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The director of the Climate Research Lab at the University of PEI, Fenech and colleagues at Simon Fraser University had just completed a project called Coastal Impacts Visualization Environment (CLIVE).
The idea behind CLIVE was simple: turn what was confidently known about coastal erosion rates, sea-level rise and Atlantic storm activity and upload it into a 3D video-game engine that generates a bird’s eye view of how PEI’s coast is expected to change over time.
“The gasps were so loud,” recalled Fenech, who visually simulated what water levels would be 30, 60 and 90 years from now. At each 30-year interval, the ocean gobbled up more land, property and infrastructure. A thousand homes disappeared, as did light houses, golf courses and water treatment plants.
PEI is highly vulnerable, but it’s not the only province in Canada at risk. Coastal cities and towns throughout the Maritimes are closely studying how flooding and erosion caused from rising sea levels and storm surges will impact private property and municipal infrastructure over the coming decades.
More than 6,000 kilometres to the west, the City of Vancouver’s climate adaptation strategy estimates that $ 25 billion worth of real estate — not including city infrastructure — is threatened by sea-level rise this century. Improving the effectiveness of dikes along B.C.’s coast could alone cost $ 10 billion.
Nationwide, up to 28,000 dwellings could be under water by 2050, either temporarily as a result of storm surges, or permanently as a result of sea-level rise, according a 2011 report by the since disbanded National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. A more recent report from Climate Central determined that 737,000 Canadians will be affected by sea-level rise if average global temperatures end up rising by 2 degrees.
“It should be up to Canadians to have this debate, and we’re not having it,” said Jason Thistlethwaite, a sustainable development professor at the University of Waterloo who studies climate adaptation.
Homeowners tend to think their property insurance covers overland flooding, but it doesn’t unless damage results directly from a sewer backup. For this reason overland flood risk has historically been socialized in Canada, meaning the federal government steps in as required to help an affected province with disaster assistance. Taxpayers end up footing a big part of the bill.
But climate change turns what were relatively rare events into more frequent occurrences. As sea-level rise accelerates and storms increase in intensity, coastal flooding will cause more damage more often.
It’s a legitimate question, said Thistlethwaite. “As these events happen more frequently and form a pattern in people’s minds, it’s going to be more difficult to call them an act of god.”
Last year, the federal government signaled in its budget that it was time to “explore options” for a national approach to residential flood insurance. Since then, Aviva Canada and The Co-operators have started to introduce overland flood coverage, and RSA Canada is expected to follow.
“This is a good thing,” said Thistlethwaite, adding that the emergence of overland flood insurance will send an important market signal that was previously lacking. “But there’s a lot of uncertainty as to what the coverage will look like and what it means for people with socioeconomic vulnerabilities.”
For example, will the premiums accurately reflect future climate risk, such as sea-level rise? Research gathered by Thistlethwaite in PEI suggests past increases in property insurance premiums are mostly a response to claims increases in the wake of specific weather events or the age of infrastructure in a community. It’s also based on known rates of coastal erosion.
However, climate science tells us sea levels over the next 100 years are expected to rise faster than in the previous century, and warming oceans are likely to fuel more powerful coastal storms. Combined, the resulting storm surges will cover more area, erode more land and damage more property.
“The challenge for the insurance industry, like anything in finance, is that it bases its assumptions on the last 100 years,” he said. “But history is no longer a reliable indicator. They’re driving down the road by looking in the rear-view mirror.”
Evidence shows the insurance industry is highly vulnerable to climate change, “but they’re not factoring in the risks,” he added.
In PEI, erosion appears to be the biggest concern, but how sea-level rise can cause more flooding and make erosion worse hasn’t yet affected insurance premiums or the value of properties, and the province currently doesn’t factor sea-level rise into property setback rules.
“Sea-level rise wouldn’t be something modeled into a valuation report because it’s not concrete, it’s too speculative,” said Alexandra Baird Allen, a senior manager at Turner Drake & Partners, a real-estate consultancy in Atlantic Canada.
Real-estate agents also won’t talk about it, but Fenech said there is evidence some property buyers are starting to ask questions. They want to know how much a particular property is at risk before making a purchase. Sometimes, they hunt down Fenech at the university in hopes of getting a personal CLIVE demonstration.
“I’ve had a lot of people come to my climate research lab insisting, sitting at the door, refusing to go away until I showed them,” he said. “Usually, they’re about to sign some papers and want to know if a purchase is a good one to make.”