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British Columbia could end up paying more for natural disaster relief

Geologist says it's unwise to offload more costs onto provinces at a time when extreme weather is increasingly difficult to predict

Disaster relief services don’t come cheap, but then neither does climate change.

Last week, it was reported that the Department of National Defence had quietly decided to start billing for disaster relief services. The DND would recover costs through other federal departments such as Public Safety, which would then have the option of recovering costs of provinces and municipalities who request aid. While this policy has existed for years, the DND has typically waived the right the recoup costs, a practice it said would have to change to make up for departmental budget cuts.

Then, after a minor outcry, the DND backpedalled, saying it would assess cost recovery on a case-by-case basis. But it’s still unclear who would foot the bill for large-scale disasters such as wildfire or flood.

With changes in weather making it more difficult to predict climate patterns and examples of extreme weather appearing more frequently across the continent, geoogist and Canada Research Chair in natural hazard research John Clague said now is not the time to be increasing the financial burden on individual provinces and communities for necessary aid.

 “What has typically been going on in Canada is responsibilities for public safety are being downloaded to lower levels of government, and lower levels of government don’t have the resources to handle even smaller problems than we’re talking about, and certainly not these big disasters.”

 A statement released by Minister of National Defence Peter McKay said the policy “relates only to recovery of costs from another federal department, such as Public Safety, when it requests that Department of National Defence / Canadian Armed Forces provide assistance to a province, municipality, or other eligible entity.”

It is then up to the other federal departments to determine whether they will recoup costs from the province or municipality that requested the aid.

Public Affairs Advisor for the DND, Elana Aptowitzer, said the department couldn’t release any more information about costs at this time.

“We don’t have anything about criteria for decision-making. Really what’s being stressed is that it’s going to be done on a case-by-case basis.”

Clague said it’s one thing to debate whether individuals who require emergency rescue, such as skiers who ignore warnings to stay on the trails, should pay for the services, but it’s unrealistic to charge lower-level governments for help in circumstances entirely beyond their control and often deadly. Resources, he noted, are already strained at every level.

“The costs are just off the scale. Those costs tend to be born by a wide sector of society: insurers, municipalities, higher levels of government bear some of the cost.”

While he’s reluctant to claim a direct link between climate change and any specific event, Clague said the weather is becoming increasingly difficult to predict.

“Considering this uncertainly, I think the general sense is that it’s going to become more variable. We’re going to get more extremes, we can expect more frequent extremes in weather, meaning we may have years when we have very little snow, we may have years where we have huge amounts of snow. That increase in the extremes can play into natural disasters.”

Clague said the bush fires still raging in Australia are an extreme example of what happens when warmer temperatures are combined with drier conditions. He said the conditions that lead to such events are being produced here.

“You can imagine conditions like this happening in our forest or shore ultimately,” he said. “You’re going to get conditions where theses disasters occur and you’re going to get years where our boreal forests are extremely dry and we’re going to have large, large areas burn.”

Disaster relief isn’t the only source of rising costs associated with climate change.

Food production, particularly in the grain-growing provinces of Canada, needs a certain amount of moisture during the summer season, and if conditions continue to get drier, the rest of the country will feel the shortage.

“That’s a potentially huge economic disaster and a human disaster to because the people who farm and provide our grain would be severely impacted by that.”

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