Some thoughts on meeting our climate change crisis in our city

Hi to everyone in TwoVille. There’s an abbreviated version of this article in today’s Guelph Mercury. I’d love to get your thoughts on this issue! 



After an August break, city council is gearing up for what looks like a lively and challenging fall.

In a summer filled globally with extreme fires and floods, wild variances in temperature and violent storms, I became more aware of the impacts of climate change on our well-being, our environmental sustainability and our economy.

I ended my vacation by attending the Association of Municipalities of Ontario ( AMO ) conference in Niagara Falls. Comparing notes with other councillors and mayors I’ve come away with an even stronger sense that addressing our climate change crisis has to be an initiative shared by ALL levels of government and that this has to happen NOW.

What’s the rush?

It’s generally accepted that unless we can contain our average world-wide temperature rise to 2 degrees celsius we will have a calamitous rise in ocean levels, threatening much of our coastlines and a huge percentage of our population. It’s also generally accepted that we have already failed to ‘rise’ to that challenge. We now have to look ahead to just such a calamity and find ways to manage it. Like it or not, we ARE facing an emergency and we all have to share responsibility in addressing it.

How do we do that at a municipal level?

Lots of ways. Some of them will be difficult, some actually fun and rewarding, some expensive, and some as simple as changing our consumer habits to reflect our changing world.

It’s budget season at city hall, and I believe that our immediate task is to address our ‘infrastructure gap’, (the difference between the current conditions of our infrastructure and what we really need to function safely and efficiently), so that we are ready for the extreme conditions coming our way.  Exacerbated by climate-related events like ice storms and frozen pipes, our crumbling infrastructure has been too long under-funded and even ignored for years.  The trouble is that issues like upgrading and maintaining our sewers, our storm-water management, our water supply, are not very ‘sexy’ election issues. It’s just been too easy to promise to keep taxes low and pass the problem and the expense on to the NEXT council or provincial government

With all the recent stresses on our system, we cannot keep ‘passing the buck’.  It’s short-sighted, selfish, and unsustainable. At AMO I learned that eliminating that ‘gap’ in general would mean an average tax increase of 8.5%. We’d all get thrown out of office if we dared suggest that, and it would be a sudden burden on our citizens that would put THEIR sustainability at risk. We DO know that our  taxation WILL have to meet these challenges. It’s not going to be easy, and it WILL involve an educational component so that we as Guelphites understand that we need that long-term thinking to maintain a viable future. We have to accept that there are costs involved in planning for climate change impact.  The choices we make in our city cannot be based on what looks good in our wallets today, ( though in tough times that can be irresistible ): they must be based around what is best for our children and their children- we cannot be good stewards of our land, our environment, and our culture if we compromise THEIR well-being to save a few dollars now.

I believe that we can begin this ‘educational’ process by being realistic and transparent about what we need to thrive as a city. One way is that when we have to increase our investment in our infrastructure, the increase on our bills could be clearly labelled as ‘climate change’ issues. If we understand that our expenses are going up BECAUSE of global warming, then we’ll also understand the value of conservation and in redesigning our lifestyles so we can keep those expenses down.

And that’s where we can be creative.We CAN conserve. We CAN and MUST reduce our carbon emissions in ways that will not feel like a sacrifice but rather an improvement in our quality of life for generations to come.

We are already leaders in alternative energy initiatives here in the Royal City. Imagine if we got more involved with rebates, rewards and incentives that would encourage us to go further down that road to sustainability? Those incentives would offset the tax burden that we all have to share in the coming years.

Imagine getting a break if you only had one car in your driveway and you could show that you were riding your bike more, walking more and taking public transit more often? We COULD walk more if we encouraged developers with more rewards for bringing us more walkable and eco-friendly housing developments with an exciting diversity of residential, commercial, retail, manufacturing and recreational uses.

We could, as some communities are doing, encourage densification in affordable housing by giving grants to homeowners who would add legal apartments to their dwellings.

We could expand our trail and bike lane systems and make them safe and welcoming so that we would learn how much healthier and cheaper it is to leave that internal combustion engine in the garage or get rid of it altogether. The solution for traffic congestion is no longer building wider roads, it’s reducing the need to USE cars on those roads. It’s not a ‘war on cars’! If it’s a battle, it’s fought over what we need to survive and thrive as a society.

We could encourage more live/work space and change our building codes to allow ‘tiny homes’ with a smaller ecological footprint.

We could encourage the flourishing and the preservation of our mature tree canopy, which adds immeasurably to our shade, our regeneration, our property values and our enjoyment of our urban surroundings.

We could actively encourage a ‘buy local’ campaign which pays for itself in the good jobs it creates and reduces our carbon footprint with lessened transportation distances for our goods.

We can expand our inter-city rapid transit and make our local system one that is easier, cheaper and more efficient than taking a car to work. We can look to Europe as leaders in this area.

We can learn to conserve our waste by charging by weight what we leave at the curb just like we pay for our water use.

We can return to our heritage as a ‘market town’ by rewarding and supporting both urban and rural agriculture.

We can elect leaders at all levels of government who have the kind of leadership and vision that it’s going to take to guide us through these challenging times, not ones who would rather cut programs and avoid investment just to help those who need help the LEAST!

Since so many of these possibilities create jobs and a healthier populace, these climate change initiatives help address poverty issues as well. Rethinking our housing planning away from the ‘large back yard single family home’ dream that has not been viable for a generation can be cheaper for families and it helps build community. Growth doesn’t pay for growth unless we radically change what the growth looks like. If we learn to enjoy shared spaces, we get to know our neighbours, and we tend to LOVE where we live more, which keeps our population stable and we tend to care for our neighbourhoods more, keeping up property values.

In becoming good stewards of our environment we can build an exciting city that enhances the enviable quality of life that we already have. It’s rewarding, it’s affordable, and it will ultimately be EASIER on our pocket books.

It’s going to take all of us to work together on this. I want to hear from you about YOUR ideas and concerns.

When it comes to climate change, I don’t really believe that we still have ‘climate change deniers” amongst us. We DO have ‘climate change avoiders”.. those who think that addressing the issues will disrupt their current lifestyles too much, so they oppose the change that we all know must come. We CAN and MUST convince those people that these changes won’t feel like a disruption, it will feel like an improvement!

I’m sure I’m like many of you: I’m intimidated and frightened by the looming crisis facing us with global warming, AND I’m also excited about finding effective, rewarding, innovative ways to face that crisis in a way that keeps us all thriving.

Let’s get started!



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2 responses to “Some thoughts on meeting our climate change crisis in our city

  1. Marcia

    Love this article. Reminds me of Naomi Klein’s talk today at the University. Gives me hope, but only a little. How do we mobilize people? My neighbours still very much value their manicured lawns, 4-car driveways, and electric/gas dryers. How do we convince people that every little personal step makes a difference? How? Our Western lifestyle has turned us into constant consumers, never satisfied with what we have, do or feel. “Buy more. Turn on more. Use more. Have more. Get more.” Our single-family dwellings, where we barely know our neighbours only emphasize this. I like how you say that perhaps living in community-style housing will connect us more and see the bigger picture. But how convince people to give up their private, isolated comforts? Thank you, James, for writing this.

  2. jamesgordoncouncillor

    Thanks Marcia. I think the ‘convincing’ is around showing people that it is not a ‘sacrifice’ but an ‘opportunity’ to make the shifts in their lifestyles that are going to lead to sustainability….

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