In conversation with…Dr David Sauchyn

Climate change is impacting our lives and businesses right now. Going forward, what can we expect and what can we do to make a difference in the face of the challenge?

Human-driven climate change is real. It’s happening now, and it’s making extreme weather events more frequent and widespread. 

According to the Insurance Brokers of Canada’s 2019 Weather Facts, of the 20 most damaging weather events in Canada since 1983, 13 occurred in the Prairies. Of the top 10 events from the list, six have happened in the Prairies since 2010. And those six events account for nearly $8 billion in insurable losses (in 2018 dollars).

But that’s just scratching the surface of the impact that climate change-driven extreme weather events are having on the region. The costs of the insurable losses are tremendous, but the impacts tend to be limited in scope, both geographically and economically.

It’s drought that is the costliest event in terms of loss and damage, as the socio-economic impacts are widespread and reach throughout the economy. In 2002, crop losses alone were in the billions of dollars, meaning negative farm income in Saskatchewan and zero farm income in Alberta. 

So, what does climate change mean for the manufacturing sector and the larger Prairie economy, and what can be done to address the challenges posed?

Prairie Manufacturer’s Editor, Jeff Baker, spoke with Dr. David Sauchyn, Director of the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative (PARC) at the University of Regina, and Partner Lead for PARC’s participation in ClimateWest.

This interview took place July 14, 2022 and has been edited for length and clarity.

Jeff Baker (JB): What is the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative (PARC), and how is it connected to ClimateWest?

Dr David Sauchyn (DS): Established in 2000, PARC is a university-based research centre at the University of Regina, where we do climate change research. Over the last 22 years, we’ve discovered there’s huge demand for information on climate change.

A few years ago, we were approached by Environment and Climate Change Canada, who asked if PARC would help create an organization on the Prairies that would make our research more accessible. We’d been doing hundreds and hundreds of projects generating climate-related information, but we didn’t really have the capacity to make it available to a wider audience, so ClimateWest is the organization doing that on our behalf.

It’s a federal-provincial initiative, co-funded by the provincial and federal governments, and there’s a board of directors with representatives of the three Prairie provinces.

JB: Before our chat, I was reading through the Prairies chapter of the Canada in a Changing Climate: Regional Perspectives Report – the chapter of which you were a Collaborating Lead Author – and it was an eye-opening read. I looked at the list of weather-related events and their corresponding insurable losses, and I noticed the Prairies seem to be over-represented on the list and the losses keep getting bigger over time.

So, why are the Prairies so susceptible to weather- and climate-related events?

DS: Well, it’s part because of the nature of our climate on the Prairies – what we call continental climates. These occur in the centre of a continent and tend to be more variable because the weather comes from the oceans – the water in the system comes from the oceans – and you can’t get any further away from the oceans than in the middle of the Prairies or similar regions like the middle parts of Russia (including Siberia), China, and Kazakhstan. 

In coastal regions, because they’re closer to large bodies of water that act like buffers, the less variable the climate and weather. The waters tend to protect you from extremes because water will absorb heat when it’s hot and release it when it’s cold. On the Prairies, we don’t have big bodies of water like the oceans or the Great Lakes, so we have an extremely variable climate.

The nature of our industries in this region also means that we’re very sensitive to weather events and climate change. Agriculture, food processing, and forestry – just to name a few are very susceptible to climate extremes, and the connectivity between sectors and regions means the effects aren’t limited to just those industries. 

JB: What should folks on the Prairies – and by extension their businesses – be expecting in the coming years and decades because of the changing climate?

DS: Well, you hear quite a bit about global warming and global climate change, and that’s what you’ll see and hear about most in the newspapers and online. But there’s also regional climate change that is part of the larger picture, and it’s not affecting all locales the same way.

We need to think in terms of what to expect here, and to begin with, Canada is warming two times faster than the global rate, and the Prairies and the North are warming three to four times faster than the global rate.

We also need to know that most of the warming is in winter, not summer. Yes, we’re getting more hot days in the summers, but the increases are more pronounced and accelerated in the winters. It means the winters just aren’t as cold as they used to be, and while we’ll still get periods of -40, it will be fewer of them and they won’t be the long spells of super cold temperatures that the old timers might talk about.

Now, I know… who on the Prairies is going to complain about a shorter or warmer winter, but there are going to be adverse effects.

JB: I know some of these effects include an expanding territory for the Mountain Pine Beetle and the devastation it can have in the forests, and the shortened season for the ice roads to our northern and remote communities. What other adverse effects and impacts might we be seeing?

DS: You named two of the big ones. Another big one is that there are a lot of things – pests, pathogens and diseases, and invasive species – that historically just don’t survive a week or two of -30. However, if we’re only getting a day or two of that deep cold, then we’re going to find those invasive species and pathogens becoming more common in the region because they’re able to survive a warmer winter.

The other aspect is that on the Prairies, we depend so much on snowfall – in the mountains to the west and on the plains. Snow is great because it sticks around. It’s a natural storage of water, it melts in the spring, and fills our lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. 

As winters warm, we’ll see more rain – as opposed to snow – and rain doesn’t stick around long, rather it runs off quite quickly. It will be a radical shift in the hydrological cycle for the region, where now we see about a 50/50 split between rain and snow over the year. 

JB: So, if we’re going to see a shift to more rain instead of snow over the year, I would guess that could have some impact on how we live and work, won’t it?

DS: The impacts will vary between locations and groups of people, but I expect that one of the major impacts is going to be in the disruption of supply chains and transportation.

