Authors provide a look inside the IPCC Report on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability

By Ryan Kadowaki, Senior Science and Policy Coordinator

Combatting climate change often focuses on reducing the root cause—carbon emissions. We're already experiencing climate change symptoms: rising global temperatures, species migration and decline, more erratic and extreme weather, so rapidly decarbonizing our society is crucial. But climate scientists have known for years that, regardless of how quickly we reduce emissions, we'll continue to feel effects into the future due to heat stored in the oceans. So we must also adapt to our changing environment.

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This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report, a 2,600-page blockbuster on coping strategies and the science behind global climate impacts—a much-needed update of the 2007 effort that's become a go-to resource for decision-makers, researchers, and environmental organizations. The implications for Canada are wide-ranging: from our road network's vulnerability to temperature extremes, to urban flood risks from more intense precipitation, to declining shellfish populations along the world's longest coastline. This knowledge can help protect our environment, communities and economy.

Adaptation is sometimes mischaracterized as giving up (i.e., "we can't do anything about climate change so we might as well just cope with it") or as a panacea allowing us to burn carbon-based fuels indefinitely. But impacts in a future with a 2 C warming will be markedly different from one with a warming of 3 C or more. It's worthwhile to invest in emission reductions now, rather than assume cost-effective solutions will be available down the road.

On its own, adaptation to climate change isn't a prudent strategy. But if we don't give it proper attention, we leave ourselves exposed. In recent years, extreme weather events battered Canadian communities, record temperatures threatened vulnerable populations and key economic sectors suffered climate-related losses. These events aren't one-offs. We can expect them to occur more regularly in future. Adaptive measures could better prepare us for these (and many other) future impacts.

Communities can adapt by considering projected sea level rise and flood plain mapping in new land development planning, alerting those at greatest risk of heat stroke with emergency warning systems and adjusting local crops to buffer climate variability and increase food security. They can also protect green infrastructure such as wetland and coastal forests, preserving their natural ability to absorb floods and prevent erosion.

Some Canadian cities have climate adaptation plans, but most smaller communities don't. We must reduce Canada's carbon emissions. But we must also use adaptation strategies to keep Canadians safe.

March 31, 2014

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