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We’re way past the point of preventing climate change, it’s time to adapt

Researchers and funders are increasingly focusing on how to prepare for a changed – and changing – climate.
OCT 30 2019

We’re way past the point of preventing climate change, it’s time to adapt

Researchers and funders are increasingly focusing on how to prepare for a changed – and changing – climate.


In climate change research, adaptation used to be a dirty word. Twenty years ago, when the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative (PARC) was formed at the University of Regina, environmental research groups refused the centre’s research funds, recounts David Sauchyn, senior research scientist at PARC. “At the time, people argued we can still prevent climate change and everyone who advocates adaptation is giving up,” he says. In his 1992 book on climate change, former U.S. vice-president Al Gore described as “laziness” the idea that we should adapt our infrastructure, crops, forests and more to a warming planet.

Today, it’s clear to most climate scientists that it’s too late to prevent climate change. Our planet has already warmed by 1°C above pre-industrial levels, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and we’re starting to see the catastrophic effects. Mitigation efforts – including a swift shift toward renewable energy – are vital to prevent runaway climate change, with the IPCC warning that warming above 1.5°C will lead to widespread devastation many times worse than what we’re seeing today.

But now, alongside efforts to reduce carbon emissions, adaptation is widely seen as fundamental. This year, the World Bank for the first time funded adaptation on an equal footing with prevention efforts. Here in Canada, government and business leaders are turning to universities to tell them what they should do to prepare. Research on how we should adapt to a changed, and changing, climate is exploding.

This funding has meant new research centres, national collaborations and new programs across the country. Case in point: the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation was launched in late 2015, thanks to a $4.25-million grant from Intact Financial Corporation, the largest provider of property and casualty insurance in Canada. And, this past summer, the federal and Prince Edward Island governments announced plans for an $18.5-million Canadian Centre for Climate Change and Adaptation, which will be affiliated with the University of Prince Edward Island. Students currently enrolled in a new bachelor of science program in applied climate change and adaptation will make use of the new facility, located in St. Peter’s Bay near wetlands, coastal habitats and forests.

“PEI is like a living laboratory. We’re essentially a sandbar, so we’re particularly vulnerable to coastal erosion,” says Adam Fenech, director of the UPEI Climate Lab and an associate professor of environmental studies.

Other long-time adaptation researchers are ramping up projects, too, thanks to new funding opportunities such as the five-year, $18-million Natural Resources Canada fund launched in 2017, entitled Building Regional Adaptation Capacity and Expertise. As Dr. Sauchyn puts it, “adaptation has entered the mainstream.”

A regional focus

A big part of adaptation research is figuring out what climate change will look like in the community or region in question. For example, while flooding is the most significant risk for many Canadian cities, drought is the biggest hazard for the Prairies. Researchers can crunch the numbers even further, modelling, for example, just how much rainfall Toronto can expect, or what level of winds bridge builders in Fredericton should prepare for.

“The basic variables are temperature and precipitation, but there is maximum temperature, minimum temperature, total precipitation, intensity of precipitation, the timing of precipitation,” explains Dr. Sauchyn. “So we have to sit down with the client, maybe that’s a Crown corporation, and ask, ‘where are you sensitive, which one of these variables affects what you do, and at what time of year, and at what scale? Are you a farmer who needs to put in a crop next year or are you designing a dam that’s not going to be used for decades?’”

At PARC, Dr. Sauchyn says the bulk of the team’s research is driven by asks from municipalities, public utilities and companies. Last year, for example, an oil and gas company called because it was worried about the possibility of dangerously low water levels in the North Saskatchewan River, since the company relies on the river’s water to produce oil. “They wanted to know the probability that in the future they would have to seek new sources of water or cease operations for several months [each year],” says Dr. Sauchyn.

By going small-scale, adaptation research reveals that even in one region, the impacts of climate change and the need for adaptation will vary widely. Research by Dr. Fenech and his colleagues found that, on average, PEI lost about a foot to the sea each year from 1968 to 2010. But the type of sand, nature of the currents and other factors can radically change things – some areas of the coast have eroded by 15 feet in a single year.

To visualize the changing coastline, Dr. Fenech’s team created a multi-award-winning tool called CoastaL Impacts Visualization Environment (CLIVE), where participants can choose the best- and worst-case scenarios and watch the water engulf fields and multi-story buildings, decade by decade. Dr. Fenech says he sometimes encounters people waiting outside his office to use the tool. Islanders want the information when making decisions about how to parcel out land to children, or where to build.

“It’s very effective at raising people’s awareness. I’ve had people crying when I’ve shown them water swamping their new piece of land,” says Dr. Fenech.

Aside from encouraging people to build further inland, Dr. Fenech’s team is looking into other solutions, like breakwater structures that slow down erosion. Other researchers are looking at tree planting and other “green infrastructure” to absorb the water’s impact. Meanwhile, drones are increasingly being used by adaptation researchers to snap photos of the coastlines, fields and forests around the province. Another drone application for researchers is monitoring energy efficiency – the drones have thermal-sensing technology to pinpoint which buildings and homes are leaking the most heat in the winter and could benefit from better insulation.

