Climate Change Adaptation Guidelines for Biosphere Reserves in Canada: a report from the 2019 Climate Change Adaptation Forum



On a beautiful sunny day in June of 2019 a Climate Change Adaptation Forum (CCAF) took place. It was held at the Inverary Inn in the small town of Baddeck, Unama’ki (Cape Breton), Nova Scotia. This was a culmination of work by many people within the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association and the Bras d’Or Lake Collaborative Environmental Planning Initiative (CEPI). The intent was to bring together representatives from each of the 18 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in Canada to discuss climate change adaptation. One of the suggested products from the CCAF was a set of guidelines for UBRs to implement or continue climate change adaptation projects. These guidelines have recently been published in a report available for download.

According to the CBRA’s “Learning Together” document of 2019: “behind each [UNESCO] Biosphere Reserve site, there is a convener organization that develops, implements, manages, and coordinates the initiatives that catalyze the … mandate [of the Biosphere Reserve].”5 It is for these organizations, as well as for the communities within and adjacent to UBRs, that these guidelines were written.

* Download the full report in PDF form at this link, or read it online in your web browser here. A summary of the report is provided below. For further resources and video footage of the forum proceedings please visit the Bras d’Or Lakes Biosphere Reserve website resources page.

Climate Change Adaptation in Canada’s Biosphere Reserves

Biosphere Reserves have in their core mandate a commitment to promote best practices for sustainable development, and adaptation planning is fundamentally linked to sustainable development. Though not officially required by the review process of UNESCO’s Periodic Review process for Biosphere Reserves (last revised in 2013), climate change adaptation is unquestionably a fundamental part of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) program. By directly dealing with sustainability, UBRs are challenged to sustain communities and ecosystems in the face of dramatic climate change. In doing so, they will be adapting either directly or indirectly. Dealing with this challenge directly will likely reduce the chances of maladaptation, which is when things that are meant to reduce harm in fact exacerbate it.

The guidelines in a nutshell

An infographic was produced to summarize the guidelines for Canadian UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. See it at this link.

Who are the guidelines for?

These guidelines are meant to provide high level guidance to UBR governing bodies in Canada, as well as to communities of people living within or adjacent to UBRs. The goal is for these governing bodies to use these guidelines to create a climate change adaptation plan for their UBR, and then start to support projects that follow this plan.

How are the guidelines meant to be used?

These guidelines are meant to provide practical ideas and general guidelines on how to undertake projects and initiatives within UBRs that build their adaptive capacity. They are meant to act as a reference for the governing bodies of UBRs and for communities as they make decisions on what adaptation actions to take.

It is imperative that UBR leaders and residents not dwell on the magnitude of the issue as an excuse for inaction. These guidelines can fit on a single piece of paper, and the actions they are meant to inspire can be small or large. A careful and slow adoption of well considered actions is likely to be more sustainable anyway, as opposed to a grand gesture of transformation. A climate change adaptation plan, if in existence, is a small letter of intent that can last longer than any individual UBR board member or committee, and potentially support long lasting actions.

The Guidelines

The report proposes seven guidelines:

  1. Find your strengths – where a biosphere comes to terms with the resources it has to use in planning adaptation projects.
  2. Learn about your vulnerabilities and opportunities – where a biosphere gains the information and knowledge required for effective adaptation projects.
  3. Adopt Two-Eyed Seeing – where a biosphere engages the wisdom of how to act responsibly. By using both the sources of knowledge from Western science and from Indigenous knowledge to harness many sources of strength to adapt in the face of change.
  4. Promote local adaptation – where a biosphere searches out community partners with which an alliance is formed and the actions of the group are better than those done alone.
  5. Learn from others – where a biosphere draws on the wealth of experience within the world UN MAB Network, as well as the ideas gaining traction as other communities learn to adapt.
  6. Engage youth – where a biosphere helps its youth to envision a future within their community, helps empower them to act, and helps to build a bridge to the natural world.
  7. Consolidate and report – where a biosphere takes what it has learned and synthesizes it into stories and lessons, which can be found and shared with others. To build a knowledge base of how to adapt and “live appropriately in place” within the UBR.

Concrete Steps

The CCAF produced some concrete actions that can be taken immediately. They were:

  1. Initiate a fundraising event to begin building resources for community-based adaptation.
  2. Begin a project in your biosphere to monitor some key indicators of ecosystem health. These form the backbone of the overall UBR adaptation plan.
  3. Outline and share the governance model at work in your UBR with other UBRs in Canada. With such a diverse set of arrangements, there is certainly room for collaborative learning on how to overcome governance challenges.
  4. Search out climate service organizations that might have already created regional and local projections of expected climate change. Or visit Environment Canada’s climate information portal to determine expected local and regional changes (Here is an example of the federal information portal for Baddeck:
  5. Use social media to reach out and engage people around the issue. Create a hashtag or start a blog for your UBR. Begin sharing videos of local adaptation actions on YouTube. The CCAF suggested we begin a “Adaptation Minute” format that could briefly explain ongoing work within Canada’s UBRs. This communication tool could be spearheaded by a CBRA committee that would engage potential funders and partners.
  6. Hold a workshop in your UBR in order to get all voices to the table to have their say on what they see as part of the UBR’s future.
  7. Distribute the one-pager associated with these guidelines to your managing board members.
  8. Determine a storage space to put all currently existing relevant information on climate change adaptation within your UBR. There are many options for this. It could be as simple as a shared Dropbox, or a full-blown website.


As the CCAF came to a close, Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall spoke words of warning, of fear, and of hope. Grave concern for the health of Mother Earth and of future generations was at the forefront of his words1. Later in the day Marilyn Capreol, an Anishinaabe from Shawanaga First Nation, spoke of the promise to the Creator in a prayer ceremony to ensure that life continues2. These two powerful voices speak to a deeper need, a deeper connection, that is required. As the forum came to a close, Elder Albert Marshall rose to address the assembled group, and these are the words he spoke:

“We are not questioning the integrity of the actions of the past; all we are doing is, we are drawing lessons from the past in which we can prepare our future generations so that they will have a healthy and long life like we have. This is where we stand. We are doing everything we can to exercise our inherent responsibility, not just to be the idea and voice of Mother Earth, but to do something in which I can honestly say that if I live long enough for my grandchildren when they ask me, ‘What did you do?’ I may not brag too much but I think I can say, ‘At least I’ve done something.’”

1 Please watch all of Albert Marshall’s message here:

2 The prayer by Marilyn Capreol can be seen here: