How co-ops can tackle climate change – An interview with Kathryn Sheps

  16 April 2021

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Many would even say it is the most critical challenge we are facing. It touches each aspect of our lives as individuals and as citizens of a global community.

In 2020, CHF BC created a Climate Emergency Task Force. The CETF was created to address climate concerns among our co-op communities throughout and share knowledge, resources and strategies..

Kathryn Sheps
Kathryn Sheps

We had a chance to talk to Task Force member Kathryn Sheps about her work in delivering measures to address climate change. We discussed how co-ops can do their part. Most importantly, we talked about how we can stay enthusiastic about the work during an already challenging time.

You have a fascinating background in science and climate change policy – please tell us more!

My background is in marine science. I worked for many years in research and development in technology to reduce climate change and emissions. When I moved up here to Vancouver after having my daughter, I switched to policy-focused work and was at the SFU Centre for Dialogue for seven years.

There, I worked on a number of projects related to climate change. This include projects on transportation, a program called Carbon Talks. The projects involved holding structured dialogues with community leaders of different stripes and backgrounds on issues around transferring to a low-carbon economy. That led into looking at one of the critical areas for climate change – the municipal level. A city’s politics have a really big impact on how people live and work and play in that city.

I was the founder of the Renewable Cities program at SFU in 2015. There, we worked primarily on transitioning cities and moving policies at the municipal level away from fossil fuels to renewable sources.

In the fall of 2019 I left and came back to marine science. My heart really stayed in that area. I’ve always appreciated the ways that collective choices can make a big impact. When I moved into Yew Street Housing Co-operative addressing climate change in housing co-ops seemed like an interesting fit for a bunch of reasons.

Why is collective decision-making important when it comes to climate change?

We tend to think our individual choices are always the most important. Whether we choose to take a bike or car is important, but more important are the collective choices. When cities provide bike lanes or infrastructure that allows for better transit or walking even, it makes it more possible for people to then make that choice to not take the car.

Housing co-ops work in the same way. We’re not talking about individual consumer choice preferences. We can shape more than that. Whether it’s with efficient appliances, or what fuel our buildings run on, how we treat locations as transportation hubs or places people travel to and from every day. The way housing co-ops provide choices for people also has big impact. This is why I’m excited to join the Climate Emergency Task Force!

Discussions around climate change can feel overwhelming. How can we process such a large, complex issue on a manageable scale?

Think it’s important to recognize that some jobs aren’t our jobs – whether talking co-ops or individuals – and housing co-ops alone can’t solve a global problem.

One of the scariest things about climate change is the uncertainty. We don’t know what will happen, or how hot it will be; understandably, that makes people feel anxious and fearful. But one of the things I think is really cool about co-ops is that we’re already groups of neighbours talking and working together to take care of our homes. We’re already aligned around that simple idea of taking care of shared spaces together. And we understand that while there may be trade-offs for that there are also a whole lot of benefits.

In many ways I see co-ops as super ideal places to work on climate change. We have a collective power as a housing co-op, whether we’re working to solve more mundane, day-to-day problems or thinking longer-term. If it’s going to be much hotter and sunnier in the years to come, what could we do to keep shade in our yard? What can we do to make sure we all have a little bit of what we need?

Beyond that inward-facing perspective, there’s a real opportunity for housing co-ops to lead in that example. Working together gives us resilience as communities. When we’re facing the uncertainty of climate change we have resilience in that we know we’re not along in dealing with the effects of a changing climate. We can make collective choices and be prepared, and take action when we need to and model that to other neighbourhoods.

Turning outwards to surrounding neighbourhoods. When we work together and provide amenities and ways of addressing these things, it helps co-ops strengthen the fabric of the wider neighbourhood they’re in. My co-op decided many years ago to intensively garden our land for our own food security. Now it’s quite a discussion point with the neighbours. People walk by and ask us questions about our yard all the time! Co-ops working together can increase the social sustainability, and social resilience of the entire neighbourhood.

How do you address the sense of individual futility – that it’s up to national governments and international agreements to stem climate change?

I get that it’s hard! My co-op is tiny, and we don’t have a lot of money, and a lot of co-ops are like that. But there are lots of things co-ops can do. I’m hoping this Climate Emergency Task Force can help us educate co-ops in the things that are available to us.

There’s the long-term management of our buildings, and how we repair and replace appliances and building systems. Can we make better, more energy-efficient choices in appliances and the materials we use in our buildings? Some do cost a little more initially, but a lot of the time the more efficient choices also last longer.

My co-op just went through an asset management planning process, and we need to think about where our buildings will be down the line. The issue of climate change came up a lot. We can plan for that uncertainty by being really careful about the choices we make now. And when we’re making choices around things like appliances and windows, when a housing co-op with multiple units makes sustainable choices it has a much greater impact than at the individual level.

Is there concern that climate change concerns are being neglected because our focus is on the pandemic?

Actually I feel like the pandemic has really changed the way we think about climate change. It expanded our collective imagination for what is possible. So many things happened over the past year, so much of our lives have been radically transformed. Now, even if we’re not exactly sure how go about making changes, the pandemic showed us that way things were are not the only way things had to be. In fact, things can change quite quickly with a collective will.

Before this, we accepted this is way things were: how we go to work, this what business looks like. Tthen this emergency came long and upended everything quite quickly. But we adjusted and found new ways of doing things. My hope is the pandemic allows us to continue to have a slightly larger imagination. We can make big changes in how we live and work and play. Hopefully we can do it in a way that is not out of fear and restriction. Rather that we can see other worlds can be possible and it might not be so far away. We can change society on a dime,. Even if the way we did it for the pandemic caused a lot of other problems, we managed to solve a lot of those problems and adjust as we go.

Anything else you want folks to know about the panel discussion?

I hope that people feel like working on climate change in their co-ops is possible, and can yield benefits beyond the environment. Working on these issues can be thorny. There are always people with different opinions. But we need each other to get through crises whether it’s COVID or the climate emergency.

All kinds of things can be done to make co-ops more sustainable, and a model for the rest of the neighbourhood. We can work together to make things better.

Get more information about our sustainability initiatives here. And signup for our sustainability e-newsletter here.

A green house icon with a leaf cutout in the middle.