November 23, 2011

As we all know from reading the paper, listening to the radio, and watching television, there are significant changes happening to our climate. Regardless of the causes of these changes, it is fair to say that our climate conditions are becoming more extreme, even in our own lifetimes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have identified eight categories of extreme climatic events:

  1. Drought
  2. Flooding
  3. Severe Storms
  4. Severe Winter
  5. Tropical Cyclone
  6. Extra Tropical Cyclone
  7. Wildfires
  8. Extreme Heat Waves

If we apply these categories of severe events to Canadian climate change, we see a number of examples of these severe events occurring here in our own country.

The Saguenay Flood in Quebec in 1996 and the flooding in Manitoba because of rain and melting snow1 illustrate these severe events. Other examples include the severe ice storm in Ontario and Quebec in 1998, the Calgary hailstorm of 1991, the BC/Alberta wildfires in 2003, the southern Alberta floods in 2005 and Hurricane Juan on the East Coast in 20032, to name just a few.

In a report by Environment Canada, "Extreme Weather and Climate Change", the authors stated, "It is clear that weather extremes are becoming an increasingly serious problem for society"3.

Before discussing the impact of climate change on municipalities, it is first important to briefly review the causes of climate change.

CO2 and Global Warming – The Debate

One of the most respected authorities on global change is the Intergovernmental Panel in Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC was created by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) "to provide the world with a clear scientific voice in the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts"4.

The IPCC released a report entitled "Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment" (1990), which stated in an executive summary that,

"A global warming of large size has almost certainly occurred at least once since the end of the last glaciations without any appreciable increase in greenhouse gases. Because we do not understand the reasons for the past warming events, it is not yet possible to attribute a specific proportion of the recent smaller warming to an increase in greenhouse gases."

The IPCC produced a graph indicating that, during the Medieval Warming Period between 950 AD to 1250 AD, parts of the earth were much warmer than today, while during the "Little Ice Age" between 150 to 450 years ago the earth was cooler.

Interestingly, in the IPCC's "Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report", they only discussed global warming since 1850. IPCC states between the years 1995 to 2006 the earth has been the warmest since 1850. The IPCC in the same report arrives at the conclusion that greenhouse gas emissions are the cause of global warming.

Frankly, it is difficult to reconcile the 1990 report with the 2007 report. In 1990, the IPCC acknowledged that the earth was warmer than it is now with no evidence of CO2, yet the IPCC now determines that the earth is presently warmer because of the increase in CO2 or greenhouse gas emissions.

This inconsistency in findings has not been missed by scientists. In fact, two Canadian scientists, Steven McIntyre and Ross McKitrick, requested the data that supported the IPCC conclusions. Evidently the IPCC had relied upon a study conducted by Dr. Michael E. Mann. After the data was finally produced to McIntyre and McKitrick, they found the analysis to be flawed.

This created considerable controversy in the US government, causing the House Energy and Commerce Committee to appoint Dr. Edward Wegman to head a committee to investigate the findings of Mann5. The committee found that,

"Dr. Mann's assessment that the decade of the 1990's was the hottest decade of the millennium and that 1998 was the hottest year of the millennium cannot be supported by the analysis."6

The committee went even further when reviewing the conclusions that CO2 emissions cause global warming. The committee stated that "making conclusive statements without specific findings with regard to atmospheric forcings [such as CO2 emissions] suggests a lack of scientific rigor and possibly an agenda"7.

The findings of the scientific community and the Wegman Committee should raise considerable concerns for the public.

There appears to be no consensus on the subject of the causes of global warming. However, it is clear that Dr. Mann's study, which the US government relied upon, appears questionable.

Scientists like Ian Plummer have been very critical of Mann's study, and he has stated that other factors like "variable solar activity, solar wind and cosmic rays appear to be far more significant factors on the Earth's climate than previously thought"8.

According to Plummer, there are many factors that change climate and we are unable to measure these variables or use them to predict climate changes. It is fair to say the climate will continue to warm and cool as it has for millions of years.

The Extreme Events Facing Municipalities

Regardless of one's views about the causes of global climate change, there are a number of environmental events occurring that municipalities need to consider.

