Deborah Carlson of WCEL explains the consequences of sea level rise for Vancouver and what local actions are being taken to counter the threat
DimitriLascaris: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News in Vancouver, British Columbia. I’m here today with Deborah Carlson who is a staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law and is part of the Green Communities program at the law firm. Thanks very much for joining us today. Deborah Carlson: My pleasure. DimitriLascaris: We’re hearing more and more nowadays about the problem of sea level rise, and it seems with each passing year, or even month, the projections for sea level rise are becoming more and more alarming, and even in some cases entirely dire, because increasingly it appears that major coastal cities are going to be swamped if we don’t radically change our way of living and deal very decisively with the climate crisis. Of course, Vancouver is a major metropolitan center in Canada. It lies on the western coast of BC, Richmond, for example I understand lies a full meter below sea level. What is the prognosis for Vancouver? What can we anticipate for the greater Vancouver area if we see the levels of sea level rise that are being anticipated at this time? Deborah Carlson: Well, Vancouver has a very beautiful location here on the coastline, but at the same time it is very vulnerable to sea level rise, basically for two different reasons. In some areas like Richmond, it’s surrounded by dikes, and if those dikes fail, the water comes in. At the moment, the dikes aren’t high enough to deal with sea level rise. In other areas that aren’t diked, we’ve built up a lot of infrastructure, we’ve put residential development, all kinds of municipal development near the water, and that’s also very vulnerable to sea level. DimitriLascaris: What were some of those areas where you don’t have dikes and there’s been development in the Vancouver area? Deborah Carlson: For example in the Burrard Inlet, which has the city of Vancouver, the city of North Vancouver, the District of North Vancouver, the District of West Vancouver, major port infrastructure, all of that is quite vulnerable to sea level rise. DimitriLascaris: My understanding is one aspect of the problem is the seas are rising because of the melting of ice sheets and the glaciers, but also that some urban areas are sinking. A phenomenon referred to by experts as subsidence. Can you tell us about that issue? Is that an issue also for parts of Vancouver, and exactly to what degree is subsidence effecting the problem here? Deborah Carlson: It definitely is an issue for certain issues of greater Vancouver, and particular the parts of greater Vancouver that are built on the Fraser Delta. The Fraser Delta is the land that basically accumulated from the sediments coming down the river, so the soil is quite soft, and the weight of development is over time pushing that level of land lower and lower. That has been accounted for in BC sea level rise protections, but it’s still a factor to be considered. DimitriLascaris: So is the provincial government, the government of British Columbia, does it seemed concerned about this problem? And if so, what is it doing to address the problem? Deborah Carlson: The province of BC has provided sea level projections and guidelines that local governments have to take into account at this point. However, I think it could be argued that the projections are somewhat outdated. They’re based on science from 2008. They appeared in their current form in 2011, and they don’t take into account more recent approaches to both the science in terms of the projections and also risk management approaches. DimitriLascaris: This, you called it guidance, I take it from that that if a municipal government didn’t actually take the steps necessary to deal with the problem as articulated in the guidance, there wouldn’t necessarily be legal consequences, because it’s just, at the end of the day, guidance. Is that fair? Deborah Carlson: It’s fair, although, local governments are taking that guidance quite seriously, because it’s kind of like a roadmap for the future for them, and they can point to it, and say, “Well, the province said that these were the climate projections, and we followed those.” It helps to kind of immunize them from any sort of future claims of negligence against them. It’s like doing their do diligence. DimitriLascaris: The BC government is articulating some guidance having to deal with the problem of sea level rise, which as we know is being precipitated by the warming of the atmosphere and the melting of ice, but at the same time it’s approving major resource development projects like, or at least it supports, the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, the construction of liquified natural gas terminals, all of which runs contrary to the whole notion of reducing our emissions. Are there any legal consequences potentially to the provincial government’s failure to effectively respect the very concerns that it’s articulating to municipalities about sea level rise? Deborah Carlson: Right, well, I’m not sure there are legal consequences for the province. There are very practical considerations to the way it’s presenting its guidance for local governments. For example, they’re giving high level members, like saying, “We can expect one meter of sea level rise by 2100.” They’re not actually digging into what’s behind those numbers, and what it turns out is they’re not making the distinction between what happens if we have a lower climate projection based on lower emissions or higher climate projections based on higher emissions, so people aren’t making the connection between how much it’s going to cost to address the impacts of climate change, and the actions that they need to take in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. DimitriLascaris: I understand that in the United States, some child plaintiffs have brought forward a case alleging that their constitutional rights are being violated because of the US government’s failure to address the climate crisis. Where all that will end up, who knows. None of us has a legal crystal ball, but I’m curious, are you aware of any consideration being given by a potential Canadian litigants to invoking their constitutional rights in a similar case against the Canadian government, and if whether or not you’re aware of it, do you think that that would have any prospect of success under our Constitution? Deborah Carlson: You know, I’m not aware of any cases of people invoking their constitutional rights, but my colleague, Andrew Gage, is actually working on developing cases where local governments who are effected and have to deal with climate change impacts would sue the large fossil fuel producing companies, holding them responsible for putting the fossil fuel emissions up in the atmosphere. DimitriLascaris: What kind of a legal theory might a municipal government advance in order to sustain such a claim? Deborah Carlson: Essentially it’s a tort claim, a claim of negligence, that they knew that their actions were going to cause this damage, and it did, or potentially a claim of nuisance. DimitriLascaris: Right. Well, I’m sure that that’ll get attention of the fossil fuels industry if it ever see light of day. Well, thank you very much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you, and I will certainly continue to follow the story of sea level rise as it effects the city of Vancouver. Deborah Carlson: Thank you very much. DimitriLascaris: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.