Climate change – resilience or resistance?

The Thinking Tree – an ancient olive tree in Puglia, Italy over 1500 years old. Photo: Graham Johnston

September 02, 2022 – It seems to be a quirk of human nature to avoid confronting uncomfortable thoughts about the future.

Yet most of us do mitigate the potential risk of losing our home and possessions by buying insurance against loss due to fire; many even add earthquake coverage, despite the rather low probability of such an event. So, we willingly pay a little each year to pool the risk so individually we don’t get stung if disaster strikes.

For the past three decades, climate change has been a subject much discussed, much debated and increasingly influential on public policy across Canada and around the world. In comparison to other communities, Qualicum Beach has taken a much more relaxed — some say reckless and irresponsible — attitude. “Mañana, we’ll worry about it tomorrow, if it happens.”

An examination of the Town’s record on climate change preparedness reveals false starts, foot-dragging, inexplicable u-turns and interminable navel-gazing, all leading up to several weeks ago when, in a flourish of the obvious, Council declared a Climate Emergency, just in time for the municipal election.

Both Town Council and Administration have a duty to its residents to look ahead, identify risks, and take appropriate actions to mitigate those risks, be they economic, social, or environmental. On the other hand, they cannot get out too far ahead of the parade. Zealous sky-is-falling enthusiasm for dramatic disruption of current practices is not prudent. Yet ignoring the signs of coming stresses by doing nothing is arguably worse. If you don’t know it, look up the classic tale of the ant and the grasshopper.

A reasonable question: Does the Town of Qualicum Beach consider climate change to be a serious issue worthy of active response rather than passive observance? In this deep dive, we consider not what Town leadership says, but what it has done and their pattern of action, particularly over the four-year term of the current Council. We attempt to explain where we’re at, how we got here, and how we compare to other communities.

What have the residents of Qualicum Beach said?

Historically, there has been plenty of public consultation to learn about the aspirations and priorities of QB residents about the Town’s future.

Here is what QB residents said about climate change as reflected in the Town’s Official Community Plan (OCP) last revised in 2018:

  • The OCP includes an endorsement of the goals within the Regional District of Nanaimo’s (RDN) Regional Growth Strategy, circa 2011, which includes “Prepare for Climate Change and Reduce Energy Consumption – Reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions and energy consumption and promote adaptive measures to prepare for climate change impacts.”
  • Objectives include: “Prepare for climate change and rising sea levels by implementing policies for adaptation in vulnerable areas, such as the waterfront. Continue to evolve the Town’s drainage standards in response to climate change. Work with the RDN and the Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region to develop a regional watershed stewardship and management framework to support the health of the watershed and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Include “Climate change mitigation and adaptation” as one of the values to be assessed in the review of applications for new housing.”
  • And a recommendation to develop a “Town-wide tree and vegetation management and conservation plan and policies” in support of a range of goals including “climate change management.”

The Town’s Sustainability Plan

In 2009, the Town created a Sustainability Plan, describing it as “a long-term vision that will keep the Town on track towards a vision of Sustainability through any coming changes, over the next two generations and possibly seven updates to the Official Community Plan.”

This Sustainability Plan was incorporated into the 2011 Official Community Plan, and is heavily referenced as context within the current 2018 OCP.

In keeping with the maxim that you cannot manage what you do not measure, the Town’s companion document, the Sustainability Action Plan (SAP), contains a set of targets and interim measures intended to track incremental progress towards year 2050. The targets related to climate change mitigation are focused on reducing GHG emissions, particularly carbon dioxide.

So, are we reducing our total GHG emissions in Qualicum Beach year-over-year?

Based on what we glean from the 2018 OCP / Sustainability Plan and the most recent Sustainability Action Plan, the Town’s answer essentially is: “We do not know.”

The 2018 OCP (under Climate Emissions Planning in the appended Sustainability Plan) tells us that our annual baseline starting point for 2007 was 50,837 tonnes of CO2 and that “consistent with its legislative obligations, Qualicum Beach is establishing the following provisional emission reduction targets from its 2007 emissions baseline for its Official Community Plan (these are absolute reductions regardless of growth levels): 33% by 2020; 50% by 2030; 65% by 2040; 80% by 2050.”

That sounds like commitment, but…

Off to the Sustainability Action Plan we go to see how we are progressing. Clang.

Qualicum Beach Waterfront July 2022

There are no reported measures of CO2 emissions in the latest SAP report, released in 2018. This SAP report is apparently not due to be updated until the next OCP cycle, likely 2023/24 at the earliest — sixteen years after the 2007 starting point.

