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BC’s Climate Adaptation Plan won’t protect you from heat waves, or much else

Sign on storefront in Ashcroft BC with text "Closed due to extreme heat"
July 9, 2021

With BC coming out of the worst heat wave in … well, probably ever, with the Village of Lytton burnt to the ground and the prospect of more wildfires over the summer, let’s ask the question: what should our government be doing to keep us safe from climate change?

Because right now our provincial government is consulting British Columbians on a provincial adaptation strategy and, frankly, it’s lame. It says only a little about heat waves, and when it does, it is vague, unclear about who is doing what and why, and comes with no new financial commitments. And, unfortunately, that’s pretty standard for the other climate risks discussed in the Strategy.

Which raises the question – does the BC government take climate change seriously? And if so, why isn’t it moving rapidly and aggressively to protect us from the types of harm that we’ve seen over the past two weeks? If you agree, after reading this, that the government needs to go back to the drawing board, why not send them a message using our Action Tool or email them and tell them so?

What the Climate Preparedness and Adaptation Strategy says about heat waves

The Province’s Climate Preparedness and Adaptation Strategy (CPAS) is supposed to lay out actions the Province will take to prepare for climate change in the coming year (2021-22), and between 2022 and 2025 (which is what they want feedback on). The Strategy actions are not organized by climate impact, but rather by four relatively arbitrary “pathways”: Strengthen Foundations, Enhance Community Climate Resilience, Foster Resilience Species and Ecosystems in a Changing Climate, and Advance a Climate-ready Economy and Infrastructure. This means anyone wanting to know how BC plans to address say, heat waves, has to skim through the whole document.

The only action this year (2021-22) that directly relates to extreme heat or heat waves is:

Improve the provincial response to extreme heat and wildfire smoke for the unhoused and housing insecure populations.

That line is not a heading, followed by details of what it means. That’s it … all the detail that the Strategy provides about that particular action. While a worthwhile goal, what does it mean? Which Minister or government agency is responsible? How can we tell if the government has delivered on this objective?  

The two 2022-2025 actions related to heat waves are arguably slightly better:

  • Support BC Housing to lead development of a provincial extreme heat and wildfire smoke response plan for populations disproportionately impacted by climate change; and
  • Promote and enhance the use of nature-based solutions for strengthening community and ecosystem resilience and managing climate-related hazards, such as extreme heat and flooding.

At least the first of these bullets identifies a government agency to be responsible, but not which government agencies will provide “support” to it. But on the other hand, what this strategy amounts to is a plan to develop a plan … by 2025.

The second action sounds positive, but suffers from vagueness, and is not completely focused on heat waves.

In this post we’ve focused on heat waves for obvious reasons, but the same type of criticism applies to the vast majority of the 63 “actions” found in the CPAS. Sometimes they identify a government agency, or are a bit more specific, but in general even these are undermined by vague words and phrases like “explore,” “initial work” and “promote.”

What would a good climate adaptation plan look like?

BC’s so-called Climate Preparedness and Adaptation Strategy reads like a laundry list of high-level climate adaptation ideas or nice-to-haves, with no sense of which are highest priority, what will be involved in doing them well, or what doing them well will cost.

BC’s current efforts to develop a new climate adaptation strategy started in February 2018 when Carol Bellringer, then the Province’s Auditor General, issued a damning report on the lack of a credible climate adaptation plan. Bellringer noted that BC had not updated its plan in since 2010, and highlighted a number of features that she would have expected, but did not see, in the 2010 plan. These included:

  • prioritization among risks;
  • consideration of social and economic costs;
  • clear deliverables, and roles and responsibilities; and
  • timelines and dates of completion.

These and other recommendations informed our submissions on the last round of consultations on climate adaptation in late 2019/early 2020. The new Strategy, however, entirely fails to meet any of these criteria, unless you count differentiating between actions to be carried out in 2021-2022 versus 2022-2025 as “timelines and dates of completion.”

Prioritization among risks

Implicit in the Auditor General’s report is the recognition that climate adaptation efforts must prioritize the impacts that are most likely to occur and most likely to cause harm if they do occur. We can’t do everything all at once, and can’t do everything well, so the plan should be based on an assessment of which risks are most pressing. Bellringer’s first recommendation was that such an assessment should be conducted to inform the work of prioritizing the climate risks to be addressed in the adaptation strategy.

The province started this work with its 2019 Preliminary Climate Risk Assessment (“Preliminary Assessment”), which considered a range of “provincially significant” climate impacts and their likelihood in 2050. As the title indicates, this Assessment was not intended to be comprehensive, but rather a first step.

Nonetheless, heat waves had the third highest risk score of the 15 risks considered (after severe wildfire season and seasonal water shortage). The Preliminary Assessment found that a heat wave in which temperatures remained above 32°C for more than three days could cause more than 100 additional deaths, 1000 additional injuries and economic losses exceeding $100 million. The frequency of such events was projected to increase from once every 11-50 years now, to once every 3-10 years by 2050.

While it appears that the Preliminary Assessment may have underestimated the heat wave risks (with a new study suggesting that the intensity of this year’s heat wave may be common in the 2050s), the Province knew that heat waves could result in deaths and economic losses, and that their frequency and intensity were increasing due to climate change.

So why do extreme heat events get only three relatively vague actions in BC’s new adaptation strategy? The CPAS mentions the Preliminary Assessment only three times, mostly to assert that it is “building on” the Assessment. However, it is clear that assessment of risks has not informed the CPAS in any meaningful way.

