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Comment: Transforming B.C. to face the climate emergency

Flooding from heavy rain caused the Koksilah River to swell near Duncan in January. CHAD HIPOLITO, THE CANADIAN PRESS

A commentary by a former B.C. deputy minister of environment.

This year will undoubtedly go down in history as the time when all British Columbians experienced and came to appreciate the enormity and dire impacts and implications of the ways we have developed and managed our natural bounty.

The “triple threats” of COVID-19, heat domes and torrential rains cannot be ignored. Because of the qualities and strengths of our people and our democratic institutions, we have weathered those immediate “storms” and the health, fire and flood emergencies they have created relatively well, especially when compared with many other jurisdictions.

However, the crucial question we must all now confront is whether we have the insight and determination to make the transformational changes that will be necessary to succeed in confronting the “long emergency” that these events portend.

Government has received much scientific evidence and advice that clearly shows the enormity of the challenges and consequences that we now cannot avoid.

We know that we are just at the beginning and that more frequent extreme weather events are inevitable. We have to face and adapt to a new and uncertain future. Our institutions and the rules governing a very wide range of our activities have to be “transformed” because they were conceived for a very different world than our future portends.

So, what do we need to do?

I am optimistic that we can make the necessary changes provided that we work as one.

We see our society’s true potential in the humanity of people in Interior and Fraser Valley towns who have lovingly welcomed “refugees” from neighbouring farms and towns; in the quality of local officials dealing with flood responses; in the intrepid volunteers fighting fires and floods; in the efficient and cheerful rollout of the vaccinations; in the work crews labouring around the clock to re-establish road and rail as well as communications linkages and so much more.

But we also see how thin the line is between this optimistic view and a very different future; in the chaos of COVID misinformation and denial; in gas station lineups and panicked stripping of supermarket shelves; and in the struggle that the collective social and mainstream media have to bring a balanced and measured perspective to all this.

We see it, too, in the desperate efforts by government agencies at all levels to work together, to respond effectively, accountably and transparently in crisis. Surely now, though, we all recognize that we have to make changes to be prepared for what is to come.

We are on the brink. Assertive swift action is required to change how we prepare for the future so that it is not a series of ever-greater disasters.

No single government, let alone one or two ministries, can deal with this. An organization charged with collaboratively instigating positive change is required.

A commission, constituted outside but reporting transparently to government, could be such a change agent. It should be driven by respected non-partisan leaders drawn from a diversity of experience and perspectives.

It is not needed to inquire into what has happened in order to find fault: Rather we need an organization given broad responsibility to focus our attention and to transparently lead forward.

The mandate would be to propose plans for adaptive change across all aspects of society.

It needs to be focused on how we anticipate, plan for and manage the consequences of climate change and environmental and societal stress as they impact our river basins, our lands, forests and communities, and our transportation, communications and economy support; all in the context of our commitment to true reconciliation.

Fortunately, our current government has inherited a fine track record from previous NDP forerunners that provided this sort of inter-generational leadership in making lasting institutional change.

Let’s remember the remarkable example of agricultural land protection from the 1970s that continues in the Agricultural Land Commission, and that in the 1990s the Commission on Resources and Environment began early work on land-use planning.

Now is the time to provide similar leadership, albeit at a larger scale, to lay the foundations to tackle the issues that will dominate society’s thoughts, experiences and practices for the next half century.