Faced with compounding disasters, provincial politicians are stuck in reaction mode. Who will safeguard our communities?

As people lay trapped in their cars under tree trunks and mud, B.C. public safety minister Mike Farnworth had something else on his mind: building a pipeline.

The Coastal GasLink project offers “jobs and economic opportunities for thousands of people,” Farnworth wrote in a news release Monday afternoon, as military helicopters rescued hundreds of people trapped in B.C.’s latest climate disaster.

“The right to protest does not extend to criminal actions,” Farnworth said of Indigenous land defenders blockading pipeline construction – as mudslides shut down both Trans Mountain’s oil pipeline and Enbridge’s gas pipeline through the Coquihalla.

Tuesday, with highways cut off and towns underwater, Premier Horgan found time to appear in a “fireside chat” at the Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference.

Meanwhile, the real heroes got to work. Local mayors, Indigenous communities, Gurdwaras, search and rescue teams, soldiers, first responders and thousands of volunteers are working around the clock to rescue, feed and shelter people in need.

At Camp Hope, a retreat centre now converted to an emergency shelter, residents of Lytton helped prepare blankets and cots for drivers stranded by mudslides on Highway 7. Unable to return to their own homes, survivors of the Lytton fire took care of people who couldn’t reach theirs.

A deadly pattern

Like the heat dome in June, provincial officials were warned about this week’s “atmospheric river” – but failed to move people out of the path of danger. Our leaders seem unable to grasp how serious these events are until after people have died.

Even then, their instinct is to pass the buck. After 600 British Columbians died in sweltering apartments and mobile homes, Premier Horgan said “there’s a level of personal responsibility,” implying that seniors and disabled people had simply chosen to ignore weather forecasts.

Questioned by reporters this week about his government’s slow response to the floods, Farnworth tried to shift the blame six times. “Every community is required to have a local emergency plan and deal with local emergency events” he said, pushing responsibility onto municipalities and First Nations.

It’s true that local communities know local hazards best. They need the funding and authority to take emergency action when needed. But climate change transcends municipal or regional boundaries. The province’s job is to coordinate disaster response – and most importantly, disaster prevention.

Living in a dream world

We are a province of five million people hurtling into an era of permanent emergency, as infrastructure collapses that was built for a world that no longer exists.

But these are not entirely uncharted waters. Climatologists have told us what to expect: more rain, more drought. More heat, more cold. Rising seas, higher winds. It is the job of policy makers to look at the map and ask: what effect will that have? And what do we need to change now, to minimize trauma and death in the near future?

In hockey they call it “knowing where the puck is going” or in football, “seeing down the field”. We need leaders who can anticipate problems, respond nimbly, and plan ahead. Instead we are governed by people who stumble from one calamity to the next, slow to react, crabby and defensive.

Most of all, people like Horgan and Farnworth seem incapable of imagining a different world – either better or worse.

They are stuck in a 1990s fantasy of endless economic growth, the period Francis Fukuyama called the ‘End of History’. For these guys, the violence of our extractive economy is out of sight, out of mind. Any serious problem can be solved by more technology. And climate change is a problem for the distant future, long after they retire.

If Farnworth and Horgan want to live in that dream, they need to get out of the way and let someone else steer the ship.

The real leaders

In Quebec this week, 83 climate organizers got themselves elected as mayors and councillors in 60 different towns and cities across the province. This grassroots movement, united around emergency action on climate change, took over many of the local governments on the front lines of the crisis.

This trend is already happening in B.C., and needs to accelerate. Because the truth is, we can’t wait for a changing of the guard in Victoria. If the provincial government is going to keep abandoning local communities, we need people in charge at the municipal level who will actually treat this like an emergency.

Indigenous communities are another key source of leadership. Both at the logistical level, but also in forcing a shift in mindset, priorities and values to consider the needs of our descendants and local ecosystems as a whole. Had B.C. listened to Nlaka’pamux people, they might have known where to expect landslides after this summer’s extreme fires.

Finally, we have organized community groups. On Tuesday, while provincial ministers debated whether to declare another state of emergency, volunteers at Guru Nanak’s Free Kitchen and Gurdwara Dukh Nivaran Sahib cooked 3,000 meals and rented helicopters to deliver food to people stranded in Hope.

If we can combine the resources and knowledge of these three pillars – municipalities, Indigenous governments and community groups – we can start reshaping the world at a local level in ways that will save lives and blunt future disasters.

It would be helpful if the provincial government pitched in, or at least stopped actively making the climate crisis worse. But we can’t wait for them. This disaster is still unfolding, and the next one is just around the corner. For today, here’s a growing list of emergency support services and verified fundraisers for those affected by the floods.

UPDATE: On Thursday, November 18 the RCMP launched an operation on Wet’suwet’en territory, arresting land defenders on the path of the Coastal GasLink pipeline project. This follows police raids in 2019 and 2020, authorized by Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth.