The balmy summers that Vancouver has been enjoying are almost certainly symptoms of a general trend towards climate change that could wreak havoc on B.C.’s environmental economy.
It’s July – the Lower Mainland’s favourite season. Weeks on end of virtually rain-free frolicking on local beaches; fresh berries on restaurant dessert menus; skipping work for a little fishing or golf in the afternoons. But while some rejoice in the sunshine, others are anxiously scanning the long-range weather forecasts. The balmy summers that Vancouver has been enjoying are almost certainly symptoms of a general trend towards climate change that could wreak havoc on B.C.’s environmental economy. The Inukshuk logo chosen for 2010 is a symbol of Canada’s frozen north. But the multimillion-dollar question for those banking on the Winter Games in B.C. is, will there be any snow left in Whistler by then? Arthur DeJong is the mountain planning and environmental resources manager at Intrawest-owned Whistler-Blackcomb Mountain Resorts. His answer: “Climate change is real, but we’re ready.” He points out that the rate of snowfall actually increased in the 1990s over the previous decade but adds, “We’ve known and believed that climate change is happening, because glaciers are the most sensitive barometers of that change.” Over the last 100 years, he points out, the glaciers in Garibaldi Park (where Whistler is located) have receded by “roughly 50 per cent.” DeJong’s figure is optimistic: the provincial Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection (MWLAP) estimates that some glaciers in B.C. may have lost as much as 75 per cent of their ice and cites Garibaldi Park’s Wedgemont Glacier as one example. A 2002 report claims Wedgemont “has retreated hundreds of metres in the past two decades alone.” Call it global warming, climate change or simply escalating greenhouse gas emissions, but scientific evidence leaves no room for doubt that British Columbians are contributing to glacier meltdown every time they drive a car, or fire up a lawnmower or buy juice made from cranberries that have been trucked from the Lower Mainland to Massachusetts for processing and trucked back to our supermarket shelves. For Whistler-Blackcomb and other ski resort companies in B.C., however, dealing with climate change is not a choice, it’s a business survival tactic. Pierre Dagenais, public relations manager at Grouse Mountain, says that 70 per cent of the mountain’s business now takes place during non-winter months. As Arthur DeJong points out, “[Climate change] is a long-term trend, so we have to look at it long term. It’s also financially prudent to forecast the snowpack over at least 20 years before investing in expensive infrastructure.” Whistler-Blackcomb’s strategies include reduction of its own emissions, using energy-efficient lighting and snow-grooming equipment, seeding grass on eroded slopes for longer snow retention and even orchestrating carpooling for employees. It’s been a successful approach to date: electricity consumption has decreased 18 per cent since 2000, notwithstanding increasing numbers of visitors. It’s impossible to tell five years in advance how much snow the winter of 2010 will bring; a warm season with little snow like this year’s would have a devastating impact on outdoor events at the Olympic Games. DeJong himself admits climate change is not a good news story for the ski resort but insists Whistler is adapting successfully. “We have improved the efficiency of our snowmaking plant by 80 per cent in the last 10 years,” he says. Nonetheless, DeJong candidly admits that it would not surprise him if snowmaking capacity on the mountains had to be doubled by 2010. If climate change leaves the ski operations at Whistler-Blackcomb vulnerable, not to mention all the other businesses and related jobs that rely on winter crowds piling into the municipality, consider the implications across the province. Because of their vulnerability, members of the ski industry in B.C. have been well ahead of the pack in both realizing the impact of global warming and initiating mitigation efforts. Other industries have been much slower off the mark.
