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Climate change is damaging Canada faster than it can adapt, warn UN scientists

Canada, like most jurisdictions around the world, is not adapting fast enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in its latest report Monday.
Sandbagging
Volunteers stack sandbags after historic floods overwhelmed dikes in the Sumas Prarie region of Abbotsford, B.C., Nov. 16, 2021. A new U.N. study says humanity is not working fast enough to adapt to fallout from climate change.

Fallout from climate change is escalating at such a rapid pace the world now faces a “narrowing window” to adapt to a warming planet if it does not reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, a United Nations report warns. 

Released Monday, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report brought together 270 scientists from 67 countries to assess the impacts climate change is having on humans and the ecosystems they rely on. 

“Today's IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. 

“Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone — now. Many ecosystems are at the point of no return — now.” 

Signed by 195 countries, the nearly 3,700-word collection of research is considered the gold standard of climate science. It found intensifying heat waves, droughts and floods are already causing widespread suffering, with a lack of food and water hitting millions of people — from the Arctic and the small islands of the Pacific to the Americas. 

In assessing humanity’s vulnerabilities to climate change, the report also focused on ways humans have been and can adapt in a shifting world.  

The scientific body concluded there are already big gaps in what human populations need to do to survive planetary warming — and that trend, it warned, is growing.

To keep up with current rates of warming, jurisdictions around the world need to roll out more ambitious and accelerated action to adapt to rising seas, a “global wildfire crisis” and growing food and water shortages. 

WILDFIRE A BIG CONCERN FOR CANADA

In B.C., the area burned by wildfire was found to be 11 times higher in 2017 because of human-released greenhouse gas emissions since the 19th Century. Some places that get burned every 400 years will see fires return every 50 years on average, according to research cited in the IPCC report. 

Annual wildfire suppression regularly climbs over $1 billion per year in Canada, half of which is often spent in British Columbia. Fire and pests (such as the mountain pine beetle, which at one point flipped B.C. boreal forests from a net carbon sink to a net carbon source) is expected to lead to a combined $459 billion in losses by 2080, according to one Natural Resources Canada report cited by the group of scientists. 

But spending a majority of public resources on wildfire suppression is a strategy that will get overwhelmed if more preventative action isn’t taken to slow mega-fires in the first place, wrote over 60 climate and fire scientists in a special supplementary report looking at wildfire. 

One solution, suggest the authors, is to scale up Indigenous “cool burning” to thin out nearly 150 years of accumulated wood fuel in B.C.’s forests.

"Fire is something that's needed by our forests in Canada, but fire in a good way. Not these scary fires that we're seeing all summer," Amy Cardinal Christianson, a research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service and one of three Canadian authors, told Glacier Media in the lead up to the IPCC report.

How far cities across North America have to go to adapt to encroaching wildfires is not yet clear and still needs to be assessed, said the report. 

PLANS TO ADAPT TO FLOODING, SEA LEVEL RISE NOT ENOUGH

Sea level rise is expected to impact more than 6.5 million people living along Canadian coastlines. But the effects won’t be felt evenly. In North America, Atlantic Canada, the northern Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast of Mexico are expected to face the greatest increases. 

The UN report analyzed sea level rise adaptation plans at five Canadian population centres: Surrey, B.C, Tuktoyuktuk, N.W.T, Prince Edward and Lennox islands, Halifax, N.S., and Truro, a community at the head of Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy, which sees some of the biggest tidal swings on the planet. 

In the 900-person community of Tuktoyuktuk, planning has looked at how the coastline is eroding into the sea, but limited funding has stretched the town’s ability to physically adapt. The Lennox Islands First Nation, meanwhile, has explored options for relocating its community but the report noted there was no evidence of action being taken.

Where slightly larger communities like Truro have pushed forward a voluntary retreat from the sea to realign dike infrastructure and restore a salt water marsh, in bigger cities like Halifax and Surrey, municipalities were found to have made specific plans with no evidence they had taken significant action.

Sea level rise threatens to disrupt commerce out of the Port of Vancouver. But also the Metro Vancouver region’s communication facilities, businesses, agriculture, homes, as well as roads, rail and air transportation, notes the report. 

In Surrey, which experts say has one of the region’s more comprehensive sea level adaptation strategies, the municipal plan has led to little action beyond “some local area infrastructure improvements,” according to the report.

RETURNING EXTREME HEAT

A rise in more frequent and intense heat waves, and prolonged seasonal drought threaten to set the stage for devastating wildfire seasons. But they also pose more direct risks.

The latest IPCC report examined peer-reviewed evidence up to 2019, so it did not include implications from the 2021 B.C. heat wave, the deadliest weather event in Canadian history, or November floods, likely the country’s most expensive climate disaster.

Still, it notes planning for heat waves and flooding will require placing more “economic value to cooling from urban forests or stormwater retention by urban wetlands.” Finding ways to meet increased demand to cool indoor spaces will be vital, but also needs to be equitable.

