Internal climate migration and the future of B.C.

Vulnerable communities are left out of climate change response, policies, and adaptation strategies

(Kristen Frier)

(Kristen Frier)

Climate change is a powerful driver of internal climate migration for many countries, and last year British Columbians experienced their own extreme weather events from heat waves and forest fires, to flooding and heavy rains, which resulted in many being displaced from their homes and towns.

The World Bank’s Groundswell report updated in September found that 216 million people across six world regions could be forced to move within their countries by 2050 due to climate change. The report predicts hotspots of internal migration “could emerge as early as 2030.”

In addition, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that the eight worst food crises in 2019 were linked to climate shocks and conflict. The UN anticipates the number of people requiring humanitarian assistance to exceed 200 million each year by 2050 due to climate-related disasters as long as world leaders continue without “ambitious climate action and disaster risk reduction.” 

More recently in 2020, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) reported 40.5 million new internal displacements across 149 countries due to conflict and disasters. About 30 million of those were weather-related, including drought, extreme temperatures, wildfires, and floods. That year, the IDMC reported 26,000 new displacements in Canada corresponded to internal disasters. 

The IDMC’s preliminary estimates found that approximately 32,000 British Columbians were displaced last year due to wildfires from July to September. An additional 17,775 were displaced due to the atmospheric river flooding in November.

“The relationship between climate change and migration is very complex,” says Nicole Bates-Eamer, lead author of the Climate Change Displacement: Mapping the issue in British Columbia report

According to the report, climate change is fueling extreme weather events and is “displacing people in B.C. both directly, as many people have lost their homes from floods and wildfires; and indirectly as people move following disruptions to their livelihoods as the result of climate impacts.”

“We’re going to see on the B.C. coast a rising sea level that is estimated to be one meter by the year 2100…. One meter is enough to flood out almost all of the provincial towns and cities that are on the coastline. So we will be dramatically impacted by flooding,” says Dr. Ross Michael Pink, chair of the political science department at KPU, and author of the book The Climate Change Crisis

Sea level rise is defined as an increase in the world’s ocean level due to global warming. Approximately 80 per cent of the B.C. population lives within 5 km of the coast, the majority living in Metro Vancouver and southern Vancouver Island, according to the 2016 census population results. 

Pink says the rising temperatures B.C. is experiencing contribute to the forest fires that are getting worse each year. 

“B.C. is heating up, and [while] most forest fires are started by lightning strikes, if the dry climate is there, and dry forests, it’s going to accelerate a forest fire,” he says. 

Between June 18 and Aug. 12 last year, there were 595 heat-related deaths in B.C., 526 of which occurred during the record-breaking heat wave from June 25 to July 1. The highest number was recorded on June 29, with 231 deaths. 

“What we have seen in B.C. is that climate change impacts, whether they’re disasters like floods and wildfires, or whether they’re more slow onset events like droughts or changing agriculture patterns or sea level rise, it happens everywhere, and it happens in B.C. too,” Bates-Eamer says.   

Individuals aged 70 years or older accounted for 69 per cent of the heat-related deaths in B.C. The three cities that experienced the highest number of deaths were Vancouver, Surrey, and Burnaby. During the periods of intense heat, B.C. suffered 1,585 forest fires and lost the town of Lytton, resulting in approximately 32,000 people’s displacement

“The rate of change is much different now. And the number of extreme weather events is going to be much different than the past,” Bates-Eamer says. 

Due to the severe flooding in November, approximately 17,775 people were evacuated

“Climate science mitigation is coming up with solutions. So we’re going to be faced with huge mitigation challenges and also huge financial costs,” Pink says. “And we’re already struggling to provide adequate health care and adequate schools and adequate infrastructure.” 

The cost to rebuild the B.C. town of Lytton was last estimated at $102 million by the Insurance Bureau of Canada. Earlier this month, the province provided $8.3 million in funding to support Lytton’s recovery, of which $6.26 million was released immediately, and the remaining funding is aimed to support Lytton “through three years of core operations.” 

This month the provincial government also announced a $228 million flood recovery program to help flood-affected farms “return to production.” 

“As a policymaker, as a government politician … knowing that it’s going to happen again, it will happen again, the question therefore becomes, ‘How much do you invest in Abbotsford? Or do you try to relocate a lot of those people to other areas?’” Pink says. 

“It’s very illogical. A waste of billions of dollars to keep rebuilding an area that’s going to increasingly get hit hard by climate change, such as flooding or drought,” he adds. 

“We’re not going to see that many climate refugees in developed countries like Canada, but you will see people literally being flooded out of Delta, flooded out of Richmond, flooded out of Ladner, that’s a fact. And they’re going to have to move to another town, or they have to move uptown or into the higher elevations,” Pink says. 

He says the government will be pressured to provide relocation assistance to affected people, adding that until recently not a lot of people in Canada were confronted with the painful reality of climate change. 

