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'COVID is temporary; climate change is inevitable'

Whistler's environmental advocates find opportunity in crisis
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COVID is temporary; climate change is inevitable Whistler's environmental advocates find opportunity in crisis. By Braden Dupuis

There is a thought exercise that's been circling through Zoom meetings and other teleconferences, non-profits or otherwise, since the COVID-19 pandemic ground society to a halt, forcing businesses to close and residents to self-isolate at home.

It involves taking a minute to reflect on the true weight of our current circumstances before offering up a one-word answer to define your feelings.

"We've done this on a few of our calls, and it's quite a nice way to hold some space for people to just think for a minute, and in one word, pop into the chat, how you feel reflecting back on a month," said Claire Ruddy, executive director of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE), at the environmental charity's virtual annual general meeting held on April 22.

For attendees of the virtual AGM, the responses, for the most part, conveyed a sense of hope: Reflective, grateful, responsive, thankful, motivated, introspective, relaxed, inspired, grounded—all of the above.

"It's interesting, because doing this in the first week or so, a lot of the comments were: loss, grief, anxiety, and some of these seem more hopeful," Ruddy said.

"It looks like we've kind of got a grip, a little bit, on what this looks like, and we're able to feel more empowered as individuals."

Taking the exercise one step further, Ruddy closed the meeting by asking attendees for one habit or lesson they would like to see the Whistler community carry forward post-COVID.

The responses, taken as a whole, resembled something of a sustainability wish list, or an idealized roadmap to a fully realized future for Whistler and its surroundings.

To list just a few: Nature over economy. Reduced car traffic. Less consumerism and single-use items. Supporting a diverse local community and businesses. Supporting our neighbours and understanding the importance of community connections. Remembering that we're truly all in it together.

Be collaborative, inclusive and kind to nature. Show more appreciation for frontline workers. Shift Whistler's tourism voice to meaningful connections with regional guests.

And there, at the bottom of the list, the kicker: COVID is temporary; climate change is inevitable.

A NEW WAY FORWARD

With Whistler—and indeed life as we previously knew it—effectively on pause, the community is taking stock: of losses, projected and realized, but also of potential opportunities.

"I think that as we are collectively recovering from this, and as we look up how we work to become a more resilient community, there's alignment there between a pandemic and the climate crisis," Ruddy said in a mid-May interview.

"Some of those strategies are very intertwined, and so there is opportunity in that."

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of localizing food supply chains, she said by way of example.

"When we localize our food supply and eat in season, that is also supporting our climate goals," she said. "It means that we're trucking food [shorter] distances, it means that we have a reduced carbon footprint against that food supply."

AWARE is hearing from Whistlerites that people are looking closely at their consumption habits in the wake of COVID-19 and rethinking them, Ruddy added.

Whistler has long been very intentional about its development goals, she said, going all the way back to the Whistler2020 sustainability vision.

"We've done it before and I think we have the opportunity to do to it again," Ruddy said, pointing to pre-COVID anxiety amongst locals around things like housing, affordability, increased traffic and the growing impact on nature.

"So as we look at how we bring people back to the community—to live here and to visit here—we get the chance to think about how we make sure that we stay and become even more unique and special than we were before."

In the view of Whistler Councillor Arthur De Jong—a long-time environmental advocate who now oversees council's environment portfolio—COVID-19 and climate change are two trains moving at different speeds.

"COVID comes at us like a speed train, and we get it—dive for cover or you can get very sick, and maybe die," he says.

"Climate appears like a slow train coming at us, but as we put more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, it becomes like a runaway train, and our feet are stuck in the track."

De Jong's thinking revolves around a single question: how do we leverage lessons from COVID-19 to resolve the climate crisis? It's no small topic, and De Jong breaks it down into different streams: individual responsibility and a sense of urgency; lessons from technology; the necessity of a "transformational change" from a consumer society to a sustainable one; and translating the adaptive capacity shown in combatting COVID to the fight against climate change.

With COVID, most people seem to get it. The sense of urgency is real, and governments and communities across Canada have been quick to respond.

How can that urgency be translated to the climate crisis?

The average carbon footprint is four to five tonnes per capita, De Jong notes, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, it's down to a tonne.

In North America, "we're at between 15 to 20 tonnes, per individual, and the G7 countries produce half the world's carbon. The G20 countries produce three quarters of global carbon emissions," he says.

"So there is a much greater responsibility for those of us who live in Canada or live in the U.S., or G7, G20, to take ownership of our emissions.

"One of the biggest myths of climate change is that the problem won't affect us as individuals, and obviously we need a deeper recognition of that."

Whistler has committed to hiring a new climate action coordinator after the recent departure of Max Kniewasser despite a COVID-19 hiring freeze (a fact appreciated by De Jong), and moving forward, he says he'll continue to apply the environmental lens to all of his decisions at the council table.

"I have a responsibility through every step of the budgeting decisions we make going forward that we don't miss an opportunity again where we can integrate climate policy into economic policy. That behaviour needs to happen at every level politically," he says.

"And I hope companies do the same. There is a lot of logic in going from a consumer society to a sustainable one. There are a lot of efficiency opportunities.

"We just need to be very mindful of ensuring that we embrace every new opportunity possible in this transition."

But while personal responsibility and a sense of urgency are key, another stream of thought for De Jong represents an undeniable wildcard—a potential wrench in the climate-action cogs: the question of global cooperation.

"China and the U.S. represent about 40 per cent of global carbon emissions," De Jong notes, referencing an article in The Economist.

"So if the two giants don't behave responsibly on climate, we're just not going to get there."

