Technology & Science

Canadian buildings, coastlines, northern communities face biggest climate risks: report

New research for the federal Treasury Board has concluded that buildings, coastlines and northern communities face the biggest risks from climate change in Canada.

'[Most] think it's someone else's problem to solve,' co-author says

Canada's coastlines are among the top three things facing the biggest risks from climate change in the country. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

New research for the federal Treasury Board has concluded that buildings, coastlines and northern communities face the biggest risks from climate change in Canada.

In a report released Thursday, the Council of Canadian Academies has narrowed down a myriad of threats posed by climate change into the most pressing dozen — a list co-author John Leggat hopes will wake people up to the urgent need to prepare for them.

"[Most] think it's someone else's problem to solve," he said. "It kind of goes to the root of the problem."

The council is comprised of Canada's leading academics and researchers. The report, done at the Treasury Board's request, was conducted by experts from industry, insurance firms, engineers, sociologists and economists.

Climate change is such a broad issue that it can be difficult to figure out what to do first, Leggat said, adding that the report is an attempt to do that.

"It puts it into a context of what are the top risks."

The research narrowed down a list of 57 potential environmental effects to six, and ranked them not only by magnitude of the threat, but by the availability of remedies.

Right at the very top was infrastructure.

Heavy rains, floods or high winds are growing threats to buildings from homes to hospitals. The same extreme weather increases the chance of power outages and grid failures — even what the report calls "cascading infrastructure failures."

Coastal communities come next. Climate change is slowly raising sea levels, making floods more common and surges heavier and more powerful.

Northerners are third on the list. Not only do their homes and shorelines face unique challenges, such as permafrost melting away underneath them, climate change also threatens their way of life.

"They really rely on and are closely connected to the land," said co-author Bronwyn Hancock. "The way the culture is set up — governance, spirituality, the way language is passed — all really pivot around that connection to land."

The next three on the list are human health, ecosystems and fisheries. The top 12 are rounded out with agriculture and food, forestry, geopolitical unrest, governance, Indigenous traditions and water.

Getting people to pay is the challenge

Solutions are available to mitigate many of the environmental effects from those top six threats. Building codes can be revised to ensure more resilient homes, offices, electrical pylons or airport runways. Coastal communities can prepare in advance for storm-driven flooding.

Information networks can provide northerners with up-to-date conditions for travel on the land or sea ice.

Leggat noted damage to roads and buildings is a lot easier to prevent or fix than damage to sensitive and poorly understood natural ecosystems.

"We have to start thinking about ways we can protect the natural systems so the human systems can survive," he said.

The challenge, Leggat said, is getting Canadians to pony up for ways to reduce the threat.

He pointed to a recent poll that found while most understood climate change presented a risk, few were willing to pay anything to reduce it.

"The majority of Canadians weren't prepared to pay any amount of money for mitigation," he said.

But Leggat said the council's report should reduce some of the uncertainty about where to start.

"We know what to do. We understand what the risks are and we can invest with confidence."

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