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John Godfrey is a former federal minister of infrastructure and communities and former special adviser for Climate Change to Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne.

Though British Columbia was clearly unprepared for the magnitude of rains which struck the province this past month, they were still in a better position than they might have been.

That’s thanks to the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium (PCIC), which was created in 2005 at the University of Victoria as a regional climate research centre that provides practical information on the physical effects of future climate variability in the Pacific and Yukon region of Canada.

In addition, for the past 12 years, B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation has been integrating climate-change projections into its engineering using the PIEVC Protocol, which measures public infrastructure vulnerability. In 2015, it became ministry policy for all new engineering designs to take into account climate-change projections – not just historical data – when designing bridges, roads and culverts. Unfortunately, the policy applied only to newly built infrastructure, not existing roads and bridges, which explains B.C.’s heavy losses this past week.

Institutions similar to B.C.’s exist in Quebec and Britain. Yet, Ontario, Canada’s largest province, does not have one, and thus remains more vulnerable to a sudden onslaught of extreme weather events than B.C.

The two provinces’ climate and geography are different, of course. Ontario’s extreme weather tends to originate in the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean. Specific earth surface properties, such as those of the Great Lakes, can cause huge differences in weather events, such as the startling variations in snowfall between St. Catharine’s, Ont., and Buffalo, only 57 kilometres away.

In Northern Ontario, governments engage in a two-faced climate change response

Disasters are a permanent part of the Canadian fabric. We can’t keep winging it.

In August, 2005, a severe storm cost the province $671-million in damages, only to be topped by the Toronto floods of July, 2013, causing insured losses of nearly $1-billion.

As in B.C., one of the challenges posed by climate change is that the historic weather record no longer applies, and extrapolation and linear thinking no longer work. In some cases, the 100-year storm has become the three-year storm, or, as we have just seen in B.C., simply off the charts altogether, whether in terms of temperature or intense rainfall. Tipping points and major shifts in weather patterns are the order of the day, and we need to know specifically what that means for Ontario, which is why we need our own climate-risk institute in the province to tell us.

But it’s not just the Ontario government that needs high-quality, user-friendly, regional climate-modelling data to plan for a more resilient future. It is especially so for the mayors of small towns, Indigenous groups, farmers, homeowners, property owners of all types, large and small, who need to know about and prepare for extreme climate events. It is transportation companies and any business reliant on supply chains. In fact, all 14.8 million citizens of Ontario need to know more about climate risk so that we can prepare ourselves appropriately.

As is the case with the PCIC, the logical headquarters for such an Ontario centre would be at one of the province’s major universities. Such an institution would bring together climate scientists, as well as experts in geography and geology, engineering, finance and public policy, among other disciplines. The centre would also need to work closely with relevant Ontario government ministries, as well as financial institutions, businesses, municipalities, Indigenous groups, and civil society to share emerging science and plan common responses.

Working with other Ontario universities and researchers, such a centre might conduct further research on climate impacts and potential responses for specific sectors of the economy and society, such as the built environment and housing, agriculture, health, forestry, natural resources and mining, the North and water management.

An Ontario-based climate-risk institute would be the province’s contribution to a national network of regional climate-modelling efforts. It would improve the Canadian government’s knowledge of the overall threat of future extreme climate events facing the country, and hence allow for greater readiness. As a result, Canada would also be better positioned to share its climate knowledge internationally to advance the world’s understanding of this global challenge.

Let the catastrophic events of the past month in B.C. be a lesson for Ontario. We can’t be prepared for climate change if we don’t know what’s coming. It’s high time we found out.

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