Canada has launched its first-ever national strategy to help communities adapt to increasingly severe weather caused by climate change.
Increased flooding, wildfires and melting permafrost are among the issues the government will seek to address under the strategy, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault explained in a press conference on Tuesday.
“We see more severe climate impact with each passing year, with each passing season – like this year’s rash of spring wildfires in BC [British Colombia], Alberta, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories,” Guilbeault said.
His comments come as Canada contends with its worst-ever wildfire season on record.
As of Tuesday, 7.8 million hectares (19 million acres) of land have burned this season, with the hottest months of the year still ahead. The fires have resulted in poor air quality in densely-populated areas across North America, with Montreal recording the worst air quality in the world on Sunday.
The fires, Guilbeault said, have not only been more intense but were also occurring “earlier in the year and in almost every province and territory at the same time”.
“This extreme weather is unprecedented,” he said.
The newly-announced strategy will run parallel to efforts to lower greenhouse emissions that exacerbate climate change. The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service reported on Tuesday that the recent wildfires have already released nearly 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide — greater than Canada’s total emissions for any year on record.
The blazes are the latest natural disasters in Canada believed to be exacerbated by climate change.
Last year’s Hurricane Fiona battered Canada’s Atlantic provinces, becoming the most intense cyclone on record to strike the country. And in 2021, a so-called “atmospheric river” of rain triggered record-breaking floods in British Columbia. Earlier that year in the same province, a heat dome — a weather system that traps hot air — caused hundreds of deaths.
Meanwhile, thawing permafrost, which covers half of Canada, regularly “threatens homes, roads and important cultural sites as well as marine and coastal environments” and disproportionately affects Indigenous groups, according to the Canadian government.
By 2030, average annual losses from climate-change-related disasters are forecast to reach 15.4 billion Canadian dollars ($11.69bn), according to the federal government.
The Canadian Climate Institute also estimates that climate effects will slow Canada’s economic growth by 23.7 billion Canadian dollars ($18bn) annually by 2025, equal to 50 percent of projected gross domestic product growth.
— Keith Stewart (@climatekeith) June 27, 2023
“We need to address the real and significant costs of climate change that are already baked into our future,” Jonathan Wilkinson, the minister of natural resources, said at Tuesday’s news conference. “These costs are being held by Canadians and they will only increase as we move forward.”
The federal government outlined a series of goals, including improving health outcomes, protecting nature and biodiversity and building more resilient infrastructure. Since 2015, the Canadian government has pledged more than 10 billion Canadian dollars ($7.6bn) in “adaptation investment and disaster assistance”, Guilbeault said.
That included 2 billion Canadian dollars ($1.5bn) in funding commitments since 2022, some of which was earmarked for flood mapping and access to flood insurance.
The broad plan released on Tuesday would be refined based on the specific needs of communities across the country, Guilbeault said.
“How we adapt depends on where we are in the country. So the actions we take will often be at the local and regional levels,” the minister added.
“While this is the first national adaptation strategy, many communities, governments, businesses, nations have already developed their own adaptation plan to prepare for the risks that a changing climate will bring. I commend your leadership and your foresight.”
In a statement, Keith Stewart, a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada, said recent events have made Canada’s need to adapt to climate change “brutally clear”.
“The more that all levels of government work together to fully implement this strategy,” he said, “the more lives and livelihoods that will be saved.”