There’s little chance of eliminating the risks posed by climate change altogether as the planet warms. But researchers behind a new report suggest that by focusing on six areas most at risk of being impacted by climate change, Canadians can mitigate those impacts by up to 75 per cent.
This comes after a federal study earlier this year found Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.
The report, prepared for the Treasury Board by the Council of Canadian Academies, highlights 12 areas at risk of significant impact from climate change.
Of those, six face particular risk.
According to the report, threats to physical infrastructure, coastal communities, northern communities, human health and wellness, ecosystems and fisheries are the most pressing risk areas for Canada and the ones that should be most directly addressed to reduce the overall severity of climate change for Canadians.
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Not all of those risks can be reduced equally, with fisheries and ecosystems likely to be the least able to adapt, the report said.
But there is strong potential to make changes that can help people stay healthier, ensure infrastructure remains intact and make sure coastal and northern communities remain livable and sustainable through planning and investment — and a lot of that comes down to the amount of control humans can exert over climate change, the report suggested.
“Assessing adaptation potential is, to a large extent, dependent on the degree of human control over each risk area,” the researchers wrote.
“Climate risks to natural systems are more difficult to manage than risks to human systems due to the complexity of natural systems, the limited range of available interventions and the inability of natural systems to adapt quickly enough to a changing climate.”
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Joyce Murray, president of the Treasury Board, was not available to comment on the report, but a spokesperson for her office said it “helps to prioritize the risks to Canada, both in terms of significance and ability to address them.”
“As we have just received the report, we are still examining its implications,” said Bruce Cheadle, her director of communications.
While the report doesn’t make concrete recommendations, it does lay out the following measures, which the authors suggest could help:
In the report, physical infrastructure is generally considered one of the more adaptable areas facing threats from climate change.
The authors pointed to the fact that much of Canada’s infrastructure is already aging and recommends updating building codes and design standards to make infrastructure like bridges and power grids more resilient and able to withstand the changing climate.
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They pointed to data suggesting few municipalities have assessed the vulnerability of their infrastructure and suggested more should consider incorporating updates rather than end up having to pay to replace all or segments of the infrastructure in the event it is destroyed or damaged.
“While the costs of incorporating future climate conditions in infrastructure design may be considerable, they tend to be small relative to the costs of rebuilding or repairing infrastructure in the future,” the researchers said.
Their concerns echo those already raised by federal officials over the past decade.
In 2010, Canada adopted a National Strategy for Critical Infrastructure and, in 2013, put together its first action plan for laying out areas where the federal government can collaborate with the provinces, territories and operators of critical infrastructure to talk about ways to address risks.
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A second action plan in 2014 lasted until 2017 and put the focus on how to improve resiliency and led to a number of tests being run to identify where existing networks and systems are particularly vulnerable.
Last year, the federal government put together its third action plan, which is set to play out until 2020.
It takes a more immediate view of the threats facing critical infrastructure, with climate change being chief among them, along with several other risk factors like cyberattacks and terrorism, and lays out new, ongoing goals for testing and identifying risks as well as best practices for working with stakeholders to fix vulnerabilities.
It also opens up the possibility of a full-scale review of the National Strategy for Critical Infrastructure to make sure it’s focused on the most pressing issues.
Rising sea levels and storm damage are among the most pressing threats to coastal communities listed in the report.
Mitigating them will take large-scale capital investment in things like dikes and sea walls, as well as updating building codes and standards so that existing and new construction can be built to withstand more extreme weather and rising water.
As an example, the report pointed to studies suggesting the potential cost of setting up protective defences along the shorelines of Metro Vancouver and the Fraser River is around $9.5 million. The report added that prohibiting flooded homes from being rebuilt in the safe areas they were in could help reduce the cost of helping residents hit by things like floods in the long term for governments.
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This is something already being considered by some levels of government.
Just last month, the Quebec government issued a moratorium on new construction in areas deemed to be high-risk floodplains.
That decision also barred homeowners from rebuilding flooded homes if the damage to their properties was more than 50 per cent of the home’s value.
New Brunswick implemented similar measures last year after record-setting spring floods, barring some flooded homeowners from rebuilding unless they made significant upgrades to make their homes more flood-resilient. That included raising the homes up from the ground.
With spring flooding showing few signs of letting up in the coming years, it’s possible more provincial governments and municipalities could follow suit.
The biggest risk to northern communities is the impact of degrading permafrost, the report said.
Permafrost is the ground that remains permanently frozen. In the Canadian Arctic, it is thawing roughly 70 years earlier than expected.
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For scientists, that’s concerning because of the potential for trapped greenhouse gases to be released into an already warming atmosphere, making the problem even worse.
The thaws can also cause frozen ground to collapse and trigger broader environmental changes in the vicinity, impacting humans, animals and vegetation.
In the North, a lot of the risk posed by those changes may be mitigated though actions like making sure that homes and buildings on top of permafrost are elevated, which could help limit the impact on the building when the ground below changes.
Roads will also need to be monitored, as collapsing and thawing ground could impact already limited transportation routes into isolated communities, the report said.
Human health and wellness
By and large, the report said health issues caused by climate change can be managed.
Reducing income disparities, offering more support for vulnerable populations and managing the impact of things like severe heat through public advisories could all play a strong role in limiting the impact of climate change on public health, the authors suggest.
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There’s crossover here with the need to protect infrastructure, as the report also flags potential power outages during the summer months, when rising temperatures are more likely to mean more people are turning on their air conditioning and putting strain on the electrical grid.
Creating disaster awareness campaigns could also help limit the psychological impact of natural disasters, the report said.
Again, many of these are things municipalities are already doing, particularly when it comes to creating disaster response plans in the wake of increasingly damaging severe weather and extending the hours that warming and cooling centres are open during extreme cold and hot spells.
Not all of the impacts on ecosystems will be able to be mitigated, but researchers point out that things like more selective breeding and assisted migration could make a positive impact and, in some cases, are already underway.
“Scientists and researchers may sometimes be able to accelerate evolution and natural selection to aid adaptation,” the report noted.
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“Researchers are exploring two of these strategies (selective breeding and assisted migration) to support climate change adaptation in Canada’s forests.”
Additional measures like expanding protected areas could help ecosystems remain healthy and viable.
Of all the threats caused by climate change, impacts on fisheries could be some of the most challenging to mitigate.
In particular, some of the measures the report proposes to help aquatic systems adapt could be more challenging in communities that rely on one fish stock.
That’s because some of the actions researchers say could help protect the aquatic ecosystems in the long term include closing some fisheries, putting in place quotas and protecting more marine areas — and all of those could have a big impact on the communities in question.
“Adaptation can be particularly challenging for communities that rely heavily on a single fishery and can have widespread economic and social consequences,” the report stated. “A combination of approaches, including catch quotas, community management, regulations on fishing gear, ocean zoning and economic incentives, can help manage and restore marine fisheries and ecosystems.”
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