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31st July 2019
Vaughn Palmer: Climate risk report flies under the radar despite alarming contents

OPINION: Despite the inherently alarmist contents, the New Democrats insisted the unheralded report was not crafted to stir up public anxiety.

VAUGHN PALMER Updated: July 27, 2019

VICTORIA — At first glance the report posted quietly on the provincial government website this week resembled a typical midsummer offering.

Pretty pictures on the cover. The word “preliminary” in the title. Not even the courtesy of a media release to flag its arrival. All seemingly calculated to be overlooked in the July political doldrums.

Only after wading into the executive summary of “a preliminary strategic climate risk assessment” did one realize it was one of the more alarming documents commissioned by this or any other B.C. government. (To see the full report, click HERE. )

More than 400 pages, the report evaluates the risks to B.C. over the next 30 years of 15 specific climate-change-driven events, each weighed on a sliding scale of consequences from “low” to “catastrophic.”

Only one, the prospect of increased incidence of tick-borne Lyme disease, was ranked as “low” risk.

Severe wildfires and seasonal water shortages were given the two highest rankings. B.C. was also estimated to face significant risks of heat waves, ocean acidification, loss of glacier mass, longer-term water shortages, river flooding and coastal storm surges.

All but four of the 15 events were judged to have potentially “catastrophic” consequences in injury and loss of life and damage to property, the economy and provincial finances.

As if that weren’t enough to inspire the script for a big budget disaster movie, the report also speculated about a combination of events:

“A seasonal or long-term water shortage, followed by wildfire, which in turn primes the landscape for severe landslides following heavy precipitation.”

The foregoing is not unlike what has been happening in real life in the state of California, causing significant loss of life and billions of dollars of damage.

Here in B.C., the report suggests the “water shortage, wildfire, landslide cascade” would mean a range of dire consequences.

Significant loss of life, property and social cohesion. Emergency personnel and resources overwhelmed. Severing of roads, railways and hydroelectric transmission lines. Communities cut off for days, if not weeks. Disruption of services and working lives. Business, the economy and provincial revenues all slammed.

The starting point for the report by ICF consultants was an assumption that global greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow throughout the century. It was also predicated on a temperature increase of about two degrees centigrade by mid-century and a corresponding rise in sea levels.

All this was then translated to the B.C.-specific risks and consequences, in consultation with two dozen provincial officials and myriad other B.C.-based experts.

Given the low-key release, the report did not attract much attention at first. But Dustin Godfrey, a reporter for the New West Record newspaper, began tweeting the contents on social media at mid-week.

“Oh, f…!” was one of the first reactions, followed by the suggestion the foregoing epithet should replace “splendour sine occasu” as the provincial motto.

Despite the inherently alarmist contents, the New Democrats insisted the report was not crafted to stir up public anxiety.

“It is a tool to evaluate the likelihood and potential consequences of each event happening in the future to understand the degree of risk it poses for the province and help government prepare,” says the covering statement from the climate action secretariat.

The consulting firm itself said its efforts were “intended to be used to inform decisions made by the deputy ministers’ council and cabinet relating to government priorities that may be at risk due to climate change.”

Moreover the process was inherently iffy, as the authors themselves were quick to concede.

“Uncertainty is a key component of risk,” they wrote. “If we could predict the future with certainty there would be no risk, because we would know exactly what will happen and when.

“In the absence of certainty, decision makers must rely on the best available science to identify potential risks and estimate the likelihood that an event will occur. They typically use a combination of experience and expert judgment to estimate the potential consequences.”

Notwithstanding the heft of the report, it really is intended as a preliminary effort, with much work still to be done.

For instance, for all the NDP’s commitments to provide a greater role for Indigenous people, First Nations were barely involved in the first round of identifying risks and consequences.

Next steps will also see the ministry of environment and climate change begin to translate this week’s findings into a report for public consumption, due next year, on steps taken to reduce the many risks identified in the preliminary report.

Not likely could those moves do much to reduce the risks in the short term. One of the problems, inherent in the 30-year timeline, is that political agendas continue to be governed by a four-year electoral cycle.

But already this year the legislature has, with all party support (and only a handful of dissenting votes), enacted legislation to outlaw new sales of all but zero-emission vehicles by 2040.

Besides, even with the best of efforts, B.C. could only do so much to blunt the worldwide trend upon which the report’s highest-risk scenarios are predicated.