For example, the World Water Report has predicted that by the middle of the century at least seven billion people in 60 countries will be without enough water, while two billion people in 48 countries will suffer shortages10.

There are a number of factors that contribute to a shortage of water. The first is the expected increase in the world's population from 6.7 billion to 9.1 billion by 2050. The more people, the more water will be required. It should be noted that only 2.53% of the earth's water is fresh11.

Of the 2.53%, one third of fresh water is found in underground aquifers, two-thirds in ice caps and glaciers and only 0.3% found in lakes, rivers and wetlands12. In all of the continents the water table is decreasing because of the over-pumping for agriculture, which consumes 70% of the water in aquifers13.

Water conservation will have to be a priority for municipalities. Incentives will need to be used to reduce the consumption of drinking water. Thess may include that all homes and commercial facilities will require water-efficient toilets, the prohibition of grass watering, and the capture of rain water for outside use. Industries will have to find ways to reduce and recycle water.

Another phenomenon that seems to be occurring is the increase in precipitation intensity, or how hard it rains or snows14. Towns and cities today are covered with impervious materials like asphalt and cement, which make them more prone to flooding15. This means during high precipitation intensity, water will be directed to the municipal water structures, which will be unable to handle the volume of water.

This will cause flooding of homes and buildings. Insurance companies will certainly see an increase in property claims; however, they may pursue municipalities for inadequate infrastructure. Litigation could increase against municipalities and the insurers of municipalities. Since most municipalities have a substantial deductible to keep premiums low, municipalities will be at financial risk if insurers are successful for claims for inadequate infrastructure.

Heavy rains can also increase flooding of low lying areas and developments that have been built on marsh land. Low lying land and marsh land are natural basins for water. Allowing development on these lands may increase the possibility of homeowner claims against developers and municipalities.

Depending on the drinkable water resource for the municipality, flooding can contaminate lakes causing the municipalities to issue water advisories to either boil water or stop drinking the water. Often this will require affective notice systems to be in place to advise the residents of the community within a reasonable time frame. In Ontario there are 444 municipalities, of which 144 presently have water advisories in place. Municipalities will also have to expend money to correct the contamination and to transport drinkable water to the residents.

Another serious problem cities and towns will have to face is the increasing population and the migration of people to cities. It is expected by 2025 there will be 8 billion in the world. At the moment, approximately 48% of the world's population live in towns and cities. By 2030 that number is expected to be 60%16. In Canada in 1951, 38% of Canadians lived in rural areas. In 2008, 19.6% lived in rural areas17. This is almost a 50% reduction in rural dwellers in Canada.

This will mean that cities and towns will be "subjected to overcrowding, lack of shelter and competition for resources, the problems presented by displaced populations may turn out to be the largest public health challenge regarding the global effects of climate change"18. In an article by Waring and Brown (2005), the authors suggest that, "overcrowding in shelters presents a new set of health problems, potential for diarrhea, respiratory and other communicable disease to occur."19 In another study, Krug et al (1998) found that there was a "dramatic increase of 13.8% in depression and suicide rates following hurricanes, floods and earthquakes for a four year period following these disasters"20.

The increase in temperature globally has serious health impacts. One study conducted in three cities in Quebec predicts that mortality would increase in the summer from 2% and 0.5% to the year 2020, and then to 10% and 3% for the years around 2080."21 NASA also foresees that "hotter summers and more frequent fires will lead to more cases of heat stroke and deaths, and to higher levels of non-surface ozone and smoke which would cause more 'code red' air quality days."22

Besides the direct effect higher temperatures will have on health, "warmer climates, with longer growing seasons, will allow for more rapid development and more generations of both insect pests and diseases that have more than one generation per year."23 It also stands to reason that if there is an increase in pests then pesticide use will also increase, thereby causing other health concerns24. Longer and hotter growing seasons will also cause plants to be stressed, increasing the likelihood that plants will be more susceptible to diseases25. It has also been found that higher temperatures cause a reduction in the vitamin content of fruits and vegetables26.

If hotter temperatures increase pests and diseases for plants, then it is likely crop yield will be reduced, causing food shortages for an increasing global population. Combined with the shortage of fresh water, this could create a global shortage of food within the next twenty years, to the point that the world could lose as much grain as is produced by the U.S. and India combined27.


