01/10/2015 11:41 EST | Updated 03/12/2015 05:59 EDT

How to Think of Climate Change on a Small Scale

kevron2001 via Getty Images


When I used to live near the waterfront in Toronto's east end, I would wake before dawn and go sit at the end of a breakwater to catch the sunrise. I would face the lake, close my eyes, and notice a subtle warmth on my left cheek as the sun would rise to the east. I did this fairly consistently for nearly a year before moving downtown last summer to be closer to my office.

I'm about to head to British Columbia and Washington State to connect with politicians about my project to get climate change labels on gas pumps and have already received a few inquiries about jurisdictional matters. While I've written a 40-page legal report that canvasses these issues (and a very prominent environmental lawyer explored the same in an article for Municipal World), I can't help but wonder if we're focusing on the wrong part of the issue.

My morning practice shifted my perspective in a way that led to a different focus.

During my mornings at the breakwater, I noticed how the sun would come up over a different point on the horizon throughout the year. I also grew more of an awareness that the sun wasn't rising in the east but that the Earth was rotating eastwards to reveal the sun. It's one thing to read about this in school and understand it intellectually, but it's something entirely different to appreciate it in this manner. As I sat there in what seemed like stillness, I began to get curious about the speed at which our Earth moves.

The Earth's circumference is 40,000 kilometers and it completes a full rotation in 24 hours. This means that the Earth rotates around its own axis at a speed of 1670 km/h (and becomes a little slower as you move away from the equator). Of course, the Earth also travels around the sun once a year and does so at a speed of 107,000 km/h to complete its orbit. Add those two together and you realize that we're moving at an incredible rate. But there's more to it than that.

Our solar system is moving around our galaxy at a speed of roughly 675,000 km/h and our galaxy is travelling through our universe at a possible speed of 3,600,000 km/h. Add all these figures together and you find that we might be moving at roughly 4.4 million km/h (or 1,220 kilometers per second) through space right now!

As I sat by the waterfront, I would think about this tiny rock in the middle of nowhere hurtling through space at an unimaginable speed. Everything we've ever known and loved has unfolded on this rock and what we do to it will be the legacy we leave to our children and grandchildren.

It's in this context that I think of climate change and how we've compromised the integrity of our home.

Ice core samples tell us that the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our Earth's atmosphere over the last 800,000 years has ranged from 180 parts per million (ppm) to 300 ppm. If you were to take a fistful of air right now and measure its level of CO2, you'd get 400 ppm. A UCLA study of ancient single-celled marine algae published in Science tells us we need to go back roughly 15 million years to see CO2 levels that high.

We now find ourselves in a situation that's unprecedented for all of human history. Ban Ki-moon, the head of the United Nations has called it our "one true existential threat."

This is our real reality.

It's in this context that I'm asking for - wait for it - a sticker. It's simple, scalable, and quite possibly one of the least costly climate interventions on the planet. You can learn more about it by watching my TEDx talk here. If we can't even manage to do this, we truly are fucked.

Unfortunately, the questions I am usually asked revolve around a bunch of dead guys who got together 150 years ago, drew some lines on a map, and divided subject matters into federal and provincial boxes. While I have a deep respect for our constitution, we must recognize that the very concept of Canada - or any nation for that matter - is a social fiction.

This is our constructed reality.

People sometimes tell me that municipal governments in Canada are risk-averse. They're not. If you're risk-averse, you act on the threat of climate change without fear of constitutional challenge. Instead, we seem to be more concerned about the Constitution Act of 1867 than the constitution of our biosphere.

People sometimes tell me that that quitting my job, moving into a cramped basement apartment, and spending my savings to fund this advocacy is risky. It's not. If you appreciate what we've done to the basic chemistry of our home, it's easy to understand that what I'm doing is risk-averse.

It's all a matter of perspective.

One of my favourite examples of municipal leadership comes from Tom Bates, the mayor of Berkeley, California. When the City of Berkeley recently voted to put climate change labels on gas pumps, Mayor Bates was asked if he was concerned about the prospect of litigation. His reply? "We get sued all the time", he said with a laugh, "That's not a reason not to fight the good fight."

As 2014 was coming to an end, I spent some time reflecting on the coming year. My hope is that cities across Canada will adopt this idea so I can share their examples of leadership and inspire representatives from around the world at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris this coming December. If however, in the face of humanity's greatest challenge, communities fail to implement this simple intervention, I'll be pasting these labels myself onto gas pumps at the end of the year. We're running out of time and the prospect of being charged with an offence or losing my license to practice law pales in significance to the problem we face.

All you need to do is wake up tomorrow morning, step outside, and catch the sunrise as it warms your face to understand.


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