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Adapting, adjusting to change in Atlantic Canada's climate may be key to economic future

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CLIMATE CHANGE IS ALREADY CHANGING THE LIVES OF ATLANTIC CANADIANS, BUT WHAT CAN WE DO TO STOP IT, OR ADAPT TO IT, OR SOFTEN THE EFFECTS? WE ASKED PEOPLE FROM ACROSS ATLANTIC CANADA WHAT THEY SEE AS THE BIGGEST IMPACTS ON THEIR OWN LIVES AND WHAT — IF ANYTHING — CAN BE DONE TO DEAL WITH THEM.


FOCUSED ON OUR COASTS

Governments at all levels are looking at coastal areas in Atlantic Canada vulnerable to rising sea levels and increasingly extreme storms and storm surges, through both existing programs as well as new initiatives.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ (DFO) 2012 risk assessment on climate change identified rising sea levels as one of the major factors that Atlantic Canadians will have to deal with in the next decade.

DFO senior oceanographer Pierre Pepin says it’s a problem the region is already facing on a regular basis.

TIME IS MONEY

The cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action: climate change could cost Canada $21 billion to $43 billion per year
by 2050.
- Government of Canada

According to Pepin, rising sea level, in and of itself, is not necessarily critical yet; however, there are situations where, when combined with a storm surge, a greater wall of water may come over your shoreline, wreaking havoc. And it doesn’t help that storms are becoming more unpredictable.

Pepin says we are seeing different kinds of storms at unusual times of the year and season, and they have become more energetic, causing more damage.

“You’ll often see reports of extensive erosion on a coastline or of a slumping of a bank or something like that,” Pepin explained. “Often, those things are consistent with what we would expect under increasing sea level rise, storm surges and so forth.”

COASTAL PROTECTION ACT

Pepin points out that the Small Craft Harbours program under DFO has a 20-year plan to reinforce docks, breakwaters and other infrastructure to protect harbours from sea elevation and stronger storm surges.

Improving coastal infrastructure, he says, should be one of the easier things to mitigate the effects of climate change.

He also says we’ll have to stop building as close to the coast.

CONSUMER DEMAND

The global market for low-carbon goods and services is worth more than $5.8 trillion, which is projected to keep growing at a rate of three per cent per year.
- Government of Canada

Other initiatives are also underway. In Nova Scotia, a new Coastal Protection Act is in the works.

Bill No. 106 was introduced on March 12 by N.S. Environment Minister Margaret Miller, received second reading on March 14 and sent off to the Committee on Law Amendments, the next step in the process.

During second reading, Miller said the Coastal Protection Act “will set out clear rules for what we can and can’t be done in coastal protection zones … It will ensure new development in our coastal protection zones takes climate change into account in the planning stages … The legislation is not about having government move existing buildings. It’s not about funding breakwaters or retaining walls. Instead, this legislation deals with future construction and it’s meant to prevent today’s problems from happening to tomorrow’s homes, businesses, and cottages. We can't change the past, but we can ensure that new construction is built in safer places where it’s not at a high risk of flooding or coastal erosion.”

For the fisheries, “any kind of business that needs the coastal properties, say it's a fish plant or it's a fisher that needs to have his wharf and have access to the ocean, those all would be exempt as well from the program,” said Miller.

IMPACT ON FISHERIES

Moving away from the coasts, dealing with impacts on our fisheries is a tougher challenge. While scientists have been tracking the trend of warming waters, lower oxygen and higher acidity in some parts of the region, the full impacts on the mainstay species is hard to pinpoint.

EFFICIENT SAVINGS

Residential energy efficiency improvements helped Canadians save $12 billion in energy costs in 2013, an average savings of $869 per household.
- Government of Canada

Regular stock assessments may show the health of a specific species is decreasing but the identifying specific causes for such changes is hard.

“How much of that (change) is due to climate change and how much of that is due to the ecosystem’s dynamics in itself — because one species may be coming up while the other species may be coming down — that’s still unclear,” Pepin says, adding that alterations in stocks take time to develop.

Therefore, he advises strategizing about how manage specific species should switch to a medium-term outlook of about three to five years, instead of the short term of one to two years.

“That’s not going to take place immediately or in the short-term and so I think that being realistic about the expectations people have about the availability of resources, how productive the system is, and having managing strategies that aim to be more strategic,” he said. “I think what needs to be in people’s minds is that changes are not immediate, they’re more gradual. They take a decade, five to 10 years, to occur.” 

While opportunities may exist for some species, such as lobster, they may not recover fast enough to offset the decline of other species.

And harvesters may suffer.

“During that period, if the stocks you’ve relied on in the past are going down and the stocks that you would like to rely on in the future haven’t reached levels where you can compensate for that, then there may be some challenges there,” he said.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

While some of the specific impacts may be area-specific, species- or even industry-specific, Memorial University geography professor Norm Catto says people should also keep the bigger climate change picture in mind and look for ways they, too, can help improve things.

When it comes to mitigating the emission of greenhouse gases, Catto notes that Atlantic Canadian provinces are not huge industrial powers and are not major emitters.

