What not to fix

Here’s a practical problem with trying to predict the effects of climate change and turn them not just into a bleak newspaper story but actual coherent government policy. The Canadian Press says that the full report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will go into some details about what different parts of the world can expect:

The UN study will identify coastal areas sensitive to sea level rise and cite Charlottetown as an example of a city vulnerable to increased flooding and storm surges, [Canadian scientist Gordon] McBean said. It will outline the risk of water shortages on the Prairies and of a sharp drop in Great Lakes water levels that could interfere with navigation.

The study will also highlight the risks to infrastructure in the North and in coastal areas, said McBean.

“The major railway line that connects Halifax with the rest of Canada runs along about a foot above sea level along the Bay of Fundy.

“We should be now doing the investments to make those critical transportation facilities less vulnerable by moving them inland.”

He goes on to say that the Tories have stopped funding research that would have guided climate-change adaptation strategies. We’ll see whether that gets restored in Environment Minister John Baird’s climate-change blueprint (due in the next week or so), like so many Liberal environment projects.

Hard-core research into what ought to be our top priorities for public infrastructure and how else Canada can expect to be affected is extremely important — stuff much more detailed than an international report could offer — because we can’t afford to do everything we theoretically might do to prepare and adapt. Rerouting a rail line along the Bay of Fundy is a fabulously expensive proposition (even if it’s only by the water at a couple of spots). Building levees around Charlottetown is even more so (and even then, how high should they be and to what standards?). We cannot do it all.

Publicly funded science should help differentiate between what ought to be public priorities and which ones ought to be private responsibilities and which ones ought not to be done at all.

We could easily spend ourselves into the poorhouse to head off catastrophes that never become reality, or that turn out not actually to be catastrophes. What if we spent billions on irrigating the Prairies with fancy technology to suck water vapour out of the air, only to find that warmer, drier conditions are perfect for some newly prized plant? In fact, in my fantasy example, we shouldn’t spend billions irrigating the Prairies at all, if they become irretrievably unsuitable for agriculture as it’s practised in 2007.

I suspect we’re in for decades of people demanding public subsidies to compensate for permanent changes in the weather, either in the form of straight subsidies for activities that don’t make economic sense or in public spending on infrastructure to support such activities — spending that’ll never be paid back. It’s going to be really, really, really hard for politicians to say no.

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