Brenda Morehouse is manager of the Pembina Institute’s new environmental activism website, EcoAction.ca, and senior editor for ClimateChangeSolutions.com.

Sunday, 18 Feb 2001

OTTAWA, Ontario

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Me and Lou, at work.

This is an exciting time for EcoAction.ca! Tomorrow, we launch our Green Power Action campaign in support of renewable energy. I’m at the office on a Sunday afternoon, not only to prepare this diary entry, but also to prepare for a video interview with Epress.ca first thing Monday morning. (Luckily, I have my dog, Lou, here to keep me company.) It has been a lot of work to pull together the Green Power Action campaign, and we drew on a range of expertise at the Pembina Institute to make it happen.

With this new campaign, the Institute is calling on federal and provincial governments in Canada to implement a comprehensive package of policy, legislation, and financial incentives that will strengthen both the demand and supply of renewable energy. In spite of clear indications that fossil fuel and nuclear energy are sunset industries, the federal and provincial governments continue to fund them at the expense of clean, renewable energy sources. As a result, Canadians are being denied access to cleaner air and new economic development opportunities. The numbers speak for themselves:

  • $40.4 billion in direct federal spending on fossil fuels between 1970 and 1999
  • $2.8 billion in federal loans to fossil fuel industry written off since 1970, over and above direct spending
  • $16.6 billion total subsidies to the nuclear energy industry by the government of Canada since 1953
  • $156 million federal subsidy to the Canadian nuclear industry in 2000
  • $55 million in fossil fuel R&D expenditures by the federal and provincial governments in 2000
  • $12 million total average federal funding for renewable energy each year
  • EcoAction.ca is a project I initiated at the Institute because it brings democracy closer to people. EcoAction.ca is part of a new generation of websites, where visitors can participate in direct action online. With just two clicks of your mouse, in less than a minute, you can make your views known to key government leaders. The Green Power Action campaign is going out to 65 federal and provincial leaders. EcoAction.ca is also a tool for grassroots groups or people anywhere who would like to help reduce the impact of energy use and who have an interest in climate change and air pollution issues. It offers a wealth of information on energy and environment issues and practical solutions to put us on a path toward a more sustainable future, as well as a newsroom with the latest scoop from around the world. Important information is combined with advocacy tools, such as downloadable climate change postcard and sticker campaigns, guides for engaging in meaningful discourse with political leaders, and much more. The quick and simple “two-click” action is meant to empower people to become more involved in advocacy over time. Some people participating in these campaigns are already full-time activists.

    Friday night, I was lucky enough to see Ralph Nader talk here in Ottawa about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He also offered some excellent insight into advocacy work in general and how important it is that social-change movements run deep. It is not enough just to bring together a group of representatives from different factions to support your cause; the foundation has to be secure. And this means giving people the information necessary to make sound, rational choices, which is the foundation of democratic society. I found his speech very inspiring. I only hope that our work at EcoAction.ca can help to bring us closer to a real democracy, where people have a say in decision-making and the public interest comes first.

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    This weekend was rather busy, because I also did a workshop on Saturday for student teachers at the Global Education Networks, “Building Peace and Global Awareness in your Classroom,” with my colleague Heidi Lasi. It was an excellent opportunity to exchange ideas with some fresh minds about how to bring important environmental and social issues into classrooms. The Pembina Institute has some excellent resources for teachers, including EcoAction.ca, Climatechangesolutions.com, and the Climate Change Action & Awareness multimedia resource kit for the high school curriculum. We got some great feedback and new ideas.

    The Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development is an energy and environment, research, and advocacy nonprofit group. Our focus is on minimizing human impacts on the planet through practical solutions. We have strong technical expertise and do some great policy work. The Institute hails from Alberta, Canada’s oilpatch, where we started out about 15 years ago working directly with the oil and gas industry to try to reduce their environmental impacts. This means that we have a strong community presence in that province, and that we continue to do some consulting-type advocacy work with industry.

    I like the Institute’s grassroots history. Rob Macintosh, our founder, became involved in environmental activism in the town of Drayton Valley, Alberta, as a result of a dangerous natural gas blowout that caused nearby towns to be evacuated. He and another local resident managed to convince the industry to implement almost 100 important measures to avoid such catastrophes in the future, and Rob was thus empowered to start up the Pembina Institute. We now do a lot of national-level lobbying in Canada. You can learn more about our work at our website.

