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Ryerson researchers study effect of climate change on workplace environment

By Dana Yates

Researchers Bryan Evans (left) and John Shields

As the green revolution gains momentum, there's more discussion about making industries and work settings more sustainable. Researchers Bryan Evans (left) and John Shields are participating in an international study about climate change and the workplace.

The impact of climate change on various facets of human life attracts significant research and discussion. Two Ryerson professors, however, believe a critical aspect has been overlooked – the effect of global warming on the working world.

Bryan Evans and John Shields of the Department of Politics and Public Administration are members of an international research initiative exploring how workplaces can best respond to climate change. The issue is timely, says Evans, as hope for a green revolution gains momentum.

"The economy changed dramatically after the Great Depression. And today, as we move away from the latest global recession, there's more talk about making industries and work settings more sustainable."

"But it has to be done right," adds Shields. "It's no good to have a green economy if everyone is unemployed."

With hopes of influencing public policy, Evans and Shields joined the new study, Work in a Warming World: Adapting Canadian Employment and Work to the Challenges of Climate Change. The six-year initiative, which is led by Carla Lipsig-Mummé of York University, involves academics from several Canadian universities, the Auckland University of Technology and the Institute of Land and Food Resources at the University of Melbourne. A number of labour and environmental organizations are also participating in the project, including the Centre for Labour Studies, the United Steelworkers of Canada and the Clean Air Partnership.

The participants will study the implications of climate change for employment and work, and the effect global warming will have on education and training, public investment, and infrastructure and regulations. The project is an enormous undertaking because all workplaces, from home offices and hospitals to farms and factories, are significant producers of greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, workplaces could also potentially help contain global warming.

Shields, for example, is interested in the role of the social economy, a sector of the market that isn’t solely focused on profit margins. Examples of social economy players include co-operatives and collective enterprises.

"These organizations are far-reaching and far-seeing in their approach," says Shields. "They are dedicated to reaping benefits for the larger society, not just making a short-term profit and ultimately creating a long-term problem for the environment."

Shields believes this green philosophy can be applied to many sectors. So while farmers' markets and sustainable social housing are a good start, even the service industry can use holistic thinking.

"Investing in child care, for instance, is a green strategy," Shields explains. "We are still addressing human needs, but instead of putting money in the auto sector, we’re taking care of children."

But who makes those funding decisions in government? And when choices are being made, which advocacy groups are consulted and whose ideas are excluded? That's the focus of Evans' work.

"It's critical that provincial and federal governments draw out all the linkages between the labour market and the environment. To kick-start a green economy, governments must be progressive and not just wait for private investment."

Evans says the payback from such forward thinking could be substantial, especially in the area of renewable energy. 

"For every dollar invested in fossil fuel-fired energy, we will get four times more bang for our buck in the harnessing of wind, solar, tidal and biomass energy. So in terms of employment, that means creating one job versus four jobs."

Work in a Warming World has received $1 million in funding from the Community-University Research Alliances program of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 

For more research stories, check out for the 2010 edition of Intersections, Ryerson's research magazine.

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