Premier David Eby stepped up the province’s focus on preparing for disasters and building more climate resilience with a new Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness unveiled Wednesday in his first cabinet.
The new ministry will be headed by Bowinn Ma, the MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale who formerly held a junior cabinet post as minister of state for Infrastructure.
Formerly emergency management fell under the public safety ministry.
“It’s a recognition of the fact that B.C. seems to have been hit harder than many other places in Canada by climate change,” said Eby, speaking to reporters after the new cabinet was sworn in.
He pointed to devastating wildfires and floods last year.
“Making sure that we’re ready to go is a key responsibility of this ministry, both to prevent harms wherever we can from climate related disasters, as well as the risks we always face … such as tsunamis and earthquakes,” he said.
A Postmedia investigative series published earlier this year found government efforts have fallen dangerously short of what is needed to properly protect communities from floods and wildfires.
The investigation found at least $13 billion is needed to protect communities from an expected increase in climate-fuelled disasters.
Eby’s instructions to Ma, outlined in a mandate letter that is provided to all ministers, said the province needs to build its capacity to be resilient in the face of emergencies and prepare to mitigate the risk for future emergencies.
He noted that lessons needed to be learned from past emergencies.
Eby said he expects Ma to complete work on modernized emergency management legislation and lead the development of a provincial hazard risk vulnerability assessment that supports a subsequent province-wide disaster and climate risk reduction plan.
That plan must be co-ordinated across other government ministries, set priorities for investments and establish Indigenous peoples as “true partners and leaders.”
Tamsin Lyle, a flood management expert who has been involved in planning and policy in B.C., said the biggest benefit of having a new ministry responsible for emergency management and climate adaptation is that it significantly increases accountability.
And with accountability, the money will follow, she said.
The new ministry also increases the chance an action plan will be created with concrete, achievable goals to reduce the consequences of climate change in B.C.’s communities, said Lyle.
She said she liked what she saw in the mandate letter, an “overall excellent” direction and placing responsibilities that were in different ministries, such as the B.C. flood strategy that is under development, under one umbrella.
“I think it’ll become very quickly obvious, a penny spent now is going to be worth billions down the road (in savings),” said Lyle, who heads Ebbwater Consulting.
British Columbia was rocked in 2021 by one of its worst wildfire seasons, record hot temperatures and devastating floods.
The deadly fires and floods caused billions of dollars in damage including to hundreds of homes, washed out bridges and roads, cut off key transportation corridors to the province’s shipping ports, resulted in gasoline rationing and displaced 46,000 people.
Some people still remain out of their homes from the fires and floods.
Postmedia’s investigation highlighted that local governments, including First Nations, which the province had made responsible for much of the risk reduction work, face huge costs they cannot pay.
Experts suggested the province needs a strategic shift in how it addresses adapting to and reducing the risks of floods and wildfires.
That includes targeting spending at areas that have higher risks to wildfire and floods, instead of through an ad-hoc grant process, and creating a co-ordinated strategy overseen by a “quarterback.”
Alex Boston, executive director of Simon Fraser University’s renewable cities program, said it was premature to judge whether the new ministry will be the answer to reducing the consequences of floods, wildfires, extreme heat and drought.
“We have to transform the way we govern and adopt best practices,” said Boston.
He said that British Columbia still does not have all the key players involved and working together, and with their plans aligned.
Boston said missing from the instruction to the new ministry was a specific requirement to co-ordinate with the Municipal Affairs Ministry, which is important due to loss of life and property damage in municipalities.
He also said co-ordination with other ministries will be critical.