At U of Waterloo’s Intact Centre, one of its biggest efforts is the home flood protection program. The program offers free online educational materials, including a Home Flood Protection Check-Up, that allows residents to answer a series of simple yes or no questions and receive a customized report about how to reduce the risk of flooding in their homes. “Opportunities to reduce flood risk often include simple, low-cost measures like installing plastic covers over window wells, cleaning out eaves troughs and extending downspouts away from the house,” says Blair Feltmate, a professor in the school of environment, enterprise and development at U of Waterloo and head of the Intact Centre.

The guidelines are backed by flood-protection best practices and real-world observations, says Dr. Feltmate. “We have field tested the assessments in hundreds of homes and carefully documented feedback from participants. One of the most important things that we learned is that people can put a wide variety of flood protection measures in place, for example installing a sump pump or installing a backwater valve, but unless these features are maintained on a regular basis they can’t be relied upon to reduce the risk of flooding. Seasonal maintenance is key.”

As well, to support broader uptake of home flood protection across the country, the centre has partnered with Seneca College in Toronto and Fleming College in Peterborough, Ontario, to offer the Home Flood Risk Assessment Training Program. This 14-week online program trains industry professionals, such as home inspectors, to provide home flood assessments to residents across Canada.

A selection of photos from U.K.-based photographer Gideon Mendel’s project Drowning World.

Douglas Pratt
South Carolina, U.S., September 2018

João Pereira de Araújo
Rio Branco, Brazil, March 2015

Severine Leboeuf
Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, France, February 2018

Terrence Mckeen with his mother, Gloria
Florida, U.S., September 2017

Kingsley Isiakpere and Edna Silas
Bayelsa State, Nigeria, November 2012

Venusha Luxumy Vinitha
Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, France, February 2018

Francisca Chagas dos Santos
Rio Branco, Brazil, March 2015

Vilian Sousa da Silva
Rio Branco, Brazil, March 2015

Risk assessment

Adaptation scientists are advising the federal government, too. In July, the Council of Canadian Academies released a report, Canada’s Top Climate Change Risks, commissioned by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, that highlights adaptation actions that could have the biggest impact, and pitfalls to avoid.

“Adaptation is a costly exercise and it’s crucial that we act strategically,” says Deborah Harford, executive director of ACT (Adaptation to Climate Change Team) at Simon Fraser University and one of seven experts who contributed to the report. “Other countries, such as the U.K. and Japan, recognize this urgency and have completed significant risk assessments that are helping them to prioritize their efforts. The CCA report is a high-level entry into such an exercise.”

The CCA panel didn’t provide a regionally based risk assessment, but instead highlighted 12 areas of risk where the federal government should focus national-level adaptation efforts, including infrastructure, coastal and northern communities, human health, ecosystems and fisheries. The CCA report also acknowledges the need to combine adaptation and mitigation efforts to achieve “low-carbon resilience.”

After all, says Ms. Harford, adaptation efforts can be emissions-intensive (think of expanding water pipes and concretizing the coastline) or they can be low-carbon, even carbon capturing, in the case of green infrastructure approaches such as wetland restoration or planting managed forests with tree species that both capture carbon and survive better in warmer, drier summers. “It’s crucial that we begin to embrace more complex, integrated thinking on climate action if we are to achieve the biggest bang for our buck in both the short and long term,” she says.

In addition, over the next three years, a coalition of experts will be training municipal staff who are filling new adaptation- and mitigation-focused positions at 68 municipalities across the country, thanks to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities with funding from the federal government. ACT is an advisor to this new community of practice, which is being led by the B.C. Community Energy Association. This work is increasingly urgent, because both streams of climate action are fast becoming the standard for local governments, says Ms. Harford. For instance, the federal government now requires climate resilience and carbon emissions to be considered in most infrastructure funding applications.

University-based institutes such as ACT can also help facilitate cross-municipality conversations. “We are beginning to understand the importance of economies of scale, such as regional collaborative planning in which multiple municipalities pool their efforts,” says Ms. Harford.

Conducting widespread adaptation-focused research doesn’t mean, however, that the results of this research are actually being implemented on the ground, warns Louise Comeau, director of the Environment and Sustainable Development Research Centre at the University of New Brunswick. “Research is not action,” she says. “I think 50 municipalities have adaptation plans now in New Brunswick. I think zero have been implemented.” She says she was disappointed, for example, to see that after last year’s devastating floods in her province, many homeowners rebuilt in the same location, in the same way, “and the government let them do that.”

Dr. Comeau is currently overseeing surveys to find out what engineers, forestry managers and local communities know about the projected impacts of climate change, as well as possible adaptation solutions. The survey results will be used to inform future training.

