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Adaptation framework including retreat image courtesy NRCAN

Climate Change

Canada Takes Necessary Step With Climate Planned Retreat Guide For Leaders

This effort was about retreat, one of the most contentious and challenging of adaptation approaches. Who wants to give up their home? Who wants to give up the building that their business has been in for potentially decades? Who wants to let go of high-value waterfront properties and their revenues? And yet, that’s where we are.

As our shared climate changes, our historic inaction necessarily brings a greater need for adaptation to change instead of prevention of it. Countries, sub-national governments and cities around the world are struggling with how to deal with slow-moving, multi-generation tsunamis. Cities on the coasts of oceans and the banks of rivers have been experiencing the challenges of climate change already, and now permafrost is thawing and wildfires are encroaching.

How can municipal leaders, whether elected, appointed or voluntary, cope with the accelerating rate of change and increasing risks to their fellow citizens and infrastructure necessary to the economic and social well-being of their towns and cities?

That was the question that National Resources Canada (NRCan) posed early in 2020. I was privileged to be part of the team that won the contract to assist NRCan and their cross-Canada advisory body to shape Canada’s guide for leaders, working through Gevity Consulting with Patrick Saunders-Hastings, Director of Life Sciences with the firm, and Brent Doberstein, PhD and a research professor focused on adaptation at the University of Waterloo, as the core research and authoring group.

I’m very pleased to be able to share the final guide: Planned retreat approaches to support resilience to climate change in Canada.

Planning for climate adaptation is a long-running, cyclical process. One of the key challenges related to this kind of planning is that it exceeds the duration of election cycles, and often the leaders who get it started.

The primary cycle of planning is familiar: Gain knowledge, assess risks, consult on options with the community, implement the actions chosen, monitor the results, then start again. Expect that things that were lower priority in one cycle to become higher priority in another, and solutions rejected by the community in one cycle to be embraced in a future cycle as distant risks become present dangers.

Within the space of adaptation, the literature is now leaning on the PARA framework and its four categories of adaptation: protect, accommodate, retreat, and avoid. Protection includes putting up flood barriers. Accommodating includes things like one-way valves in drains. Avoidance is about making sure that new development doesn’t go blindly into undeveloped at risk areas, creating future problems.

But this effort was about retreat, one of the most contentious and challenging of adaptation approaches. Who wants to give up their home? Who wants to give up the building that their business has been in for potentially decades? Who wants to let go of high-value waterfront properties and their revenues? And yet, that’s where we are.

Through a global literature review of over 300 pieces of academic, governmental and business literature, interviews with national and international adaptation experts, and case studies of ongoing planned and unplanned retreat across Canada, the team assembled leading practices. 22 practices across three major categories were identified, and aligned with the needs of municipal leaders in straightforward English and French.

Being a leader in a municipality is already a challenging job. It’s a juggling act across groups and individuals with often very different perspectives and priorities. Planning to take part of municipalities in use today and shift them elsewhere in the geographical bounds of the city or town, and preserving tax revenues makes it even harder. It can be tempting to defer attention in terms of nearer priorities, but this can put citizens in harm’s way. And it can be tempting to assume that federal or sub-national leadership will take coherent action.

But the fingerprint of change and the people impacted is unique to each town. The leadership of the town has to confront the risks with open eyes, get the right assistance to understand clearly the magnitude of risks and options to deal with them, then work through the process of change with their communities. Federal and sub-national agencies can help with this, and often have pools of funding, but each town needs to take ownership and make its own decisions with its citizens.

The new guide from NRCan will help. If you’re a municipal leader or your municipality is facing risks from climate change, download and share the guide. Use it to assist you to create an adaptation process, assemble the right resources around it and guide the inclusion of retreat within the options chosen.

And a good piece of news for leaders concerned that the discussions of retreat will be contentious. A decade ago, this was true. Since roughly 2015, as leaders raise the topic of retreat, municipalities are welcoming discussion of it, and significant groups are positive about it. It’s not a lightning rod, but an accepted part of the toolbox now. Case studies across Canada and discussions with US adaptation leaders such as AR Siders (CleanTech Talks Part 1 and Part 2), as well as the working experience of Canadian leaders such as Brent Doberstein and Anna Ziolecki (CleanTech Talks Part 1 and Part 2) has seen temperatures fall in these discussions with each passing year. No one likes retreat, but it no longer is instinctively and angrily rejected.

The last thought is that a planned retreat, as opposed to an unplanned one, can enhance the community. Creating a graceful withdrawal from an at risk region of your town opens up the possibility of creating a shared community park that is resilient to climate harm, and doesn’t put residents at risk when rivers flood, the seawaters rise or other climate damages impact your town. Across the world, communities are finding tightening community cohesion with the sacrifices of those required to move being honored and respected. While climate change has few silver linings, this can be one of them.


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Written By

is Chief Strategist with TFIE Strategy Inc, co-founder of distnc technologies, and Strategic Advisor and Board Observer for Agora Energy Technologies. He works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth and cost takeout in our rapidly transforming world. His published analyses of low-carbon technology and policy have been seen in Forbes, Quartz and the Leonardo di Caprio Foundation site. His work is regularly included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. He's available for consulting and speaking engagements, and Board positions.

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