Plan to get bureaucrats savvy to climate change risks easy to ignore: documents

Investigative Journalism

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Published via The Canadian Press, July 29, 2012.

TORONTO – Environment Canada is worried that the Harper government’s own effort to encourage public servants to more carefully consider the risks and possible impacts of climate change is falling on deaf ears, documents show.

A special framework on climate change adaptation introduced in last year’s budget calls on bureaucrats across the government to routinely think about how decisions they make today could be hit by climate change in the years ahead.

The goal is to ensure officials get savvy to climate risks, so federal policies and programs are better able to withstand ground-level changes _ melting permafrost destabilizing infrastructure in Canada’s North, for instance, or ocean acidification killing sockeye salmon.

However, internal documents show that the team implementing the plan fears it may be dismissed in some corners of the bureaucracy, since officials won’t have to keep track of how their decisions deal with climate-related risks.

Without requiring such an explanation, the adaptation blueprint would likely be ignored by parts of the federal government that don’t typically give a second thought to the country’s warming climate, warns an Environment Canada memo from July 2011 obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act.

“Without a mandatory reporting mechanism in place, the framework and the importance of considering and planning for how climate change might affect the federal government’s ability to carry out its responsibilities in the future may be lost on some departments and agencies for whom this is not seen as a priority.”

Demanding such reports was deemed an option to be discussed “at a later date,” the memo on implementing the Federal Adaptation Policy Framework states.

A spokesman for Environment Canada, which is spearheading efforts to breathe life into the plan, said results reports won’t be necessary, since departments and agencies are “committed” to integrating climate-risk checks into their decisions.

“In this context, a mandatory reporting mechanism for the framework is not necessary for achieving the framework’s objectives,” Mark Johnson said in an email.

NDP environment critic Megan Leslie said the adaptation plan is toothless without such a requirement.

“I don’t understand how this will work if it’s not somehow quantified or somehow tracked,” Leslie said.

“Having something on a piece of paper that says, ‘Oh, don’t forget climate risk’ isn’t going to change anything.”

According to the framework, knowledge and adaptation tools created as a result of the process would be shared outside the government to help Canadians cope with climate change.

“As Canada’s largest organization, with operations in all regions of the country, an effective way for the federal government to advance adaptation efforts across Canada is to lead by example,” it states.

The 2011 budget devoted almost $150 million to 10 climate prediction and adaptation initiatives spanning nine departments and agencies.

The development of a federal adaptation framework dates back to 2003 under the former Liberal government, but has been stopped and started several times since then.

The current version was put together in the wake of a fall 2010 report by environment commissioner Scott Vaughan.

In that report, Vaughan chided Ottawa for not setting “clear priorities” on climate change adaptation, noting the Harper government had at the time failed to follow through on a 2007 promise to draft a plan.

It pointed out that Ottawa acknowledges that climate change will be felt across the country, impacting “virtually all federal government portfolios, with significant implications for policies and programs related to Canadians’ health and the country’s industry, infrastructure, and ecosystems.”

Vaughan declined to comment on the framework because his office has not audited the adaptation plan.

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