Natural Resources Canada's sweeping report warns federal government of increasing climate change, urges action

The following is an article by Mark Burgess which just appeared in the Hill Times, published Monday, June 30, 2014.

A new report from the government’s own Natural Resources Department on climate change adaptation released last week shows a growing recognition of the need to adapt to a changing climate but also highlights the gap between the research and the political action, critics and experts say.
 
The report, Canada in a Changing Climate: Sector Perspectives on Impacts and Adaptation, http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/node/16309    was written by 90 authors, 115 expert reviewers, and synthesized more than 1,500 recent publications. It looks at natural resources, food production, industry, biodiversity, protected areas, human health, and water and transportation.
 
“There is clearly a pretty big space between what the research and what experts are telling us about what’s going on and the political commitment on the part of governments and parties across the country to say, ‘This is real, we’ve got to do something about it,’” said David McLaughlin, former executive director of the National Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment, which the government cut in 2012. “This at least helps to advance the knowledge.”
 
In the report, posted without fanfare on the Department of Natural Resources website June 24, departmental researchers said the climate is changing—in fact it’s in the first sentence. The average temperature in Canada rose 1.5 C between 1950 and 2010, it says.
“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is necessary to lessen the magnitude and rate of climate change, but additional impacts are unavoidable, even with aggressive global mitigation efforts, due to inertia in the climate system,” the report says. “Therefore, we also need to adapt.”
 
The report describes a number of impacts expected to come with climate change, including threats to biodiversity, the spread of diseases like Lyme disease and health effects from air pollution, and more extreme heat and extreme rainfall, meaning more droughts, floods and wildfires. It also outlines impacts on industries, including a lack of predictability for farmers, shorter snow seasons for winter tourism, and shifting flow patterns for hydroelectricity.
 
It is an update to the department’s 2008 assessment and says adaptation has been occurring since then. However, barriers to action include “limited resources, limited motivation and issues related to governance.”
 
Experiencing extreme weather events will stimulate adaptation, it said, but leadership and supportive policies “can help accelerate the transition between awareness and action.”
 
“Adaptation implementation in Canada is still in its early stages,” the report says. “Planning and policy exercises, and efforts to build capacity and raise awareness comprise much of the adaptation action documented, with relatively few documented examples of implementation of specific changes to reduce vulnerability to future climate change, or take advantage of potential opportunities.”
 
Mr. McLaughlin, a former chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney and to Jim Flaherty at Finance, said the report won’t spur action on its own, but it effectively outlines “the public face of climate change”—the storm surges, infrastructure degradation, pests, floods and droughts.
 
“When we as human beings see something that’s real, we respond. It may be, at the end of the day, we’re going to have to see the impacts happening more and more before we take this on board, but at least this report reminds us that it’s coming, it’s real, and we should start to prepare for it, and we should start to adapt,” he said.
 
The Insurance Bureau of Canada has been an industry leader in pushing for adaptation policies. Robert Tremblay, the bureau’s director of research, said the report is different from previous ones because it outlines the changes to Canada’s climate that have already been observed.
 
“Climate is no longer stable and we have observed changes over the past 10, 15, 20 years,” he said in an interview. “That, essentially, sets the stage to say, ‘Yes, it is a reality, yes it changing.’ Now do we know for sure where it’s heading? No, nobody knows. But we do know that it’s no longer stable.”
 
The discourse around adaptation is new, he said, long overshadowed by talk of emissions reductions, but that’s changing as the effects become more evident. The report supports what the insurance industry’s been saying, he said.
 
“It does support the position that our industry has had for a long time that we are going to need to start adapting to the realities of our changing climate, particularly in the area of urban drainage systems,” he said in an interview.
 
Total insurance claims related to catastrophic weather events in Canada have surpassed $1-billion dollars in every year since 2009, the IBC reports, and last year flooding in Calgary and two costly storms in Toronto contributed to $3.2-billion in insurance claims by Canadian property owners.
 
The bureau has also found that the value of total insurance claims related to weather events has increased 40 fold between 1983 and 2013, with damaged basements from backed-up sewers the most common claims.
 
