Adapting, adjusting to change in Atlantic Canada's climate may be key to economic future
CLIMATE CHANGE IS ALREADY CHANGING THE LIVES OF ATLANTIC CANADIANS, BUT WHAT CAN WE DO TO STOP IT, OR ADAPT TO IT, OR SOFTEN THE EFFECTS? WE ASKED PEOPLE FROM ACROSS ATLANTIC CANADA WHAT THEY SEE AS THE BIGGEST IMPACTS ON THEIR OWN LIVES AND WHAT — IF ANYTHING — CAN BE DONE TO DEAL WITH THEM.
FOCUSED ON OUR COASTS
Governments at all levels are looking at coastal areas in Atlantic Canada vulnerable to rising sea levels and increasingly extreme storms and storm surges, through both existing programs as well as new initiatives.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ (DFO) 2012 risk assessment on climate change identified rising sea levels as one of the major factors that Atlantic Canadians will have to deal with in the next decade.
DFO senior oceanographer Pierre Pepin says it’s a problem the region is already facing on a regular basis.
According to Pepin, rising sea level, in and of itself, is not necessarily critical yet; however, there are situations where, when combined with a storm surge, a greater wall of water may come over your shoreline, wreaking havoc. And it doesn’t help that storms are becoming more unpredictable.
Pepin says we are seeing different kinds of storms at unusual times of the year and season, and they have become more energetic, causing more damage.
“You’ll often see reports of extensive erosion on a coastline or of a slumping of a bank or something like that,” Pepin explained. “Often, those things are consistent with what we would expect under increasing sea level rise, storm surges and so forth.”
COASTAL PROTECTION ACT
Pepin points out that the Small Craft Harbours program under DFO has a 20-year plan to reinforce docks, breakwaters and other infrastructure to protect harbours from sea elevation and stronger storm surges.
Improving coastal infrastructure, he says, should be one of the easier things to mitigate the effects of climate change.
He also says we’ll have to stop building as close to the coast.
Other initiatives are also underway. In Nova Scotia, a new Coastal Protection Act is in the works.
Bill No. 106 was introduced on March 12 by N.S. Environment Minister Margaret Miller, received second reading on March 14 and sent off to the Committee on Law Amendments, the next step in the process.
During second reading, Miller said the Coastal Protection Act “will set out clear rules for what we can and can’t be done in coastal protection zones … It will ensure new development in our coastal protection zones takes climate change into account in the planning stages … The legislation is not about having government move existing buildings. It’s not about funding breakwaters or retaining walls. Instead, this legislation deals with future construction and it’s meant to prevent today’s problems from happening to tomorrow’s homes, businesses, and cottages. We can't change the past, but we can ensure that new construction is built in safer places where it’s not at a high risk of flooding or coastal erosion.”
For the fisheries, “any kind of business that needs the coastal properties, say it's a fish plant or it's a fisher that needs to have his wharf and have access to the ocean, those all would be exempt as well from the program,” said Miller.
IMPACT ON FISHERIES
Moving away from the coasts, dealing with impacts on our fisheries is a tougher challenge. While scientists have been tracking the trend of warming waters, lower oxygen and higher acidity in some parts of the region, the full impacts on the mainstay species is hard to pinpoint.
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Regular stock assessments may show the health of a specific species is decreasing but the identifying specific causes for such changes is hard.
“How much of that (change) is due to climate change and how much of that is due to the ecosystem’s dynamics in itself — because one species may be coming up while the other species may be coming down — that’s still unclear,” Pepin says, adding that alterations in stocks take time to develop.
Therefore, he advises strategizing about how manage specific species should switch to a medium-term outlook of about three to five years, instead of the short term of one to two years.
“That’s not going to take place immediately or in the short-term and so I think that being realistic about the expectations people have about the availability of resources, how productive the system is, and having managing strategies that aim to be more strategic,” he said. “I think what needs to be in people’s minds is that changes are not immediate, they’re more gradual. They take a decade, five to 10 years, to occur.”
While opportunities may exist for some species, such as lobster, they may not recover fast enough to offset the decline of other species.
And harvesters may suffer.
“During that period, if the stocks you’ve relied on in the past are going down and the stocks that you would like to rely on in the future haven’t reached levels where you can compensate for that, then there may be some challenges there,” he said.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
While some of the specific impacts may be area-specific, species- or even industry-specific, Memorial University geography professor Norm Catto says people should also keep the bigger climate change picture in mind and look for ways they, too, can help improve things.
When it comes to mitigating the emission of greenhouse gases, Catto notes that Atlantic Canadian provinces are not huge industrial powers and are not major emitters.
Individuals reducing their carbon footprint are not going to make a substantial difference as climate change is far more broadly a societal problem.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
“You can always come back to the argument that if each person does something, then that’s better than each person doing nothing,” Catto said.
You can stop using disposable plastic bags, drive less, or use energy-efficient appliances, for example.
“It won’t change the total amount of gas put in by the Earth as a whole by a very large amount,” he said. “But it does mean then that you are making a contribution and you can perhaps influence other people, politicians, other countries, whatever, to also start making contributions.”