Canada’s top climate-change risks cut across geographies and economic sectors and the country should adapt now to avoid major losses, damages and disruptions, according to a new report.

Looking ahead over the next 20 years, the assessment, released Thursday by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), found that climate change poses the biggest risks to physical infrastructure, coastal and northern communities, human health and wellness, ecosystems and to fisheries.

The study is a first attempt to inform policy and funding decisions related to federal climate adaptation priorities. It was commissioned in April, 2018, by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, which advises the government on spending priorities.

It follows a sweeping federal report earlier this year that said Canada is warming at nearly twice the global rate and comes just four months shy of a fall election in which climate change and the environment are major issues.

However, much of that discussion has been limited to the federal carbon tax that has withstood successive court challenges from provincial governments but remains deeply unpopular in oil-rich Alberta.

“The big takeaway for me is we’ve got to start thinking about adaptation pretty seriously because the climate is going to change regardless of what we do, mitigation-wise,” said John Leggat, chair of the expert panel that wrote the latest report.

He said the panel did not specifically assess expected costs of climate change, nor expenses tied to adaptation. But previous assessments have pegged potential costs to individuals, businesses and governments as high as $43-billion. Indeed, public and private costs tied to extreme weather are already immense.

Insurance Bureau of Canada figures show losses associated with extreme weather events in Canada rose from an average of $405-million a year between 1983 and 2008 to $1.8 billion a year between 2009 and 2017.

Meanwhile, liabilities accruing to the federal Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program have regularly topped $1-billion a year since 2010, the report said, citing figures from the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

The CCA report said its findings are consistent with “a wide range of emissions pathways and associated changes in the climate.” The potential effects are far-reaching. And some are already visible.

It warned that extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall, high winds and flooding increased the probability of power outages and grid failures and could trigger “cascading” infrastructure failures.

In the North, melting permafrost stands to damage buildings, roads, pipelines, power lines and airstrips, and could reduce access to remote communities, increasing food insecurity.

That was the case in 2008, when heavy rains and flooding inundated Pangnirtung, Nunavut. The result was significant thermal erosion of the banks of the Duval River and damage to two bridges, separating residents from essential services at a cost of close to $5-million, according to the report.

Ocean acidification could trigger declines in fish stocks and result in less-productive fisheries. Coastal communities and major ports that handle more than $400-billion in goods each year are exposed to rising sea levels and storm surges, the report also says.

“Adaptation measures have the potential to offset many of the potential negative impacts and costs associated with these risks if implemented in a timely fashion, but this potential varies widely across areas of risk,” the panel found.

The report points to acute vulnerabilities in densely populated areas. For example, it says nearly 300,000 people in Richmond and Delta in Greater Vancouver live at or below sea level, protected by dikes that were not designed to accommodate rising sea levels.

Such stats should be taken as a “call to arms” but too often inspire complacency, said Blair Feltmate with the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation. “We should not be viewing adaptation as capitulation,” he said.

Risks to agriculture and food, forestry, geopolitical dynamics, governance and capacity, Indigenous ways of life and to water rounded out the list.

The Globe and Mail, July 4, 2019