Adapting to the Risks from a Changing Climate

It’s true the climate is always changing and that day-to-day we experience different weather. The challenge is that normally the former is an unconscious experience for humans, and for natural ecosystems, adaptation through evolution is possible over long periods. The prospect of a more rapid, human-induced transformation of earth’s biosphere makes the risks and consequences of this point in history more uncertain. Trying to understand the “what ifs” is the focus of a new 429-page report that looks at a preliminary set of climate change-related risks for British Columbia.[1] The important word in the report’s title is “preliminary,” and the six key risks identified are not a surprise. How the report is used to inform the development of sensible strategies and specific actions to facilitate adaptation (the purpose of the report) will be critical.

Risk assessment (RA) is a sound idea.[2] It enables systematic thinking and encourages more rational analyses of issues and potential futures. It should help identify cost-effective and efficient options for addressing potential outcomes of a policy, program, investment, or issue being reviewed. RA is not a predictor of eventualities; rather, as the report notes, it “enable[s] important conversations about risk tolerance, the relative value of different assets, and the types of risk management responses needed.” In fact, thinking systematically and analytically about risks should ward off our worst human predilections for fanciful ideas – either utopian or doomsday.

In our view, adaptation is a central but so far largely missing concept in British Columbia’s strategic approach to climate change. Our people, businesses, and communities collectively have next to no influence over the accumulation of globally-generated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Doing our part, therefore, must be measured and focus on determining and implementing realistic mitigation efforts and fostering changes to behaviour in a world where consumption rather than production is the heart of the problem of GHGs.[3] Even more important is the need to develop plans as an insurance policy for safeguarding our standard of living and overall well-being.

Every business evaluates risk and assesses the alternatives to a happy-path outcome for ongoing operations and also to help shape investment in new projects. Risk assessment of public policies and programs is important (although often not done well or at all). The Business Council is encouraged by the comprehensive review embedded in the recent report by British Columbia on climate change impacts. It adds to our collective understanding and should enable dialogue about opportunities for adapting to the effects of global climate change.

At the same time, we have concerns. One is the repeated use of the word “catastrophic.” This invokes fear and action-paralysis; it does not foster confidence in decision-makers or solutions. Another is that for 4 of the 6 high-risk possibilities – fire, short term episodic water shortage, longer term water issues, heat waves — it is possible to conceive plans (e.g., enhanced emergency preparedness for fire response and heat waves) and possible infrastructure (e.g., water reservoirs, water metering and pricing) to moderate effects. For the remaining two, there are no B.C.-specific actions for ocean acidification and glacial mass loss.

In the end, a small jurisdiction like B.C. must be surgical about what we choose to do. We suggest a good hard look at possible biases embedded in the report. These include but are not limited to anchoring bias (over reliance on the first piece of information used to formulate the objectives and subsequent analysis); confirmation bias (listening to information and voices that confirm our pre-conceptions); availability bias (overestimation of importance of available information); and choice-supportive bias (when we choose something, we feel positive about it even if it has flaws). This is precisely why the next phase of work is so important. What we need in the climate conversation is pragmatism, rigour, proper inquiry, and transparency about the challenges of managing this immensely complex global issue.

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[1] https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/environment/climate-change/adaptation/prelim-strat-climate-risk-assessment.pdf.

[2] https://www.bcbc.com/reports-and-research/risk-perception-reality-and-the-policy-process.

[3] https://bcbc.com/insights-and-opinions/per-capita-emissions-what-does-it-really-mean.