Climate change will cost us billions — and then it will get even worse

 Climate change will cost us billions — and then it will get even worse

By Heather Scoffield Economics Columnist

Link to original article

Tue., Dec. 7, 2021

There’s a harsh subtext to Peter Weltman’s finding that when climate disaster strikes Ontario, the cost to government-owned buildings will be in the billions of dollars.

Weltman is the Ontario government’s fiscal accountability officer, the watchdog who answers legislators’ queries about spending and liabilities. He was asked two years ago to assess the implications of climate change on Ontario’s public assets.

His answer is coming out in bits and pieces — partial glimpses of a larger picture that is troubling, expensive and requires urgent attention from all levels of government and the private sector alike.

On the surface, the cost of climate change looks relatively manageable. The FAO report published Tuesday looks at provincial and municipal buildings currently worth $254 billion, and concludes that extreme weather would impose between $800 million and $1.5 billion a year in additional maintenance costs.

The province is already spending about $10 billion a year just to maintain the status quo.

The extra cost is a lot — but it’s not a showstopper, at least not taken on its own. The FAO, however, had a very narrow scope, by design. The bigger picture is far more worrisome.

Weltman had to take into account his resources, his mandate and the scope of publicly available research to zero in on something he could actually analyze with heft. He stuck to buildings, and left transportation and water infrastructure until later. He also limited the climate threat to just three elements — extreme rainfall, extreme heat and freeze-thaw cycles.

The rising costs of an expected increase in rain and heat are somewhat offset by the diminishing costs of less frequent freeze-thaw cycles. And the costs are higher if we don’t start beefing up our structures right away, and much higher still if we do nothing and leave infrastructure to the elements.

The report makes all that clear.

But if, say, an atmospheric river came along and damaged a hospital, only the direct cost of repairing that hospital would be in the report. If there was also flooding nearby, damage to other non-government buildings, car wreckage, houses crumbling and other non-government destruction, those costs would not be in the report.

If there were disruptions to power and road closures that meant work cancellations, supply chain disruptions and widespread chaos, those costs would not be in the report either.

And if people were hurt or died or were left distressed, those costs don’t show up either.

“They didn’t have the mandate to look beyond the direct costs,” says Ryan Ness, adaptation research director at the Institute for Climate Choices.

There’s a stark message though. If extreme weather would cost Ontario taxpayers billions, it would cost federal taxpayers much more, and would cost the private sector many multitudes more. And we are nowhere close to understanding those costs, let alone preparing to pay for them.

Ness points out that the FAO didn’t consider flooding because it couldn’t track down enough floodplain mapping. As a result, the researchers didn’t know exactly what had happened in the past let alone attempt to project what would happen to buildings in the future. And without those projections, they couldn’t even begin figuring out what the broader cost on related infrastructure, the workforce and people at risk would be.

Of course, the real-life backdrop here is British Columbia, where a series of catastrophes this year has destroyed lives, agriculture and infrastructure indiscriminately, and the cost of repairs will be in the many billions of dollars — as well as in human and animal life.

While weaknesses in the province’s dam and floodplain systems were known, the effects on supply chains and transportation were not fully imagined. No one thought about the possibility that crucial parts of the province would be cut off from each other.

At least we’ve started talking about the costs of climate change that are already upon us and have some policy in place to cut emissions and limit climate change over the long term. The federal Liberal commitment to produce a national climate adaptation plan by the end of the 2022 will take us further in our understanding of what’s needed, even if it is dreadfully late to the party.

We haven’t even started to imagine the societal costs of adapting to climate change.

In a recent report, the World Bank estimates that 216 million people will be on the move because of climate impacts by 2050, leaving areas where there will be either not enough water or too much, and searching for land that can support them. The surge will start as early as 2030.

Canada barely has enough infrastructure and housing to handle its current flow of migrants, let alone many millions more.

There’s so much hard work to be done in researching, projecting and preparing for the inevitable, let alone preventing worse to come.

We’re waking up to this too slowly.