A REIMAGINED WORKPLACE

For years, Wednesday production days at Pique's Function Junction office were a hands-on (and all-hands-on-deck) process.

Stories were laid out and physically printed before getting proofread twice and corrected for final approval.

Then COVID-19 hit, and we were forced to adapt in an instant.

How does our most intensive process—one that requires on-the-fly changes and quick answers to sometimes-complicated questions—work in our suddenly physically distant world?

The answer, it turns out, is quite well—thanks to technology.

While things were touch-and-go the first couple weeks as we adjusted to a brand new digital process on the fly, it's hard to imagine us reverting back to the old, paper-wasting production days of the past once COVID-19 is behind us.

While it makes sense to think that some new habits gleaned from the COVID-19 experience will stick, it's too early to say which ones, according to UBC geographer Seth Wynes.

"People aren't always excited about only working from home, not being able to go out, see their friends and family and things like that, so yeah, there's obviously going to be a large uptick in mobility once lockdowns are lifted," Wynes says.

"But at the same time, yeah, I do think that some of these habits will stick."

Many employers now realize that it is possible for staff to work from home, for example, and may decide to save on office or parking space costs, and commute times for their employees.

"I expect telecommuting to see a bump; I think the same thing might be true of a lot of air travel," Wynes says.

"Where before some of these business trips seemed absolutely necessary, maybe now a company has invested thousands more dollars into really good virtual conferencing equipment, they've trialled it, and because of that investment, there's less need to do so many of those face-to-face meetings."

Since society ground to a halt in mid-March, workplaces, live events, family gatherings—basically every aspect of social life previously conducted in person—have moved online.

With so many isolating at home, "we've definitely seen measurable declines in emissions," says Wynes, a PhD student who studies what individuals and institutions can do to mitigate climate change, adding that some estimates put the reduction for the entire year at about eight per cent (factoring in that the lockdown isn't likely to last all year).

With a massive economic rebuild ahead of them, governments the world over have some interesting decisions to make—choices that could launch a revolutionary "green recovery" or put us back down familiar, well-trodden paths.

"You're going to be looking at stimulus measures to restart the economy once it's back up and going ... Where are we spending that money?" Wynes asks.

"You have the option of spending it on fossil-fuel infrastructure, or you have the option of spending it on active-transport infrastructure, renewable energies, electric vehicle charging stations, all of these different things."

There are ways to align pandemic stimulus spending with climate goals, he adds. Municipalities can choose to spend on retrofitting buildings while people are isolating at home, for example, or convert city streets into active transportation lanes.

"You can try and look for win-wins for climate and the pandemic, but yeah, it really is about trying to have that transition to a society that we want more," Wynes says.

"We're in one crisis right now, but that doesn't make the climate crisis go away, so we've got to be thinking of that as we're spending our money."

A NEED TO GET INVOLVED

The potentially transformational long-term impacts of COVID-19 are not lost on Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton.

"I think one thing that's really started to settle into my mind is that it's not just the time that we're dealing with right now, when we're so focused on health and safety, and retreating, and dealing with the impacts of isolation, but it's how we are going to change as a society moving forward," Crompton said in a Q and A with Ruddy at the AWARE AGM.

"I think it's important that we put our minds to, how will we be different? How will the organization function differently, and what challenges and opportunities are on the other side of this? Because I strongly believe that there are big opportunities."

As Whistler plans its post-COVID economic recovery, how can residents ensure environmental issues are included in the equation?

The answer lies in advocacy, Crompton said.

"I think that locally, environmentalism has driven governments to make better decisions than they've made otherwise, and I don't think that always has to be a comfortable relationship. I think it's good when activists and advocates push and build runway and help people in government make the decisions that are right," he said.

"How do we put the environment at the centre of it? I think it's through advocacy. I think it's through activism."

There are countless examples of Whistler environmentalists—from AWARE or otherwise—speaking up to influence change, the most recent being last year's global climate strike.

Organized in part by then-high-school student Jade Quinn-McDonald, the Sept. 27, 2019 march saw close to 600 people walk from Lost Lake to municipal hall, and was later cited by Crompton as a factor in the Resort Municipality of Whistler's decision to issue free transit passes to high school students.

With her post-high school outdoor leadership program sidelined by the pandemic, Quinn-McDonald (who was nominated by Crompton for the Citizen of the Year award at the now-postponed Whistler Excellence Awards) is back in the resort with plenty of time to contemplate the issues.

"The advocacy right now I think is really important," she says, adding that AWARE has been hard at work on that front organizing conference calls with local environmental advocates.

"We are living in a democratic country, so our voices do matter—somewhat," she adds with a laugh.

"Change, I think, starts with a small group of people, because if you try to start at the top, more often than not, in my short life experience, it seems that things aren't always as they seem.

"I think grassroots is the way to go."

Local filmmaker Mike Douglas, chair of Protect Our Winters Canada, has been tapped into the conversation as well, and has even discussed it with Crompton personally.

"There aren't a lot of hard solutions yet, but the discussion is happening," he says.

"The fact that almost every sector in our economy is essentially begging for government money right now, it gives the government a lot of power in how to spend that money, and how to direct this recovery, which I think is good."

Douglas doesn't consider himself to be an activist by nature.

"It's not in my DNA. I'm not one of those people that's like, always fighting the man," he says.

"But what I've learned, and the reason I've become so involved, is I don't feel like it's OK to be a bystander anymore. There's too much at stake, and you realize that governments alone are not going to make things happen, or at least not going to make the right things happen on their own. They need people to keep up the pressure."




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