Climate Change and Risk Management: A Practitioner’s Perspective


Municipalities and Regional Districts form the basis for local governments in British Columbia. Fundamental to local governments are the provision of basic services to their communities.  Core services include potable water supplies, streets and roads, and land use planning, while more comprehensive services include libraries, public housing, parks and recreation and many others. 

In a soon-to-be published report on climate change, Robert Hicks of the Water Sustainability Committee of the BC Water & Waste Association made this observation from a local government perspective: “Significant obstacles to climate change adaptation arise from the competition for funding between short-term priorities and long-term risk management.  For any community that may be experiencing pressures on a limited tax-base or facing significant core infrastructure costs, it is questionable whether it would have the financial means or will to address climate change impacts as a priority.” 

“All local governments face limits in their ability to finance their programs—limited tax bases, borrowing limits, and competing community priorities.  The weighing of priorities is further complicated by difficulties in quantifying the long-term benefits of climate change adaptation programs and/or by the lack of understanding of climate change issue”, adds Hicks.


Risk Management

Although local governments face challenges in addressing climate change adaptation as stand-alone issues, they are experienced risk managers, particularly with respect to the provision of their utility services and maintaining their capital assets (roads, bridges, buildings, pipelines, etc.).  The life-cycles of roads, sewer, water systems, and community buildings range from 20 years to at least a century or more.  Such assets are managed with respect to risk of service interruption, level of performance, controlling operating costs, and planning and budgeting respective timelines of replacement and renewal.  It is through this context that local governments are well situated to address impacts from climate change as an additional risk related to their provision of municipal services.

In contrast, addressing climate change risks related to land-use and zoning is more challenging for local governments. ” It is possible that some proactive adaptation responses might even exceed municipal mandates and be difficult to implement. Without compelling justification, local governments are unlikely to implement programs and zoning changes that would adversely affect the value or utility of private lands”, notes Hicks. 

An additional challenge to identifying and addressing climate change impacts and implementing adaptation strategies can be local government advisors––engineers, and planners—who might lack climate change awareness and adaptation skills.  Hicks emphasizes that “climate change impact awareness and skills are needed for climate change adaptation to be effectively integrated into day-to-day local government planning and risk management processes.”

The use of return periods––commonly used to describe technical design thresholds and performance targets for storm water, drainage, sewers, and water supply systems––create a false sense of understanding as they are based upon past events. “Return periods are common in regulations and in 'standard engineering practice'.  However, using return periods without considering their response to climate variability and climate change is like 'driving a car through the rear-view mirror: it only works if the path is linear'.  Consequently, the use of return periods could result in poor long-term decision making and prevent proactive adaptation if not put into the context of climate change,” concludes Hicks.


Posted January 2007