In 2011, the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy published a report on the long-term implications of extreme weather events related to climate change estimating that climate change could cost the Canadian economy $5-billion by 2020, with costs surpassing $21-billion annually by 2050.
 
A TD Economics report released in April put the costs of “natural catastrophes” at $5-billion per year in 2020 and between $21-and $43-billion by 2050.
 
The federal government has had a climate change adaptation framework in place since 2011, following a critical report by the federal environment commissioner that warned that flooding, permafrost thaw, and extreme weather events would take a costly toll on buildings, transportation infrastructure, and water treatment facilities in the years ahead. The report recommended that Environment Canada take the lead in developing a federal adaptation strategy and action plan.
 
According to Environment Canada, the government invested $148.8-million in climate change adaptation research and strategies since 2011, including $29.84-million for the department to predict climate change impacts and scenarios.
 
Opposition critics said the report should force the government to take on the issue of climate change, which it has mostly ignored, repeatedly stalling emissions reduction regulations for the oil and gas sector and using talk of carbon pricing as a political weapon.
“I don’t quite get the prime minister’s indifference and the minister of the environment’s indifference to this entire process,”
 
Liberal environment critic John McKay (Scarborough-Guildwood, Ont.) said in an interview. “Mother nature sent the most catastrophic flood in Canadian history through the centre of Calgary. If that’s not a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.”
Green Party leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) also expressed dismay that droughts and the Calgary floods haven’t had a greater impact on government policy.
 
“We’re seeing the increase in insurable losses across Canada, billion-dollar events more frequently, and it doesn’t seem to be having any impact at all, certainly not on Stephen Harper. That’s quite surprising,” she told The Hill Times.
 
NDP environment critic Megan Leslie (Halifax, N.S.) contrasted the report’s release—“tabled under the cover of darkness and I’ve not heard a single government representative talk about it”—with that of the U.S. National Climate Assessment http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/  in May, which was a major media event at the White House.
 
Ms. Leslie said the IBC has been active getting the message out about the costs of climate change, but she said more industries need to do the same.
 
“That has fallen on deaf ears. I hope that as more industries come on board to say this is negatively impacting us that government will listen to them,” she said in an interview.
 
“But when I think about what those industries are—agriculture, forestry—those are not the industries that government seems to be listening to these days. It seems to only be the oil and gas industry that is winning the government’s ear.”
 
The IBC is registered to lobby on climate change adaptation, including a Natural Resources risk assessment tool for municipalities to assess infrastructure. It has reported a number of communications with decision makers, the federal Lobbyists Registry shows, including one with Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney (Lévis-Bellechasse, Que.) and several of his advisers on the subject of “environment” in March, and three with Howard Anglin, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) senior adviser for legal affairs and policy, since January on the topic of “climate.”
 
The IBC has also communicated four times since January on “climate” with Public Safety assistant deputy minister Shawn Tupper.
Another U.S. climate report released last week, called “Risky Business,” http://riskybusiness.org/   brought together a bipartisan group of business leaders—including former treasury secretaries Hank Paulson, Robert Rubin and George Schulz, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and billionaire investor and anti-Keystone pipeline activist Tom Steyer—to outline the risks and costs of climate change.
Mr. McLaughlin noted broad-based support for action is growing in the U.S. among political, business and community activists.
 
“The evidence is there that it’s when the business community seizes this and says that this is real and puts pressure on governments and acts on this stuff, that’s when we’re seeing the political and societal consensus come along,” he said.
 
He said stronger and more visible engagement is needed from Canada’s business community.
“It can’t just be left to governments,” he said.
 
In response to questions about the report, the government’s position on climate change and steps it has taken to adapt to climate change, a spokesperson for Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford (Kenora, Ont.) sent an email with facts about Canada’s emission reductions, energy efficiency and economic growth.
 
“We are accomplishing this without the Liberal and NDP’s job-killing carbon tax, which would raise the price of everything,” Alexandra Lemieux wrote in an email.
 
mburgess@hilltimes.com
The Hill Times