B.C.’s new Premier David Eby - what can we hope for on climate change?

Seth Klein
But what early climate signals can be found in B.C. Premier David Eby's new cabinet and their mandate letters? asks Seth Klein. Photo via Province of British Columbia/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Dec. 13, 2022

The past few years have hit most British Columbians hard — from COVID-19 to floods and fires to the escalating cost of living. The new premier has hit the ground running, delivering an ambitious string of initiatives in his first weeks.

As Premier David Eby begins to put his stamp on a new B.C. government, what are the early signs with respect to the climate crisis? As I wrote in my last column, when first launching his leadership campaign, Eby was reluctant to talk about climate. He seemed reticent to use the language of “climate emergency” or “crisis” and communicated that an Eby-led government would pursue “no radical changes” from that of John Horgan.

But as Eby settles into his new role, some important changes appear to be afoot, reflected in both the language being used and the people being appointed to key roles.

Last week, this was most apparent with the unveiling of Eby’s new cabinet and in the mandate letters given to new ministers.

Each mandate letter begins with the same overarching invocation:

“British Columbians continue to recover from and respond to the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate-related natural disasters, while global inflation is driving up costs for more households and the world’s economic outlook is concerning. Now more than ever, we need to focus on building a secure, low-emission, sustainable economy, and a province where everyone can find a good home — whether you live in a rural area, in a city, or in an Indigenous community.”

Bowinn Ma, considered by many as among the strongest climate hawks in the NDP caucus, has been tasked with leading a newly created ministry — the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness. As a professional civil engineer with experience managing major projects (most recently responsible for overseeing the rebuilding of transportation infrastructure destroyed by the November 2021 atmospheric rivers), Ma is ideally suited to this new portfolio.

While this new ministry is certainly welcome, Ma’s assignment is focused on building community resilience in the face of major climate events, not on driving down GHG emissions; the emphasis here is on climate adaptation, not mitigation. That said, if she chooses to interpret her mandate broadly, Ma could help expedite the mass conversion of low-income housing from gas heating to electric heat pumps, which given their capacity to cool in the summer, should rightly be seen as simultaneously an urgent mitigation and adaptation policy (safeguarding vulnerable seniors and others from extreme heat events). Most of the more than 600 deaths during the 2021 heat dome were seniors and lower-income residents who would still be with us had their homes already been converted to heat pumps.

Niki Sharma, in what was widely seen as the most notable “promotion” within cabinet, has been named the new attorney general. A lawyer whose practice focused mainly on Indigenous law, Sharma also has a strong background in climate (absent from her official government bio is the fact that she was, for a time, an oil and gas campaigner with Stand.earth).

While Sharma’s portfolio does not deal directly with climate policy, it is worth highlighting her mandate letter includes the following — arguably historic — directive: “One of the greatest challenges and opportunities of modern British Columbia is to find ways to meaningfully recognize the two systems of law in our province — Indigenous and Colonial — that co-exist and are recognized by our Constitution, our Courts, and by our government through the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples incorporated into provincial law.” Depending on how this mandate is interpreted, it could have major significance for future fossil fuel projects.

What early climate signals can be found in B.C. Premier David Eby's new cabinet and their mandate letters? asks @SethDKlein. #ClimateCrisis #BCpoli #opinion -Twitter

The new minister of Jobs, Economic Development and Innovation is Brenda Bailey. She, too, likely sits on the “climate hawk” wing of the NDP caucus. Her mandate letter tasks her with delivering on Eby’s priority of building “a sustainable, clean, secure, and fair economy: We will continue our work investing in British Columbians, fighting racism and promoting equity, and building a clean economy that addresses our obligations to combat climate change by driving down emissions, while creating good, family-supporting jobs.”

Bailey certainly has scope here to lean into the urgent task of just transition. With vision, she could help build new public enterprises that would create thousands of jobs as they seek to decarbonize the province.

