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Dr. Sustainability

UBC’s John Robinson on fixing the climate, winning converts, and staying upbeat.

By James Glave 6 Jun 2006 |

James Glave is a writer living on Bowen Island, B.C. He blogs about climate change and sustainability issues at

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Robinson: ‘Stop guilt-tripping.’ Photo by Kent Kallberg.

Even as Stephen Harper backs away from this country's greenhouse-emissions targets, the backhoes are warming up near an abandoned tractor dealership in Vancouver. There, on the edge of the CN rail yards, far from the corridors of Ottawa, workers are preparing to break ground on what may well end up the most advanced building in the world -- a bleeding-edge lab dedicated to sustainability research and, by extension, the challenge of global warming.

When completed in 2008, The Center for Interactive Research on Sustainability, or CIRS, will be one of the greenest structures on Earth. The structure will draw 80 per cent less energy than a comparable new building. Eventually, it will act as a net energy producer, feeding juice back to the grid. The place will actually improve the local and global environment -- simply because it exists.

If CIRS performs as expected, the concept will be cloned and adapted to a variety of conditions and cultures all over the world. Think of it as the ultimate export-ready "made-in-Canada" solution to the single greatest crisis facing civilization to date.

Recently, The Tyee sat down with John Robinson, a professor at the Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, and a principal investigator with CIRS. Here, some excerpts from the conversation:

On Ottawa's apparent Kyoto reversal:

"Backing away from Kyoto sends exactly the wrong signal about the Canadian position on climate change. Addressing climate change seriously will require an unprecedented societal commitment, which needs to be led by the federal government. There is no sense at all that the Harper government recognizes the seriousness of the issue, or the unprecedented opportunities it presents for contributing to a more sustainable world that is simultaneously more environmentally, socially and economically viable."

On why we need to get regular people talking about global warming:

"Politicians can’t act without constituents, and markets can’t deliver without customers. If we don’t engage citizens at a level that has never been done before, we are not going to lower greenhouse-gas emissions, because the politicians won’t be able to act -- they will be cut off at the knees. Having lunch with the deputy minister and convincing him that we need to act now is great, but without the constituency, you’ve got nothing."

On the best way to coax us out of our cars:

"We should stop guilt-tripping people, stop telling them that they are putting three tons of carbon a month into the air with their cars when they live 40 kilometers from work and there is no transit. That actually makes them more resistant to change. The way you get behaviour change is through integrated programs aimed at behaviour, not just people’s heads. There is a lot of work in health promotion -- in anti-obesity campaigns and breast-cancer screening and anti-smoking campaigns -- that shows the way to much successful behaviour-modification programs. We should learn from those."

On why crisis doesn't always spur action:

"Crisis induces a hunkering-down response -- a bunker mentality. It doesn’t induce creative innovation and huge change. If you look at the social democratic policies like welfare and unemployment insurance -- any of those polices that are trying to even out the highs and the lows -- those policies always get instituted during periods of prosperity. When people feel a little bit of ease, they are willing to invest in things that are long-term. You have to make use of the time when it isn’t a crisis to build capacity."

On how building inspectors might save the world:

"If I convince you to retrofit your house for energy efficiency, you can save maybe 50 per cent, but you have to do this approach person by person by person. Getting the building code changed, on the other hand, changes every single new house. The costs wouldn’t be noticeable. If you are paying five or six hundred thousand for a new house, how much more is it going to add to make it energy-efficient? Potentially nothing, depending on the design, but say it’s a couple of per cent, are you going to see that? The bathroom fixtures cost more than that. If the building code changes on every single house, or if you can’t sell your house without putting a label on the door and showing what the operating costs are, and having some minimal retrofits done, then the whole market changes."

On what keeps urban planners up at night:

"The population of the planet in 2000 was six billion, in 2050 it will be nine billion. There will be three billion more here on Earth, and every person added to the planet by 2050 will be living in cities. Former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt called it the “urban tsunami.” Almost every major city around the world is going to double in size in the next 45 years, and we have got to get some of that new construction done right or we get into way more expensive retrofits after more damage is done."

On the fastest way to seed the suburbs with front-loading washing machines:

"Say it will cost you $5,000 or $20,000 to retrofit your home for greater energy efficiency. Well, guess what? You don’t have that money. But say your power utility comes to your door and says, 'We will retrofit your whole house for maximum energy efficiency, and the costs will come out of the savings on your monthly bill, so your bill never changes.' And ultimately, after, say, five years, the bills go down as you pay off the retrofit. That’s how you bridge that gap."

On why boring public infrastructure trumps sexy hybrids:

"The kinds of behaviour changes we need are not so much individual as collective. It’s the rule changes: the building codes, transportation infrastructure, transit, urban form -- nobody makes those decisions as individuals. That’s why we need to support these collective policies -- they are more important than, say, buying a smaller vehicle. If we just focus on the individual behaviour we miss all the big items."

On the 95-year weather forecast:

"We are not on track even for Kyoto, which is a tiny fraction of what we need to do to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of CO2. We have to start doing all this way faster -- almost unimaginably faster -- if we want to get, say by 2100, to a world with an atmospheric concentration of 450 parts per million or less. All the recent science is much more disturbing than it was two years ago. Everything that has happened in the past 24 months has made things look way worse."

On Canada's forthcoming climate-change strategy:

"There is no sign that the government intends to develop programs that will have any significant impacts on emissions reduction. Failing to recognize the problem in principle would not be so bad if there was serious intent to replace a Kyoto-oriented approach with a non-Kyoto approach that was intended to do more on the ground than what it replaced. Heaven knows we have continuously failed to take any significant action on this issue since it emerged on the international scene in1988, so the bar is not high. But the evidence so far is that the feds are simply slashing all existing programs, with no sign of anything else to replace them."

On why you should have yourself a nice day anyway:

"If you don’t have any optimism, why bother? There is an irony of history that we always seem to figure out a way to do things at the last minute, and we are at that last moment in terms of certain consequences. Mother Gaia doesn’t care -- not at all. The cockroach future is fine for her. So it’s us. Is that the world we want? That is why I am pouring so much effort into CIRS -- that is a real, practical thing. After all these years of giving policy advice to governments, now I feel like I have to actually go out and do something."

James Glave ( is a writer living on Bowen Island, B.C. He blogs about climate change and sustainability issues at The Big Melt.

Related stories in The Tyee: Caroline Dobuzinskis lifted the veil on the CIRS eco-lab, Donald Gutstein exposed the climate change denial lobby, and Matt Price wrote a four-part series challenging Canada’s environmental movement to do some serious rethinking.  [Tyee]

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