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Catherine McKenna to U of T students: “what is your big idea to help tackle climate change?”

“We are going to need all hands on deck,” environment minister tells Munk School of Global Affairs

After the event, Minister McKenna held a private meeting with some U of T students (from left) Digvijay Mehra, Kirstyn Koswin, Maria Baginska, Emile Lavergne and Mustafa Sayedi (photo above by Caitlin Workman/ all other photos by Johnny Guatto)

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says she wakes up every night thinking about how to reduce carbon emissions. 

Now, she has personally challenged University of Toronto students to help her fulfil her dreams.

McKenna spoke on Feb. 9 at U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs – where she previously taught – about “new thinking for a new way forward” in the wake of the historic climate change agreement in Paris in December, 2015.

In the audience were some of McKenna’s former international relations students, who posed some probing questions for the minister. 

Professor Janice Stein, who taught McKenna when she was a student at University of St. Michael's College at U of T, moderated the question and answer session. Stein is President Meric Gertler’s special adviser on international initiatives and founding director of the Munk School.

(Below, from left: Matthew Hoffmann, co-director of the Munk School's Environmental Governance Lab; Jutta Brunnée, Metcalf Chair in Environmental Law at U of T's Faculty of Law, Minister McKenna and Professor Steinphoto of McKenna and Stein seated

Signing on to the Paris accord was great, but “now we have to bring it home,” McKenna said. “We have to show we can deliver.” 

The previous government wasn’t committed to dealing with climate change, she said, adding that causes challenges.

“So every night I wake up and think about emission reductions. How do we reduce emissions in housing, in more buildings, in transit, in electricity, in energy? I do this over and over.” 

The good news, she added, is “we have a prime minister who is committed to working on this.”

Looking at the students, McKenna said “and then there is you. Sometimes it seems so big, that tackling climate change seems so huge. But the evidence is clearly there, and the question is how do we individually take action?”

She said “I see a lot of young people here. This is about your future. I have three kids, seven, nine and 11. I worry about their future.”

photo of McKenna seated at front of room

McKenna said that when she taught her civil society class at Munk she posed this question to her students: What is your big idea?

“And this is the challenge I give to you: what is your big idea to help tackle climate change?

“You could be the next negotiator to help establish a price on carbon around the world, or you are going to figure out the device that we can use in homes that will actually drastically reduce emissions and really create incentives for that device to be adopted by municipalities and by Canadians.

“We are going to need all hands on deck. You are all very smart. I know that because I taught you and you are at the Munk School, but smart isn’t good enough here folks. We need to be practical.”

photo of McKenna addressing audience

The Munk School goes a great job in linking challenges to solutions and creating big ideas, McKenna said. “We hope we can foster that spirit across Canada. No matter who you are, you are thinking about how do we work together to tackle climate change.”

Whether you are in business, government, an NGO, or academia, “how do we all just come together, because just talking about it is not going to do anything. We have to take action.”     

Stein asked her own question towards the end of the session. “What is your big idea,” she asked McKenna. “Your own personal big idea?”

photo of Stein asking question of McKenna

“What I hope to see after four years (the first mandate of the Liberal government) is: what does success look like?," McKenna replied. Success is multi-faceted. We absolutely have to be on the right track with regard to things such as emissions, but success is more a total shift in how we think about the environment. How we think about what a sustainable future looks like.”

She acknowledged that “we [the government] are still really struggling. How do we communicate in a way, and engage Canadians in a way that they think we are serious, that it is going to be real, that we need to act and we are in this together.

“I want everyone to part of this project. We are on a path where we are going to have a much more sustainable future and my kids will have the same options that I that I have – because otherwise I have failed.”

Read more about climate change research at U of T

One student asked about municipalities, which often feel neglected by upper levels of government. 

“Everyone [in cabinet] is well aware how important [helping cities] is to the prime minister,” McKenna said, adding big city mayors have told her they want to help the federal government but need the government to invest in cities.

“For example, social infrastructure. When we invest in affordable housing for the most vulnerable in our society we should damn well make sure it is good, proper green housing at the most energy-efficient levels because it is cheaper, it is just cheaper.”  

photo of McKenna at lectern

McKenna was also asked what role the government should play in assisting private companies in reducing pollution. Governments can play a role, she said, by “not impeding” business, by choosing carefully what and when they regulate – but big business has to play a major role.

McKenna concluded by saying that the federal government can do more in the area of “investment in primary research, something that has been lacking (under the former government).”

With enterprises that involve “huge commercial risk,” the government can still assist, though not necessarily through direct funding. 

The low-carbon future for everyone, McKenna said, “is going to be a puzzle” and such things as cheaper electric cars and more bike lanes can help.

If things continue the way they are, with the planet heating up, “the future will be so much worse, so we don’t have a choice.”

photo of Catherine McKenna at Munk School