Preparing for climate change, part one: resilient communities

Published Tuesday, October 28, 2014 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Just about everything written about adapting to climate change includes one critical word: resilience, the ability to withstand challenge and recover from adversity.  In the future, New Brunswick can expect more extreme weather events, which in turn will test us as individuals and communities.  Here’s a hint of what’s coming, and how we can prepare.

Impacts for New Brunswick

If climate change were only about a few degrees of added warmth, it would be easy to shrug off.  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  Climate change will also bring:

  • More extreme rainfall events.  (The short science on this is that water evaporates more readily from warmer oceans, and warmer air can hold – and then release – a much larger load of moisture.) 
  • Greater risk of flooding.  In March 2012, the upper St. John River basin experienced five consecutive days of record-shattering temperatures – and Perth Andover experienced a record-shattering flood.   
  • Higher sea levels, leading to more coastal erosion and larger storm surges.  That’s of particular concern for us since most of our largest municipalities are vulnerable.
  • Greater risk of forest fires during hot, dry spells.
  • More freeze-thaw cycles (think ice storms and burst pipes).

Unfortunately, these consequences come with huge repair bills.  According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, catastrophic losses in Canada have more than doubled in the past five years.  Thanks to floods in Toronto and Calgary, 2013 was by far the most expensive year ever.

Resilient communities

For the people who lead and manage our communities, preparing for climate change is an enormous challenge.  Most municipalities are already struggling to balance budgets, and much of our present infrastructure – sewer systems, culverts, bridges and more – is aging and/or was built to an outdated standard that is no longer adequate.  

Worse, it seems we haven’t been investing enough in maintenance and upgrades; according to the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, Canada has a $55 billion sewer and stormwater infrastructure deficit.  Worse again, a national survey suggests that most municipal governments in Canada have not yet started planning for climate change resilience, much less acting.  

So where’s a busy municipal leader to begin?  Here’s a straightforward five step process. 

  1. Assemble the team: get key stakeholders in your community, both organizations and individuals, involved from the start.  Identify champions willing to help lead the process.  Get official support from Council.
  2. Research how climate change is impacting your community right now.  Have there been more floods, washouts or burst pipes?  Then identify your greatest vulnerabilities and risks going forward.  Are storm sewers undersized?  Are homes still being built in flood prone or low-lying areas?  Are you able to communicate with citizens during a disaster?  
  3. Determine what needs to be done and how much it will cost.  Do building codes and standards need to be upgraded?  Does the municipal water system require backup power?  How can existing resources – for example fire departments, the Red Cross and Neighbourhood Watch – be best used during a disaster?  What measures are needed to ensure seniors and others with special needs are looked after?  Then prioritize, set timelines and develop a plan.  Seek out funding sources, anticipate potential roadblocks and plan workarounds.
  4. Implement your plan and communicate updates.
  5. Monitor and review progress.  Don’t forget to brag a bit about what you’ve accomplished, and charge on!

The above five steps are drawn from Changing Climate, Changing Communities: A Guide and Workbook for Municipal Climate Adaptation, downloadable at http://tinyurl.com/resilienceworkbook.  Another excellent resource is Local Government, Sustainability and Climate Change: A Resource for Elected Municipal Officials in New Brunswick, downloadable at http://tinyurl.com/resilienceworkbookNB.  NB’s Climate Change Secretariat can offer support and guidance.

So much for resilient communities - but how can individuals be better prepared and more resilient?  That’s coming next.