Adaptation and innovation required


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Free Press reporter Bartley Kives does Manitobans a service when he reminds us of the extraordinary 2011 flood (Flooding or drought? Probably, April 1).

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/04/2016 (2428 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Free Press reporter Bartley Kives does Manitobans a service when he reminds us of the extraordinary 2011 flood (Flooding or drought? Probably, April 1).

The aftermath of that climate shock lingers. First Nations communities are still displaced, the controversy around how to lower Lake Manitoba water levels persists, and the PST is still a hot-button issue.

Kives rightly points out any future year could be like 2011 — or worse. Climate model projections indicate wetter springs and drier summers for this region, and evidence mounts that the climate is already significantly altered: 2015 blew away previous years as the hottest on record; each of the last six months (to February 2016) reached new highs for global temperatures above normal and some set records for the margin by which they exceeded previous marks.

Given the obvious and growing risk, it’s odd the issue of climate adaptation received little attention at either of the environmental debates during the Manitoba provincial election campaign. On the other hand, perhaps that’s appropriate as climate change adaptation is better dealt with as part of core economic and infrastructure policy rather than being stranded in the larger environment box.

When climate change is discussed, the focus has been mitigation — reducing greenhouse gas emissions through pricing or regulation, or both. Mitigation remains crucial: every province, state, and country must do its part to prevent the global climate from warming beyond an average of 2 C, or preferably 1.5 C, as agreed to at the Paris Climate Conference in December.

Driving an economic commitment to reducing greenhouse gas mitigation is undeniably challenging, although reframing the challenge as an opportunity for clean-technology innovation is an increasingly popular political strategy. Tesla Motors Inc., the world’s fastest-growing automobile company and maker of zero-emissions vehicles, is the poster child for this narrative.

While greenhouse gas mitigation is a societal effort to contribute to a global common good, adaptation is about risk management in our backyard — the actions that are in our immediate interest because they avoid or reduce costs from future climate shocks (such as the ruinous 2011 flood or the drought of the 1930s). The World Economic Forum’s 2016 global risk report, released in advance of its annual gathering of political and economic elites in Davos, Switzerland, lists the crisis of water scarcity (a climate change impact) and the failure of climate change adaptation as the Nos. 1 and 2 global economic risks.

A pro-active climate change adaptation strategy for Manitoba should be reframed as an opportunity for core economic risk management and infrastructure innovation, with two key pillars.

First, all major government expenditures must be scrutinized for climate resiliency. Have the project’s proponents identified key climate risks and potential impacts? Has the change in frequency of those impacts been estimated using the best available climate science? And is the cost-benefit analysis robust within the projected range of key climate impacts? (The investment in regional climate science through the Prairie Climate Centre is a key resource for such an approach.)

Second, the infrastructure agenda must address what climate science is actually telling us about risk and opportunity. Manitoba must prepare for a future where the frequency of wet, flood-prone springs increases as does the frequency of longer, hotter, and drier growing seasons.

Indeed, 2011 was such a year when Manitoba flipped to drought from flood conditions in weeks — a “weather whiplash” effect that left agricultural producers reeling. A longer, hotter growing season does bring opportunities for high-value, heat-loving crops (such as corn and soybean) but such opportunities will only be realized if we manage our water budget, harnessing the spring floods for later use in the summer.

The major infrastructure response to the 2011 flood was to increase the capacity to drain water from Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin. As legitimate as this project may be, it does nothing to reduce flood risk in upstream agricultural watersheds. Nor does it add one iota of drought resiliency or reduce nutrient flows into our lakes. Climate-smart infrastructure, in contrast, is based on the principle that flood water and the nutrients they carry should be captured and reused through networks of retention sites, including wetlands and small dams that create new opportunities for agriculture.

The recent federal budget contains significant provisions for green infrastructure, which could be leveraged through an innovative provincial climate adaptation strategy. What is not in doubt is that we will spend billions of infrastructure dollars in the coming decades to adapt to climate change.

It remains to be seen whether that spending will be used to repair damages after the fact or invested creatively for a more resilient future.

Henry David Venema is the director of planning for the Prairie Climate Centre, a joint initiative of the University of Winnipeg and the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

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