David Miller is a former mayor of Toronto now serving as managing director of the C40 Centre for City Climate Policy and Economy. In this feature interview following a community climate event in Ottawa, Canada, he talks about cities’ responsibility to take action on the climate emergency and the role of informed, engaged residents in making it happen.
C40 Cities opens its hosts its World Mayors Summit in Buenos Aires October 19-21.
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The Energy Mix: You’ve just taken part in a community event in a G7 capital where an ambitious climate plan is on the books, but without the funding or the political leadership to properly implement it. Is that gap between plan and action a challenge for cities that want to lead on climate? And what are they doing about it?
Miller: It’s a common challenge. It occurs for different reasons and in different ways, but the solution is usually the same. It begins with having an informed group of residents who are aware of the issues, aware of the potential of city-based climate action, and are engaged—that’s really critical.
But from the city as institution perspective, it also takes an engaged mayor who deeply cares about this issue and is motivated to address it, and a public service that believes the climate plan is something to implement in their everyday activities, not just a plan to bring to council for approval. It’s something that affects every department, whether it’s the energy efficiency of the rinks, urban forestry, water, or anything else.
The cities in the world that really achieve magnificent things have had both the leadership from the mayor and a public service that understood or learned that environmental responsibility wasn’t simply to produce the plan. It was to ensure that the plan was embedded across the city’s various actions.
City councils have a really significant role. But even in the Canadian governance system, where the public service technically reports to council, it still takes its overall signal from the mayor. So when the mayor says it’s about implementing change, along with connected decision-making, that’s where you have a sweet spot.
The Mix: What are some of the biggest successes you’ve seen in municipal climate action?
Miller: You can see it in all sorts of examples.
Parking minimums have been around for a long time in cities like Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, the urban core of Calgary, and in Edmonton and Vancouver. But building underground parking is exceptionally expensive for commercial and residential buildings—it’s amazing how expensive it is. So the biggest single thing you can do to reduce the cost of building multi-story residential buildings and make housing more affordable is to get rid of parking completely. It’s quite possible to build around public transit, with minimal if any parking.
We’ve seen circumstances in Toronto where developers have said they didn’t want to build any parking and city staff said they had to, because that was the rule. Fortunately, that’s changing, but it’s indicative of the kind of systematic thinking that needs to happen.
We’ve seen really great initiatives elsewhere. Seoul, South Korea made its climate plan a green new deal that doesn’t just address climate. It also addresses jobs, social inclusion, and economic opportunity, with programs like energy retrofit incentives that they think of as job creation. There are lots of examples globally of cities getting it right, saying we need a climate plan to halve global emissions by 2030, but ensuring that they reflect all the responsibilities of a city government, including equity, inclusion, and supporting those who have the least chance.
Cities like Ottawa and Toronto have authority and a lot of responsibility around supporting low-income people. The wonderful thing I’ve learned is that the best examples become a very virtuous circle, where all the different goals build off each other in a positive way.
The Mix: How do you go about tilting the mindset that the responsibility belongs to another level of government?
Miller: Residents have an extremely important role, because residents can create the expectation that the city government is an actor, not a bystander. It’s helpful to have councillors and certainly a mayor who use their positions to demonstrate the leadership and powers and authority the city has. But you’re more likely to get that if residents are making climate, and the environment more broadly, real issues for their local elected officials.
There’s also a language issue. I talk about orders of government because from my perspective, they’re all legitimate. In fact, I would argue very strongly that there’s a democratic legitimacy to city government that isn’t well served by a municipality’s right to exist depending on provincial legislation. We have many cities that pre-existed the province, that pre-existed Canada, that have a democratic life of their own and a right to make decisions. They’re an order of government and have equal legitimacy. That language matters a lot.
And of course, climate change is everybody’s job. Cities globally are taking a leadership position, and a city like Ottawa has all sorts of powers and responsibilities to have a very ambitious, aggressive climate agenda. To me, it’s a moral obligation to take that on.
