Why bother with climate action

- by Jon Farmer

On January 10th, Owen Sound City Council heard a deputation from Grey County’s Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Coordinator Linda Swanston with an update on the development of the County’s climate change action plan. It was an important step because Council had previously decided to wait for the County’s plan before developing a climate action plan for the City. The discussion that followed showed that even when the plan is complete, Owen Sound’s residents cannot take for granted that Council will support sufficient responses to the climate crisis. In particular, comments from Councilor Tamming gave an example of one type of thinking that will tempt council to do nothing.

Tamming explained that while he understands the importance of reducing pollution, when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, the County and Owen Sound make up only “a fraction of a fraction of a fraction” of global carbon emissions. He wondered what to tell his friends and ratepayers if they ask why a poor area and small emitter should do anything in response to the climate crisis if our actions alone won’t make a difference.It’s a familiar argument and similar to one Councilor Hamley made  in 2020 while supporting the reversal of a decision to hire a staff member focused on climate change.

Before exploring the beliefs behind Tamming’s question, it’s important to know that there are two categories of climate action: adaptation and mitigation. According to Owen Sound’s Corporate Climate Change Adaptation Plan, adaptation is managing the unavoidable and mitigation is avoiding the unmanageable. We are already seeing the devastating effects of climate change in headline stories about fires, floods, and droughts around the world. There is no doubt that Owen Sound will also be affected by increasingly weird weather. As the adaptation plan lays out, the City is preparing to cope with those changes.

The question Tamming placed in the mouths of his friends and ratepayers wonders whether we should take steps towards mitigation through emissions reductions. The implication is that we should do nothing because we can’t afford to act, that being one small contributor means our actions won’t make a difference anyway, and that addressing the climate crisis will detract from addressing other priorities.

These arguments are based on misunderstandings of the nature of the climate crisis. They also show what happens when we make decisions that consider only the financial bottom line. There are more factors to consider but first we need to dispel the myths behind Tamming’s question.

It is true that the City is cash strapped today but the longer we put off mitigation efforts, the more expensive both mitigation and adaptation will be. The climate crisis is expensive and we can’t expect our responses to be free. In her responsonse to Tamming’s comment, Swanston pointed out that the cost of doing something needs to be compared to the cost of doing nothing. The City has already identified material and financial risks ranging from flood risk and utility disruption to mounting costs from higher calls for emergency services. Adaptation is going to cost something and that expense will rise along with global temperatures. If we don’t do our fair share to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate our energy use now, we will be increasing the costs to future generations in this city in the same way that we are currently chafing under the climate debt accumulated up to now. Meeting this challenge will cost us but we don’t need to settle for the role of the penny pinching homeowner who neglects necessary roof and foundation repair only to have their children be saddled with infrastructure debt in the future.

Furthermore, we know that a sustainable future will require substantial shifts away from fossil fuels and towards more energy efficient ways of living. As the County deputation explained, the longer we postpone the transition, the more expensive it will be. This transition can be pursued through actions ranging from shifts in agricultural practices to supporting compact, mixed use developments. The earlier we begin to support these changes in Owen Sound, the better situated our city will be in 50 and 100 years. Some of these shifts will involve policy changes and be less expensive while others will involve more intensive capital costs. Responses are not uniformly expensive and we need to explore all of the options available to meet the goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

Graph showing co2 emissions per capita

Councilor Tamming’s point that as a small emitter Owen Sound’s reductions will be insignificant on the whole suggests that our actions don’t matter. This why-bother approach ignores both the fact that we are partners in this work and our historic responsibility. In response, Councilor Grieg pointed out that despite the fact that Canada is not the highest total national emitter, Canadians have one of the highest per capita emission rates and are far above the world average.

We are doing more than our share of damage and therefore have a responsibility to reduce our output. Historically, as a member of the global north and an industrialized nation, we have reaped the financial and social benefits of greenhouse gas emission. Today, the climate crisis is disproportionately impacting poorer nations. If we believe in a sense of global justice, then we have an obligation to do more than developing nations to mitigate climate change and to support those vulnerable nations to do the same.

Owen Sound is part of a wider community, in the county, the nation, and the globe. We’re all in the same boat with the climate crisis but we each have only one paddle. None of us has the power to change the course of warming on our own, it will take all of us rowing in the same direction and as hard as we can. Owen Sound needs to do our fair share. In this way we can follow the lead of our neighbouring municipalities including Grey Highlands, Georgian Bluffs, West Grey, and Collingwood who despite being small are already taking proactive action at the municipal level.

Finally, there is a persistent myth that the climate crisis is a separate issue that distracts and detracts from other priorities like infrastructure and social services. In reality, the climate crisis impacts every aspect of life in our city. Similarly, our adaptation and mitigation responses have the potential to mutually benefit issues like reconciliation, the cost of living, food security, housing availability, and transportation. The best possible solutions will recognize the intersections of these issues but we will only find those mutually beneficial solutions if we’re looking for them.

To see them, we need to abandon policy making that focuses only on the immediate financial bottom line. Instead, we need governments to use a triple bottom line approach that weighs the financial, ecological, and social costs and benefits together. Triple bottom line thinking offers a more comprehensive lens through which to make decisions and takes a longer view than the limited horizon of annual budget cycles or four year election terms.

In Owen Sound, the current and previous councils have postponed necessary responses to the climate crisis.When this type of abdication happens it’s up to citizens to do our part to encourage Council's education and spur them to appropriate action. We don’t have to accept leadership that is comfortable waiting for other organizations and partners to do the work so that they can – as the Mayor said on January 10th – “beg, borrow, and steal” ideas from the County’s plan.

When it comes to any of our complex challenges from reconciliation and housing accessibility to climate action, we need to reject calls to do nothing, resist the temptation to take token or insufficient action, and instead rise to meet the challenges that face us. We can only do that by dispelling persistent myths and taking all of the variables and options into account. For that we need education, vision, and to care about more than just the financial bottom line.

Jon Farmer lives in Owen Sound