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CAMPAIGN: Future of Our Planet (2022)

The Time Has Come to Manage and Build Climate-Resilient Infrastructure. And Here’s How.

nature out in the open
nature out in the open
Quentin Chiotti

Quentin Chiotti

Practice Lead for Climate Risk & Resilience, Matrix Solutions Inc.

Matthew Sutton

Matthew Sutton

President & CEO, Matrix Solutions Inc.

The effects of climate change are already being felt today. As we continue the fight to prevent the worst outcomes in the climate crisis by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the time has come when we also need to protect ourselves and our critical infrastructure from future climate-related physical risks — especially more extreme weather events.

Every year we’re told that the most important time to act on climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is today, rather than tomorrow and that the window to act is quickly closing. And every year another global temperature record seems to be set, along with new stories of extreme weather events — confirming the need to take action. Urgency is required to limit the projected changes in the global climate system and related physical impacts and consequences. Many institutions are also recognizing that similar urgency is required when it comes to implementing adaptation measures to mitigate the adverse effects of an already changing climate.

Matthew Sutton, President and CEO at Matrix Solutions Inc., reflects on the shift he has seen in communities and public and private organizations as they examine climate-related challenges and adaptation measures for critical infrastructure and natural resources. “In my 30 years in the environmental industry, I’ve witnessed a drastic shift in the level of consciousness around environmental stewardship and climate change,” Sutton says. “Addressing the complex and inevitable challenges we’re facing as a society requires a multi-disciplinary approach. At Matrix, we’re helping to create effective solutions by applying our deep-domain environmental experience and climate risk expertise.”

Dealing with the climate crisis requires many voices, from traditional ecological knowledge to engineering and everything in between.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation aren’t mutually exclusive

As Canada continues to play its role in the global effort to achieve a net-zero society by 2050, we must be simultaneously preparing ourselves for the coming storm. This is a message that Quentin Chiotti, Ph.D., Practice Lead for Climate Risk and Resilience at Matrix Solutions Inc., has been championing for three decades. He has studied climate change impacts and adaptation in academic settings, performed work as a research scientist and policy advisor with federal and provincial governments, and is now applying his focus on climate risk and resiliency in the industry.

“The science began sounding the alarm with the first IPCC report in 1990 and has only got stronger since,” says Chiotti. “It’s now widely accepted that climate change is real and is already happening.”

Chiotti says that there’s an inevitability to climate change that we have to deal with by taking adaptation seriously now — especially for infrastructure that has decades or centuries of life expectancy.

“We need to be ensuring that as much of the existing natural and built infrastructure that we manage today and construct in the future is more climate resilient,” Chiotti says. “This is challenging because becoming climate resilient will be a moving target and not an end state until we resolve the mitigation side of the problem.”

Resilience is an engineering problem, a social challenge, and a planning constraint

Resilience and adaptation in our infrastructure mean building and retrofitting in such a way that our roads, our energy grid, our water systems, and the other critical services underpinning our society are designed not only to handle the extreme conditions that we experience today, but also the changing eventualities of tomorrow. Extreme weather events are becoming more common and more severe, and the consequences and costs are increasing — as we experienced in BC in 2021 with the summer heat dome and wildfires, followed by intense rainfall and overland flooding in November.

Just as importantly, the idea of what even constitutes an “extreme” event is shifting as we come to accept that conditions of the past are no longer a reliable indicator of the future.

Adapting to rare climate events that have severe consequences is not just an engineering challenge, where the solution is simply a matter of building stronger roads, larger storm drains, and bigger bridges. Enhancing the natural environment can also play a significant role in reducing impacts. For example, strategies like preserving greenfields and wetlands and installing green roofs and other low-impact development measures can help mitigate flood risks. And while adaptation needs to be extensive and systematic, this doesn’t mean it has to be burdensome or expensive.

“There’s a reasonable expectation to build public infrastructure on budget and on time, but there’s growing evidence that the incremental costs of resilient design compared to conventional standards are actually not that significant,” says Chiotti. “The prevailing view is that every dollar invested in adaptation today will result in $4 of avoided impacts in the future.”

Ultimately, Chiotti says what we need to be aiming for is a more sustainable method of living — and that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.

“Just as the climate is changing, society will need to adapt,” says Chiotti. “Change is constant — that’s the one thing we know in life.”

Climate adaptation is everyone’s business

One thing is abundantly clear. This needs to be a collective effort and embraced as an all-hands-on-deck proposition. We’re all in this together as Canadians and as global citizens, and solutions need to be informed by multiple voices and perspectives.

“Dealing with the climate crisis requires many voices, from traditional ecological knowledge to engineering and everything in between,” says Chiotti. “I’m a geographer, but I’m really thankful to be working with hydrologists, ecologists, and other areas of expertise because climate change is a cross-cutting issue.”

With the spectrum of environmental challenges we’re facing today, Sutton agrees that there has never been a more important time for those working and studying in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

“The more we recognize that these challenges are multifaceted and require many different perspectives, the better we’ll be at understanding the risks and implementing appropriate actions,” Sutton says. “I’m bolstered by the skill, expertise, and passion that today’s environmental experts and the incoming generation are bringing to bear for this critical collective effort.”

Matrix runs its Insights & Solutions webinar series, where consultants share knowledge and expertise on a range of topics from energy transition and water resources engineering to digital data innovation and climate risk and resilience.

Earlier this year, Dr. Chiotti hosted a session on the challenges, benefits and key considerations for incorporating climate risk assessment into effective business continuity and emergency management planning.

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