Of course, it's a climate emergency

April 30, 2019


Leaf with green city

There is a campaign underway to have all Canadian municipal governments declare a climate emergency. Offering a critique of this campaign puts you at risk of being labelled a climate denier – which is part of the point of this post.

So, let me begin by saying I agree climate change is an emergency. 

However, the predictable backlash to this campaign reinforces something that psychologists have told us for years. Fear polarizes people.  Much has been written on the subject, including books dedicated to how fear gets in the way of climate action.

Professor Sarah Wolfe is an environmental studies professor at University of Waterloo studying the psychological impact of environmental changes. In a recent Globe & Mail interview, she noted “events that frighten us tend to reinforce our pre-existing identities”. What this means is that in the wake of extreme climate-related events like flooding and forest fires, pro-environmentalists push for action – like declaring an emergency – while others double down on their denial or avoidance behaviour.

The biggest risk to combatting climate change is our fear of it.

One solution to this impasse is to stop talking about emissions and take an energy-first approach. By understanding where and how we use energy in a community, we can engage people in an entirely different conversation.

We all have energy needs. So, how might we meet those needs in a way that is more efficient, less costly, more reliable and less polluting? How might we create jobs and boost the local economy at the same time? How might we provide consumers with more choice and control over the energy they use? I have yet to hear anyone say they don’t want to reduce their heating bill because they don’t believe in climate change.

Community energy planning is helping to answer these questions - not with vague aspirations but facts. We have a far better opportunity to reduce emissions, if we engage people as they are and not how we want them to be.

Environmental activists are meeting their psychological needs in the face of a climate emergency. I respect them for that. We also need them to keep pressure on governments to act. Governments, however, should leave the activism to the activists, and put their resources towards building a tent big enough to welcome all but the most recalcitrant deniers.