As Canada – and the world – slowly recover and rebuild communities following the global pandemic, climate change and climate resilience must be prioritized by all levels of government in these recovery plans, according to Western geography and environment professor emeritus Gordon McBean.
McBean is a long-standing contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization that was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007.
Recently, McBean collaborated with interdisciplinary researchers from across the country, including many from Western, to prepare a report for the federal government titled, “Building Climate Resilient Communities.” Funded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the report assessed the threat of climate change and how communities across Canada could proactively advance climate-resilience to effectively reduce the risk of adverse climate impacts, loss and damage. The report provides guidance and suggestions for the most important next steps for Canadian communities as they rebuild after COVID-19.
In the report, the researchers cite the 2021 World Economic Forum’s annual rankings of ‘likelihood and impacts, the global risks for the coming decade.’ Climate action failure – not reducing emissions and not adapting – was basically tied with infectious diseases as the highest impacting risk. It also ranked as the second most likely global risk. The occurrence of extreme weather was ranked as the most likely global risk, and eighth in terms of impact.
“These rankings show how climate action failure and building resilience to severe weather are clearly linked. Canada needs to address these perilous health risks in tandem with COVID-19 recovery to positively move the country forward,” said McBean.
McBean recognizes – as do many other earth scientists, politicians and climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Leonardo DiCaprio – the collective pause of physical human connectivity these past 18 months has temporally reduced harmful greenhouse gas emissions. However, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have continued to rise and 2020 was tied for the warmest year on record.
“Canada must be committed to the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius and, if possible, to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” said McBean, noting that Canada is warming about twice as fast as the global average, and the Canadian Arctic three times as fast.
At the recent G7 meetings, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participated in discussions on “Building Back Resilient” and announced a doubling of Canada’s climate finance, including increased support for adaptation, nature and nature-based solutions.
“Nature-based solutions need to be part of the solutions but we can’t make real change without doing the hard things, which is rebuilding homes, cities and infrastructure. We need to build resilience,” said McBean.
The pan-Canadian “Building Climate Resilient Communities” research team of 22 scientists features 13 with Western connections, including: Dr. Anna Gunz, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry pediatric critical care professor; Paul Kovacs, executive director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction; Gregory Kopp, ImpactWX chair in Severe Storms Engineering; and James Voogt, geography and environment department chair.
Roadmap to climate resilience
Like contact tracing during the pandemic, McBean says it’s vitally important that Canada gets better at monitoring the cause and effects of climate change.
“The auditor general reviewed how Canada responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and the big takeaways were that we need better surveillance systems, better assessment tools, and better warning signals to inform Canadians. The same can be said for climate change,” said McBean. “These things aren’t happening. Canada, and the rest of the world, isn’t adapting fast enough to the real risks of climate change.”
And this failure to adapt, says McBean, is where Canada really needs to have increased focus.
“Climate action failure, I emphasize, is failure to reduce emissions, which is called mitigation, but also failure to adapt,” said McBean.
Severe storms and extreme weather are the epicenter of climate change, and the vulnerability and exposure for Canada’s older, poorer and racialized people and children must also be seriously considered. Children have the largest burden of climate change through their lifetime, plus they are among the most vulnerable, even across poverty and racialized communities, according to the international Lancet Countdown (https://www.thelancet.com/countdown-health-climate), also cited in the report.
“There is a huge question of inequality,” said McBean. “We have to look after the people who are most vulnerable. Our vulnerable populations get impacted most when extreme weather or infectious diseases strike and tragically, they are often far worse for people with the least resources. And in Canada, that’s often for Indigenous people.”
McBean says the first step to building climate resilience is sharing science-based information with communities across the country, and connect that information with ‘real money’ so that Canada can act and adapt to climate change.
“We need to set rules and regulations, and provide proper guidance, and make our national adaptation strategy more than a strategy. We need a national adaptation action plan that is actually implemented,” said McBean. “We have to act now. We can’t just leave it for future generations, because the impact will be devastating, and the future will be too late.”