This brief overview of the effects of climate change on Canadian infrastructure, agriculture, water resources and human health should cause municipalities some concern.

As of 2002, eighty per cent of all engineering infrastructures owned by provincial, federal, municipal and territorial governments consist of roads and highways, sewer systems, wastewater treatment facilities and bridges28. It is clear that the "effect of rapid land use changes and increased climatic variability point to the problem that conventional storm water management systems that were designed to remove runoff via piped conveyance systems are no longer adequate to deal with larger and more intense storm events and the associated pollution."29

One way to reduce the amount of water entering the storm water system is by "preserving the local onsite water balance"30. This means that water will first have to be contained at the site of the individual property owner31. The next stage is at the neighborhood level where the focus will be on street and parking lot runoff management32. Finally, the individual and runoff systems will have to be integrated with the watershed management system33.

If storm water is not properly managed, municipalities can expect flooding of residential and commercial property and contamination of drinking water. This may result in an increase in litigation against municipalities for inadequate storm water management. If the storm water runoff contaminates the drinking water then the municipality will have to face the costs of purifying the water, supplying drinking water to residents in the interim and having to notify residents of the status of the drinking water.

If the municipalities have a large agriculture base then the over-pumping of water could also cause water shortages for the municipalities, depending on their water supply. If there is a shortage of water then farmers will have poor crops, which will ultimately result in a financial crisis for the farmer. The loss of the farming industry in many communities would also impact the financial stability of the municipality.

If, as predicted, the summers are hotter and longer, then pests and disease will negatively impact the crops. This will probably increase the use of pesticides and fertilizers used by the farmers which could also contaminate drinking water. According to the Conference Board of Canada 2011, fertilizer runoff from agriculture is one of the three main sources of water contamination.

Municipalities also have to be concerned with pollution. The main pollutions of concern are sulfur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), particulate matter (PM) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)34. Fortunately, the use of the aforesaid pollutants have decreased since 1985; however ground level ozone has risen in the past eighteen years36. The Canadian Medical Association has stated that the "value of human health damages from air pollution exceeds eight billion dollars each year"37.

Although air pollution legislation is controlled by the provincial and federal governments, municipalities can play an important role when the provincial and federal governments set policy in this area.

Municipalities also have to consider emergency services and how to have sufficient resources to manage emergencies related to climate change. As mentioned earlier, it has been suggested by NASA that the increase in temperatures will cause more heat strokes and deaths38. This will significantly increase the burden on the healthcare system and emergency services. Since municipalities have to supply certain emergency services then it is realistic to expect that emergency service expenditures will increase for municipalities.

Along with climate change, the Canadian population is getting older. The Canadian Office of the Parliamentary Budget Office has estimated that government health expenditures will increase to 14% of GDP by 2040 before rising to over 60% of GDP by 2084 – 2085. At the moment, the Government of Canada has focused on the aging population and how it relates to the rising medical expenditures. If, however, hotter summers and pollution increases, then the health care expenditures predicted by the government may to be too low.

Although there is an ongoing debate as to whether CO2 is harming the environment, it is clear that burning fossil fuels cause pollution. In particular the open construction of carbon fuels, which "produce soot, smoke, ash, unburnt fuel and chemicals containing sulfur, chlorine, nitrogen, fluorine and metals."39

Pollution and the depletion of carbon fuels mean municipalities will have to conserve energy and use less carbon fuels, by exploring renewable sources of energy and using less carbon fuels to operate vehicles and facilities.


Municipalities will have to adapt to climate change and the effects it will have on the infrastructure, health of residents, water resources and agriculture.

This will mean planning for emergencies, funding to improve infrastructures and emergency services. Municipalities will have to develop and enforce laws that promote the protection of the environment. It is clear that planning will have to include all levels of government. However, municipalities are on the front lines of climate change and must be active when it comes to changing the minds of businesses, individuals and all levels of government in Canada.

