GreenGov
May 7, 2012

Climate change champion: British Columbia’s Graham Whitmarsh

What do nuclear submarines and climate change have in common? For Graham Whitmarsh, former head of British Columbia’s Climate Action Secretariat, a lot as it turns out.

When Premier Gordon Campbell and Environment Minister Barry Penner set out an ambitious plan to address climate change, Whitmarsh was tasked with leading the work to achieve that vision. He was brought into the BC Public Service in 2007 from the private sector, but it was his earlier career experiences as a Warfare Officer on the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines that helped prepare him for the challenge of implementing the bold public policy established by the elected administration.

There are few experiences that focus the mind like being in a nuclear submarine deep under an Arctic ice floe. There are no windows, you’re surrounded by the dark and cold and separated from a few million pounds of water by a simple, cigar-shaped steel hull. These precarious conditions are piled on top of the already testing possibility of meeting a rival submarine. In the underwater workplace your ability to assimilate information, respond to ever-changing conditions and act decisively are skills that have to be honed quickly.

Alongside these skills, Whitmarsh cites two world views he holds that were shaped during his navy years. The first was the awe he felt about the technology that, powered by only a few grams of uranium, allowed his crew to travel the span of an entire ocean without surfacing. The second was fully grasping the destructive capability of nuclear weaponry. These two opposing views got him thinking about how fragile the natural world really is.

After working for 17 years in the aerospace and airline industries, Whitmarsh now had the opportunity to come to the public sector and help begin a process that would directly influence how society at large interacted with its natural environment. During his years in industry he saw climate change become one of the dominant issues facing governments around the world.

With a green light from the premier and minister, Whitmarsh and his team would take British Columbia to the forefront in North America in the fight against climate change. No one thought the job would be easy – putting together a plan to reduce British Columbia’s GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions by 33 percent by 2020. The questions facing him and his team were many: how was he going to guide the politicians, bureaucrats, industry leaders, ENGOs and the people of B.C.? How were government and the province going to transition from the problems of climate change to the solutions of a new, low-carbon economy? Or as he frames it, “the vision for change was clear, but the challenge was how to get from here to there and how to make it work in a very short time.”

But the former airline executive had one advantage – the Climate Action Secretariat. When something needs to be done quickly across government, secretariats are the way to go. They are more nimble than ministries, and with a flatter organizational structure they can make decisions quickly. To be sure, having the full backing of the premier and minister was a help, but it was Whitmarsh and his team of public servants who would do the heavy lifting.

He notes that driving a new policy, especially one of this size and scope, was going to be a new experience for him. “Government does process very well, but what it doesn’t do so well is to set clear outcomes and the means to measure them,” Whitmarsh observes. “For me, it’s all about the outcome, and that’s what I focus on because process frustrates me.”

It’s a good guess that Premier Campbell knew exactly what to expect when he put Whitmarsh in charge of the secretariat.

In a very short time, the secretariat developed a comprehensive suite of climate actions to support the government’s policy direction. They included the revenue-neutral carbon tax, a regional cap and trade system for carbon emissions, tougher tailpipe emission standards like California, and an increase in the use of renewable energy while decreasing the amount of gases coming from landfills. B.C. also committed that by 2010 it would be the first province in Canada to have a carbon-neutral public service.

As with any endeavour this large, there are always lessons learned. Whitmarsh points to three reasons for his team’s success: they deliberately overlooked obstacles, consistently acted decisively and capitalized on the sense of pride British Columbians felt about the environment and where they lived.

Working behind the scenes as a newcomer to government meant there were no shortages of obstacles. His strategy was to overlook some of the obvious gaps in the plan, because as he sees it, “it’s not always about having a perfect plan on how to get to your goal and where you end up. It’s like driving at night: you see enough of the road ahead of you to know you’re going in the right direction. You can’t see every inch of road in between here and there, nor do you have to. If you simply look over what obstacles are there, it is surprising how far you can get.”

Staying focused on the tasks at hand, instead of focusing on the challenges was obvious to Whitmarsh. “You ask the question: how can I do something, instead of how can I not do something?”

Keeping the sightlines open so that outcomes were always front and centre meant that Whitmarsh and his team often made decisions in ways that were unconventional in government. Shaping the green agenda meant doing things differently by setting aggressive targets and acting boldly and quickly.

The instinct to act was a skill Whitmarsh acknowledges he acquired during his time in the Navy. “As an officer on watch, nobody else is there and it’s the middle of the night and you’re in a control room with many, many things to do. You can’t see anything outside and there is limited information, but you have to act. The way I take decisions now was formed then. What do you know? Do you know enough to make a tactical decision? If you do, then you go ahead and take it. You don’t have the opportunity to wait because you’ll never have all the information.”

It was this decisiveness that generated the kind of momentum that put B.C. ahead of the curve and established the province’s strong climate action position.

The final thing that Whitmarsh learned was the importance of taking advantage of that definitively British Columbian trait: a pride in place. With the work of the Climate Action Secretariat, B.C. had a lot to be proud of. The province joined jurisdictions like California, which were innovating in the emerging low-carbon economy.

Whitmarsh remembers early on that there was some degree of pride instilled in British Columbians by being part of this climate change agenda as B.C. sees itself as a place that takes care of its environment.

With the move towards a greener B.C. well underway, Whitmarsh has since moved on to his new position as Deputy Minister of Finance, where he’ll apply the same approach to a different set of challenges.


David Currie is a public affairs officer with the Ministry of Environment.

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