Comment: The case for a chief climate officer in B.C.

British Columbians have come to know and respect what was once an obscure position in the B.C. civil service: the provincial health officer.

As the province’s top doctor, Dr. Bonnie Henry has risen from obscurity to international fame, piloting B.C. through the pandemic with a steady hand, compassion, and authoritative medical knowledge, while simultaneously raising awareness about B.C.’s other deadly epidemic – the opioid crisis.

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What stands out most powerfully about Henry is the way in which she has fundamentally changed the nature of the health officer.

First, rather than working anonymously behind the scenes, she is a public-facing civil servant who embodies and symbolizes the concept of rational public health.

She does not simply write reports or draft briefs, but also deftly translates her work into clear messages that are delivered to all of us via TV and radio.

Second, as a relatively independent authority figure, she is a trusted, non-partisan, and common-sensical leader who looks out for the well-being of all citizens.

And third, she drives policy formation via evidence-based decision-making, from policies on mask-wearing and public gatherings, to the decriminalization of drug possession and safe supply of regulated opioids. That is, she takes ultimate responsibility for public health and steers policy where it obviously needs to go.

The province needs to create a similar office responsible for climate change, and the new government now has the opportunity to do so. I would call this new civil service position the chief climate officer (CCO).

The value of the CCO would be three-fold.

First, the individual occupying the office would become an authoritative, apolitical, and relatively independent voice on climate science and climate action in B.C. The credentials for the position would likely include a PhD in climate science and/or extensive experience in climate-related planning.

Second, the CCO would be responsible for synthesizing science and policy, guiding policy formation on mitigation and adaption, and explaining climate-related decisions to British Columbians as a non-partisan officer.

Third, the CCO would oversee climate accountability in the province, providing audits and independent assessments of a) progress towards goals (emissions reduction targets, adaptation plans, and a new carbon budget); b) the implications of major, prospective policy decisions; and c) the annual Climate Change Accountability Act reports provided by the minister of environment and climate change strategy.

Given the independence needed for such a position, I would suggest that the province establish the CCO as a new department in the Office of the Auditor General, or within an office of similar independence, where the individual and her team would be relatively free from the politics of the core ministries.

Why not the Ministry of Environment? Although climate change has an obvious environmental dimension, it relates equally to finance and economics, social well-being, physical, mental, and public health, infrastructure, urban planning, transportation, and much else besides.

As with public health, it connects all the dots of government.

Moreover, the CCO would work arm-in-arm with the provincial health officer. After all, the impacts of climate change overlap extensively with public health concerns. Smoke from wildfires, rising sea levels, floods in the interior, and the health impacts of emissions all have clear climate and public-health dimensions.

As British Columbians, we would be proud to take input and advice from the CCO, who would appear on TV, explain climate impacts to all of us, and drive non-partisan climate decisions for the benefit of all citizens.

The CCO would also work in tandem with the Climate Solutions Council (CSC), a group of stakeholders who guide climate policy in BC. But unlike the CSC, which represents specific interests, the CCO would work to the exclusive benefit of public wellbeing.

Something of a model comes from the United Kingdom, where the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) acts as an independent, statutory body to advise the government on all matters climate. The chair of the CCC is the closest thing to a supreme authority on climate in the U.K., although even here, the individual does not possess the official authority of a senior civil servant.

But at least the chair of the CCC symbolically embodies the realities of a changing climate and government’s accountability for it.

The new government, with its majority mandate, has an opportunity to take bold climate action. The goal is to depoliticize the science of climate change, as Henry has depoliticized the pandemic response. Creating a CCO would go a long way towards ensuring accountability while reaffirming the value of non-partisan experts responsible to the public.

As we endeavour to slash emissions and adapt to the realities of a climate-constrained world, what we need, above all, is a trustworthy figure to make us feel good – to feel “calm,” to feel “safe” —as we undertake the deep, transformative changes that our society and economy so desperately need.

In short, climate change needs a Dr. Henry.

Dr. Jeremy L. Caradonna is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria and also works as a civil servant.

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