Provincial and municipal governments could be more influential in fighting the climate crisis than the federal government, according to a study co-authored by Dr. John Robinson, a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

The research examined climate policies in 11 municipal governments in BC. They looked at the governments’ responses to provincial policies, identified the drivers and barriers that affect local political action, and analyzed the impact of these strategies on emissions reduction.

The study outlined the important components for effective municipal climate policy, as well as 12 future steps that BC’s provincial parliament should take to continue its fight against the crisis.

The climate crisis is a political fight

The threat of rising temperatures and sea levels, extreme weather events, and depleting resources continues to grow more urgent. With eco-anxiety and environmental protests rapidly mounting, it’s undeniable that the climate crisis is at the forefront of the Canadian public’s awareness.

According to a recent National Observer poll, most Canadian respondents think that the climate crisis is one of the three most important issues facing the world.

“It’s impossible to ignore the evidence that things are just not happening in the way that they used to,” said Robinson to The Varsity. “Increasingly, the changes in ecosystems are, if not totally caused, heavily influenced by [humans].”

Many look to federal governments for a solution, but the “Meeting the Climate Change Challenge (MC3)” research project, which resulted in the study, suggests that we should be looking closer to home. Local communities have a vital role to play in mitigating the climate crisis and have the means to effect direct change.

Canadian cities often have control over their own emissions, and the municipal political process is more accessible to community members than federal politics. Robinson emphasized the advantages of the experimental nature of municipal climate policy.

“Cities become hotbeds of experimentation. We don’t know all the answers; we have to try things out.”

The Government of British Columbia, together with its municipal governments, are leaders in Canada’s fight against the climate crisis. The researchers were interested in how its approach could be extended to the rest of the country.

“Cities really pay attention to what other cities do,” said Robinson. “The lessons from these 11 [municipalities] are generally applicable in other cities.”

The study’s findings

In the first phase of the MC3 project, which took place from 2011–2013, the researchers conducted interviews and detailed case studies in each of the 11 communities and developed a policy document identifying 12 steps that the Government of British Columbia should take to further its efforts. The communities were Victoria, Vancouver, Prince George, Dawson Creek, T’Sou-ke First Nation, Eagle Island, a neighbourhood of West Vancouver, City of North Vancouver, Campbell River, the Kootenay Regional Districts, Revelstoke, and Surrey.

They found that the major drivers of local climate action include strong municipal and provincial leadership, access to funds through the province and other organizations, the mainstreaming of climate policy, and first-hand experiences of extreme weather induced by the climate crisis.

Barriers to action consisted mainly of funding limitations, human resource constraints — particularly in smaller communities — social resistance, and electoral cycles causing leadership and mandate changes.

The MC3 project resulted in a policy document that included suggestions such as updating BC’s Climate Action Charter, which is a voluntary charter that “mandated that signatory local and regional governments become carbon neutral in their operations by 2012.” It also suggested an expansion of the carbon tax to industrial production, and the addition of climate vulnerability assessments to all provincially-funded infrastructure projects.

The second phase of the study, from 2014–2018, revisited the communities to assess the progress of their initiatives. It found that progress was too slow to cause significant change, with only two of the original case studies making a meaningful reduction in emissions. Provincial leadership changes and societal resistance were identified as major barriers to change in these cases.

How climate action can move forward

The study’s conclusions yielded several insights into how change can be driven, outlining systematic necessities in both government and society to combat the climate crisis.

They stressed the importance of cooperation between municipal and provincial governments. Strong leadership at multiple levels and partnerships between regional governments, according to the study, is vital for supporting, sustaining, and accelerating local action.

Policy alignment between provincial and municipal governments is key to transformative change. The institutionalization of these policies is another effective counter to the inconsistency of leadership swings; embedded provincial mandates can’t be turned around by a new premier.

Social engagement was also identified as a major force behind government climate innovation. Community involvement and a collective sense of urgency can push local governments into action. Public acceptance and support for climate action initiatives are also important factors in driving these projects forward.

“There is a way”

“Massive change is happening everywhere,” Robinson said. “The issue isn’t how to create change; it’s how to steer all the change that’s already going on in a more sustainable direction.”

Though the study was focused on governments, Robinson was clear on the point that there is “no limit” to what an individual can do about the climate crisis, whether that means eschewing plastic straws and bags, looking into sustainability measures in the workplace, or directly contacting the city about energy efficiency.

Robinson placed emphasis on the importance of social attitudes toward the climate crisis, calling the normalization of sustainability the “endgame.”

“People need to feel that sustainability isn’t a sacrifice,” he said. “When the behaviour people are doing without thinking is sustainable, it’s automatic, it’s the default — when we get there, then we’ve achieved sustainability.”

He continued, “If we do succeed in this, we’re going to make a better world… It’s not just about staving off disaster, it’s about making things better. That’s the silver lining on this dark cloud of climate change: in order to address climate change successfully, we have to make a lot of things way better.”

Robinson ultimately views the study’s findings as hopeful, firmly asserting that action is in progress to counter the climate crisis.

“It’s easier to report disaster than to report transformative success. People feel overwhelmed and kind of doomed, because the message we keep hearing is how bad [the climate crisis] is and how we have to stop doing everything we like, and even then, we probably will fail,” he said. “But what’s less apparent is that people are doing work to address this problem.”

“There’s a way. There are things happening, and the study reinforces that. We’re not doomed.”