As extreme weather events intensify in both frequency and severity, so do their associated risks. We’ve all seen the headlines as floods, fires and freezing temperatures wreak havoc on our communities, leaving devastation in their wake. How can we design communities that are more resilient to climate risks?
Sitting in your living room, watching beautiful houses burn and entire cities sink underwater might be an adrenaline-pumping scene in an apocalyptic action movie. But these days, it’s increasingly likely to be a news report — no special effects necessary.
We’ve all followed the headlines as extreme weather events like fires, floods and freezing have paralyzed communities from coast to coast. At the beginning of 2019, the World Meteorological Organization reported that the years 2015-2018 were the four warmest years on record, and damage from severe weather across Canada in 2018 cost $1.9 billion.
Yet statistics and insurance claims can’t account for the full human cost of these events: the stress of living in a crowded relief shelter, the controlled panic of city-wide evacuations, the irreplaceable lost photo albums and family heirlooms. The numbers and news stories are only part of the picture.
Through WSP’s Future Ready program, we have studied climate change trends to better understand their increased variability. We know to expect warmer land surface temperatures, and warmer oceans as well. This means an increase in water vapour in the atmosphere, and a decline in Arctic ice during the summer months. All of this alters the water cycle, causing more variability in precipitation. We can expect winters will become wetter, with more rain rather than snow, and extreme rainfall events will be twice as common by 2050.
In fact, Canada may face an even more costly challenge than other nations.
A 2019 report from Environment and Climate Change Canada concluded that Canada is warming at twice the average global rate, and the Canadian Arctic is warming at three times the global rate. We have big changes coming, and with a vast diversity of landscapes comes a broad range of climate-related hazards: sea level rise and associated coastal impacts, fluvial flooding, landslides, ice storms, tornadoes, forest fires and permafrost degradation, among others.
The best cure
There are certainly many remedial measures once an extreme weather event is over, but relying exclusively on a reactive response is a high-risk strategy. As our understanding of climate threats grows, we can create defensive measures to prevent a great deal of damage before these climate events occur.
Perhaps the best starting point is to examine expert projections on climate patterns and parameters, and to utilize tools like an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and a Climate Lens assessment.
Tools like the Climate Lens can also assess the effectiveness of existing control measures, which can help cities understand how climate and weather-related risks may be reduced through no or minimal additional cost.
The Climate Lens is a guidance document developed by Infrastructure Canada in June 2018 that helps decision-makers understand the climate change risks associated with the funding, design, construction and operation of large infrastructure projects in Canada. It involves two different component assessments: one on greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation, and one on climate change resilience. The results guide large infrastructure projects towards designs that minimize GHG emissions and are resilient to climate change. The Climate Lens is now a mandatory requirement for projects associated with several of Infrastructure Canada’s programs, including the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP), the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund (DMAF) and the Smart Cities Challenge.
Tools like the Climate Lens can also assess the effectiveness of existing control measures, which can help cities understand how climate and weather-related risks may be reduced through no or minimal additional cost. This can help decision-makers evaluate which infrastructure may need to be replaced or redesigned (sometimes involving high costs), and which existing infrastructure requires less intensive intervention — maybe it’s only a matter of maintenance or small adjustments.
When assessing a specific area, such as municipal water systems in flooding events or buildings facing increased snow load, it’s important to focus the analysis on specific climate parameters with the most direct, predictable impact. This may lead to preventative measures like:
Designing SMART systems to redirect flooding overflow away from critical infrastructure
Using building materials that can absorb massive amounts of carbon capture, withstand earthquakes with less stress on the building foundations
Incorporating defensible space and prescribed burns around municipal areas and infrastructure to shield against forest fires
These are just a few of countless examples that experts may suggest to prevent, or at least mitigate, the impacts of extreme weather events — and new ideas are continually tested.
With an arsenal of defensive measures and mitigation strategies, we should be well-prepared against climate threats — at least in theory. In reality, there are practical costs to implementing these solutions, and most municipalities are working with limited resources.