The primary indicator of QB’s atmospheric carbon pollution intended to be tracked by the Town’s SAP is the percentage of consumed energy that comes from renewable zero carbon emission sources. This is determined by a two-step calculation: the percentage of total energy consumed from electricity multiplied by the percentage of electricity generated from a renewable zero GHG emission source.

OK, but where is the measure of total GHG emissions to tell us where we currently are in 2022 compared to the 2007 baseline? Unfortunately, the only reported measure in the 2018 SAP document is from 2012 – ten years ago.

In 2018, the Town’s  Planning department could only report the following progress: “Data not available.”

Town Director of Planning Luke Sales recently explained that: “The Town does not have access to the utility and fuel consumption data required to calculate GHG emissions, and the Province has not released community-wide GHG emissions [data] since 2012.”

We cannot fathom why the Town created this measurement scheme without first determining whether the planned accounting was even feasible. Without valid, reliable measurements there can be no tracking of GHG emissions, no accountability for the results, and no ability to establish effective measures to mitigate the impact of GHGs on our climate.

Gathering and synthesizing statistical measures and best approximations of actual GHG emissions is not trivial work. But communities are not without guidance.

The City of Nanaimo uses the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory, an accounting and reporting standard developed for municipalities to track GHG emission reduction progress against their targets. Nanaimo’s results are reflected in their recently adopted (July 2022) City Plan: Nanaimo Reimagined.

The BC Government, as part of its Local Government Climate Action Program (LGCAP), provides guidance in the form of these suggested best practices for measuring GHG emissions:

To assist communities in not only accounting for GHG emissions but also reducing them, the provincial government in its 2022/23 budget committed $76 million in grants over a three-year period to be divvied across B.C. communities.

Second Opinion QB confirmed that the Town of Qualicum Beach has been granted $100,082 as its 2022 share. It is reasonable to expect that the Town will soon have, for the first time, an actual system of measurement and timely public reporting of our collective progress in GHG emissions reductions.

The Town’s Strategic Plan

To underscore the apparent lack of Town executive interest and attention to climate change, one only has to read the Town’s Strategic Plan. As we have reported previously, the Town has not really been working to a bona fide strategic plan. Instead, we have been treated to an ever-changing list of pet projects compiled by ex-Chief Administrative Officer, Daniel Sailland.

In every so-called “Strategic Plan” document and update produced by the Town’s Administration during the current Council’s term, the word “climate” does not even appear once.

The Town’s Community Climate Change Adaptation Plan

Readers may be surprised to know that in 2019 the Town Administration created, for internal use, a Community Climate Change Adaptation Plan (CCCAP).

We can find no evidence from Council meeting records that this effort was directed by or even endorsed by the Town’s elected Council. Town staff, apparently of their own volition, volunteered their time back in 2018 to participate in “Canada’s Adaptation Changemakers project” sponsored by the federal government and conducted under the auspices of ICLEI (formerly known as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives), resulting in this lengthy CCCAP draft document.

According to the plan’s authors “This CCCAP builds upon the existing Town policies and actions to address climate change, and will allow the Town to proactively identify additional opportunities for action that advance the community further towards the climate resilience of its social, economic, built and natural systems.”

The stated goal of this CCCAP is “to build the adaptive capacity of our community, and to begin to integrate climate change considerations into long-term planning and day-to-day operations.”

The CCCAP was published in March 2020. Then shelved for a year. Pulled off the shelf in March 2021, the date on the cover page of this document was cleverly changed to “2021”. The document was then posted seeking public input over the summer, the least effective time for public engagement in civic affairs.

During the January 12, 2022 regular Council meeting, the draft CCCAP was referred to the Select Committee on Environment and Sustainability (E&S) “for consideration and recommendation to Council on which areas should be prioritized and how best to advance the Town’s goals and objectives, in alignment with our Sustainability Plan.”

In its introduction this CCCAP tome claims that “The Town of Qualicum Beach has a long-standing commitment to climate change mitigation and adaptation.” Three years later though, the draft CCCAP remains bogged down in committee reviews, a couple of hours every few weeks in discussion among a half dozen appointed members of the Town’s Select Committee on Environment and Sustainability, guided / controlled by Town staff, in an effort to forge alignment between the CCCAP and the Town’s Sustainability Plan. To date, broader public engagement has been minimal.

So, there the Town’s Community Climate Change Adaptation Plan sits. Caught in the endless loop of consultation, the can nicely kicked down the road until after the fall election.

Meanwhile, be on the look-out for candidates falling all over each other virtue-signaling their ardent concerns about the climate thing — starting later in this article.

