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Status on Adaptation


Reducing greenhouse gas emissions alone is not enough to address the challenges associated with climate change. It is also necessary to adapt. Many impacts of climate change are now being observed across Canada (see Chapters 38) and around the world (see Chapter 9 and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007a, b). Moreover, further change is locked into the climate system — the Earth and its atmosphere are committed to centuries of changing climate, including associated sea level rise (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007a).

In anticipation of the impacts of climate change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted in 1992 with the fundamental objective of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that avoids dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. One of the important criteria for assessing what is ‘dangerous' is the ability to adapt. The Convention therefore acknowledges that adaptation is necessary and provides for assistance to the most vulnerable countries in meeting costs of adaptation.

The question today is not whether adaptation will occur, but when and how it will occur. Some adaptation will occur spontaneously; examples of this are already apparent in Canada and around the world. In other cases, adaptation requires effective planning, co-operation and co-ordination. A proactive approach is likely to improve the success of adaptation initiatives and reduce the associated costs.

Adaptation and mitigation are complementary responses, and both are essential in addressing climate change. The role of adaptation and its relationship to mitigation have received less attention than mitigation alone (e.g. Klein et al., 2007), but it is clear that adaptation will be more feasible and effective if the rate of climate change is slower and the magnitude smaller. Although little is known about the costs of adaptation (e.g. Churchill et al. 2006; Stern, 2006), it is clear that the more the climate changes, the more difficult and costly adaptation is likely to become. Eventually there are limits to adaptation.

Momentum for adaptation to climate change is building among a few innovators. Individuals, communities, civil society, the private sector in industry, business, and commerce, and governments at all levels have roles to play in adaptation. The wide range of players highlights that adaptation can be complex, particularly at regional and national scales. Complexity also results from the unequal distribution of climate change impacts, costs and benefits by regions and localities, by economic sectors and by different social groups, as well as differences in the capacity of these players to undertake adaptive actions.

It is broadly recognized that there is a need to give greater attention to adaptation, and a positive start is being made. Understanding of the risks and opportunities arising from climate change, and the processes of adaptation, has been increasing significantly. For Canada, this progress is evident in the research results presented in the preceding chapters of this assessment. Although much of the focus has been on impacts, there are examples of practical on-the-ground adaptation, both in Canada and internationally, that are contributing to enhancing the understanding of adaptation processes.

There remain knowledge gaps. Examples of questions where further insights are needed include:

  • How much adaptation can be expected to take place spontaneously by people and industry acting on their own, and in their own self-interest?
  • What kind and quality of information about climate change risks is needed, and by whom and how should it be supplied?
  • To what extent is guidance and promotion required?
  • How can responses be co-ordinated, and how will the responsibilities and the costs be distributed?
  • What level of adaptation is required in the interests of public safety?

Answers to such questions would help inform the identification of priorities for adaptation action. While the generation of more knowledge is important, it is also recognized that knowledge must be effectively communicated. Lack of understanding is one of the chief barriers to effective adaptation in Canada today.


The need for adaptation to ‘normal’ climate has always been present (Burton, 2004) and has a long history of professional and managerial practice in specific disciplines or professions. In the context of climate change, there has been rapid growth in research and writing on the subject of adaptation since the UNFCCC was opened for ratification in 1992 (e.g. Smit et al., 1999, 2000). Policy frameworks for adaptation have been developed (United Nations Development Programme, 2005), the concept of vulnerability has been elaborated upon (see Chapter 2), and initial quantitative measures of vulnerability have been proposed (Adger et al., 2004; Downing and Patwardhan, 2005). In addition, compendia of tools and methods for impact and adaptation assessment have been compiled (Feenstra et al., 1998; United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2005), and the need and potential for technology development and transfer have been explored (Klein et al., 2006). Thus, a strong foundation for the development of adaptation policy and the implementation of adaptation measures has been created.

Canada's approach to adaptation to climate change, like that of virtually every other developed country, remains in its early stages of development. Canadian experts have contributed substantially to the development of adaptation theory and practice through such organizations as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Adaptation actions that make both the present and the future more sustainable, sometimes referred to as ‘no-regrets’ measures, are often cited as the key to moving forward despite uncertainty. Adaptations in building and infrastructure design, water and energy conservation, renewable energy generation, and diversification of economies are win-win strategies that provide useful starting points for communities to increase their adaptive capacity.

