Rik Logtenberg is a city councillor in Nelson, British Columbia, founder of Climate Caucus, a national network of mayors and councillors, and the developer of Nudj, a software platform for mobilizing change.
The Energy Mix: What are you doing differently in light of the pandemic?
Logtenberg: No surprise, but as a city council our primary focus right now is emergency response. We’re making sure that city staff, health workers, and the public are safe and practicing social distancing, which means changing how the city operates and how we deliver basic services. At the same time, we’re trying to show leadership to the community in how we react to this crisis. And we’re really trying to amplify, when we can, the messages from [Provincial Health Officer] Dr. Bonnie Henry.
After that, we’re looking ahead to the financial impacts. Nelson relies heavily on tourism. So we’re facing significant unemployment for as long as this lasts. We’ve passed some tax relief, lowered fees, and we’re offering deferred payments on utilities, all while being careful not to financially harm the city. This should help take some of the financial strain off our residents, but it’s just really scratching at the surface of what needs to be done.
And—this is really important—we’ve begun to think about how we inspire our community to see this as a moment of necessary transformation.
We’ve known that disasters are coming for us, in one form or another, for a long time. We’ve gone through bad wildfire seasons, flooding, and we expect that annual environmental crises will be part of our new normal. Our top priority as a council, when we were first elected, was to improve the city’s emergency response capabilities. In doing our emergency management planning work we looked at all possible threats, including pandemics. So all of this didn’t come as a total shock.
But I have to say, how it’s actually played out is not what I expected: it’s both more intense and more calm. The province has basically shut down large swaths of the economy, which is more than I imagined they would do. But people have responded far better than I expected. The level of social responsibility and communal spirit is truly amazing. And this gives me hope that we can seize this moment and come out of it a far healthier, more sustainable, and more resilient community.
Our job as a council, and my job as a councillor, is primarily to spread the message of hope, and then provide some concrete ideas on what that could look like.
The Mix: What could that look like?
Logtenberg: It starts by asking what a local economy looks like where everyone has a roof over their head and food in their belly, where they can get around easily and freely, and ultimately, have the social connections needed to survive and thrive. And then we need to find the gaps, and ask what we need to change, so that this essential economy can function (or quickly emerge as needed) in the face of cascading failures in the international economy. And we need to ask how we can do all of this in a way that is low-carbon and environmentally sustainable.
For example, in the food security area we’re looking for ways we can support our local growers and producers, who are losing access to weekly farmer’s markets, with, potentially, a zero-emission delivery network. Nelson has one of the highest uptakes of electric bikes, and a lot of these are cargo bikes. So moving lots of local products short distances quickly is something that we should be able to do pretty easily. And without the mechanical and fuel costs associated with standard trucks, we should be able to do it more cost-effectively, too. This is just one way that building resilience and lowering emissions can go hand in hand.
The Mix: What remains the same in spite of the pandemic?
Logtenberg: Nelson has had a strong social contract: we really do look out for each other. I think this is true across Canada, but as a small city far from a major metropolitan centre, we take it extra seriously. So, right now, we’re really focusing on holding onto that spirit despite the social and physical distancing. We’re also trying to stay in touch with every person who is vulnerable and make sure that they all have shelter, food, and are staying safe.
The Mix: What are the best ways for climate advocates to connect with wider community concerns in this time and draw the links between the two crises?
Logtenberg: The number two community concern right now is jobs and the economy, after public health. And the number three concern is preparing our communities for the impacts of climate change. We’ve got commitments we’ve made as a country, as a province, and as a community to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The pandemic hasn’t changed that at all. But we need to figure out how to reduce our emissions and get people back to work at the same time. The good news is that the transition to a low-carbon, resilient economy won’t happen without a lot of work, which means new employment. And this pandemic has really opened up the labour market. So there’s a lot of opportunity for people to transition out of jobs that don’t have a strong future and into work that’s necessary for the transition.
One of the areas we’re focusing on in Nelson is building retrofits. We already have a strong home energy retrofit program, but we lack the capacity to deliver at the scale we need. We’re looking at launching an energy audit and retrofit training program, and we’re looking for people to do the work. We have 6,000 to 7,000 buildings that need to be retrofitted over the next 10 years. That’s a really big job, and a big opportunity for enterprising businesses and workers.
The Mix: How do you see the response to the pandemic connecting with the issues you expect to be working on after the immediate crisis has passed?
Logtenberg: I hope we’re starting to learn to trust science. If we trusted climate scientists as much as we trust epidemiologists, we’d be in a much better place right now.
But climate change is a slow-moving, creeping global disaster and it’s been pretty hard for people to take seriously in our day-to-day lives. There hasn’t been a single climate change-related event, no hurricane or wildfire, that has been global in the same way as this pandemic is.
So I think this has been a real wake-up call, and I hope people see that the long-term effects of climate change will actually be quite similar, if not much worse. Imagine a megafire on the west coast at the same time as flooding in the east and heat waves on the prairies, stacked on top of North America-wide food shortages. When that happens, and it will, there won’t be any outside relief for any of us. The provinces, states, and federal governments will be overwhelmed, and each community will need to be truly resilient to handle their own local crisis.
I’m watching with interest to see if this new respect for science and this new sense of what a truly global catastrophe can be like will stick with people. I think we’re starting to look at all the linkages in our global system with a new skepticism. We’re seeing that we actually live in this tightly-coupled, complex network, and with a push like this, it can fail in unexpected ways. For example, forcing people to stay home or shutting borders means that all those people who plant and harvest our food, can’t work. And who yet knows what cascading effects might follow from that?
The pandemic has given us a chance to feel the reality of a system-wide crisis, learn to trust the scientists who predicted it, and develop responses that make our systems more sustainable and more resilient.
At Climate Caucus we’re working to harness this moment, while everyone is in this liminal state—forced to look with fresh eyes at their personal habits, their work, and their outlook on science, society, and the environment.
The Mix: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Logtenberg: There are a lot of people suffering right now, and many more will suffer as family and friends get sick. But it’s also important that we stay creative and optimistic and recognize that it’s through adversity that we grow. I think that’s true for society as much as it is for individuals. We can just look around us and see a lot of good that has come out of this already, the way we’re renewing the personal connections with our family and friends, and how we’ve slowed down our lives. The pandemic gives us an opportunity to reset some of the habits that have locked us into a consumption-based lifestyle. And it has forced us to form new habits and recognize that we can be as happy as ever, doing and consuming less.
Follow up: @riklogtenberg, @ClimateLC