For contrast – a real Community Climate Change ACTION Plan

So how does Qualicum Beach compare to other municipalities? Second Opinion QB started by looking at the list of other municipalities that participated in the ICLEI Changemakers project. The Town of Caledon caught our eye. Caledon is fast becoming an urban overflow town in an otherwise rural area in the GTHA hinterland (Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area); a situation not unlike Qualicum Beach.

In contrast to Qualicum Beach where climate change mitigation is supposedly managed according to the Sustainability Plan while climate change adaptation is managed to the CCCAP, Caledon has a single Community Climate Change Action Plan. Check it out, especially chapter 2 covering GHG emission reductions.

Rather than throw up their hands whining that no-one is spoon-feeding them the CO2 emission data they need (cf. QB), Caledon’s executive leaders have rolled up their sleeves and assembled a model unique to their own Town which identifies what volume of CO2 emissions come from which source, how they will be reduced, progress year-to-year, and the yet-to-be-achieved gap between their current achievement and their year-to-year goals.

This shoulder-to-the-wheel, eyes-on-the-prize community-wide effort does take work, but it is not rocket science. Above all, it takes buy-in from Caledon’s residents who ultimately make choices about their own contribution to carbon pollution. And it takes trusted, unwavering leadership from within Town Hall.

Management of our urban forest – more foot-dragging

Much press has been given to the value of trees as a carbon sink to absorb airborne CO2, as a strategic way to offset at least some of the burgeoning CO2 emissions from industry, transportation, and home heating/cooling.

For example, the Resilient Caledon Plan discussed above “includes actions to protect and restore natural systems, including forests, wetlands, and grasslands to enhance carbon sequestration and resiliency to climate impacts.” Their urban forest’s strategic role is depicted in this graphic:

Image: Town of Caledon, Ontario.

There is a whole sub-industry supposedly keeping records of carbon offsets — for example,  the greenwashing tools used by airlines to delude passengers and the public into thinking that planting a handful of trees will magically remove the tonne of CO2 your plane emitted flying you to and from Cancun. Carbon offset “accounting” may well be the biggest unregulated scam-in-plain-sight the planet has witnessed.

WATCH Carbon Offsets, an entertaining and insightful explanation by comedian John Oliver on HBO’s This Week Tonight, and READ an interesting critique of Oliver’s show by Jim Giles and Jesse Klein of GreenBiz Group.

Closer to home, the same game gets played. In one such example, Town engineer Bob Weir has suggested that those few dozen saplings planted on Hemsworth Road in Qualicum Woods completely compensate, in terms of carbon absorption capacity, for the mass destruction of hundred foot, hundred-year-old conifers felled to make way for an unsightly bicycle track of questionable value since it runs parallel to the perfectly usable Hoylake Road west of Arbutus where bicycles could and do safely travel and for which parents had only requested a cross-walk.

Scams notwithstanding, it is generally and increasingly recognized around the world and here in QB that a town’s urban canopy is a valuable asset in mitigating as well as adapting to the adverse effects of a destabilized climate.

A sparse urban canopy was cited as a contributing factor in the area that saw most of the over 600 deaths in Vancouver, B.C. that the B.C. Coroner attributed to the June 2021 heat dome. Here in Qualicum Beach, in the absence of any municipal oversight or guidance, many properties both residential and in the downtown have been clear-cut, reducing the community’s ability to adapt to extreme temperature surges now being experienced on a regular basis all across the planet.

Perpetual wait for a QB Tree and Vegetation Management Plan

In 2016, at the recommendation of the Environment and Sustainability Committee, Town Council at the time directed staff “to continue to prepare a Tree and Vegetation Management Plan, with input from volunteer Committee members, for Council to consider.”

Work on the “T&V” Plan progressed slowly. This project did not even get mentioned by ex-CAO Sailland in his 2019-22 Strategic Plan, so clearly this was not getting priority attention from Town Administration.  However, a team of urban forestry consultants led by Jeremy Gye did complete an in-depth draft plan in March 2020.

This plan, like the CCCAP, languished for a year before it too was pulled off the shelf and punted to the Environment and Sustainability Committee for review and suggestions. Two years after his initial draft was delivered, Gye provided a third revision, dated April 2022.

At its May 18, 2022 regular meeting, Town Council voted to receive the proposed Urban Forest Master Plan but with the giant caveat that “Implementation of the recommendations [in the Plan] is subject to the availability of Town resources, as well as future Council direction. Adoption of this plan does not commit the Town to its recommendations.”  

At its May 18, 2022 regular meeting, Town Council voted to receive the proposed Urban Forest Master Plan but with the giant caveat that “Implementation of the recommendations [in the Plan] is subject to the availability of Town resources, as well as future Council direction. Adoption of this plan does not commit the Town to its recommendations.”  

