Coquihalla Highway washed away in three spots after a one-day atmospheric river rainfall event. (Facebook)

Opinion: Governments need to adjust to ongoing extreme climate change weather events

Canadian $5 billion yearly investment needed to deal with heat, drought, floods and fire

Last week, in a single one-day rain event, lives were lost, homes destroyed, and livelihoods ruined in several areas of southwestern British Columbia. Critical highways and rail lines were badly damaged, disrupting almost all supply chains between the Pacific coast and the rest of the country. Through it all there have been inspiring stories of people who have gone above and beyond to help those affected, providing food, shelter and comfort. First responders and the air force carried out daring rescues.

But this event was yet another example of how we are living through catastrophic climate change. And the destructive weather patterns we are witnessing will not decrease as we necessarily cut our greenhouse gas emissions. They will continue for decades until atmospheric carbon dioxide levels gradually go down. So, we are in for more frequent heat domes, atmospheric rivers, and wildfires. And while it is critically important that we reduce emissions to keep those impacts to a minimum, we also need to take serious steps to adapt to the changes that are locked in.

What could those steps involve? Well, first, we could implement an early warning system for some of these extreme weather events. We’ve had several atmospheric river events this fall in BC, but forecasts of heavy rain on the coast and heavy snow on the mountain passes often don’t keep motorists off the highways or get residents moving to higher ground.

Canadian scientists have been developing a system similar to that used for hurricanes—classifying atmospheric rivers as they approach so that officials can take appropriate steps to close highways, put out evacuation alerts and other measures ahead of the storm’s arrival. This early warning system could save lives, eliminate the need for risky rescues and allow farmers the time needed to move livestock.

In the longer term, we have to rebuild our infrastructure so that it is resilient to the weather of tomorrow, with stronger bridges, bigger culverts, higher dykes. We must fire-smart our communities by thinning forests in interface areas to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic fires. We must equip low-income housing with heat pump technology so that there are no needless deaths in the next heat dome.

As much as possible we should let nature help us in averting future disasters, with healthy forests above our communities and highways to intercept and hold heavy rainfall events. Large areas of our mountains have been impacted by recent fires and logging activity, temporarily taking away their ability to provide this critical service.

All these actions will cost money—lots of it—but it will be a sound investment. Right now, the federal government funds disaster relief through the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund. This fund is chronically oversubscribed and is only funded to the tune of a few hundred million dollars per year. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Insurance Bureau of Canada recently estimated that it will cost over $5 billion every year to make meaningful and necessary fixes to our infrastructure to face the new climate.

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Local governments generally know where these changes need to be made, where the risks are and what needs to be done. But they need a federal government that is willing to partner with them with the necessary funding to invest in future infrastructure. And that funding should go to projects that anticipate the future as well as projects that are making the necessary repairs from past disasters.

We have learned valuable lessons at great cost with this latest catastrophic weather event. Let’s make sure we act on those lessons. The way ahead will mean making difficult choices and investing up front to ensure a safe future for all Canadians.

If you would like to get in touch with me, please email Richard.cannings@parl.gc.ca. or call 250-770-4480 (Penticton) or 250-365-2792 (Castlegar).

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