BC Report: A New “Domain of Risk” for Environmental Policy-making from Coast to Coast

Mar 18, 2019 | Loys Maingon, News | 1 comment

Editor’s Note: This report was first published in The Bulletin of the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists, Spring 2019.

Can one write a BC report that would not be equally applicable to what is happening Quebec?  To consider this is almost an object lesson of why the profession needs a truly “Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists” around which to develop a national conversation on the common professional and environmental challenges that we will face over the next 12 years, as urged by the latest IPCC report.[i]

Events in BC and in Quebec both point to the urgency of phasing out fossil fuels by 2050 and reducing  carbon emissions by 50% by 2030.[ii]  That this is technically and economically feasible is confirmed by a recent report by the Stamford environmental engineering team headed by Mark Z. Jacobsen in a comprehensive report entitled: “100% clean and renewable wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy roadmaps for the 50 United States”.[iii]   The assessment is essentially that “the barriers to getting to 100% clean energy are social and political, not technical or economic.”[iv] Beyond the matter of the feasibility of shifting the energy foundation for the economy, which is now a necessity, lie the problems that the environmental legacy of a fossil fuel economy will continue to pose for environmental biologists well into the 22cd century.

Whether it be in BC or in Quebec, Canadians are experiencing anthropogenic climate change first hand as it is expressed in ocean rise and extreme weather events in patterns that have changed within a generation.[v]  The material costs associated with these events  bring home the realization that business-as-usual cannot be assumed to be sustainable for much longer.  It also increasingly casts into doubt the credibility of both provincial and federal Ministries of Environment and Climate Change’s policy advocating for oil and LNG pipelines as part of a “transition,” which is causing social unrest in both BC and Quebec.

British Columbians went into shock December 20 2018 when high winds and accompanying wave surge did unprecedented damage to the 100 year-old pier at White Rock.[vi]  Shortly before that, after a storm on November 29, Quebecers also became acutely aware that their shorelines and sensitive ecosystems, such as the unique Iles de La Madeleine archipelago, are washing away at an unprecedented rate through a combination of rising seas and extreme storms.[vii]   As reported by the mayor of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine: “Overnight, entire dunes, roadside stops and all kinds of infrastructure were engulfed by the sea.” (“En une seule nuit, des portions entières de dunes, de haltes routières et d’infrastructures de toutes sortes ont disparu à la mer.”)

In both cases reaction started with a measure of incredulity followed by political re-assurances that infrastructure can and will be rebuilt, only to be updated by a realization of the unbelievable magnitude of the costs.  In the aftermath, White Rock residents were incredulous at the loss of the landmark historical pier which has always been an integral part of their “normal” routine life.  Political re-assurances on the costs of restoring the White Rock Pier began at 4.2 million dollars only to spiral to 16 million dollars in 4 weeks.  All prior re-assurances were based on the dubious assumption that the December storm was somehow just an anomaly. The additional $12 million costs integrated, and brought a tangible measure to, the reality of the new abnormal, largely based on the unreal assumption that climate conditions might not get worse and that business-as-usual can somehow continue without lifestyle disruptions.

In Quebec, with full recognition that coastal erosion rates between 2004 and 2016, were 50 cm per year, and that between 2016 et 2017, the rate had grown to 60 cm per year, immediate infrastructure costs to manage the St. Lawrence coastline alone were estimated by Ouranos to exceed $1.5 billion.  This winter king tides gave a similar glimpse into the future rise of sea levels over existing sea walls in Vancouver.[viii]

What both of these cases, in BC and in Quebec, highlight is that, as observed in Quebec by the director of Ouranos, Alain Bourque – although full scientific analyses always remain to be done  we now have enough data to immediately develop a comprehensive “national”(provincial) strategy  to re-design and re-locate shoreline infrastructure: “within the context of climate change.  Currently we manage everything in crisis mode. One has to move beyond this, to avoid a problem that will cost billions of dollars within the next 30 years.” (“Présentement, on continue de gérer le problème en mode “crise”. Mais il faut dépasser cette approche, il faut penser à tout cela à l’échelle provinciale, pour éviter que le problème nous coûte quelques milliards de dollars d’ici 30 ans.”).  As with Mark Jacobsen’s Stamford University report, the data and the technology needed to address the problem are currently available.  The socio-political will is lacking.

