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Adapt to climate change or face infrastructure crisis, experts warn

Global warming will wreak havoc on Canada's infrastructure unless governments and individuals start adapting now, a panel of experts has told a Toronto gathering.

"We have a real crisis," said Paul Kovacs, executive director of the London, Ont.-based Institute for Catastrophic Loss told a meeting on the environment held by the Royal Canadian Geological Society and the National Round Table on the Economy and the Environment.

"Some 60 per cent of our infrastructure is more than 40 years old. It wasn't built for today's weather or for tomorrow's weather. Climate change is adding to the challenge."

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Citing work by McGill University engineering professor Saeed Mirza, Mr. Kovacs said Canada is facing a $400-billion deficit in infrastructure – its physical foundation of public buildings, roads, bridges, sewers, electricity grids, water purification plants and other critical installations – the result of a policy of "design, build and neglect."

His remarks were echoed by René Drolet, director of policy research for the National Round Table on the Economy and the Environment. "We are already committed to more [global] warming, even if we were to stop today all emissions of greenhouse gases. We need to adapt to climate change. It's real, here and now."

Eva Ligeti, executive director of Clean Air Partnership, said Canadian cities are increasingly vulnerable to a wide range of climate disasters. High-rise buildings are particularly at risk, since winds are stronger at higher elevations and heat more intense. By some calculations, a wind increase of just 25 per cent causes a 600-per-cent increase in the cost of damage.

Canadians, she said, need to start planning for adverse, weather-related contingencies. "If electricity fails, will we be able to get money from our cash machines? Will water stations pump water to our homes? [When elevators stop], how will we get the elderly and the sick down 30 flights of stairs? Planning policy has to catch up with carbon-change policy. We need a coordinated, multi-disciplinary response plan, embedded in planning documents. We need to develop our adaptive capabilities and reduce emissions before we reach the point where we can no longer adapt."

A few more enlightened Canadian communities, Mr. Kovacs said, are taking practical steps to adapt to the warmer world that most scientists now regard as inevitable – one in which carbon dioxide levels are said to be rising by two parts per million every year.

The University of Western Ontario, for example, recently decided to move the projected site of a new school of business administration; although the site is not currently on a flood plain, planners say it will fall to within the expanded flood plain footprint during the next 40 years, because of global warming.

Mr. Kovacs' Institute is also promoting a series of simple, but potentially important lab-tested changes in new building construction that would protect Ontario home owners against anticipated weather extremes.

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These include a backwater valve on sewers that would ensure that "things flushed down the toilet leave your house and don't come back" when heavy rains falls. Last year, he said, insurers paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to victims of sewer back-up. "But a $150 valve built into the pipe during construction could eliminate the risk of tens of thousands of dollars of damage, and reduce the cost of insurance."

The institute's lab also found that if home roofing tiles were hammered down with nails spaced six inches apart – instead of the current standard of 12 inches – wind speeds would need to be twice as powerful to cause damage.

Similarly, the use of inexpensive, tie-down metal strips where roofs are joined to a structure's walls would more firmly secure homes and other buildings against the ravages of hurricane-force winds.

All of these ideas are now being considered by the Ontario government as part of a consultative process examining the province's building code.

But even in the absence of public policy changes, Mr. Kovacs said, savvy new home builders could take advantage of these inexpensive innovations to gain a leg up in marketing their developments.

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About the Author

Based in Toronto, Michael Posner has been with the Globe and Mail since 1997, writing for arts, news and features.Before that, he worked for Maclean's Magazine and the Financial Times of Canada, and has freelanced for Toronto Llfe, Chatelaine, Walrus, and Queen's Quarterly magazines. More

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