It’s only been a decade since a United Nations climate change panel first declared, unequivocally, that human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are directly contributing to global warming. An incredulous business community immediately dismissed the panel’s conclusions. But a lot can happen in 10 years. In 2005 there seems little room left for doubt that an unprecedented acceleration in climate change has occurred in the last two centuries and the finger points directly at human activity. Debate still rages over who is to blame and what is to be done. Individuals blame corporate pollution. Industry wants government to pay for environmental improvements. Government says it wants to help but industry and individuals must first change their high-emission behaviour. By 1999, according to provincial records, British Columbians were each producing 16 tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHGs) annually, or 3.5 times the global average. By 2002 per capita emissions in B.C. were up by 28 per cent from 1990 levels. The time for debate, at least in B.C., seems to have passed. “We don’t need more science,” UVic professor and chair in atmospheric science Andrew Weaver told the Times Colonist in January. “We need to limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.” Evidence of rapid global warming continues to emerge, accompanied by increasingly alarming forecasts of future devastation. Potential symptoms are already apparent in the Interior: mountain pine beetle infestations, smaller annual snowpacks with a corresponding increase in the risk of forest fires, and rising river temperatures. According to MWLAP, the temperature of the Fraser River at Hell’s Gate has risen at a rate of 2.2 degrees C per century. While the data isn’t complete, it appears the Columbia River is also warming, as is the Thompson. The ministry is prepared to state that “examination of weather records suggests that long-term changes in climate are responsible for 55 per cent of the Fraser River warming.” But it’s the voracious beetle population that currently poses the most the most visible threat. While it is a native species, it is responsible for the destruction of an estimated 300 million trees in B.C. in the last 20 years, causing damage valued at $6 billion – this in an industry worth $19 billion in 2004, according to Anne Mauch, environmental director at the B.C. Council of Forest Industries. To date, the southern part of the province has suffered the greatest impact. Pine beetles like the warm weather there, but a slight 2.5-degree-C increase in annual temperatures would prevent a winter kill-off, allowing them to spread north by as much as seven degrees in latitude, covering significantly more than half of the province. The data indicates that in the last 100 years the temperature in this province has increased by just over one degree and as much as 1.7 degrees C in northern B.C. So the forestry industry’s concerns are very real; according to the council, 270,000 jobs are directly or indirectly dependent on healthy forests. Also difficult to ignore and attributable to climate change is the fact that ocean levels are noticeably higher. On the B.C. coast they’re up by as much as 12 centimetres and expected to rise by another 88 centimetres this century. On the Fraser River delta, which is less than one metre above current sea level, dikes will continue to provide critical protection to the hundreds of thousands of residents, farmers and other businesses located within their narrow banks. More evidence of global warming: tropical diseases are spreading into zones previously thought too cold to support them. The first instance of West Nile virus in Canada surfaced in Toronto in 2002. Last year scientists were predicting its arrival in eastern B.C. While no cases were found, warnings were again issued this spring to take precautionary behaviour against mosquito bites. Severe weather events are occurring with more frequency, as residents of the Lower Mainland discovered last January when a number of North Shore homeowners were evacuated and one person died during a devastating landslide. The storm water systems of the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD) were unable to cope with the torrential rain; roads and schools were closed, flights were delayed and traffic came to a standstill. And here’s one final, irrefutable fact: five out of the last 10 years have been the hottest in recorded history in the Northern Hemisphere. What’s going to happen in the next 10? If the potential impacts of climate change in the next decade are as significant as some suggest then the economic and social implications for B.C. are massive. When industries are wiped out – say, whole ski resorts – hundreds, if not thousands of jobs go too, along with associated businesses: hotels, rental car companies and restaurants. But ski resorts aren’t the only ones at risk; farmers, fishers and foresters will struggle to make a living. Higher taxes will be needed to support alternative technologies (wind or solar power, for example); surcharges may be placed on the use of private motor vehicles; and we may have to shell out high sums for imported water. The last scenario has already happened; in the summer of 2003, tankers carrying water to private gardens all over the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island were a common sight. [pagebreak] So what is anyone doing about the impact of climate change? Executive VP of the Business Council of B.C. Jock Finlayson says that of course big industries are aware they are moving towards a “carbon-constrained future.” But if you don’t know what regulatory environment is in your future, and you can’t get hard data on exactly what will occur in your particular field, deciding the best strategy for emissions reductions is a guessing game. Environmental director Anne Mauch agrees. In the absence of clear information about climate change, “it’s hard for industry to take a firm position on it.” It’s not that