After decades of warnings from over 95% of the scientific community it is increasingly becoming obvious, even to many non-scientists, that climate change is no longer something that we may experience or plan for in the future, but a phenomenon that we are experiencing every day.  Most importantly that comes with a growing realization that it cannot be reversed, but only mitigated.  And any mitigation will have to begin with socio-economic changes, because “climate change” is best referred to as “anthropogenic climate change.”  It is not a planetary cyclical phenomenon beyond our control that is driving “climate change.”  It is, to quote one of a growing number of studies detailing irreversible impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity, our anthropogenic footprint on the planet that is “driving the redistribution of species and reorganization of natural systems and represents a major threat to global biodiversity.”[ix]

The past months of extreme global weather, from Australia’s record heat to the extreme cold of eastern Canada appear to consolidate the sense that we have crossed new thresholds and need to develop new priorities to address an uncertain future.[x]    The evidence that we have crossed a new threshold and what is now to be expected comes from a report of the Met Office in Britain. The extremes we are experiencing are consistent with the decadal modelling of the Met Office which has a good track record for accuracy. The Met Office suggests that there is now a 10% chance that we are increasingly likely to experience spikes reaching or exceeding the targeted limit of 1.5C for 2100 within the next five years:[xi] 

“….for the first time, we are seeing a chance of a temporary rise of 1.5C due to a combination of global warming and natural climate variation.”

Since 2014, the world has experienced the four hottest years since records began in 1850, but these highs are likely to be exceeded soon. From now until 2023, the Met has 90% confidence that mean annual temperatures will range between 1.03C and 1.57C above pre-industrial levels.”

Because global temperatures are based on a 30-year average, this does not mean that the average target limit is breached, however the concern from now on should be that the frequency of these excursions above 1.5C will increase every decade from now on.  The problem that this poses for environmental scientists is twofold.  On the one hand, through restoration and conservation policies problems posed by the impacts of these extremes can be transiently managed, as long as the frequency of extreme years allows for recovery.  This means that on the other hand, one has to manage the source problem driving the increased frequency of 1.5C and above extreme years.  Conservation and restoration efforts will come to naught if the frequency of extreme events overwhelms recovery potentials between years of extreme heat.

Conservation in the new climate framework becomes a game of averages beyond our control. There will now be good years and bad years until years of extreme warming become the norm.  If socio-economic factors can be addressed as suggested by Jacobsen et al. (2018) it should be possible to maintain an average of good years within which we can work to restore the damage of the bad years, and possibly stabilize our climate. 

The fate of the Great Barrier reef should serve as a model for what may be expected from a conservation point of view.  At first, over the last 2 decades, we faced occasional limited coral die-backs.   Those were occasional “bad years” for coral ecosystems.  Conservation biologists developed techniques to repair the damage, to “re-seed” dead zones and monitor them.  Now that opportunity is slipping away as the ocean continues to warm exponentially.  The IPCC forecast is that the corals of Great Barrier reef will be essentially gone by 2040.[xii]  Given that it takes 10 years for corals to recover from bleaching[xiii] and that the expected minimal interval between years in excess of 1.5C is 5 years, environmental recovery will be challenging.  The expectation that we may lose coral ecosystems which support 25% of all marine life within the next 20 years, is further supported by recent research which shows that just as terrestrial ecosystems are being re-shaped by wildfires, so too heatwaves are sweeping away marine ecosystems.[xiv]

While BC does not have the same concerns with coral ecosystems as Australia, marine heatwaves that have also been implicated as drivers in the “80-100% declines of sunflower sea stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) from California to Alaska.[xv]  Here too, the implications of the removal of this keystone predator has large ecosystemic implications for the economy and biodiversity.  The sunflower sea star is a major predator on sea-urchins which graze on kelp forests that are essential for the maintenance ecosystemic biodiversity. Economically, kelp forests are essential for the maintenance of herring populations which are themselves the fulcruum of coastal salmon fisheries.  In the Salish Sea kelp forests have been in trouble for some time.  The collapse of Pycnopodia helianthoides comes as a major blow to ongoing recovery efforts.

That we are crossing a new climate threshold now needs to be a part of a Global Village conversation. By all accounts we have indeed entered into what some consider to be “a new domain of risk. ”[xvi]  The developing situation suggests that we may be headed towards a systemic ecological and economic collapse.[xvii]  This inevitably requires that biologists engage in considerations that would normally be considered to be outside of their area of professional expertise.  We have, at the very least to integrate socio-economic considerations in conservation planning.

