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Building a post-carbon world: U of T conference considers a world where climate change has been solved

“Change is threatening for many people, and the only way you address that is by bringing them into the conversation,” says Steve Easterbrook, director of U of T’s School of the Environment. Photo: Hazel Ho.

An environmental conference taking place at the University of Toronto this week aims to shift the narrative about climate change away from doom and gloom stories to focus on more positive, aspirational messages.

“A lot of the messaging around environmental issues and climate change is about what we have to give up, and that’s not exactly a motivating message for a large number of people,” says Steve Easterbrook, director of U of T’s School of the Environment.

Organizers hope to counter that with Building A Post-Carbon World, a forward-looking gathering of diverse perspectives and expertise taking place at U of T on Wednesday.

“We feel that part of what is missing is that positive vision of the future that we are all working towards,” says Easterbrook, who is also a professor in the department of computer science.

Participants will share their vision of what the future could look like 30 years from now, if the world has come together to solve many issues, and the worst of climate change has been avoided through collective action.

The conference is organized in a way to build that complex and dynamic picture by drawing on a wide range of knowledge and experience, including strong Indigenous perspectives, social research and community groups.

Easterbrook, an expert on global climate computer models, became director of the School of the Environment in October. His background includes working on flight software for the space shuttle and International Space Station (ISS).

He is working on a book to explain climate models to the average person, and believes in telling the often-overlooked aspirational stories that can engage the broader public.

“Change is threatening for many people, and the only way you address that is by bringing them into the conversation,” says Easterbrook.

“I get depressed when I hear debates focus on pipelines versus no pipelines, which entirely misses the point that we have an opportunity to invest in a new green economy and the tremendous amount of good jobs that come with it.”

He says there is little doubt that the alternative – continuing to invest in a carbon-based economy – will lead to increasing greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. If anything, he adds, climate change models have tended to be too conservative, with “unpleasant surprises” resulting from underestimating effects like the rate of polar ice melt.

Easterbrook believes there are signs that popular opinion is shifting, from the Green New Deal proposal in the United States and school children leading calls for action to opinion polls that show rising concern about climate change.

“We’re at that point of the story where there is a dramatic shift, and people are changing their thinking quite fast,” he says.

The positivity at the conference will even be captured by an artist, who will be sketching some of the events as they transpire.

A happy ending to the deliberations would see participants leaving inspired and united.

“We have a lot of different groups from both on campus and off campus, and a lot of activists who are very excited, because they see this as a networking opportunity,” says Easterbrook.

“This is a chance to make much stronger connections between all those groups and co-ordinate their efforts going forward.”