Saturday, January 26, 2008

Adaptation Discussion in the City of Toronto - Take 1

This description in a column by Dale Duncan in provides a good example of the complexities we face in addressing "adaptation" in a civic context. Duncan attended a meeting of Toronto's Parks and Environment committee where presentations were given, including two by representatives of the insurance industry and public health. Duncan's takeway from it?

Is the City of Toronto ready to adapt to a new normal of increased floods and droughts, new pests and vector-borne illnesses, and a possible influx of environmental refugees? After sitting in on a series of presentation on climate change adaptation given to the Parks and Environment Committee yesterday, I can tell you that the answer to this question is a resounding "no." Toronto may have a plan to help mitigate climate change, but there’s no plan for how the city will adapt to it, and the consequences of that could mean severe economic, social and health problems in the years to come.
So, in a nutshell, what's the problem? Let's start with insurance. I've blogged about that topic numerous times. They're the ones, after all, whose whole business model relies on accurate risk assessment. One of the municipal councillors brought up infrastructure, which Duncan reminded readers was already a sore point, with a backlog of $123 billion (Canadian) in repair to roads, bridges and pipes. Adaptation of the infrastructure would involve not only making those repairs, but also strengthening those facilities to endure more extreme weather. The insurance guy responds:
“We need to be ready for more severe weather more frequently, which means greater risks due to weather-related events than we have ever faced before,” said Mark Yakabuski, president of the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
He reminds the council that the 1998 ice storm in Quebec consumed 20 percent of all insurance premiums paid that year. Ouch. Will climate change bring more ice storms? The insurance guy continues:
“It is not good enough to simply say we’ll maintain pieces of infrastructure at the standard for which they were built. It’s not going to be adequate,” argued Yakabuski. “We need to rebuild our infrastructure at a significantly higher standard in order to try to deal with a threat that’s higher than we’ve ever faced before. We have to review building codes and be as strict as possible in enforcing land use decisions. We don’t have the luxury to take our time to get it done. We need to find innovative ways to fund these investments now.”
Another councillor tries to turn the dilemma on its head by proposing that the national government provide the money to upgrade the infrastructure to avoid prohibitive insurance premiums in the future. This assumes, of course, that the national government has that money. But beyond infrastructure there were health threats to consider.
Dr. Monica Campbell, manager for Toronto Public Health, spoke about preparing for heat waves like the one in Europe in 2003 that killed nearly 70,000 people. In Toronto, heat-related mortality will double by 2050 and triple by 2080, she said. Furthermore, air pollution mortality will increase by 20 per cent by 2050 and 25 per cent by 2080. Campbell also reminded the committee that vulnerable populations are more likely to be negatively affected by climate change. In California, she said, research has been conducted to construct a Social Vulnerability Index to help ensure these populations don’t get left behind.
The potential of growing masses of climate refugees arriving on Canada's doorstep was brought up. But at least they held such a meeting and at least they've begun to consider these imposing issues. And - as a good example to all localities - they have provided a Climate Change Adaptation page on the city's Web site. Bravo to that!


gregra&gar said...

It would seem that rather than beefing up the infrastructure to improve it, the redeployment of the infrastructure to discourage habitation in high risk areas would seem the wiser path. Habitation on coasts, flood plains and tornado alleys should be of the most temporary nature.

Cliff Figallo said...

I have to agree with you that rezoning and relocation will be inevitable, especially when the sea level begins rising significantly. Chronic flooding and wildfires will eventually convince even the most stubborn property owners that it's a losing battle.

For now, though, the tendency of property owners and politicians is to hold on to the hope that conditions won't get that desperate. Either we'll hit a tipping point or we won't, but speculative abandonment is a hard step for what has been an affluent society.

But then, how do you rationalize the virtual abandonment of our neglected, unmaintained infrastructure?