Technology & Science

'Building back better' and other tips for adapting to climate change

Climate change is fuelling risks like wildfires, heat waves and flooding, but Canada can reduce the worst damages and costs by being strategic about how it adapts — such as taking advantage of the opportunities the come from such disasters, a new report says.

Report offers advice on how to prioritize actions that reduce risks

Floodwaters surround a house in Ottawa in June. Flooding is expected to increase with climate change. A new report says infrastructure is both a top climate change risk area and a top area where adaptation will be most effective at reducing such risks. (Mike O'Shaughnessy/CBC)

This story is part of a CBC News series entitled In Our Backyard, which looks at the effects climate change is having in Canada, from extreme weather events to how it's reshaping our economy.


Climate change is fuelling risks like wildfires, heat waves and flooding, but Canada can reduce the worst damages and costs by being strategic about how it adapts — such as taking advantage of opportunities provided by such disasters, a new report says.

"Canada's Top Climate Change Risks," commissioned by the federal government and released Thursday by an expert panel from the Council of Canadian Academies, identified the top six climate change risks facing Canada, including damage to buildings, coastlines and northern communities. But it also looked at how to prioritize adaptation measures that might reduce those risks and their impacts.

"We can predict and project the climate change impacts that are coming down the line for our regions in Canada," said Deborah Harford, a member of the expert panel, "and because we know that, we can think strategically about how to reduce damage and respond proactively."

Harford is an adjunct professor and the executive director of the Adaptation to Climate Change Team at Simon Fraser University. 

While the report doesn't make recommendations on how Canada should adapt to climate change, it does show which kinds of risks can be most effectively reduced by adaptation measures in the next 20 years, and offers some advice about what kinds of adaptation measures have the biggest impact.

Here are some lessons from the report.

Disasters can be an opportunity

While disasters like floods and wildfires can be costly and destructive, the report notes that they're also an opportunity to "build back better" and upgrade things like buildings, sewers systems, roads in the right place and the right way to withstand future disasters. 

John Leggat, chair of the expert panel, said sometimes adaptive measures can be expensive and take a long time, but a disaster can provide the public awareness and motivation get costly infrastructure upgrades moving.

"Building back better" can also apply to things like forests, the report suggests, which can be replanted with the right trees for the expected future climate after severe wildfires or pest outbreaks.

Smoke rises from an area burned by the Shovel Lake wildfire near Endako, B.C., in August 2018. The report suggests forests can be replanted with trees better suited for the expected, future climate after severe wildfires or pest outbreaks. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Infrastructure and health are good places to start

Buildings, roads, the electricity grid and other physical infrastructure were listed in report as both a top area of risk and an area where Canada can easily adapt very effectively. 

Leggat said that's partly because in that area "we have an understanding of what needs to be done."

Harford says it's also because this kind of work is already well underway.

"Although adaptation isn't a household word, you scratch the surface on any community that's already facing severe flood damage, and let me tell you: They are doing adaptation." 

That might be by upgrading infrastructure to divert the water or restricting building on flood plains, for example.

The report suggests managing infrastructure risks by:

  • Ensuring building codes take climate projections into account.
  • Investing in transportation systems, electricity grids and power and communication systems and other critical infrastructure to better equip communities for extreme weather and disasters.
  • Doing climate-related risk assessment during maintenance and upgrades.

The health system was listed as another area that could readily adapt. As examples, the report said public advisories and training could help manage threats like extreme heat and diseases and pests spreading into new areas.

Harford said those kinds of things can be implemented very quickly.

The report suggests investing in transportation systems, electricity grids and other critical infrastructure to better equip communities for extreme weather and disasters. (Chris Seto/CBC)

Avoid 'maladaptation'

"Adaptive" measures intended to reduce risks can sometimes ultimately increase risks or boost emissions that cause climate change. 

Dikes and levees that protect from flooding can encourage development in flood-prone areas by providing a false sense of security, even though such measures could fail. And sometimes forestry practices that suppress wildfires allow fuel to build up, resulting in bigger wildfires that generate more emissions later on.

Firefighters work on a controlled burn at a wildfire, in November 2018, in Magalia, Calif. Practices that suppress wildfires could be considered maladaptation to climate change, as they allow fuel to build up, resulting in bigger fires that generate more emissions later on. (John Locher/Associated Press)

The report suggests sometimes those "maladaptive" actions happen because of existing incentives or policies that don't take climate change into account, and those need to be changed.

For example, many communities are reluctant to stop development on flood plains for economic reasons, Harford notes. "There isn't any incentive for them in the short term to remove development that would otherwise be giving them property taxes."

She said more funding for local governments may be needed to avoid that kind of maladaptation.

Look for ways to hit many risks at once

Harford says there are examples where one adaptation measure can reduce many climate change risks at once and sometimes generate lots of side benefits.

Planting trees, restoring streams and creating new parks in cities can reduce:

  • The risk of flooding by absorbing stormwater.
  • Extreme temperatures during heat waves that are exacerbated by the heat absorbed and then emitted by concrete and asphalt.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions, by both absorbing carbon dioxide directly and reducing the need for air conditioning.

When government invest in electric vehicles, that reduces air pollution and some of the health impacts of extreme heat, which is linked to deaths from respiratory problems. Investing in solar panels at a local level can make that neighbourhood more resilient if extreme weather knocks out the central grid.

Harford said climate change is already costing Canadians a "staggering amount of money" and affecting their communities and their health.

"But there's a lot we can do," she said. "We need to invest in it now and get on with it so we reduce the future impacts on our society."

The report notes, however: "No risk can be completely eliminated through adaptation alone. Thus, decision-makers need to anticipate and plan for consequences that are unavoidable in the short and medium term, while working to reduce future greenhouse gas emissions globally."

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