Individuals reducing their carbon footprint are not going to make a substantial difference as climate change is far more broadly a societal problem.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

“You can always come back to the argument that if each person does something, then that’s better than each person doing nothing,” Catto said.

You can stop using disposable plastic bags, drive less, or use energy-efficient appliances, for example.

“It won’t change the total amount of gas put in by the Earth as a whole by a very large amount,” he said. “But it does mean then that you are making a contribution and you can perhaps influence other people, politicians, other countries, whatever, to also start making contributions.”


Around Atlantic Canada, people are coming to grips with what climate change means for them. Like the weather, it varies from place to place — from a coastal town worried about erosion and storm damage, to a church minister grappling with a transportation dilemma. The challenges vary but the determination to find solutions does not.


JEAN LEUNG

CONCERNED ABOUT THE IMPACT OF RISING SEA LEVELS ON LOCAL FOOD SECURITY

“Where I live, we did a quick survey of the value of agricultural product that goes down my road about seven years ago. At that point there was about $12 million in agricultural products and services delivered in the short road I live on. That was just a few farmers. If you think about the impact of food loss on the cost of milk, the cost of poultry, the cost of Kentucky Fried Chicken, everything is going to be impacted if food is compromised.”

“I put solar panels on the roof. It seems to me that that's a free source of energy ... If we could reduce the use of electricity from coal-fired and oil-fired generators, if every single family had solar panels on their roof that would make a huge impact. It's happening in other places, and the government has to get behind it and say ‘we want this to happen.’ I think that would make a big difference.”

— Jean Leung lives in North Grand Pre, N.S., near farmland protected by dykes that now are only a foot higher than high tide some days, with current projections of a three-foot rise in sea levels because of climate change.


BARB GENGE

WANTS TO WORKSHOP IDEAS ON HOW SMALL, COASTAL COMMUNITIES CAN COPE WITH WINDS, RISING SEAS

“We all live by the coast, OK, and we’ve seen all the winds that we’ve had lately. All that is going to impact us. We have built our homes for winds of a maximum of 160 km/h, but the winds are getting stronger than that. It could be very devastating for all those little communities. And if we get hit by high waters and our roads get washed, how many times will it continue, because we’re all living next to sea, before someone says, ‘you got to move.’ Where do we move to? Do we move inland, or do we move to a community that isn’t bordered on the ocean? It’s going to impact our property and it’s going to impact everybody in the community.

“I think we need a workshop on climate change and the impact on our small coastal communities.

I haven’t really thought about it, but I know if we don’t build better structures and if we don’t build further back from the ocean, as much as we like the ocean, it will be a problem.

— Barb Genge mayor of Main Brook, N.L. and the owner and operator of Tuckamore Lodge, an outfitting lodge on the Great Northern Peninsula.


MEG HODGES

TOWN COUNCILLOR WHO WANTS TO RETHINK RURAL TRANSIT

“For the personal economic costs, I feel like a frog in a boiling pot of water: It’s just been happening, and it keeps happening, and I’ve never known it not to be happening. The (late) frosts that hit us last year were really devastating to my own crops that we grow. That really affected me food-wise because we grow quite a lot of our food and a lot of it was ruined by frost. That was really stressful when we had put all the money into seeds. Knowing that that happened to a lot of the large-scale farms, I just can't imagine the financial burden.”

“I’m trying to make Kings Transit a better service and a more attractive service to people in Kings County so more people can feel like they don’t need to drive their cars and they can rely on our public transit. I feel like we need to have a completely different approach to transit and consider how we need to get the rural areas of Kings County serviced, not just the core.”

She said her family buys local meats and vegetables to try to reduce emissions associated with trucking in food from mass producers from afar. “It's more expensive, but we don't buy new clothes and we don't fly, we don't travel, so the things that we don't do in life we can make up for with really great food that we have locally. That’s how, as a family, we try to reduce our impact.

... We’re trying really hard; we’re just one little family.”

— Kings County, N.S., councillor Meg Hodges


ANDREW RICHARDSON

A MINISTER WHO IS ASKING MORAL QUESTIONS ABOUT THE CARBON IMPACT OF THE CHURCH.

“In my current job I travel a lot by car and by plane and at some point we, as a church, are going to have to look at that. What is the carbon cost of flying, for example? I fly a lot. I’ve been to Newfoundland two or three times in the past month. Can we keep doing that? As a church is it morally acceptable to do that?

To me, these are questions we’re going to have to wrestle with.

•••

“Currently the United Church has some grants for churches who are retrofitting their buildings for green energy. So those are the things I think we’re going to have to be about.

We’re going to have to reduce our footprint.”

— Andrew Richardson, United Church of Canada minister and regional manager, P.E.I.


UNIQUE CLIMATE CHANGE CHALLENGES TO COME

All four Atlantic provinces will face unique challenges in dealing with climate change.

NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR

• Little native soil means it is facing real food security issues.

NOVA SCOTIA

• Will see increase in crop diversity potential in agricultural heartland of the Annapolis Valley, (grapes) but this will take a toll on its soil.