Just look at the immense flooding in BC last winter and the fires in the summer. The most immediate impact was cutting the Prairies off from the most important marine ports we have for both imports and exports. The effects were felt across the country, and it led to supply chain issues that are still being felt almost a year later. 

There’s a distinction between what we call slow-onset or incremental changes or rises in temperatures and rainfall, as opposed to these sudden and catastrophic events like floods due to storms. While perfectly natural, these sudden events in a warmer climate are becoming more intense and more frequent. 

JB: Is there a way to plan for the potential impacts of these climate change-related events without necessarily, for lack of a better term, going overboard? 

DS: That’s a good question. I mean, if you had unlimited resources, you would just over-engineer and over-plan, but we need to be efficient and responsible.

There are two extremes here. One, those people who argue there’s a lot of uncertainty – that it’s not certain the Earth is warming – therefore we shouldn’t waste all the money. The other is people sort of catastrophizing and saying we’re already too late. 

The reasonable approach is somewhere in between the two. You have to practice due diligence, not necessarily go overboard, and you have to be aware of what’s coming and plan accordingly. The place to start is what’s called ‘no regrets’ or ‘little regrets’ – good ideas and actions to take whether or not you think the climate is warming.

For example, if you’re in an area prone to flooding – be it on a floodplain or somewhere else – you should probably have some sort of physical protection for your facility or proper flood insurance in place. If the scientists are correct, and these floods will occur more often, then it was a good idea to invest in those things – what we call adaptations. You want to start with activities, infrastructure, or plans that are just good business practices. 

JB: You mentioned adaptation there, and I also in the report that word used alongside the term ‘mitigation.’ Tell me about the difference between the two and how each plays a role in addressing climate change. 

DS: Mitigation is reducing our impact on the climate, mostly by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and the combustion of fossil fuels that produces carbon dioxide. A lot of the mitigation effort is looking for alternative sources of energy and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. We can also plant trees which take gases out of the air, we have artificial ways of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, and we can convert combustion engines to electric motors. 

Most, but not all, of these activities and actions are technical solutions to slow the rate of climate change, and that’s where much of the effort has been placed to date.

It’s only recently there’s been real recognition that the climate is definitely warming and we’re having trouble slowing the change, therefore we need to adapt to a new climate. Adaptation is the plans and activities to minimize the impact of climate change; it’s preparing and learning to cope and respond so you’re not as adversely affected. 

Both mitigation and adaptation represent reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and simultaneously reducing our vulnerability to climate change. 

JB: What would you say to someone – a business leader, for example – who plays the ‘What about…’ card when talking climate change and the need to address it… you know, the folks who say ‘we emit almost nothing and are expected to make changes, but the larger companies and countries aren’t doing their share?’

DS: Well, it’s a perfectly fine argument, because after all in Saskatchewan, for example, we produce a tiny fraction of the world’s greenhouse gases, although on a per capita basis, we’re very near the top of the list. People need to heat their homes and businesses, and we burn coal to produce electricity, and that’s just normal life, right?

However, the counter arguments are strong. We – not just in Saskatchewan, but across the Prairies and Canada – have the financial resources. We have the intellectual resources. We have the technology to do something about it. So, let’s show some leadership – let’s show India and China how it’s done and sell them the technology, because eventually they’ll have to come on board and they can purchase technology developed in Canada. 

Even though we don’t produce a lot of the world’s greenhouse gases, companies here could be at a competitive disadvantage when the rest of the world wakes up and says, ‘Oh, we’re going to do something about it in a big way.’ It’s part of why the oil sands are taking up more environmental initiatives and climate change-related work. The industry recognizes they have a terrible reputation and countries will no longer buy Canadian oil unless something is done about it. 

JB: Climate change seems like an area where collaboration is critical between all sorts of groups, including industry, academia, government, NGOs, etc. How can a group of manufacturers or industry leaders come together to do something about this and start down the path of positive change? 

DS: Great question! Our organization, PARC, is a collaborative, so even though we’re university-based and we do research, we only do research if there are other partners involved. All our research has that external partner or end user who can act on what we learn. 

There are models for what you’re suggesting. For example, insurance companies have already come together to form a collaborative, and companies in the financial sector have formed international and national associations there for the greening of the planet.

Just about every industry has already done something of what you’re suggesting, and it just takes some will, and it takes some leadership to come together and agree to act. Maybe you’re part of an association – local, provincial, regional, or national – and you just have to form a committee or board tasked with addressing the issue.

Once you’ve made the decision to explore the impacts, take action, and even disclose your company’s or industry’s greenhouse gas emissions, you’ll have to seek data, information, and advice. That’s why PARC and ClimateWest and others like us exist. 

JB: Do you have hope for the future when it comes to climate change? 

DS: Yes, I think I do. It depends on the day, and there are some days when I don’t feel so hopeful, but I get to work with so many young people here at the university and that gets my hope up on those days when it’s flagging. 

It’s the Millennials, the Gen Z’s, and younger who are coming into their own, and they’ve got lots of energy and good ideas that will help make a difference. I read about some of the start-ups and innovative solutions that are being created, and it sounds so exciting!

We have the capacity – financial and intellectual – to deal with this problem, and we have the resources, especially in Canada. As a country, we’ll be okay – we’ll find our way through this – but it’s other much more vulnerable countries and regions that might not survive any more rise in sea levels, and we must help them. Maybe it’s helping with financial resources, but it might come down to accommodating the coming climate refugees.