Communities & infrastructure

In this session, our panelists discussed the impact of climate change on communities. The discussion focused on the challenge and capacity for communities to respond to adaptation needs, especially as it relates to infrastructure.

Below is a detailed description of the session

Watch the recorded session:

Dr. Joseph A. Daraio 
Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, Memorial University

Dr. Kelly Vodden 
Environmental Policy Institute, Grenfell Campus, Memorial University

Dr. Kathleen Parewick 
Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL)’s Community Collaboration and Development Officer 

  • Disproportion impact: Small, rural, and remote communities are disproportionately impacted by the changes that are occurring partly because livelihoods in these communities are intertwined with the natural ecosystems that are changing.

  • Five key areas of impact: Kelly Vodden opened the session by referencing a guidebook for communities, 7 Steps to Assess Climate Change Vulnerability in your Community (a link to the guidebook is provided in the resources section of the Forecast NL website). The guidebook identifies five key weather and climate-related issues, and walks communities through how those issues might affect their community. These issues include river and coastal flooding, erosion and slope movement, the impacts of freeze and thaw cycles on roads, disruptions to livelihoods or recreational activities due to reduced snow and ice cover, and concerns about drinking water and forest fire.

  • Limited capacity to respond: Reduced capacity is also a challenge in many of these communities where there is limited financial and human resources to deal with level of changes happening and expected – this is particularly acute in arctic and sub-arctic regions were these changes are occurring more rapidly.

  • Engineering infrastructure is costly: Engineers have developed and are developing ways to incorporate climate change into design – for many issues the solutions have been developed but the methods require expensive engineer planning teams and municipalities do not have the capacity to implement those solutions.

  • Opportunity for greater collaboration between engineers and communities: There is a gap between technical expertise in engineering and what community members and decision makers understand about the problems and the solutions. There needs to be more of a common space for engineers and communities where engineers engage with community members who live with the infrastructure to find things that work, and create a better understanding of possible solutions.

  • Human resource capacity is limited: Most municipalities only have one or one half-time staff to handle all administration functions of the organizations. Town generally do not have staff with the expertise or time to utilize the tools available. With declining populations they also have less revenue and tax income to take on additional tasks or services.

  • Leveraging local strengths: Rural and remote communities have strength of connections to each other and to place, and the understanding of changes that are happening in place – this can be leveraged to help communities adapt.

It’s important for economic development officials to work with these professional organizations and service providers to ensure that they’re considering climate change impacts, and adaptation options, and mitigation options in their work and bringing that expertise to the community planning. Every community space faces its own specific issues around specific infrastructure projects or areas that might be at risk, but there’s a lot of commonalities there so it makes sense to speak regionally. There are a lot of opportunities that exist under a regionalized system.

Dr. Kathleen Parewick: Most of our communities are coastal communities, so a lot of the infrastructure that is already in place are thing things that eroding coastlines and flooding is encroaching on. We need to look at a wide array of infrastructure solutions that will speak to other types of transformations that may be happening in the community at the same time.

Flexibility and local-specific solutions: There are a suite of issues occurring affecting many communities and each community is being affected differently by climate change. Their cultures, ways of life, and economies are all different, so we need flexible programs and supports to help communities where they are.

Some of the technical issues and impacts are different in these different types of areas. For example, someone doing infrastructure design is much more limited in the kinds of solutions they can use in urban areas due to the less amount of land available and the increased diversity in terms of property ownership compared to rural areas. Another issue is that the impacts of climate change are different in some areas – we’ve got several different climate zones on the island alone, not to mention Labrador. Sone of the biggest issues that the province faces that will probably be the most impactful, especially in the longer term, are sea level rise, coastal impacts, and coastal erosion.

Question #1: “MUN should be a model for climate change. Prior to the construction of the new science building using concrete and steel was a huge carbon footprint taken into consideration? If not, why? And in a province where an abundance of mass timber with such an excellent natural renewable resource why would we continue to build such buildings? None of the panel was involved in the decision making around the core science building, but it raises an interesting point, and how can communities really balance that infrastructure decision making when sometimes the choices that can be more climate-friendly might be more expensive or unknown, or even just require innovation that’s either outside of a given skillset or maybe just not top of mind?”

