Informed and engaged citizens drive municipal climate action, says Miller

David Miller is a former mayor of Toronto who now serves as mCEO of the C40 Center for City Climate Policy and Economy. In this interview following a community climate event in Ottawa, Canada, he talks about the responsibility of cities to act on the climate emergency and the role of informed and engaged residents in making it happen.

C40 Cities opens its hosts its Global Mayors Summit in Buenos Aires from October 19-21.

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The energy mix: You have just participated in an associative event in a G7 capital where an ambitious climate plan is in preparation, but without the funding or the political leadership to implement it correctly. Is this gap between plan and action a challenge for cities that want to be at the forefront of climate change? And what are they doing about it?

Miller: It is a common challenge. This happens for different reasons and in different ways, but the solution is usually the same. It starts with having an informed group of residents who are aware of the issues, aware of the potential for climate action in the city, and who are engaged – it really is essential.

But from the point of view of the city as an institution, it also needs an engaged mayor who cares deeply about this issue and is motivated to respond to it, and a public service that believes that the climate plan is something to be implemented. day-to-day activities, not just a plan to present to the board for approval. It’s something that affects all departments, whether it’s energy efficiency in skating rinks, urban forestry, water or whatever.

The cities around the world that are really doing great things have had both the leadership of the mayor and a public service that has understood or learned that environmental responsibility is not just about producing the plan. This was to ensure that the plan was integrated with the various actions of the city.

Municipal councils have a really important role. But even in the Canadian system of governance, where the civil service technically reports to the council, it still gets its general signal from the mayor. So when the mayor says it’s about implementing change, as well as 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 kinds of examples.

Parking minimums have a long history in cities like Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary’s urban core, as well as 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 thing you can do to reduce the cost of building multi-storey apartment buildings and make housing more affordable is to get rid of parking altogether. It is entirely possible to build around public transit, with little or no parking.

We’ve seen circumstances in Toronto where developers said they didn’t want to build a parking lot and city staff said they had to because it was the rule. Fortunately, that is changing, but it does indicate the kind of systematic thinking that needs to happen.

We have seen excellent initiatives elsewhere. Seoul, South Korea, has made its climate plan a new green deal that is not just about the climate. It also addresses jobs, social inclusion and economic opportunity, with programs such as energy retrofit incentives which they see as job creation. There are many examples around the world of successful cities saying we need a climate plan to halve global emissions by 2030, but making sure they reflect all the responsibilities of a municipal government, including equity, inclusion and support for those less fortunate.

Cities like Ottawa and Toronto have the authority and a great deal of responsibility to support low-income people. The wonderful thing I’ve learned is that the best examples become a very virtuous circle, where all the different goals complement each other in a positive way.

The Mix: How do you change the mindset that the responsibility belongs to another level of government?

Miller: Residents have an extremely important role, as residents can create the expectation that the city government is an actor and not a spectator. It helps to have councilors and certainly a mayor who use their positions to demonstrate the leadership, powers and authority that the city has. But you’re more likely to get that if residents make the climate, and the environment more broadly, real issues for their local elected officials.

There is also a language problem. I’m talking about levels of government because from my point of view they are all legit. In fact, I would say very strongly that there is a democratic legitimacy to municipal government that is not well served by a municipality’s right to exist under provincial law. We have many cities that existed before the province, that existed before Canada, that have their own democratic life and the right to make decisions. They form an order of government and enjoy equal legitimacy. This language matters a lot.

And of course, climate change is everyone’s business. Cities around the world are in a leadership position, and a city like Ottawa has all kinds of powers and responsibilities to have a very ambitious and aggressive climate agenda. For me, it is a moral obligation to assume this.

The mix: what kind of messages and listening is needed to create a high level of civic engagement?

Miller: I always believed in defending what we believed in. Of course, you have to meet people where they are, so you may need to talk about a particular part of a larger program. But every poll shows that the vast majority of Canadians accept the science behind climate change, expect their governments to act, and fear that we are not doing enough, fast 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 neighborhoods, it’s putting food on the table. So you’re talking about jobs and opportunities for themselves and their families.

But also realize that it’s wrong to say that someone whose first concern is putting food on the table doesn’t care about the planet or the environment, because it does. You can meet people where they are, but always lead with the climate. It’s a powerful issue, and what’s exciting about climate from an urban perspective is that there are actions cities can take. London, England just doubled its emissions standard, and they were able to do it because Londoners realized the air was so bad that schools had to put asthma inhalers on the walls for pupils . Purifying the air is also a climate solution.

The Mix: With municipal elections approaching this fall in Ontario, could climate policy and action be an issue that drives voter turnout beyond the low levels we normally see?

Miller: Yes I think so. When I ran for mayor of Toronto, I started with 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 truly believe that government is a powerful tool for the public good. It should be there for everyone, not just a few well-connected people.

The Toronto Island airport expansion, which had been done behind the scenes and was also an environmental and climate change issue, was emblematic of these issues. So the whole campaign was about public services, about corruption, about good government, about including marginalized people, about the environment. And it was through that lens 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 this.

The Mix: As a former very strong mayor in his own right, do you think C40 member communities need “strong mayor” legislation to take ambitious climate action? Or does the strength come from elected officials themselves and from active, informed citizens advocating for rapid decarbonization?

Miller: What we need is continued recognition from Ottawa, Queens Park and other provincial governments of the importance and politics of policy leadership and innovation by Canadian cities—the kind of things that City of Toronto Act made for Toronto until it was gutted by the current provincial government. We need strong, empowered cities led by bold, progressive mayors who understand the needs and aspirations of their residents. If you have a strong mayor, there is no need for so-called “strong mayor” powers.

The Mix: How do you maintain momentum for change beyond a single city government?

Miller: I was followed in power by two conservatives, one notorious and the other more conservative in some respects, and they did not disrupt the climate work. I was Toronto’s first mayor to give climate a voice, and I was fortunate enough to lead a global organization as mayor that gave the city a broader profile. But ultimately, because I gave it a voice, because the council acted, and because people saw that their concern was real, there was an incredibly strong citizens’ movement in Toronto that hasn’t changed.

So if people want to make this a municipal election issue to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and positively address climate breakdown, and then make it a key action item beyond one administration, the answer is the same. It is the construction of the citizens’ movement that really counts.

You need a leader at some point who expresses this movement. But the general public should also know that there are real urban climate actions that improve the quality of life, make the city more prosperous, create opportunities for young people and reduce greenhouse gases. They’re fun, interesting, and exciting, and as people see that, they’ll make sure anyone who comes to the board has to at least say they’re going to support it.

And how do I know it’s the truth? I remember the vote very well because everyone was in their place, including my successor, and it was adopted unanimously, 44 councilors plus the mayor. It happened because we engaged the people of Toronto and every councilor was hearing people say they cared about the climate. These councilors knew their residents cared and municipal governments are very democratic. If they hear it at the door, they’ll vote for it, whether it’s their first priority or not.

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