Opinion: Let’s manage climate risks, not disasters

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Charles Brindmore is the Chief Executive Officer of Intact Financial Corp. and Blair Feltmet is the head of the Intact Center on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo.

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Canada’s collective efforts to transition to net-zero carbon emissions are critically important. At the same time, we must doubly so to adapt to the extreme weather effects of climate change that we are experiencing now. Globally, the last decade was warmer than any period in the past 125,000 years, and Canada is warming at twice the global average. Preliminary data suggests that extreme heat in late June caused 70 percent of sudden and unexpected deaths in BC.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report provides indisputable evidence that climate change is real, human-induced and effectively irreversible. Backed by a solid business case, Canada has a unique opportunity to take the lead in accelerating adaptation at home and globally at COP26, the upcoming United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow this November. We now need urgent and aggressive deployment of adaptation measures to limit the effects of extremely harsh weather.

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The good news is that Canada has developed practical and cost-effective guidelines to protect against extreme weather risks such as floods, fires and heatwaves.

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With these guidelines in hand, it’s time to talk. We need immediate action. It does not just fall on the shoulders of the government. It requires a whole-society approach that includes government, non-governmental organizations, businesses and individuals – and we have concrete actions we can mobilize to make ourselves climate-resilient:

1. Futureproof Critical Infrastructure

Things like our electricity grid, water distribution, roads and food supply chains form the backbone of our lives, yet are vulnerable to severe weather.

Much of this infrastructure has been in place for decades. And it will fail if overloaded by a severe climate event. Texas experienced it in February, when Winter Storm Uri left millions stranded without heat, electricity or running water. It was an avoidable crisis – recommendations made for a similar incident a decade earlier were ignored.

Every dollar invested in disaster mitigation generates $6 in savings on future disaster costs. Climate-resilient infrastructure could save Canada $4.7 billion annually.

2. Build right the first time – and in the right places

There is a misconception that it is more expensive to build right the first time. In fact, it is more expensive to take it back or make it back.

We know better than anyone what happens when communities build on floodplains or set up developments on top of wetlands. Research has been done and proven solutions are available – flood resistance guidelines for homeowners, existing communities and new community design are available from the Intact Center on Climate Adaptation, and fire-resilient community guidelines are available from FireSmart Canada. We just need our local and provincial authorities to fully adopt them.

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3. Use natural infrastructure as a first line of defense

Forests, meadows and wetlands are not the only decorations on the landscape. They help with flood management and protect us from drought, removing carbon emissions and providing clean water, all while supporting a diverse habitat for plants and animals. Joint research between the INACT Center and the Insurance Bureau of Canada reports that through the conservation of wetlands, we can reduce flood damage costs by up to 40 percent.

Natural infrastructure also helps keep our cities cool. On a sunny day in an urban center, building and street surfaces can heat up to 50 degrees, while natural surfaces remain close to air temperature.

It is clear why natural infrastructure is rapidly gaining momentum as a front-line climate adaptation solution. Climate mitigation, adaptation and economic benefits make nature a winner. We need to protect the natural infrastructure we have and restore what we have damaged.

The extreme events of 2021 alone reinforce that we need to accelerate our work. We have seen progress with recent government announcements and adaptation measures in party forums. However, as each day passes, the issues become complex and the solutions we implement have less impact. Successfully adapting to extreme weather is critical to fighting climate change and keeping our communities safe. This will depend on the ability of governments to take small, collective action and direct resources and implement proven solutions.

Adapting to climate change is essential to good politics, smart business strategy, and our communities. Every day we don’t adapt to is a day we don’t have to give up.

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