The Global is the Local

By Stephen (Team Deep Earth)

Sudbury has been the site of some of the most devastating local environmental destruction I’ve ever heard of. Throughout the 1900s the city saw vicious deforestation, “open-pit roasting,” and billowing sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions from ore refineries. Together these processes eroded soil, polluted water, killed vegetation, and harmed humans on a massive scale. Sudbury infamously became a “moonscape.” A Mordor-esque landscape of bare soil and soot-covered rocks. Mayor Brian Bigger grew up in Sudbury, and in our conversation with him last Friday he mentioned that as a child he thought all rocks were black until he saw one broken open and the true grey colour within revealed.

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source: sudburysoilstudy.com

The past forty years have seen a dramatic re-greening effort undertaken collaboratively by local universities, governments, and companies. Technological development has reduced sulphur dioxide emissions by orders of magnitude and millions of trees have been planted. The moonscape is just an embarrassing memory. Still, the city maintains a focus on local environmental protection. Mayor Bigger plans to release the “Sudbury Protocol” later this year in partnership with professors at Laurentian University. The Protocol synthesizes four decades of learning from Sudbury’s regreening efforts, drawing especially on the hundreds of papers published by local academics.

In our meeting I asked Mayor Bigger about the next big environmental challenge for Sudbury. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for a particular answer. We still have some momentum from the Paris climate negotiations; there’s lots of talk about carbon pricing in Canada, and the Premier are meeting with the Prime Minister this week to get started on what we hope will be an ambitious and progressive plan to help Canada achieve its GHG emission reduction goals. Meanwhile, you can see the smokestacks of local ore refineries everywhere in Sudbury, spewing billowing clouds of white smoke. Mostly SO2 still, but with some carbon mixed in of course. I wanted Mayor Bigger’s answer, as I would want any Mayor’s answer, to be reducing GHG emissions. That’s the next big environmental challenge for all Canadian cities.

I thought it was softball question. A big, juicy changeup, thrown right down the middle for our friend Brian to smash out of the park.

Instead, Mayor Bigger answered “watersheds.” Sudbury’s next big environmental challenge was watershed protection.

On the one hand, it’s an okay answer. Watersheds are a crucially important and drastically underappreciated part of environmental protection, and when we’re talking in Sudbury about heavy metals, tailings ponds, and toxic run-off, watersheds are hugely important to consider.

But the next great environmental challenge? The follow-up to the Sudbury Protocol? The dominant environmental issue of the next 40 years? Well…

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Note that Mayor Bigger was nothing but pleasant and welcoming to us.

Throughout our week in Sudbury I kept waiting for someone to talk about carbon reductions. Granted, I was coming to Sudbury directly from the Climate Choices Conference, a conference at the Wilfrid Laurier’s Balsillie School specifically about Canadian climate policy, and knew that the week after the Sudbury trip I was off to Vancouver for Globe 2016. I had GHG reduction strategies on the brain. But I still don’t think it was unreasonable to want somebody (anybody! please!) to talk about carbon reductions. Especially in an industry-intensive city like Sudbury.

There’s a curious dynamic at play here. The horrific destruction wrought upon Sudbury in the 20th century has led to what Brenda Koziol, senior scientist at Science North, called in conversation with us a “culture of environment.” Sudbury calls itself the “Education Capital of the North” and we interviewed Dr. David Pearson at the gorgeous Living With Lakes facility at Laurentian University. But during the week we heard far more about SO2 reductions and cutting-edge toxic run-off disposal techniques than cutting carbon.

I wonder if the intense focus on local environmental issues has left the perception of Sudbury environmental concerns too narrow. Is it impossible to think hard about serious GHG cuts when you’re so worried about protecting local water sources and trees?

I thought there might be a symbiotic relationship between these concerns. That Sudburians, having seen what happens when you don’t think about the effects of industrial costs being externalized to the environment, would care deeply about all things environment. We’re basically doing to the world right now what we did to Sudbury in the 20th century. It’s happening more slowly, but on a much wider scale.

Two more thoughts:

First: it’s key, I think, that we can hear about re-greening from someone like the Mayor. He experienced the moonscape early in his life, was part of the community that took aggressive action, and has been a direct beneficiary of that action later in his life. The problem with climate change is that the cause-and-effect relationship of aggressive action and tangible benefits won’t be felt by those who take action.

Second: the Inco Superstack, Sudbury’s most iconic building, was built to alleviate the effects of local SO2 poisoning. But it didn’t actually do much in itself to reduce total SO2 emissions. It was just built really really tall so that the emissions would go higher into the air, get blown around by the wind, and be distributed over a much wider area. Somebody told us that most of the emissions now end up somewhere in Michigan.

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photo: Stephen Clare

The Superstack that solves a problem, but doesn’t really solve the problem. If the perception of what ought to be protected was wide enough, the Inco Superstack wouldn’t really solve much of anything at all.

The same thought processes that led us to build the Superstack are holding us back from dealing seriously with climate change.  Our perception of “where” ought to be protected isn’t wide enough.

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