I have two Earth Day t-shirts in my closet. Both have stencilled graphics of nature and catchy slogans. One says “Earth Day Every Day” and the other honours 50 years of Earth Day celebrations.

While I love these shirts, the truth is I am generally indifferent to Earth Day, Earth Hour, and the whole host of awareness days covering the range of social and environmental issues many of us work on every day. In my career I have worked on issues as diverse as homelessness, persons living with disabilities, and now ecological concerns. Generally, I have struggled to see the connection between these events and growing public support for the issues I care so deeply about.

Tonight is Earth Hour. It will serve as the anchor for a number of events and thought pieces that once again pose questions about the value of such things. Anyone growing up in Alberta can attest to the annual media reporting of how Calgary’s electricity demand occasionally increased during the event. Earth Hour, like everything else in society, being incapable of overcoming the allure of Hockey Night in Canada on cold, dark Saturday evenings in March.

The cynic in me gravitates to the notion that asking people to shut off modern amenities and sit in the dark is a horrible way to promote a low carbon and prosperous future. I have always preferred messages of opportunity, abundance as opposed to deprivation. And we certainly need to recognize how individual actions and commitments simply cannot lead to the accelerated and fundamental systems shifts we need to address climate change and equitable prosperity.

The hopeful side of me, and with gentle nudges from more positive colleagues, reminds me how unplugging from our energy-intense civilization can create multiple personal benefits. Dedicating even an hour to nature contributes significantly to physical and emotional wellbeing. These events do build community and bring people together to celebrate our shared humanity.

The truth is while I can’t shake my internal cynic, I remain hopeful. The challenges we face are immense as we live through a global pandemic, deal with economic uncertainty, confront systemic racism and inequality. At the same time, and not as tangible for most, we face incredible biodiversity and climate crises. I am hopeful though, because for the first time there is broad consensus on the urgency of climate change and the goal of creating a net zero future.

Informed by decades of science and the tireless efforts of an array of advocates, we now have a deep and broad understanding of the ecological problems we are facing. In a sense, Earth Hour and Earth Day have been successful. Now more than ever, we must sincerely and authentically commit to meeting the challenges ahead and seizing the opportunities this avails us.

This commitment requires a shift beyond incrementalism; beyond individual behaviour change; and beyond awareness raising. The pursuit of a low carbon and equitable future requires a fundamental shift of almost every major system on earth. This is not to say that collectively, incremental outcomes aren’t necessary, or that individual actions don’t matter, or that increased awareness is not important. They are desperately needed to build strong constituencies for action and shine the light on issues of injustice. But, every activity needs to be calibrated along real pathways to a net-zero future, and we have to honestly acknowledge both the enormity of the challenge and the commitment needed to see it through.

We’ve seen this kind of complex challenge and we know what must be done. During the initial pandemic outbreak a year ago I marvelled at the immediate response of society to COVID-19 and keeping people safe. We initiated a multiscale response – individuals, communities, regions, countries working in concert; working at multiple levels. We introduced social distancing (personal norms), rapid testing and vaccine development (technology), and working from home (economic shifts). We instituted quarantines and border closures (political will), adapted to cancelling conferences and emptying sports stadiums (culture change), and relied on global and local health authorities (institutional trust). For a short time there was hope that we collectively had the ability, and the will, to address complex, systemic risk in situations of deep uncertainty.

Time, as usual, reveals much. We are now entering the third wave of the pandemic, but people are hopeful because while they did their part, it took policy, governments, scientists, laboratories, industry and unheard of global collaboration to address the challenge. Every jurisdiction attempting to rely on personal responsibility as a central strategy to mitigate the spread of the virus has suffered disastrous consequences. In one year we saw how personal responsibility alone cannot address a complex societal challenge that involves multiple systems. COVID-19 feels like a repeat of the climate response, just along a much shorter time frame. This is a lesson we’ve learned and unlearned in the environmental realm for the last 50 years. It’s clearly no longer acceptable for government, corporations, or civil society advocates to campaign for individual responsibility as the foundation of the response to climate change.

The time and pace of this required response is now the fundamental issue. When it comes to energy transition and the reduction of GHGs the question is no longer does it need to happen, but how fast. Given that, an hour for the Earth doesn’t feel like the right frame. Earth Day Every Day also seems insufficient. Transformation is required, and it also has to happen at the speed needed to avert disaster.

This week, we launched the Grant Program for the Climate Innovation Fund. This is the culmination of many years of work and I am deeply grateful to our team for pulling it together, and also to the many stakeholders on our Board, Advisory Committees, and to the community who contributed to program design. Throughout this process we tested the idea of supporting systems change, transformation, and social equity through the Climate Innovation Fund with our community and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“System transformation requires multiple strategies, alignment of stakeholders around an ambitious carbon emissions goal, a vision for what the redesigned system will look like, policy decisions at multiple levels of government, enormous capital investments by government and the private sector, and behavior changes by enterprises and individuals.” – Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance

Like Earth Hour, we know two million dollars a year in grant and program funding is not enough to meet the climate crisis in our cities. It’s a great start, because it allows us to aim much higher. As we build and grow the fund, we will hold ourselves and those we partner with accountable to be bold and innovative. To move from the comfort of our incremental actions and solutions to the scale of the climate challenge we are all trying to address.

I may sound cynical, but with hope in my back pocket, my family will still leave our house for Earth Hour and bask in the beauty and bounty of the early spring sunset. I will continue to smile every time I put on one of my ratty Earth Day shirts. My hope for everyone is a healthy, safe, and prosperous future. Happy Earth Hour everyone.


Photo Credit: Adam Linnard from the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative’s 2019 Major Project, Making Connections in the East Kananaskis Ghost Year 2.

  • Shannon Frank

    Very thought provoking blog, Rod. Thank you for sharing your insights. And congratulations on the launch of the new programs!

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