    Monday, 19 Feb 2001

    OTTAWA, Ontario

    Today started early for me, as I did my last-minute preparations for the interview with www.Epress.ca. Live video interviews can be rather nerve-wracking, but all went fairly well, probably due to some last-minute coaching from Heidi Lasi, one of the Pembina Institute’s communications gurus. “Keep it simple” is her usual message. It is too easy to become mired in detailed statistics and lose the key messages.

    Click here for a larger version of our ad.

    Heidi and I worked together to get the news release for the Green Power Action campaign out to our electronic lists. We had done some “sneak peek preview” releases last week, which resulted in the Epress interview, as well as a radio interview this afternoon on the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation). To sustain interest in the campaign, we plan on doing at least one major communication activity each week leading up to Earth Day. Since EcoAction.ca was only piloted last fall, we are just starting to build momentum. We joined forces with another renewables advocacy effort at the Institute in order to fund the design and production of some new communi
    cations materials.

    EcoAction.ca nicely complements the Pembina Institute’s more traditional style of lobbying for change. The Institute is active on a variety of fronts. For example, the Institute, along with Suncor Energy, recently helped to form an unlikely alliance of energy industry and environmental groups, as well as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, in support of government action to help develop the market for renewable energy in Canada. It’s called CARE, the Clean Air Renewable Energy Coalition. And next week, the Institute, led by Andrew Pape-Salmon, will release a new paper on economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy policies in an effort to inform the electorate during the Alberta provincial election. Due to power supply problems and the recent hikes in natural gas prices, Alberta has some new coal-powered generating stations on the table, which is of great concern for environmentalists both nationally and internationally. The new report will make it clear that these new coal plants should not — and need not — be built.

    At the federal level, Robert Hornung, our Climate Change Program Director, is meeting for three days with Members of Parliament from all political parties to promote new environmental initiatives as part of Canada’s Green Budget Coalition. The Green Budget Coalition, formed by Canadian environmental groups working on a variety of issues, is pressuring for economic reform at the federal level to help reduce environmental impacts of government spending (on fossil fuels and nuclear energy). But the true test will be what policy and finance changes actually get implemented in the next budget.

    An important part of my work is staying informed on issues related to energy and the environment, for which I use various listservs. I post important items in the newsroom at EcoAction.ca to keep it current. Between this and working on the EcoAction release, I managed to begin working on a presentation for the Urban Forum for this Wednesday evening. I will talk about sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from Canadian communities and strategies for reducing them. Aside from landfill gas, all of these emissions come from fossil fuel use of one kind or another. This relates to my work on www.climatechangesolutions.com, which has occupied the majority of my time for the last two years. Climatechangesolutions.com is a public information and education tool on how to reduce GHG emissions; it covers all major economic sectors and important sources of GHG emissions. It focuses on practical and affordable strategies and highlights the multiple benefits of taking action. I will be working on this presentation tomorrow, between preparing for the CBC interview and attending a climatechangesolutions.com team meeting.

    I have been writing this at a neighborhood pub, since it was a long day and I wanted to get out of the office. With my view of the street over the last hour, I am reminded of the many problems that people face in this world and that I am fortunate to have my family, friends, good health, and rewarding work. I live downtown, a 15-minute walk from work, because I can’t imagine having to commute to work in the traffic. This also means that I share this community with many homeless and disenfranchised people. It’s not difficult to feel lucky here.

    Tuesday, 20 Feb 2001

    OTTAWA, Ontario

    Today seemed to pass by in a frenzy. The CBC radio interview went well, and we have started to get feedback on the EcoAction.ca renewables campaign, including suggestions from participants on what kind of campaigns they would like to see in the future. One person suggested that a campaign to retaliate against George W. Bush’s proposed North America Energy Policy is direly needed. I had to explain that we focus on Canadian and international issues, but have not historically been involved in U.S.-based work.

    EcoAction’s polar bear.

