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Climate change poses a real threat to our infrastructure

Jul 16, 2013    Waterloo Region Record

http://www.therecord.com/opinion-story/3892853-climate-change-poses-a-real-threat-to-our-infrastructure/

People in Toronto and Calgary recently got some first-hand lessons about climate change.

They unfortunately learned that our roads, sewers, bridges and power grids are not built to withstand extreme weather. Residents in the two cities were left struggling with lingering blackouts, flooded homes and streets and trapped cars caused by the torrential rains of recent weeks. Many had to file claims with their insurance companies, have their cars towed, wash their sewage-stained clothing, and throw out the food in their fridges.

They are understandably distressed; their lives were disrupted. For them, climate change is no longer just an abstract concept. It is something that has already caused significant disruption to their lives.

What happened to them will likely happen to all of us, one way or another: Abnormal weather is the new normal.

But it is predictably abnormal. We all know our planet is growing warmer. What is starting to become obvious and unarguable is that this is causing intense storms, powerful winds and increased rainfall. The scientific models all predicted this, and now it is happening. Unfortunately, we can’t predict with any certainty when and where individual storms will hit, or how large they will be. So this has allowed some foot-dragging on the need for planning for these catastrophes.

But we can no longer hide behind this excuse. Planning for storms, droughts and extreme temperatures has to now be part of basic risk management for both business and governments. We know dramatic weather events are going to happen at some point, just not exactly when, where and how. There may be uncertainty, but it is still prudent to prepare for it. In fact, we do this all the time for other risks. Since we know the temperature is steadily increasing, we need to redesign our infrastructure to cope with a changing climate.

Infrastructure is not cheap, but neither is fixing or replacing it. Some engineers have recently insisted that it’s too expensive to build sewers to handle major storms like the one Toronto experienced on July 8 — a record 126 millimetres of rain in one evening.

The only alternative to this head-in-the-sand attitude is to pay over and over again for the ever-increasing repairs and cleanup costs, which at the moment are estimated to be in excess of $600 million in Toronto. Can we really afford to just keep picking up the pieces, storm after storm? Because it’s not just the cost of repairing or rebuilding the infrastructure itself — we also want to avoid the lost productivity and disruption that is caused by wild weather.

Governments at all levels and across all jurisdictions are beginning to recognize the need for a credible and aggressive plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so we don’t keep making the problem worse. But we also clearly need to rethink the way we do cost-benefit analysis for large investments such as infrastructure.

Let’s incorporate the risk of damage from climate change into every infrastructure decision we make from now on. We’re going to be spending billions anyway, as much of Canada’s aging infrastructure is in need of repair or replacement. So let’s at least be smart about how we spend that money. “Green infrastructure” will need to be a big part of our approach; harnessing solutions such as wetlands, urban greenspaces and green roofs to help store, filter and moderate extreme downpours.

Municipalities also need the support of the federal and provincial governments for their infrastructure projects, and not just financially. The federal and provincial governments can help municipalities in making the right choices about building infrastructure that can deal with climate change. For example, the province could design standards specifying how to incorporate climate change risk into infrastructure projects.

Flooded, potholed roads, overflowing sewers, damaged bridges and power stations, disrupted lives — we cannot start accepting these calamities as normal. We know that climate change will bring higher precipitation, especially in the summer. And after this summer, we also know that we’re currently not ready for it.

We know what needs to be done. Let’s accept the latest floods that hit Toronto and Calgary as a collective wake-up call, and agree to get serious about adapting our infrastructure to climate change.

Gord Miller is the environmental commissioner of Ontario, the province’s independent environmental watchdog.

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