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Get Ready for Nasty Weather

Canada must hurry to adapt to big climate shifts: expert.

By Bryan Zandberg 2 Jun 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Bryan Zandberg is a reporter for The Tyee.

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Floods ahead, but a trickle of preparation.

If you've ever flown into Vancouver International Airport, you've probably never pictured, as the plane was setting down, what the tarmac would look like under two feet of sea water.

Gordon McBean, one of Canada's top climate scientists, admits that was precisely the image running through his mind when he flew into Vancouver last week.

"When do you start seriously thinking about when to put it somewhere else?" he mused in an interview with The Tyee.

"It's already at sea level at best."

Beyond the tarmac at YVR, McBean said the entire delta region of the Fraser River is in "a double-jeopardy situation" due to rising ocean levels plus the increased likelihood of storm surges, both of which threaten people who live and work in the area.

The outlook is getting bleaker by the year, he added; initial UN estimates on sea-level rise were "unduly conservative."

"It's rising along the lines of the most pessimistic track right now," said McBean, which means current diking systems are going to be put under a lot of stress in future decades. "You could have a half-metre sea-level rise by mid-century."

While not urging we hit the panic button, McBean does say, as a founding scientific member of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that we've bickered long enough about the causes and the culprits of global warming. It's time to roll up our sleeves and cope with the consequences.

McBean takes part in a public dialogue on extreme weather events tonight in Vancouver as part of a four-year Simon Fraser University initiative called the Adaptation to Climate Change Team (ACT) and he spoke with The Tyee last week about the ins and outs of the emerging Canadian "adaptation" movement.

So far we're lagging dangerously behind.

Disaster-a-day

The rationale for adaptation is simple: the world's weather is evidently out of whack and, more concretely, weather-related devastation is on the rise. International treaties won't protect us from a climate run amok; preparedness and mitigation will.

Disaster damage has been doubling every five to seven years since the 1960s, said McBean.

Determining how much of that damage is related to global warming is tough; factors like the global population explosion, increased exposure of human habitation and the widening divide between the rich and the poor make it difficult to say. Nevertheless, since 2000 there has been an average of one weather-related disaster per day, a disaster being defined as when a community is overwhelmed and requires outside assistance.

"If you go back to the '60s or '70s, instead of having 360 per year, we would have had maybe 60," explained McBean. These days, however, more than 75 per cent of the disasters around the world are triggered by weather, as opposed to the geophysical events like earthquakes.

Severe Natural British Columbia

Most British Columbians don't need to look past their own back yards to find a vivid example. They've seen firsthand the drought in the Interior; experienced the torrential rains and boil-water advisories in the Lower Mainland; survived the Kelowna and Barriere fires of 2003; flown over the endless sea of red and dead pine trees from the beetle epidemic; lamented the devastation of Stanley Park. The writing is on the wall, even if skeptics still downplay the link between these events and greenhouse gas emissions.

"Statistically, these kinds of events are becoming more likely," observed McBean. "The climate of the future is definitely not the climate of the past."

But at what point do we start thinking about moving homes, farms and businesses to higher ground, he asked. And how are we going to adjust the current maze of infrastructure, industry regulations and government policy to contend with a new climate paradigm? The questions are just beginning to be posed and the answers are still a ways off.

That reality has generated a lot of interest and activity in the scientific community, but McBean says there's a glaring problem when it comes to the nuts and bolts of adaptation in Canada and around the world. It just hasn't sunk in for the majority of people.

Talking feds

A major part of the problem is the current political system. A carbon atom sticks around in the atmosphere for upwards of 100 years, whereas democratic governments normally hold office for an average of four. Translation: there's little incentive in a democracy for elected leaders to do something when there will be no tangible advantage for the party or the politician for the next election. McBean has had cabinet ministers ask him to his face what their interest would be in tackling adaptation.

