01/27/2016 01:33 EST | Updated 01/27/2017 05:12 EST

Adaptation Should Be A Priority For Canada's Environment Ministers

CANADA - JUNE 15: Aerial view of Cape Clarence, Somerset Island, Canadian Arctic Archipelago, Canada. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images
CANADA - JUNE 15: Aerial view of Cape Clarence, Somerset Island, Canadian Arctic Archipelago, Canada. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Last month in Paris, Canada pledged to do its part to keep global warming to "well below" 2°C. This week, the provinces' environment ministers will meet to discuss what strides they need to take to honour this international commitment to dramatically curtail our carbon emissions.

With oil prices currently in free fall, the need for a national strategy to end our dependency on fossil fuels is as pressing as ever. But with average global temperatures already having risen almost 1°C above preindustrial levels, there is also a pressing need for Canada's leaders to make climate change adaptation a priority domestically and in its support for developing countries.

The newly penned Paris Agreement calls for developing and developed countries alike to prioritize national adaptation planning. It sets out an adaptation goal -- a first in international climate change agreements. Regrettably, the goal is not backed by clear targets or new financial commitments.

This is, in part, because how much we need to adapt to climate change depends on how successfully we mitigate temperature rise. But the impacts of climate change are already being felt at home and abroad, especially as extreme weather events intensify. So action is required now and into the future, no matter how ambitiously we cut emissions.

Here in Canada, plans for climate change mitigation are needed urgently to deliver the commitments we made in Paris. Given the provinces' recent actions and the new role Ottawa is playing, there is reason to be optimistic about what environment ministers will achieve on mitigation.

But adaptation is also pressing. Floods in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta in the past five years have cost provincial economies billions of dollars -- the 2013 floods in southern Alberta were the most expensive climatic event in the history of Canada, with a pricetag of over $6 billion. Climate change has also been particularly severe in Canada's Arctic, where warming is taking place at almost twice the global rate and the loss of sea ice -- among other effects of climate change -- is having a serious impact on livelihoods.

As troubling as these developments in Canada are, they pale in comparison to extreme weather events in developing countries. When Hurricane Ivan struck Grenada in 2004, the damage was more than twice the Caribbean nation's GDP. In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan killed over 6,000 people in the Philippines, and 2015's Cyclone Pam damaged over 90 per cent of the homes in Vanuatu.

Internationally, adaptation to climate change has been drawing greater attention since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997. Recognizing that developing countries will be disproportionately impacted by climate change, efforts to respond to developing countries' adaptation needs have included the Least Developed Countries Fund in 2001, the Adaptation Fund also in 2001, and creating a process for developing countries for national adaptation plans in 2010.

Staff at my organization, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), have spent the past 15 years researching and championing adaptation efforts in Canada and internationally. We are partnering with the University of Winnipeg to launch a Prairie Climate Centre that will provide cutting edge scientific research to a range of public and private sector decision makers, and currently spearhead a global network of developing countries and bilateral donors who are working to strengthen and implement National Adaptation Plans to promote climate resilient development.

Yet, adaptation has had a relatively low profile here in Canada. As a wealthy country that has done its share of contributing to climate change, we have a responsibility to do more to help poorer countries to adapt to the changes that are already undermining their development prospects. We also should focus on adaptation planning for Canada; some groundwork was laid for a national adaptation plan in Canada in the 2011 Federal Adaptation Policy Framework, but the Paris Agreement's emphasis on adaptation

planning in all countries is an opportunity to strengthen this.

When they meet this week, provincial leaders will strategize on ways to cut emissions and adapt to climate change. They have their work cut out for them. But as Canada's leaders "turn to face the strange," as the late David Bowie sang in his 1971 hit "Changes," ministers should also recognize that early investment in adaptation -- at home and abroad -- will go far toward preventing damages and costs from climate change related disasters in the long term.

Scott Vaughan is the president and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). From 2008 to 2013 he was Canada's federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development.

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