    Aside from the interview and the usual daily email and telephone communications, I spent a fair amount of time in meetings today. Climatechangesolutions.com is piloting a competition for schools on 15 March, so there is much to do on finalizing various writing materials and graphics for the website. Heidi Lasi and Janet Sumner have taken the lead on the schools competition, which aims to creatively engage elementary and high school students in the climate change issue. Students can submit a written story, a video, a storyboard, or an art poster on activities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions (and winners in each age category will receive prizes from Mountain Equipment Co-op).

    Meanwhile, I am also working on getting a couple of new sectors online: Forests & Forest Products and Agriculture. These two areas are very important — not just because of the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from these sectors, but because they hold a lot of interest for the Canadian public in terms of where our food comes from and what is happening to our forest heritage. Although I have written a fair chunk of the material on Climatechangesolutions.com, including most of the Municipalities and Individuals & Families sections, I also work with contributing writers (Pembina staff and external contractors) who are experts in the issues at hand. After working with the writers to obtain the final pieces and extensive internal review, we send the materials out to Technical Advisory Committees. This “peer review” ensures that climatechangesolutions.com has high-quality content, in keeping with Pembina’s reputation as a credible and unbiased source of information.

    Me and my PC smile for the camera.

    The day ended in a meeting on strategic directions for the Institute with David Pollock, our executive director, who is based in Alberta. Pembina is in the midst of a strategic planning process that includes some important organizational restructuring. An important part of this process is ensuring that staff needs and interests are satisfied, so David wanted to discuss my potential role under the renewed structure at Pembina. I want to make sure that I make the right decision, and there are a few areas I could see myself moving into.

    I love communicating environmental messages, but my work has always been grounded in research. Before I joined Pembina, I worked on international urban sustainability issues from a fairly academic perspective. I was also based in India and Taiwan for about a year and a half. So, I’m feeling myself drawn toward international issues once again as Pembina starts to get into renewable energy and community sustainability in “developing” countries. However, I know that Pembina’s experience with me comes more from a communications perspective. I was able to discuss some of these ideas with Robert Hornung, who will head the policy and advocacy area under the new structure. Whatever I decide, I certainly respect Pembina’s openness and desire to ensure that the goals and interests of staff are being fulfilled.

    In the end, I could spare less than an hour toward preparing my presentation for the Urban Forum. And tomorrow looks to be another fast-paced and busy day.

    Wednesday, 21 Feb 2001

    OTTAWA, Ontario

    Well, wouldn’t you know it! I spent much of the day preparing visuals for the Urban Forum lecture series, but technical difficulties kept me from being able to show them. Fortunately, all was not lost. This last-minute problem meant that I had to do some quick thinking, and in the end, made the discussion more congenial (less stats, more success stories). I have often seen it happen to other
    s using the laptop and LCD projector, and knew that it was likely to happen to me eventually. It was an excellent learning experience, that’s for sure!

    The image that would not show up for my presentation.

    The Urban Forum is a public lecture series attended by urban planners, active community members, and interested public, so it was a great opportunity to focus on the relationship between climate change and local government. More than 50 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are influenced by municipal decisions and policies. Emissions come from energy use in buildings, passenger and freight transportation, solid waste management, water use and treatment, with the most difficult — but crucial — long-term issue being land use and urban form. We talked about all of these issues, but land use and transportation are close to my heart, so I will give them some attention here.

    Transportation produces the largest share of GHG emissions in communities, and it is inextricably linked with the way that we choose to develop our communities. Low-density suburbs are built on the premise of cheap, abundant land and energy. They depend on lengthy distribution systems and require people to drive further and more often. Urban sprawl has a huge impact on natural spaces and continues to consume undeveloped land rapidly, destroying wetlands and productive farmland at an astronomical rate. Urban sprawl also translates into an inefficient and costly use of resources.

    The not-so-open road.

    Compared to other dwelling types, the detached houses that populate these suburbs consume the most energy per unit of floor space, use the largest share of land, and require the most energy for transportation. This translates directly into more GHG emissions. At the same time, sprawling suburbs require more municipal infrastructure, such as water, sewer, and road systems, which results in higher costs for municipalities. For example, a resident of suburban Kanata, Ontario (now a suburb of the newly amalgamated City of Ottawa), requires 6.45 meters of road infrastructure compared to only 3.79 meters in central Ottawa. The Greater Vancouver Regional District in British Columbia estimates that the average car in Canada is subsidized by about $2,700 per year for such costs as roads, free parking, accidents, and pollution. Transport Canada estimates that fuel taxes and license fees fell $5.5 billion short of covering the cost of our roads in 1996.