forestry companies aren’t taking action to reduce emissions, she says. “The forestry sector has been working on that for years. It’s just that I wouldn’t characterize the concern in the industry as being about climate change so much as focusing on specific incidents that I suppose could be caused by climate change, like the pine beetle and forest fire risk.” As for small businesses not immediately linked to or affected by climate issues – an accountancy firm or a cell phone franchise – Finlayson says the potential implications of climate change aren’t even on the radar screen. But there are people who disagree with inaction in the face of uncertainty. “I would say if you don’t know what’s in the future, that’s a case for acting with even greater caution,” says Willard Sparrow, an environmental advocate and member of the Musqueam First Nation in Vancouver. Sparrow offers this analogy: “If you filled a room with people then started up a gas-powered engine in the room, in 15 minutes everyone would be dead,” he says. “That’s what we are doing to ourselves in [the Lower Mainland], and yet people are still arguing about it.” Sparrow’s analogy is apt: the most concentrated production of greenhouse gases in B.C. takes place in the Lower Mainland. Perhaps more than anywhere else in the province, the Lower Mainland is also a sitting duck in terms of its vulnerability to climate change. Consider that in the last 10 years the population of the GVRD has increased by 17.6 per cent. BC Stats predicts the population will swell to almost 2.5 million by 2015, a further 12.8 per cent increase. The region supports two major airports (including Abbotsford), several large seaports, significant rail and truck traffic, a large number of manufacturers, commercial developments and light industrial parks, plus highly valuable agricultural land. Almost 5,000 hectares of that land belongs to the city of Richmond. If the Lower Mainland is a sitting duck, then Richmond has the target painted directly on its chest. The city is home to 177,000 people living on 129 square kilometres of low-lying islands at the mouth of the Fraser River. Within its boundaries lies Vancouver International Airport, two seaports, the largest fishing fleet on the West Coast, dozens of kilometres of dikes and more than 300 high-tech companies. It is a city of commuters: there are twice as many jobs as there are residents of working age. Together with Langley and Pitt Meadows, it produces 80 per cent of Canada’s cranberry crop. And it will host the Olympic long-track speed skating competition in 2010. With all that business at stake, is anyone in Richmond worrying about climate change? Well, yes and no. There are just as many advertisements for $200,000 RVs in the newspaper as ever, and despite the fact that the gas-powered versions of leafblowers and lawnmowers contribute a staggering five per cent of Canada’s annual emissions, sales are still doing nicely. Nobody is stockpiling sandbags. Director of the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board Andrew Peck says that if the real estate market is anything to go by, purchasers in Richmond could not care less about global warming. None of his clients are anxiously asking for property on higher ground. “We aren’t even seeing any consumer demand for [environmentally friendly] buildings.” Instead, thanks to Richmond’s influx of affluent immigrants, there’s a trend towards single-family luxury homes with generous floor space, gas fireplaces and lots of hot water capacity, all high energy consumption features. “Urban consumers have other priorities right now,” Peck says. “They work long hours, they don’t want to have to spend a lot of time on the house. I just don’t see climate change high on the list here.” Florence Gordon, president of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, listens to my questions about the impact of global warming on her city in puzzled silence. Is she aware of what is happening in the region? Are concerns being raised by members at chamber meetings? How is business in Richmond undertaking contingency planning for, say, agricultural failure due to drought or relocation requirements to accommodate rising sea levels? “Well, I’m stumped,” Gordon finally confesses. “It’s just not something we have dealt with or have any information or statistics on.” Remarkably, even MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), an international high-tech Richmond-headquartered company that helps governments and companies worldwide monitor climate change and its effects, appears unconcerned about its own backyard. Perhaps that’s because the impacts are being felt sooner elsewhere – in Mozambique, for example, where MDA provides assistance in anticipating flood risks. There is little perception in the Lower Mainland that help may soon be required here at home. MDA is a world leader in its field, but its own disaster mitigation plan for its Richmond operation doesn’t include a climate change component and Liza Aboud, manager of external relations at MDA, dismisses any apprehensions regarding the company’s local situation: “Richmond companies that [have] direct, weather-related liabilities would be more affected.” It would appear the city’s high-tech firms assume they’ll be sitting pretty, leaving the farmers and fishers scrambling for higher ground. When a player in the climate change game of MDA’s status isn’t turning its mind to a disaster scenario in Richmond, it’s not surprising that few other businesses are doing so. But people in Richmond who are concerned about climate change effects feel they have good reason. In their view, a real crisis may be looming within the foreseeable future. Harold Steves has lived all of his 67 years on a farm on the Richmond seashore, where he now runs a cattle operation. Steves also owns a ranch near Cache Creek and served as a New Democrat MLA for two years in the mid-’70s. He was closely involved with the creation of the Agricultural Land Reserve and is currently a Richmond city councillor.
“Most of our farm is outside the dike so we watch the tides for when to put the cattle out there to pasture, and when to bring them in again. We’re very familiar with the tides,” he says. Over the decades Steves has witnessed many unusually high tides but the one on December 16, 1997, was particularly memorable. “We were supposed to be getting a 4.7-metre tide that day, bringing the water about halfway up the dike. But that year was also an El Niño year and the ocean levels were higher than usual. The water came to within 30 centimetres of the top of the dike. I know that, because I measured it. Further down, it was even closer to the top. That means the tide was more like five metres.” Steves can’t attribute the high water to global warming on its own, but what it does indicate to him is that a similar combination of warm water and southeast winds could easily induce the same or worse levels of flooding. Add a rising sea level to the mix and the flooding could become an annual event. Steves has also observed that “things are a lot drier than they used to be. The snowpack melts weeks earlier than it used to. At my ranch in the Interior we used to get a metre of snow. But about 15 years ago it started to change. Now there’s next to no snow, no water retention at all, and we have to buy hay because we can’t grow it anymore. Here in Richmond, we used to drain the fields in the 1990s. Now we have to irrigate.” Levels in GVRD reservoirs, from which Richmond draws its water, have been notoriously low in the last few years. Watering restrictions were unheard of a decade ago; the city started imposing them annually in 1997. Steves also reports that the city has been forced for the past two years to appeal to its citizens to hand-water city trees in the summer. “We’ve still lost about 1,000 of them.” A steady decline in precipitation and reservoir levels could be a massive problem for Richmond’s cranberry producers. The plants need boggy, wet conditions and are highly sensitive to environmental changes. Honeybee pollination is also critical, and is under threat from new and deadly mite invasions, intruders that are thriving in the warmer, drier environment they have encountered as they head north. Blueberry farmer Tony Johal says his annual crop needs much more irrigation in the summer than it did 20 years ago when he and his family started Johal Berry Farms. The farm has grown to 120 hectares, and about three years ago Johal installed a drip irrigation system at a cost of about $2,800 per hectare. It’s a much more effective system than the old overhead one, a critical factor in conserving water. Johal says he is concerned about the climate getting hotter. “I can’t see having to close down our operations in the foreseeable future, though,” he says. “So long as we can get water.”
[pagebreak] Closer to the mouth of the Fraser River, Steves recalls ice skating on the frozen fields when he was growing up in the 1950s. “We’d go several times every winter. I haven’t seen that now in 20 or 30 years.” Tsawwassen First Nation elder Russell Williams, living just south of Richmond between the BC Ferries terminal and the Delta Superport, says much the same thing. “Fifty years ago, I could skate on the pond,” he remembers. “Not any more.” Williams says the changes are subtle but noticeable; there are differences in vegetation, for example, impossible to detect unless, like him, you have witnessed the change happening over a long period of time. Willard Sparrow moved back to his home reserve at Musqueam, just north of Richmond, 18 years ago. Like Williams, he can’t believe that everyone in Vancouver, let alone Richmond, isn’t paying attention to climate change. “There are way too many single-occupant cars driving around Vancouver, for example.” Sparrow also fishes. Over the last two decades, he believes he has witnessed the water around the mouth of the Fraser grow noticeably warmer and has seen an alarming change in the fish. “They’re less vigorous, very lethargic. Their behaviour has changed.” The scientific data backs Sparrow up: Environment Canada documents state “if the water is too warm, salmon use up their energy stores” long before they can reach their spawning grounds. MWLAP reported in 2002 that research had established a link between water temperature and mortality in Fraser River spawning stocks. Twenty years of record-keeping, up to and including 1998, indicate that losses have been greatest in years with warm river temperatures. The rapidity of the change concerns Sparrow. “I’m only 36 years old. I shouldn’t be able to say I’ve seen things disappear like the steelhead, and now the chinook and the coho are going, too.” Harold Steves also fears for Richmond’s fishing community. “I think it’s quite likely,” he predicts, “that the salmon fishery will be completely gone within the next couple of decades.” There are organizations in B.C. attempting to influence government and industry to be proactive in mitigating climate change. The Fraser Basin Council works extensively with stakeholders along the length of the river to promote its sustainability. The Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council has been assessing climate change issues in relation to fishery conservation for a number of years, saying that “salmon serve as a bellwether of the more wide-reaching effects of climate change.” Scientific experts continue to study the issues and advocate action. “If I were a B.C. business I’d be thinking about an energy-use plan right now,” says UVic’s Andrew Weaver. “The day of the internal combustion engine has gone.” The best branded player in the field of climate change advocacy at present is, of course, the Suzuki Foundation, headquartered in the leafy boulevards of Kitsilano on Vancouver’s West Side. The foundation has blasted both the federal government’s and the