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Responding to uncertainty

Shifting weather patterns will continue to take a toll on regions across Canada and around the world. In addition to creating risks to health and safety, these events can interrupt the supply of goods, hamper construction and infrastructure projects, compromise emergency response systems, put stress on public service delivery, and affect both biodiversity and economic health. Yet, predicting the specific repercussions of climate change remains difficult.

The challenge arises when we understand that current emission reduction strategies can only reduce, not eliminate, future climate change concerns. Whatever the effects of climate change, one thing is clear: they are going to fall within the purview of multiple levels of government. Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada agreed with the Federal Commissioner of Environment’s 2006 report regarding the need to collaborate with multiple departments and jurisdictions across the country on adaptation efforts.

To anticipate, plan and adapt to potential climate impacts, then, governments must adopt a risk management strategy that weaves together environmental, social, economic, political, technological, organizational and human capital elements. To foster this adaptive capacity, governments will need to identify and prioritize both the vulnerabilities and the risks.

Fortunately, tools exist to help policy-makers identify a range of plausible scenarios associated with climate change.

Towards climate change risk intelligence
As citizens demand an informed response to climate change, governments recognize that they must get a handle on what needs to be done, by whom, over what timeframe and at what cost. To succeed, they must identify, assess, prioritize and ultimately manage the full range of climate-related risks.

While there is no one-size-fits-all response, policy-makers can benefit by adopting an integrated approach to climate risk management. This includes:

  • Conducting a climate risk assessment to establish a risk profile and identify priority areas of concern and vulnerable populations
  • Conducting an assessment to understand the potential vulnerabilities of existing policies, programs and projects
  • Developing organizational capacity to respond to climate risks, including training, education programs and incentive programs for innovation
  • Structuring policy responses to address key risk (e.g. preparing emergency response plans for heat waves, flood risk management measures and revised winter road plans in northern communities)

The rewards of risk management
By understanding both the risks and related stakeholder interests, policy-makers can define measurable plans that are sufficiently flexible to respond to new issues as they arise. Given the uncertainty associated with climate change, this flexibility, or adaptive capacity, is critical. Fortunately, it can be incorporated into the process by using scenario-based planning tools.

By relying on these methodologies, policy-makers can begin to make difficult decisions about whether to take direct action through funding or regulatory change, adopt strategies to share risks through jurisdictional coordination, transfer risk through the adoption of innovative policy action or the use of public private partnerships, or even do nothing.

Only time will tell if the decisions made today will yield anticipated results. For the time being, however, it is clear that a risk-intelligent approach represents the best way for governments to prioritize key risks, balance reactive and proactive adaptation strategies, identify opportunities, and assure citizens they are taking steps to anticipate and prepare for the effects of a changing climate.

Written by Johanne Gelinas, Partner and Valerie Chort, Partner and National Practice Leader,  Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability

This article originally appeared in "A climate for action" — a special information supplement in The Globe and Mail newspaper on October 27, 2008 produced by RandallAnthony Communications Inc. in co-operation with the Institute of Pubic Administration of Canada. View the  full report .

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