Opinion: Climate adaptation is crucial for Cowichan Valley following COP26

“I hadn’t realized my own vulnerability as a citizen on Vancouver Island,” writes Erin Blondeau, an Indigenous youth delegate to the recent UN Climate Change Conference in Scotland.

The streets of Glasgow were quiet when I first arrived in late October. City blocks around the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) venue were cordoned off with tall perimeter fencing guarded by security in yellow vests. This was my first time at an international conference — and this one was projected to have nearly 40,000 attendees. Despite the high global expectations, the calmness in the beginning reminded me of home: the Cowichan Valley. I wouldn’t let myself forget part of the reason I was there was to bring empowerment back to my community.

I arrived in Scotland before the official opening of the conference. My role as an Indigenous youth delegate was to observe and document. It was my responsibility to let the world know what was happening inside the venue and on the streets, specifically with Indigenous sovereignty and our inherent rights as stewards of our lands.

When the conference officially began on Oct. 31, it transformed into a different place. There were tens of thousands of people determined to make their voices heard amidst the chaos. My colleagues from Indigenous Climate Action held space inside the venue as the only Indigenous-led climate justice organization in Canada, joining the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change to advocate for climate justice and Indigenous rights.

When my time came to leave Glasgow, I knew it would take me days to process what I just experienced. I needed to learn how the decisions made at COP26 would impact my family, my community and my province.

Just a few days after returning to Vancouver Island, we were hit with yet another natural disaster. An atmospheric river fell over B.C.only months after a deadly heatwave — washing away our infrastructure, causing fatal mudslides, and triggering the evacuation of entire cities. I watched in horror as ranchers in the interior of B.C. were forced to wrangle their cows and drag them through the depths of the flood waters. Horses ran in fear through flooded fields, some being rescued by helicopter. I read the stories of families who had to recover the bodies of their loved ones from mudslides and collapsed highways.

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I hadn’t realized my own vulnerability as a citizen on Vancouver Island until the Malahat highway filled up like a double-lane swimming pool, eventually bursting and partially crumbling away. The Trans-Canada Highway north of Duncan flooded, rendering both the north and south routes impassable. Grocery store shelves began to empty and B.C. limited how much gas could be purchased for non-essential vehicles in parts of the province. Although our local leaders stressed that food and gas supply chains were not broken, they were certainly delayed.

“Yes, there are some supply chain issues, but I’m hearing Hwy 3 will re-open by the weekend.. and they’re also working on improving access through the US. This is short-term.” North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring wrote on his Facebook page, asking people to stop “panic buying” and “hoarding.”

Adding to the chaos, local families —  many of whom had already been impacted from the flood earlier in the year — were scrambling for sandbags and advice on what to do next.

So, what exactly is the plan?

Indigenous peoples resist false solutions at the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice in Glasgow.
Indigenous peoples resist false solutions at the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice in Glasgow. Photo by Erin Blondeau

Climate disruptions near-constant in the Cowichan Valley

When I came back from COP26, I thought I’d have time to casually reflect and learn from the experience. I quickly realized that we don’t have time. When I looked into the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s plan on climate change, I learned that a lot is being done — I just hadn’t heard of it.

According to the CVRD website, local leaders and researchers are working on “New Normal Cowichan, a multi-phased project to take action on climate adaptation.” Included in this project are four phases: Climate Projections and Impacts Analysis, Vulnerability and Risk Assessments, Adaptation and Mitigation Strategy, and Implementation of the Strategy.

I spoke with Austin Tokarek, the asset coordinator and energy manager in the engineering department at the CVRD, and Keith Lawrence, the CVRD senior environmental analyst. They say that pressure on local leadership to make further large-scale changes in climate policy may be misplaced.

Municipal and regional governments, they say, are busy focusing on things like the natural disasters we’ve been experiencing, and are lacking the resources to take further action. It’s unclear, at this point, if any of the decisions made at COP26 will impact the CVRD climate change projects. As the Canadian government’s stance at COP26 has been widely critiqued by environmental and climate justice organizations, with many promises being referred to as false solutions, I suspect that it’s unlikely any relevant climate adaptation policy came out of COP26 negotiations. However, an emergency debate on climate change in the House of Commons was set to address the dangerous gaps in climate adaptation and preparedness, so one can hope it will help empower citizens in the Cowichan Valley to prepare for future climate disruptions.

I hope through the pleas of citizens, local government and NGOs, that every level of government will make the necessary steps to empower people to prepare for what’s yet to come. If the local government is lacking the resources needed to take drastic action and the federal government is preoccupied with false solutions, who will advocate for the rest of us?

My personal goal at COP26 was to bring empowerment back to my community, and that is what I will work for as I continue to investigate Cowichan’s plan for climate adaptation. [end]

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