The Mix: What kind of messaging and listening does it take to build up a high level of citizen engagement?
Miller: I’ve always believed that you have to advocate for what you believe in. Of course you have to meet people where they are, so you may need to talk about a particular part of a bigger agenda. But all the polls show the vast majority of Canadians accept the science behind climate change, expect their governments to act, and are worried that we’re not doing enough, quickly enough.
So the way you engage people at the municipal level is that you excite them. Help them realize the possibilities of what can be done at the municipal level, to be the change they already believe in. In some neighbourhoods, it’s putting food on the table. So you talk about jobs and opportunities for themselves and their families.
But realize, as well, that it’s false to say that somebody whose first concern is putting food on the table doesn’t care about the planet or the environment, because they do. You can meet people where they are but still lead with climate. It’s a powerful issue, and the exciting thing about climate from an urban perspective is that there are actions cities can take. London, England just doubled its emission standard, and they were able to do it because Londoners understood the air was so bad that schools had to put asthma inhalers on the walls for students. Cleaning the air is also a climate solution.
The Mix: With municipal elections coming up this fall in Ontario, could climate policy and climate action be an issue that drives up voter participation beyond the low levels we normally see?
Miller: Yes, I believe so. When I ran for mayor of Toronto, I started out in single digits in the polls. But I was running because I felt the city government wasn’t there for the people, it was there for special interests, and I really believe government is a powerful tool for the public good. It should be there for everybody, not just for a few people who are well connected.
Symbolic of those issues was an expansion of the Toronto Island Airport that had been done in a backroom way and was an environmental and climate change issue, as well. So the whole campaign talked about public services, corruption, good government, inclusion of people who’ve been marginalized, the environment. And it was through that prism that people could see what it meant that the city government was going to be there for you. There are very effective ways to do that.
The Mix: As a former very strong mayor in your own right, do you think C40 member communities need “strong mayor” legislation to take ambitious action on climate? Or does the strength come from the elected officials themselves and the active, informed citizens who make the case for rapid decarbonization?
Miller: What we need is permanent recognition from Ottawa, Queens Park, and the other provincial governments of the importance and policy of leadership and policy innovation by Canada’s cities—the kinds of things the City of Toronto Act achieved for Toronto until it was gutted by the current provincial government. We need strong, empowered cities led by mayors who are bold, progressive, and understand the needs and aspirations of their residents. If you have an actual strong mayor, there is no need for so called “Strong Mayor” powers.
The Mix: How do you sustain the momentum for change beyond a single municipal administration?
Miller: I was followed in office by two conservatives, one notorious and the other more conservative in some ways, and they haven’t disturbed the climate work. I was the first mayor in Toronto to give a voice to climate, and I was lucky enough to lead a global organization as mayor that gave the city wider profile. But ultimately, because I gave a voice to it, because council acted, and because people saw that their concern was real, there was an incredibly strong citizens’ climate movement in Toronto that hasn’t changed.
So if people want to make it a municipal election issue to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and positively address climate breakdown, then keep it a key action item beyond one administration, the answer is the same. It’s building the citizens’ movement that really matters.
You need a leader at some point who gives expression to that movement. But the general public also needs to know that there are real, city-based climate actions that make the quality of life better, make the city more prosperous, create opportunities for young people, and reduce greenhouse gases. They’re fun and interesting and exciting, and as people get to see that, they’re going to ensure that whoever runs for council has to at minimum say they’re going to support it.
And how do I know that this is the truth? I can remember the vote very well because everybody was in their seat, including my successor, and it passed unanimously, 44 councillors plus the mayor. That happened because we had mobilized the people of Toronto and every single councillor was hearing people say they cared about climate. Those councillors knew their residents cared, and city governments are very democratic. If they’re hearing it at the door, they’re going to vote for it, whether it’s their first priority or not.