  • Dr. Joseph A. Daraio: With engineering in general, doing any kind of construction design you have to deal with building standards – there probably was an opportunity to have the building be more sustainable and green. We don’t have the answer as to why or why it wouldn’t be pursued; it could be policy-related, and cost also comes into play.

  • Dr. Kelly Vodden: MUN should be looking to be a model for climate responsible behaviors and construction.

  • Dr. Kathleen Parewick: All of our major public institutions need to be models.

Question #2: “Is there any initiative to conduct vulnerability assessments on a regional scale? In other words, given many individual communities do not have the resources is there initiative for pooling resources with federal, and provincial support to first identify any major vulnerabilities for each region and priorities for addressing them?”

  • Dr. Joseph A. Daraio: Regional vulnerability assessments are a good idea but there’s also a lot of variation even within regions as to what’s vulnerable. Often the particular communities impacted are quite localized – it’s almost a think regional, act local mindset that’s required.

  • Dr. Kelly Vodden: The best situation with regional efforts is that you recognize the diversity within the region and can work within that local scale, but within the regional frame recognizing that there are some commonalities.

  • Dr. Kathleen Parewick: The exercise of asset management has a whole component that is about assessing risk, identifying vulnerabilities, and being able to anticipate and plan for them.

Question #3: “Part of the problem I see here is the lack of information strategies to help the climate change narrative on a community by community basis. As a result there is a reaction of reactive, as opposed to proactive approach to the challenges and problems climate change presents. What sorts of broader information strategies should be adopted to build these often quite local narratives?”

  • Dr. Kathleen Parewick: Asset management approaches that formerly may have been happening in their own little space are now going to be embedded in budgetary processes. There are going to be ongoing conversations reflecting on the power of certain practices to be a part of the transformation that we need to have.

  • Dr. Kelly Vodden: The work that MNL does has been critical in this. There’s an awareness-building and information-sharing process that has been really critical to get municipal leaders at the community level to think about how these things affect them. The awareness and the change have to happen at the local level and there are a lot of opportunities to increase this dialogue and to share those lessons across communities.

  • Dr. Joseph A. Dairio: Developing alternative scenarios for managing things within communities is useful so as to enhance learning and communication and see how to solve problems in a way that is unique to your community, but with existing resources or existing techniques that would engage community members, engineers and planners all at once.

Question #4: “There is data recently released suggesting that we are experiencing an increasing number and intensity of wind events and yet I don’t hear much talk about this as a risk that needs closer attention that needs closer attention in the context of infrastructure systems. Any thoughts?”

  • Dr. Joseph A. Dairio: One of the things that Dr. Joel Finnis, a climate scientist at MUN, indicates is that long term there isn’t much of a visible trend in the data of wind; in the short term there is variation in the winds so it seems like we just don’t know yet – so much of the information is anecdotal, which is not to say it isn’t true but it’s hard to verify it. This is an area where people are looking to get more information and there is research ongoing.

  • Dr. Kathleen Parewick: Higher energy storms and particularly wind systems in the offshore are driving the wave action that is the mechanical feature of coastal erosion.

Question #5: Any last thoughts, recommendations for communities going forward?

  • Dr. Joseph A. Dairio: Engineers need to recognize that we don’t have all the answers and that we need to engage with local communities to find solutions that fit for everybody.

  • Dr. Kathleen Parewick: Communities in Newfoundland and Labrador continue to look forward to working with students that are in relevant programs, and MNL is really interested in helping to secure work term opportunities for a lot of the folks that are available to help with things like vulnerability assessments of infrastructures.

  • Dr. Kelly Vodden: Continue to think about climate change and its implications in all that you do and try to integrate it into your work, as opposed to seeing it as something separate or add-on.