Elliott Cappell is PwC Canada’s national climate change leader, and Toronto’s former chief resilience officer. He is a member of the implementation committee of the Canadian Sustainability Standards Board.
The events of the past three years – and more acutely, the past three weeks – have shattered the logic on which Canada has based its approach to climate resilience.
To understand where we got it wrong, it is important to first understand that the way we experience climate-related disasters such as wildfires is a function of two variables. The first is exposure, which is the extent of the likelihood or severity of a hazard in a given place. The second is vulnerability: the extent to which we can withstand those hazards.
The first pillar of our approach was focused on reducing vulnerability. However, this summer has shown us that there are times when exposure is so great, vulnerability does not matter. In a fire as intense as the one that razed Enterprise, NWT, even the strongest buildings will burn to rubble. When Lytton, B.C., burned to the ground in 2021, the limits of this first pillar started to become clear.
Investors, climate experts and politicians are loath to engage with the idea that exposure can overwhelm vulnerability, because it leaves us only with second-best solutions, like managed retreat from the riskiest areas. This context may also require us to rethink national infrastructure such as rail, roads, or power transmission lines, which are notoriously expensive to move.
The second pillar of our climate strategy was to take solace in our climate privilege – that Canada’s exposure to extreme risks like heat or sea level rise would be relatively low on a global basis. However, as it turns out, it is still getting hot enough to create the conditions for extreme exposure to heat, and what’s more, that heat has not reduced our exposure to ice storms in the winter, to brutal freeze-thaw cycles, or to extreme flooding in spring. Other countries can focus their attention on one or two year-round hazards, while our attention is scattered, changing every season. Our exposure context, which we once thought of as a strength, is in fact a weakness.
The third pillar of our approach was to tell ourselves that we had more time. The most commonly used models for climate scenario planning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show exposure trending sharply upward around 2050 or 2060. However, a growing body of research is showing that our models have underestimated climate risk. Our lived experience suggests the same.
With these three pillars of our climate adaptation approach now in ruins, we need a new framework.
Governments have always had a central role to play on climate adaptation. But now, they need to act more quickly, invest more to better understand climate risk, engage with politically sensitive topics like managed retreat, and break down the traditional silos which climate adaptation cuts across. Businesses, which have so far played a small role in global efforts on adaptation, need to invest in it to scale, too.
Regulation in Canada is catching up. Recent requirements from the federal Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions and expected efforts from securities regulators will require Canadian businesses to report on climate risk, in the hopes that accurate and transparently communicated climate risks will spur investors and other stakeholders to compel them to action. I agree with this thesis, and support the Canadian Sustainability Standards Board, a reporting body created earlier this year.
The insurance sector is an exception to this rule. Property and casualty insurers in particular have felt the cost of climate change, and are taking action. However, insurance rules will generally compensate to build back to whatever state their homes or businesses were in before a climate shock. This is a mindset we need to change.
Finally, it is up to us on a household level. Now is the best time for Canadians to seriously think about what they might do in a real emergency. We need more tools, funding and resources from local authorities and NGOs to be prepared for the eventualities.
I was reminded of that reality this past weekend, when I was in Algonquin Park for an annual camping trip with friends. We always go into the backcountry with a first aid kit, bailer kits for the canoes, and years of training, but when we woke up one day to a cloud of smoke, billowing down from the Northwest Territories, it occurred to me that we – and our families back home – also needed to be prepared for forest fires. That is the basis for the new framework we all need: one that accepts the new reality of Canada’s complicated climate risks.