Advocacy

January 15, 2024

OPINION: Our climate change conversation must focus on more than mitigation

As extreme weather events increase, climate adaptation becomes all the more important

When climate change surfaced on the public agenda during the 1990s, it felt to many that this was a problem that could easily be kicked down the road. Governments of many stripes made plans to address it, but implementation was slow.

Today no political party fails to take climate change seriously. While there are strong debates on how to do so, there are no serious debates on whether to do so.

But beyond the conversation of climate mitigation—how much, at what pace, and with what technology to reduce emissions—there is another aspect that hardly anyone seems to be talking about: climate adaptation.

Simply put, climate adaptation means building, or re-building, communities to better handle threats from climate change and extreme weather events. The fallout of these events varies depending on where you live. It might mean fires or floods, droughts, hotter or colder days, or sea-level rise. Adaptation, therefore, means things like forest management, berms, and improved building standards.

This matters because extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe. This year in Canada marked the worst wildfire season on record, and heat waves and floods ravaged communities from coast to coast to coast.

And these events have major economic costs.

Take some numbers crunched by the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC): “Insured damage related to severe weather in Canada routinely exceeds $2 billion annually. At $3.4 billion, 2022 was the third-worst year on record.” This compares to an average of $400 million annually between 1983 and 2009. In Alberta we know this, having experienced three of the five most expensive natural disasters in Canadian history, all within the past decade.

And that’s just the direct cost. The broader economic impact is just as big. The National Climate Institute estimates that by 2025, Canada’s GDP will be $25 billion lower than it would have been without the impacts of climate events. In the federal government’s own words, climate events are yet another driver of the housing affordability crisis. Insurance costs, or worse, insurance withdrawal, are making housing more expensive. As governments look for solutions to our housing crisis, they should add climate adaptation to their toolbox.

Yet even with all this, climate adaptation is virtually invisible from the public agenda, the dialogue of our nation’s leaders at COP28, and our recent federal fiscal plans.

The reality is that while emissions reduction is essential over the mid-to-long term, no amount of Canadian emissions reduction today will lessen these climate impacts in the near term. Climate adaptation can. It recognizes that fires, floods, and other impacts are going to keep happening, and it is our responsibility to protect Canadians, and the Canadian economy, from the worst effects.

The federal government has made strides in this effort. In June, they unveiled their National Adaptation Strategy.

This strategy identifies national heat events, floods, and wildfires as key climate risks. Earthquakes should be added to that list especially in light of recent news that major insurers are withdrawing earthquake insurance for parts of Vancouver and Victoria, B.C.

The strategy also points out that, “the increasing rate, severity and unpredictability of climate-related natural disasters are straining Canada’s emergency response systems, and impacting the reliability of supply chains, putting our food security and livelihoods at risk.” We need better disaster resilience, so we are “better prepared to prevent, mitigate, respond to and recover from the hazards, risks and consequences of disasters.” We need a “climate-resilient and adaptive health sector” to protect Canadians health and well-being. Our infrastructure needs to be climate-resilient and “undergo continuous adaptation to adjust for future impacts” of climate change. Finally, and perhaps most difficult, our economy needs to “anticipate, manage, adapt and respond to climate change impacts.”

This strategy makes the challenge clear and urgent and contains an impressive suite of ideas and policies to solve it, but like so many ambitious climate mitigation plans of the past, from all parties, implementation has lagged.

Adam Legge is the president of the Business Council of Alberta.

As appeared in the The Hub.

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