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VIBERT: Adapting to climate change on the coast


Nova Scotia’s government introduced a coastal protection bill this week. The coastline above is in Hants County. - Ryan Taplin
Nova Scotia’s government introduced a coastal protection bill this week. The coastline above is in Hants County. - Ryan Taplin

The provincial government’s coastal protection bill, introduced this week, is all about adapting to climate change.

Most of the attention to date, here and elsewhere, has been on mitigating, or limiting, climate change, which for rational humans means choking off its source by cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The people who think about this stuff most and best tell us that — to hold off the worst — those emissions need to be reduced by a lot, and fast.

In Nova Scotia, efforts to cut GHG emissions will continue but, as the coastal protection act states:

“Given the inevitability of relative sea-level rise, coastal flooding, storm surge and coastal erosion and their related impacts on the province,” it’s high time to get ready for the deluge. When the act becomes law, it will basically ban building on the province’s coast. There are limited exceptions and existing structures are grandfathered.

The protected coastal zone is defined as all land to the high-water mark, and an unspecified — in the legislation — amount of dry land beyond the high-water mark. How wide that landward strip is, or becomes, will be established by regulation.

With the coastal protection act, the provincial government brought in the kind of law that holds sway among many climate scientists and environmental law scholars, who say protection of sensitive natural areas is more urgent than ever as the world prepares for decades, if not centuries, of climatic uncertainty.

Those same scholars also counsel flexibility in laws designed to help us adapt to the changes a warming planet will deliver, because “we are moving along a somewhat unpredictable path to an as yet unpredictable final destination,” according to Florida State law professor and the school’s associate dean of environmental programs, Robin Kundis Craig.

The Nova Scotia legislation is prescriptive in its prohibition of future man-made imposition on the province’s coast, but it leaves the details to regulations, so that present and future governments can mould the law to fit whatever climatic chaos occurs.

Climate change is on us, and the early results are a mix of the anticipated and the unforeseen. For instance, the mountain pine beetle’s precipitous spread due to milder winters came as a bit of a surprise, but the shrubs blooming where Arctic tundra once held the ground didn’t, although the tundra’s retreat was faster than many scientists expected.

The global scientific community did its job. It alerted the world to the existential threat posed by climate change and, perhaps naively, expected the world’s political leadership to act accordingly and with the required dispatch to save the planet as a livable space. So far, the response from global political leaders has been uneven and therefore collectively quite dangerous.

We know there will be changes in the climate, we know the world will be warmer, we know extreme weather will be more frequent and more severe. We are also told to expect the unexpected.

The same scientists and legal scholars that would give Nova Scotia high marks for the coastal protection act would likely tell the province to up its game when it comes to other environmental protections.

Many vital ecosystems are already under stress from man-made intrusions not related to climate change. If those eco-systems are to survive and adapt to climate change, they need to be as healthy and resilient as possible.

Scientists argue the “stressors” on ecosystems should be minimized so those systems are more capable of adapting to whatever vagaries climate change throws their way.

In Nova Scotia, for example, the environmental assessment of Northern Pulp’s plan to pump treated effluent into the Northumberland strait will be decided by applying criteria that do not consider the combined stress on the Strait’s ecosystems of the effluent and the changing climate. It can’t be done, because there’s no way to know what kind of stress climate change will place on those systems, or if they will be able to adapt effectively to multiple stressors.

Climate change is a certainty. So is its source — man-made pollution in the atmosphere. Its impacts are less certain. It seems only prudent the ecosystems we and the rest of planet’s life depend on be made, or kept, as resilient as possible.

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