In 1989, in my second term on city council, I moved a motion that launched the Task Force on Atmospheric Change – thankfully renamed Clouds of Change.
The origin of that report is now 30 years old.
It was, I believe, the first report on climate change by a North American municipality. Its main achievement was to set the City on a course that we now call sustainability. It was the first of a dozen plans and initiatives that led to the city we have today.
Did Clouds of Change lead to a reduction of greenhouse gases, did it in a modest way help fight climate change? Modestly, yes. But in those thirty years, this happened:
… from 1989 to 2019.
… more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the last three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since (Clouds of Change!) than in all the centuries – all the millennia – that came before.
Given that we’re on track to do that again, only worse, in the next 30 years, it makes sense to call this phase of our awareness The Climate Emergency‘ and to accelerate our progress, amp up our targets, shorten our timeframes.
Which is what this report does, and which Council started to consider last Tuesday. They began with delegations. I was one – as well as Peter Ladner, also a former councillor.
Approve the report, I asked, since it builds on the initiatives and work that proceeded it – and we as a city are getting pretty good at meeting ambitious targets and setting an inspiring example for others. There’s good people on your staff wanting to take this on: give them your support for the Big Moves.
But there’s one big thing missing in the plan (as there is in almost everything I read about the climate emergency.)
Responding to a climate emergency is not the same thing as dealing with climate emergencies.
You know, the kind of emergencies we are already experiencing: ‘serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situations requiring immediate action.’
Floods, fires, heat waves, torrential rain. Hurricanes. Droughts. Abnormal weather and catastrophic events. What we now expect, and expect to get worse.
This report and strategy doesn’t deal with that kind of emergency. You can tell by checking the list of departments involved in the preparation of the response:
The internal engagement included meetings and workshops with staff from
Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability;
Development, Buildings and Licensing;
Real Estate and Facilities Management;
Not emergency services. Not police or fire. Not the first responders.
There’s a Climate and Equity Working Group proposed, but not an Emergency Planning and Response working group.
And the next step is more of the same.
Staff will integrate the six Big Moves in this report into the development of the City-wide Plan which will address a broad diversity of policy areas including:
land-use, transportation, economy, social, environment, parks, culture, sustainability, climate change, infrastructure, place-making/urban design with lenses of reconciliation, resiliency and equity.
No mention of actual emergencies.
This is not semantics. It’s not just about degree. It’s about a whole different way of thinking about climate change and how we respond when resources and power are allocated to those charged with facing an existential threat.
The usual metaphor is war. When the fight is seen to be for survival, we charge those whom we believe are up for the fight, and we give them effectively unlimited resources for the battle. They are our generals.* And we’ll be needing generals to take on both the immediate climate emergencies and, in the longer run, the causes of the climate emergency.
When I suggest we need generals, the reaction is mixed. Many hope we won’t need generals since we will avoid having the war. Which sounds like denialism to me. As Philip Dick wrote: reality is that which, even if you don’t believe it, doesn’t go away. When the threat is existential, we won’t want the generals missing before action.
Indeed, I’d be looking around today for generals to get good advice. If we don’t have enough or the right ones, I’d start training the kind of generals we need, and start thinking what power and resources we’ll need to give them.
I’d begin by including the police, the fire and emergency services departments of the City of Vancouver when we plan for the climate emergency. And emergencies
*Generals in the climate emergency don’t just come from the military. Take for example, C.D. Howe – as described by Seth Klein in this PriceTalks.