It has been clear for a long time to insurance companies that climate change-related risks are increasingly no longer insurable.[xviii]  By its own title the 2018 IPCC entitled:  “Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty[xix]  makes clear that the scope of the threshold exceeds the usual limitations of professional disciplines.  As human population approaches 8.5 billion, the footprint of our human consumption and socio-economic condition encroaches on and shapes wild spaces and ecosystems that are home to a shrinking biodiversity. 

The civic conversation with the public and politicians that we have until now had as scientists is radically changing, though habits die hard and politicians may remain largely insensitive to the implications of the mounting environmental data.   Until now scientists have been able to sit out largely as observers providing data interpretation for the consideration of clients or politicians to implement policies that were to promote sustainable practices and protect resources theoretically within the framework of an economy of endless growth.  Evaluation of the impact of the economic framework was not really required to be part of our expertise.  As interest in the “Green New Deal” grows south of the border, that is now becoming part of professional obligations, as a recent call by 500 women scientists in Scientific American indicates.[xx]

That complements both legislative work and research in BC that is re-evaluating how scientific information is delivered to government and industry.   In BC, since 2006 science is no longer exclusively delivered by government, it is subcontracted within the “professional reliance model,” to private  or industry contractors.  The Professional Reliance Review, which culminated in the tabling of the Haddock Report in May 2018[xxi] has resulted in October 22, 2018 in the Professional Governance Act.[xxii]   The act significantly grants “right to practice.”   All members of the profession, both in government and in the private sector, must be registered.  An oversight body will regulate all levels of the profession, from individuals to firms. 

This comes together with two significant studies, notably from UBC researchers, both concerned with the impact of a lack of oversight.  These articles review the lack of rigorous scientific standards in environmental assessments carried out for large projects in BC.  Work by Cathryn Clarke Murray et al. (2019) in this month’s journal Environmental Management  shows that: “Governments and agencies can better protect resources by requiring clear and defensible significance determinations, by making government-defined thresholds legally enforceable and accountable, and by requiring or encouraging significance determination through inclusive and collaborative approaches.”[xxiii]   Lest one assume that this problem is unique to BC, two other papers of interest evaluating international environment literature indicate serious problems in even what might be considered “world class” environmental management promoting development.[xxiv]

These findings and the need to redefine “professional reliance” are the product of a political bias for extreme “laissez-faire” economics that has prevailed for the past 70 years, and which is largely responsible for the environmental predicament in which we now find ourselves.  This was correctly identified in 1972 by the authors of Limits to Growth, which pointedly stressed that the economy was tightly coupled to the environment.  The 1987 Brundtlant Report, created to respond to Limits to Growth created a mirage that the economy could somehow be decoupled from the environment and grow 5 to 10 fold – with no real impact on the environment. As Vitousek et al. showed in 1986,[xxv] and Haberl et al. re-confirmed in 2007,[xxvi]  human economies already appropriate approximately 25-40% of the planet’s primary productivity. The maximum is 1 planet (100%) which places economic growth limits at the lower range of 2.5 to 4 times.  Notwithstanding current over consumption, species and resource declines, contrary to the  1987 expectations, a 2.5 to 4 fold increase in the economy assumes a linear relationship between appropriation and cumulative ecological impacts – which is not the case since feedbacks make the relationship geometric. 

In point of fact, the economy cannot be decoupled from the environment. 33 years after the Brundtland report evidence of the unsustainability of the economy is all around us  The practical implications of this are evident in recent research which shows that phytoplankton productivity, which is a good measure of global primary productivity, has declined by 40% since 1950.[xxvii] This should be taken a measure of anthropogenic impacts on the base of the foodweb of an ocean-planet, not just of the ocean.  This is not a simple measure of impacts on ocean food webs, it also a measure that is consistent with the massive insect, avian, fish and mammalian collapses which are becoming increasingly evident.[xxviii] 

It is no surprise that this decline has been ongoing since about 1950’s, which concurs with the adoption of the principles of Kuznet’s curve in 1954 by mainstream North-American economists.