But the most significant cabinet appointment last week, from a climate perspective, was surely the naming of Josie Osborne as minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation. While George Heyman retains his role as minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, it is Osborne who now holds the most important portfolio when it comes to climate emergency action (CNO columnist Chris Hatch made a similar argument in his recent column). The future of fracking and LNG, re-imagining the role of BC Hydro to drive the electrification of society, regulating the climate mischief-making private gas utility FortisBC, getting gas out of buildings, and implementing the zero-emission vehicle mandate –– all of these vital tasks come under Osborne’s new ambit.

Osborne’s mandate letter states: “How we leverage our natural energy advantages as a solution to the generational challenge of climate change, will determine how our province is positioned to benefit from the low-carbon economy of the future for generations to come.” She is called upon to ensure CleanBC, the province’s official climate plan, meets its targets on time, to lower emissions in low-income and rental housing and, overall, to ensure the province’s climate and energy plans align.

BC Hydro is desperately in need of new and visionary leadership that would see the Crown utility truly drive the mass deployment of technologies to electrify our homes and industries, and Osborne — if she’s willing — could be just that person. Osborne gets climate. With academic training and professional experience in marine biology and resource management, Osborne served as mayor of Tofino before making the move to provincial politics and is an alumna of Climate Caucus (the national network of climate-focused municipal elected leaders).

Osborne will be assisted in her work by a couple of other notable re-assignments. Fazil Mihlar will no longer serve as deputy minister for this ministry (he has been shifted over to the ministry for jobs). Mihlar was a longtime senior policy director with the Fraser Institute prior to (ironically) joining government. And he has had a very cosy and captured relationship with the oil and gas industry. So it’s good to see him moved to a ministry where he can engage in less climate disruption. Osborne has also been assigned a parliamentary secretary for sustainable economy, Parksville MLA Adam Walker, who, I believe, also gets climate.

(As an interesting side note: all the ministers highlighted here, holding key portfolios with respect to climate, are women.)

Of course, none of these changes are reflected yet in new laws, policies, regulations or directives. That is still to be seen. So it’s too early to say if we are witnessing a substantive provincial change of course on the climate emergency.

Key tests of the province’s new climate orientation are still to come, but they are coming very soon. Early in the new year, the Eby government will have to decide if it will green-light or reject a raft of LNG proposals: Tilbury LNG in Delta, Woodfibre LNG in Squamish, the Cedar LNG and Ksi Lisims LNG projects on the north coast, and LNG Canada Phase 2. As I and other climate advocates have stressed, these projects are fundamentally incompatible with B.C.’s climate commitments.

B.C.’s substantial climate movement shows little sign of sitting back. A new coalition called Frack Free BC has recently launched and made its noisy presence known during last week’s inauguration ceremony for the new cabinet. The BC Climate Emergency Campaign (BCCEC), a joint initiative of over two dozen organizations (including the organization with which I am affiliated), has issued a Climate Action Report Card on provincial moves to confront the climate emergency, and its failing grades are not ones anyone would want to bring home. The conclusions of that dreary report card are reinforced by the release last month of the province’s own official 2022 climate accountability report, which found that B.C. is on track to miss its 2025 emissions reduction target by 15 per cent, and will fall short of its 2030 target.

In September 2021, the BCCEC sent an open letter to the B.C. government, endorsed by 200 organizations at the time, calling on the provincial government to transform CleanBC into a genuine climate emergency plan and outlining 10 urgent actions to confront the climate crisis. As of now, that list of organizational signatories has grown to over 520 (representing over two million British Columbians). Signatories of the open letter include agriculture, arts, business, community, education, environment, faith, health, housing, Indigenous, labour, local government, outdoor recreation, research, seniors, tourism, and youth organizations.

The new cabinet has some potential climate champions, mandate letters that provide scope for bold action, and a large and diverse constituency of climate-alarmed people ready to support ambitious policy to confront the emergency.

Here’s hoping 2023 brings a windfall of change.

[Top photo: But what early climate signals can be found in B.C. Premier David Eby's new cabinet and their mandate letters? asks Seth Klein. Photo via Province of British Columbia/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)]