The Cost of Climate Change

Jennifer Rogers is a first-year student at the McGill Faculty of Law and an Associate Managing Editor with the McGill Journal of Sustainable Development Law. She holds a degree in French and Russian Language and Literature from the University of Alberta.

I grew up in the town of High River, Alberta. I lived there when the town flooded in 1995 and again in 2005. When my parents decided to move to another area of town, I remember them going to the town hall to examine the flood maps to ensure that, in the event of another flood, they didn’t take in water. None of the three houses they considered buying were in the flood plain, but by the end of the first day of flooding in June 2013, two of them were under water. The impact of that flood was devastating. People lost their homes and communities suffered damage that took years to repair. 100,000 were evacuated from their homes. Five died.

Alberta, despite having experienced significant, even comparable, flooding in the past, was not ready for a disaster of that magnitude. Outdated flood mapping meant that many areas were built on flood plains, despite this not being evident from available information. Infrastructure to protect these communities was inadequate. Because of this, significant flood mitigation measures had to be put in place following the flood. Rebuilding efforts entailed 80 to 100 years’ worth of infrastructure changes over a period of three years. High River is now the most flood-proof community in Canada according to its mayor. These efforts are vitally important, and despite their costs, will likely save money down the road in the increasingly probable event of another major flood. The question that follows, however, is why, despite a history of flooding and mounting evidence that natural disasters are going to increase in number, did the government fail to act before an event of this magnitude?

Canadians are facing the reality that these extreme weather events are only going to become more likely as time goes on. The US Fire Service reports that fire seasons now last 78 days longer on average than they did in 1970 and burn twice as many acres of land than they did 30 years ago. Canada’s federal government has warned that Canadians can expect to see more flooding and wildfires in the coming decades, even if both national and international communities take serious steps to combat climate change. In the past few years, Canada has seen costs associated with natural disasters increase dramatically. 2016 broke the record for insurable damage in Canada. In Alberta, the costs of the 2013 flooding in Southern Alberta and the 2016 Fort MacMurray wildfire alone soared to almost $16 billion.

If natural disasters can be expected to increase no matter what steps are taken to fight climate change, it is vital that the Canadian government turn its mind to natural disaster mitigation efforts. The costs of failing to do so are enormous, both financially and emotionally. Canadian victims of natural disasters are forced to either pay their personal rebuilding costs up-front and wait for disaster relief funds, or put their lives on hold until they have the resources to rebuild. This is a problem that disproportionately impacts lower income individuals and is made worse by the inefficacy of government repayment programs. One year after the 2013 floods, thousands of Albertans were still waiting for their disaster recovery claims to be processed.

Unfortunately, governments across Canada are falling behind when it comes to mitigation efforts. As mentioned above, much of the damage from the Southern Alberta flooding has been attributed to bad planning and outdated flood mapping.  A 2016 report assessing climate change preparedness published by the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation found that no Canadian province was sufficiently prepared for the impacts of climate change. In an assessment of flood preparedness, Ontario topped the rankings with a grade of B-, with the rest of the provinces scoring between C+ and D. Provinces have called for Canada to increase funding to the National Disaster Mitigation Program, which currently has a budget of $200 million. At the same time, the 2016 report from the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program, which reimburses provinces and individuals for costs resulting from natural and man-made disasters, estimates that the program will pay out $902 million per year for weather related events over the next five years.

There are multiple arguments to support the need for better disaster preparation. The compassionate argument is one of these: better protections for Canadian communities reduces the number of people at risk of losing their homes, their possessions, or their lives. Another argument is the economic argument. The reality is that many of these disasters are far more expensive than the appropriate mitigation processes would have been (you can read more about some of the costs associated with flood mitigation in Alberta since 2013 here). Infrastructure damages are also not the only costs associated with disasters. Local economies are suppressed when local businesses are damaged, or when individuals cannot work or find themselves unable to participate in the market due to their recovery costs. Either way, there is little support for continued neglect for disaster mitigation efforts in Canada. Whether your motivations are compassionate or economic, the solution lies in being better prepared disasters that we can only expect will increase in severity and frequency.

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