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Planning for climate change


Community decision makers discuss adaptation strategies at a workshop in Hawkes Bay.

By Rebecca Cohoe

You can’t change the weather, but it makes a lot of sense to prepare for it.
So says Dr. Tom Cooper, of Memorial’s Faculty of Business. At a recent Harris Centre Synergy Session, Dr. Cooper told participants that planning for climate change today could save communities in Newfoundland and Labrador a whole lot of money in the future.

“Climate change is a relatively new risk for municipalities to consider,” he explained. “As communities, we need to face the potential risks of climate change, recognize opportunities and prepare for trouble. Towns may have initiatives and plans that need reconsideration. For some, especially those in more remote areas, their whole way of life may be forced to change.”

Dr. Trevor Bell of the Department of Geography agrees, especially for communities whose lifestyle and livelihoods are closely tied to climate.

“2010 isn’t quite over yet but it has already set a record as the warmest first eight months of a year – 3.3 degrees Celsius above normal – since nationwide records began in 1948,” he said. And yet, many communities just “don’t have climate change on their radar.”

Others are adapting to changing climate conditions as a matter of course. “Sometimes it’s a matter of the communities making preparations without necessarily labeling the reason as climate change,” said Dr. Bell. “They don’t call it “climate change adaptation”: they just consider it ‘getting by.’”

He points to the example of snowmobile trails in Labrador. “We’re seeing the gradual movement of trails away from freshwater lakes and rivers and back into the woods. They’ve realized that to extend the snowmobile season, they have to stay off the freshwater ice.”

“There’s also a role for Memorial,” Dr. Bell continued “We’re training our geography students to be able to help these communities to identify potential challenges posed by climate change; for instance, areas of coastline that are particularly vulnerable to coastal erosion or access to water resources.”

Cooperation between different regions, from towns all the way up to provinces, is also a positive development in climate change adaptation planning in this province. For example, Bell is a project lead with Atlantic Climate Adaptation Solutions, an Atlantic provinces-wide project supported and managed by the Provincial Department of Environment and Conservation. One outcome of the project will see the development of a climate change adaptation workbook designed for municipalities in Newfoundland and Labrador.

It’s definitely a step in the right direction. For many non-scientists, climate change is a confusing issue: often it isn’t until the potential risks are explained in terms of a community’s perspective that the issue really drives home.

Consider the difference between telling a community leader that the mean winter air temperature will rise 0.4°C in the next decade, or simply stating that over the next ten years, there’s likely going to be less snow and warmer winters than in the past: “it’s about looking at the way a community works, understanding their priorities and finding the areas where there’s sensitivity to climate,” explained Dr. Bell.

Ultimately, communities need to understand what climate change will mean for them. “If a community doesn’t perceive a need, perhaps it’s not as vulnerable as others,” he said. “What one community values, another may not. There are a wide variety of communities, with different identities and goals, so for adaptation to be successful people need to see it as important.”

While it might look different from community to community, “better understanding and management of strategic risk informs more effective strategy development and planning, ultimately leading to stronger communities,” concluded Dr. Cooper. “In the end, it’s all a matter of adaptation.”

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