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND

• Already facing problems from our long history of industrial potato production. Something it has to look out for is the increase in pests that will take advantage of the changing climate, our reliance on one crop (potatoes) and P.E.I.’s lack of a fumigation program, which is more environmentally friendly but creates opportunity for pests.

NEW BRUNSWICK

• Similar to P.E.I. in that a warming climate will bring some opportunities, but also more challenges in the form of new pests, diseases and severe weather systems.

(Source: David Burton, professor at Dalhousie Agricultural Campus in Truro, N.S.)


THE CHANGING LANDSCAPE

ATLANTIC CANADIAN FARMERS HAVE THREE MANTRAS TO LIVE BY: MANAGE, ADAPT AND DIVERSIFY. THESE ARE THE FEW WAYS THEY CAN MAINTAIN CONTROL IN AN INCREASINGLY VOLATILE ENVIRONMENT.

Without adaptive efforts, a 2.5 degree increase in temperature is likely to result in a 0.5 to 2 per cent decrease in gross domestic product globally.

In the future, Atlantic Canada can expect slightly warmer average temperatures and wetter growing seasons with the majority of that precipitation coming in more severe storms, according to David Burton, a professor at Dalhousie Agricultural Campus in Truro, N.S., whose work revolves around helping farmers prepare for climate change.

EYES ON EMISSIONS

The transportation sector accounted for about 23 per cent of Canada's emissions in 2014, mostly from pasenger vehicles and freight trucks. Transportation emissions are projected to decline slightly by 2030 if no further action is taken.
- Government of Canada

“The big challenge, the major problem that agriculture in Atlantic Canada is going to face is the variability of the climate, more intense rainfalls, longer periods of drought, earlier frosts, later frosts. So our biggest challenge in agriculture is to take advantage of that opportunity of a changing climate by managing weather,” Burton said. “Every year is a crazy year now.”

Burton’s latest work involves ways to mitigate and adapt farming to climate change by reducing greenhouse gases produced by agriculture and increasing soil organic matter.

The latter of which is more important than a layman might realize, he said.

More living organic matter in soil will allow it to retain more moisture, prevent run-off and erosion and increase fertility.

“By increasing the soil organic matter content across Atlantic Canada, we can increase the resiliency of those systems to climate change,” said Burton.

How do you prepare for something so completely outside your control as a late spring frost?

Burton’s answer: Manage, adapt and diversify.

“How do you respond to a changing climate? Well, how does biology respond? It increases diversity. Biology always resorts to diversity as a way to become more resilient. Resiliency is a word you’re going to be hearing more and more and more.”

OPPORTUNITIES IN CLIMATE CHANGE

With a longer growing season farmers can expect to grow new crops they have not traditionally been able to here.

BUILDING NET-ZERO

Federal, provincial, and territorial governments will work to develop and adopt increasingly stringent model building codes, starting in 2020, with the goal that provinces and territories adopt a “net-zero energy ready” model building code by 2030. These building codes will take regional differences into account. Continued federal investment in research, development, and demonstration, and co-operation with industry will help to reduce technology costs over time.
- Government of Canada

Pulses are not traditional crops on P.E.I., but Island farmers went from planting just 750 acres of pulses in 2016 to more than 8,000 acres in 2018.

Burton said he expects to see a lot more of that kind of diversification in the future on the Island and elsewhere in the region as local conditions allow.

How much work is being done to respond to climate change?

“I think there is a tonne of work going into it. But I don’t think most of the people who are doing that work would say they are doing it to response to climate change,” said Burton.

Farmers and almost everyone in the industry tend to be concerned with next year’s crop, rather than the crop 20 years from now. Climate change is just too big of a concept for many people to feel like they can have any impact on it. But that doesn’t mean dealing with those short-term problems doesn’t help with climate change.

“In the end, those are solutions to the longer climate change issue. That’s the problem with climate change, it’s just too intangible, in all sectors, it’s too intangible to actually be a business objective.

“No one event is climate change.”

SUPPORT FOR FARMERS LOOKING TO ADAPT

In looking for ways for the Atlantic Canadian to adapt to and deal with the numerous effects of climate change, there’s also the question of how to pay for it.

AN AFFORDABLE OPTION

Construction costs for net-zero energy buildings have dropped 40 per cent in the past decade, and they are continuing to fall.
Estimated operating costs for a net-zero energy ready house is 30 per cent to 55 per cent less than a typical house, depending on region, fuel type and occupant behaviour.
- Government of Canada

Whether it be support from government programs or passing additional costs on to consumers, how much farmers get paid is another important factor.

“It’s something we’ve got to make part of the conversation,” Burton said. “Increasingly as the consuming public becomes more aware of these issues they make buying decisions that help producers be able to afford to deal with these things.

Because that’s the big problem — agriculture is often the price taker, so ‘here’s a dozen things you can do to adapt to climate change but we’re not going to give you another nickel for your product.’ That’s a really tough thing to sell to the banker when you’re trying to get your mortgage renewed,” said Burton.

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