OTTAWA — The House of Commons held an emergency debate Wednesday night on the devastating floods in British Columbia amid increased attention to how ill-prepared the country is for the effects of a changing climate.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the debate to once again assure British Columbians that the federal government, which has already deployed more than 500 Canadian Armed Forces members, will be there to support them and help them rebuild from the flooding and deadly mudslides.
But he also took the opportunity to underscore the need for aggressive action to combat climate change.
"We know that this is not an isolated case," he told the House.
Trudeau noted that B.C. suffered devastating wildfires and extreme, record-setting temperatures this summer and that Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador are currently experiencing their own floods due to heavy rain.
"If the last year has shown us anything, it's the impacts of climate change are here sooner than expected and they're devastating," Trudeau said.
He pledged to put "the full power of government and the entire force of our commitment behind real, meaningful climate action," including measures to reduce carbon emissions and a national adaptation strategy.
While his government has already invested "record amounts" of money to help build more resilient infrastructure, Trudeau promised to increase funding for municipalities through the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund.
Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair repeatedly stressed that preventing similar climate-induced disasters in the future will mean "significant new investments."
Vancouver Island Green MP Elizabeth May said her husband's farm is currently sheltering "climate refugees" for the second time this year. The world, she said, is now on track to shoot "well past" the target of keeping global warming to no more than 1.5 C. because no country, including Canada, is doing what is needed.
"This is not about bad weather. This is about whether human civilization can survive," she told the Commons. "No issue could be more riveting, the stakes could not be higher."
Among other things, May said the federal government should cancel the TransMountain oil pipeline expansion project and put the people to work rebuilding communities hit by extreme weather and the infrastructure needed to prevent future devastation.
Conservative MP Ed Fast, whose Abbotsford riding is at the heart of B.C.'s flooded region, preferred to focus more on the immediate disaster and needs of those impacted. But he too acknowledged: "Time is not on our side."
"These kinds of events will occur with increasing regularity. The effects of a changing climate are becoming increasingly self-evident," he said.
Fast said all levels of government in Canada and the U.S. were aware of the potential for devastating floods in Abbotsford but didn't act to prevent them.
"The bottom line, we all knew what the risks were and should have seen it coming but nothing substantive was ever done about it."
The Conservatives, Greens and NDP had all requested the emergency debate, which was supported by all parties.
The atmospheric river, which dropped 300 mm of rain on parts of southern B.C. early last week, led to deadly mudslides and washed out highways that killed four people and temporarily cut off land links to the Vancouver area from the rest of Canada. Overland flooding also washed out dikes, destroyed water treatment plants and forced thousands of people out of their homes.
On Tuesday, two counties in Nova Scotia declared a state of emergency as a rainstorm battered the province's east coast, washing out roads and bridges.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, the southwestern town of Channel-Port aux Basques was cut off by road entirely when rain washed out parts of the Trans-Canada Highway and the only other secondary road leading in and out of the town.
Thus far, Dale Beugin, a vice-president at the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, said attention has been mainly focused on cutting greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the climate crisis from getting worse. The fact is, he said, the climate emergency is already here.
"Adaptation has kind of spent too long as the poor cousin of climate change policy," he said. "And that is starting to change now but I think we're seeing that it has to change a lot faster, given the horrible disasters we're seeing across the country."
The federal government said in Tuesday's throne speech that it will ensure the promised national adaptation strategy will be finished by the end of next year, in a bid to tie together federal, provincial and municipal plans, and the widespread impacts climate change is having.
Multiple reports in recent years have identified what is most vulnerable in Canada to climate change, pointing usually to infrastructure like roads, bridges and power grids, the North, fisheries and the health and well-being of individuals.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Insurance Bureau of Canada ran an analysis in 2019 of what it would cost to handle the adaptation needs in Canada's cities and towns and concluded at least $5.3 billion is needed from various governments every year.
It's not clear how much is being spent now, although B.C. NDP MP Richard Cannings estimates it's less than one-fifth of that.
The national disaster mitigation and adaptation fund has been allocated about $3.4 billion for helping provinces pay for adaptation projects over the next 10-12 years. There are other funds promised for improving wildfire-fighting capacity and producing better flood maps.
Federation president Joanne Vanderheyden, mayor of the Ontario municipality of Strathroy-Caradoc, said during the election it asked all parties to commit another $2 billion to the disaster mitigation fund over the next three years, and at least $1 billion annually after that.
"That's the number we believe can be a start and then, you know, add on to that every year," she said.
No party agreed to that specific ask, she said, but with the devastating images on both coasts, it has never been more clear it's needed.
"We can do this," she said. "We need to get moving, it's critical, we need to do it now."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2021.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press