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Why Muskoka declared a climate emergency

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Image courtesy of Sue McKenzie

In December, we at rabble.ca asked "What are the organizations that inspire you? Who are the activists leading progressive change? Who are the rabble rousers to watch in 2021?" And you responded. Over the next while, we'll be running both print and audio features about the people and organizations you nominated. Follow our rabble rousers to watch here.

In 2020, amidst the pandemic, the district government of Muskoka declared a climate emergency and endorsed a plan which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 and take them down to zero by 2050. This is a region which votes staunchly conservative every provincial and federal election. Who made this happen and how did they do it? The organization behind the curtain working tirelessly to make these changes are the "rabble rousers to watch" at Climate Action Muskoka. Here is what I learned in my interview with rabble rousers Sue McKenzie and Linda Mathers from Climate Action Muskoka

In September 2019, My Muskoka Now reported that "300 people rallied in front of Huntsville town hall to take part in a climate strike stirred up by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg." One of the event organizers was then Muskoka Power of Many member Sue McKenzie. 

Sue was among the youth, labour and political figures who spoke at the rally. She is a retired teacher and this was the first time in her life she had spoken at a rally. "I made what people called a rabble-rousing speech and I called for Muskoka to declare a climate emergency. I thought that it would be easy. Little did I know," she said. After the rally, people said that they wanted to see real change and that they didn't want to let the energy they saw at the rally dissipate.

Soon Linda Mathers, another retired teacher and longtime Green Party organizer, started working with the group which became Climate Action Muskoka. Under the leadership of co-founder, Tamsen Tillson, this group has kept climate strikes going since September 2019, coming out when they could for socially distanced actions between lockdowns, to build community support for climate-change action. They were also key to getting a climate emergency declaration passed in October 2020.

Shortly afterwards, in December 2020, a collaborative, multi-level climate strategy called A New Leaf: Muskoka's Climate Strategy provided a roadmap and gave teeth to the declaration. Some of the key components of the strategy are reducing greenhouse gas emissions 50 per cent by 2030, reaching zero by 2050, supporting a diverse community working group to provide input on and review the climate-action plan, and collaborating with other parties to develop standards and protocols in line with climate mitigation.

Climate Action Muskoka has developed a community carbon pledge which invites individuals in the Muskoka region to sign up and offers them clear ways to change their behaviour to mitigate climate change. There are some great challenges listed to change how we eat, like eating one meatless meal a day, how we power our homes, like turning off your cellphone for one hour a day, and how we travel, like checking tire pressure and driving more slowly.

As of March 2021, 191 people, one dog and 5 businesses had signed the community carbon pledge. Climate Action Muskoka is also taking its campaign from the district level to the six municipalities which make up the district. Among the volunteers in Climate Action Muskoka are people who are experts in building green buildings, green infrastructure, community gardens and nutrition plans. These experts are now working with business and municipal governments to develop plans and ideas for climate mitigation to reach the emissions target.

The group recognizes it is predominantly older and does not represent the racial diversity of the region, and being genuinely representative is an important internal challenge they want to address. They did fight to make sure that the District of Muskoka plan commits to a diverse community working group. 

So what made Climate Action Muskoka successful in becoming a change maker in the region? There were always two sides to how Climate Action Muskoka organized: giving community members things to do and trying to change policy. Linda and Sue both said that there are some who say that by focusing on what we can do as individuals lets companies and governments off the hook; however Climate Action Muskoka has always stressed a cooperative strategy. Ensuring that there are weekly climate strikes and things people can do on their own has kept the momentum going and brought Climate Action Muskoka support they may not have gotten with an approach focused only on companies and government. 

Another of Climate Action Muskoka's strengths has been that it relies heavily on science. Most of the research shows that even if emissions were to go to zero today, the Muskoka region will be negatively impacted by climate change. Surface water is already evaporating at a higher level, lakes are already shrinking, extreme weather is already more common -- and according to most predictions by scientists, we must act now to save Muskoka and mitigate the impact of climate change. The fact that there was so much science to rely on was integral to getting important allies and district politicians on board with a sweeping climate-change policy and declaring a climate emergency.

There was also a fortuitous ally working as staff for the district, the Climate Initiatives Co-ordinator. In spring 2019, the Muskoka District Council received a grant from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to hire a consultant to help develop a climate strategy for Muskoka. This consultant, who was later hired by the District of Muskoka, was invaluable, according to Sue and Linda.

The remaining policy change was done through old-fashioned targeting and lobbying, mapping of important allies and most importantly, keeping visible. Even the community pledges are based on science and provide measures of the probable impact on emissions for each action. 

Find out more about what Climate Action Muskoka is doing here. If you are a seasonal or permanent resident of the Muskoka region, you can take the climate pledge. If you don't live in the region, you can still take part in the actions to reduce your emissions.

Listen to Sue McKenzie and Linda Mathers speak with Maya Bhullar about how they organized to have their municipality declare a climate emergency on rabble radio here.

Maya Bhullar is the Activist Toolkit coordinator at rabble.ca. She has over 15 years of professional experience in diverse areas such as migration, labour, urban planning and community mobilization.

Image courtesy of Sue McKenzie

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