Instead of relying on the Preliminary Assessment, the CPAS proposes six “principles” which are said to guide the Strategy. In theory these principles might guide the Province in setting its adaptation priorities, although even this would require data and analysis that is entirely lacking from the Strategy. Unfortunately, there is no indication in the framework as to how these principles are to be used to prioritize the actions. Rather, they appear intended to be vague and aspirational statements that may inform government action.

Consideration of social and economic costs

The CPAS does talk about the money that the government has budgeted for existing programs. For example, they reference $90 million allocated to climate adaptation in the economic recovery plan to support specific programs related to wildfire risk, highway and farm climate adaptation, and conserving ecosystems.

However, the CPAS does not consider social or economic costs or benefits of the new actions it proposes. It does not identify the resources required to deliver the actions or the costs of failing to do so. Indeed, given how vague most of the actions are, it would be difficult to see how they could be costed without a whole lot more detail.  

This strategy could have been an opportunity to identify the social and economic costs of failing to do a good job adapting (for example drawing on the Preliminary Climate Risk Assessment), but even this doesn’t occur, other than a brief quote from the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices regarding the amount of insured losses due to extreme weather suffered across Canada.

These gaps leave British Columbians with a number of important questions. What will it cost for BC Housing to develop a provincial extreme heat plan for vulnerable populations? How much money is BC putting into “promoting and enhancing” nature-based solutions to heat? Financial commitments would at least show that the Province is serious, but we don’t have those.

It has long been our view that if a plan doesn’t come with any strategy to fund it, or sense of the resources that are required or available, it means that the plan is not serious. It is designed to look good, but not to be implemented.

Clear deliverables, and roles and responsibilities and timelines

The CPAS seems to implicitly recognize that all of government needs to be involved in climate adaptation. It is prefaced with letters from both George Heyman, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, and Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Chief Medical Health Officer, but the “actions” fall within many of the Ministry’s mandates. But setting clear roles and responsibilities is even more essential under an “all of government” approach.

As discussed above, the CPAS contains relatively vague action statements, not clear “deliverables, roles and responsibilities.” Two of the three actions associated with heat waves have no government agency identified at all and are vague enough that it would be difficult to determine if they had been completed by their respective dates (2022, or 2025).

The third suggests that BC Housing will develop “a provincial extreme heat and wildfire smoke response plan for populations disproportionately impacted by climate change” sometime in the next five years (without actually explicitly instructing BC Housing to do so). While this is generally a good objective, it is still a plan to make a plan – and a plan related to just one particular (albeit extremely important) part of vulnerability to heat waves.

Many actions that could help communities prepare for heat waves are well understood, and there are several examples of BC and Canadian organizations carrying out very specific measures to warn residents of extreme heat events, educate the public on the risks of heat waves, to protect vulnerable populations, to use urban forests to reduce heat in urban areas, etc.

From the BC Centre for Disease Control to the Fraser Basin Council (in collaboration with the Province) to Environment and Climate Change Canada, existing resources and programs spell out how to adapt to extreme heat events. There are also many examples of municipal, provincial and (in the U.S.) state-level extreme heat adaptation efforts which could have been a model for BC’s adaptation framework.

With so many specific initiatives and programs to choose between, as well as existing government programs related to other climate risks, it is unclear why the CPAS stays at such a high level and without commitments to deliver the types of specific actions and commitments that local governments are making in many parts of BC and elsewhere.

Auditor General Bellringer was very concerned that it be possible to measure progress on climate adaptation. Preparing for the future can easily be pushed off until tomorrow, leaving communities sweating and breathing in smoke. To this end, in addition to recommending clear deliverables and dates of completion, she recommended that the government create “a performance monitoring framework based on the goals, activities and outcomes outlined in the adaptation plan.”

Despite the fact that almost none of the CPAS actions have the types of specific “goals, activities and outcomes” that Bellringer was talking about, the CPAS promises the development of “a monitoring and evaluation framework over the coming year with our partners including Indigenous Nations and organizations, municipalities, and regional districts.”

However, in 2018, in its response to the Bellringer Audit, the BC government indicated that it already had such a monitoring framework in draft form:

[The Climate Action Secretariat] has developed a draft monitoring and evaluation framework that tracks B.C.’s readiness for adaptation. The framework is ready for piloting in spring 2018.

So, in 2018 the BC government had a solid enough idea of what climate adaptation is required, presumably with deliverables and goals that were being measured against, that it had a pilot monitoring and evaluation framework. But now it can’t promise something measurable until 2022, five years later? What have they been doing all this time?

Conclusion

We are profoundly disappointed by the Climate Preparedness and Adaptation Strategy, which fails to set out clear actions and deliverables that the Province will take to protect us from future heat waves and other climate impacts. With British Columbians suffering this summer due to the record-breaking heat – and bracing for more extreme temperatures and wildfires to come – the need for urgent, concrete adaptation plans has never been clearer.

We hope that you will join us in telling the BC government to get back to the drawing board – and to come up with a plan that will show tangible and measurable steps that we can expect to see next year, and each year to come, to keep BC communities safe.

Find more information about BC Climate Preparedness and Adaptation Strategy here, and send a mesage to decision makers through our on-line Action Tool or by email to ClimateReadyBC@gov.bc.ca.


Top photo: A storefront in Ashcroft, BC closed due to extreme heat during BC's record-setting heat wave in late June 2021 (Photo: Julia Kidder).

Author: 
Andrew Gage - Staff Lawyer