The Canadian Academy of Engineering / CAE Blog

Adapting to Global Warming – Climate Change the Here and Now

The world is already at about 10C warmer than when compared to the pre-industrial average. If all pledges made at the recent COP 26th meeting in Glasgow come to pass, the world is on course for warming to an estimated 2.10C  by 2100[1]. Canadian Engineers should be aware that warming in Canada is, on average, about double the magnitude of the average of global warming[2].

At today’s level of warming, widespread extreme weather is already leading to a major increase in global disasters – which are evident in many parts of Canada including:

  • more extreme heat (example, record-high temperatures across the British Columbia (BC) reaching up to 49.6°C between June 25 and July 1, 2021 that resulted in at least 486 sudden deaths over five days, nearly three times the usual number that would occur over that period[3]. The heat wave could not be prevented but the impacts and deaths certainly could have been.),
  • forest fires (example, wildfire swept through Fort McMurray in May 2016 destroying homes and buildings and the health impacts of extended forest fires all over the country in 2019 and 2021),
  • permafrost melting (estimating to be putting up to ⅓ of arctic infrastructure at risk) and
  • Flooding (flood waters swept away a number of highways in BC and Newfoundland in November 2021, major flooding in Quebec in 2017).

Global warming is irreversible. Reducing carbon emissions is no longer enough to halt the impacts of climate change and the challenge is to act so that fewer people are at risk from the widespread extreme weather of drought, floods, heatwaves, and storms.

Engineers are well poised to be leaders in the fight against climate change. This fight should be multi-pronged, incorporating several aspects of risk management. Most of us are familiar with the actions you take when confronted with a risk; you can accept the risk (do nothing), you can end the risk entirely (solve the problem), you can treat the risk, or you can tolerate it (living with it). Of course, taking the time to properly and thoroughly assess and understand potential risks is the first step. Solving the problem is all about keeping the planets temperature rise below 1.50C by reducing CO2 emissions in the right time frame. Living with the problem means we have to adapt to a warmer climate and the extremes in weather that come with that. It’s vital to say here that this is a both/and situation: we must both reduce the worlds temperature increase and adapt our engineering.

“Adaptation refers to adjustments in ecological, social, or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts. In simple terms, countries and communities need to develop adaptation solution and implement action to respond to the impacts of climate change that are already happening, as well as prepare for future impacts.

Adaptation solutions take many shapes and forms, depending on the unique context of a community, business, organization, country, or region. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all-solution’—adaptation can range from building flood defences, setting up early warning systems for cyclones and switching to drought-resistant crops, to redesigning communication systems, business operations and government policies. Many nations and communities are already taking steps to build resilient societies and economies, but considerably greater action and ambition will be needed to cost-effectively manage the risks, both now and in the future.”[4]

For individuals, the higher levels of perceived risk will potentially lead to higher levels of motivation to successfully adapt to changing climate variability and extremes. There is, therefore, an urgent need for designing sustainable adaptation strategies for Canadian citizens and engineers can play an important role in providing the knowledge of the risks involved and the understanding needed to adapt to new environmental conditions.

Citizen safety is the first priority of any engineer and in today’s world it means taking the leadership in adapting our infrastructure to meet the impacts; this means designing, locating and relocating and innovating for extremes, making systems that can bounce back quickly, training your students to consider the full cost of projects, recognizing that citizens may be more worried than ever about threats to their natural and physical worlds, supporting all levels of Government to develop resilient standards and appropriate policies or creating better warning systems. As an engineer are you making the right choices for a resilient world? What extra considerations are required from a technical perspective, from budget and full life cycle costs, and who needs to be involved to best provide local knowledge and concerns and a much broader foundational expertise? Engineers Canada’s “National guideline on sustainable development and environmental Stewardship for professional engineers”[5] is a great place to start.

As we approach the future, adaptation strategies towards global warming can be planned for and developed. We need to design infrastructure that can withstand and recover rapidly from climate disruptions and adapt to the changing conditions. When feasible, infrastructure should be built that can assist the needs of both adaptation and mitigation.

By Heather Kennedy, FCAE

and Eddy Isaacs, FCAE

November 2021

[1] Carbon Tracker, 2100 warming projections, emissions expected based on pledges and current policies, (accessed on November 24, 2021).

[2]  Bush, E. and Lemmen, D.S., editors (2019): Canada’s Changing Climate Report; Government of Canada, Ottawa, ON. (accessed on November 24, 2021).

[3] Reuters. “Deaths surge in U.S. and Canada from worst heatwave on record”, (accessed on November 24, 2021).

[4] United Nations Climate Change, “What do adaptation to climate change and climate resilience mean?”, (accessed on November 24, 2021).

[5] Engineers Canada, “National guideline on sustainable development and environmental stewardship for professional engineers,” September 2016. (accessed on November 24, 2021).

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