In Conversation: Pandemic Shows Community Risk of Climate, Air Pollution, Buchanan Says
Sarah Buchanan is Program Manager, Clean Economy at Environmental Defence in Toronto. Her work on clean vehicles and air pollution over the last six months has her focusing on the multiple, overlapping crises communities are facing during the pandemic.
The Energy Mix: What are you doing differently in light of the pandemic?
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Buchanan: Even before the pandemic, I’ve been thinking about how we’re facing multiple crises at once, and it’s not helpful to look at any one of them in isolation. I was already working on a project connecting health and climate change. Now that we’re in a pandemic crisis, I’m thinking even more about health . There are so many intersecting factors—the obvious health nexus with the pandemic, but we’re also in the middle of an inequality crisis, a climate crisis, a biodiversity crisis, a political polarization crisis. There’s a lot going on, and they all integrate with and often worsen each other. So it’s time to shine a brighter and maybe more uncomfortable light on the intersections between these issues.
I’ve been working on a project with a few public health partners, looking at how cleaner vehicles, electric vehicles, more efficient trucks, and electrifying transit can clean the air, and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By making vehicles cleaner, we improve an immediate health crisis, where people are getting sick and dying from air pollution, while also addressing the longer-term crisis of climate change. I should mention that others are modelling the importance of getting people out of vehicles entirely, and that’s incredibly important, too.
I also have asthma, so the pandemic has me worrying more and thinking about how I may be at greater risk. Breathing in vehicle pollution makes me even more vulnerable. Working on this project, I notice it more now when I get on my bike and get stuck behind a bus. The pandemic is making me think even more about connecting with the folks out there who don’t need to be told that air pollution is linked with disease. They know it because they live it.
The Mix: What remains the same?
Buchanan: The willingness of some large corporations and the extremely wealthy to exploit a crisis. Environmental Defence has just released a memo from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, and it’s just mind-blowing. Some of the things they’ve been asking for for a long time anyway, they’re now putting through the lens of COVID-19 to exploit this crisis, make money, and worsen inequality instead of supporting their workers. So that, sadly, hasn’t changed in some cases. We’ve seen some corporations and people step up, but it’s tough to see some of the lobby groups stay the same.
The brighter note is the strength of our communities, seeing everyone out there banging on pots and pans to show their support for health care workers. Neighbours checking in on who needs groceries, asking how we’re doing. That to me has really showcased the strength of many of our communities and the desire to support each other. And within the climate community, we’re seeing things like #FridaysForFuture hosting events and education session online. It’s great to see that they’re still out there connecting with people and with each other.
The Mix: What are the best ways for climate organizations to connect with wider community concerns in this time and draw the links between the two crises?
Buchanan: We can listen to people who are experiencing broader impacts, consult with people in other sectors, and build solutions together. Sometimes our gut instinct is to take action without taking a beat to think about how the crisis is unfolding, connect it to the way things affect people, and frame it in a way that is more relevant. We can listen to how people are affected by losing their jobs and having loved ones who are sick. How does that affect what we’re emotionally able to hear? It has a huge impact. So it’s really important to listen and ask questions.
We also have to be very clear that none of this is a silver lining. There are ways that I would like to see greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution reduced, and none of those ways includes a pandemic. We’ve been fighting so that positive changes can happen in society in a way that helps people, not in a way that takes people’s lives. So we can learn the lesson that when fewer people drive in Toronto, the air is cleaner. But to achieve that permanently, we need policies to make it happen.
There’s a big opportunity to talk about what we’re building, not what we’re tearing down. What’s the life we’re building for the future? What does a low-carbon, more equitable life look like? If we can’t answer that, we have some work to do. Most people don’t want to be stuck in traffic all the time, or to breathe in smog from trucks spewing out black carbon, or to work three part-time jobs. If we can describe a life where there is cleaner air, great transit, good jobs building, say, electric buses or net zero homes, we can connect with more people who don’t understand what the alternatives to fossil fuels are.
We just got data showing that Canada, and specifically Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions rose in 2018. This might make many people feel helpless. It’s even more important to frame the solutions that will change this trajectory in a way that people can understand and support.
The Mix: Does the experience of the pandemic reframe your usual agenda in a way that brings it home to a wider audience?
Buchanan: In the short term, I’m already researching pollution and EVs. But there’s a lot of information coming out right now, linking air pollution with respiratory health and vulnerability to COVID-19. I’m realizing there’s preventive potential in the work I’m doing, aiming for healthier communities that aren’t as vulnerable to pandemics, particularly from respiratory illnesses.
More generally, the environmental community used to talk a lot more about air pollution. Now we talk a lot more about carbon pollution. We haven’t been drawing the links between them, but if you drive a car, they both come out of the one tailpipe. So it makes sense to talk about both together.
This ties in with the recovery, because there’s going to be work to do to build back. I don’t just mean economic recovery—it’s going to be people and their communities recovering. Getting more electric buses on the road improves our health, especially in cities, and when cities buy those buses from Canadian producers, it creates jobs and makes us more economically resilient, right here in Ontario, by bringing those supply chains closer. And producing solar energy onsite makes our communities more independent and resilient in an emergency. It’s also healthier in the long term than, for example, importing fracked natural gas to fuel our electricity grid.
The Mix: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Buchanan: It’s a weird time to be a campaigner. We’re all doing some soul-searching on how to find our voices, and we’re also all feeling emotions and stress related to the pandemic. So simultaneously thinking about how to change our voice to the rest of the world has been tough. I don’t feel the same ability to fight, to be totally honest, but I do find I have more capacity to build, and I’ve been paying attention to that.
Follow up @sbuchananTO, @envirodefence