OP-ED published originally in the Hill Times December 6, 2021
In response to the COVID pandemic, we shut down the economy to “flatten the curve.” We ramped up innovation to produce safe, effective vaccines in record time. We adopted public health measures that have fundamentally transformed how we interact, how we work, and how we learn. So, what’s it going to take for us to wake up and flatten the curve of the human and economic costs of the changing climate?
In less than half a year, and with the pandemic ongoing, British Columbia has experienced a deadly heat dome with temperatures exceeding 49 degrees Celsius – an all-time Canadian record; another devastating wildfire season that incinerated vast tracts of forest land and the entire town of Lytton; and now the widespread, unprecedented flooding in Southern BC. In the business of disaster and emergency management, we call these focusing events, disasters that by their sheer magnitude and the scope of the devastation they cause, focus enough attention from the public, the media, and politicians that policy and practices change. If ever there were a time when we desperately need such focus and the change it can inspire, it is right now.
The BC floods have already cost five lives, the destruction and disruption of critical lifelines (highways, railway tracks, gas and electricity lines, and water systems), hundreds of dead livestock and poultry, and the devastation of some of Canada’s richest and most productive agricultural land. Thousands of individuals and households, and scores of communities, businesses, and farms are facing catastrophic losses. The economic costs of these floods are expected to exceed the $5 billion price tag of the 2013 Alberta floods, and the estimated $10 billion dollar economic and non-pecuniary costs (health, mental health, livelihoods) of the Fort McMurray wildfire. In a year of unprecedented, the BC floods are projected to become the costliest disaster on record in Canada.
Policymakers – bureaucrats and politicians – and taxpayers must understand that many of the climate risks and impacts we are experiencing are already locked in, regardless of how successful our greenhouse gas emissions reductions may be (and we are currently ranked as the worst performer of all G7 nations). This means that talking about resilience needs to move to acting on resilience. Collectively, these events are demanding that we focus as a society and come to terms with the reality that climate change is here, unprecedented is the new norm, and we need to engage in coordinated, collaborative, systemic action to prepare for and adapt to this new reality.
To advance resilience in our infrastructure, our built and natural environments, and the social fabric of our communities will require significant investments, by everyone – all levels of governments and citizens. But these investments in risk reduction, preparation, and resilience will save billions of dollars and suffering with an estimated 7:1 rate of return on investment (Public Safety Canada).
In the current crises, many have drawn on a World War II analogy, calling for the kind of social cohesion and dramatic changes that defined those times. However, unlike that war, in this war, we are the enemy. Our dominant cultural behaviours and choices, our decisions about where and how we live, what we prioritize and value, and how we are in relationship to nature have created this existential crisis. And that means we need to change.
Here’s an action pathway we can all help influence and implement. We need:
- A whole of government commitment to prioritizing climate preparation and adaptation – vote and advocate accordingly.
- Governments to incentivize organizations, communities, professionals, and ordinary citizens to invest in climate resilience even while we wait for standards, regulations and building codes to catch up.
- Climate science, adaptation, and resilience baked into curriculum – in public schools, technical institutes, colleges, and universities – so that professionals in all sectors understand and can effectively prepare for and respond to local climate risks and vulnerabilities
- Governments to enact more robust carbon taxes and redirect tax dollars that are currently subsidizing oil and gas industries, to investments in green energy solutions, adaptation measures, and disaster risk reduction solutions.
- To challenge the faulty assumption that growing the economy and protecting the environment go hand in hand and recognize that the current global economic system is based on a history of unsustainable resource extraction and management worldwide, the unfettered burning of fossil fuels, and the northern hemisphere’s exploitation of labor in the southern hemisphere.
The time for debating and prevaricating on climate change is over. We need to stop treating this as just one more policy problem, one of many demands on our time and resources. Instead, we need to face this emergency head-on with rapid, society-wide investments and systems change. Hopes for a climate-resilient and climate-just future rely on us focusing and acting immediately.
The future is now!
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