Adapting to the changing risk of climate hazards

Climate change adaptation requires a fundamental shift in the approach used to manage risks.

Featured illustration by Cheyenne Cockerill, Lockport, Manitoba for HazNet

By Don Lemmen and Liette Connolly-Boutin

Canada’s climate is changing; overall, it is hotter, wetter and the frequency of extreme weather events is changing. The impacts of climate change are evident across the country, and pose risks to communities, health and well-being, the economy and the natural environment. Canadians are already responding to address these risks, but reactive adaptation is insufficient for us to thrive in a changing climate. We need to enhance our resilience through planned, proactive adaptation that incorporates future climate change considerations into disaster risk reduction.

Climate Change Impacts in Canada

Canada is warming faster than much of the rest of the world.  Between 1950 and 2014 the Earth as a whole warmed approximately 0.7ᵒC, while Canada has warmed by 1.6ᵒC and northern Canada by 2.2ᵒC (Figure 1).  These trends are important.  They suggest that even if countries are successful in meeting the temperature goal of the 2016 Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and limit global warming to less than 2ᵒC above pre-industrial levels, Canada will still experience at least 4ᵒC of warming and northern Canada will warm even more.

Figure 1.  Observed climate warming, globally and within Canada, from 1950 to 2014 (from Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2016).

Beyond increases in average temperature, climate change is affecting precipitation and wind patterns as well as the severity and frequency of extreme weather events such as severe storms, drought and heat waves. Recent climate changes have been associated with wide-ranging impacts (Figure 2) affecting most sectors of the Canadian economy, ecosystems, livelihoods (particularly of Indigenous peoples) and public health and safety. As the climate continues to warm, these impacts are expected to worsen. Adaptation is therefore essential.

Figure 2.  Examples of climate change impacts of concern in Canada.

What is Climate Change Adaptation?

Adaptation involves making adjustments in our decisions, activities and ways of thinking in response to observed or expected changes in climate in order to reduce harm and to take advantage of possible opportunities.   The Pan-Canadian Framework for Clean Growth and Climate Change (Box 1) positions adapting to climate impacts as a key feature of Canada’s approach to address climate change, recognizing the necessity of both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to unavoidable climate changes.  This recognition is the product of more than two decades of research on climate impacts and adaptation by universities, governments and non-government organizations, including pioneering work by Ian Burton and colleagues, as well as the innovative policies and practices by a range of adaptation practitioners, such as planners and engineers.

To prepare Canadians for the impacts of climate change, research has evolved from a focus on understanding climate impacts and the risks that they present to Canadians, to an emphasis on exploring solutions.  Research has also expanded greatly in scope, with the social and economic sciences being critical to understanding the process of adaptation.  Exciting new directions in research include improving our understanding of how global climate impacts and the adaptation actions taken to address them will affect Canada in terms of trade and global value chains, migration and the need for humanitarian assistance.

The evolving research agenda has been complemented by capacity building within key practitioner communities, including planners, engineers, landscape architects and accountants and by the development of tools that help them incorporate climate change into their daily work.  For example, the engagement of professional engineers resulted in the development of a protocol for assessing infrastructure vulnerability, which has been applied in more than 40 case studies within Canada and internationally (  Overall progress on adaptation in Canada, documenting the increased scope of adaptation research, as well as implementation of adaptation measures, particularly at the municipal scale, is presented in a series of assessment reports, beginning with the “Canada Country Study” in 1997 and continuing with the “Canada in a Changing Climate” series since 2008.  Links to these reports, tools, and additional information are provided in Box 2.

Moving forward, adaptation requires a fundamental shift in how we manage climate risks to better protect people, the economy and the natural environment.  The new climate reality requires a culture of resilience where consideration of climate vulnerabilities is part of routine planning and decisions by people and institutions with responsibility for developing and implementing policies, programs and plans, or for managing assets that are, or may be, affected by changing climate conditions.

Linking Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction

While the communities of researchers, policy makers and practitioners who deal with climate change adaptation and those concerned with disaster risk reduction use different terminology[1], they share the common objectives of reducing the impacts of extreme weather events and increasing resilience in the face of disasters. While disaster risk management has often relied on historic climate observations to assess the likelihood of extreme events, climate change adaptation relies on projecting the future climate based on a range of probable climate futures.  An example of how the changing climate affects extreme weather events can be seen in the relationship between sea-level rise and storm-surge flooding in the Port of Halifax (Figure 3).  A 40 cm rise in sea level, as is projected for about the year 2050, results in a high water level with a current return interval of 50 years being more than a 1 in 2 year event by mid-century.

Figure 3.  Annual maximum hourly water levels (metres above mean) in Halifax Harbour, NS, 1920–2007, and associated return periods in years, indicating the average recurrence interval for any given annual maximum water level today (red line) and the change in return period that results from a rise in mean sea level under a high-emissions scenario by 2050 (from Lemmen and Warren, 2016).

Changes in the frequency and severity of inland and urban flooding, wildfires, droughts, extreme heat and other climate impacts have potential to increase the number of climate-related disasters.  There is an urgent need for improved linkages between the groups focused on climate change adaptation and those focused on disaster risk reduction.  An important starting point for improving these linkages is to encourage collaboration between two relevant national-scale forums: Canada’s Adaptation Platform (Box 3) and Canada’s Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.  The two platforms operate very differently but share a common goal of enhancing collaboration and action to strengthen resilience. In October 2017, they will meet jointly for the first time in Halifax.  The theme of the meeting is “building back better.” The theme is intended to emphasize that recovery from disasters represents an important opportunity to enhance resilience.

Exciting Days Ahead

Climate change presents daunting challenges both globally and within Canada.  Such challenges also create opportunities for innovation.  One example is the role that green/natural infrastructure can play in both helping manage climate risks (e.g., restored wetlands and salt marshes can reduce flooding and erosion) and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change provides direction for federal, provincial and territorial governments.  This policy commitment, along with leadership across the country from local governments, practitioners, industry and non-government organizations, provides an encouraging base for greatly accelerating action on climate change.

[1] For example, the climate change research and policy communities use “mitigation” to refer to actions that reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases (e.g., mitigate the cause of climate change), whereas the disaster risk reduction community uses “mitigation” to refer to actions that reduce the severity of disaster impacts (e.g., mitigate risks).


Dr. Don Lemmen is a Research Manager in the Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Division of Natural Resources Canada.  Since 2000 he has led development of three Canadian national assessment reports, and has helped design and implement domestic adaptation programs.  Internationally, he has been involved in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process since 2003, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) process since 2005.  He is currently Chair of Canada’s Adaptation Platform and co-chair of the UNFCCC Adaptation Committee.

Liette Connolly-Boutin, P.Eng., is a policy analyst in climate change adaptation policy development with Environment and Climate Change Canada. She has previously researched food security and climate change vulnerability and adaptation in Canada and the global south.

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