The images of submerged highways and cut-off communities are startling. But climate change poses a much larger threat to B.C.’s infrastructure than the havoc we’re seeing in the wake of devastating rainstorms.
According to a recent report by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, B.C.'s infrastructure including roads and rail, our electrical grid and our homes are all unprepared for the extreme weather events that are becoming more and more common as the planet warms.
That's the bad news. The good news is that B.C., and Canada as a whole, still have an opportunity to invest heavily in climate adaptation strategies to help Canadians weather the, well, weather to come.
The report is one of the first of its kind because it's forward-looking, says co-author Dylan Clark, a senior research associate with the CICC.
It looks at how a warming climate could damage infrastructure across Canada and what governments can do to “future proof” and reduce damage, disruption and cost.
The report explores two different futures. In one scenario the world follows through on greenhouse gas emissions reduction pledges made by 2020 and Canada's average temperature rises by 4 C by the end of the century — that's the low-emissions future. In the other, the world does little to curb its emissions and Canada warms by an average of 7.4 C by the end of the century. That's the high-emissions scenario.
Canada's temperatures are predicted to rise at twice the global rate, notes the report. The 2015 Paris Agreement called on countries to keep global warming “well below 2 C” which is where we get the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C from. But recent calculations from the research coalition Climate Action Tracker found that even with the latest round of climate pledges from the UN's COP26 climate summit, the world is still on track for 2.4 C of warming by the end of the century.
To date the world has warmed by 1.2 C from preindustrial levels. The report says climate change will impact Canada's 2.8 million kilometres of roads with heat and rainfall. Rail tracks can be warped and kinked from extreme summer temperatures delaying travel and freight, and electrical systems will be damaged by storms and strained by new demands, like increased use of air conditioning during summer. Houses are at risk of flooding and wildfire damage.
These are impacts that are playing out across southern B.C. in real time, where people are grappling with the province's third fatal extreme weather event this year. First a heat dome, then wildfires and now extreme rainfall have killed people in the province.
A single storm broke 20 rainfall records, and created a surge of mudslides and flooding that washed out or blocked several highways across southern B.C. The entire city of Merritt has been evacuated after the town's sewage plant failed when floodwaters inundated the community.
Some 300 people are trapped by floodwaters 3.5 metres deep in Sumas Prairie, a low-lying part of Abbotsford that used to be a lake before settlers drained it for agricultural land. A pump station holding back additional floodwaters has been protected for now after a team of 150 people worked overnight to build a sandbag dam to protect the station.
It's “not a good feeling” to see everything the CICC report warned about play out across the province, Clark says.
In the spring the CICC published a report on the health costs of climate change. Two months later the heat dome rolled across the province. In October the institute published the report on the infrastructure risks created by climate change. One month later the atmospheric river drenched B.C.
In the Lower Mainland around 46,000 homes exist within a 50-year storm surge area, Clark says. Based on the report's low-emissions scenario that number will rise by 10,000 homes over the next 30 years. It works out to around $25 billion worth of homes within one metre of sea level in the Lower Mainland, he adds — and that cost will rise with sea level and the increased threat of storm surges. Within the City of Vancouver almost $1 billon worth of new build permits have been issued within a 100 year flood plain, he adds.
The report notes across Canada the cost of annual inland and coastal flooding is estimated to jump three to four times in the next 30 years, causing an additional $4.5- to-$5.5 billion in damages to homes and buildings.
Having insurance isn't as much of a safety net as homeowners might like to believe. The report notes while 45 per cent of homeowners “believe insurance will pay for repairs and rebuilding after overland flooding, only about 10-to-15 per cent of households actually have this coverage.”
Which is why all levels of government need to work together today to prevent climate-related damages in the future, Clark says. “It's so important we learn from the disasters playing out in B.C. right now. Part of that is understanding what went wrong and how we can do it better.”
But that gets to the heart of the problem — a lot of governments don’t have the data to map out the risk of climate change, and how to adapt.
“Even for flooding, a risk we know the most about, the data is really insufficient and we have a really poor knowledge as a country and in B.C. about where the flood risk is and how those risks will change,” Clark says.
That's caused by a combination of issues, he says. It'll cost a chunk of change to map the risks for a spread-out population — but parts of the U.S. are similarly spread out and their research is way ahead of Canada, Clark says. Another challenge is disclosure, because governments could be worried if they produce this information they'll be liable for impacts on insurance or property markets, he says. For example, if the government says a house is built on a floodplain the value of the home could tank.
