CB Climate Action: Jan 2020 (Part 1)

It was a full and fascinating week of climate action in Cape Breton. It began bright and early on Monday, Jan. 20, when the City Council and Mayor met with staff and public stakeholders to discuss the city’s Climate Action Plan, which was commissioned and written way back in 2014.

Then on Wednesday, Extinction Rebellion members braved the chill to demand that Canada reject the Frontier Teck “mega-mine” Oilsands project, and to announce a new, local campaign called “UnCoal Nova Scotia.”

We spent the weekend back indoors with two Extinction Rebellion events: a Non-Violent Direct Action workshop and a Book Club discussion of Aric McBay’s Full Spectrum Resistance. All the while, we were cooking up new strategies and plans.

I’m happy to offer a blow-by-blow of all these events, for those who missed them. It’s all my own perspective and opinions, of course. Here’s Part One: the Great CBRM Action Plan Update Workshop of Winter 2020!

First, some background: last May, as I was organizing my first XR march, I learned that Council had a five-year-old Climate Plan that didn’t seem to get discussed much at public meetings. So we asked (well—demanded) that they dust it off and provide a progress report. Eight months later, there we were. Most of us, at least.

Present for the Update Workshop: Mayor Cecil Clarke, Deputy Mayor Ivan Doncaster, CAO Marie Walsh, and Councillors Earlene MacMullin, Esmond Marshall, Eldon MacDonald, Amanda MacDougall, Kendra Coombes, and Jim MacLeod. Absent were Councillors Darren Bruckschwaiger, George MacDonald, Ray Paruch, Steve Gillespie, and Clarence Prince. About 30 members of the public were in the gallery.

The meeting is available for streaming at: http://video.isilive.ca/cbrm/2020-01-20-MCCAPU.mp4.html … But in case you don’t have four hours to spare, here are some highlights and lowlights, followed by my take on the meeting’s success:

5:00 – 10:00

Director of Planning and Development Wayne MacDonald summarizes “completed” action items from the 2014 Action Plan.

These items are almost exclusively adaptation, not mitigation efforts (not surprising, since the Action Plan also has that focus).

They mostly involve improvements to CBRM-owned infrastructure:

  • Precautionary backup fuel and power for emergency services and water treatment facilities;
  • Wastewater and building management efficiency;
  • LED bulbs in streetlights.

12:00 – 13:00

Wayne MacDonald discusses floodplain mapping, and twice refers to Washbrook—the area that suffered major flooding in 2016—without referring to Council’s current plans to destroy the Baille Ard Forest in a misguided attempt to mitigate future flooding in that neighbourhood.

17:35 – 19:15

Wayne MacDonald discusses mitigations, repeating the word many times but never defining it or providing any specific examples that apply to climate change.

But he points out that CBRM has received three “Bright Business Awards.”

22:10 – 23:20

One of the few mentions of renewable energy: MacDonald reports that CBRM considered investing in wind farm development in 2012 (before the report was published), but concluded there were “more advantageous projects” in the existing (i.e. carbon-emitting) infrastructure.

He also mentions there was a funding stream available in 2012, but it has since been discontinued. End of topic.

23:40 – 24:50

MacDonald reports on CBRM’s public transit, which wasn’t mentioned in the 2014 Climate Report (why not?).

This is a cringe-worthy bit, because the report is boasting about the significant increase in ridership. That’s entirely due to CBU’s international student boom, and the city has been slow and clumsy in responding (CBU actually had to pay for a new bus).

More about transit below, in my summary.

30:30 – 30:50

Ken LeBlanc (introduced as “our onsite Energy Efficiency Manager,” but I think he works for Efficiency Nova Scotia?) reports that “CBRM uses 25% less energy” than it did in 2011:

  • Fewer emissions from idling vehicles.
  • Reducing energy consumption through insulation, LED bulbs, etc.
  • Energy-efficient air flow systems.

Good stuff, but it’s worth clarifying that “CBRM” here means CBRM’s own public infrastructure, not the city’s energy use overall. This comes up a lot in the meeting, and I talk about this trend below, too.

37:25 – 37:45

LeBlanc mentions greenhouse gas reductions for the first time in the meeting.

He shows a graph tracking reductions, but admits “this is mostly due to a greening of the NS Power grid”—in other words, it’s another thing that CBRM didn’t do, but is happy to take credit for.

41:25 – 41:40

LeBlanc lists funding opportunities that can help CBRM go green: “What we really need to do is have a plan.” He suggests a few cornerstones:

  • Increasing the use and supply of renewable energy;
  • More investment in public transit;
  • Urban forestry management to absorb more carbon.

This is probably the strongest moment in the CBRM-side presentations. It calls for vision and scope. The recommendations that follow (starting 47:30) are much more narrow in focus.

50:40 – 52:05

Councillor Kendra Coombes asks if the city has considered public idle-free zones (as opposed to idling restrictions on CBRM-owned vehicles only).

Wayne MacDonald changes the subject several times, implying the answer is no.

53:10 – 55:40

Coombes asks if CBRM looks at new projects through “a green lens.”

Wayne MacDonald says yes, federally funded projects are, but only because it’s a requirement to obtain the funding.

CAO Marie Walsh says that other projects are not, but “eventually, we’ll probably will be forced to do that with all the funding we receive.”

Mayor Clarke adds that federal “mandate letters” are also forcing their hands. The consensus seems to be that CBRM thinks green only when they are forced to.

56:00 – 1:00:00

Councillor Amanda McDougall emerges as a climate champion, as always: “Instead of looking at profits and costs first … at the end of the day, GHG reduction should be Priority One.”

