Riverfront Ave during Calgary flood. 2013 (Ryan L.C. Quan) CC BY-SA 3.0 Riverfront Ave during Calgary flood. 2013 (Ryan L.C. Quan) CC BY-SA 3.0

An expert panel charged by Ottawa with creating indicators to measure how effectively Canadians are adapting to climate change tabled its final report with the federal government Tuesday.

Led by Blair Feltmate from the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, the panel, consisting of academics, engineers and business leaders from across the country, was asked by Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna in August 2017 to advise the federal government on how best to measure efforts to enhance Canada’s climate change resiliency.

“Climate change impacts are being felt across Canada in significant ways,” the report states. “With observed increases in average temperature and precipitation over the last six decades, including especially rapid rates of warming in the North, climate change is already affecting Canada’s environment and economy.”

But according to the panel, the impacts of climate change, and our ability to respond resolutely to the challenges they pose, also take a toll on the physical, mental, cultural, and spiritual health of Canadians.Look no further than the wildfires that raged in Fort McMurray, Alberta in 2016, they note, where 90,000 people were displaced as firefighters struggled to contain and extinguish the flames. The cost of property damage alone reached almost $10 billion. In 2013, thanks to substantial flooding in Calgary and Toronto and an ice storm in Quebec, Canadian insurers paid out more than $3.2 billion in climate-related claims.

“As these impacts are projected to intensify in the coming decades,” they write, “it is essential that Canadians act now to adapt and build their resilience to climate change.”

Breaking down resilience indicators

After eight months of deliberations and consultations, the 189-page Measuring Progress on Adaptation and Climate Resilience proposes a suite of 54 resilience indicators narrowed into five key areas:

  • Protecting and improving human health and well-being;
  • Supporting vulnerable regions, particularly Canada’s northern, coastal and remote regions, by monitoring slow onset climate-related shifts like thawing permafrost or eroding coastlines;
  • Reducing climate-related hazards and disaster risks by better understanding how to predict, prevent and respond to “rapid-onset climate-related events” like floods and wildfires;
  • Building climate resilience through traditional, cultural and natural infrastructure and boosting the ways they interact with one another; and
  • Translating scientific information and Indigenous knowledge into action.

The categories are purposely “diverse” and “broad”, the panel notes, “consistent with the scale, scope, and complexity of the climate change challenge.”

Not an exhaustive list

“As these impacts are projected to intensify in the coming decades, it is essential that Canadians act now to adapt and build their resilience to climate change.”

The catalogue of indicators included in Measuring Progress is far from complete, they note. Rather, those listed represent a “small fraction” of the possible markers for judging Canada’s climate change adaptability and resiliency, shortened only to make the report’s implementation “manageable” for policy makers.  

“The Expert Panel struggled to maintain the balance between a manageable number of indicators and what is required to adequately assess adaptation and resilience in Canada,” they write.

Instead of viewing their report as the final word on how how to measure climate resilience, they suggest, take it instead as a first step in a process that must be expanded and tailored over time, depending on how climate change manifests itself across the country.

Success of northern Indigenous groups

Of particular interest to policy makers based in Southern Canada, which nearly all are, is the effectiveness with which many northern Indigenous groups have led the charge in adapting to a warming world. It’s all the more impressive given the “significantly fewer resources” with which most have accomplished this difficult task, the panel notes.

It’s part of a broader disparity in the ability of rural and remote regions to bankroll adaptive measures with significantly smaller or lower-income tax bases.

“While building adaptive capacity is an inherent component of adaptation,” they write, “social and economic deficits and in some circumstances, lack of basic necessities prohibits consideration of adaptation.” For these vulnerable populations, the panelists argue, improvements in basic living conditions will inherently bolster their ability to adapt to climate change.

Dr. Monika Dutt, executive director of the non-profit Upstream and a family physician at the Wagmatcook First Nation in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, said in a release it was “heartening” that human health needs were so prominent in the panel’s analysis of climate change. Moreover, she welcomes the panel’s recognition that income is a “key risk factor” in how greatly climate change can influence health.

“Lower income, or being marginalized in other ways, puts you at greater risk,” Dutt said. “The report acknowledges the need to address social inequality in order to prevent the negative impacts of climate change.”

Federal government response

Environment Minister McKenna thanked the panel for tabling their report and offering much-needed guidance on protecting the health and prosperity of Canadians by strengthening our collective resilience to climate change.

“Enhancing our understanding of how best to measure Canada’s progress on climate change adaptation will support the government’s efforts to help Canadians prepare for the impacts of a changing climate,” she said in a statement.

McKenna, meanwhile, was in Europe last week to co-chair the second Ministerial Meeting on Climate Action, co-hosted by Canada, China and the European Union, to push for the adoption of “robust implementation guidelines” for the Paris Agreement in advance of COP24 in Poland this December.

Andrew Reeves is the Editor-in-Chief of Alternatives Journal. Overrun, his book about Asian carp in North America, will be published in Spring 2019 by ECW Press. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights. Follow him on Twitter.

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