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A climate change challenge to foresters, engineers and biologists

November 16, 2011

You know those little letters that come after people's names that indicate that they get paid the big bucks for giving people – and governments and corporations – advice?  Letters like (in addition to LLB or JD), RPF (Registered Professional Forester), RPBio (Registered Professional Biologist), P.Eng. (Professional Engineer), etc.  Turns out that, whether they know it or not, these people are often called on to give advice about climate change impacts.  Some of them are doing a great job, but poor decisions made by professionals today could leave communities vulnerable to flooding and other impacts in tomorrow’s warmer climate.

A new, ground-breaking report from West Coast Environmental Law – Climate Change and Professionals – is asking professional associations to ensure that their members provide responsible advice on climate-related issues.  Professional associations are organizations created – often by the provincial government – to regulate members of a profession.  The theory is that only professionals (for example, engineers) have the training and expertise to determine whether other members of their profession are acting in the best interests of the public and of the profession as a whole. 

We’ve sent this report to over 70 professional associations across Canada.  Our press release summarizes key recommendations from the Report: 

The Report identifies some examples of climate leadership already taken by Canadian and international professional associations, but invites further action. Professionals and Climate Change challenges professional associations to:

  • Recognize the urgency of climate change and call for governments to act; 
  • Require members to receive education and training on the implications of climate change for their professional work;
  • Give direction to their members on best practices related to climate change; and
  • Recognize their members’ professional obligations in relation to climate change.

BC’s dikes, rising sea-levels and professionals

The Climate Change Task Force appointed by the Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC (APEG BC) has pointed out that APEG BC’s Code of Ethics requires its members to:  “hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public, the protection of the environment, and promote health and safety within the workplace. Climate change is a public safety issue.”

But what does that mean?  Well, it could mean a lot if you live in, say, Delta or Richmond, or other areas at risk from flooding. 

In a 2011 report, Paying the Price, the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) calculated the costs to the Canadian economy associated with climate change at $5 billion by 2020, and $21 - $43 billion by 2050, rising exponentially after that if we don’t find a way to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. 

The NRTEE report points out that part of that cost comes from homes that will be at risk from flooding due to changing sea-levels and other climate-related impacts:

By the 2050s, in any given year, 16,000 to 28,000 dwellings will be at risk of permanent flooding from sea-level rise and temporary flooding from storm surges. … The majority of dwellings at risk are in British Columbia — about 8,900 to 18,700 by the 2050s.  …

Our results for British Columbia require careful interpretation. First, we did not account for the role of dikes and other coastal defences in protecting land and dwellings from the risks of flooding. … [O]ur modeling likely underestimates the number of dwellings at risk of flooding under baseline assumptions for the province — possibly by an order of magnitude — according to expert advice from British Columbia. Judging by maps of Metro Vancouver’s floodplain, tens of thousands of homes would face a flooding risk were it not for the extensive diking system.

The good news for folks in Delta, Richmond and other regions subject to flooding from rising sea-levels is that there are adaptation strategies available to help address these challenges.

However, these measures will be designed and implemented by professionals – in this case engineers and city planners. 

Effective adaptation measures could potentially save billions of dollars (anywhere from $4.3 billion to $173 billion according to the scenarios considered by NRTEE).  On the other hand, failing to address climate change or poorly conceived adaptation measures could make things worse (e.g. failing to calculate the risk exposure associated with development in a given manner on a given location, or inappropriately designing dikes or other adaptive measures.)  We believe that professional associations need to ensure that the professionals designing and implementing these adaptation measures have the training and direction that is required for these tasks.

Other professionals dealing with climate change

Apart from sea level rise there are many other examples where professionals and professional responsibility will be engaged with respect to climate change, directly or indirectly:

  • Architects and engineers providing advice on the construction of new buildings designed to be    energy efficient (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and resilient in the face of future climate change impacts (climate change adaptation);
  • Professional foresters modeling future growth patterns of forests in a changing climate  to be used by forestry companies to inform decisions about logging, carbon sequestration options and re-planting choices;
  • Professional biologists advising governments at various levels on how to manage salmon runs in light of climate change;
  • City engineers and planners advising on how cities and other communities can direct development to reduce the carbon footprint of urban areas.

Our recommendations

Professional associations are increasingly recognizing that climate change is part of the professional landscape for their members. The Ontario Society of Professional Engineers has said:

… Climate change [is] an issue for this generation in which engineers and the engineering profession will play significant roles related to the design and application of solutions.

Climate Change and Professionals, so far as we can tell, is the first report to examine generally the role of professional associations in fighting climate change.  With both industry and government relying heavily on trained professionals for critical advice that helps to shape our communities and manage our ecosystems, we think it's a mistake not to ask professionals and their governing associations to show they merit this confidence when it comes to tackling climate change. 

Imagine what a difference it might make if professional associations:

  • explicitly incorporated climate change into the training and practice requirements for their members professionals;
  • disciplined members who relied on their professional qualifications, despite having no actual training in climate science, to attack climate science and climate scientists;
  • amended their codes of ethics to explicitly recognize their members’ responsibilities related to climate change;
  • set up committees and other structures to ensure that climate change is considered in association decision-making, and in collaborations with other professional associations; and
  • based on their own professional expertise and insight, publicly called for fair, responsible government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate Change and Professionals begins a dialogue.

We can’t fight climate change unless all hands are on deck.  That means we need the professionals – and the associations that regulate them – to make sure that they advise their clients on how to avoid greenhouse gas emissions, and to build infrastructure and manage ecosystems in ways that recognize the current and coming increases in global temperature. 

Some professional associations are already leading the way.  Others have barely begun grappling with climate change and its implications for their members. 

Are you a member of a professional association?  Will you join us in asking your association to take leadership on climate change?  Let us know your thoughts below. 

By Andrew Gage