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Climate Change Adaptation Governance in British Columbia: Workshop Proceedings

This article details key messages and recommendations from an ACT, SFU and Western University co-hosted workshop on climate change adaptation and governance in the context of British Columbia.
Climate Change Adaptation Governance British Columbia


On March 6th, 2018, ACT, SFU and Western University co-hosted a workshop in Vancouver on the topic of climate change adaptation and governance in Canada, with a specific focus on issues relating to the British Columbia (BC) context. Attendees included participants from government, academia, private sector, and non-governmental organizations.

Particular attention was given to province-wide strategies for adaptation, risk reduction, and the intersection between them. This workshop was part of a series of events being carried out in tandem with research at Western University.

This report summarizes the discussion with participants on adaptation framed as a set of actions and governance strategies.

Workshop Focus and Context

Climate change adaptation is the process of preparing for actual or projected changes in climate averages and extremes. It relies on interpretations and values pertaining to key questions regarding ways hazards and vulnerability are determined; the nature of acceptable interventions; and the determinants of success. As a result, adaptation is both complex and political in nature. The process of identifying the most effective roles for various actors and the best policy instruments to use to reach certain goals is not only value-laden, but complex and uncertain.

In an attempt to untangle this many-faceted issue within the provincial context, participants were asked to consider the following questions:

  1. Based on your experience and professional insight, what are the necessary components for effective climate change adaptation governance in Canada?
  2. Based on existing successes, what roles and mechanisms are required for effective and collaborative adaptation?
  3. What are the barriers to effective adaptation governance, and what are some potential strategies for overcoming them?

Barriers to Effective Adaptation Governance

Disconnect and Lack of Motivation

The participants identified the disconnect people feel from climate change events that are happening outside their immediate vicinity as a major barrier to climate change adaptation governance. The risk of a climate disaster is difficult for people to identify with when they have no prior experience to draw from. Adaptation and risk reduction must be proactive, not reactive, to be truly effective. Often, the only time action is motivated is after a disaster has occurred, and by then it is too late for adaptation. However, participants noted that it can be difficult to get governments to act because successful adaptation results in the absence of impacts and is therefore difficult to demonstrate, additionally reducing the ability to promote these successes in election campaigns. Governments would generally rather address issues with tangible benefits that can be shown to the public and there is need for better information, based on scientific analysis, to document the benefits of climate change adaptation in ways that will gain political and societal support.

Timelines Required

The problem of timelines is prevalent within government policy making. Due to their long timescales, adaptation actions are likely to have benefits too far into the future to be immediately demonstrable. In order to address the complex nature of adaptation, it would therefore be useful to create indicators that cover multiple scales, including temporal (early, mid-term, and long-term), geographical, and different levels of governance, to evaluate adaptation planning. For example, development and implementation of drought management plans is an early, measurable indicator that the province is adapting to the longer, hotter, drier summers projected by climate models, and are already in evidence. Medium-long term indicators could examine the effectiveness of these plans in terms of reduction of the negative impacts of drought.

Lack of Leadership

Another barrier is lack of leadership. Individual champions have been proven to be instrumental in promoting and implementing climate action. Without powerful voices from leaders such as senior government officials, it is hard to drive action on climate change.

Lack of Capacity among Professionals

Lack of capacity among professionals in terms of access to knowledge and tools designed to advance adaptation is also a potent barrier. Professional associations, academia, and peer-to-peer networks were identified as being valuable for sharing information and experiences that can help drive action. Concern also arose regarding the capacity of adaptation experts to effectively convey climate change impacts and the seriousness of the issue to the public.

Competing Priorities

Participants noted that competing priorities are a barrier. For example, affordable housing is the most visible concern in Metro Vancouver, outweighing the issue of adapting to flood risk. Similarly, the disclosure of climate change impacts threatens immediate personal loss to some individuals, as proposed developments may be required to change drastically or be canceled entirely if updated flood maps reveal unacceptable levels of risk, potentially negatively impacting many people personally in terms of developer investment, perception of municipalities as desirable places to live, and individual house prices.

Lack of Resources

Larger governing bodies such as the federal and provincial governments need to provide smaller governing bodies, such as municipalities and NGOs, with the resources and knowledge they need to adapt to climate change. It is important for the federal and provincial governments to work together in this context.

