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Opportunities to Save the World! Squandered?

By Rebecca Butler
March 23, 2009

The global climate crisis is one of the most serious threats that humankind has ever faced. We are careening toward an ending so painful and so horrific it is almost unimaginable. Some scientists say that it’s already too late, that if we were going to stop this freight train it had to be done over a decade ago. Slightly less doom and gloom and the generally agreed on statistic in the scientific community is that if we act immediately and significantly reduce fossil fuel use we have a 50% chance of turning climate change around. 50% is better than nothing, so let’s get started.

First we need to completely rethink the way we develop, live and build cities and towns. This is where planners and geographers need to play a major role in mitigating climate change. In many ways the economic crisis is a prime opportunity to make this change. During bailout negotiations, governments have had unprecedented opportunities to effect big business. As a strategy of economic stimulation, governments are investing heavily in infrastructure and therefore have the power to direct development on a large scale. Perhaps most importantly, the veil has been temporarily lifted, people can see as never before that the status quo has failed. This means the general public is ripe for change, already in the throws of sacrifice. Sadly, the opportunity is being badly squandered.

Rather that using the economic meltdown as a catalyst for change, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is using it to destroy long standing environmental laws, fund oil and coal while cutting spending on renewable energy, and slashing funding to environmental projects. Unfortunately Canada has become one of the world’s Climate Villains, refusing to support many UN climate change strategies under the guise of protecting economic interests. In the latest budget, huge amounts of federal resources are allotted for infrastructure as a way of stimulating local economies, however only a small percentage of this infrastructure spending is required to go to “sustainable” projects. What justification could there possibly be for this distinction, for deliberately investing in unsustainable infrastructure projects? That aside we planners have studied the trends, we can see the writing on the wall, we have no excuse to recommend anything other than wholly sustainable and green projects. If the feds won’t save us, perhaps we can save ourselves and our communities.

Fortunately for us all, America now has a president that takes climate issues seriously. Unfortunately, we lost a very precious eight years during the Bush debacle. In fact, Obama has some serious work to do to simply restore environmental legislation to the point it was in 1999. Even more unfortunate is that Obama was not at the helm when the Big Three automakers arrived in Washington on their private jets with their hands out. The Bush administration approved mass bailouts with very few restrictions. A squandered chance to drastically change the way Americans live and move. During World War II FDR told the automakers that they were no longer making cars, instead they would be making tanks and planes as part of the war effort. Today we are facing a crisis of an even larger magnitude and the Big Three came to Washington hat-in-hand. What better opportunity to say ‘you are no longer manufacturing any vehicles that use more than ‘x’ amount of dirty fuel, furthermore you will be manufacturing trains, buses, subways, light rail, ferries, solar panels, wind turbines, etc.’ Not only would this have saved the jobs of the auto workers, but corresponding public works projects would have created millions of new jobs in cities and towns across the country.

We do not have time to fix the economy and then the environment. We do not have time to slowly make legislative changes. We need a radical rethink of the way we live, and we need it now. In December 2009 the Copenhagen climate conference will take place. Our leaders must agree on an aggressive course of action. However, in Canada and the US as federal infrastructure money trickles into cities and towns, local governments, staff and contractors must be ready to green it, not just green wash it. If they don’t and we don’t, consider this: general consensus in the scientific community predicts that if you were born after 1980 your life will be directly and adversely effected by (likely even shortened by) this crisis. We all must act.