Carbon Talks formally launches today with its new website. It’s a project of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue in association with three other faculties and was created to “accelerate the shift toward a low carbon economy.”
Carbon Talks executive director Shauna Sylvester spent the year prior to the launch researching and developing the idea of convening conversations that would speed the completion of achievable carbon reductions. The result is invitational dialogues in which business, government and academia “take off their hats” when they enter the day long sessions and speak freely and confidentially about what is needed to make change. Carbon Talks also invites the public to monthly “brown bag lunches” to learn and discuss elements of the low carbon economy with guest experts.
In the last year, Carbon Talks has held six invitational dialogues, on topics including carbon neutral buildings, renewable heat energy options and reducing carbon in the supply chain. I asked Sylvester about her favourite dialogue.
“I don’t have a favourite dialogue but I do have a favourite moment in each dialogue,” she said. “Because we choose participants with expertise, they often come into the room believing they fully understand the issue. When they listen to others, also with expertise but speaking from a different vantage point, there’s a high level of learning. My favourite moment is when participants understand the pieces of the puzzle that other people hold and start trying to find ways to put it all together. They begin to work as a community.”
One example is the Carbon Talk on carbon neutral buildings held in partnership with the City of Vancouver. Participating developers, architects and academics realized they were talking about buildings that rely on unfamiliar technologies. Developers were reluctant to plan buildings that might cause management difficulties for strata owners. Out of the discussion came the idea of an educational program for the “green concierge,” building managers schooled in low carbon and high efficiency building technologies. Local academic institutions are now considering how to develop such training.
Sylvester decided to found Carbon Talks from her experience in foreign policy and democratic development.
“Through my work, the extent to which climate change issues were going to be the source of conflict in the world became increasingly clear. So did the lack of government action. If governments couldn’t address climate change, it seemed clear that new actors were needed to bring changes to bear.”
Her first phase of research involved discussions with 150 thought leaders on how to advance the transition to a low-carbon economy. Sylvester then designed the Carbon Talks approach.
Each Carbon Talk invitational dialogue is convened in partnership with another organization. Sixteen “thought leaders” are chosen as participants. During her 25 years of facilitating groups in conflict and post conflict zones around the world, Sylvester learned the importance of a small enough group to ensure full participation. Each of the invited individuals has significant expertise and a vested interest in the outcome of the session.
Carbon Talks primes participants with a discussion guide that outlines key issues and options. Ground rules ensure the confidentiality of individual contributions. Sylvester facilitates the discussion. Following the dialogue, Carbon Talks distributes a dialogue report for verification by the participants that reflects key ideas and recommendations raised through the dialogue process. The reports are available on Carbon Talks’ new website.
For Sylvester, the work is all about solutions. She thinks fear proved to be a poor strategy that brought Canada’s public climate conversation to a halt. Carbon Talks steers the conversation toward the opportunities present in the shift to a low carbon economy. Sylvester sees that shift as inevitable and thinks early actors will benefit the greatest from green job creation. Vancouver and BC are positioning themselves well.
“Vancouver is a fabulous place for being positive and optimistic,” she told me. “Changes for the better are visible every day in this city. And I’m excited to be in province that has taken a stand on climate and introduced carbon pricing.”
Sylvester distinguishes Carbon Talks’ role of convener from its occasional role as advocate. “We don’t come to the dialogues with a fixed position. We simply convene. But when a government has staked out a leadership position and is pulling back, we will do our best to support them in staying the course.” For example, Carbon Talks helped catalyze a fast and successful campaign with business and environmental leaders to encourage Premier Christy Clark to continue to climate policies of the Campbell government. In response, Clark wrote an open letter committing BC to stay the course on the Western Climate Initiative and the carbon tax:
Climate change is having a major impact on BC, whether it is the devastation of our forests by the mountain pine beetle, the impact on our water supply due to melting glaciers, or extreme weather events. Governments, communities, and businesses around the world are confronting climate change, some places more than others, but there is unquestionably a movement taking place that is changing the way our economy works.
It’s in BC’s interests to be leading change in order to leverage our bountiful supply of renewable resources and clean energy, and, more importantly, our expertise and creativity in adapting to a greener economy.
In addition to invitational dialogues, Carbon Talks holds monthly brown bag lunches for the public on issues like carbon trading, low carbon tourism and the carbon tax. Sylvester sees the emergence of a “Vancouver School” of innovative low carbon thinkers. The discussions share these ideas with the public.
Carbon Talks plans to hold two large scale public forums on low carbon innovation next year. “We seek discussion, not debate or conflict,” Sylvester said. “We also want to avoid talking heads imparting their wisdom on passive audiences. Vancouverites have opinions and we want to hear them."
She plans to expand the website as a source of public information on practical steps toward transitioning to a low carbon economy including invitational dialogue reports and innovator profiles. Carbon Talks’ next year will focus on transportation, the built environment and financing.
Sylvester doesn’t get discouraged by political setbacks, such as the re-election of a federal government with strong ties to the Alberta oil industry. “I don’t choose to work in areas where I get concerned by setbacks,” she said.
“The low-carbon economy isn’t the flavour of the month. It’s the future.”