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Canada is leaving communities in the dark about the risks and costs of climate disasters

A new report finds the federal government isn’t doing enough to act on or disclose detailed information about the growing hazards of a warming climate, including extreme temperatures, flood, fires, landslides and drought

Communities across Canada are at risk of disaster due to gaps and failures in the federal government’s assessment of extreme climate events, says a new expert report released Thursday.

As the climate warms, Canada is at growing risk from a range of hazards from extreme temperatures to drought, flooding, landslides, wildfires and more. While reducing greenhouse gas emissions can stave off the worst effects of climate change, some degree of further warming is already baked in and is expected to bring with it more extreme events.

“There’s now no area of Canada, meaning no community, no town, no city, which is going to be shielded from the impacts of climate change,” Scott Vaughan, a senior fellow with the International Institute for Sustainable Development and chair of the expert panel that wrote the report, told The Narwhal.

The eleven-member panel, convened by the Council of Canadian Academies, is comprised of experts with expertise ranging from climate adaptation to disaster recovery and insurance, including Kathryn Hyland, a former senior vice-president of risk management at Swiss Re, a reinsurance company, Jimena Eyzaguirre, a senior climate change adaptation specialist with the consulting company ESSA Technologies Ltd., and Sarah Sargent, the vice-president of risk reduction programs at the Canadian Red Cross.

The report, titled Building a Resilient Canada, finds that major gaps in Canada’s approach to disaster risk management have left communities vulnerable to the growing threat of extreme events and in the dark about what lies ahead.  

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But the report, which was commissioned by Public Safety Canada, also underscores numerous opportunities to strengthen Canada’s resilience to disasters by ensuring that climate change is adequately considered in all efforts to prepare for, prevent, respond to and recover from disasters.

In a joint statement released Thursday, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair and Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said “we welcome and support the core findings of the Council’s report, including that climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction need to be better integrated.”

The ministers noted the federal government is working with provincial, territorial and municipal governments and Indigenous communities to develop the country’s first national adaptation strategy.

Costs of climate-related disasters in Canada on the rise

Insured losses, which account for just a portion of disaster costs, have been increasing over time in Canada, the report found. In 2020 alone, they amounted to $2.4 billion — a figure that does not include the costs of ecosystem destruction, deaths, losses not covered by insurance, lost income or the lasting mental health toll of extreme events.

While the risks of floods or extreme heat and wildfires are increasing, the report’s underlying point is that the consequences of those events for communities can be lessened with proper planning.

Numerous studies have found that investments in disaster mitigation and preparedness result in significant savings over the long run by reducing the costs of future disasters, the report notes. For instance, one analysis found that every $1 invested in measures to reduce the risk of basement flooding in homes results in $11 dollars in savings, it says.

Yet, “most governments persistently underinvest in mitigation and later pay the price in terms of disaster response and recovery,” the report says.

Building resilience to climate change will require governments to shift their attention to preventing disasters or at least limiting their impacts on communities.

Secrecy of Public Safety Canada’s ‘all-hazard risk assessment’ questioned

The report explains how decision makers working to prevent or mitigate future disasters first need access to reliable information about the risks their communities are facing. While disaster planning typically relies on historical data to develop risk assessments, the panel emphasizes the importance of incorporating climate projections into risk analysis given the changing climate.

But a lack of localized climate projections can make it difficult to consider future climate scenarios in risk prevention and mitigation, the experts found.

“Flood maps are one prominent example of an important information deficit; in Canada, these maps are often out of date, reflecting past climate conditions and land uses,” the report notes.

In their statements, Blair and Guilbeault said the government is moving forward with flood hazard mapping and flood mitigation projects through the national disaster mitigation program. The government is also moving forward with work to assess new flood insurance models and looking to ways to support relocation of people from high-risk areas through a new task force on flood insurance and relocation.

In other cases, the issue is ensuring data that exists is available and accessible to decision-makers that need it.

In one striking example, the report notes how local governments have been denied access to a national all-hazard risk assessment due to national security concerns. Only a limited number of senior emergency management officials in the federal government have access to this national assessment, while those directly affected in communities are kept in the dark, the report says.

“The lack of an accessible (all-hazards risk assessment) is problematic and puts Canada in a weak position relative to many other OECD countries,” the panel writes. “For example, in Norway, the public accessibility of the country’s National Risk Assessment has led to an ongoing evaluation process that is informed by all relevant sectors to refine risk scenarios and incorporate new knowledge.”

