I have been meaning to write a Sunday letter focused on adaptation to climate change for some time. For one thing, I promised one of our subscribers I would.
My daughter Cate’s father is one of the world’s leading experts on the huge field of adaptation to climate change. In the weirdness of what is family, John Kidder easily understood and accepted that Ian Burton is part of mine, despite having ended one phase of that relationship in 1993. The current phase involves running into each other on the train platform in Glasgow, where, at 86, he was one of the IPCC scientists in attendance. A bit of his bio is here, based on (yet another) honour:
Over the years, Ian has served as an advisor to numerous developing countries facing severe threat from rising sea level, drought or whatever their geography was likely to throw at them if the industrialized countries failed to act to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG). It always struck me as odd that our own government was less likely to ask his advice, even though he is retired from the Department now known as “Environment and Climate Change Canada.”
In the language of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), reducing GHG is called “mitigation” which sounds like mitigating the damage you can no longer avoid – which in UNFCCC language is “Adaptation.” Both mitigation and adaptation are goals of the convention. Neither have been addressed anything like adequately in the nearly thirty years since the treaty was signed by all nations at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
The topic of adaptation used to be controversial. Back in the early 1990s, Sierra Club of Canada (where I was Executive Director) was the only national environmental organization pressing for both. Canada committed to both under the 1992 treaty. But there was a school of thought back then that “adaptation” was code for surrender. If we spent money adapting to climate change, would that reduce pressure to avoid all the nasty and dangerous events coming our way if we did not move off fossil fuels and arrest deforestation?
I did not think that was a risk. In fact, I thought it was a convincer. Working with scientists like Ian and Dr. Gordon McBean, pointing out that climate change was already so real that we needed to adapt, strengthened the argument the threat was real. Gordon McBean, also ex-Environment Canada, had been funded in 1999 by the insurance industry to set up the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at the University of Western Ontario in London. https://www.iclr.org/
The interest of the insurance industry certainly meant serious people (understood by media as people who want to make money) took climate threats seriously.
But, as Ian has always said, if mitigation is ignored, adaptation is like its unwanted sister Cinderella. No one was paying it much attention at all. Some people did. This seminal report, in partnership with the University of Waterloo, was prepared in 2000 as a contribution to understanding what a national adaptation plan for Canada might look like:
I include it here because decades later, it provides a neat overview of the extent of the challenge in Canada. And because, you might recognize the name of one of the advisors – Mike Morrice, then with Sustainable Waterloo, now my seatmate in parliament!
You cannot say we were not warned. If we failed to act on the threat of the climate crisis, we would face enormous losses in every part of Canada. We could reduce those economic losses – and deaths – caused by extreme weather events if we invested in adaptation.
Even the most rudimentary list of what we need to do is daunting. All our water treatment plants, by design, allow untreated sewage to by-pass the plants in the event of (so unlikely!) extreme rainfall events. None of our highways and water run-off ditches and culverts were designed for atmospheric rivers. The snow load on buildings needs to be rethought as some extreme events mean the roofs on large centres- auditoriums, shopping centres and school gymnasia – will collapse under that weight. When Lucien Bouchard was Quebec premier he started work on adaptation precisely because a northern Quebec community’s roof collapsed. Adaptation also means engineers looking at structural safety. Back in 2012, that was one group disbanded in the Harper cuts. Engineers and scientists in the Downsview office of Environment Canada, then called the Atmospheric Environment Service, were all laid off. There were more protests globally than in Canada as that small team was working in an international network. I went to then Minister Peter Kent to warn him what was happening – and that this was about saving lives in schools. He said, “Oh Elizabeth. I do not get down in the weeds at that level.” In other words, he knew nothing about where the cuts were landing. And the Trudeau administration has not repaired those cuts.
Adaptation to sea level rise means better wharves and jetties for the fishing industry, not to mention that the warming ocean is already threatening the survival of the fish. Nor that the acidifying ocean has already led shellfish aquaculture operators on Vancouver Island to take the seed stock to Hawaii to let shells form there. And then bring the larval stage scallops or oysters back to BC to grow. Colder water acidifies from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere faster than warmer waters. Hawaii’s waters are less acidic than Canada’s. Industry adapts.
Farmers will have to adapt to more drought followed by deluge rains. So will forestry. And ski hills and tourism. And hospitals and operating rooms where surgeries were canceled due to wildfires – and the poor air quality that sat on top of us. Everything.
Finally, nearly three decades after promising to reduce emissions (which have only gone up) and promising our own adaptation plans, plus financing adaptation in developing countries, Canada has now made a single donation to the Adaptation Fund, announced at COP26. And, not for the first time, we are promised a National Adaptation Strategy in the November 23, 2021 Speech from the Throne:
“And to address the realities communities across the country already face, the Government will also strengthen action to prevent and prepare for floods, wildfires, droughts, coastline erosion, and other extreme weather worsened by climate change. The Government will be there to build back in communities devastated by these events. This will include the development of Canada’s first-ever National Adaptation Strategy.”
The government can start by blowing the dust off the stack of adaptation plans and reports over the last 30 years. Gordon McBean has used as an example of our failure to invest in adaptation the experience of the devastating 1987 Edmonton tornado. https://en.wikipedia.
To that point, it was Canada’s most expensive extreme weather event, killing 27, injuring 300 and causing nearly $400 million in damage, McBean advocated that areas vulnerable to tornados, at increasing risk due to climate change, needed to adapt. Large sirens should be installed and trailer parks should have underground shelters where people could take shelter quickly. McBean related that going back years later, he found the trailer park had invested in a new and permanent reminder – a memorial cairn. No sirens. No shelters.
I visited with another scientist hero while in Ottawa for parliament. Dr. Jim Bruce is 93. You’ll find his fingerprints all over these adaptation reports, just as you will on the work to set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the first global scientific statement from the 1988 Toronto Conference on our Changing Atmosphere. Jim is Canada’s water guru. There is nothing he does not know; nothing he does not remember. I asked him when it was that Canada had stopped mapping flood risk. “Oh that was in the late 1980s, just before I went to Geneva to be acting deputy to run the World Meteorological Organization. The provinces and the feds just dismantled the whole cooperative flood mapping work.” He also remembers, in detail, every bureaucratic decision that increased the risk of flooding for BC. When the Bow River flooded in Calgary in 2013, Jim remarked to me that the water must have been unprecedented over decades, as he had personally installed the monitors along the river in the 1960s, built to last. The 2013 flood had washed them away.
tell us how much the current extreme weather, fueled by burning fossil fuels is costing us, let’s hold the government’s proverbial feet where it hurts.
Keep tallying up the billions and billions allowing the fossil fuel lobby to run Canada has already cost us. We must adapt to those levels of climate change we can no longer avoid; and we must avoid those levels of climate chaos to which we cannot adapt.
Thanks for reading. And sending comments. I will be slower than usual replying. Tomorrow I get my other knee replaced. Hoping I emerge from pain medication in time to write next Sunday’s letter.
Sending the love and light and peace of Advent to all,
Please sign this petition. Closes for signature December 28, 2021:
We, the undersigned, Canadian citizens, call upon the Government of Canada to immediately begin the process to repatriate the 26 Canadian citizens (14 children, 8 women and 4 men) currently being detained in North East Syria.
Thank you for your continued solidarity in the Green political movement.
Saanich-Gulf Islands Greens