How Does a Forward Thinking Urban Mayor Sleep at Night in the Era of Climate Change?


Mayors Miller and Farbridge enjoying a chat with Dr. Blair Feltmate

EVENT SUMMARY – the TSSS community gathers to hear thought leaders discuss cities and climate change.

On March 27th, 2013, Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series hosted a thought provoking discussion with Mayor Karen Farbridge of Guelph, Ontario, and former Mayor of Toronto, David Miller.  Moderated by Dr. Blair Feltmate of the University of Waterloo, this discussion explored the challenges facing cities in the era of climate change.  How can forward thinking political leaders prepare their municipalities to not only survive, but thrive, in this new era?  How can they prepare their people, policies and practices for the unknown future that is to come?  At this TSSS event the audience was encouraged by these two thought leaders to imagine not just challenges, but possibilities for cities.

Cities have long had to plan for weather events such as ‘50-year’ and ‘100-year’ storms, so named because they could be statistically expected to appear with the named frequency.  And yet, at this event, David Miller explained that in his second 4-year term as Toronto’s Mayor from 2006-2010, the city experienced 3 ’50-year’ storms.  Extreme weather events are increasing in frequency. These types of events have significant impacts on cities and their infrastructure.  Climate change is reality.  Political leaders who do not acknowledge this new reality, and who do not actively plan for it, are not preparing their cities for a changing world.

In the context of this discussion, Dr. Feltmate asked the Mayors, “What keeps you up at night?”  Mayor Farbridge began her answer by relating an experience – she explained that the first presentation to Guelph council on climate change was in 1990 and yet it wasn’t until 2007, 17 years later, that Guelph was able to implement a community energy plan.  This led to her answer that what keeps her up at night is her concern, “that we will not realize all the opportunities that climate change presents to build stronger more resilient communities”.  She went on to explain that while such things as money, time, and lack of resources can get in the way, the greatest impediment can often be the culture that develops when a ‘scarcity model’ drives your thinking.

…the things we need to do to bring about change must engage all – private, public, all sectors – and there must be trust in the capacity and competence of institutions to deliver.

In terms of ideological barriers to addressing and seizing upon the opportunities presented by climate change, Farbridge explained that she has seen that it can be, “not so much an issue of climate change deniers but more so of those seeking perfection, who don’t value transitional strategies and resist them because they don’t go far enough.”  Furthermore, she identified a lack of trust in institutions, such as local government, as a barrier in many cases because, “the things we need to do to bring about change must engage all – private, public, all sectors – and there must be trust in the capacity and competence of institutions to deliver.”

TSSS event on Cities and Climate Change with Mayors Farbridge and Miller

TSSS audience listening in on the topic of cities and climate change

David Miller, former Mayor of Toronto and Counsel, International Business and Sustainability at Aird & Berlis LLP, began his remarks by expressing his respect and appreciation for Mayor Farbridge and her work to make the City of Guelph not only a great incubator for ideas, but also action. He agreed with Mayor Farbridge about the challenges of ideological barriers and the significant potential for missed opportunities. He then explained that what keeps him up at night, given the urgency of the climate crisis, is the “incredibly slow pace of change.”  Miller expressed that collectively, we’re not acting quickly enough.

As Miller explained, cities feel the brunt of climate change.  One of the responsibilities of a Mayor is to protect the physical and social health of a city.  Yet, talk of better sewers and preventing basement flooding during extreme weather is not glamorous and doesn’t win elections, despite the need to address such issues.  Miller described Toronto’s $1.047 billion 25-year Wet Weather Flow Master Plan, explaining that it’s the kind of major initiative required to deal with the challenges facing cities but given the costs involved, it is challenging enough for a city like Toronto, let alone cities in the developing world like Bangladesh that face similar threats but without the same tax base and resources.

When we see the devastation caused by such storms as Hurricane Sandy, that wreaked havoc with millions of people’s lives and cost tens of billions of dollars, and we observe the effects of deadly heat waves and droughts, we are compelled to acknowledge the significant challenges facing cities.  But the Mayors shared messages of hope and inspiration, rather than doom and gloom, during their discussion. While they answered Dr. Feltmate’s question about what keeps them up at night, they also assured the audience that they are able to sleep soundly, and explained how we can engage citizens and politicians to work together to both mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.

Mayor Farbridge explained how her community finds ways for people with different perspectives to find common ground, “For us in Guelph, it’s about building a really big tent you can fit a lot of people under.”  For Farbridge, it’s about leveraging the benefits and co-benefits of initiatives and she gave examples of ways in which climate change presents opportunities rather than simply challenges. For example, she identified “congestion frustration” as an opportunity to advance transportation redesign and thinking.  She also explained that a community energy initiative is also a local economic development initiative – even a climate change denier can’t argue with a local direct energy initiative that will save her business money on energy costs.

Miller shared Farbridge’s optimism and explained that to engage people, “You have to talk to people where they are.  You have to be authentic.”  He cited the successful Livegreen Toronto program which sent ‘animators’ into neighbourhoods to talk directly with people and help them identify how to do ‘green’ things in their homes and communities.

The Mayors emphasized how adaptation to climate change presents economic opportunities. Mayor Farbridge described a city as a system with social, environmental, and cultural components that can be woven together to address climate change.  For example, Guelph has developed a Community Energy Initiative and entered into partnerships with local businesses to encourage and showcase their innovation.  These businesses can implement their technologies locally and then promote and sell a proven technology to other municipalities.  This leads to new jobs and investment in the Guelph economy and has resulted in both solar and water job clusters in the Guelph community.

David Miller, Mayor Karen Farbridge, Dr. Blair Feltmate and Brad Zarnett at TSSS

David Miller, Mayor Karen Farbridge, Dr. Blair Feltmate and Brad Zarnett at TSSS

Miller used the example of Toronto’s Tower Renewal program to reskin concrete slab apartment buildings and improve their energy efficiency.  This initiative has a 7-yr cost payback, with a 100-year building lifespan, and has the potential to create 30,000 jobs in Toronto.  This program, currently a pilot project, could realize a 5% GHG emission reduction if fully implemented – thereby almost meeting the Canadian 6% Kyoto target with this one initiative alone.

The Mayors concluded their discussion by trying to dispel what they believed to be the greatest climate change myths that are holding back municipal efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.  These myths are that, ‘We can’t do anything about climate change,’ because, ‘if you do something, it will destroy the economy.’

As David Miller looked out at the TSSS audience of over 100 sustainability change agents gathered at the offices of Bennett Jones in Toronto, and as dozens of audience members listened in cities worldwide via Livestream webcast, he spoke with conviction and said, “There are initiatives happening all over the world, and we can scale them and make them succeed.  We can address these issues in a way that creates jobs, builds our economy and promotes justice and social integration.  There’s no doubt in my mind that we can have a clean environment, achieve our climate change goals, and grow our economy.”

So, that’s the answer to the question of how a forward thinking urban mayor sleeps at night in the era of climate change – they sleep soundly knowing that they can engage their citizens to join them in seizing opportunities and moving their cities forward not with fear but with confidence, and not with dread but with hope.
Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS) is widely recognized as Canada’s premiere forum for dialogue and problem solving among sustainability professionals.  Each year over 1000 sustainability change agents attend TSSS events to exchange ideas, to network and to be inspired by leading companies that have integrated sustainability into their business practices. Please click here to learn more.