On Wednesday, July 20th, the Shenkman Arts Centre in Orléans hosted the last of Ottawa’s Canada Climate Action consultations. With over 100 people filling the room, Ecology Ottawa volunteers hurried to get extra chairs into the tightly packed room. The consultation started with brief presentations by Orleans MP Andrew Leslie and MPP Marie-France Lalonde: they provided basic scientific facts and short overviews of initiatives undertaken by their governments. The spotlight then shifted onto participants as Leslie asked specific questions: How do we cut emissions? How do we price carbon? The floor was open to anyone wishing to speak, which led to a flurry of comments, rants, and accusations that often didn’t answer what was asked and went over the thirty-second limit. As comments flowed, note-takers eagerly wrote so as to capture the output of the democratic exercise, which will end once those notes are properly digitized, formatted, and uploaded to the climate change consultation website.
As a participant, it felt good to stand in front of those who represent us and state personal opinions on a matter of such significance; and seeing them take note. It is difficult, however, not to be skeptical of the process. I mean, of course there were good ideas vocalized by the public. Some of the general ones highlighted the need for better biking infrastructure, more rigorous energy standards for new housing, increasing our focus on climate change adaptation (rather than focusing solely on mitigation), and electrifying the Canada Post fleet. More detailed ideas were also thrown in. Eloquently conveyed, someone pointed out the contradiction in government rhetoric as they pursue sustainability yet somehow back new pipeline infrastructure like Energy East. Other nuanced comments also included the use of the revenue-neutral Carbon Fee and Dividend scheme, whose dividends to households act as a built-in public engagement mechanism. Additionally, (disclaimer: my own input) the need to meaningfully engage the financial community prior to roll-out of energy retrofit programs using Local Improvement Charges as obtaining mortgage lender approval remains a major hurdle in the deployment of such investments. There were other ideas that seemed unfocused, a few were difficult to hear and understand, and some seemed more like questions.
And that’s what public consultation is: recognizing and communicating the needs and interests of all participants. However, it still leaves a sense of emptiness as the evening’s outputs aren't anything government, business, or NGO analysts aren’t aware of. And is it someone’s job to go through the thousands of comments, and likely many incoherent rants, received in the hope of finding the key to solving the problem? In my view, it’s unlikely that scenario would yield any breakthroughs on climate change. And it also doesn’t seem like the wisest use of tax dollars.
Beyond that, one has to wonder at the extent to which our government is truly listening as an increasing amount of journalism reports on the Liberal government being less committed to climate action than they claimed they would be. Just this past April, the Financial Post reported the Liberals had already been convinced that pipelines were to be a top priority in their government. Where was the conversation on that critical issue? Here we all are, sitting in a room with our elected officials discussing Canada's climate action plan, and yet hardly any of the conversation was dedicated to the significant commitment to the carbon economy that Energy East represents. The pipeline should have been a major talking point, and instead, the allocated time was negligible.
On the other hand, though, one must give credit where it is due. When presented with an open floor, individuals who attended the Orléans Climate Consultation spoke-up to discuss a wide range of climate change solutions. This was when the room was loudest with positivity. The reason: we are now living in a time where climate change is accepted as an incredibly complex threat to humanity, largely created by ourselves. Mankind has created this beast, and it is on us to deal with it. In the brief moments where climate denialism made its way to the microphone, its rhetoric fell on deaf ears, only to be quickly forgotten.
Overall, the Orléans Climate Consultation may have missed an opportunity to discuss pressing political issues related to climate change, like the Energy East pipeline application. As an environmentalist, however, I can recognize victories when they are present: first, it was great seeing over twenty-five Ecology Ottawa volunteers and activists mobilize in order to be a presence at this important meeting. Second, and perhaps more importantly, a victory lies in seeing a public body recognize the growing threat of climate change and the role we have played in its creation. The process may not be perfect, but progress is slowly, and surely, being made.