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The financial costs to Atlantic Canadians of climate change and extreme weather are becoming more apparent with every season. From millions in damage to crops by late frosts, to the growing price tag to repair storm damage and deal with coastal erosion, the bill is starting to add up.
The bigger picture
Discussions on the economic impacts of climate change naturally turn to things such as forestry, agriculture and fishing. But there are other, hidden economic costs, says a Saint Mary’s University professor.
Kate Ervine of the university’s School of the Environment says with climate trends and the increased levels of destructiveness from extreme weather events, “what they’re saying is coming is getting more certain every year. I think with that, we’re getting better data on what the economic impacts are going to be.”
She says the list of issues is wide-ranging, but there are many factors that don’t always come to mind in discussions on the economic costs climate change.
“When we talk about the health impacts of extreme heat, it doesn’t necessarily have a climate change price tag on it,” she says.
Heat waves, like the one that killed more than 30,000 people in Europe in 2003, can put more people in the hospital, bogging down an already overwhelmed health-care system.
“That’s one of those hidden costs. When you have public health-care systems that are already struggling because they’re not adequately funded, and then the numbers begin to increase because you have more of the extremes in heat, or you have disasters and the spread of epidemic disease or people who are injured in those kinds of disasters... that puts a massive burden on the health-care systems,” she said. “It’s another cost that we haven’t fully comprehended at this point.”
Since 2008, an average of 26.4 million people have been displaced from their homes by natural disasters – equivalent to one person every second.
Source: International Association of Insurance Supervisors
Extreme weather, extreme damage
With wildfires, hurricanes and flooding on a global scale, Ervine says insurance companies “are beginning to see climate change as a major threat to their business model because they can’t afford the payouts that are coming with it.
“We’re actually getting up into the trillions of dollars when we think about that cost that isn’t yet adequately quantified as climate change costs,” Ervine says.
The uptick in damage numbers in recent years has been steep.
“If you look at the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season in the United States, where you had hurricanes Harvey and Irma and Maria, it was absolutely devastating, and many studies now put the cost at roughly $300 billion for those three storms combined.”
She says a lot of insurance companies also provide agricultural insurance, and are taking hits because of payouts for crop insurance following extreme heat or snap freezes connected to climate change.
BILLION DOLLAR LOSSES
Global economic losses from natural disasters in 2017 amounted to $340-billion US - the second highest annual figure ever. 83 per cent of the losses were concentrated in North America.
Source: International Association of Insurance Supervisors
Damage to homes can be a hidden cost, she says, because “we often bear them individually ... if there’s flooding in your home, or the high winds are taking down trees, we tend not to put the climate change price tag on it, but we know there is a connection there in terms of the increased frequency of these events.”
Economically, the cost of climate change is growing every year, “and it’s only going to get worse,” she says.
While scientists have set a target of limiting the global rise in temperatures to 1.5 C, research shows that the Paris Agreement targets for emissions reductions will leave warming of 2.5 C to 3 C. Global warming of 2.5 C will cause a 15- to 25-per-cent reduction in per capita global economic output by the year 2100. If the increase is 4 C, the reduction is more than 30 per cent.
“We’re talking about trillions and trillions of dollars in economic damages,” Ervine said.
Total economic losses from hurricanes in 2017 were nearly five times the average of the preceding 16 years, losses from wildfire were four times higher, and losses from other severe storms were 60-per-cent higher.
- Aon Benfield
Hidden costs — the smaller picture
William Spurr knows that climate change is costing him money, but it’s not just in the obvious ways.
Last year, the Spurr Brothers Farm in Annapolis County, N.S., lost half its potato crop and more than three-quarters of its 40 hectares of apples suffered damage after a late freeze in June, dry weather in the summer and heavy rains in the fall.
“It helps that we’re very diversified: having apples, having potatoes, having onions, having carrots, having strawberries. Nothing did great. A couple of things did bad, but we had a couple of other things to help us along,” Spurr said.
