Adapting to a changing climate

Most of the focus in terms of policy responses to climate change has been on mitigation, or ways in which we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, with targets and timelines to that end being developed (or at least contemplated). But even if we were to slash those emissions to zero tomorrow, there will still be an increase in global average temperatures due to the existing stock of emissions already in the atmosphere and the time lag for them to translate into temperature changes.

As things stand now, average global temperatures are about 0.7 degrees higher than in pre-industrial times (about 200 years ago). This has led to all kinds of weather chaos, as is now widely recognized. But there is at least another half to full-degree increase anticipated based on current atmospheric CO2 concentration (think of a bathtub — what matters is the total amount of water in the tub not the annual increase in water).

This means we will need to adapt to a changing climate, at the same time as we take on mitigation measures to slow and eventually stop that annual flow into the “tub”. Specific climate effects will differ based on location, but we do have a decent roadmap. Natural Resources Canada released last month a 500-page report on anticipated impacts: forest fires, windstorms, extreme weather, flooding, droughts, insect infestations, sea level rise, etc. All of which have major implications for infrastructure, industry and employment, health, food and water supplies, and so on.

Adaptation is often explained in terms of increasing the “resiliency” of communities, regions and people to these predicted impacts. A challenge in this is that the impacts are more about the variance than the average for things like annual precipitation. It may be that precipitation is expected to increase or decrease on average but the swings range from floods to droughts from year to year (and these are affected by el nino and la nina seasonal shifts and longer term warming and cooling cycles).

A lot of the impacts are going to be felt at the community/municipal level, and so there is a need for fuller, charette-type processes that present these possibilities to communities, and get them to assess what the most pressing ones are so that action can be taken. Some of that action will be slow and steady as infrastructure is replaced over time. Other actions may be more urgent. Others may not pass the triage test. Local municipalities/communities are in the best position to decide.

A problem at the local level, however, is the relatively limited amount of jurisdiction in key areas, and perhaps more fundamentally, the lack of revenue bases to draw the financial resources to get in the game. Already there are substantial infrastructure deficits at the municipal level. Barring extensive constitutional negotiations that would transfer taxation powers downward, the best answer to ameliorate the situation would be some form of dedicated fiscal transfer to municipalities (perhaps a point of income tax from each of the federal and provincial governments for starters), or in the case of infrastructure, giving municipalities 33 cent dollars to spend to be matched by senior governments.

This human adaptation part seems to be the easiest to grasp. A key finding is to ensure that adaptation efforts do not act to undermine mitigation. Deforestation in response to food shortages is an example. So policy-makers want to find areas where there are co-benefits to mitigation from adaptation (and vice versa). More compact communities that get people out of cars is an example here. (As an aside, the feds have split responsibilities in two, with adaptation assigned to Natural Resources Canada and mitigation to Environment Canada).

Beyond that the issues get murkier. At a recent conference there was a lot of  interest in ecosystem-level adaptation/management and links to biodiversity. Perhaps it is because economists tend to look at this in more anthropocentric terms but I find it hard to get my head around this. Ecosystems are going to be changing due to factors beyond our control, so I’m not sure how much we can do to prevent the loss of biodiversity (at least due to climate change — much of the loss of biodiversity is not climate change but pollution and land use practices). Seems to me that given the complexity of ecosystems, it is folly to think we can “manage” them (but then who knows?).

Besides, the politicians are going to respond more to threats of a $6 billion flood, as almost happened in the Fraser valley last year due to a rapid melt of large snowpacks, a freak storm that shuts down a city for a few days, or a heat wave that kills thousands (did I mention that Vancouver got three inches of hail in the space of about an hour last Saturday?). There may well be some worthy biodiversity initiatives that piggyback on these concerns, but much of the conversation at the conference was aimed at getting an ever finer grain picture of what the local impacts will be.

One comment

  • I’m just afraid that corporate Canada and the Conservatives will latch on to the notion of preparation and make it sound like an alternative to prevention.

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