In their joint statement, Blair and Guilbeault said the government is “developing a national risk profile to enhance whole-of-society collaboration and governance to strengthen resilience and to improve understanding of disaster risk in all sectors of our communities.”

Mike Flannigan, the B.C. innovation research chair in predictive services, emergency management and fire science at Thompson Rivers University and a member of the expert panel that wrote the report, told The Narwhal in an interview that, where possible, the risk assessment should be public.

“The impacts could be enormous in terms of economics, losses, in terms of human life even depending on the hazard, like earthquakes, and how can we move forward unless we have that information available?” he said.

“If some things are national security, withhold those pieces, but I think that would be a fairly small portion of the dataset,” he said, adding that he’s not familiar with the details of the dataset.

Indigenous and local knowledge, leadership crucial for climate disaster risk mitigation

Alongside a need for more detailed climate projections and risk analyses, the report emphasizes the importance of incorporating Indigenous and local knowledge into adaptation and disaster risk reduction work.

For instance, “recognizing Indigenous ways of knowing and expertise in fire management can reduce wildfire risk while offering other ecological and cultural benefits,” the report notes.

The panel writes that leadership from Indigenous and local governments is crucial as they “are best placed to identify local vulnerabilities and implement the most appropriate actions.”

But smaller communities, in particular, will require funding, capacity building and other support from higher levels of government, including support to develop such important tools as flood hazard maps.

One example raised in the report that stands out for Vaughan is a funding program in Nova Scotia that required communities to prepare climate adaptation plans in order to access the funding, a program that had an uptake of about 75 per cent.

Alongside physical risks and vulnerabilities, those plans looked at “issues of inequality, low income, housing, homelessness,” Vaughan said.

One of the “urgent, overall messages within the report,” he said, is the need to address the vulnerability created by social inequality.

Crucially, the report says that the work of climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction requires government to take a holistic approach that involves a whole range of expertise, including emergency managers, but also engineers and community planners that make decisions about how and where community infrastructure and housing is built.

First Nations communities disproportionately threatened by wildfires: study

Disaster risk reduction measures will vary between communities but could involve creating new or updated zoning regulations and land use plans to prevent building in areas at-risk of flooding and protecting or restoring wetland areas to allow rivers room to swell without threatening homes and other buildings, says the report. 

Flannigan, a wildfire expert, is working to build an enhanced early warning system for wildfires that could help predict where there will be extreme fire conditions and where fires may spark with the goal of being able to position fire crews and helicopters proactively rather than reactively.

At the same, he said, modeling and fire weather forecasts should be used to help determine which fires need to be fought and which fires can be allowed to burn under close monitoring.

“Fire can be beneficial from an ecological point of view,” he said. “Just think of mountain pine beetle, fire does a really good job of eradicating mountain pine beetle out of the forest.”

“So, you don’t have to put out all the fires all the time, that’s been the large policy of western fire science for the last 100 years and it doesn’t work,” he said.

Karen Tillotson organizing donations
Karen Tillotson, a resident of Boston Bar, coordinates donations and campers at Tuckkwiowhum Village in the wake of the fire that devastated the village of Lytton, B.C., in the summer of 2021. Photo: Amy Romer / The Narwhal

Climate disaster prevention, mitigation requires whole-of-society approach

While governments at all levels have a critical role in adapting to climate change and reducing the risks of future disasters, building resilience requires a whole-of-society approach, the panel writes, one that also involves individuals and businesses.

There’s a lot that individual homeowners can do to increase the resilience of their homes and properties to disaster, installing backwater valves to prevent backflows of sewage into your home, for instance, or using fire resistant materials for roofs and siding. 

But public education is needed to ensure homeowners and others are aware of the risks they’re facing. According to a 2016 survey, only six per cent of Canadians living in areas at risk of flooding were aware of those risks, the report notes.

Insurers hold considerable sway in incentivizing investments in resilience, the report suggests.

By making insurance policies contingent on certain climate adaptations or risk reduction measures, insurers can encourage people to make needed investments, it says. 

“These requirements need not only apply at the household level,” the report notes. “In the United Kingdom, local authorities must have adequate flood defences to handle a 1-in-75-year flood in order for flood insurance to be offered to the market.”

But ultimately, the report says that a critical starting point is ensuring that all communities and governments can access reliable, and sufficiently detailed information about the disaster risks they’re facing in the coming years and to ensure governments are moving to implement much needed adaptation and risk reduction measures.

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