Dr. Comeau worries that most government and industry leaders want the kinds of adaptation solutions that essentially allow for the status quo – a few dykes here, a bioswale there, for example. Her voice speeds up as she talks about what’s actually needed: “Transportation needs to be fully electrified. We need clean, renewable sources of electricity and more distributed energy so that we are safer when extreme events do occur. We need changes to road standards and engineering standards of every kind. … We need to look at the reliance we have on imported foods versus local foods. We need to ensure that low-income and vulnerable people are protected from extreme events.”

Ms. Harford at SFU agrees that the low-hanging-fruit solutions to climate-change adaptation aren’t in themselves going to save the planet. For instance, painting roads and rooftops with light-coloured, non-reflective paint could cut heat in cities, she says, but “in the grand scheme of things, achieving low-carbon resilience is going to require multiple levels of government, numerous stakeholders and strategic systemic thinking around transformative approaches.”

Right now, “we have ‘siloization,’” Ms. Harford continues, with researchers often focusing on one climate change issue and one impact, such as the effect of wildfires on water quality, for example. However, since wildfires also greatly worsen air quality, impact human health, exacerbate social inequities, devastate the lumber industry and more, the real economic and social costs of wildfires won’t be understood unless researchers zoom out and make linkages.

“Adaptation needs to be looked at in a way that is not putting a Band-Aid on flooding, a Band-Aid on wildfires, a Band-Aid on forestry, but as a holistic approach that understands the cascading interdependent impacts of all aspects of society,” she says. “Real adaptation that contributes to sustainable outcomes is going to require interdisciplinary collaboration and ongoing development of resources and tools to support this.”

Finally, there’s the question of who benefits the most from adaptation. Will corporations find alternative water sources while residential communities suffer? Will it be largely educated and high-earning people that spend money to protect their homes from flood? As Ms. Harford puts it, “We treated adaptation as physical engineering for some time, and what was missing in this approach is consideration of social justice, equity and health issues.” The good news is that these issues are increasingly part of the adaptation approach, she says.

The other good news is that this research is having real-world impacts. In 2006, when the province of Alberta decided to close the Bow, Oldman and South Saskatchewan rivers to new licenses for water use or diversion, the government cited a PARC study as key to its decision. In Ontario, the provincial government cited a number of the Intact Centre’s recommendations for making homes and communities less vulnerable to flooding in its environment plan.

We’re going in the right direction on adaptation, says Dr. Feltmate, but not at the right speed. “If you’re in a little car heading down the highway, and then you look in your rear-view mirror and you see a giant transport truck coming behind you at twice your speed, you better speed up.”

Wendy Glauser
Wendy Glauser is an award-winning writer and editor who lives in Toronto and writes about health and science.
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  1. Lorne Carmichael / October 30, 2019 at 15:44

    It’s about time. I’ve been telling my first year econ students this for years.

    No species on our planet has solved a common property resource problem absent coercive central regulation or a simple and cheap technological fix. We didn’t have either for the North Atlantic fishery, and we don’t have either for the atmosphere.

    We need to stop seeing climate change as a moral issue. It’s about incentives.

    Most important, money spent by Canadians on adaptation will benefit Canadians. Money spent by Canadians to prevent climate change will have such a small effect worldwide that we might as well say it benefits no-one.

  2. Jim Kells / October 31, 2019 at 12:07

    Excellent article, which makes very good points about the need for a strong focus on adaptation to a changing climate. And in his comment on the article, Mr. Carmichael makes an excellent point with respect to the economics associated with adaptation. That said, I don’t see adaptation and mitigation as an either/or issue, bur rather as a two-pronged one. Surely, in spite of the causes of climate variability and change, we have had to consider a range of solutions to our problems involving a dynamic climate. We have had to adapt. This is not new. What is new is the apparent acceleration of the changes, which have largely been attributed to human-induced impacts. As such, while adapting to a variable and changing climate will continue, as they should, and perhaps even be bolstered as necessary (and that seems to be the case), there is a moral imperative to also work on mitigation for the longer term. Yes, Canada’s evident contribution to the human-induced impacts may be small, but leadership sometimes involves stepping forward on principle, in part with a hoped-for outcome of eventually influencing others accordingly.

  3. D. Li / November 11, 2019 at 23:54

    Good points Lorne, but unfortunately if Canada became a net zero carbon emitter overnight the problem would still exist relatively unchanged. This of course isn’t to say that we shouldn’t improve our economy and environment, but to think that this will impact global carbon levels in a meaningful way is misleading.

    If we REALLY wanted to get serious about global carbon levels and treat it as the existential problem it really is, we would have to implement strict totalitarian measures globally. This includes population control measures and consumption restrictions.

    It isn’t politically correct, but if we want to face the problem we need to coerce the big polluters, including developing countries, to mitigate their emissions. Unfortunately, people want to focus on feel-good things such as disposable straws and coffee cups. 

  4. Maddy / December 6, 2021 at 23:44

    Decent article, but the climate doom-ism in your title isn’t appropriate, and I would argue is actually harmful. As climate scientists, we need to inspire hope, not anxiety and depression.