Smiling woman by bookcase

Debra Davidson - Building community in the face of climate change

Debra Davidson is Professor of environmental sociology in the Faculty of ALES. Her research focuses on climate, energy and food systems, and the social responses to crises in those three systems. This unique work reveals the importance of recognizing and addressing the social dimensions of sustainability.

With her valuable insights into the social dimensions of environmental issues, and a successful history of community engagement, she has been invited to sit on the City of Edmonton’s The Way We Green expert panel. In 2010, she produced a report advising planners on the risks the municipal region faces from climate change, and the ways that planners can adapt.

How did you set down this road towards studying environmental sociology?

From a young age, I was always just in love with nature. My father was  a school teacher and we went camping every summer in the national parks. When I was entering high school we moved to a very small resource-based town in Eastern California, so I experienced that contrast between the mega-city and small town too.

While in grad school, I really started grappling with the complexity of environmental problems, and started asking more and more questions that pertained to people and social systems, economy, culture and politics. Why do we end up degrading the environment? Why don’t we live more synergistically with the environment? I was looking at the social causes of environmental problems.

Mountain and forests.

Why is it important for Albertans to prepare for climate change? What difficulties will the region face?

A lot of people think climate change is a benefit, because we’ll have warmer winters and longer growing seasons. We have this mistaken impression that we’re not going to face any negative consequences. But none of that is true. In fact we’re going to face some pretty serious impacts.

One of the biggest impacts will be to our water supplies. Most of the water that we use in our cities, agriculture and industries is supplied by snowmelt. When we the snow season starts to become shorter and you have greater fluctuations in temperature, all of a sudden that water supply can’t be counted on.

One of the blessings of a super cold winter is that there aren’t too many bugs that can live it. If we do have warmer winters, we’re going to see more pathogens and that’s going to affect our health. On top of that, our weather is going to become even more dynamic, with really rapid temperature changes, droughts, ice storms, flooding like we had in Calgary, etc. The one in fifty year storm is going to be more like the one in ten year storm.

What should our top priorities be when planning to meet these challenges?

If you were a planner, the first thing that you would want to do is identify those groups of people who are likely to be the most vulnerable and come up with some strategies to provide safety nets for those people. We’re talking about the elderly, children, people living in poverty, aboriginal people, as well as recent immigrants. These groups are going to be affected relatively more than the rest of us. So we must ask ourselves, how can we boost the adaptive capacity of these groups?

How does building a social safety net help society as a whole adapt to climate change risks like droughts and storms?

There has been lots of empirical research to show that if you have a high level of social inequity in a given community, that whole community becomes more vulnerable. You’re less likely to have people work together, more likely to have conflict, and you have a greater number of people who are basically dependent on others for their own safety and wellbeing, rather than having some resources of their own that they can resort to in times of crisis. Social inequities are bad for all of us.

Golden fields. Rooftop solar panel.

You’ve also said that you’re concerned about the agricultural sector, which is particularly sensitive to the weather. What do we need to do to build a more climate-resilient food system?

We should definitely be looking at diversifying our agricultural portfolio. So that, in Alberta, we’re not just growing beef and canola and wheat—because wheat blight comes along and there goes the whole wheat crop, or a huge intensive heat wave comes and you’ve lost half your herd.

There are lots of issues that will impact our food security, but climate change is just going to magnify all of those. So we need to empower people to take their own relationship to food more seriously, give them the capacity to grow their own food, and help them go through a grocery store and purchase more appropriate foods.

What are some ways that we can come together as a community to prepare for climate change?

Well, one example of a project based right here in Edmonton that I’ve been involved with for many years is this locally-owned, cooperative electricity company called SPARK. When you sign up as a customer you have the option of investing a few extra pennies per kilowatt hour, pooling investments of customers to help support renewable energy arrays on public buildings.

For example, in your own community, you could get together with other members to help put a solar array on the school or hockey rink or community hall. This project hits lots of social equity priorities and at the same time is doing some creative things to boost renewable energy supply in Edmonton. I think it’s a completely different model and I’m really excited about it.

Why did you get involved in this kind of innovative, community-based sustainability project?

To tell you the truth, after many years of ranting about environmental problems, I had a bit of a personal turnaround a couple years ago. I decided that a lot of the depressing academic literature contradicted what I was seeing around me: enthusiastic people doing fun, innovative and creative things trying to find solutions; people getting together and saying let’s start a community garden, let’s start a co-op. I didn’t think that we in the environmental studies area were looking enough at hope, looking at those places and people doing inspiring things. So for the last couple years I’ve been turning my attention to these kinds of “innovations in sustainability transition.”