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University-business partnership at School of Environment explores economics of climate change

Kathy Bardswick School of the Environment

Kathy Bardswick speaking to an audience of businesspeople and academics gathered at U of T.

Canada is the only G8 country without overland flood insurance, something that needs to change quickly, given the rapidly increasing number of catastrophic weather events taking place here, Kathy Bardswick told an audience of businesspeople and academics gathered at the U of T Faculty Club Nov. 18.

Bardswick, the president and chief-executive officer for the Co-operators Group Limited, was the keynote speaker at the annual thought leadership event hosted by the environmental finance advisory committee at the School of the Environment. The committee was formed more than a decade ago by Donald Cormack, the former dean of the School of Graduate Studies, the late environmental studies professor, Rodney White, and Donna Nielsen, the manager of program and partnership development at the School of the Environment. It exemplifies a successful university-city partnership by bringing together local businesspeople and faculty concerned about the economics of climate change.

“The committee grew out of Rodney’s research interests in environmental research and carbon financing,” said Professor Kimberly Strong, director of the School of the Environment. White led the Institute for Environmental Studies, a forerunner of the new school.

“It gathered a high-powered group of business community members with the mandate to talk about ideas in environmental finance.”

The thriving committee, which includes U of T faculty members, mounts three or four workshops or seminars each year to promote dialogue with business, industry, government, academia and the private sector on leading edge environmental initiatives. They are designed in collaboration with industry experts to transfer innovative ideas in environmental risk management practice to the aforementioned constituencies. While environmental finance is still the major focus, the committee’s interests have broadened, Strong said.

The annual thought leadership event raises money for scholarships named in honour of White and for the late Errick “Skip” Willis, a former committee member.  The inaugural Rodney White Environmental Studies Scholarship and the second Skip Willis Undergraduate Scholarship were also awarded at the event.

“Our theory is that if we can get environmental issues in front of the business community, it offers a way for them to see opportunities to avoid risk or do better,” said Gray Taylor, a Toronto lawyer and the committee co-chair. “This is an independent, unbiased forum and the ideas we bring forward do make a difference.

“It is also totally consistent with U of T’s commitment to good relations in the community where it is located. However, we’re not ignoring the rest of the country; the university is helping us with an event in Calgary coming up. U of T is more than a Toronto institution, it’s a national institution.”

At the thought leadership event, Bardswick called for a new national conversation about climate change and flood insurance, noting that “Canada is now seeing natural events it has never seen before, and they are becoming way too much the norm.”

She explained that for every dollar of insurance premiums collected, 25 to 30 per cent is now being used to cover catastrophic events and said Canada needs to build greater resilience.

“Communities in our country are being devastated, and the numbers don’t reflect the emotional and social costs or the long-term economic impacts that play out.”

Professor Blair Feltmate, chair of climate change adaptation at the University of Waterloo, and Peter Halsall, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute, were invited to offer official commentary to Bardwick’s speech. Feltmate agreed that Canada “needs to adapt immediately and decrease risk in the system now,” while Halsall suggested the need for “evidence-based policy” and “holding decision-makers accountable for basing their decisions on facts.”

Strong said the committee does important environmental work on behalf of the university and business community.

“Discussions like this are important for helping to promote dialogue and to show how the various players need to work together to find ways to address the challenges and increase resiliency in our cities.”