    The good news is that much can be done to improve the situation, given the political will at the local level to make it happen. These issues were at the forefront of discussion at the Urban Forum and are particularly important in Ottawa at this time, as the city undergoes its amalgamation process with surrounding communities. People at the Urban Forum seemed to agree that this is an important opportunity to try and put environmental and social considerations into the Community Plan, ensuring that these issues are considered alongside economics in local decision-making. Lively discussion followed the panel presentations and continued after the end of the session.

    I didn’t end up leaving until about 10:30 p.m. I was wondering what to do to unwind as I walked home when I saw my friend, Paul, who was leaving me a note. He had tickets for us to see Sarah Harmer, a popular musician (sold out for two nights in Ottawa anyway). And when we got there, I also ran into some “environmentalist” friends! What a great way to end the day.

    Friday, 23 Feb 2001

    OTTAWA, Ontario

    I’m feeling thoughtful today. I’m very glad that it’s Friday, actually. It has been a busy week, and having worked most of last weekend, I feel the need for a break. In fact, after next Wednesday, I have a long break — a month in Africa with my good friend, Deidre! At times, I can barely contain my excitement and at others, it seems too surreal to be true. I’ve always wanted to go. We’ll spend a brief time in Cape Town, where we’ll do a shark dive with the great whites (in a cage!), then head into Botswana for two weeks of wildlife experiences, camping most of the time. We’ll also travel to Mozambique for almost a week and hopefully do some more diving there. This, I know, makes me a very lucky girl! It’s probably a good thing that this week has been so busy; otherwise, my mind would have been wandering much more.

    Today, I have an important meeting with Robert Hornung, and another with David Pollock, about new strategic directions for Pembina. Many changes in our strategic planning process and organizational restructuring are likely to occur while I’m away, and it is rather difficult to let go of that. But I have confidence that good decisions will be made. And letting go of responsibilities is what a holiday is all about, isn’t it?

    This is also the time that we have to start making decisions about hiring summer students and developing potential job descriptions. As is often the case at nonprofit organizations, resources are limited, but the work is not. Allocating resources becomes a matter of juggling priorities. I am hopeful that, under the new organizational structure, this process will become more refined.

    Yesterday, Janet Sumner (manager of Climatechangesolutions.com) and Tracy Patterson (education director) were up from Toronto. They have many years of experience in public education, so it was a wonderful opportunity to share ideas. Tracy and Heidi are working on a Pembina Institute “fund-raising package” to assist us in approaching foundations. We talked about how to obtain funding for the EcoAction website, as Pembina piloted it last fall without any outside funding. It’s a little trickier to fund this particular project because it is so political, which means government sources would not be interested and only some foundations might be.

    We also discussed strategies for delivering Pembina’s complementary educational resources, which include EcoAction and Climatechangesolutions.com, a climate change action and awareness kit for high school curricula, and a soon-to-be-released renewable energy curriculum kit for elementary schools. Each one offers a different way to get people involved in climate change, energy, and environment issues. They are great resources for teachers. I have some reviewing and writing to do for Climatechangesolutions.com before I leave for my holiday, but I don’t have any more speaking engagements planned. With the hectic pace of the past few weeks, I’ve managed to develop a backlog of information to sort through, and I will try to get through it all before I go. What I do know is that if I don’t, it will still be waiting for me when I return.

    However, my mind is already turning to the weekend. Sunday, Pembina’s Ottawa staff will get together for a baby shower for Robert and his wife, Ellen, who are expecting their first child. Pembina folk work very hard, but at the same time, we’re quite close-knit. Though we are spread across this wide country in various Pembina outposts and home offices, people are united by a common cause and seem to have a lot in common. We get together once a year for a big meeting, which is always characterized by high energy.

    Tonight is my friend Jen’s birthday, and I will also be seeing my longtime friend Christina, who I know from our undergraduate years. Today, we got more snow, so I hope to go snowboarding tomorrow in the Gatineaux. I would also like to get in some guitar practice. I started playing only a couple of months ago and had a friend over last night to teach me a little. We’ll see. I try not t
    o plan every minute of my life, especially outside of work hours!