We are running out of phrases. “Global warming” worked for a while, but it didn’t fully capture what was happening, especially to global precipitation patterns. “Climate change” is certainly better, although it implies change that can be neatly plotted on a graph over time, which suggests both order and predictability when there is neither. “Climate breakdown” may be more accurate. Or “emergency.” Or “crisis.” Or “catastrophe.” In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato si’, Pope Francis referred to the planet as “an immense pile of filth.” That’s as good a phrase as any.
There is one word that we don’t often use when talking about climate change, although in many ways “hope” is the most human word in the world. Climate hope starts from the premise that it’s not too late to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” to quote article 2 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It comes in many shapes and sizes — from local renewable energy projects to global climate treaties — and it can be found in science, art, fiction, non-fiction, and even papal letters: “All it takes is one good person to restore hope!”
Over the past five years, I have read dozens of books on climate change, some better, some worse, some general, some technical, some more optimistic, and some less optimistic. There are villains and heroes, diagnoses and prescriptions, and, running between the lines, there’s expectation and hope, however faint at times. After all, these books come from the same place: the author’s belief that their work will add something new to the conversation. Without that hope, there wouldn’t be any point to the years of research, thinking, and writing that it takes to publish.
When read together, two recent climate books — one by an environmental policy expert at the University of Waterloo who’s focused on the problem, the other by a former mayor of Toronto who’s focused on the solution — cast a new and hopeful light on what political scientists sometimes call a super-wicked problem: that is, a Gordian knot with no single cause and therefore no single solution.
Part of a prestigious series edited by Graeme Wynn and published by UBC Press, Fossilized: Environmental Policy in Canada’s Petro-Provinces is about environmental policy broadly defined in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador, although emissions and the need to reduce them give Angela V. Carter’s smart, well-researched, and unsparing book its urgency. The title alone is worth the cover price. It refers to fossil fuels, obviously, and to archaic and outmoded environmental policies. But in a clever epigraph, Carter defines fossilized to mean “perilously under the influence of fossil fuels.” In short, she argues that energy policies consistently shaped environmental policies in Canada’s three petro-provinces throughout the 2005–15 boom.
Carter paints a depressing picture: At the very moment when we needed to leave as much carbon in the ground as possible, we undertook new forms of extreme extraction, from strip mining in Alberta and hydraulic fracturing in Saskatchewan to ultra-deep offshore drilling in Newfoundland. In addition to massive investments of capital, extreme extraction required extremely friendly policy measures in the form of tax breaks, low royalty payments, and, most importantly, weak environmental regulations and just as weak environmental monitoring. In many ways, this is the story of corporate capture and the transformation of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador into servant states.
In the case of Alberta, what was always problematic — the government’s blind service to the oil sands — is now absurd. In early 2021, the Canadian Energy Centre — the so‑called war room — attacked the animated feature film Bigfoot Family for its apparent anti-oil message. Members of its comms team should have been fired. They weren’t, of course. Instead, a shameless premier doubled down and described the movie as “vicious.” In a sense, Jason Kenney was reading from a decades-old script: deny, deflect, defend, attack, and, when the mics are off and you’re behind closed doors, cut cheques, directly in the form of government-funded research and indirectly in the form of subsidies, and hobble your environment department. Methodically and dispassionately, Carter demonstrates how successive Alberta governments, including that of Rachel Notley’s NDP, have succumbed to the logic of megaprojects and limited environmental oversight.
Trapped in the pattern of economic growth fuelled by oil and gas extraction, Saskatchewan followed much the same playbook: defend the model, attack the critics, and offer financial incentives. Indeed, Carter describes the Land of Living Skies as “an extreme version” of Alberta. “There are intriguing and also deeply worrisome environmental policy patterns at work here,” she writes. Again, the party in power didn’t matter: the PCs, the NDP, and the Saskatchewan Party all pursued a relentless policy of growth by removing regulatory barriers to natural resource extraction. For his part, Brad Wall attended the UNFCCC meeting in Paris in 2015 to ensure “that whatever Canada is committing to doesn’t kneecap our economy in the West.”
Meanwhile, Newfoundland and Labrador also hitched its wagon to oil, and production peaked at 400,000 barrels per day in 2007. Visiting St. John’s that year, I noticed a very expensive (and very impractical) sports car on Water Street. When I asked my server why anyone would drive a Ferrari in a place where it can snow in June, she shrugged: “It’s oil money.” If some of that windfall went to obscene consumption, it also went to Memorial University for new courses, including a master’s degree in oil and gas studies and an executive MBA program in petroleum. And, like his counterparts in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Danny Williams warned against slaying the goose that laid the golden egg. Of course, that egg was never golden, not in Newfoundland and Labrador and not in Alberta or Saskatchewan. Mixing metaphors, it was always a poisoned chalice in the form of anemic environmental regimes, corporate self-monitoring, and what Carter calls “chimerical” emissions policies.
