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Climate change planning an urgent priority for council, to tackle ‘wicked problems’

Smoky sky over Bloomfield Tuesday, June 6

Story by Sharon Harrison
The haze in the sky blocking out the sun’s rays, the distinct smell of smoke hanging heavy in the air, all right here in Prince Edward County, all a result of the raging forest fires in Quebec, seemed a fitting introduction to Don Wilford’s deputation on climate change planning.

“I, like all of you this morning, smelled smoke; it’s not something I welcome, but it’s a sign of the urgency and seriousness of the changing climate we are facing.”

Wilford addressed the Prince Edward County Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC) meeting Monday afternoon where he spoke of those generations, still very young in age, and his deep concerns voiced for the future of today’s children and grandchildren.

“It is important that we take action now if we want our grandchildren and future generations to have a decent life, in a decent economy, and on a living planet,” said Wilford, who acknowledged climate change issues are hard, and referenced Horst Rittel and Mel Webber’s 1973 classic planning paper ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’ who refer to the issues as “wicked problems”.

Wilford, who is also a board member of the Green Party of Ontario, presented the advisory committee with five suggestions to contemplate and consider, one of which was to read a copy of an academic paper on climate change planning written by Dave Guyadeen (Guelph University) and Dan Henstra (Waterloo University), and he encouraged inviting them to speak to the group.

“Study it, discuss it and make it a foundation for your journey, and please share it around at Shire Hall,” he said.

Another of Wilford’s suggestions was for the committee to be publicly visible.

“The “first rule of communication is to communicate, and it’s never too early to involve the public. Think bigger, faster, and with more impact,” he added, “We just don’t have time for the half-measures you appear to be contemplating”.

Making a plan to connect with the many leading peers within a three-month timeframe was another recommendation, where he suggested working groups be set up.

“There are so many impressive, retired professionals in the County who will be pleased to assist, I would like to think I am one of them,” he added. “Be bold: advertise the outcome as a solid first step with the public release of a report on what others have achieved, and do it by Labour Day.”

Wilford’s deputation began by fondly introducing his eldest grandson, Henry, who had just celebrated his fourth birthday, where the deputation came with compelling and alarming consideration of what life may be like for his young grandson when he grows up.

He begins to explain how he gave Henry a model solar system for his birthday and as they played with it, he asked him how many times he’d been around the sun.

“He looked puzzled and was excited to know it was four times, and I told him it was a star, our star; it’s far away but much closer than all the others, and I asked him to imagine that at Christmastime he’d be way on the other side of the sun.”

Wilford’s story describes the conversation with his grandson about how fast we, and the earth, are actually moving where he says it seems like you’re not moving at all, but you are, “you are always whizzing round the sun”.

“I didn’t tell Henry that when he’d been around the sun 30 times -just seven-and-a-half
terms of council- life here on earth might be precarious,” continues Wilford. “I didn’t tell Henry that wildlife is disappearing, biodiversity is halving every 25 years, and soon there may be few insects left or the birds that feed on them.”

“I didn’t tell Henry there may be few fish, as oceans warm, water contains less oxygen so fish have to move to colder water to be able to breathe. I didn’t tell him the oceans are full of plastic and we, and all living things, are full of chemicals and micro-plastics.“

Wilford goes on to say how he also didn’t tell his grandson about exponential growth and how unlike in nature, our imaginations never stop: “our dreams, our needs, our appetites, and demands are boundless, so we build an economy that can never stop growing”.

“Two percent economic growth means our economy will double every 35 years. It means we will cut down twice as many trees, extract twice as many minerals, pump twice as much oil and gas, and emit twice as much green house gas, or we will try to,” outlines Wilford. “For all these, we will demand more in the next 35 years than the sum total of everything we’ve used in all of history.”

Councillor John Hirsch said the key thing he got from Wilford’s deputation in terms of climate change is there is no plan in the County.

Just back from a Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference in Toronto with councillor Kate MacNaughton, he noted how there are grant programs available for mitigation and adaptation activities.

“The federal government is making all kinds of money available, but you have to have a plan,” said Hirsch. “Despite having a declared climate emergency about four years ago, we still don’t have a plan.”

While he said that the issues of flooding, drought and so on are well-known, the municipality has to consult with the public.

