortgages. "We will be heading towards an uninsurable housing market in Canada," he warns.
From 2000 to 2008, "large catastrophic losses" cost the insurance industry $500-million or less in every year but one. From 2009 to 2012, losses have been near, at or over $1-billion every year.
"The number and the severity of the storms keep surprising everybody, and it's very difficult for the industry to keep up," Mr. Forgeron said.
If this is the new normal, then each new storm will heighten public fears, and woe betide the municipal, provincial or federal politician who is seen as indifferent to those fears.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford acknowledges that climate change is having a severe impact on her province. "What we can do, and what we will do, is put in place effective infrastructure mitigation to reduce the impact," she told reporters. The premiers want Ottawa to fund 50 per cent of "disaster mitigation" costs.
The Harper government has pledged $70-billion over 10 years to upgrade municipal, first nations and other infrastructure, "the largest – and longest-ever – federal infrastructure plan in Canadian history," Marie-Josée Paquette, press secretary to Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel, said in an e-mail.
"Disaster mitigation will continue to be an eligible category for investment," she added.
But if governments are to seriously tackle the job of hardening cities against severe weather, the bill could be much, much higher.
Not everything has to be expensive, said Prof. Feltmate. Protection against flooding can mean installing low-cost back water valves to prevent sewer backup; designing parking lots to absorb rather than slough off rainwater; building bioswales – essentially water-absorbing ditches – in strategic areas; increasing storm water capacity when upgrading sewage systems; redrawing flood-plain maps; protecting wetlands around and in urban areas.
But it may also mean sea walls, water diversion ditches, barriers against wildfires and other big-ticket items.
"The climate has changed, it is changing, it will continue to change," Prof. Feltmate says. "Extreme weather events are going to be the norm going forward. And we're going to have to adapt."
Ignoring this crisis is not an option. The weather will see to that.