Professional, expert and management groups working within sectors are accustomed to using their own institutional processes and tools to manage risk, timing of capital stock turnover and business case presentation. These groups now share the need to factor climate change into their work, and face similar challenges in devising the best ways to achieve this. Past practices (that are still being used in many instances) make the assumption that climate ‘normals’ of the past will also apply to the future, and often rely on empirical analysis of the historical climate record. This assumption can no longer be considered correct, and such analysis therefore no longer provides an adequate basis for decision-making. Increasingly, efforts are being made to incorporate information on climate trends and future climate projections. Expert judgement will be increasingly required, and will be most accepted when trend analysis and climate scenarios point in the same direction. This is the case for most, but not all, climate impacts in Canada. For example, despite historical trends of decreased runoff in much of northern Quebec, climate models consistently project increasing runoff in future (see Chapter 5). However, for the foreseeable future, a combination of trend analysis and scenarios seems likely to offer the best strategy for incorporating climate change information into decision-making in many professional fields (Carter et al., 2007).


Policies and measures to cope with climate variability and extremes have long been used effectively in Canada. Indeed, much of Canadian history can be seen as the successful struggle to thrive within a harsh and varied climate. Adaptation to ongoing and future climate change will involve both a continuation of past initiatives and the introduction of new approaches. Many of the lessons learned from adapting (either successfully or poorly) to past climate, including variability and extremes, will inform future adaptation decisions. What differentiates past adaptation to ‘normal’ climate from adaptation to climate change are the high rate of change that is projected and the associated uncertainties. It needs to be understood that there will be no return to the previous ‘normal’. Instead, we face an ongoing process of change that will continue for decades to centuries. It is therefore not a case of planning for a different stable future climate, but of building the capacity and flexibility to cope with whatever evolving climate may bring in the future.

Both implementation of operational adaptations and the facilitation of future adaptation by increasing adaptive capacity are required (Smit and Wandel, 2006). Ideally, climate change adaptation initiatives will be integrated with other programs and driven by goals that extend beyond preparing for climate change. This is just the beginning of a process of integrating (mainstreaming) climate risks into decision-making, such that adaptation decisions are based upon understanding of changes in both climatic and non-climatic factors (Klein et al., 2007).

The capacity to undertake adaptation varies greatly across Canada — between and within regions, communities and sectors — owing to a large number of economic, social, institutional and location factors (e.g. Smit and Wandel, 2006). As such, a range of motivations drive adaptation — from protecting health and safety during extreme weather events to making businesses more competitive, efficient and profitable, as well as sustaining economic development in the longer term. The examples presented in Table 2 illustrate that many actors, including individuals, community groups, the private sector and all orders of government, are involved in climate change adaptation and reflect ways that Canadians are now starting to adapt.

As noted by the Conference Board of Canada, there is considerable scope for adaptation in the private sector (Churchill et al., 2006). However, while there are indications of increasing awareness, the Conference Board report concluded that more preparations and precautionary measures are needed (Churchill et al., 2006). Industry and professional organizations, such as the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers and the Canadian Institute of Planners, are working to include climate change adaptation in their professional curriculum. Professional organizations, such as the Air and Waste Management Association and the Canadian Water Resources Association, are also placing climate change adaptation on their agendas. Obstacles to adaptation in the private sector include the perceived costs of innovation and associated competitive disadvantage in the absence of demands for higher standards from consumers or stricter codes and standards set by governments.

The role of governments in adaptation often involves finding a balance between protecting the safety of the public and facilitating and promoting adaptation without discouraging innovation, initiative and enterprise. Recent government program initiatives to facilitate adaptation are summarized in Canada's Fourth National Report on Climate Change (Environment Canada, 2006). There are some circumstances where regulation, such as revisions in the codes and standards for infrastructure, may be necessary in the interests of public safety, to ensure that changing climate risks are factored into design and construction. At the time of writing, initiatives by the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers, the Canadian Standards Association and the National Round Table on Environment and Economy are investigating various aspects of infrastructure adaptation in Canada. The examples provided in Table 2 of adaptation by different actors are indicative of the types of responses that will be needed on a much larger scale as climate change unfolds. Exactly how such activities can best be expanded in a timely and effective manner is yet to be determined. It is clear, however, that co-operation within and between all levels of government, the private sector and civil society, as well as the research community, is essential. As in other public policy areas, serious consequences can flow from failures of integration and co-operation.


The impacts of changing climate in Canada will have implications for other countries and vice versa (see Chapter 9). Some of this is related to competitive advantages and global trade supply-demand dynamics. For example, with a longer and warmer growing season, Canada may require less imported fresh fruits and vegetables. There are also issues associated with the impacts of climate change on human health and migration, and transboundary waters. A detailed discussion of potential direct and indirect effects on Canada arising from climate changes elsewhere in the world is presented in Chapter 9, which concludes that fully understanding the implications of climate change for Canada requires accounting for the international dimensions.

It is also important to consider international dimensions in adaptation decisions. For example, adaptation measures and policies adopted in one country could serve as trade barriers or subsidies, and thus attract attention under international trade agreements. Such possibilities lie in the future and are likely to unfold gradually. It is nevertheless important for policy-makers and industry in Canada to understand these broader economic implications of adaptation to climate change.