She recommends an island-wide strategy, with collaborations between municipalities and community groups.

1:04:00 – 1:07:00

Deputy Mayor Ivan Doncaster asks LeBlanc about solar and wind power. This is a bizarre exchange, because Doncaster (who is pretty obviously a climate denier) seems to be pushing LeBlanc (who recognizes the costs and risks involved) for zero-carbon options, but LeBlanc backtracks to focus on infrastructure efficiency changes.

1:07:00 – 1:10:00

Councillor Eldon MacDonald also supports investigating and promoting solar funding options.

LeBlanc is wary, because solar investment involves “larger loans over a longer period of time.”

MacDonald goes on to argue for electric vehicle transition, stricter regulations for contractors, and a public climate education campaign. Way to go, Eldon!

1:15:00 – 1:17:30

MLA Derek Mombourquette takes the mic to report on Nova Scotia’s climate record:

  • The Coastal Protection Act
  • Banning single-use plastic bags
  • The Sustainable Goals Act (to be net-zero by 2050)
  • Renewable energy sources have tripled in the past decade
  • Investing $120 million for citizens to improve energy efficiency

1:28:00 – 1:31:00

After reporting on several provincial initiatives, Mombourquette talks about CBRM’s own opportunities:

  • Electrification of public transit (again)
  • Applying for provincial rebates for energy efficiency initiatives (again)
  • The green economy

These are pretty vague recommendations. I believe Mombourquette is an ally, but he is definitely a politician, and is careful not to dictate anything to Council.

1:43:00 – 1:46:00

Councillor George MacDonald asks his only question for the morning: what is the province’s opinion about the Donkin coal mine?

Mombourquette equivocates: “Coal mining is part of our mix now; it won’t be forever … It’s a balance between the economy and the environment.”

2:00:00 – 2:20:00

It’s me! I took a fairly aggressive approach, partly because I knew other stakeholders could “cushion the blow” somewhat.

If you don’t want to watch the whole speech, skip to the Q&A at 2:10:00. The first exchange with Councillor Koombes, about “low-hanging fruit,” is especially revealing in terms of Council’s perspective.

2:38:00 – 2:45:00

Community member Janet Bickerton delivers an impassioned appeal for more action… and throws a bit of shade at the Deputy Mayor.

Her main ask: form an arm’s-length committee on community climate action. This was one of XR’s three demands back in May 2019, too.

3:11:30 – 3:21:00

Charlie MacLean, the co-chair of the Scotia Rail Development Society, brooks no denial—“There’s no debate, it’s here, we have to live with it … If we do not have action to alter the course that we’re currently on, it will doom our future … The present course we are on is not sustainable … It’s time for action.”

MacLean is not content with the excuse that “other governments aren’t doing enough, so why should we?” He holds Council directly accountable for facing the threat, and provides numerous reasonable examples, including:

  • Evaluating environmental impact before beginning any construction project
  • Investing in clean, renewable energy
  • Encouraging “backyard food production,” using materials that have been thrown away but are still useable
  • Considering other methods of transportation, or reducing transportation with (for example) electronic conferencing
  • Subsidizing rail transportation of goods

That’s a lot. And there’s a lot more, of course—entire presentations that are worth the watch. But let’s move on. Having got most of my snarky commentary out of the way in the above notes, here now is a sincere, impassioned take of the state of climate action in CBRM:

We’re in trouble. When half our elected officials don’t show up to discuss what they themselves declared “a climate emergency,” that tells me they’ve either given up hope, or they never had it to begin with.

Of the councilmembers who did attend, only two are wholeheartedly committed to climate action: Kendra Coombes and Amanda McDougall. Two more (Eldon MacDonald and Esmond Marshall) seem interested in helping, but perhaps more uncertain about how we proceed. The rest were pretty quiet… except for Deputy Mayor Doncaster, who singled himself out by asking me and Ken LeBlanc, “What is climate change?” and then arguing with our answers.

CBRM’s staff—both those who wrote the 2014 Report, and those who spoke this week—understandably see the City as a business, and respond to calls for green action the same way shareholders would: in dollars and cents. We can’t count on their initiative to institute large-scale changes. It must fall to the Mayor and Council to push against bureaucratic barriers and get things done.

MLA Mombourquette’s report put a rose-coloured hue on the work being done by the province. While I don’t deny that Nova Scotia’s government has made progress, I fear his report will backfire. From Council’s perspective, provincial accolades might give CBRM an excuse not to commit any more resources to fossil fuel reduction.

Media reporting on the meeting was pitiful. One CBC article by Tom Ayers zeroed in on Mombourquette’s promise to fast-track a transit study, but didn’t even mention the Climate Action Report (that is, the reason for the whole meeting!), much less any of the more strident recommendations made by stakeholders and staff alike. I’m trying hard not to think of this as irresponsible journalism, but is that really the only newsworthy thing Ayers heard that day? Or just the only topic he thought would resonate with the public?

Mary Campbell wrote a much more comprehensive piece for the Cape Breton Spectator, but it’s behind a paywall. As far as I know, that’s the extent of the reporting on this meeting—a meeting which, if Council has their way, will likely be the last climate-focused public consultation for a long time.

But it doesn’t have to go that way. If we use the momentum from this meeting, there’s a good chance we can at least get the arm’s-length climate committee that Bickerton recommended. So, if you would like to see more action on climate from CBRM, write the mayor and your councillor and let them know. I’ve created a letter template; simply download a copy, modify the sections [inside square brackets], plus any other personalized touches you’d like to make, and either email it or send it by snail mail to 320 Esplanade, Sydney NS, B1P 7B9.

More on recent climate happenings soon! Stay strong! Shine bright!

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