The Urban Forest Master Plan was then again punted to the E&S Committee for “recommendations on next steps,” piling up more work for these part-time Committee volunteers, work to be done after the E&S Committee completes its review of the CCCAP. Which begs the question: Why is this work not being assigned to paid Town staff or contractors?

Seems the Town has some significant ‘commitment’ issues.

However, at its February 23, 2022 meeting, Town Council had approved a motion that “after the Select Committee on Environment and Sustainability reviews the Tree and Vegetation Management Plan and the Community Climate Change Adaptation Plan, staff be directed to prepare an estimation of costs which would need to be added to the budget to implement the Tree & Vegetation Management Plan and the Town of Qualicum Community Climate Change Adaptation Plan.”

Bottom-line: Neither the Urban Forest Master Plan nor the Community Climate Change Adaptation Plan will be completed, adopted, or committed to during the term of the present Council.

All of the above suggests that a current majority on Council, as well as Town Administration have, for the past four-year term, been effectively and actively resisting meaningful efforts to strengthen the Town’s resilience to climate risks.

Tree Protection in the Estate Properties

The Town does have a tree protection bylaw which applies to one designated Tree Protection Area, a portion of the Estate Properties. This bylaw was enacted back in 1995, apparently by a Council concerned that Mrs. Milner was considering clearcutting her estate to harvest some timber revenue. It restricts those property owners from damaging or removing trees taller than three metres, unless the tree “presents a hazard to persons or property due to decay, damage or some other reason.”

Given the prolonged delay in developing the more comprehensive Urban Forest Master Plan, on May 18, 2022 Council instructed staff to “bring forward Town of Qualicum Beach Tree Protection Bylaw for consideration of expanding the tree protection area,” to include sections at the east and west end of the Estate Properties.

Planning director Luke Sales and the Town’s Chief Administrative Officer Lou Varela did bring an amended bylaw to the August 24, 2022 Council meeting, but with their recommendation that it also be punted to the next Council for consideration during the 2023 Strategic Planning Process.

Mayor Wiese and lame duck Councillor Filmer hastily supported the staff recommendation to punt, but Sales, Varela, Wiese and Filmer were overruled by Councillors Harrison, Skipsey and Westbroek who kept the bylaw amendment alive with first reading at the August 24th meeting.

Declaring a Climate Emergency

In 2016 the City of Darebin in Australia had officially declared itself to be in a “Climate Emergency”. The idea gradually spread worldwide, with the list of thousands of federal, state, and municipal governments who have declared themselves to be in a Climate Emergency growing ever longer.

In April 2022, QB Town Council directed staff to “outline actions that could result from the Town declaring a climate emergency.” This requested staff document, provided to Council in May, was included with the agenda for an open Council Committee of the Whole meeting on July 27, 2022, dedicated to the topic of climate.

Members of the public were invited to make brief comments at the COW meeting. Len Flint was pre-scheduled by the CAO/Council to be the first speaker, as a formal Delegation, without a time constraint, just a request to try to keep it to 15 minutes, which he did.

Flint said that “the climate is in constant change,” and that there is “no reason for a climate emergency declaration, as we are already part of that at the national and provincial levels.” Flint also took issue with the Town’s efforts to mitigate sea level rise. “We are not seeing sea level rise at the coasts in the way the satellites suggest we should,” said Flint. “By the way, it [sea level rise] is about zero in Qualicum Beach. … Happily, sea level rise is not likely an issue locally. It’s been stable for 120 years. Campbell River has actually seen a decline.” Flint’s observation concurs with the findings of the Canada’s Oceans Now 2020 report referenced in our critical review a year ago of the Town’s unsubstantiated concerns about local sea level rise.

Teegan Walshe, representing the Fridays for Future Qualicum group, was the second scheduled Delegation and repeated their May request that Council do three things: declare a Climate Emergency; endorse the global Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty; and, commit to an updated Climate Emergency Action Plan, “because we do not know if we are meeting our targets. The interim [2018] report of the Sustainability Action Plan does not have specific amounts of emission reductions resulting from the steps it outlines.”

VIEW VIDEO of the July 27, 2022 Committee of the Whole meeting

READ the Town’s rough draft of Minutes from the meeting, including the gist of the comments from several individual attendees:

QB Town Council at its regular August 10, 2022 meeting did declare a Climate Emergency. What the Town and its residents are going to proactively do about it is yet to be determined.

Two weeks later, at its August 24, 2022 meeting, Council, finally alive to the conspicuous absence of GHG emission measurement data mentioned earlier in this article, directed staff “to research cost estimates for a third-party report on corporate and community wide emissions; to research opportunities for grant funding streams; and, refer the item [climate change mitigation] to the 2023 budget and strategic planning process.”