A telling detail about Councillor Richard Zurawski can be found on the word on one of his mugs. It says “Darwin” in large black letters.
It refers to Charles Darwin, the author of On the Origin of Species, the groundbreaking book that developed the theory of evolution that states the fittest species survive and adapt, which meant that humans evolved from apes. When the book was published in 1859, this was a blasphemous theory (and remains so for some people today).
It was evidence that allowed Darwin to develop his theory. “If we don’t make decisions based on evidence, then you and I will debate opinion forever,” he says. “I call it the brother-in-law syndrome where it just never ends,” he says. The mug (and his Darwin T-shirt) remind Zurawski to make decisions based on evidence, not what is politically expedient.
Prior to being elected councillor, Zurawski wore many hats, including author, documentary filmmaker, meteorologist and radio-show host. These platforms gave him an opportunity to talk about science and the environmental challenges the world faces. But a simple realization hit him: “On the inside, you get to do more,” he says.
In his short time as Councillor, Zurawski has already seen that. It used to be standard practice that Councillors would receive packages of information from the city clerk’s office in paper envelopes, which would then be tossed out. Noticing how wasteful and costly this was, Zurawski suggested the office use reusable pouches instead. For the initiative to work, all that’s needed is for the Councillors to remember to give the pouches back.
“Something like that, being on the inside, is a possibility,” says Zurawski. In his previous position being outside of Council, he’d have no way of knowing about what was being done, nor really any ability to change it.
While he previously ran for politics at both the provincial and federal levels, but party politics and the need to maintain party lines didn’t appeal to him. The independence of a Councillor is a big plus.
“I’m not affiliated with anybody,” says Zurawski. “I come with green attitudes and green perspectives, but I’m my own person and I get to say the things that are important to me and my constituency and the city and follow these paths.”
Municipal politics have the biggest effect on people’s daily lives. “Cities are the most important political units in the world,” says Zurawski.
Zurawski wasn’t the only candidate in the election with a strong environmental background. Lil MacPherson unsuccessfully ran for mayor. She’s a trained presenter for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and she’s attended multiple United Nations climate change conferences.
Climate change is what motivated her to run. She managed to get about one-third of the votes in the race that was won by incumbent Mayor Mike Savage.
The result suggests her focus on climate change resonated with many. While MacPherson was disappointed that she lost, Zurawski being elected Councillor was a silver lining. “Thank goodness he got in,” she says.
Zurawski doesn’t just have a grasp on climate change, he literally wrote the book on it: The Maritime Book of Climate Change, detailing how climate change will affect the Maritimes. After being elected, he gave a copy to each of his fellow Councillors. “We’ve got a climate change guy in there that’s going to help explain [that] to them and bring Council along,” said MacPherson.
There’s a lot more room for change in Halifax. According to a 2016 report that was published in the journal Regional Science and Urban Economics, Halifax is one of the cities in Canada that produces the highest average amount of household greenhouse gas emissions, trailing only Edmonton and Saint John, New Brunswick. Halifax produces just about triple the average household emissions as Montreal.
For starters, Zurawski wants Council to appoint a science advisor. It would be this person’s responsibility to ensure the data and information Council works with has been parsed and that proper scientific protocol was followed in establishing it.
He’s also worried about the impact rising sea levels will have on Halifax. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that global water levels will be up 0.6 to 1.5 metres by the end of the century. A worst-case scenario raised by another group of scientists and published in the journal Science warns of six-metre increases. “We’ve seen, paleontologically, increases on that scale in a century … but we’re not planning for it,” says Zurawski.
With increasing global temperatures, summers in Nova Scotia have been hot in recent years. Last year, the province dealt with a wildfire near Kejimkujik National Park that was the largest since 2009, reported the Canadian Press. That 2009 fire started in Spryfield and shifted toward Purcells Cove, fuelled in part by deadfall stemming from 2003’s Hurricane Juan. Zurawski is concerned by the amount of deadfall in our forests and says a plan is needed to protect our forests from devastation, especially given the scorching summers we’ve been getting.
Last year’s hot summer also resulted in many homes’ wells going dry. While many people refilled their wells or dug new ones, Zurawski says these are Band-Aid fixes. What didn’t seem to be discussed were techniques to lower water use, installing greywater systems to reuse water and installing cisterns to collect water.
One thing for sure is the concerns of environmentalists and environmental groups will have a voice at council through Zurawski. He plans on welcoming them and bringing them in.
Raymond Plourde, the wilderness coordinator of the Ecology Action Centre, is optimistic about how the new council will treat environmental matters. “I think it’s going to be stronger in that regard and more likely to be present in decision making overall and more discussed between the members of councils in debates,” he says, noting the previous Councils’ track records were “spotty.”
In conversations he’s had with other councillors, Zurawski says there’s been lots of support for doing more for the environment. But he says he doesn’t feel more pressure as Council’s green voice. “The pressure is coming internally,” he says. “I feel liberated having a position where I can enact things.”