Courage, not lip service, please

By Leslie Campbell, October 2014

With civic elections coming, we need to demand bold, visionary action on climate change.

At the Climate Change Summit in New York City, our prime minister was conspicuously absent, and Minister of Environment Leona Aglukkaq committed to only modest reductions in transportation emissions, something the US is forcing on us with its car manufacturing standards anyways.

The People’s Climate March, however, offered more hope—that a movement of the people might be powerful enough to force the political and corporate foot draggers to get on with an appropriate response to the threat to all species posed by climate change.

Politicians at all levels are great at paying lip service to the need to change course, to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. They are not so great, however, on the follow-through—implementing policies and laws strong enough to have a real impact. Some no doubt are in thrall to their corporate donors and cronies (see “Sleeping with the fossils” in this edition); others fear getting voted out of office. Citizens will need to convince politicians they will lose votes if they don’t act boldly on  climate change. Andrew Weaver, in a recent CBC interview, lamented: “When I look around the legislature and see my colleagues not wanting to step up and deal with [climate change], I wonder where their courage is.”

Saanich Councillor Vic Derman has similar concerns about the courage of his colleagues at the municipal level.

At a September lecture on the “Natural City” at UVic’s Geography Department, Derman described a toolbox for making cities more in tune with ecological systems. Foremost in this toolbox is the climate change lens, which Derman says we must now apply to any project or decision. Among the mostly student audience, I noticed Richard Atwell of the RITE Plan—and Saanich mayoral candidate. Both Derman and Atwell believe that if the sewage treatment problem had been viewed through a climate change lens, we would likely have distributed enhanced tertiary treatment with resource recovery underway now. Instead we are wasting money, time, and emissions on the stalled megaproject. (The Johnson Street bridge is another good example; we’d likely have a fully rehabilitated Blue Bridge if the climate change test had been applied there.) 

Derman, a former teacher, Saanich councillor since 2002, and CRD director since 2005, has been the lone voice among the five Saanich councillors on the CRD questioning the sewage treatment plans in a rigourous way—and particularly from the perspective of climate change. (Seaterra has stated that the current CRD plan would reduce emissions by 6000 tonnes per year; the most pessimistic estimate of emissions reductions in a 2008 study of tertiary treatment with resource recovery was 367,500 tonnes per year. See “Mayor Jensen’s Flip-flop,” Focus, July/August 2014.)

At his lecture, Derman outlined the bleak prognosis for a planet on course for 4-degree Celsius rise by 2100: ocean acidification, mass species extinction, crop failures, and hundreds of millions of refugees giving rise to social instability. By fiddling with the primary systems that support us, we are, he says, “creating a hostile environment for our children.” We need “to mitigate like crazy,” he says, and fast.

While he discussed many ways to address climate change through his Natural City approach, key among them were transportation and land use: “They are unavoidably linked. Bad transportation choices encourage sprawl. If you choose sprawl, you end up with a transportation nightmare.”

Because 62 percent of Saanich’s emissions come from on-road transportation, tackling that sector makes sense. (By comparison, City of Victoria’s emissions from transportation are 40 percent.)

Density—compact land use—matters. Derman believes no building or subdivision —even those with LEED construction—is sustainable if it fosters urban sprawl.

He feels most politicians know this. It’s embedded in the Regional Growth Strategy and Saanich’s Official Community Plan. The latter states: “Incorporate climate change, its potential impacts, and mitigation measures when reviewing new development applications and undertaking long-term planning initiatives.”

Yet, too often at decision time, politicians forget to do this. “We say climate change is a priority, but then we make all sorts of decisions that exacerbate it,” said Derman. For 15 years now the CRD has been committed to three priority “modes”:  walking, cycling and public transit. Yet on-the-ground improvements are slim. Other cities with far colder weather (e.g. Stockholm) have fostered a much stronger cycling culture. Derman—who rode his bike to the lecture—said, “We need to make it safe, convenient, attractive and comfortable. Most of us don’t like cycling with a double decker bus beside us.”

But the most crucial thing to do on the transportation emissions front involves land-use planning. “If you want people to walk, you need to give them pleasant pedestrian walk ways—and  give them somewhere to walk to.” Unfortunately many regional neighbourhoods do not have grocery stores and other services within walking distance.

“We need to create cities full of people places and green spaces…Great urban streets provide rich opportunities for interaction and exchange,” said Derman. Conduits-for-cars like the Douglas corridor and Blanshard (Mayfair Centre to Uptown) are good examples of how to create community dead zones.

To sell people on denser cities, we must plan adequate green space, as well as commercial and cultural hubs within walking and biking distance.

Again, Derman feels many of his colleagues know this, but don’t bring that knowledge to their decision-making. He cites his failed attempts to get Saanich council to “decouple” parking from housing units. Right now each unit constructed must have an off-street parking space. Not only does that add $55,000-$70,000 to the cost of the average housing unit, it also encourages car usage—and penalizes car-free people who not only pay for parking they don’t need, but subsidize the car ownership of others.

Recently Derman opposed allowing secondary suites throughout Saanich, north of Mackenzie. (It’s already in place south of Mackenzie and he’s OK with that.) While increasing the housing supply is a worthy end, Derman argued in his submission to council: “Some neighbourhoods are remote from services, involve difficult topography and are not well served by transit. Unfortunately, placing suites in such areas is akin to placing a thin layer of sprawl on top of an existing layer. It provides some additional density but not enough to encourage new local services or substantially improved transit. The result is increased automobile use…[This] adds to problems of traffic congestion. Much more problematic is the fact it also results in more greenhouse gases and is contrary to OCP goals aimed at addressing climate change.” 

Yet not once do the words “climate change” appear in the 13-page staff report which recommends approval of secondary suites north of MacKenzie. Council voted to proceed to public hearing on the issue (October 7).

This issue illustrates the challenge. Citizens like the secondary suite allowance because it helps with affordability, providing housing for lower income folks and revenue for mortgage holders. Their main concern was that off-street parking be required—another car-centric measure that must make Derman wince.

We do need courageous, visionary leadership, as Derman urges. But we also need to inform ourselves. Many of us are not making the connections. Since we live in a democracy and believe the public should be thoroughly consulted, we need leaders and citizens who understand the issue—and the policies, opportunities, and limits climate change implies. We must all be willing to do more than pay lip service when it comes to changing our ways.

Leslie Campbell is the founder and editor of Focus. She’s going to be applying the climate change lens to candidates in the November 15 municipal elections.