Dr. David Sauchyn, Professor University of Regina: Notes for National
Council of Women of Canada AGM, June 2nd, 2007, Regina Inn,
Climate changes projected for the mid 21st century are outside the range
of recent experience with natural variability. These changes include
higher temperatures in all months, higher precipitation in January to
May, but less precipitation than present during June to August, when we
need the water most.
Climate includes natural cycles, plus a recent rapid increase in global
temperature that can be simulated and fully explained only by increases
in the concentration of greenhouse gases.
The European history of the prairies is short and therefore nonaboriginal
Canadians have limited experience with climate – at most 120
years. This is a small window on the variability of our climate system.
Paleoclimate records indicate that just before Saskatchewan was settled
by Europeans, there were droughts of longer duration than the 1930s, the
longest dry period experienced by Canadians of European descent. Thus
there is a good chance that future climate will include events, droughts
and wet years, unlike any that we have experienced, simply because we
have not seen the full extent of climate variation. In addition to this
natural variability, we have virtually guaranteed a more variable future
climate by modifying the earth’s atmosphere and land cover; one of the
more certain impacts of global warming to cause both more severe
precipitation and drought.
Most impacts of climate change are adverse, largely because our
economies and activities are adapted to a short history of climate
variation that does not capture the full range of climate cycles and
extremes. Prairie communities and economies are adapted to the climate
of the twentieth century. From this short perspective, climate and water
seem rather consistent and thus resource management practices and
policies reflect a perception of relatively abundant water supplies and
ecological resources, within a relatively stationary environment. Future
water and ecosystem management will have to abandon the assumption
of a stationary environment.
The major impacts of climate change are changes in the distribution of
water availability and ecosystems. One of the most certain projections is
that winter and spring will be wetter and summer will be longer and
warmer and, therefore, tend to be drier. The net result later in this
century is on average less surface and soil water by the end of the
summer. The only way of realizing these drier summers is to have more
warm dry years than wet cool years.
A clear and major impact of global warming in Canada is a shorter and
warmer winter. There are obvious advantages to our economy, health
and safety. There are disadvantages, however. Pests, like the pine beetle,
have begun to survive winter. The major advantage of a cold winter is
snow, our most abundant, predictable and reliable source of water.
Increasingly we will depend on episodic rain storms as the source of our
renewable water supply.
Warming would continue for centuries, even if greenhouse gas
concentrations were to be stabilized. The climate system has memory
and momentum. Humans already have influenced the climate of the next
Therefore some adaptation is required to minimize the impacts of
climate change and to take advantage of opportunities provided by a
warmer climate. The degree of adaptation required will depend on the
degree and effectiveness of mitigation, the policies, and technologies to
reduce and capture greenhouse gases.
We have relatively high level of adaptive capacity but it is unevenly
distributed and must be mobilized to reduce vulnerability. Government
should develop policy and programs to enable individuals, industry,
communities and government agencies to build resilience to climate
change and variability.
The elderly, aboriginal and immigrant populations are the fastest
growing and also among the most vulnerable to health impacts.
Economic vulnerability often precedes negative health outcomes
associated with extreme weather.
Rural communities, especially isolated ones with limited economic
diversity, are most at risk due to limited emergency response capacity
and dependence on climate-sensitive economic sectors (agriculture,
forestry). Rural aboriginal communities will experience these same
stresses, in addition to threats to a subsistence-based livelihood.
We should take advantage of a warmer climate and the opportunity to
improve our institutions, infrastructure and communities to build
resilience and lower risk. Planned adaptation is a component of
sustainable economic development. Relevant existing policy instruments
include sustainable community initiatives, infrastructure renewal,
environmental farm plans, watershed basin councils and principles of
adaptive forest management and integrated water resource management.
Strategies for sustainable urban growth and for sustaining rural
economies need to include the evaluation of climate risks and
opportunities. For example, rural economic development will be
strongly influenced by the impacts of climate change on natural
resources, especially water supplies.
Adaptation to climate change will involve not only the development of
appropriate technologies and a more efficient use of existing resources,
but also the need for new institutional arrangements. There is a gap in
understanding the extent to which existing policy might discourage or
even prevent adaptation. There is a need to incorporate climate change
considerations into existing policy instruments. Current policies might
be inappropriate and “harbour risk”.
To accommodate climate change and variability, we need to create a
buffer by using energy and natural resources more effectively and
efficiency; nature is governed by laws of the conservation of mass and
energy; we have much to learn from natural systems; we should work
towards decoupling rates of economic growth from water and energy
Potential climate change impacts need to inform public policy and
decision-making processes; we should incorporate climate change
considerations into existing policy instruments; apply adaptive strategies
to policy review and renewal and to business plans that include
performance measures, and auditable statements about adaptation targets
(losses and damage avoided)
We should avoid creating fear about climate change; this tactic produces
only short-term motivation; while learning, sound policy and building
networks sustains long-term change