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ACT for Canada's Sustainable Future


ACT for Canada's Sustainable Future


ACT for Canada's Sustainable Future

SFU’s Adaptation to Climate Change Team was borne from the belief that human ingenuity can–and must–adapt to an Earth facing soaring rates of carbon emissions.

Scientists are declaring the dawn of the Anthropocene, a geological epoch characterized by the undeniable impact of human activity on planet Earth, including global warming and the climate change that inevitably follows. And, as the frequency of severe natural events ramps up, we are seeing more and more unprecedented economic and social consequences, such as record insurance payouts and the emergence of climate change refugees.

Despite this dour picture, a large chorus of experts are confident that the negative consequences wrought by this era, while not necessarily reversible, can be mitigated through strategic policy planning. SFU’s Adaptation to Climate Change Team (ACT) is among those who are determined to use human ingenuity to adapt to the urgent environmental issues we face, such as rising sea levels, food and water supply issues, extreme weather events, species and ecosystem range shifts, as well as challenges for greener energy production and distribution and vulnerable populations.

Based at SFU's School of Public Policy (SPP) and led by executive director Deborah Harford, with a senior advisory board that includes co-founder and former SPP director Dr. Nancy Olewiler, ACT was formed in 2006 to provide stewardship in the face of runaway rates of carbon emissions and by Canada’s lack of corresponding, comprehensive policy action.

“We recognized the need for a program that would generate resources for public and industry concerning adaptation to a range of climate change impacts, as well as one that explored policy options for all levels of government,” says Harford. Since its inception, ACT has been the only university-based think tank in North America dedicated to climate change adaptation, has reached thousands of decision makers, and has helped prioritize climate change as a crucial issue in the minds of Canadians.

Serving as a clearing house of information, ACT regularly releases reports on the latest research in this complex subject area, making it a valuable resource for both the Canadian public and the decision-makers who assist industry, governments, and communities to adapt. “Our work strives to be relevant and actionable, to inform government policy, and assist industries affected by climate change in identifying and develop resources,” says Harford.

ACT’s policy recommendations have included calls for coordinated national and regional water governance guidelines, integrated planning for water, energy, food and biodiversity issues, and progressive alignment of climate change adaptation and emissions reduction planning. For example, in 2008, ACT advocated for the creation of a centralized provincial gatekeeper organization to streamline natural resources management processes. Within two years, the BC government had established the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

Under Harford’s leadership, ACT has prioritized interdisciplinary collaboration, having created networks between local, national and international climate change research practitioners, NGOs, industry representatives, all levels of government, First Nations groups and local communities to encourage dialogue and awareness among diverse groups. “Siloed thinking is at the root of many of our problems and so collaboration is essential for climate change action,” says Harford. “ACT works hard to collaborate with researchers and practitioners across disciplines at SFU, as well as at other institutions across Canada and the globe.”

As the magnitude of weather events and natural hazards escalates faster than projected, there is an urgent need to rise to the challenges–and opportunities–brought on by climate change. “If we get it right, climate change adaptation has the potential to inform transformative urban, land and water use planning for the benefit of vulnerable human and animal populations,” says Harford. “All while helping to reduce emissions and restore ecosystem health.”    


Deborah Harford is executive director of ACT. A lifelong environmentalist and passionate communicator, she was appointed as a Climate Solutions Fellow to the SFU Centre for Dialogue in 2015. Her work with ACT has gained her international recognition as a resource for those seeking information on climate change adaptation and practical coping strategies, and she sits on a number of boards and advisories including the Canadian Climate Forum. A frequent contributor to articles on climate change adaptation to journals and other publications, she is one of the thought leaders featured in Global Chorus: 365 Voices on the Future of the Planet, and is co-author of ACT's first book, The Columbia River Treaty: A Primer.

Q & A with Deborah Harford

If you could sum up the value of university research in one word, what would it be?


What motivates you as a researcher?

I am passionate about finding ways to help humanity exist in better harmony with our beautiful planet.

How is your research making an impact on lives?

Our reports have been read from coast to coast to coast and our talks reach a wide audience. I get wonderful feedback from students to practitioners to government on how helpful our material is.

What advice would you give your younger self in regard to the challenges you've faced as a researcher?

Pace yourself and never be afraid of the tough questions. Asking the right questions takes courage and is often more important than having the right answers.

Putting one’s work out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you find your courage?

My courage comes from focusing on being helpful–the reason we are doing this work is out of concern for the wellbeing of people and other species. I figure that if I can be helpful to even one person in a crowd of 1,000, then I have achieved my goal. 

What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction of university research over the next 50 years?

Sharing and collaboration, and community building in and about place, are key to the future of human well-being. The internet is a huge help in this regard, but soil and water are where life, and therefore community, happens. The future will require us to invest in combination of digital innovation and a return to living lightly on the earth with deep roots, and this will require universities to develop education to meet these needs in sustainable ways.

SFU has much to celebrate on its 50th anniversary. Looking ahead to our 100th anniversary in 2065, what do you think SFU will be most notable for?

SFU has always been known for its innovative, courageous approach to education. I think we will be known for research excellence, for development of new digital tools and interfaces that facilitate education about and action on sustainable living, and our outstanding community engagement model.