Based on select data of wealth distribution between 1913 and 1948, Kuznet’s curve posits that while inequalities of wealth increase in early industrialization, as prosperity increases wealth becomes more equally distributed.  The curve is theoretically an inverted “U”.  As Thomas Piketty, and others, have demonstrated this interpretation was enthusiastically embraced during the Cold War, largely because it served political interests.  In point of fact, “reduction in income inequality between 1914 and 1948 was due above all to world wars…”[xxix]  What economists now observe is that the inverted “U” is only substantiated by using selective short-term data.  As larger data sets are analysed the curve becomes an “N” leading to overshoot, income inequality grows and wealth becomes concentrated in fewer hands.[xxx]

Because Kuznet’s curve is an ideological model, its simplicism continues to pervade political thinking that one needs wealth to pay for environmental programs.  It shaped the central assumption of the Brundtland report as the “Environmental Kuznets’ curve” (EKC) which is based on the parallel notion that after inititial industrialization prosperity enables countries to implement and pay for environmental programs.  In point of fact, data show that the EKC also results in an “N” curve as environmental damage increases since wealth increases a nation’s environmental footprint.[xxxi]

BC is an extremely wealthy province.  It should therefore come as no surprise that in spite of earnest efforts to be environmentally responsible we have an enormous environmental footprint.  Our economic impacts override all environmental objectives.  We either prefer not to acknowledge this reality, or we prefer to hide it with environmental programs that claim to address the problem even if mounting environmental problems indicate that these programs have not been successful.  Both positions are a tacit acknowledgement that problems continue to grow because they are rooted in the failed economic mindset of endless growth.  BC is not meeting its climate change targets anymore than the federal government.[xxxii]

The most obvious of our problems are our freshwater problems, which are often under-reported and go unnoticed by the majority of the population.   We have known for decades that the waters of the Salish Sea were heavily contaminated, ever since toxicology reports indicated that resident Orcas were bioaccumulating toxins at concentrations that met and exceeded those of the Swan Hills contaminated waste disposal site in Alberta.  While we have targetted the obvious contamination of septic outfalls, we have been less sensitive to the impacts of agricultural, garden and urban household run-off, which is carried into coastal streams via a largely uncontrolled network of Ministry of Transport ditches.  Indeed work shows that in BC as in all around the world:“…humans are dumping more chemical waste into the environment than can be tested for its impacts……Agricultural run-off is a major pollution, as are landfills leaking chemicals into water sources.”[xxxiii]

 This is a major problem in BC.  It is as unaddressable here as it is around the world.  In the last three months in the wake of “unprecedented rain” events, reports of surface contamination have made the news such as at Wagg Creek [xxxiv]  where industrial effluent which found its way into the creek system and resulted in yet another fish kill and provided yet another clear example of the actual state of surface waters.  Similarly in January, in a very strangely-worded news release: “high rains discharged unexpected amounts of raw sewage to the shorelines of Greater Victoria.”  The wording is really symptomatic of the mental whitewashing needed to exonerate anthropogenic responsibility! The wording suggests that this is magical and entails no responsible agent.  In fact, the high rains only discharged relatively clean water with some airborne pollutants, however sewage overflows from Saanich to Sooke discharged a toxic e-coli solution mixed with unidentified chemical waste.[xxxv] 

The reported extent of the contamination only reflects the extent of municipal monitoring. It likely extended much further along the shores of the Salish Sea where there was no monitoring.  One can build the most sophisticated sewage plant in the world – however, if basic problems posed by surface contamination are not addressed, pulse events of environmental contamination negate all stewardship efforts.

This is particularly important given the way in which anthropogenic climate change is changing precipitation patterns.  This year the Cowichan River which is a historic fisheries reference river is making the news early.  Cowichan Lake which supplies the Cowichan River, and the local pulp mill, is already down by 40%.  A collapse of salmon runs is therefore to be expected for this summer, unless we have an unexpected wet summer.   This situation is also expected in streams around the Salish Sea, such as Chapman Creek on the Sunshine coast.[xxxvi]  As noted by Cowichan streamkeepers the low levels of the Cowichan correlates with a 35% decrease in summer precipitation since 1980, and a smaller snowpack.[xxxvii]  This means that not only will salmon returns and spawning be negatively affected, but flows resulting from extreme surges will have two impacts.  Physically the river will be subjected to higher scouring and erosion rates.  Chemically surges resulting with extreme rain events will carry pulses of more concentrated pollutants, whose effects would have been minimized in the past by the application of the dilution principle.

Agricultural practices are a not just the major contributor to the contamination of surface waters. Agricultural development has played a key role in the demise of salmon populations throughout British Columbia simply because of the province’s geography.  Agricultural lands are valley bottom lands.  Prior to contact and agricultural and residential development these bottom lands were home to extensive wet meadows and wetland sytems which were an essential component of the river systems that produced the large salmon populations.  The migratory cycles of these large salmon populations have previously provided the annual nitrogen inputs essential to BC’s terrestrial ecosystems.  Agricultural development is therefore a major concern for its impact on the remnants of critical fish habitat. 