Inflexibility of Regulations and Guidelines

Current regulations and guidelines are often not consistent with adaptation approaches and must be designed to be flexible enough to incorporate unforeseen yet common sense adjustments, including regional and case-specific considerations required for adaptation. One example is New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where the city’s plan- ning department thought it best to rebuild schools that had been destroyed outside the floodplain, rather than in the same, risky locations; however, existing legislation did not allow for such changes and resulted in rebuilding that is now vulnerable to future repetitions of this disaster. Thus, while regulation is a powerful tool, its inflexibility may limit adaptation in some cases. Rules must therefore be flexible in response to the kind of unforeseen events projected to occur with climate change that may render their original mandates and rationales obsolete, and even dangerous to the public.

Fragmentation Amongst Levels of Authority

Fragmentation amongst levels of authority is an important issue, relating back to the question of where responsibility lies for climate change adaptation in BC. Ironically, when everyone is responsible, no one tends to take the lead on action. However, this barrier could be surmounted if a Minister is designated responsible and uses his or her authority to delegate responsibilities to other governing bodies. Mismatch of scale was acknowledged as being a possible problem in this context, as the issue may be too large or conversely too small in scope for certain authorities to address, even if they want to. It is equally crucial for different departments within levels of government to work together on adaptation. Another example from New Orleans, but this time of a success, is the fact that many agencies are now combined on coastal management. While this reorganization led to some initial growing pains, it now seems to be working well. Similar initiatives could be started in BC and throughout Canada.

Path Dependency

Participants acknowledged that many government ministries and departments, as well as industry sectors, can be resistant to change. We must break with the path dependency that we have been on for the past century in the Province if we are to advance successful adaptation actions. Economic growth and traditional grey infrastructure development cannot continue to be the central tenet of policy. More adaptive and sustain- able policies need to be implemented, which can still encourage growth, but must also consider the changing climate and the new impacts it implies.

Communication and Comprehension

Finally, both the term and the concept of adaptation itself were acknowledged as problematic. Many people may not intuitively understand the term. The concept is often communicated as a cost and may be seen as a result of failed mitigation (emission reductions). Further, adaptation was initially predominantly viewed in the context of infrastructure. It has now expanded to all sectors, physical and social; however, not everyone recognizes this yet. Another issue with the concept of adaptation is that people may assume that adaptation is a set of actions that will eliminate all the risks of climate change, whereas it will be an ongoing, evolving process. Risk management was considered to be a potentially more useful term because it does not imply elimination of risk, but instead careful management designed to build resilience to impacts. Climate change preparedness is also a term that may be more useful for uptake by the general public. Effective communication is therefore key; it is important to understand the needs of the different audiences being addressed and to use clear terms that are easily understood and unambiguous.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Based on the discussions summarized in this report, the meeting’s conclusions are as follows:

  1. It is key to invest in effective communication of adaptation for different audiences
  2. Updated climate risk maps are required
  3. Adaptive policies, guidelines, regulations, bylaws and codes and standards must be developed
  4. Vertical and horizontal harmonization of government on adaptation is needed, as well as development of regional governance capacity to enable communities to collaborate
  5. The federal and provincial governments must develop resources to support top-down, local and NGO-based adaptation
  6. Professional associations and industry sectors must develop resources to support bottom-up adaptation province-wide and within the private sector
  7. Boundary organizations can be instrumental in furthering outreach, research and other prerequisites to action
  8. Leadership is crucial to advance climate action, so professional education on the issues for the executive level is increasingly important as well as higher education for students, and Ministers at the federal and provincial levels must be allocated adaptation mandates
  9. A centralized government agency would be an asset to development of coordinated, comprehensive adaptation action in the Province
  10. The Province must work with public and private sectors, as well as NGOs, to identify values and priorities, and must then establish these as standards that the government is accountable to maintain throughout its policy making
  11. Programs with targets designed to advance adaptation monitoring, measurement and evaluation on multiple time and geographic scales, such as indicator development and funding associated with measurable reductions in vulnerability, plus analysis of benefits such as avoided costs and reduced damages, will help quantify progress and ensure actions are beneficial
  12. Public disclosure of climate risk is necessary to advance a sense of urgency on adaptation that is not biased by short-term interests that may build in long-term vulnerability
  13. Federal and provincial funding for development should require evidence of and accountability to adaptation planning as a prerequisite for disbursement, and disaster risk disclosure incorporating climate projections should be required as part of due diligence at the organizational level

Further Research

Further research is needed in the following:

  1. The effectiveness of audits, especially in the context of monitoring measurement tools
  2. Identification of the most vulnerbale communities, to ensure that they receive funding and resources even if they do not have the capacity to apply for it
  3. Collaboration with the private sector on economic incentives and innovations such as climate-sensitive insurance premiums

Suggested Citation

D. Bednar, D. Harford, G. McBean, W. Peters and J. Satzewich. 2018: Climate Change Adaptation Governance in BC. Workshop Proceedings, 16pp.

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