Speaker preview for Kingston's virtual 2021 Climate Change Symposium

·5 min read

Severn Cullis-Suzuki thinks that January 2021 is the perfect time to resume the collective conversation about climate change.

“It’s the beginning of a new year, we made it through 2020,” she said on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. “I think that this is a really important time for us to be reflecting on how we’re going to be getting back to a new reality after this pandemic is over.”

Cullis-Suzuki will be the keynote speaker at the Kingston Climate Change Symposium, a virtual event hosted by Sustainable Kingston and the City of Kingston next Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021.

A life-long environmental activist, author, speaker, and the incoming Executive Director of the Suzuki Foundation, Cullis-Suzuki said that COVID-19 has served up important lessons that we can leverage to build a more sustainable and equitable post-pandemic world.

At next week’s symposium, she plans to discuss those lessons. “If we can learn from what has happened to us over this past year, we might just have a chance at dealing properly, appropriately with climate change. Now we actually know what an emergency response looks like. So this is a very pivotal moment.”

“We can’t go back to what we used to call normal,” she said, suggesting that social and environmental justice are inherently intertwined. “From looking at climate change, we know that normal was a slow-moving crisis. Normal was a crisis for BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of colour] peoples around the planet, for women around the planet, because those are the people who are disproportionately already affected by climate change.”

“COVID has been the amplifier of all the cracks in our society,” she added. “It’s really showing loud and clear where the gaps are, where the problems are, where the faults in our societal operating system are.”

Cullis-Suzuki said the pandemic has pummelled us, and forced us to sit at home and think about bigger picture questions. The “powerful stress” of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, has awakened people to face reality and pursue change.

She said that our global interconnectedness, individual agency, and the need for “radical empathy” are also important themes from the past year.

“We don’t value nurturing,” she said. “COVID has shown us that there’s a whole other economy that is moving us forward and making sure we survive. That is an economy of care, of love, that has no contribution to the GDP. That’s ultimately what’s going to get us through. And yet those things have no voice in our current capitalist system.”

An activist her whole life, Cullis-Suzuki said her opinions about the best strategies for tackling climate change have shifted over the years. “For some of that I thought: it’s individual action. We have to make the right choices. You vote with your dollar,” she said.

“When I became a mother, I realized that we were asking the most busy people in the world — who are mothers — to bear the weight of doing that homework, doing that research, spending the money that they don’t have, necessarily. They had to carry the weight of changing the world with their individual purchases. Yet what was easiest in the shopping aisle, what was cheapest and most affordable, was the most destructive.

“We are asking those individuals to bear the brunt of this societal matrix where we have it completely skewed, where our Canadian lifestyles are very destructive,” she said, noting that societal change will require system change and, in 2020, this appetite is collectively growing.

“For the first time, at least in my lifetime, there is a feeling of solidarity between humans… This shared experience is very powerful. What are we going to do with it?”

Several other speakers will participate in the virtual symposium Thursday morning, including Senior Climatologist for Environment and Climate Change Canada, David Phillips.

Phillips is returning — virtually — to participate in the Climate Change Symposium after three years. In the past 40 years of his career observing weather and climate, he said there’s no question that world is becoming “warmer, wetter and wilder.”

Now, he would like to see individuals and governments put more focus on creating safer, more resilient cities, incorporating nature-based solutions.

Deforestation, the destruction of wetlands and urbanization have amplified the damage caused by extreme weather events, he said, which are increasing in frequency and intensity.

“The emphasis has to be more on adapting, building resiliency, trying to build our communities to be more weather-proof. We know the climate is changing, it’s going to hit us, but it doesn’t have to be game over,” he said. “We can’t prevent that weather from coming our way, but we can prevent it from becoming a disaster.”

He said municipalities already have the ability to start implementing these changes. “Bylaws, building codes, land-use planning — those are tools in your toolbox,” he said.

“But it’s not just mayors and councillors. It’s up to individuals to weatherproof their own property,” he continued. “Homeowners should think more about backwater valves and proper grading than European cabinetry or gold faucets.”

During his presentation he said he will offer a “forecast” for Canadians about what kind of weather to expect in the decades to come.

“I was there 30, 40 years ago when our first claims of what the [climate change] pattern would look like. We got it right. There’s no question that the models we got, we’re just fine-tuning them now. It’s not as if it’s a different world than we thought,” he said. “It just shows you how much time we have wasted in not doing anything.”

The Climate Change Symposium runs from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 14. Other speakers include Lori Nekkel of Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food rescue organization; Henrique Sala Benites, an expert on sustainable architecture, and; Julie Salter-Keane from the City of Kingston.

Samantha Butler-Hassan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, kingstonist.com