07/25/2014 01:07 EDT | Updated 09/24/2014 05:59 EDT

How Will We Stay Green When Nature Turns Ugly?

It is common these days to hear advocates of all stripes join hands and agree that humans and nature are one, as if this were some kind of novel apology for bad behaviour. If we are one with nature, then it is a decidedly altered nature. Having laid low the best parts of it, it now seems we will try to tame the rest, perhaps even the climate -- just as soon as we can figure out how. We already have our hands on the planet's thermostat and, while we may bemoan the heat, we are still turning up the thermostat when no one is looking.

One conclusion of the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on climate change is the following weather prediction: "Altered frequencies and intensities of extreme weather, together with sea level rise, are expected to have mostly adverse effects on natural and human systems." The word "risk" appears no fewer than 230 times in the report.

There's no question that the human footprint is deepening, and as nature responds in kind, staying out of harm's way will be part of how we respond as we go forward. Indeed, climate change will make this unavoidable and keep us busy.

Extreme weather: a new normal?

The phrase "extreme weather event" is synonymous with extreme water event, be it flooding, landslide, erosion or polar vortex. Old practices like building on floodplains as in Calgary are proving to be mistakes, especially where the ice-melt from the Rockies has always made downstream residents anxious on both sides of the mountains.

Even more so in the Great Lakes-St Lawrence, which already has an estimated 18 percent of the Earth's surface freshwater, and where climate models predict more precipitation to come, as well as more extreme weather events. Fortunately Great Lakes country got its wake-up call 60 years ago when Hurricane Hazel hit southern Ontario. Since then, community-based conservation authorities have implemented hazard-land protection, using the 100-year-storm as the definition of harm's way. These protected valleylands also offer accessible open space and biodiversity conservation.

If the Bow River event was a 100-year-flood, then the question becomes, "Are we ready for a 200-year event?" Extreme weather will be part of the new normal and land-use plans and development will adjust, either voluntarily or otherwise -- much as they have in Great Lakes Country. (To say nothing of most building codes, which throw up structures hardly likely to outlast a generation. A 21st-century building code should mean building for a 100-year minimum, and for maximum energy efficiency. Things get clearer when you're in it for the long haul.)

Then there's coastal flooding. Experts argue about how fast and where, but sea levels are rising and we will be adjusting to them for the foreseeable future. We know coastal property in Florida is not a good long-term investment but we are slow to bring the lesson home. Resisting sea-level rise, for example through dike upgrades around Vancouver lowlands, will cost tens of billions of dollars. How much are we willing to bet against these predictions?

Other predictions call for deeper winter colds that rupture underground infrastructure, and droughts that force evacuations, disrupt food supplies and increase fire risk.

In such matters, science doesn't seem to carry the day. What may change minds, however, is the legal requirement to insure properties. What happens when insurance companies refuse policies for high-risk behaviour, like building in harm's way, or increase premiums as quickly as they do for driving infractions?

Offsetting the human impact

On the good side, there is a growing acknowledgment that for every sustainable long-term development there must be a significant compensatory benefit for nature. In current jargon, this is the new calculation of "offsets."

Actuarial risk management is our oldest standing calculation of offsets. Insurance companies ask what behaviour requires what offsets, and they traditionally value those offsets in premium dollars. Now, however, they are also defining offsets in behavioural terms. What is the best way to stay out of harm's way? What is superior environmental practice? What is a reasonable offset? Is it insurable?

Some of the regulated offsets now in place include carbon offsets in British Columbia, wetland offsets in Alberta, species at risk offsets in Ontario and fish habitat offsets nationally. They are increasing in both number and novelty.

Carbon offsets, nature offsets, new offsets of all kinds

Carbon offsets have no doubt attracted the most attention because they are regulated in so many countries, and they have achieved a level of sophisticated risk assessment that makes them a model. The same rigour must be brought to nature offsets, , which compensate for harmful impacts on species and their habitats.

A growing number of corporations and landowners are eager to do more than required by environmental laws and, where impacts are unavoidable but legal, go beyond regulatory requirements to insist on a "significant net gain" for nature. This is good news. Offsets provide a new way to insist on positive outcomes, and a measure of how well we stay out of harm's way. It turns out that harm's way is also very often the natural habitats we prize, spaces for nature to succeed and evolve and provide its many ecological services.

A new future in harm's way

None of this progress means we should not reduce the emissions that are destabilizing the climate or reduce the extent of our footprint. But with what we've done already, the die is cast and a new harm's way is declaring itself. Working out the consequences of this, and re-designing and re-building with this in mind will be the most ambitious economic action plan a nation can have.

It's not clear whether the new economy of offsets will yield enough positive outcomes to change the current trajectories of either nature or our grand human project. However it is going to change the way business is done and enhance the outcomes of development decisions. Nature won't be so brutish if we support it as zealously as we do our own enterprise.

Written by John Riley, senior science advisor of the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and author of the award-winning A Once and Future Great Lakes Country (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2013). This post originally appeared onLand Lines, the NCC blog.


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