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More extreme weather is going to cost us, in more way than one

We’re still a week away from spring making its official arrival, but milder temperatures earlier this month melted much of the snow, causing some of the typical spring flooding, though with relatively little impact.

Our region is usually spared such hardships – you have to go back more than four decades to the Cambridge flood of 1974 to find something on a large scale. We’re also fairly immune from the hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes we see elsewhere on the globe. And while tornados are a possibility, past occurrences haven’t come with the same frequency or wrought the kind of destruction we see in, say, the U.S. Midwest.

We’re not immune, however, from the impacts of a shifting climate, including more extreme weather.

If climate models are on target, we can expect more extreme weather days ahead, even putting aside the human contribution to global warming/climate change.

Predicted changes would significantly decrease the duration of the annual snow season and lengthen the growing season. They could increase the frequency and severity of extreme heat events in summer.

If the models hold, we can expect more than just rising temperatures. Greater impacts could include changes in precipitation patterns, in soil moisture, and possibly in the frequency and intensity of severe weather events.

Changes in weather patterns may affect the frequency and intensity of pollution episodes.

Increased heat stress, and possible increases in the number or severity of episodes of poor air quality and extreme weather events could all have a negative effect on human health. A warmer climate may facilitate migration of disease-carrying organisms from other regions.

Ontario falls prey to a number of natural hazards: drought, heat waves, floods, rain, snow and ice storms, tornadoes, and even hurricanes, although they’re rare. Small changes in average climate conditions are expected to generate significant changes in extreme events.

Experts anticipate fewer extremely cold days and more extremely hot days and more severe thunderstorms, which can cause injury and property damage.

Staying out of the climate change debate, the insurance industry is nonetheless spending a considerable amount of time crunching the numbers – assessing risk is their business, after all – and they see plenty of reasons to worry. Lately, the industry has been more proactive, essentially urging mitigation efforts through pitches to government and the public alike.

Insurance companies, which top no one’s most-popular list, aren’t doing so for the public’s benefit per se. The industry doesn’t care about you, it cares about its profits. In the ideal world, it collects ever-increasing premiums and pays out nothing, with government forcing consumers to keep paying nonetheless.

But its goals somewhat align with the public’s in that most people want to avoid making claims as much as insurers want to avoid paying them.

According to a new insurance-centric study from the Canada Climate Law Initiative, severe weather damage in Canada caused $2.4 billion in insured losses in 2020, more than half of which was due to flooding.

Flooding is Canada’s costliest and most frequent natural disaster, with flooding damage accounting for 80 per cent of federal disaster assistance payments over the past couple of decades.

The government plays no small role: for every dollar that insurers pay out for home and business insurance claims because of severe weather, the insurance industry estimates that the government pays out $3 to recover the public infrastructure that was damaged.

There have been some flooding incidents this year, but it’s been a relatively quiet time, though spring has yet to arrive in earnest. We’re unlikely to be so lucky in the future. AGW skeptic or otherwise, there’s no denying the climate is in flux, and that we’ll have to deal with the consequences, which include more disasters and strains on both insurers and government budgets.

The growing frequency of weather-related disasters, and resultant strain on insurers and, thus, ratepayers is tackled in the CCLI report written by UBC law professor Janis Sarra, Life, Health, Property, Casualty: Canadian Insurance Company Directors and Effective Climate Governance.

“Mean global temperatures are already 1 degree C higher that pre-industrial temperatures. Canada is warming at twice the global rate, and the Canadian Arctic at almost three times the rate.

“If the current warming rate continues, the world could reach human-induced global warming of 1.5 degrees C as early as ten years from now, with serious consequences for economic activity, water and food security, and the health and well-being of countless individuals. In Canada, increasing temperature and precipitation extremes are already contributing to the frequency and intensity of acute events such as floods, wildfires, windstorms, heatwaves, and droughts.”

It’s clear that severe weather is on the rise across Canada. Events that used to happen every 40 years can now be expected to happen every six. Homes are damaged more frequently by heavy rainfall, hail damage, storm surges, tornadoes and hurricanes. The once-in-a-century flooding in southern Alberta in 2013, which costs billions, will likely reoccur much sooner than 2113. The same with disasters elsewhere. There’s no denying the devastation, and the huge economic impact.

Despite the warnings, perhaps the largest barrier to any major change is human nature: we’re quite content with our lives today, and see no need to change that for some potential long-term benefit, one that’s unlikely to materialize in our lifetimes.

Interestingly enough, should the forecasted problems arise, it won’t matter at that point if the climate changes are naturally occurring or manmade: we’ll still have to cope with such things as rising sea levels, increased storm activity, desertification and other threats to farmland, to name a few. Expect the unpredictability to continue. And it’s not going to get better on its own accord.

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