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Informed decision-making for addressing climate change

Federal and provincial governments have established increasingly aggressive climate change mitigation targets, and Canadian municipalities are taking a greater role in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate risks. Municipalities are faced with several questions:

  • How do they prioritize scarce tax dollars?
  • Do they focus on mitigating emissions?
  • Should they allocate more funds to climate-related disaster recovery?
  • Should they invest in resilience measures to be better prepared for future climate events? 

Adding to the complexity of making climate-related decisions are the constraints that municipalities face in instituting measures. Building Code changes that would reduce GHG emissions and improve community resilience are a provincial jurisdiction in Canada. Financing adaptation actions requires more capital than most towns and cities have available.

The experience of many Canadian municipalities which are proactively planning to address climate change, highlights five strategies that civic administrations can employ in their decision making.

Collaborate regionally: Regional collaboration between neighbouring cities and counties makes sense, because climate change issues cross municipal, provincial, and federal boundaries. For example, watersheds typically cross municipal boundaries. Taking a regional perspective on instituting policy protects watersheds from environmental degradation that diminishes water quality. 

Examples of regional partnerships include municipalities in southern Ontario that are cooperating to expand their capacities in climate change mitigation and adaptation through the Ontario Regional Adaptation Collaborative, with assistance from the Climate Risk Institute. In Alberta, the Municipal Climate Change Action Centre encourages regional climate adaptation initiatives through grant incentives. In particular, a regional approach benefits smaller communities which typically have smaller funding bases. 

Work with knowledgeable climate change professionals: Having recent, relevant climate information informs decision-making. Climate analysts can advise on local climate conditions and climate projections. Climate change professionals can suggest options for mitigation and adaptation, considering the changing climate, capital and life-cycle costs, local government, community and stakeholder concerns, and budget.

Avoid an “either/or” dynamic: Mitigation and adaptation measures are often synergistic, supporting the ultimate goal of risk reduction. Improving building envelopes through insulation and better arrangement of windows and doors brings both mitigation and adaptation benefits. A well-insulated building that reduces energy use is likely a cooler place to retreat during a heat wave. “One Water” (holistic water management) approaches reduce the carbon footprint associated with some water treatment processes and identify resilient infrastructure in consideration of climate change impacts. 

Shift the perspective from emergency management to safeguarding people and assets: Proactive planning and implementation of adaptation measures in anticipation of extreme weather events like atmospheric rivers and associated flooding can effectively diminish impacts, and facilitate and expedite recovery. Such measures can actually reduce long term costs. Shifting the focus from emergency management to a focus on risk reduction and community well-being reframes the conversation to people’s long-term welfare and fortifying natural and built assets. 

Natural infrastructure plays an important role in addressing climate change hazards. Fostering healthy ecosystems supports better water quality and the availability of water. The City of Calgary has identified and quantified the value of natural assets as a foundation for promoting the use of natural asset management in its climate resilience strategy. 

Build social infrastructure to support preparedness and resilience: In a post for UN Volunteers, Daniel P. Aldrich wrote about social networks that support communities during climate catastrophes. “Real resilience – the ability to recover from shocks, including natural disasters – is tied to our connections to others, and not to physical infrastructure or disaster kits.” 

This is especially true for vulnerable populations who are at greater risk when disaster strikes. Enhancing social networks is a good first step in managing risk. Building social infrastructure brings another important benefit: giving residents a meaningful role in collective decision-making which ultimately facilitates difficult conversations. 

The roadmap for addressing climate change is not linear or one-size-fits-all. Iteration, learning from missteps, and collaboration are key values for municipalities to embrace in their quest to safeguard residents and assets from climate change impacts.

About the Author: Andrée Iffrig, LEEP AP is a Climate Resilience & Sustainability Specialist and has 15 years of experience in sustainable building design, community resilience, climate adaptation, and sustainable manufacturing. Her climate change risk management framework for the design sector guides engineering and architectural professionals in how to integrate climate data during integrated design.

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