Few incidents better illustrate this than the recent “scandal” at Herrling, Carey and Strawberry Islands, which form a large sandbar in the lower Fraser River.  Until recently these islands were part of a treefarm owned by Kruger Paper Products.  They were bought in the fall of 2018 by a large agricultural concern, Klaasen Farms.  When deforestation began as part of a conversion to blueberry farming, local streamkeepers alerted DFO out of concern for the destruction of fish habitat.  These islands are part of a “stretch of river (that) is a spawning site for threatened white sturgeon, a rearing area for chinook salmon and provides habitat for more than two dozen other finfish species.”[xxxviii]  DFO is currently investigating.

While there is concern for the impact of private forestry practices on rivers, which are at a lower standard than industrial forestry on Crown Lands, the standards that agricultural development have to meet are even lower.  As pointed out by Mark de Angelo, this stretch of the river is critical chinook salmon rearing habitat:

“This isn’t just the most urgent rivers issue in B.C., but the whole country. Chinook salmon from the Fraser River are a vital part of the diet of endangered southern resident killer whales.

“The federal government just this past week has announced enhanced protections for these killer whales,” he said. “But we cannot protect killer whales without also protecting areas like Herrling and Carey Island. They are all interlinked. You can’t have one without the other.”

 This concern for the cumulative effects of rampant development comes at a critical moment in the environmental history of Canada.  In December COSEWIC listed most of the Lower Mainland populations of Chinook salmon as “threatened” or “endangered”:

 Mainly a migratory species, these large-bodied fish were historically abundant. Chinook Salmon are important culturally and as a food source for diverse groups of West Coast people, and also provide food for a diversity of wildlife species. The committee found 13 populations to be declining, with 8 assessed as Endangered, 4 as Threatened and one as Special Concern. Only the large population that lives in the Thompson River is stable.”[xxxix]

Both the COSEWIC listing and the regional ecological consequences of seemingly disconnected continued agricultural development constitute a real clarion call for ecological and environmental sanity.  It is part of a choice that needs to be weighed.  Is the priority a short term economic one, in which we continue to pretend that the economy can be decoupled from the environment, or is it an ecological choice in which we acknowledge that an economy of endless growth endangers the viability of the environment, and even our long-term economic survival?

One cannot pretend to protect the environment for future generations while remaining oblivious to the ongoing crisis posed by anthropogenic climate change and continue to develop business-as-usual.  To continue to do so not only compounds the challenges posed by climate change, but destroys sources of possible environmental recovery.

This is a challenge we face from coast to coast.  Fortunately, it seems that after a brutal backlash south of the border, a new generation of voters and politicians are calling for a change of priorities.  The Green New Deal that is galvanizing interest around the world is, as one commentator put it “What Realistic Environmental Policy Looks like”.[xl]    The Green New Deal is is a generational change.  It is important because it points to the reality that old truths endanger future generations and no longer hold.  It is not clear that we have much choice if we want to preserve the ecosystems that have enriched our lives.  Either one believes that the current order of things is no longer sustainable and that things are changing, or one believes that there is no crisis and that there is no other order of things possible.  Either way, we are all on the same planet, and the signs of crisis are evident from coast to coast in every changing ecosystem.

The question for environmental biologists has to be: how shall we change?










[ix] Dan Smale et al. (2018) “Marine heatwaves threaten global biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services” Nature Climate Change. March 4, 2019.





[xiv]; Dan A. Smale et al. (2018) Nature Climate Change March 4 2019 .










[xxiv]  Singh et al (2018).  Scientific shortcomings in environmental impact statements internationally.;

[xxv] Vitousek et al (1986). Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis. BioScience 36:368-373.

[xxvi] Halberl et al. (2007). Quantifying and mappingthe human appropriation of net primary production in the earth’s terrestrial ecosystems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 104:12942-12947.



[xxix] Thomas Picketty. (2014) Capital in the twenty-first Century.  Harvard, p.15.


[xxxi] D.I. Stern. (2004) “The Rise and Fall of the Environmental Kuznets Curve.” World Development 32:1419-1439;  “The Environmental Kuznets Curve after 25 years” (CCEP Working Paper 1514.) Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.









[xl]; .

Loys Maingon

BC Director , Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists

Does an ever-growing economy sink all ships?

Does an ever-growing economy sink all ships?

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1 Comment

  1. Mike Bell

    Hi Loys, Thanks for this. In terms of the science of climate change this about says it all.


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