“We have to develop a plan and talk to folks (and Guyadeen and Henstra) and really get going because we just haven’t done that; we, council, have given it lip service, it’s one line in a report, or none whatsoever in many cases.”

MacNaughton noted an incubator at the University of Waterloo that addresses these so-called “wicked problems”.

“There is no clear path forward and it has to be created, and when you are dealing with a new problem and there is no established pathway, you have to create the tools to solve the problem and create the pathway,” said MacNaughton.

EAC member Jane Lesslie spoke to the committee’s established guiding principles where a key point was to not reinvent the wheel.

She said she would like to hear from a variety of people, including the city of Kingston who she said had been awarded the most effective community in the country for climate change planning.

Lesslie asked whether the community would be on side when it comes to climate change planning, but also questioned council’s commitment (excepting councillors Hirsch and MacNaughton degree of commitment, of which she is aware).

“I am unclear as to the rest of the council’s commitment to developing an actionable climate change plan, and implementing it,” she added.

Wilford reiterated that Guyadeen noted it is a long-term problem, and is going to be a problem forever.

“It’s not something you throw a huge amount of resources at and get a plan and then follow it, planning is continuous, so his advice was get started, do what you can, build awareness, and obviously it will require resources, but his advice would be don’t make it a barrier or a stumbling block.”

Lesslie noted how the EAC group already understands the issues and their importance, and have been advocating and working on it for some time.

“The issue is, how do we get other people on side when it comes time for people voting around the horseshoe should be supporting action, because I sure wasn’t impressed with the quality of comment I heard during the election campaign on the issue.”

In response to Lesslie’s question of where this is at with council, Hirsch said, “sad to say, but nowhere”, where he said the way to get council to focus on a climate action plan is to bring money into the picture.

“It was very clear to me, maybe for the first time, there is a ton of money available for this work if you can decide what it is you what to do,“ explained Hirsch. “If we say to council, here’s $530 million of adaptation money, as one example, we can get a piece of that if we can create a plan and identify projects.”

EAC member Angus Ross said there were two sides to the money equation.

“One is, is money available to do things, the other is how much will it cost the County if we don’t act quickly,“ questioned Ross. “That is more likely to get council to do something; the cost to the County side is probably going to be a determinate on whether or not we get council support.”

“We need to get the community to say we want these actions taken, that is the key driver, because I’m not expecting much leadership out of council based on what I’ve heard so far,“ added Lesslie.

MacNaughton noted when they were doing 2022 pre-budget consultative surveying, 80 percent of the community supported action on climate change.

Guyadeen and Henstra’s methodology is straightforward, according to Wilford, where he noted they conclude that municipal climate change planning in Ontario is in its infancy.

He notes how many plans do not include comprehensive goals; policies were narrow in scope and did not include direction on monitoring or who was responsible, noting fact-based was among the lowest scoring characteristics.

“There was little mainstreaming of climate change planning into regular council business, something I saw very clearly when I sat through this year’s budget planning meetings where climate change was barely mentioned, if at all,” said Wilford.

He said, overall, the County’s evaluation score was just 25 per cent.

“Guyadeen and Henstra’s paper is spot on: it is peer reviewed, and it is hot-off-the-press (published January 2023), and it reviews climate change planning for all 108 small, rural Ontario municipalities -all of Prince Edward County’s peers,” said Wilford.

He says the paper notes the Partners for Climate Protection (PCP) program as a key driver where it provides a timely assessment of Ontario’s progress.

“What is surprising is both the lack of progress and divergence of progress,” he said. “The paper identifies peer municipalities that are ahead, such as King, Woodstock, Durham, Orangeville and Severn, and the majority, including the County, that have a lot to learn from them.”

Wilford spoke to exponential growth and the idea of it starting small, gaining momentum, and ultimately becoming too late to control where it overwhelms.

“That’s where we may be, today in the final doubling time of a system-wide existential polycrisis we tepidly call ‘climate change’. Our population, economy and environment; our forests, hills, rivers and wildlife; our societies, institutions and financial systems; our nations, politics and international relations are all systemically connected.”

He said it is “sheer madness” to talk about sustainability in the midst of exponential growth, and it’s easy to ignore warning signs.