1Ray Grigg, Shades of Green: Extreme Weather – Floods, Fires, Storms and Droughts, The Common Sense Canadian,

2From Impacts to Adaptation: Canada in a Changing Climate 2007, National Resources Canada, pg.1-4
3David Francis and Henry Hengeveld, Extreme Weather and Climate Change, Environment Canada, 1998
4Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
5Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth, Taylor Trade 2009, p. 93
6Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth, Taylor Trade 2009, p. 95
7Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth, Taylor Trade 2009, p. 95-96
8Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth, Taylor Trade 2009, p. 23
9Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth, Taylor Trade 2009, p. 10
10Gayle Ehrenman, Not a drop to drink, Mechanical Engineering, Sept. 2003, p. 47
11Gayle Ehrenman, Not a drop to drink, Mechanical Engineering, Sept. 2003, p. 47
12Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch,eds, Post Carbon Reader, (Watershed Media 2010), p. 160
13Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch,eds, Post Carbon Reader, (Watershed Media 2010), p. 160
14Robert Henson, The Rough Guide to Climate Change, (Rough Guides 2011), p. 68
15Jonathan Patz and R. Sari Kovats, Hotspots in Climate Change and Human Health, British Medical Journal (International Edition), London: Nov. 9, 2002, Vol. 325, Iss.7372, pg. 1094)
16Gayle Ehrenman, Not a drop to drink, Mechanical Engineering, Sept. 2003, p. 48
17Statistics Canada
18Jonathan Patz and R. Sari Kovats, Hotspots in Climate Change and Human Health, British Medical Journal (International Edition), London: Nov. 9, 2002, Vol. 325, Iss. 7372, pg. 4)
19The Threat of Communicable Diseases Following Natural Disasters: A Public Health Response, Disaster Management and Response, Volume 3 Issue 2, Pages 41-47
20E. Krug; M. Kresnow; J. Peddicord; L. Dahlberg; K. Powell; A. Crosby et al, Suicide After Natural Disasters, New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 338 (6), 373-378
21The potential impact of climate change on annual and seasonal mortality for three cities in Quebec, Canada, International Journal of Health Geographics,Vol. 7, 2008, Special Section p. 1-12, 12 p
22Earth Observatory, NASA, p.3
23McKeown, Warland and McDonald, Long-term climate and weather patterns in relation to crop yield: a minireview, NRC Research Press, July 31, 2006
24McKeown, Warland and McDonald, Long-term climate and weather patterns in relation to crop yield: a minireview, NRC Research Press, July 31, 2006, p. 1035
25G.J. Boland; M.S. Melzer; A. Hopkin; V. Higgins and A. Nassuth, Climate change and plant diseases in Ontario, Canadian Journal of Plant Pathology, 26(3)(2004): 335-350
26McKeown, Warland and McDonald, Long-term climate and weather patterns in relation to crop yield: a minireview, NRC Research Press, July 31, 2006, p. 1035
27World Economic Forum 2009
28The Age of Public Infrastructure in Canada, Valerie Gaudreault and Patrick Lemire, Statistics Canada, 2009-11-12
29Jiri Marsalek and Hans Schreier, Innovation in Storm Water Management in Canada: The Way Forward, Water Quality Research Journal of Canada, p. v
30U.S. Department of Defence 2004
31Jiri Marsalek and Hans Schreier, Innovation in Storm Water Management in Canada: The Way Forward, Water Quality Research Journal of Canada, p. vi

32Jiri Marsalek and Hans Schreier, Innovation in Storm Water Management in Canada: The Way Forward, Water Quality Research Journal of Canada, p. viii
33Jiri Marsalek and Hans Schreier, Innovation in Storm Water Management in Canada: The Way Forward, Water Quality Research Journal of Canada, p. viii
34Options for Managing Industrial Air Pollution in Canada: The Use of Market-Based Instruments, 35Options for Managing Industrial Air Pollution in Canada: The Use of Market-Based Instruments, Sustainable Prosperity, Policy Brief, June 2011
36Environment Canada 2011 Regional Air Quality, Environment Canada
37Canadian Medical Association 2008, No Breathing Room: National illness Costs of Air Pollution,
39Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth, Taylor Trade Publishing 2009

This content is not intended to provide legal advice or opinion as neither can be given without reference to specific events and situations. © 2017 Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP.