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Deb Harford

January 30, 2014

This profile of Deb Harford is part of a series of in-depth articles exploring the impact alumni of the SFU Semester in Dialogue are having in our local and global communities. More information about Harford's work is available on the ACT website.

By Robin Prest

Deborah Harford (fall 2002) considers herself an optimist, but this doesn’t stop her from asking hard questions. After watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, Harford realised that action to stop global warming would likely come too late to prevent changes to global weather patterns. The question was no longer whether climate change would occur, but rather how severe the impacts would be and whether the global community would be prepared.

"Canada has an extraordinary wealth of experts and resources, but unless current and future challenges are translated into policy language it’s hard for decision-makers to take really effective action – and they often don’t have the capacity in-house to fully assess the big picture,” says Harford. “That’s where ACT can help."

The idea for the Adaptation to Climate Change Team (ACT) began at a birthday party for Semester in Dialogue founder Mark Winston. It was there that Harford connected with the director of SFU’s School of Public Policy, Nancy Olewiler, who turned out to have a common interest in climate change adaptation.

Decision-makers and the media were paying little attention to adaptation at the time, meaning there was a critical policy void that needed to be filled. With Olewiler and Winston’s support, Harford was soon Executive Director of ACT.

Harford’s first tasks at ACT were to raise money for the initiative (to date, she has raised over a million dollars); identify priority topics for research and action, such as extreme weather and water security; and build an efficient way of drawing and publishing conclusions that can be widely used. The ACT model brings together a wide range of stakeholders for dialogue around each priority topic, followed by a period of policy development that offers graduate students a unique opportunity to make tangible contributions to real public policy discussions. The result is a series of reports, briefing notes and other materials that provide key guidance to governments at all levels.

Two of the most urgent areas for action in British Columbia are water governance and flood plain management, both of which face significant climate change impacts. Harford points out that almost a quarter of British Columbians rely on groundwater as their primary drinking source and 98% of British Columbians identify water as their most precious resource, yet our provincial Water Act is more than 100 years old.

In a world where rivers travel across national borders and flood plains straddle municipal boundaries, dialogue is a critical component of Harford’s work. She credits the Semester in Dialogue with helping her to equip her with these skills, as well as with boosting her confidence in her own ability to positively influence the world.

When asked if Canadians can successfully prepare for the effects of global warming, Harford indicates that this is more a question of will power than ability.

"Humans are an amazingly adaptable species, and I think we can successfully use those attributes to address the problems of climate change."

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