By the 2050s, Ontario farmers may no longer be able to grow certain varieties of apples or wine grapes, “regardless of how quickly greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.” By the 2080s, prolonged heat waves could kill a quarter of the province’s cows and pigs. 

Those bleak predictions are some of the dozens of risks of global heating listed in a recent province-wide study the Doug Ford government has so far avoided sharing with Ontarians.  

The 534-page report, called the Provincial Climate Change Impact Assessment, uses the government’s own data to show that Ontarians’ food, homes and health are at very high risk of harm within the next few decades — particularly if responding and adapting to a rapidly-changing climate doesn’t happen immediately. 

Emissions created by human activity, particularly from the burning of fossil fuels, have trapped heat in the atmosphere and already led to deadly consequences. Weather patterns have changed drastically worldwide, with more instances of extreme heat and frost, as well as both drought and increased rainfall that leads to flooding. Ontario hasn’t been spared: many parts of the province saw multiple days with temperatures over 30 C last year. Right now, a mild winter is disrupting ecosystems and ways of life — Great Lakes ice cover is at record low levels and northern First Nations have been unable to build ice roads.

In the years to come, impacts could be even more stark. The report concludes that by the 2080s, if nothing more is done to curb emissions, Ontario will face 55 to 60 days of extreme heat of 30 C or more, compared to the current annual average of 16 days. Such prolonged heat waves could kill farm animals as well as, mass yields of cauliflower, cabbage and rutabaga and cold-water brook trout, according to the report. Extreme heat could also damage airport runways, train tracks and power plants. 

Ontario is the first province to do such a wide assessment of the direct impacts of the climate emergency across its sectors and communities. It was three years in the making — a key part of the Ford government’s 2018 draft Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan and something three environment ministers have boasted about. 

The assessment launched in 2020, tasked to the Climate Risk Institute, a non-profit academic organization based at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. It was delivered to the Ford government in January 2023. The report was published on a Friday afternoon in late August 2023 with no news release or press conference. Since then, no one in the government seems to have mentioned it publicly.

“It’s really hard to see why it took so long to release the report,” Al Douglas, president of the Climate Risk Institute, told The Narwhal. “It’s huge. It’s a really important piece in the history of climate change for Ontario … We’ve never had this sort of synthesis of all the science and information in one location”

“Now we have a baseline. We know exactly what the priorities are and what we have to do,” Douglas added. “It’s a call to action for everyone in the province, especially the government.”

“This assessment tells us to be more aware of how present-day decisions lock us into pathways to climate risk.” 

Internal documents obtained by The Narwhal through freedom of information show officials across 19 of the province’s 29 ministries offered 203 pages of comment and feedback on the report in April 2023. In some instances, they asked the authors to soften language used to describe the impacts of climate change, including requests to minimize the use of the phrase “irreversible harm” and remove references to specific government policies. The report writers were also asked to emphasize the costs and limitations of adapting to global heating. 

Despite these efforts, the report is clear about its findings and what Ontario needs to do, and so far hasn’t done, to mitigate these risks. It finds the provincial government has all the tools to create and implement a strong adaptation plan — including policies that could protect communities and buildings against floods and heat — but “this capacity has not yet been mobilized despite the imperative.” The report suggests all levels of government seem unwilling to enact policies that could help Ontario prepare for the worst impacts of climate change, pointing to a lack of dedicated funding as evidence. 

Ring of Fire: Ontario Premier Doug Ford stares straight ahead inside Queen's Park
During the two and half years it took to complete an assessment of climate impacts in Ontariothe Ford government weakened many of the environmental protection policies the eventual report identified as pivotal to adaptation strategy. Photo: Carlos Osorio / The Narwhal

“I’m glad [the government] released the report because data is important and needed to make reasonable decisions. But it’s disappointing that there hasn’t been more of a response to the multitude of problems highlighted in the report,” Stuart Oke, a farmer in North Augusta, Ont., and a member of the National Farmers Union, told The Narwhal. “If we only have two decades before we see the most severe consequences, we should’ve acted yesterday.” 

The Narwhal reviewed the report along with nearly 800 pages of internal communications about it. While the findings are stark, they also show there is still time to mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change in the province, if money and effort is put towards addressing the emergency. The government did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Narwhal.

In a letter attached to the report, former environment minister David Piccini said the assessment informed the government’s flooding strategy, climate-related financial disclosure rules, infrastructure resilience assessments and improvements of Lake Ontario wastewater systems. 

“Climate change requires a whole-of-government approach, and as we build Ontario, it is vital we do so in a way that will protect the well-being of current and future generations, safeguard the natural environment, ensure food and water security, enhance infrastructure and strengthen our economy,” Piccini wrote. But since that letter was written, his government has failed to put many of the report’s recommendations in place — and made moves that could even worsen the effects it warns of. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

A closeup shot of the hands of farmer Rav Singh holding okra. Singh who rents land near the route of the proposed Highway 413 in Ontario.
Extreme weather will make it challenging for Ontario farmers to grow a whole host of vegetables, according to a report on the impacts of climate change. Photo: Katherine Cheng / The Narwhal

In Ontario, the climate emergency poses serious risks to farms and food security

The Climate Risk Institute did an extensive study of reports and data collected from municipalities, Indigenous organizations, scientific experts and others. From this research, its report finds “the impacts of climate change have the potential to affect built and natural systems through water shortages, forest fires, power outages, outbreaks of diseases and more.”

Ontario’s agricultural industry is most concerningly at risk from global heating. Farmers are facing “declining productivity, crop failure and livestock fatalities,” it said, citing a series of stunning examples. 

The most at-risk are certain varieties of apples. Ontario grows 15 varieties over 14,000 acres, or 5,700 hectares, along the shores of the Great Lakes. Many of these, including the McIntosh, will become harder to grow this century whether or not greenhouse gas emissions. It’s expected extreme heat, extreme precipitation or droughts and springtime frosts over the next few decades will make it difficult for apple buds to survive and grow fully. 

The same weather will make it challenging for Ontario farmers to grow berries, corn, cereals and soybeans. Heat waves lasting three days or longer could harm a quarter of Ontario’s cow and pig population. For every 10 days the temperature hits 30 C, there could be a 10 per cent loss in the supply of cauliflower, cabbage and rutabaga. Grape varieties used to make ice wines in Niagara, such as riesling and vidal, could rot and die. Other wine grapes could develop different aromas and concentrations. 

A number of species are also at risk, none more so than the brook trout, which prefers cold water. As watersheds heat up, more than half the population could be at risk of extinction by the 2080s. This would impact food supply, particularly in Indigenous communities. 

“Farmers are on the frontlines of the climate crisis,” Drew Spoelstra, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, told The Narwhal. That said, Spoelstra was on a peer review panel that went through the report before it got published and believes some of the projections are “a little bit drastic” as farmers have ways of “adapting to this new reality of extreme weather.” 

“There are opportunities to prevent some of this with longer growing seasons, changing soil and technologies,” he said. 

Oke agrees. “Agriculture can be a source of hope but we need support,” he said. “Without it, climate change will make it riskier to grow in Ontario.” 

Cows and horses in Milton, Ont.
A report commissioned by the Ford government found that heat waves lasting three days or longer could harm a quarter of Ontario’s cow population. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Internal documents show Ontario officials tried to soften language to minimize climate impacts 

Douglas told The Narwhal that the relationship between the researchers and authors of the report and government officials was largely “great, positive and constructive.”

But there were some tensions. Through freedom of information legislation, The Narwhal obtained the last draft of the report before publication, including nearly 200 pages of feedback from 19 ministries, some of which had changes and notes in the margins. Much was standard editing, meant to improve the document’s flow and ensure accuracy. 

But a number of comments come across as efforts to water down descriptions of climate change impacts and government action. 

Multiple ministries, including environment, transportation and natural resources, asked the authors to amend an introductory line — “climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time” — to “remove the veil of human opinion.” Their suggestion was to qualify the climate emergency, which the United Nations has declared “a global emergency,” as “one of, if not the greatest, challenge of our time.” 

Ministry officials asked to amend a line reading “the response to these impacts and risks is as important as the assessment itself” to say the assessment “is an important, procedural, first step to identify vulnerabilities.” Officials asked to remove a section explaining “the need” for an assessment of climate change effects in the province. It isn’t included in the final version. 

The Ministry of Natural Resources suggested the authors acknowledge adaptation efforts are “still emerging areas.” It also objected to the government’s environmental plan being framed as Ontario having “committed” to specific measures. The same ministry “suggest[ed] caution” when using the word “priorities,” saying that was a “value judgment.” 

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We’re investigating Ontario’s environmental cuts
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.

There was a suggestion to amend the report’s recommendations to highlight that the government will have to make “difficult trade-offs between climate and non-climate focused investments.” The suggestion goes on to note “it is going to be costly for business and government to adapt.” 

“These decisions will impact the welfare of current and future generations of Ontarians, which means care will be needed to make sure these are done at least cost while maximising benefits,” the suggestion said. 

While the report didn’t closely analyze the financial costs of inaction, it did say it is “well-documented” climate change will have wide-ranging economic consequences.

Further into the suggestion document, officials again push the report’s authors to clearly state the government has limited capacity to act. “Being willing to adopt technology and having the means to do so are two very different things,” one wrote. The final draft of the report ignores this suggestion and states technological advances and investments are key to mitigating impacts, finding this will save costs in the long run by building in resilience.

