Governments, industry must get ready for reality of climate change, forum hears

VANCOUVER – Extreme weather events such as the flooding in Calgary and Toronto nearly kept the federal government from meeting its budget targets last year, says an insurance industry official.

Barbara Turley-McIntyre of the Co-operators insurance agency told delegates at a forum on livable cities in Vancouver that the Alberta flood alone cost the Canadian economy $4.8 billion in economic losses.

The clean-up bill came to $1.9 billion — the single most costly disaster in Canadian history — and 90 per cent of it was on the federal tab because Canadians cannot buy flood insurance.

“Those are huge numbers,” Turley-McIntyre said in an interview. “There must be a way that we can come up with adaptation plans that lower those numbers in the future, being proactive rather than reactive.”

The floods and extreme winter storms in Atlantic Canada last year are a wake-up call that Canadians are vulnerable to the effects of global climate change, she said, citing a report earlier this week by a UN scientific panel.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the effects of global warming are already noticeable and could spiral out of control without action.

In Canada, Turley-McIntyre said the insurance industry is mobilizing, pressing for a flood insurance scheme for homeowners and action to make communities more resilient to the extreme weather disasters that are becoming commonplace.

“The events related to climate change are not coming to an end,” Turley-McIntyre said, citing the UN report. “I can’t give you hard numbers but I can say look at the trajectory that we’ve been on and assume that it’s going to continue.”

A roundtable is planned this summer with various industries and all levels of government. Improvements in infrastructure are a priority, she said.

“It’s not just about the insurance industry. Every business really has a stake in this, whether it’s the banking, whether it’s developers, whether it’s NGOs, whether it’s communities — there’s no one sector that owns the responsibility for either the issue or for the solution,” she said.

Ewa Jackson, acting director of ICLEI Canada, a group of local governments working on sustainability issues and an organizer of the Livable Cities Forum in Vancouver, said the UN report found that global climate change is not hypothetical.

The effects are already widespread and communities must “get ready for the new normal.”

Yet of 450 Canadian cities asked, only 25 had climate adaptation plans in place, said Stephen Huddart, president of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, a private group that supports a more innovative and sustainable society.

Ian Bruce, science and policy manager at the David Suzuki Foundation, said cities are leading the way in Canada on preparing for and trying to address the root causes of climate change.

“People are losing their homes. The costs are in the billions of dollars. It certainly highlights the importance of taking action,” he said.

“Our future isn’t up to chance. The severity of the impacts of climate change that we will face in future will depend on the choices we make today.”