CHERYL LYON − Like it or not, the destructive derecho storm that walloped the Peterborough area on 21 May 2022 is a valuable messenger from our near future. The crashing trees foretell other kinds of crashes to come and should snap our heads up, yet again, to pay attention to the climate crisis, the need to plan and act together, as a community, to stay alive and thrive in a very different future.
Such storms used to occur south of the American border about once every two years somewhere, and about once in 20 years in Canada. But that has changed, according to a climatologist. (Susanna Wagstaff, CBC Radio, 24/05/22). They are very likely to occur more often now here. They are a direct result of human-induced climate change.
Earth, and therefore this local area’s atmosphere, is being altered, becoming more unstable. The atmosphere is the envelope of life we live in. It has too much carbon dioxide in it. We must lower it. Fail, and more than trees come down: our community life is weakened and can crash too.
The link between climate change and poverty
These wallops of Nature neglected are especially unfair to the many citizens who are under-resourced, economically disadvantaged – whatever euphemism we use for persons squeezed down and out of our social-economic structures into poverty – those least responsible for the climate crisis because they use far fewer CO2-emitting resources than people of higher income. (Yes, climate change is a “class” thing.)
Lower income households use less fossil fuel energy, are more likely to live in smaller, un-air conditioned dwellings (if they have a home at all), less likely to drive cars, eat less (not by choice), and have little disposable income to constantly consume unnecessary “stuff”.
Though brief, the fierce storm tore yet more holes in the thin net supporting the daily life of these fellow citizens. Think: the married couple living in a tent (yes, illegally) on city property because they cannot find housing they can afford on social assistance. Their “home” simply blew away. Along with many of their meagre and necessary belongings.
I met the husband of this couple the day after the storm. He was looking for returnable bottles in my blue bin to get enough to buy the one daily meal for himself and his wife because the storm had closed a free lunch program that day.
Repeats of such severe events will impact more and more people of all incomes, weaken the overall mental and physical resources of the whole community. More stress, less resilience.. More citizens getting weak(er) and sick(er) when drenched and chilled by the weather, unable to afford enough food, moving from place to place for lower rents, finding shelters have no space for them, having no internet connection for emergency information, walking long distances to hospital or clinics without proper clothing in bad weather. Higher living costs.
Small local business owners and their employees, weakened first by Covid, then a storm with its loss of customers, power outages, food spoilage, damage repairs, will also struggle to cover basic necessities – as the rise in food bank usage and school breakfast programs demonstrate already.
Community is the starting point.
“Local community” means City, Peterborough County, local First Nations supported by our life-giving natural ecology, Mother Earth. Especially important are local farmers who will not be immune to climate disasters already affecting farmers in other places: heat, too much rain, not enough rain, rising cost of fossil fuel and fertilizer, crop diseases and more. We will ALL become “under-resourced” (poor) if we do not preserve and protect our natural resources, our food supply.
We must and can take actions that address BOTH poverty and climate at the same time. Here’s a summary of technologies and practices that spill over among themselves, interweaving to strengthen community fabric against whatever the climate crisis can throw at it. They are all possible, some underway already locally:
IMPROVE and SUPPORT LOCAL AGRICULTURE: by regenerative methods for soil and water retention and quality, intercropping with more trees, moving away from synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and factory farming, and planting drought and disease resistant crops. Good news! This is already begun in the Peterborough area, particularly among younger, smaller landholders and more and more gardening among urbanites. Food from this type of farming is healthier, more reliably supplied when climate threatens long supply chains, and employs local workers more and more as it expands away from monocropping and mega-farms. It also improves the quality of local rivers from which we get our drinking water.
PROTECT & RESTORE ECOSYSTEMS – as the Peterborough watershed is beginning to do e.g. the designation of Harper park as a significant wetland; the preservation of ecosystems via land trusts; the local Otonabee Watershed Stewards program for students, GreenUp’s rain garden and depave efforts. Healthy, intact ecosystems surround and support healthy farms that support a healthy local economy and people. Ecosystems are paradigms from which to learn how to be a strong, well-bonded, human community.
PROVIDE CLEAN ELECTRICITY – this reduces CO2 emissions, the No. 1 imperative of all climate action right now! Peterborough is stepping onto the track of this already with the Peterborough Utilities Group solar rooftops, solar ground installations and hydro stations on the Otonabee and Trent Rivers. We now need to reduce natural gas usage, beginning with recent government (including municipal) subsidies and/or incentives for heat pumps, and return locally-generated renewables to homes and farms with feed-into-the-grid return to these producers and start taking localized, distributed energy seriously.
FOSTER EQUALITY – All these inter-related actions bring social and economic benefits like new jobs, boosted incomes, increased food security, less vulnerability to climate change – as long as we consciously ensure their equitable access and distribution to all citizens in our communities. Deliberately cultivating a sense of shared effort among all of us for the wellbeing of all of us will be the work of civic leaders for many years in this new and urgent time.
Yes, the initial costs of implementing these actions are high. But the costs of not doing so will be far higher: community health, cohesion and survivability are at stake.
The action must be co-ordinated, use complexity thinking, and integrate its strategies, funding, and policies to simultaneously address climate change and poverty. THIS CAN BE DONE.
What will it take?
Will and inclusion. Local Councils (First Nations, City and County), policymakers and funders − informed by, and in collaboration with women, youth, Indigenous peoples and local community associations − must update every Climate Action Plan on the books and work in concert, in a good way, together, to ensure these actions don’t remain on the books.
Strong and humble leadership. Genuine youth involvement. Facilitation skills. Sharing information and knowledge. Not being afraid to fail as we test new ways of being and working together in these new times.
We’ll remain on what António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, calls “a fast track to climate disaster.” The choice is ours. With a new urgency, like our responses to the May storm, let’s get started.
For a more in-depth look at climate change and poverty see here: https://drawdown.org/publications/climate-poverty-connections-report