The report warns cities like Vancouver or Victoria, B.C., which rely on reservoirs fed by rain or melting snow, could face increasing water shortages during the hottest months of the year. It highlights moves in the United States to ramp up programs in tiered water pricing, incentives to buy water-efficient appliances and fixtures, and replacing “water-guzzling lawns with water thrifty vegetation.”

Despite the summertime shortages in precipitation, rainfall is expected to increase up to 20 per cent across much of Canada over the course of a year.

In the country’s north, where temperatures are rising three times the global average, areas once covered in ice will open up, inevitably making northern ports more important to the country’s economy. 

But climate change has shown that getting to those ports will be a growing challenge. In Churchill, Man., home to Canada’s main Arctic seaport, the rail line leading from Winnipeg faced two years of closures due to thawing permafrost. 

The north also faces a dangerous mix of rain-driven floods in warmer months and melting ice roads in the winter, warns the IPCC.

FOOD PRODUCTION AT RISK

Historic droughts are already showing what a warming climate can do to Canada’s farmers. 

“We can certainly say that the 2021 drought was the most significant in over 50 years,” said Trevor Hadwen, an agro-climate specialist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Long-term, the trend has been building toward more severe droughts and less soil moisture than in previous decades, he added.

That all culminated last year, when wheat production across the Prairie provinces dropped nearly 40 per cent due to drought. Canola, barley peas and lentils all faced similar declines. While last year’s drought has not been tied to climate change, it offers a window into what will almost certainly become more common.

Hadwen says the Prairies saw similar droughts in the early 1960s or the “Dirty Thirties,” when entire communities abandoned farming communities. 

In the short-term, some studies have shown an increase in atmospheric carbon could stimulate crop growth, and some global studies have predicted growing seasons extending closer to the Arctic with every passing year.

But the local picture is more complicated, say experts. Even if warming leads to more land to the north falling into a quality growing season, there are limits on available soil, which can take centuries to develop, according to David Sauchyn, a climate scientist at the University of Regina.

“There’s bush. You got to get rid of the trees before you can farm it and forests soils are always less nutritious than grassland soils. But also, there are people there who don’t farm. You can’t just displace those people,” said Sauchyn, whose research on the future of climate change on the Prairies was cited in the IPCC report. 

Go even further north and you run into the Canadian Shield, a rocky landscape with little soil. 

Today, Sauchyn and Hadwen say a growing number of farmers are working to conserve top soil with sustainable agricultural practices. That means many farmers can handle more drought than they used to.

“There is a limit adaptation,” added Sauchyn. “The worst-case scenario is when a drought doesn’t stop. We can withstand a year of drought. Two years? After that, that's the worst-case scenario, when we get back-to-back-to-back-to-back years of drought,” he said. 

“That hasn’t happened on the Prairies since the 1930s. But I can tell you that it's not uncommon.”

The IPCC cites other researchers looking at the future of food production who projected a decline in maize production and an increase in the intensity of crop pests — such as the striped flea beetle — moving north from the United States. 

By mid-century, parts of every province from B.C. to Ontario, plus Yukon and the Northwest Territories, are expected to face water scarcity during the growing season, according to one Government of Canada study quoted by the IPCC. 

At sea, the report cites research noting aquaculture fish production will drop 66 per cent by mid-century, with shellfish production dropping by more than half in places like B.C. and Quebec.

The IPCC report did not include research that projects a number of threats to B.C.’s wild salmon population as well as studies that forecast shifts in fish migration that could pit fishing nations against one another.

LIFE ON THE MOVE

Across the planet, climate changes are already shifting the range of plant and animal species. 

The IPCC report cites research documenting widespread starvation events in a number of species, including Cassin’s aukelts in British Columbia and grey whales along both coasts of North America. 

Beyond emissions, direct human activity is making things worse in other ways: whale entanglement in fishing gear has been found to have increased 20 fold in recent years along Northern America’s Pacific coast. Meanwhile, a change in ocean temperatures is predicted to drastically alter the feeding habits of species like elephant seals and bluefin tuna. 

All of that is expected to have direct impacts on Indigenous communities who rely on hunting and fishing to eat, and who are already disproportionately affected by climate change. 

“Disasters and extreme events are particularly severe when their impacts are compounded by inadequate infrastructure,” said the IPCC report. “Lack of flood protection infrastructure on Indigenous reserve communities, leads to displacement, loss of homes, and perpetuates disproportionate levels of risk to extreme weather events.” 

As the ranges of large animals and plants shift or gets squeezed, other species — including infectious diseases — will flourish in areas where they were previously never seen. One study cited in the UN report projects B.C.’s climate under a high-emissions scenario would be warm enough to allow for the chikungunya virus to spread. 

A mosquito-borne virus, chikungunya can lead to disabling joint pain for months, but is usually more common in tropical or Mediterranean climates, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control.

The latest report is one of three working groups making up the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report. The first part of the current cycle, released in August 2021, focused on the physical science of climate change. 

The last is expected later this year and will survey solutions for how the world can reduce emissions and enhance greenhouse gas sinks to limit global warming.