80% CLIMATE RELATED
Research by the World Meteorological Organization has concluded that 80 per cent of natural disasters between 2005 and 2015 were in some way climate-related.
But the financial impacts aren’t limited to crops for the farm. Fewer crops meant fewer people being brought on to tend to and harvest them.
“We had about half as many workers as we normally do,” Spurr said, noting that meant less money being spent in the local area.
Some of the dozen or so temporary foreign workers who couldn’t be brought on for the year ended up working on other farms.
“We wanted to make sure they were able to do that, because we didn’t want their families to not have an income,” Spurr said.
These workers are now settled on an Ontario farm, and won’t be coming back. That means new workers will have to be hired and time spent training them.
Fewer extremes in weather would be ideal, Spurr said.
“The extremes are getting a little more extreme than what they have been. The heat is getting hotter, the rains are getting heavier, (and) it’s just everything. If that was all leveled out we’d be OK.”
But if these conditions become the norm, as climatologists are predicting without drastic climate action, Spurr said he’ll have to start looking at new crop varieties.
$43 BILLION BY 2050
Costs of climate change could represent about $5 billion per year by 2020 in Canada, and, depending on the levels of continued global emissions growth, could rise to $21 billion to $43 billion per year by 2050.
-Government of Canada
“We’ve been growing Superior (potatoes) forever. We may have to look at what they’re growing down south, because they can withstand that heat. … (Nova Scotia) grows some of the best Honeycrisp (apples) worldwide, and it’s because of the temperature. The Honeycrisp don’t like that hot, hot weather. They like the cool nights, so if we keep getting all this hot weather we may have to grow more Galas. They like the heat.”
With the climate and weather changing, he said, the farm has to prepare for all possibilities.
“We really have to focus on water and irrigation, it’s really going to be huge,” Spurr said.
“They keep on saying the word drought, and I totally agree with that. We’re seeing drought almost every summer now.”
While spending more on irrigation, the farm is also spending more to prevent the frequent heavy rains from washing out fields and crops. And with the possibility of more late frosts like 2018’s devastating cold snap, “we may have to look at something like wind machines, or water for the apples, which we have never even looked at before.”
The water would wet the blossoms to prevent frost damage, similar to how farmers protect strawberries.
“With berries it just uses a little sprinkler system; when you’re dealing with trees that sprinkler system becomes massive,” Spurr said.
“That’s not a small cost.”
START SAVING NOW
Between 1970 and 1994, the federal government paid out an average of $54 million each year from its disaster fund, adjusted to 2014 dollars. By contrast, the Parliamentary Budget Office estimates that weather events connected to climat change over the next five years will cost the federal government $900 million annually.
-Government of Canada
CLIMATE CHANGE EMERGENCIES
One by one, municipalities across Canada are declaring climate change emergencies.
Spurred to action by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, released last October, with the very real warning that action needs to be taken now, municipalities are sharpening their pencils to further refine and define how to reduce their carbon footprint. “We - along with all residents of planet Earth - are faced with a climate emergency,” reads in part the motion approved by the town council of Mahone Bay, N.S., that directs staff to prepare a report outlining steps the town could take in order to further reduce or eliminate the town’s corporate carbon footprint, as the community’s carbon footprint “as per the urgency expressed in the IPCC Report.”
Halifax Regional Municipality has directed its staff to prepare a report and recommendations with “The recognition by HRM Council that the breakdown of the stable climate and sea levels under which human civilization developed constitutes an emergency for HRM.” The IPCC report highlights a number of climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C, or more. For instance, by 2100, global sea level rise would be 10 centimeters lower with global warming of 1.5°C compared with 2°C. The likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once per century with global warming of 1.5°C, compared with at least once per decade with 2°C. Coral reefs would decline by 70 to 90 per cent with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all would be lost with 2°C.
A look at how increasing year-to-year variability in the weather is one of the biggest climate changes we have been seeing in Atlantic Canada so far.
Get the complete series here.