Climate Change Impacts
Climate change has important implications for British Columbians:
Extreme weather events are costly and more frequent
The global reinsurance industry tracks the number of natural catastrophes worldwide. The trend in catastrophes caused by weather, water, or climate has increased over the last 30 years. A 2012 report from the Insurance Bureau of Canada states that “climate change is likely responsible, at least in part, for the rising frequency and severity of extreme weather events, such as floods, storms and droughts, since warmer temperatures tend to produce more violent weather patterns.”
Payouts from Canadian insurance companies for damages caused by natural disasters – including those related to weather and water – have doubled every five years since 1983.The extreme weather events of greatest concern in B.C. include heavy rain and snow falls, heat waves, and drought. They are linked to flooding and landslides, water shortages, forest fires, reduced air quality, and costs related to:
- Damage to property and infrastructure;
- Business disruptions; and
- Increased illness and mortality.
These costs are borne by individuals, businesses, and governments. Science links recent climate change to the greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere through human activities over the past century. Based on historic emissions, further changes are unavoidable. Continued emissions will add to the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and are expected to cause substantial additional change within our lifetimes and beyond.
Ecosystems in B.C. provide clean water and air, timber, game, fish, scenery, flood control, and other goods and services that sustain communities and the provincial economy. Many of these natural goods and services would be costly or impossible to replace. Climate change will likely have profound impacts on many ecosystems in B.C. over time.
In many parts of B.C., snow packs are projected to decrease and snow is projected to melt earlier. This means less runoff in summer and less water for agriculture, hydropower, industry, communities and fisheries. Where glaciers contribute to stream flow, long-term loss of glacier mass will further exacerbate water shortages. The seasonal droughts of 2003 and 2009 demonstrated the vulnerability of community and irrigation water supplies.
Building and infrastructure maintenance and replacement costs may rise as frequency and severity of events increase
The overall cost of extreme events – based on insurable damage to buildings and infrastructure – is increasing. Climate change may explain a portion of this increase in costs. Other factors, like a growing population and higher asset values, also determine the cost of extreme events. As the climate warms, and our economy continues to develop, we will need to manage our exposure to extreme events to minimize future losses.
British Columbia’s coastal communities already face flood risks related to precipitation and river flows, and climate change will add new risks from sea-level rise and storm surges. An estimated 3,000 to 12,000 B.C. homes near the coast could be at risk of flooding by mid-century. A 2011 report from the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy estimated that, based on existing coastal flood protection measures, climate change could lead to estimated damages of more than $2,000 per British Columbian per year by the 2050s.
Forest fires affect buildings and infrastructure. The fires of 2003 – the worst fire season on record – destroyed more than 334 homes and many businesses. The total cost of these fires is estimated at $700 million. The climatic conditions that prevailed in 2003 contributed to the size of the fires, as did the build-up of forest fuel. Although it is currently not possible to link individual extreme events to climate change with precision, fire seasons are nevertheless expected to be longer in the future.
Not all climate change impacts on buildings and infrastructure will be so dramatic. For example, warmer winters can lead to more frequent periods of freezing and thawing. These contribute to wear and tear on roads, affecting longevity and increasing maintenance costs.
Extreme weather events - heat waves, heavy precipitation events, droughts – have health and safety implications. Heat waves are associated with heat stroke and an increase in respiratory illness. In the summer of 2009, during an eight-day heat wave, temperatures at Vancouver International Airport measured as high as 34.4 degrees centigrade.
During this period, the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health Authorities registered 455 deaths (from all causes and ages), which is significantly higher than the average of 321 deaths during the equivalent calendar period in each year from 2004 to 2008.
The 2003 southern B.C. fire forced the evacuation of more than 45,000 people, and led to the loss of three lives. During the 2010 fire season, smoke blanketed the province, and both the City of Vancouver and the Government of Alberta issued air quality warnings due to smoke caused by the fires. In 2010 flooding caused by heavy rainfall destroyed the highway leading into Bella Coola.
About 175 people were evacuated from their communities, with residents of Kingcome Inlet evacuated by helicopter as water levels continued to rise. Such experiences, though short in duration, can result in long-term psychological impacts and personal and societal costs.
Climate change impacts are projected to intensify if the world stays on the current emissions pathway
A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, prepared by 220 experts from around the globe and released in early 2012, indicates that globally during the 21st century:
- It is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation will increase over many regions.
- It is virtually certain that increases in the frequency of warm daily temperature extremes will occur on a global scale.
- It is very likely – 90 to 100 per cent probability – that heat waves will increase in length, frequency, and/or intensity over most land areas.
- It is very likely that average sea level rise will contribute to more extreme sea levels and extreme coastal high water levels.
We can reduce future impacts through our actions today
Everyone can contribute to action that will reduce the negative impacts of climate change.
- Avoiding increases to the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a global level will minimize the climate impacts we end up facing in the long run. At home in B.C., we can take action across the economy to reduce our emissions. Continued leadership in climate action along with our partners around the world will drive global emissions reductions.
- While some amount of future climate change is unavoidable, we can minimize negative impacts by preparing ahead of time. By ensuring that communities and businesses are more resilient to extreme weather events – for example by creating FireSmart communities – we can reduce the social and economic costs of these events. If we design new buildings and infrastructure with tomorrow’s climate in mind, we will spend less on maintenance and our communities will be safer