“Vast inequality; unaffordable housing, education and medical care, even food is becoming unaffordable for many. We wonder about mental health problems, deaths of despair, family doctors being overwhelmed. We talk of borders wars, and refugees. We talk of a troubled world, of political polarization and extremism. Then we put it all aside and get back to the business at hand as usual because, well, because it’s what we know how to do.”

The EAC continued the meeting where the strategic workplan review was discussed as goals were examined and an action plan developed, as well as apportioning work to different support groups, and deciding on available capacity to undertake tasks and establishing deadlines.

The committee also discussed the terms of reference for the re-establishment of a planning working group and the communications working group, as well as developing a climate change working group.

Albert Paschkowiak, environmental services and sustainability supervisor, gave an update on the PCP program noting progress, where he said there was a a lot of preliminary work that is needed prior to being in a position to develop something.

Hirsch reminded that federal money towards adaptation needs regarding climate change is expected to be available next spring, where he said the municipality should be ready to pursue mitigation measures as soon as funding streams become available, although he noted money is already available for mitigation.

Don Wilford’s deputation as part of today’s Environmental Advisory Committee meeting can be viewed on the County’s YouTube channel.

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  1. Don Wilford says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments, especially related to farming.

    I agree municipal governments don’t have the means to stop climate heating or our multiple other crises. And “wicked” means no one has ready answers.

    The main point of my deputation was the threat is serious and accelerating, and communities can begin talking, thinking, and, step by step, planning ways we can begin to do things differently.

  2. David Thomas says:

    I think Council’s inaction is, in part, because of the complexity of the problem. It is easy to get overwhelmed, then do nothing. Like all complex problems, we need to break it into small pieces and prioritize what to tackle first. Best to start with some easy wins to gain momentum for the process. Management consulting 101.

    It’s disheartening that PEC is behind many of its peers regarding climate change risk mitigation planning. I’d love to know why. At the very least, let’s make sure we have the necessary up-to-date data required to make informed decisions. And let’s stop building homes among tinder-dry stands of trees.

  3. Henri Garand says:

    The County should certainly make plans to manage the occurrence of drought, fire, and flood. What else it can do is questionable. Our economy depends on agriculture, cement making, and tourism — all high energy users. It’s absurd to expect county residents somehow to combat the CO2 emissions with trivial offsets.

  4. C R says:

    We cannot do nothing. That’s what has gotten us to this point. We have to start somewhere. Don’t stick your head in the sand and pretend that will save us. It won’t.

  5. Fred says:

    Removing hedgerows is just terrible for the land. As in more car accidents from blowing snow, increases drought, soil erosion, loss of insects especially pollinating bees, removing all escape routes for wildlife etc. Look no further than Cty Rd 4 just outside of Picton.

  6. Mike Barnes says:

    @David Thomas
    I wouldn’t expect any councillors to try to strongarm farmers to make decisions for them on their land. It has to be incentive based … plant 5 meters of hedgerow along highways to prevent winter accidents and save x% on land tax … type of thing. Same with homeowners, install rain barrels under gutters for a rebate on your water bill. Investing in initiatives like this will have long term benefits in crises (less accidents on roads, more municipal water for droughts) which will cost far more in crisis management mode.

  7. David Thomas says:

    @Mike Barnes, all excellent points but I question whether the municipality has the authority to address such issues as monoculture. What it can do is make sure people don’t build homes in risky settings prone to flooding or fire. I shake my head when I see yet another new home nestled among stands of eastern red cedars that grow in the drier parts of the county. That’s a major fire hazard that climate change will only exasperate.

  8. Mike Barnes says:

    I think the only way to seriously look at these problems on a municipal level is to work with local farmers (the main land owners that over generations have removed biodiversity) and somehow create a partnership to promote things like biodiversity, removing chemical use near wells and our water systems, hedgerows. There are programs like this in the UK, albeit with federal partnerships.

    Within the town boundaries, it would be great to also nudge people away from mowing their lawns to “keep up with the joneses” so low that it turns yellow, dead, and becomes a fire hazard (or worse, the sprinklers come out, using municipal water). Flat, monocrop lawns is no better than monocrop corn and soybean, both of them have removed biodiversity and it’s no wonder the insects are disappearing.

  9. David Thomas says:

    I agree: climate change is a “wicked” problem. But there’s only so much municipal politicians can do to address the problem. And the more time our councillors focus on big picture issues, the less time and resources are left for boring things like fixing roads and picking up garbage.

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