“If you’re living in Bangladesh or you’re living in northern China, which is dealing with drought, or you’re dealing with extreme heat in Egypt, you understand climate change because it’s real,” he says. 

“I think these are the things about climate change that people can begin to relate to. When people empirically begin to see it and smell it and taste it, or it impacts them in an emergency, or they have to leave their home,” says David Sadoway, a KPU instructor in the geography and environment department. 

Bates-Eamer says a large part of the conversation about climate adaptation or mitigation is the question of equity. 

“We’re creating systems that are creating policies or incentives for those who have more to stay safe and not thinking of those who have left, or who are less able or less capable … whether it’s financial or mobility or family commitment, not everybody can move,” she says. 

The Climate Change Displacement report found that “climate change disproportionately affects women, Indigenous communities, communities of colour, low-income families, and those who already face economic and social challenges.”

One example is the Tubbs Fire in 2017, which was found to be caused by a homeowner’s electrical equipment but resulted in the death of 22 people in parts of Santa Rosa, California. Several transgender women who worked in agriculture were impacted by the fire, and their experience highlighted the vulnerability of 2LGBTQ+ people during climate disasters because of “intersecting factors like poverty, incarceration, homelessness, immigration status, and discrimination.” 

People with disabilities also face heightened risks in a climate disaster due to higher poverty and food insecurity rates and accessibility barriers in adaptation and evacuation plans, according to a joint fact sheet between the IDMC, UNHCR’s office for the Special Advisor on Climate Action, and the International Disability Alliance.  

“It’s very intersectional in the sense that those communities are already showing vulnerabilities, then you add another thing … and the thing that is so overreaching with climate change is that it’s all year round,” Sadoway says. 

A study published last year in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research reported that “First Nation inhabitants on reserves are more exposed to wildland fires than other communities in the country, both in terms of living areas and population.” 

Bates-Eamer says we need to address “underlying structural injustices” and causes of socioeconomic discrepancies and who is most marginalized.

“The same groups over and over again, whether it’s jobs, whether it’s healthcare, whether it’s climate resilience, and so we need to start addressing these kinds of inequalities in society so that we’re ensuring more people are resilient,” she says. 

“Building ‘resiliency’ in a system that is inherently unjust or inattentive to questions of equity, colonialism, and structural oppression misses an opportunity for transformative change,” reads the Climate Change Displacement report. 

Sadoway says some people often refer to climate change impacts as a force multiplier. 

“If we think about those vulnerabilities in communities, in regions, in countries, then what will happen is when climate change with its differentiated impacts touches … and it so happens that place is also experiencing some other trauma or poverty, it will just exacerbate those [challenges],” he says. 

Bates-Eamer says that while we can’t control extreme weather events, better decisions can be made to mitigate some of the impacts. 

“Where we are putting housing development, where we are building, how we are logging, how we use land for different purposes, because those kinds of decisions we can control,” she says. 

Pink notes that the cities Jakarta in Indonesia and Manila in the Philippines have built satellite cities, smaller municipalities adjacent to the major city and are often self-sufficient. 

“Because the cities themselves are facing massive climate change problems … both governments are committed to building satellite cities from the mainland, that will relieve pressure on the cities and the satellite cities will be located higher up land,” he says. 

Bates-Eamer says climate-related evacuations from floods and wildfires are not short-term. 

“Climate change is happening, it’s not something that’s happening in the future. It’s something that’s happening now. We need to be prepared, and we need to really double down on adaptation efforts, which means preparing for these extreme events,” she says. 

The province recently updated its Emergency Program Act to “modernize emergency management in British Columbia.” The change is part of the government’s implementation of the Sendai Framework, the first agreement of the post-2015 development agenda that provides “concrete actions to protect development gains from the risk of disaster.” 

“Investing in preparing and mitigating, because it’s going to last, is going to be better for people’s well being and cost, versus recovery in response. The cost is so high,” Bates-Eamer says.  

Pink says there has to be cooperation between provinces and states, and between different countries. 

“Water, climate change, environmental protections are no longer just national issues. They’re global issues that cross many, many boundaries,” he says.  

Bates-Eamer says part of that preparation is knowing what communities and regions are susceptible to certain impacts that will force them out. 

“When we think about sea level innovation, are we creating policies to protect the homeowners who have coastal or oceanfront homes that are probably worth millions of dollars versus people who are living in small communities or floodplains with less ability to move, or in trailer park homes outside of cities in the interior that maybe don’t have a car to get out of there,” she says. 

The World Bank’s Groundswell report provided a series of recommendations to help slow and prepare for factors driving climate migration, including inclusive development planning and “preparing for each phase of migration, so that internal climate migration as an adaptation strategy can result in positive development outcomes.” 

“We’re not going to address climate change unless we think about it in an integrated way. And then we’ll maybe be able to empathize, not only with our own sense of what’s happening on the ground, but with others. We need a collective solution,” Sadoway says. 

“But we can also work on local solutions,” he adds.