But a lack of data isn't a good enough reason to do nothing, Clark says. Taking a proactive approach to adaptation will save the country billions of dollars and cut the cost of eventual repairs to roads and electrical grids by up to 90 per cent, he says.
The spending is, “small in the grand scheme of things compared to cities washing away.”
So what should the provincial government be doing right now?
Currently the province says local emergency response is up to local governments.
In an email, the B.C. government said the province only gets involved when the emergency is “beyond the capacity” of Indigenous and local governments. Provincial assistance includes co-ordination of communications and resources and asking other provinces and the federal government for help.*
B.C.'s Climate Preparedness and Adaptation Strategy, which is in its draft stage, says the province is putting together a provincial flood strategy that could create a provincial floodplain mapping program by 2025 at the latest.
In its emailed statement, the government said B.C. is already working on projects that align with the CICC report's recommendations to prepare the province for climate change by “evaluating the future infrastructure projects through the lens of increased extreme weather to help protect people from the these events.”
It added the government “considers new information whenever available to inform its actions and policy on climate preparedness and adaptation” and that B.C. will update its provincial climate risk assessment in 2025, as mandated by law.*
The provincial response suggests B.C. is not prepared for “something more dramatic than a bit of rain,” says Kai Nagata, Dogwood BC's communications director.
Overall the storm was a “minor fluctuation in temperature and rainfall which led to a cascading unravelling of infrastructure and systems,” Nagata says. “We're already hitting tipping points where things fall apart.”
“B.C. is known for rain, it's not like this was an unforeseeable event,” he added, noting there are worse disasters scheduled for B.C.'s future.
There have been two historic floods in the Lower Mainland since colonization, both during spring runoff in 1894 and 1948. Imagine where water levels could be if that storm hit during the spring when rivers are swollen from snowmelt, he added. Then there's the massive earthquake that's supposed to hit B.C. any day now, he says.
“If this week is a dry run for disasters then B.C. is deeply unprepared for a more widespread attack on our infrastructure,” Nagata says.
The B.C. government has a role to play in helping fund and oversee local climate response, says Andrew Gage, a staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law.
“Local governments have the least amount of funding, so to put the most responsibility to deal with this huge crisis on them is unrealistic and unfair,” Gage says. He adds emergency response used to be the responsibility of the provincial government but was offloaded under the BC Liberals.
Local governments will always have a role to play in keeping their communities safe, but the province is better set up for big-picture thinking, he says.
There's a lack of provincial and federal involvement in emergency planning and adaptation across Canada, Clark says. But provincial governments have a big role to play which goes beyond funding. They're responsible for climate policies, land use planning, early warning systems and management — all things that should “certainly be part of a net that will build protection from floods and fires in the future,” he says.
The federal government could also be deploying on-the-ground crews of experienced engineers, construction workers and heavy machinery operators for post-storm highway cleanup, Nagata says. These crews are already in the area building the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project, which runs along the now washed-out Coquihalla Highway.
Nagata says federal and provincial governments have the largest role to play in protecting communities in the future. That starts with reducing greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate future climate disasters, he says. Ending fossil fuel subsidies would also free up $1.3 billion every year in B.C., which could then be invested in climate adaptation, he says.
(B.C. is currently asking the public to weigh in on the province's oil and gas royalty system, which environmental organizations say could cut fossil fuel subsidies. Read more here.)
Gage says fossil fuel companies could also play a part in funding climate adaptation.
He says the scale of adaptation needed is “absolutely massive” and that, as fossil fuel companies have played a leading role in causing the climate crisis, they should be made to pay for it.
The report recommends a shotgun approach to adaptation, where several strategies are used to keep communities safe so that if one fails, others are in place, instead of searching for a single silver bullet.
In B.C. that could mean moving homes out of areas in the Fraser Valley or coastal communities at high risk of flooding in a “managed retreat,” Clark says. Infrastructure that can't be moved, like highways that run through the mountains, need to use ground monitoring, early-warning systems or road closures to plan for worst-case scenarios and prevent “something catastrophic” like fatal mud slides from happening ever again, he says.
The CICC report did not study telecommunications infrastructure, drinking water systems, health-care facilities and marine ports and seaways but notes they are also similarly threatened by climate change and a lack of adaptation.
*Story updated Nov. 22 with government comment.