Almost 60 per cent of Canada’s core public infrastructure is owned and maintained by municipal governments. In total, $141 billion (12 per cent) out of $1.1 trillion of municipal infrastructure is in poor and very poor condition. Given that infrastructure in worse condition is more likely to fail due to extreme weather events, it is reasonable to estimate that over 12 per cent of Canada’s infrastructure is currently vulnerable to climate change impacts.
This makes it mission-critical to assess the biggest risks and most vulnerable points to prioritize which areas are in most need of investment. Most of these vulnerabilities will be highly individual to the municipality itself, requiring strong asset management and assessment of any aging infrastructure and its interaction with regional climate risks and parameters. But there are some vulnerabilities that are almost universal — the human factors.
Given that infrastructure in worse condition is more likely to fail due to extreme weather events, it is reasonable to estimate that over 12 per cent of Canada’s infrastructure is currently vulnerable to climate change impacts.
In addition to safeguarding the power lines and drainage pipes that are the unglamorous building blocks of our comfortable, urban lives, we also need to assess and protect risks to people, our most valuable resources.
We can take relatively easy steps, like protecting our workforces from climate risks. For instance, outdoor workers exposed to increased heat waves can have shifted working hours and ongoing education and training about health risks and mitigation strategies. But there are more complex and challenging steps as well, that are equally imperative.
One of these is taking a close, uncomfortable look at social determinants of climate risk vulnerability. These risks are almost never distributed equally across a population — they tend to be dramatically impacted by social factors, like income and social status, social support networks, education and literacy, gender and culture.
With these factors at play, it no longer suits for the corporate world to leave climate change mitigation costs exclusively to governments or NGOs. As a result, companies are scaling up their engagement on climate change and its effects on their business. This is where engineers, modelers, scientists, and technical experts come into the picture — lenders and companies need people who understand the technical challenges and opportunities of climate change as trusted partners in delivering their often-complex projects. Integrating a climate change informed perspective into advisory capacities, feasibility assessments and due diligence services positions these technical experts as first movers in their own right.
“Advancing resilience requires supporting our most vulnerable people that are often excluded from decision-making. Building community and social cohesion are critical factors with invaluable benefits for cities as they prepare for the challenges that climate change will bring. Social cohesion and connection to culture are key indicators of disaster resilience readiness, and help ensure people bounce back (or forward) from crises.”
Ewa Jackson, Megan Meaney and Christina Schwantes, Local Governments for Sustainability
Municipalities can support opportunities to build this social resilience by creating public spaces, policies and programs that cross socially-enforced divides such as gender, class, and ethnicity.
The infrastructure we are designing and constructing today will be still in service over 100 years from now, and we are obligated to weigh the effects of climate change in our designs. However, designing and constructing infrastructure to address climate change impacts is not simple — it requires decision-making amid intense uncertainty. To address the increased risk and uncertainty that arrives alongside climate change, our designs, organizations and processes need to be agile and adaptive.
When it comes to climate resilience, our approach should be tailored to the situations at hand. Sometimes we will have to engineer larger and stronger infrastructure — but sometimes larger and stronger infrastructure is over-engineered and not financially viable or advisable. For many municipalities with already-stretched budgets, constructing assets to withstand major weather events can be financially unfeasible and unsustainable. Alternatively, adaptive design options, strategically selected using a risk-cost assessment approach, can be used.
Adaptive design strategies may include:
- Infrastructure that can be adapted to accommodate climate change. For example, bridges that can be raised and buildings that can be easily modified.
- Infrastructure with shorter lifespans when there is a high level of uncertainty surrounding major threats. For example, buildings that may be strategically decommissioned as sea levels rise.
- Design approaches that design known weak points to fail during an adverse event, and that can be easily fixed post-event.
- Using existing or new non-engineered solutions to provide protection. For example, marshes instead of berms for coastal protection.
At times, these mounting climate threats may seem daunting — but it’s helpful to consider them through the lens of opportunity. Designing creative, adaptable cities may stretch our habits, conventions and abilities, but the process creates myriad chances for us to become more innovative, future ready and socially supportive and cohesive.