09/05/2013 06:16 EDT | Updated 10/27/2013 05:12 EDT

Does Policy-Wonk Nenshi Need A Climate Briefing?

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has won praises from progressive voices since he surprisingly snatched the mayor's seat in 2010, but recent statements are putting him at odds with the environmental community.

Since his election, Nenshi has demonstrated that vision thing so many politicians are lacking these days, pushing innovative ideas like:

On the environmental front, Nenshi has initiated or advocated for:

Climate Absent

Nenshi is a big proponent of using the principles of new urbanism to build a more equal and just city, but interestingly, it appears, he avoids speaking about climate change.

His opinion is absent in media reports and of his some 18,500 tweets, only one mentions global warming and it is a joke.

Unfortunately, Nenshi's joke is a common climate change denial critique, downplaying the risks of global warming by pointing to small scale weather events running counter to the overall dangerous trend of .15 C of warming per decade over the last 50 years. It's not like Nenshi is a climate denier or anti-green, he does mention environmental benefits when discussing green projects, but often touts the economic drivers first. Following the latest science on environmental communication, his approach may be the only way he can get results in a conservative town.

Recent research has shown conservatives will avoid buying light bulbs when their climate benefits are promoted, but buy them equally to liberals when just the economic benefits are marketed.

So it begs the question: Is Nenshi following a Harper-like strategy of incremental change to a wary public while avoiding topics deemed to be political suicide or does the self-described policy wonk need a climate policy briefing? Recent comments are pointing to the latter.


Nenshi could have continued on with a high-approval rating moving green projects forwarded couched in the language of economics, but things changed when devastating floods swept across southern Alberta, hitting Calgary hard. Nenshi achieved folk-hero status for his pragmatic response, especially when he wanted to invoke Darwin's Law on stupid people for canoeing during the floods.

His response to the floods has shined a national spotlight on him and with it has come ever-greater scrutiny.

Recently, the environmental radio program, the Green Majority, did a full half-an-hour "total rampage" over Nenshi's support of the oilsands in a speech he gave to the Canadian Club of Ottawa.

In his speech, two days before the flood waters came barreling down towards Calgary, Nenshi said his view is someday in the future we will be living in a low-carbon world - "it might be our grandkids or it might be our grandkids' grandkids," - and then the oilsands will be worth less, so let's maximize the resource while we can.

The Green Majority took Nenshi to task for not questioning a form of economics that allows oil companies to externalize their waste and for projecting some far-away, low-carbon future. Indeed, according to the International Energy Agency we have roughly 50 months until the world has locked in so much fossil fuel infrastructure to "lose for ever" the opportunity to avoid dangerous climate change. As well, the IEA says right now is a pivotal time for implementing bold new climate policies.

Nenshi's "oilsands burn it while you got it" stance is akin to telling people it is safe to go canoeing during a flood - it's Darwinian Law except instead of eliminating stupid canoeists, it is the world's poor and our GDP at risk in the next 20 years and from there it could get all Mad Max weird-like.

Questions for Nenshi

The Green Majority show wondered if Nenshi has to vocally support the oilsands to be the mayor of Calgary, the epicenter of the Canadian oil industry.

It's one thing to avoid the language of climate change while working towards a more sustainable Calgary, but it is another to unnecessarily weigh into the tar-sands debate with facts that seem to echo the oil industry.

Now that Nenshi has witnessed an over $5-billion flood rip through his province and hometown, does he still believe Alberta should exploit the oilsands full tilt despite irreversible impacts, or the feds should continue to hand over $1.4 billion each year in subsidies, or Alberta should continue burning more coal than the rest of the country combined?

Imagine a different leader, knee deep in muck cleaning up a mess from a storm climate scientists warned was coming, standing up and saying this is a wake-up call to my city, my province and my country. Climate change is a serious threat now and a low carbon future is our goal today - let's get there together.

Within days of the Superstorm Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the storm opened his eyes to the danger of climate change. A couple of months since the Alberta floods, we've heard nothing from Nenshi.