picture sourced from https://climatechoices.ca/

The average student these days is likely overwhelmed with climate change warnings and the feeling of dread that comes along with them. But beyond the basics of hotter, drier, scarier, there’s a complicated list of tangible outcomes from climate change. A lot of them come to light in a recent report from the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices (CICC), which investigated how climate change is threatening physical infrastructure – essentially our built environment, including buildings and roads – across Canada. And the outlook isn’t great: infrastructure and housing are at threat, and new infrastructure planning often fails to consider climate change.

Major cities across the country have their own unique challenges as their climate changes, and though the Okanagan doesn’t have the same issues as centres such as Toronto or Vancouver, it certainly has its own. Situated in a completely unique ecosystem within Canada, Kelowna is one of the fastest growing cities in the country and faces serious issues surrounding its sprawl outwards into different ecosystems. Rental housing, a major factor in the lives of many students, is already extremely sparse in Kelowna, and climate threats to the city certainly don’t help.

How the intersection of development and climate change affects Canadian’s lives is a key take away from the report. Both the country and Kelowna are currently in the midst of housing crises, and climate change could exacerbate that. At the heart of it is that Canada doesn’t seem to have enough available housing, including in Kelowna where rental vacancy rates are extremely low. But expanding cities like Kelowna are often not completely cognizant of the threats new housing developments may face. The CICC points out that infrastructure construction and planning doesn’t take climate change into account, such as in flood threatened areas where damage to homes could surge to $13.6 billion dollars annually by 2100. 

And flooding could be a major problem for the Okanagan. As recent years have shown, much of Kelowna is at threat of flooding. Throughout the Okanagan, climate change will exacerbate these risks, as the faster melting of snow in the spring would increase flood risks and reduce summer water supplies. Particularly at risk is downtown Kelowna, where housing, including rental, is densifying in an attempt to reduce the sprawling footprint of the city. Downtown sits well within an area of flooding risk, and whether or not the city’s planning accounts for this threat is unclear. Across Canada, the CICC recommends all planning heavily incorporate climate modelling into their decisions.

While flooding threatens the city’s infill planning, the future of wildfires loom over its expansion outwards. The fire this summer in West Kelowna, the 2017 Joe Rich fire, or the devastating 2003 Okanagan Mountain fire, highlight the threats as our neighbourhoods move up and into the forests. The increasing development of infrastructure in forested areas is a key factor in the ever-present wildfire paradigm across western North America. As fires get larger, more frequent, and harder to control, building affordable housing in the outlying areas of the Okanagan appears more and more tenuous. 

At the heart of much of this issue, for students in particular, is that even before climate change, rental housing is already tenuous. Given skyrocketing rent, many are forced to live in inadequate housing, and as the environment becomes more alarming, renters are put at higher risk. Just ask anyone who had to live through this summer’s heatwave in an old home without air conditioning. Plus, natural disasters are often used as a good reason to tear down affordable rental housing and open up low-income communities to gentrification. Climate change is already affecting this dynamic, as flooded areas across the U.S. south east are facing a widespread eviction crisis in the wake of Hurricane Ida. 

But while mitigating climate change falls at the feet of national governments around the world, there are solutions for adapting to climate change in small communities. Many of the CICCs recommendations fall to local governments, such as considering climate threats in all new developments and improving the resilience of already developed neighbourhoods. And cities like Kelowna have a major role to play in disaster mitigation and recovery, and in the development of affordable housing.

Unfortunately, the city’s Community Climate Action Plan, has much more to say on reducing carbon emissions, something small communities have relative control over on a global scale, than it does on mitigating the already baked-in effects of climate change. UBC Okanagan, doesn’t fare much better. Its currently under-development Climate Action Plan mentions being a “global climate leader” and encouraging a “climate-friendly culture”, but the schools Engagement Summary Report only mentions housing once. Both the city and the school seem to be all turned around when it comes to “thinking globally, acting locally.” While more affordable and safer housing is within reach of the city and the school, creating a real, effective drop in global carbon emissions likely isn’t. 

Global climate change is already here, and already causing problems. As the report from the CICC, not to mention this last summer, shows the effects on our lives are tangible and imminent. In the Okanagan, local governments have the ability to mitigate some of these threats. Whether they take meaningful action, remains to be seen. But the Okanagan is resilient, and industry can adapt; if all else fails, at least there’s still hope for the wine.