“Climate adaptation is an iterative process, and there are no one-size-fit-all solutions,” the report said, urging the government to commit to “ongoing learning” about new technologies along with the changes they could bring to society. 

Douglas explained that it was a challenge to “balance … a sense of urgency” with the “optimism that we can do things.” He said his team did push back on government suggestions in places when it felt the language, needed to be strong.

Overall, Douglas said he was encouraged to see so many ministries actively engaged with the assessment, saying it was a thorough effort by “public servants who were willing to make sure that we’re capturing everything.”  

Ontario Greenbelt: an aerial view of farmland, roads and houses
The climate impact assessment recommends the Ontario government “factor climate change in everything,” including plans for development and infrastructure. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Report calls out Ontario government for a lack of climate adaptation policies

The report offers a series of solutions. To start, the government could “factor climate change in everything.” It gets more specific, saying Ontario could look at “improving tracking and monitoring technology, increasing the frequency of maintenance and inspections of infrastructure, locating new buildings outside of high-risk flood zones, increasing transmission tower height, burying distribution lines, increasing the temperature standard for performance of railways, developing and practicing climate event (emergency) response plans and valuing and protecting natural assets such as wetlands.” 

But the government hasn’t done much on this list, yet. “A lack of staff resources and capacity continues to limit the scope and scale of adaptation,” the report said. This could change if the government uses this assessment “to spur action to protect residents, ecosystems, businesses and communities across Ontario” rather than seeing it as “an endpoint.” 

“The speed of climate change and the magnitude of the impacts is by far, by far, exceeding our action,” Douglas said. “We’re falling behind every day, every week, every month, every year that passes.” He gives an example: Ontario is desperate to build more houses, but if that happens without climate resilience in mind, homes could need expensive retrofits fairly soon, or even fail to withstand bouts of extreme weather.

Some of the reports recommendations are at odds with Ford government actions. The report asks the government to “protect and strengthen” conservation authorities, environmental assessment laws and the provincial policy statement, a guiding document for development across Ontario that protects farmland. All three have been weakened during Ford’s term, while the assessment was underway. The report suggests investing in green infrastructure, such as stronger stormwater systems and building standards, but the government is delaying rules that could enable that. 

Weakening these policies “puts all of us at greater levels of risk,” Douglas said. “Those are not smart decisions to be removing or lessening attention to climate change in those very important policies.”

The report recommends quick investments in healthcare, since global heating will increase demand for already-strained services.” Those most impacted would be vulnerable populations: seniors, youth, the unhoused, migrant workers and newcomers. Other social improvements suggested include developing extreme heat reduction strategies and climate warning systems.

People work in a vineyard in Hillier, Ontario on Friday May 21, 2021.
The Ontario climate impact assessment identified migrant workers among the vulnerable populations who will be most impacted by extreme weather. Photo: Lars Hagberg / The Canadian Press

Ontario lacks data on effects of climate change on vulnerable populations

The report’s authors note key gaps in their study. It was largely conducted during COVID-19 lockdowns, which resulted in “lower-than-expected participation” from groups and communities. 

The most significant hole is a lack of clear data on wildfire frequency and spread. The report predicts that the annual area burned will quadruple, but notes this is likely an underestimation because the data is difficult to interpret. 

There was also a significant lack of data on vulnerable groups, including incarcerated people, newcomers, migrant workers and those in long-term care facilities. Little is recorded about Ontario’s unhoused and precariously housed populations. By the 2050s, Indigenous communities will see impacts to everything from food sources to cultural and health services. They also have the least access to funds and resources to put into adaptation and mitigation right now. 

“These portions of population are the ones that have the lowest capacity to respond,” Douglas said. “They’re also the ones who are often in places that experience the most signficiant impacts from climate change.” 

The lack of population-specific data is significant because the report predicts every piece of infrastructure in Ontario — including homes, roads and public buildings — will be harmed by global heating if repairs and retrofits don’t start immediately. The province holds approximately a third of all of Canada’s infrastructure assets, so maintaining them is of high importance, the report said.

At highest risk are houses: with more extreme rainfall and flooding expected, the report predicts much more water damage and destruction, which would then cause higher they link to to greater repair costs and a larger unhoused population.

“If infrastructure is not properly planned, developed, maintained or replaced with future climate conditions in mind, the risk may be even greater for future time periods,” the report said. 

“We have to think of societies as systems, and consider how risks travel through and wreck a whole system,” Douglas said. “That’s something we still need to study closely: what does it mean when the impacts of climate change cascade through all of society. Without action, the depth of impact would be extraordinary.” 

We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

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We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

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