Still, he cited former Manitoba premier Dufferin Roblin and his unpopular plan to build the Red River floodway around Winnipeg as a great example of political foresight and will.

"When Duff Roblin put it up it was called 'Duff's Ditch' and 'Duff's Folly.' But it has now been shown that that $60 million investment, or whatever it was, has saved in the hundreds of millions [in averted flood damage]."

In any case, the absence of political resolve dovetails with the current policy vacuum regarding adaptation, in fact the two are mutually reinforcing. In a nutshell, McBean underscored that the age-old "who benefits and who pays?" quandary requires an informed debate to shape future policies across all levels of government.

Take, for example, the fact that the costs of protecting communities against flooding -- the building of dikes, floodways, etc. -- are currently borne by municipalities. If a major disaster overwhelms a community, however, the provincial government pays up to a dollar per person in relief. With roughly 3 million people living in B.C., the province would pay roughly the first $3 million in aid to an affected community. After that, the feds and the province split the costs fifty-fifty, and if the disaster is truly huge the feds would chip in even more.

"So the municipal manager is saying 'Why would I put this money into [flood prevention]? If we get a really bad hit someone else is going to pay, or the insurance companies are going to pay.'"

At the same time, volatile weather is already straining the economy. Hurricane Andrew bankrupted a number of insurance firms in 1992, and McBean says many insurance companies are now withdrawing from certain high-risk markets.

New Orleans, Alberta

Canadian policy will have to adapt so threatened communities can reduce risks rather than run them. Especially since it's often the poor who suffer the most from bad policies and regulatory vacuums.

In the summer of 2000, for instance, a tornado swept a trailer park in Pine Lake, Alberta, leaving 10 people dead and 140 in hospital.

When McBean visited the site with a research team several years later, he discovered that the owners had rebuilt the whole thing.

"They'd managed to coax a new group of people to come and live in the same place. And they'd done absolutely nothing to make that trailer park a safer place to live. No horns, no shelter to run to, no tie-downs even at the trailers. And the manager wouldn't talk to us."

In a similar vein, during the 2007 flooding of the Fraser River, the First Nation community of Skway found themselves on the wrong side of the dikes erected with government money near Chilliwack.

How do we avoid the Canadian equivalent of New Orleans?

Farmer's Almanac 2.0

Fair and effective policies are only one side of what the ACT conferences hope to explore, said McBean. There's also a mountain of natural science research that needs to be first identified and then carried out in order to know just how to best cope with the coming changes. Last year, Natural Resources Canada started off in that direction by producing a paper on adaptation that summarized existing research and identified the kinds of hazards Canadians can expect to face in coming years.

But he says the kind of science that would help farmers "has been largely shortchanged or not done at all."

Scientists also need improved models for predicting what's going to happen, first with the climate itself and then in ecosystems, said McBean.

"As we get down to say what's going to happen on the Fraser River or Vancouver or Kelowna, we don't have the level of confidence, yet, to give general broad guidelines to how the changes will take place."

Super citizens

Even if it's increasingly clear that adaptation is the missing piece of the puzzle, it's still pretty technical, wonk-ish stuff. What can the average person do?

McBean has a simple response: sustained political pressure.

There have only been three times in Canadian history where the environment was a top-of-mind issue: in 1970 with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, during the ozone and acid rain debates of the late '80s, and now with greenhouse gases.

Cue the conferences, the flurry of government activity, the international accords and the like.

"But as soon as we get these things into place, the popular support drops, and the political interest drops even faster."

McBean, for example, was recruited by the Liberals for their newly created environmental department in 1971.

"I was told 'Hire anybody you want.' I hired a bunch of people and a year later I was told to let them all go because the government no longer had any money for it."

Why? "Opinion polls didn't show it mattered," said McBean.

Since 2007, however, polls show Canadians care: "We now have a prime minister at least making speeches of how important it is to take action of climate change, but it remains to be seen what they'll do."

Related Tyee stories:

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