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Proactive approach critical to climate resilience

Canada must confront its ongoing failure to fully integrate climate change adaptation into disaster risk reduction, according to a new report.
abby flood
PROVINCE OF B.C. — An aerial photograph of Abbotsford shows the result of last year’s devastating floods.

Experts are urging Canada to proactively prepare for extreme weather events related to climate change in a new report from the Council of Canadian Academies.

The report was prepared for the federal government in response to a request from Public Safety Canada to answer one question: “What key opportunities exist to improve disaster resilience in Canada through better integration of disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation research and practice?”

A panel of interdisciplinary experts had four key findings.

Failure to integrate

The report cited an ongoing failure to fully integrate climate change adaptation into disaster risk reduction (DRR) activities, policies and tools which reduces the efficiency and impact of public investments in disaster resilience, leaving Canadian communities at risk.

One major barrier to this is a lack of a publicly available, integrated, all-hazard risk assessment in Canada.

“This makes it difficult to compare risks and be strategic about deploying resources where they could have the greatest possible benefit,” stated the report’s authors. “Employing risk assessments to inform land-use planning offers an opportunity to reduce or avoid risk or retreat from some hazards altogether. Where hazards cannot be avoided, the development and enforcement of codes and standards that integrate climate change data can better prepare physical structures to withstand the effects of hazards.”

Overcoming barriers

The report found that successfully integrating adaptation and DRR requires overcoming barriers such as disciplinary and departmental silos, conceptual and terminological differences and jurisdictional misalignments while accounting for perceptions and cognitive biases that affect decision-making.

“Effective integration between adaptation and DRR frequently requires the development of collaborative structures and platforms,” reads the report. “Such collaborative undertakings can overcome misalignments through the explicit recognition of roles and responsibilities and provide the basis for an effective sharing of resources and knowledge.”

Finding flexibility

The integration of adaptation and DRR requires a combination of information systems adapted to the needs of decision-makers and flexible funding, financing and insurance arrangements that support proactive investment, says the report.

The authors noted there is a lack of information for extreme weather records (particularly in remote locations), disaster data and economic analyses of the costs and benefits of adaptation.

“Timely, comparable and comprehensive disaster data is essential to monitoring and evaluating risk over time; the Canadian Disaster Database is currently not meeting this need,” said the authors.

However, they noted investing in high-resolution climate data and Indigenous and local knowledge could help bridge the gap.

Whole-of-society collaboration

The panel of experts concluded “whole-of-society” collaboration and government mandates are necessary to facilitate integration.

“There is no one authority with the knowledge, capacity and power to act on all fronts,” said the report. “Instead, comprehensive strategies to build disaster resilience require the involvement of government, civil society, the private sector and individual households.”

The report also noted the review revealed there is no single right way to achieve integration and successful approaches are ones that are well adapted to their context.

“The panel has highlighted many tools and resources for integration, some of which have been implemented in Canada and many of which have not,” concluded the report.  “All-hazards risk assessments, accessible and tailored risk communication, nature-based solutions, community-wide engagement, well-designed insurance policies, and targeted public funding are among the opportunities available to enhance disaster resilience, sometimes with considerable co-benefits.”

The stakes for addressing disaster preparedness are high. The report states the economic cost of climate-related disasters is rising as well as their frequency. Between 1902 and 1959 the country averaged less than 30 climate-related disasters but between 1980 and 2019 it is averaging more than 100.

However, the report stresses preparing for disasters is far more cost effective than responding and recovering from them.

For example, every $1 spent to improve highway bridge design, $9 in savings is achieved. Despite this, the report noted that governments continue to under-invest. The report cited myopia, optimism and inertia about the way things have always been done as key barriers to investment.

“Disasters are not natural,” said the report. “They are result of decisions that put people and structures in harms way.”

Russell Hixson is the staff writer for the Journal of Commerce where he covers the construction industry.  Before that, he spent years in the U.S. as an investigative crime reporter. He lives in East Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @RussellReports.