March 31, 2022

Climate Emergencies: Don’t Look Up! by David Sadoway

Viewpoint Vancouver is pleased to introduce David Sadoway as our new Writer in Residence. Trained as an urban planner and an environmental manager, David is a faculty member and teacher in Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Geography and Environment Department. Prior to coming to KPU he lived and worked in Asia for over 15 years. He is passionate about how people around the globe are working together to address common ecological, socio-economic, technological and political dilemmas. Find more info about David here.

This spring while co-instructing a course about the climate emergency, I found it necessary to list examples of possible existential threats.

These threats include extinction level-risks caused by planetary-scale geological events, the threat of asteroid-hits, pandemics (which many of us are all too aware of) and the danger of mutually assured nuclear destruction (which the Russian invasion of Ukraine has reminded us of).

There is also biodiversity loss or destruction (sometimes known as ‘the sixth great extinction’), including the risk of losing our food pollinators; and the ongoing threats posed by climate change (with drought, heat, fires, floods and landslides of 2021, fresh in many of our memories).

This is not a subject to be taken lightly. The satirical film Don’t Look Up offers some sharp insights into the entrenched governmental and business myopia that encourages public distraction and even ignorance of the existential threats facing our cities and society.

While some existential threats have a very low probability of occurring in our lifetimes, others like “the climate emergency” — as the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR6 report suggests — remind us that the push for a return to normal and business as usual will likely foreclose the possibility of being able to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in our lifetimes.

This in turn suggests that survival may not remain a viable option for future generations, in at least some parts of the planet. At this point you might wonder what such issues have to do with contemporary urbanism, planning or the practical daily affairs of Metro Vancouver municipalities.

In a series of articles, over the coming weeks, I intend to argue that we need to better embed existential global challenges into local-level practices, policies, plans or projects.

If we are not able to ‘look up’ or at times scale-up our focus (and integrated solutions) for tackling interlocking existential challenges, then our shared legacy of cities, regions and human settlements will become increasingly jeopardized. Will we perhaps need to abandon or plan retreats in portions of cities or even entire regions?

The City of Surrey had previously supported a community-engaged climate planning exercise in Crescent Beach, South Surrey, which considered climate-related disaster planning scenarios, including a retreat option.

Why have some Indigenous communities felt once again abandoned by governments and their neighbours during the recent 2021 round of disasters? And why do some municipalities still refuse to recognize the need for a climate emergency plan, whereas others have articulated and costed mitigation and adaptation strategies? These and other questions will be examined in the days ahead.

The United Nations University (UNU) in 2021 referred to as the interconnected nature of existential threats facing the earth-system as the “triple planetary crisis” of climate change mitigation and adaptation; the biodiversity losses; and the health impacts of pollution.

While reflection, analysis and democratic debate remains important and possible, political neutrality on many of these issues will increasingly not be an option or a privilege.

Urbanists, planners and community builders, organizers, or advocates, not just in Metro Vancouver but across the globe, are sharing ideas, memes, schemes, and visions for critically tackling or addressing many of the existential challenges.

They are recognizing the present moment as a type of contingent juncture, where the policy choices of today will inexorably shape future systems, institutions, and the governance of communities tomorrow.

I am not proposing the need for fearmongering or advocating for elite, market, or technocratic top-down emergency rule — ‘the shock doctrine’ as Naomi Klein terms it — in the face of the increased risk of cascading emergencies.

Instead, I believe we need to  take the lead from many who have already identified innovative ways of critically re-evaluating and reconfiguring traditional notions of “growth” and “development.”

Myriad ideas and practices can inspire “thinking global, acting local” approaches to risk mitigation, disaster planning, and avoidance. Some  can be found in longstanding systems and practices — under the broad labels of Indigenous Science, local knowledge systems, citizen science, civic intelligence, and community-based approaches. Some ideas build on local knowledge systems, including wisdom from Indigenous elders and communities, while others draw upon insights from activists, scholars, scientists, and public thinkers close to home and beyond.

In future pieces Viewpoint Vancouver articles, I will draw-upon on both local and international examples of insights on experiments, projects, policies, and plans which may offer hope. These  also may provide warnings and challenges as cities, regions and societies attempt to address the ‘wicked problems’ of our time.

I hope you will  join me as we examine a variety of projects, ideas and experiments that may offer clues for tackling some of the key challenges of our time.

Rather than business as usual, or foreclosing hope, or advocating shock/emergency doctrines, I suggest that cities and regions need to  become sites of transformative, long-range thinking.

Urban residents’ fates are, after all, both shaped by and shaping of the interconnected existential threats that we collectively face.

Images courtesy KwantlenU,netflix

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