What the climate crisis means for BC and what more needs to be done

The climate crisis will have different impacts in different parts of the world. In BC, some of the most significant of those impacts will likely be the worsening of extreme weather events like flooding and wildfires.

While the province has been a national and global leader on climate policy, it can still be doing more to curb carbon emissions, according to Dr. Kai Chan, a professor in the UBC Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

On the physical side, one of the most destructive impacts would be the worsening of wildfires, which are already a major summer concern.

As average temperatures rise, extended periods of drought will become more common. Working in tandem, these trends will cause both the buildup of larger fuel loads and the extension of the fire season, with the end result being larger and more destructive fires.

Not only are the fires themselves destructive, threatening both lives and property, but the smoke they create can also be a health hazard, especially for vulnerable populations like the elderly.

Another biophysical impact of an unmitigated climate crisis will be the loss of native forest types like the Western Red Cedar that favour a cooler, wetter environment.

This loss of trees and wetland species will contribute to another damaging effect: increased flooding.

“You generally see more flooding when you have more water that’s held in warmer air [and] that comes down in more extreme downpours, but that’s all exacerbated when you have land use change in the form of more impermeable surfaces,” said Chan.

With fewer trees and wetlands to soak up the water that is released in such downpours and more terrain being covered by concrete, all that water has nowhere to go. This phenomenon was demonstrated dramatically in Houston, Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Flooding in coastal areas will also be worsened by rising sea levels that will amplify the impact of events like storm surges on top of high tides.

Increasing carbon in the atmosphere will also accelerate ocean acidification, a trend that has already pushed several species in the Salish Sea to the limits of what they can tolerate, according to Chan.

On the socioeconomic side, one of the most noticeable impacts will be increased level of migration.

“We can expect to see more migration, especially from places where the climate is becoming more inhospitable,” said Chan.

Another impact will be a transformation of the composition of the economy as renewable energy becomes a larger, more important industry. This transition will be more difficult for people working in industries like coal that lack skills that are readily transferable to the renewables industry.

September 2018 saw Vancouver inundated with wildfire smoke.
September 2018 saw Vancouver inundated with wildfire smoke. File Elizabeth Wang

The provincial response

The province has been effective at implementing policies that have reduced carbon emissions, but according to Chan, it could still be doing more.

In 2008, BC rolled out an aggressive carbon tax scheme, along with updated fuelling standards. These new standards mandated that a portion of fuel used for heating and transportation must be renewable and required manufacturers to limit the carbon intensity of fuel, among other things.

These policies have been effective at reducing emissions, as the province saw a drop in carbon emissions of nearly four per cent between 2007 and 2016.

But Chan also identified timber management and liquefied natural gas (LNG) policy as areas where the province could be doing more.

“The NDP government, as strong as they’ve been on some fronts in terms of turning away oil pipelines, have also been trying to build LNG pipelines,” said Chan.

LNG is of particular concern to climate scientists because of methane’s high potency as a greenhouse gas.

“Because of the pervasive leaks of methane at various stages of either mining, extraction, [liquefaction] or shipping ... methane may be no better than oil, may even be no better than coal from a climate perspective,” Chan said.

Despite the scope and scale of the issues the climate crisis is creating, Chan urged students to continue advocating for change, emphasizing that they are the generation that will be inheriting all of these problems.

He also highlighted the great growth in power that the youth climate movement has seen over the course of the past year as an example of the expanding potential impact student advocacy can have.

“There’s an opportunity here to be a part of something really great, within your youth to help turn something around that is massive, that the grown-ups have failed to do,” Chan said.