'We are not well prepared': An expert's view of climate change and the next big storm

It was an interesting week for the federal government to announce that an expert panel is being struck to consider what Canadians and their governments should do to cope with the projected impacts of climate change.

The federal government has struck an expert panel to consider adaptation

A woman gets out of her car to check it in floodwater in Toronto back in 2013. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

How ready are we to cope with the impacts of climate change?

"Quite honestly, I believe we are not well prepared," says Blair Feltmate, a professor at the University of Waterloo and the new chair of an expert panel struck by the federal government to consider what Canadians and their governments should do to prepare.

It was an interesting week for such a panel to be announced.

Houston, of course, is under water. On a smaller scale, thousands of residents in and around Windsor, Ont., were flooded by record rainfall, the second time the area has dealt with historic flooding in the past 12 months. Meanwhile, wildfires in northern Manitoba prompted evacuations from several communities.

The degree to which any single disaster can be linked to climate change will perhaps always be debatable, but these are the sorts of events we have been told to expect: stronger storms, floods and fires.

But then this week only adds to the worrisome tally. Recent years in Canada have been marked by such events as flooding in Calgary and Toronto, and forest fires in Alberta and British Columbia.

"It's becoming increasingly obvious that climate change is here and the negative impacts associated with the manifestation of extreme weather are significant," Feltmate says, "and we now need to be working to counter those negative impacts."

Countering those impacts will require public resources, individual action and political will.

A resident looks over the damage caused by a massive wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., back in 2016. (Topher Seguin/Reuters)

The problem of climate change effectively has to be approached from two directions.

The first is mitigation: reducing the carbon emissions being released into the atmosphere in order to limit further warming and, hopefully, avoid the most catastrophic consequences.

The second is adaptation: preparing communities and individuals to deal with the already unavoidable consequences of climate change, given the amount of carbon we've pumped into the atmosphere.

It is the first approach that is most often discussed. It is the second that Feltmate and his fellow panelists are being asked to study.

Threat of flood and fire

Feltmate considers flooding the primary concern.

Storms are capable of dumping enough water in a short enough period of time to overwhelm city sewer systems. As cities have grown, fields and forests have been paved over, leaving water fewer places to go. Urban infrastructure is aging. And homeowners have developed their basements into living space, increasing the cost of damages.

Insurers have been paying out for the consequences. The fire in Fort McMurray, Alta., last year cost a record $3.7 billion. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, spring flooding around Ottawa cost $223 million in insured damages.

One of the things Canadians have to understand, is that this is not going away. Depressing as that sounds, the science is the science.- Prof. Blair Feltmate, University of Waterloo

Feltmate said he recently asked a group of insurance executives what keeps them up at night.

"What they're worried about is, 'What do we do when the $15- to $25-billion flood hits Canada? You know, it takes out the port of Vancouver or the Fraser Valley or the city of Kingston."

Feltmate says insurers have also started to grapple with the psychosocial impacts of disasters, including the challenges to mental health that can lead to people missing work.

"One of the things Canadians have to understand, is that this is not going away," Feltmate says. "Depressing as that sounds, the science is the science."

A storm of truly biblical proportions is difficult to plan for, but steps can be taken to otherwise limit the threat.

Feltmate says natural wetlands around cities should be preserved, while diversion channels, holding ponds and other features can be used to redirect and absorb water. To limit their own exposure, homeowners can install sump pumps, put covers on basement window wells and redirect water away from their properties.

Fire breaks around cities and fire-resistant siding and shingles on homes could limit the risk of wildfires consuming communities.

What we don't know about flooding

Part of the challenge in Canada, Feltmate says, is a lack of sufficient flood plain mapping: maps projecting which areas would be at risk in the event of a flood. Mapping is often out of date, Feltmate says, or fails to reflect the threat of sewer systems becoming overwhelmed. And we need to model where the water might go if the storms get worse.

But updating those maps is not without political risk. Homeowners and developers might not appreciate learning that what they own is going to be declared a flood risk. City councils, Feltmate notes, might learn that the property taxes they were counting on are now in danger.

"If you update the flood plain maps, all of a sudden you find out that there are entire subdivisions within your city where now homes are recognized as being at a flood risk," Feltmate says. "Those homeowners will go apopletic because you've now stigmatized their homes."

A resident of Bowness clears his house of debris after it was flooded by the Bow River in Calgary in 2013. (Melissa Renwick/Reuters)

In May, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale released a framework meant to guide flood plain mapping and the expert panel is expected to tackle the topic as well.

New infrastructure will also, of course, cost money. And adaptation is just one of many priorities competing for a finite amount of public funds. 

The federal government has set aside $2 billion for an adaptation fund, but demands for funding will presumably exceed that. At present, Feltmate says cities and provinces are leading the response.

The case can be made that such spending will save money in the long run, but debates about public resources are not always so perfectly rational.

Of course, it is also easy to imagine that something bad won't happen, or that, even if it does happen, it won't happen again.

With each new event, citizens and politicians might be more willing to confront the threat. But Feltmate still worries that we're not moving fast enough.

"It's not like people aren't learning or that we're not evolving. We are. The question is, are we addressing it fast enough?" he says. "And what people don't understand on the climate file, by and large, is that we do not have the luxury of time. We've got to get on with adaptation."


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.