Copenhagen and 'Taking Care of the World'

Michael Dudley's picture
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Yesterday, as a part of my university's community outreach efforts, I delivered a lecture at a suburban retirement home on the theme of sustainable cities. I discussed Smart Growth, New Urbanism and the need for greater urban densities, all framed by the current events unfolding in Copenhagen at the United Nations Climate Change Conference.  

At the end of my talk, several elderly ladies came up to chat with me and thank me for the lecture. On her way out, one turned to me and said, "You take care of the world for us. We're not going to be around much longer – it's up to you young people." 

As I left, I thought of all the terrible predictions the climate scientists have been issuing for years concerning widespread droughts and sea-level rises -- to say nothing of the potential for armed conflict and civilizational collapse -- and I almost felt envy for my audience: they know that they won't live to see these events.

But the envy was fleeting. More powerful was the message that the woman had shared with me: that it was up to us to take care of the world.

This week, our leaders are convening in Copenhagen to try to negotiate yet another global treaty on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The urgency of this conference is such that on December 7th, 54 newspapers in 45 countries ran the same op-ed warning that, to prevent climate change from "ravaging" the planet, a global "transformation" is required:

"The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance -- and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing. Many of us, particularly in the developed world, will have to change our lifestyles. The era of flights that cost less than the taxi ride to the airport is drawing to a close. We will have to shop, eat and travel more intelligently. We will have to pay more for our energy, and use less of it."

The transformation, then, must be more than political or technological. We can't rely solely on our governments to set appropriate targets and industry to supply us with suitably "green" alternatives – it must involve all of us. Fred Branfman, writing in the Sacramento News and Review  echoes this call, but goes one step further: more than a new climate treaty, we need a "human movement" involving every sector of society to undertake the necessary economic, technological, ethical and political transformation.

But Branfman argues that this will require us to completely revisit our priorities. We will need to understand that our human lives are not predicated on economic growth but instead on the fact that we love and value our children and grandchildren, and want them to remember us with love, and not curse us for the wreckage we will have otherwise left behind. Indeed, Branfman expects the Copenhagen talks will fail precisely because our civilizational priorities are completely askew, and that the rest of us are just not engaged in the process. He writes,

"We live today as if in a trance, conducting business as usual in times so unusual that they pose an even greater threat than 20th-century wars that killed more than 100 million people. It seems incredible, for example, that nonscientists barely discuss how the human climate crisis undermines so many of their basic assumptions--in philosophy, law, psychology, sociology, economics, the arts and humanities, education and health--about human beings and their society "

If all these disciplines and sectors in society must become a part of this transformation, then we too as planners have a particularly important role to play and will need to revisit many of our assumptions and practices. The evolution of this professional stance is already underway. In 2007, the Canadian Institute of Planners undertook a policy review concerning climate change with the goal of ensuring that "every [CIP] member is committed to tackling the effects of climate change." Following this review, the Institute developed its internal climate change policy which commits the Institute to a broad range of professional, communicative and pedagogical activities related to climate change mitigation and adaptation. The 2008 American Planning Association Policy Guide on Planning & Climate Change offers a detailed strategy that includes public engagement goals as well as specific outcomes in the built environment, including mixed use development, public transit, renewable energy and green buildings.

These policies and statements are a very positive and necessary step, but they will not be nearly enough for planners to participate in the "human movement" Branfman proposes, largely because the underlying assumptions on which they are situated – namely, those concerning our existing economic and political systems – are not seriously challenged. Climate change mitigation and adaptation are assumed to be possible within existing structures, rather than through transformed ones.

But this is not at all surprising; thinking otherwise could be called radical, even heretical. It is exceedingly difficult and threatening for us as citizens and participants in existing economic and political systems to consider abandoning and replacing them. So argue Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger at Yale Environment 360, who write,

"dominant climate change solutions run up against established ideologies and identities...many people have a psychological need to maintain a positive view of the existing social order, whatever it may be Calls for economic sacrifice, major changes to our lifestyles, and the immorality of continuing ‘business as usual' - such as going on about the business of our daily lives in the face of looming ecological catastrophe - are almost tailor-made to trigger system justification among a substantial number of Americans."

To overcome this "system justification" reaction, perhaps the most fundamental thing we as planners can do is, as Fred Branfman urges, to

"adjust ancient belief systems to the new climate realities that have undone them. If we can break through our fog and clearly see the existential threat we pose to our children, presently unthinkable actions to save them may become possible."

"Breaking through" means not just adhering to our new professional policies on climate change planning, but to reconsider existing systems and processes,  and to become part of a "human movement" that both promotes broad social equity and restores ecological balance. 

Or, as I was so wisely instructed, "to take care of the world." 


Michael Dudley is the Indigenous and Urban Services Librarian at the University of Winnipeg.

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