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OPINION: What do northern grandparents worry about?

What is a poor grandparent to do when faced with a global emergency? And, in particular, what is a Northern Ontario grandparent to do?
David Robinson, economist, Laurentian University/director, Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development

If someone says “I am a trucker,” you expect to hear about something about trucks. If you hear “I’m a businessman (or woman),” you expect a conversation about a problem for businesses. And if I say “I’m a grandfather,” what do you think I am worrying about?

As I ramble around, I hear grandparents worrying about the world they are leaving for their grandchildren. This is just anecdotal evidence; there is no survey saying climate change is the top worry for most grandparents in Northern Ontario. But I believe that it is becoming a very serious concern. Groups of grandparents all over the world are desperately trying to promote climate action. Psychiatrists all over the world are talking about “climate anxiety” among young people. Young adults are deciding not to have children because the future looks so dark. No wonder grandparents worry about their grandchildren.

The link between grandparent and grandchild is an arrow pointing at the future. For most of human history, that future looked pretty much like the past that grandparents knew. Today, that future threatens to be different in ways that we grandparents have never experienced.

Grandparents still rule the world. We range in age from 30 to 110.  Pollsters tell us this is the group most likely to vote. We have entered fully into the age of political participation. What grandparents say goes. Forget the millennials – they vote less and, to be honest, they know less. They are not the ones who are making the decisions that matter. Forget Greta and the youth movement. They have a message but they don’t have the power.

The question is what is a poor grandparent to do when faced with a global emergency? And, in particular, what is a Northern Ontario grandparent to do?

We can join a group like 4RG (For Our Grandchildren) a Toronto organization. We can write our MPs, buy an electric car, or stop eating meat. These are all useful, but we in Northern Ontario have a special responsibility. We have to redesign the Northern Ontario economy. Who else can do it?

Just as the elders of the Church of Latter Day Saints, the elders of our First Nations communities, and the aldermen of our local councils have been given the job of providing wisdom and guidance to their communities, we northern grandparents have to help find the way for our communities and our region.

Here in Northern Ontario the two biggest contributions we can make are to stop importing any fossil fuels, and to redesign our forest management to suck up as much carbon as possible. Both call for public sector action, so we grandparents have to push planners and politicians to act quickly and more dramatically on these two goals.

One promising strategy, especially for smaller communities, is to build fourth- or fifth-generation district heating systems for our neighbourhoods. There is research that shows district heating with combined heat and power is the cheapest method of cutting carbon emissions. These systems have two other advantages that make them perfect for Northern Ontario: they save money on fossil fuels and they create local jobs. They more than pay for themselves. Instead of generating 2.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide flying to Mexico, more of us should stay home and invest our time and money improving our communities.

District heating systems can use wood and wood waste for fuel, which brings us to our vast forest resources. Our northern forests are the most powerful tool we have to capture carbon. The province has begun to realize this. Its Draft Forest Sector Strategy promises to “work with industry to further increase carbon storage in forests and harvested wood products,” and it suggests that forest biomass can “potentially both heat and power northern, rural and Indigenous communities.” Unfortunately, it talks of “responding to a changing climate” as just a “Future Action Area,” not an immediate goal.

This isn’t reassuring, especially from a government with a surplus of climate change deniers. For the sake of our grandchildren, northern grandparents have to demand that the final version of the strategy has carbon capture as one of the main and immediate targets of forest policy. Grandparents still rule the world, after all.