Angela V. Carter is an outstanding scholar, but she’s also a mother who can’t give up on the idea of climate hope and the promise of “a future beyond oil and climate chaos” for her son. Her hope is the hope of parents everywhere, as they catch the morning headlines, pack the lunches, and ponder both what’s already here and what’s coming down the pike: surely to God, there is an alternative to business as usual.
In the face of overwhelming climate breakdown, it’s no longer possible for politicians and policy makers to plead that there is no alternative. In fact, there are lots of options, as David Miller describes in Solved: How the World’s Great Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis. Moreover, those alternatives to business as usual are unfolding in real time in the world’s major cities, where mayors are embracing bold mitigation strategies. Now is not the time for despair, Toronto’s sixty-third mayor writes. Now is the time for action, because only in action is there hope.
Why cities? Because studies have shown “that about 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed” to them, particularly when it comes to “the generation of electricity, the heating and cooling of buildings, transportation, and solid waste.” But when led by activist mayors who are willing to engage citizens on where and how they live, urban areas are well positioned to fight a multi-front climate war through, among other things, buses, parks, trees, solar panels, wind turbines, and aggressive waste management programs.
Across seven brisk chapters, Miller takes the reader on a Contiki tour of cities around the world and the incredible things that they are doing on the ground while their national governments dither and their national leaders pose earnestly with Greta Thunberg (or troll her). Tokyo has implemented an urban cap and trade plan. New York, with an “aggressive law mandating the reduction of carbon in existing buildings” is in the middle of a retrofitting boom. Los Angeles is investing in light rail, bus lanes, and bicycle paths in an effort to reduce its historical and almost religious devotion to what the historian Arthur Lower once called the Great God Car. Meanwhile, Addis Ababa developed a light rail transit system in 2015, which improved air quality and reduced emissions. Shenzhen has a fleet of 16,000 electric buses — the world’s first 100 percent electric fleet. And San Francisco is aiming for zero waste through a mandatory recycling and composting program. In other words, cities from the global North to the global South, from Berlin to Bogotá, are taking the lead to solve the challenge of our time.
A friend of mine used to work for David Miller when he was a Metro Toronto councillor. “What’s he like?” I once asked. “Frenetic,” my friend said. “One minute, it’s curbside composting. The next, it’s low-flush toilets.” Miller’s book is much the same, frenetic and all over the place. One minute, it’s Paris. The next, it’s Addis Ababa. Sometimes, it’s the same page, from Austin’s rooftop solar program to Cape Town’s small-scale wind projects, inset and in a different font.
If dizzying, Solved is also self-consciously hopeful. In this sense, it’s refreshing. But sometimes it’s a bit naive. As even Miller acknowledges, the pace and scale of mitigation are not even close to what is required to turn this thing around. Indeed, the Keeling Curve — the daily record of atmospheric carbon dioxide measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii — continues to inch depressingly upward year over year.
Because cities are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat and precipitation events, perhaps Miller’s next act should be Adapt Now! How the World’s Great Cities Are Adapting to the Climate Crisis. For example, the average city temperature will rise by 1.9 degrees Celsius this century in an intermediate-emissions scenario, according to a paper published in Nature Climate Change this past January. (In a high-emissions future, cities will see temperatures rising by 4.4 degrees Celsius, surpassing the threshold of human endurance, while other communities, like Lytton, British Columbia, may simply disappear, either by natural disaster or by managed retreat.) It’s not for nothing that Miami and Athens, as well as Freetown, Sierra Leone, have appointed CHOs, or chief heat officers, with a mandate to protect citizens, especially vulnerable ones, from heat-related illness and death.
If Solved borders on the naive, it also borders on the self-satisfied. “My family and I are an example,” Miller crows. “We no longer own a car and we take transit or walk most of the time. We eat vegetarian meals on weekdays (my wife and daughter all the time), we try to buy less ‘stuff,’ and we’ve taken steps to lower energy consumption in our house.” Well, kudos to the Millers, I guess. I’ll be sure to tell my adopted three-car Syrian family to either walk or take the bus for their 24/7 gig with Skip the Dishes. A little reflection on his privilege would have taken Miller a long way, because, as his book demonstrates, individual lifestyle choices cannot stand in for bold public policy choices. Besides, meat shaming only makes the rest of us feel like crap, and it ultimately obscures the real problem: an economy predicated on unlimited growth, fuelled by consumption, and made possible by carbon.
Until we get off that train to hell, all the tofu Tuesdays in the world won’t amount to a hill of beans — or quinoa, for that matter. Still, I am going to give a copy of Solved to Fredericton’s new mayor, who is also a neighbour. It can’t hurt. It may even help. But if after reading it she tells me to eat less meat, I won’t vote for her again.