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The steadily increasing cost of doing nothing, by Deborah Harford

By Deborah Harford
As published in the June 15, 2011 Embassy feature: Climate Security: Preparing for a future of increasing uncertainty on page 19.

When we talk about security we mean a number of things, key among these being physical safety and economic stability.

Both forms of security depend on systems that protect and support us, including human mechanisms such as laws, policies and civic amenities, and natural ones such as ecosystems that provide clean air, food and water.

Canadians are most fortunate in terms of these systems, enjoying access to resources, social programs, jobs, healthcare and extraordinary natural beauty. But threats from climate impacts are already being realized across the country, and throughout the globe.

ACT (the Adaptation to Climate Change Team at Simon Fraser University) focuses on impacts and security in eight key areas: biodiversity, fresh water supply, crops & food supply, sea level rise, health, energy, extreme weather, and population displacement.

No matter where we stand on the climate change question, it would be unwise to ignore current research and evidence showing serious climate-related threats to physical and economic safety:

Dust bowls are appearing in Australia, the US, France and China, which along with flooding in Manitoba raise concern about the world’s supplies of grain, as well as water for drinking, irrigation and hydroelectricity production.

Ice melt at both poles is more advanced than expected, elevating worst-case projections of sea level rise. (One metre will devastate coastal areas with infrastructure at shore level, such as Vancouver, BC and its suburbs Delta, Richmond and Langley.)

Rising health concerns include increasingly frequent extreme heat events and the spread of diseases borne by vectors that thrive in the warmer, wetter weather.

Rising temperatures and wetter weather are changing the distribution of pathogens such as avian flu, cholera, lyme disease, and tuberculosis. Denmark issued a travel warning against Vancouver Island because a tourist contracted a lung disease from a tropical fungus called Cryptococcus gattii that migrated to the coastal forest due to warmer, wetter weather, and the BC Centre for Disease Control reported over 100 cases, including at least six fatalities.

Extreme weather has killed alarming numbers of Americans this year, with the tornado death toll sitting at 500, the highest since the all-time record of 513 in 1933. The world’s deadliest tornado hit Joplin, Missouri, killing over 100 people.

Further north, Alberta’s Slave Lake experienced an extraordinary wildfire. No one was killed, but fire destroyed 40 % of the town in hours.

All this is affecting our industries. A few examples:

Sewer backup into basements due to flooding is the biggest insurance claim in Canada.

Northern miners will have to plan around ice roads melting earlier, reducing winter access.

Fresh water is a major concern, as snow, ice and glaciers disappear, rivers dry up after hot summers, and contaminating bacteria proliferate in warmer water. Utilities are researching changing water availability for drinking and electricity production.

The 2005 prairies drought cost the Canadian economy close to $5 billion. Agricultural producers are studying ways to offset more severe drought, flood and pest challenges.

The Mountain Pine Beetle has devastated forests as warmer temperatures fail to contain its spread, and species overall are shifting northwards and upwards.

It’s clear that climate change threatens our security, both physical and economic, and that the problem is already here. If the climate models are right, the problem will get worse before it gets better. So what can we do?

At ACT we have a saying – no to doom & gloom; yes to cheer & steer. We think policy makes a huge difference, as it is the locus of guidance for everything from industry standards to legislation to regulations governing civic behaviour, and funding and program development.

Many people are working on answers, from science to planning to solutions. Despite this, the issues often appear overwhelming. ACT’s answer is to break them down into topics, work with policy makers who understand government leadership, and develop recommendations that outline short, medium and long-term actions.

As Canada confronts these issues, it is essential for us to share information and expertise with other countries, those who are struggling with the problems, and those who are planning their responses.

ACT participated in a recent conference in Taipei – Cities At Risk II – that featured representatives from Australia, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Singapore, Bangladesh, Thailand, India, Taiwan, etc. These countries are working on climate challenges with great urgency, as many are particularly vulnerable due to limited resources.

As one of the most advanced, well-resourced countries in the world, Canada is in a strong position to protect the physical and economic security of its people under the threat and actuality of climate change.

And we can live up to our reputation as a compassionate nation by sharing the benefits, in the form of collaborative solutions, with those less fortunate, both within our borders and in the international community.

Deborah Harford is the Executive Director of ACT (the Adaptation to Climate Change Team), a research project based within the Public Policy Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC.

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