British Columbia

Climate change cost: What will be B.C.'s price tag?

"Some spending is going to have to happen [and we have to] make sure it's as evidence-based as possible and be responsible about it,' says former B.C. Liberal finance minister Kevin Falcon about uncertain financial forecasts.

'We're talking huge, huge amounts of money,' says City of Vancouver director despite uncertainty

What will B.C. have to pay as a result of climate change? It's hard to answer when uncertainty is very much part of the equation. (Shutterstock)

Studies suggest that climate change could cost Canada billions by 2020, while a recent UN report says for many countries, the cost of adapting to climate change could hit $500 billion per year by 2050.

B.C.'s portion could be hefty — but there will be variables.

For example, the cost of living for average British Columbians could go up if agricultural crops that the province typically imports from elsewhere fail.

Infrastructure costs might rise due to new climate events, like rising sea levels.

Catastrophic and unpredictable climate disasters — like the Fort McMurray fire — could become more regular, leading to billions of dollars of unforseen property and infrastructure damage.

Budget worries

Those potential high costs are what keep Doug Smith, the City of Vancouver's director of sustainability, up at night.

Infrastructure repair costs — for example to build up dykes and levees in the Lower Mainland — are so high they aren't politically viable, he said.

"We're talking huge, huge amounts of money that will really have a negative impact on our economy," he said.

And as a major city, there are other high-cost expenses that could derail long-term climate change spending, he also explained.

"I mean if we if we have an earthquake here that's going to change our priorities for a long time," he said. "You look at Wellington, New Zealand and they're not worried about climate change, they're worried about rebuilding."

Lydia Ryall, a farmer on low-lying Westham Island near Delta, B.C., is worried the cost of adapting to climate change will ultimately become too high for the municipality, province and federal government to cover.

"My major worry is maybe in 60, 70 years ... it's going to cost too much and [it's easier] to let these, you know 50 families, and all this farmland just get flooded. Who knows?" she said.

To spend or not to spend?

Kevin Falcon, who has served as a deputy premier and a B.C. Liberal finance minister, says governments are empowered to make determinations on how best to spend public money.

Falcon, who says he's "a full climate change person" who supports the carbon tax, says there should be investment to adapt to climate change — albeit spent carefully and practically.

"I'm very much in favour of them spending their money on things that are going to get the best return on investment," he said, citing rapid transit as one example.

"Some spending is going to have to happen [and we have to] make sure it's as evidence-based as possible and be responsible about it."

But planning and spending for climate change — as illustrated above — can be tricky.

John Clague, a professor of earth sciences at Simon Fraser University, says it's important to inform citizens of this uncertainty so they can make informed decisions.

"I think the only hope there is that people have a discourse over the issues and come to appreciate that there is uncertainty."

Listen to 2050: Degrees of Change, a CBC Vancouver podcast 

With files from Johanna Wagstaffe and Polly Leger