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JIM VIBERT: The difficult questions raised as we adapt to climate change

Flooding around Armdale Rotary and Quinpool Road is seen in this file photo from June 2014.
Flooding around Armdale Rotary and Quinpool Road is seen in this file photo from June 2014. - Contributed

Places that flood almost every year, and places that locals say have never flooded before are under water in New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario.

In Nova Scotia, a “planned retreat” from the coast figures into the province’s climate change adaptation plans.

“Most of our (Nova Scotia’s) population lives along the coastline and much of our infrastructure is located in vulnerable areas. In many cases, that infrastructure was designed to withstand weather events less extreme and less frequent than what we now expect,” according to the province’s climate change unit in the Environment Department.

And that assessment was written before the recent report on the impact of climate change in Canada projected sea levels will rise on the East Coast by as much as a metre by the end of the century. The Halifax waterfront, site of the new $130-million art gallery announced by the province and feds last week, will be four times more likely to flood by mid-century than it is today.


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The planned retreat from the water’s edge was evident in the coastal protection act passed by the legislature this spring. It limits or prohibits new construction in coastal zones, but that’s just a hint at the massive public policy challenge that is now upon us.

That challenge, of course, is how to adapt to the unpredictable but awful conditions that nature seems to have in store as the climate changes.

When politicians with perspectives as different as Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau find themselves in agreement — both have attributed the extreme flooding to the effects of climate change — the debate is over and it’s time to get on with the action.

The harsh, tragic reality is that attempts to mitigate climate change through a globally cooperative effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have fallen somewhere between inadequate and total failure. That’s not to say they should be abandoned. Indeed, those efforts need to be intensified in what is fast becoming a last-ditch effort to ward off the most calamitous climatic changes.

But, increasingly, governments and the governed are going to face the kind of natural disaster unfolding along the Ottawa and other rivers in central Canada, where thousands of families have been forced from their homes and are anxious to return.

And therein lies an example of the kind of public policy conundrum that is no longer abstract. Should people return to homes located within the vast areas of three provinces shown to be flood prone this spring? Should they even be permitted to do so?

Those are difficult questions so don’t expect the answers here, but they are precisely the sort of questions that policy-makers in governments at all levels are facing and, it seems, are likely to face with increasing regularity.

From all available evidence, the costs of adapting to climate change will be astronomical. The $100-million-plus being spent by federal and provincial governments to shore up dikes around the Bay of Fundy is a tiny drop in a very large bucket.

Last year in Canada, severe weather resulted in almost $2 billion in insurance claims — the fourth highest on record — and it’s estimated that for every dollar in insurance paid for weather-related damages, three dollars more were required from public coffers.

Governments face the immense task of hardening the public infrastructure described as “vulnerable” on the Nova Scotia government website. That includes stuff like raising roads above expected flood levels, moving sewage treatment facilities to higher ground and fortifying existing essential structures against storms heretofore unexperienced.

With that kind of pressure to look after the “big picture” it’s hard to image that governments will have much, if anything left over to help out individuals or families who’ve lost their homes in a flood or other natural disaster.

A reader from the Amherst Shore area along the Northumberland Strait sent word this week that coastal erosion in the area has become alarming. She’s lived there for decades, but it’s just been in recent years that the steep bank down to the strait has taken long, menacing strides ever nearer her home.

She wonders what the government might have by way of assistance, or advice, for her and others who find themselves in this precarious state.

What indeed?

Journalist and writer Jim Vibert has worked as a communications adviser to five Nova Scotia governments.


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