A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall in WR

More heat, more wind, more rain and a lot more turned umbrellas — welcome to Waterloo Region’s future, brought to you by reckless fossil fuel consumption.

Through its Climate Action Plan, Waterloo Region has pledged to reduce carbon emissions six per cent by 2020, from a 2010 baseline. This climate change mitigation work is important, but so too is preparing for the changing climate — the work of climate change adaptation.

By 2050 the mean annual temperature in Waterloo Region is predicted to increase by two to three degrees Celsius, and higher temperatures mean more precipitation.

“For every one Celsius rise in temperature the air holds seven percent more moisture. When that moisture condenses it comes down as more rain,” said Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo.

“We get storms of greater intensity and duration.”

Climate model projections for Waterloo Region suggest a future with higher rainfall intensities.

“Bigger storms in shorter periods of time means flooding, and Waterloo Region, like everywhere else in Canada, is vulnerable to these changes in precipitation due to climate change.”

Thankfully, our local government has not pursued a management-by-disaster approach to climate change adaptation.

“The region and conservation authority are not asleep at the switch,” Feltmate assured. “They are on top of it and fully aware of the problem.”

Currently, the region is assessing local risks, updating floodplain maps, improving storm-water runoff infrastructure and encouraging new housing developments to install back water valves to flood-proof basements. Earlier this year the Region pledged $172,000 over three years for the development of a community-wide climate adaptation plan. However, according to Feltmate many of Canada’s cities are woefully unprepared for increased precipitation.

In 2013, heavy rainfall wreaked havoc in two of Canada’s largest cities. In Calgary, record rainfall caused rivers to swell and flood, leading to an estimated $5 billion in damages (of which $1.7 billion was insurable). About 100,000 people were displaced, and five died. In Toronto, record rainfall triggered city-wide flooding that saw GO train passengers evacuated in yellow rubber dinghies and cars submerged on the “Lake Shore” Boulevard. In that calamitous year, Canada’s property insurance companies paid out $3.2 billion in weather-related claims.

Property insurance companies are “not the canaries in the coal mine,” Feltmate explained. “They’re the dodos in the coal mine,” because “they have a vested interest in understanding the effects of climate change and how it impacts their bottom line, and how it impacts the well-being of Canadians.”

And the potential impacts of climate change are being rigorously investigated by property insurance companies. The Co-operators Group is investigating flood preparedness in 30 Ontario communities, including Waterloo and Kitchener. Intact, the largest provider of property insurance in Canada, donated $4.25 million to the University of Waterloo in 2015 to create the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, whose mandate is to operationalize climate change adaptation practices in Canada.

However, while climate change will continue to affect us all, not everyone will be affected equally — or equally able to adapt.

Seniors, for example, are physiologically prone to extreme heat sensitivity, which makes them more susceptible to deadly heat stroke. Manuel Riemer, an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier, is investigating climate change risk perception and adaptive capacity in the region’s senior population.

“Talking to the seniors, they don’t perceive much of a risk,” says Riemer.

However, by 2050 the region is expected to experience a three-fold increase in extreme heat days (over 30 degrees Celsius). Riemer warned against relying on a single source of protection, like air conditioners.

“What happens if there’s a blackout? Which is likely when everybody is using their air conditioning. In this scenario, many seniors don’t really have anything else set up to deal with extreme heat.”

“Raising the awareness of the need to think about climate adaptation in vulnerable populations is really important,” he explained, a sentiment shared by associate professor Johanna Wandel, with whom he has researched the effects of climate change on the region’s homeless population.

“Homelessness is managed well under our current climatic regime, however, it’s a very tenuous web that holds it all together,” explained Wandel.

“One interesting thing that came out of our research, was that especially in the transition period, when the weather is going back and forth, so in the spring and in the fall, that’s when people struggle. When you have a consistent winter weather people know what to do and they prepare accordingly,” said Riemer.

Significantly, weather exposure sensitivity from rain, heat and cold is compounded and amplified by a multitude of issues common among the homeless population, including mental health issues, social isolation, substance abuse, and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Funding fell through for Wandel and Riemer’s follow-up study, which would have identified gaps in coverage and potential vulnerabilities in the homeless population due to climate change.

However, Waterloo Region is in the nascent stages of developing a community-wide climate adaptation plan. Asked if the adaptation plan will include considerations for people experiencing homelessness, David Roewade, Sustainability Specialist for the Region of Waterloo, replied, “This will be an important question to ask when we address the scope of developing this plan.”

On investigations into climate change vulnerability in homeless populations, “there isn’t much, there’s very little,” said Wandel. “And there’s so many more noisy problems.”

ION road closures, exciting downtown developments, the latest and greatest resto — amidst all this chatter, there are few signs that our community is considering its most vulnerable before and while the climate changes.

This story was updated April 12 to reflect the correct spelling of Dr. Manuel Riemer’s name.