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Honourable Glen Murray Addresses Climate Change at Grey to Green Conference

On August 25th, 2014, participants gathered at the Grey to Green conference at the Eaton Chelsea in Toronto hosted by Green Roofs for Healthy Cities. The conference brought together engineers, policy makers, non-profit leaders, and healthcare professionals to discuss and develop strategies for improving public health, economic opportunity, and the health of our natural environment through the development of green infrastructure.

The morning began with a discussion led by Dr. Kathleen Wolf from the University of Washington highlighting the essential connection between human health and the environment. Wolf argued that many of the benefits we reap from greenery and natural environments are subconscious, largely because they cannot be immediately deciphered. These benefits include improvement in mood and general well-being, which are not easily quantifiable.

After the morning discussions, participants had the opportunity to attend a trade show featuring a range of organizations representing various aspects of green infrastructure. Forests Ontario was present to build awareness of our planting programs, which support the planting of trees on public and private lands, as well as promote our publication “A Healthy Dose of Green.”

Following the tradeshow, the afternoon opening remarks were led by the Honourable Glen Murray, Ontario’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change. Minister Murray began by highlighting the imminent threat that climate change has had and will continue to have on Canada’s environment. He cautioned that “within 30 years, we are heading to a critical state of existence which threatens our species.”

Minister Murray discussed the factors that precipitated climate change and cited society’s rapid globalization as a key factor challenging sustainability. He went on to examine the development of the mass market over 50 years ago and the growing societal need for globalized mass consumption which has become exceedingly prevalent in today’s society.

Despite understanding many of the challenges facing the environment, Minister Murray noted that “our society is designed in a way that makes it hard to shift our behaviour individually and collectively” and therefore prevents large-scale changes from happening. He noted that society is without a sense of limitation and, as a result “we exploit nature beyond its capacity, creating huge need for addressing sustainability.”

Minister Murray used the example of producing a ½ litre of water to demonstrate the ways in which our society has become an incredibly energy intensive state lacking sustainability. He highlighted that it takes 2000 times as much energy to produce a ½ litre of water in a bottle than it does from a tap.

Minister Murray argued that the real challenge ahead would be to precipitate a shift in people’s values and mindsets. To tackle this huge challenge, he stated that the first task is to accept the seriousness of the challenges ahead and realize that our resources are limited and that we must take significant steps to counter our wasteful and overly consumptive practices. This shift, he said, would have to ultimately be a shift in mentality, one in which society realizes “we have to phase out grey infrastructure with green infrastructure and deploy it as the new normal.”

To conclude, Minister Murray outlined three important steps that the government of Ontario would commit to taking to ensure a healthy environment for the future. First, he attested that “the government in Ontario sees climate change as a critical issue” and in doing so realizes that “we need to live within our constraints.” Second, he vowed to be part of the solution, not the problem, and in doing so, continue to support the many programs that offer solutions for climate change. Finally, he affirmed that it takes leadership to challenge climate change deniers, and emphasized the need for scientific evidence, approaches and breakthroughs and human creativity to fuel long-term change.

 

During the afternoon session of the conference, Forests Ontario’s CEO Rob Keen delivered a presentation on the connection between human and environmental health. Rob began by explaining the deep appreciation that both humans and animals have for trees and nature, using several examples to showcase the deep, inherent ties that humans and wildlife have to nature. “People have a natural connection to nature,” said Keen. “We even name our subdivisions things like ‘King Oaks’ or ‘Maple Lanes’. Why is that?”

These bonds, while seemingly inexplicable because they are often not blatantly evident, are actually not inexplicable at all. Rather, he proposed, there is a myriad of research tying human well-being to natural environments. As he noted, “the health of our physical and mental well-being is dependent on a healthy, natural environment.”

Rob discussed Forests Ontario’s research paper “A Healthy Dose of Green,” a leading-edge report documenting the many ways in which nature contributes to the improvement of human health and well-being. “Forests promote physical activity

they give kids natural playgrounds,” he said. “Evidence tells us that the promotion of physical activity is just one of many ways to improve health in kids and adults alike.” Rob also noted several points of research within the report that demonstrate how nature can reduce stress levels, improve mood, lessen long-term risks of many diseases and improve air quality through the removal of pollutants.

He went on to challenge the distinction between urban and rural forests and argue that our forests are actually one continuous forest that spans throughout urban, peri-urban and rural areas. He challenged the audience to place a boundary on where the urban forest ends and the rural forest begins, a challenge that participants soon realized was an impossible feat. Keen stressed the important need to grow the connectivity of Ontario’s forest cover to create healthy, contiguous forests to benefit all communities.

Citing Environment Canada’s 2013 “How Much Habitat is Enough?” report, Rob noted that a minimum of 40% forest cover is required to ensure a healthy sustainable environment capable of providing services and to be able to adapt to climate change. “Currently, there is a loss of forest cover in Ontario,” said Keen. “Some areas, especially in southwestern Ontario, are down to less than 5% forest cover. This needs to be remedied.” Climate change, Keen noted, is just one among many challenges facing our forests in addition to invasive species and the loss of forests to other uses.

“Fortunately, there are solutions,” said Keen. “We need to effectively manage both urban and rural areas and continue our restoration efforts to enhance natural landscapes. Tree planting is one technique of restoration and Forests Ontario has a host of programs that provide subsidies and expertise to assist in tree planting efforts.”

Along with Forests Ontario’s subsidy programs, efforts like community tree plants and awareness initiatives are driving the mandate of Forests Ontario. Additionally, programs like Forests Ontario’s Heritage Tree Program, which works to highlight trees with cultural or historical significance, contribute to shaping the public’s perception of trees.

Above all, Keen emphasized the importance of education stressing, “It is imperative to engage the public.” “Forests Ontario is constantly working to educate the public on the value of forests and their importance in our lives,” he stated. “The key is getting the public to realize that investing in forests is an investment in our health. Currently, there is a focus on treating the sick. We have to work to identify the root causes and create preventative solutions for the future.”

The task, as Keen discussed, is everyone’s responsibility. “As Minister Murray tells us: We should remember that economy is a subset of the environment. In order for the economy to be successful we need to nurture our environment,” said Keen. “Ultimately, we need to work together and collaborate between organizations, government, and communities and everyone needs to do their part.”