Many other nations, particularly those in the developing world, are likely to be more adversely affected by climate change than Canada. The higher frequency and severity of weather-related disasters are already significant obstacles to development, and create more demands for humanitarian aid (Red Cross Climate Centre, 2007). There is a growing need for technical and financial assistance to developing countries to help them adapt to climate change and associated extreme events (see Chapter 9). The increasing losses from weather-related disasters world-wide are also having impacts on insurance and reinsurance costs (Linnerooth-Bayer and Mechler, 2006).


TABLE 2: Selected examples of adaptation initiatives undertaken by individuals, community groups, industry and governments in Canada.
Adaptation example References and/or chapter
  • Northerners are more frequently using insect repellents, bug nets and window screens to deal with the increased proliferation of insects.
Nickels et al. (2002)
Chapter 3
  • Hunters in the Arctic have increased the use of the global positioning systems to assist navigation in unpredictable or challenging weather.
Ford et al. (2006)
Chapter 3
  • Homes and cottages are being built farther back from the coast.
Chapters 4, 8
  • Residents of remote coastal communities are better prepared for shortages (i.e. power, food, transportation) due to recent experience with inclement weather conditions.
Chapters 4, 8
Community groups and organizations
  • The community of Arctic Bay, NU has shifted a portion of its narwhal quota from spring to summer hunts to reduce risks associated with ice break-up conditions, and to increase chances of hunting success.
Armitage (2005); Community of Arctic Bay et al. (2006)
Chapter 3
  • Residents of Pointe-du-Chêne, NB organized an emergency shelter in response to increasing flooding risk, and lobbied elected officials for less vulnerable road access.
Chapter 4
  • A community group in Annapolis Royal, NS undertook mapping of potential storm surges that has resulted in revision of emergency measures.
Medhi et al. (2006)
  • The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists published a report educating residents about the potential impact of climate change on ice safety conditions from year to year
Egginton et al. (2007)
Chapter 6
  • Production barges have been used in the Mackenzie Delta rather than a land-based production facility, in recognition that higher temperatures and rising sea levels are exacerbating flood risk.
Chapter 3
  • Thermosyphons have been used in the construction of several major infrastructure projects in the North to induce artificial cooling of permafrost under warming conditions.
EBA Engineering Consultants Ltd. (1995)
Chapter 3
  • Agricultural producers are purchasing crop insurance to offset losses caused by inclement weather.
Wittrock and Koshida (2005)
Chapters 6, 7, 8
  • Some forestry companies have started using high-flotation tires on their vehicles to help navigate wet or washed-out conditions, allowing them to work in a wider range of weather conditions.
Cline et al. (2006); Mellgren and Heidersdorf (1984)
Chapter 7
  • The forest industry in central BC is seeking to extract as much merchantable timber as possible from forests affected by the mountain pine beetle epidemic. The industry is also attempting to develop alternative markets for beetle-killed wood.
Pederson (2004)
  • Producers have changed their final product (e.g., from fresh fruit to juice) when the season has not favoured original intentions.
Risbey et al. (1999); Belliveau et al. (2006)
  • Ski resorts are diversifying activities offered to encompass as many seasons as possible.
Scott (2003)
  • Municipalities along the Quebec eastern North Shore have introduced regulations to limit development in zones vulnerable to coastal erosion and flooding.
Chapter 5
  • Westbank, BC has included climate change in the Trepanier Landscape Unit Water Management Plan.
Summit Environmental (2004)
Chapter 8
  • The town of Vanderhoof, BC is engaged in a vulnerability assessment pilot project with the Canadian Forest Service, with a specific goal of being able to plan adaptation to climate change.
Natural Resources Canada (2005)
Chapter 8
  • Water meters have been installed in the Southeast Kelowna Irrigation District and several Canadian cities (e.g. Kelowna, BC; Sudbury, ON; Moncton, NB) to reduce water consumption.
Chapters 4, 6, 8
  • Regina, SK has increased urban water conservation efforts.
Cecil et al. (2005)
  • Smog and heat-health warning systems have been implemented in Toronto, ON and Montréal, QC.
Rainham et al.(2005); Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux (2006)
  • New Brunswick's Coastal Areas Protection Policy establishes set-backs for permanent structures and could facilitate planned retreat.
New Brunswick Department of the Environment and Local Government (2002)
  • Alberta's Water for Life Strategy addresses climate change impacts in areas that are currently water-stressed.
Government of Alberta (2003)
  • British Columbia's Future Forests Ecosystem Initiative incorporates climate change adaptation into forest management.
BC Ministry of Forests and Range (2007)
  • Research and networking have been supported through a range of federal, provincial and territorial programs.
Environment Canada (2006)


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