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Change the city, change the world: leading locally on climate change

Updated: Aug 20, 2019

Climate change. Climate strikes. Climate emergency. Climate action. Climate reality. It seems the world is filled with stories about the climate. From protesting students to floods and fires at home and abroad; international Nobel Peace Prize nominees and global United Nations research; the planet and its systems are in focus and on point. Have you seen the most recent Bill Nye video? Exactly.

But what are we to make of all the data out there? What does it mean that the atmosphere shouldn’t rise above “350 parts of CO2 per million”? (Spoiler alert, it’s at 415ppm!) How do we process the social, economic, and environmental catastrophe that may await us in 11 years? And most importantly, what are we to do now that “the planet’s on f**king fire”?

The answer to these and other climate questions can be reduced to two principles: 1) honest, open exchange of relevant information. And 2) decisive, measurable local action. Principle one: we need a revolution in how we talk with one another, person to person, and how our institutions talk with residents, especially governments to the people. We need parliaments and legislatures and city halls - in partnership with non-profits, universities, and others - to distill the facts and figures of this crisis into tangible examples of the effects of carbon pollution and our warming earth. As one of my favourite climate scientists, Katherine Hayhoe, likes to say, to the most important thing we can do to fight climate change is to talk about it.

But we are past the days when science from the ivory tower can carry the day (if it ever could is another discussion). That doesn’t mean we throw-out the best research and available evidence. On the contrary, we must look to it relentlessly. Now though, we are in an era where science communications are paramount. And not just numbers and models. No. We need real-life stories of the looming peril faced by the people and places we love. My hometown of Kingston, Ontario, for instance, recently declared a climate emergency. As a city councillor, I moved and spoke to the motion, citing the increased ice storms called for in the datasets provided by city staff. This was not a detached, academic illustration. It hit home as our community was crippled in the past with one of the most extreme ice storms on record. Kingston’s power lines, trees, and houses weighed heavily under the frozen precipitation, wreaking tens of millions of dollars of property damage. Images of birches broken like twigs and sparking cables thrashing on the roads are still palpable, even years later. This will happen again, I said, if we don’t act swiftly and efficiently to reduce our emissions. The motion passed, making our municipality the first in the province to declare a climate emergency and giving our corporation and community new resolve to act proportionately.

In short, translating numbers into narratives is absolutely essential for climate communications. Be honest and make it relevant. Principle two - decisive, measurable location action - is fuelled by principle one. Why? Because telling the truth allows us to deal with reality. And when we deal with reality, we can answer the call of the moment on the ground. In other words, to actually do something about our problems, we have to be practical. This grassroots approach especially applies to the climate emergency and local governments’ response to it. Cities are uniquely positioned to deal with some of the underlying causes of greenhouse gases that got us into this mess to begin with. Think of a municipality’s transportation networks and transit corridors, which for too long have prioritized the automobile. In fact, cars account for nearly 30% of emissions in my community and buses, 30% of the GHGs the city as a corporation itself produces.

So, as a councillor, it is incumbent upon me and my colleagues to not only create the conditions for people to modify their movement but to get it done in a way that reflects their ability to do so. We have to pragmatically plan based on real-life behaviour. Again, we see the coming together of principles one and two. Cities have to rely on cutting edge perspectives for building new transit and inspiring ridership (principle one) and we have to enable it with community partners who will bring our plans to fruition (principle two). In Kingston, that looks like creating separated transitways, the electrification of our fleet, and lower fares for different subsets of the population: if it’s quicker and less expensive to get around on a bus, more people will and emissions will drop. All to, as our strategic plan says, “become carbon neutral no later than 2040.” That quantification is imperative. Because in the end, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. What cities allow to be built - their location, their material, their heating sources and efficiencies - need to be considered. As do parks and trees and stormwater management and permeable pavement and more. On climate, when it comes to local action the list goes on.

And this fact feeds into a third and profoundly powerful principle, directly related to our opening questions on what we can do about this (and other) pressing problem(s). Principle three: if we change the city, we change the world.

Watch Robert and Cathy discuss his grassroots approach to climate change on Bridging Post's Facebook page.


Robert Kiley is a city councillor in Kingston ON. He writes on local government and other topics that catch his interest. He tweets on @robert_kiley.


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