province’s plans for mitigating emissions impacts, stating that “Canada’s plan lets big polluters off the hook and doesn’t send a strong message to industry,” and that B.C.’s climate change action plan, released quietly last December, “is nothing new, just a bunch of existing policies cobbled together.” Suzuki’s Ottawa-based policy analyst Dale Marshall says, “There are no targets, absolutely no accountability. The province just put out a plan because they promised to put out a plan.” The foundation’s Vancouver director, Morag Carter, says the response from business to the need for emissions reductions has been mixed. In her experience it ranges from complete denial (she cites the oil and gas industry as an example) to acceptance coupled with an uncertainty about what to do next. “Some sectors are really tuned in, like the ski industry and alternative energy companies. The forestry industry seems to be aware, and pulp and paper companies like NorskeCanada have been actively engaged in carbon-reduction targets for a long time. But we have a real problem with BC Hydro, for example, saying it has ‘green’ goals and at the same time approving projects like Duke Point [at Nanaimo] that nobody wants.” Kiichi Kumagai is chair of the GVRD’s environmental planning committee and another Richmond city councillor. He sees transportation as an urgent issue. In addition to all the private vehicles on the road, idling trucks bottlenecked at the international border and on local bridges produce thousands of tonnes of carbon exhaust daily in theLower Mainland, as do freighters that must currently keep their gas-fuelled engines running while in port to load or unload cargo. Kumagai would like to see electrical outlets installed in Lower Mainland ports, and is working with federal authorities and shipping lines to gauge the appetite for change. Both Kumagai and Steves say Richmond council is also working on reducing its own impacts by investing in an all-hybrid fleet of vehicles, insisting that local buildings comply with internationally accepted environmental standards, and using geothermal power to heat the building and cool the ice in the new Olympic speed-skating oval. The city is also offering incentives to developers to reduce parking space and increase the density of new residential developments. Money saved goes into public transit. “Public transport is the great debate in the community right now,” says Steves. “The demand is there but it’s not as great as it could be.” He would like to see more apartment dwellers. The city is encouraging development of more apartment accommodation, especially along the new rapid transit line to be built from downtown to the airport.
What the city doesn’t have is a climate change emergency plan, perhaps because that’s a contradiction in terms. “Symptoms of climate change may be emergencies, but climate change itself is a gradual process,” observes Andrew Weaver, repeating his exhortation to organizations to create energy-use plans instead. Even the Suzuki Foundation doesn’t have a climate change plan for its own building. “Well, we are located at the top of a hill,” Carter points out. But she hastens to add that the issue is much bigger than simply identifying the risk of a geographical location. “It’s how we power [our workplace], how we build it, how we each get to it every day.” She agrees wholeheartedly with the concept of an energy-use plan, something the Suzuki Foundation acts upon by purchasing Green Power Certificates from BC Hydro and employing energy conservation measures as corporate policy. The Vancouver International Airport Authority (YVR) on Sea Island has been engaged in emissions reduction strategies for years, according to its environmental spokeswoman Anne Murray. The second largest airport on the west coast of North America is sitting on an island barely above sea level. Murray says that the sea level here is rising very slowly, less than one metre every 100 years based on current predictions. The airport would be under water by century’s end if nature took its course. But YVR monitors and anticipates gradual change through its dike maintenance and upgrade plan. And the airport has also introduced a series of initiatives, big and small, aimed at reducing its share of emissions. “There are something like 26,000 people working at the airport,” Murray explains. “Not just airline crew but courier companies, retail outlets, rental car companies, maintenance and so on. Those are all people we can influence.” She is hopeful that many of them will ride the new transit line to the airport; YVR is contributing more than $300 million to construction costs. And she points to such other energy-saving ideas as the durable LED lights that replaced the old taxiway and apron lights. Carbon monoxide sensors now determine the number of people in the terminals at any time, thus regulating the amount of heat or air conditioning required. Escalators run in energy-saving ‘sleep’ mode. And in the domestic terminal the hot water in the restrooms is heated by solar panels on the roof. Will it be enough? In Richmond this summer, as the planes roar overhead, hot water is very much on the mind of Harold Steves. He continues to keep a close eye on the tides, waiting for the one he believes will inevitably wash over the top. No matter what atmospheric scientist Andrew Weaver says about not losing any sleep over it, he doesn’t live next to the dike as Steves does. Across the river, on Musqueam’s tiny reserve at the west end of the third runway on Sea Island, Willard Sparrow is anxiously watching the fish as their numbers continue to dwindle. “Looking at what’s happening with climate change here and doing nothing about it is a bit like watching our grandmother teetering at the top of the stairs,” he says. “Are we going to try and catch her, or just let her fall?”