In June 2011, Delta Management Group, a leading search firm for sustainability, emerging low-carbon, green and clean economy markets in Canada, founded the Clean50 Awards. Every year, the Clean50 recognizes Canada’s leaders in sustainability for the contributions they made in the previous two years. One of the Clean50 categories is called “Emerging Leaders” who are award recipients under the age of 35. Their contributions are outstanding compared to their age, according to the Delta Management Group. One of these emerging leaders is Dana Decent.
Dana currently is the Project Manager of Partnerships at Community Foundations of Canada, an organization dedicated to working with Canada’s 191 community foundations to strengthen communities across Canada. At the time she was awarded, she was the Manager at the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo while also a masters student in Sustainability Management. She led research uncovering the long term mental health impacts of flooding in Canada and the economic costs that result from it. Her project identifies how the insurance industry (property, life and health) is impacted by climate change and also bringing key players in the sector on board with adaptation effects. Dana Decent has worked across multiple sectors – non-profit, corporate and academic – all with the goal to advance sustainability in Canada by working with a wide range of people and organizations to build collaborative partnerships.
August 13, 2019
Nengi Dublin-Green: How does it feel to be recognized on the 2019 clean 50 list?
Dana Decent: I was very honoured to be on the list with many other talented individuals who are all very committed to sustainability and very passionate about what they do. It is a very interesting group of people from across the country who are working in a variety of sectors. I find it really interesting. Whereas, sometimes you go to a conference and it’s all about one topic or it’s a group of people from one sector. The clean 50 list brings together experts from across the country in multiple sectors. It’s a great group. I was personally glad to raise the profile of the mental health project that I am working on, Climate change and mental health impacts.
NDG: Do you feel it brings a certain level of satisfaction to you or some kind of responsibility?
DD: I think responsibility. When you are in any recognition or reward or when you have that privilege or power then there is a responsibility that comes along with that.
NDG: You mentioned you brought in the mental health impacts of climate change onto the table. Why did you want to investigate this?
DD: I had been working at the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo for a while. Through our work we found that there is a lot of data on the property and casualty insurance side. So, those are the insurance companies that do things like your car or home and we could see how climate change was impacting their work. However, there wasn’t much research on life and health insurance. In general, when you look at the health impacts of climate change, there is limited research (it’s growing now). Even at that, less reasearch was on the mental health side and the psycho-social impacts. So, there was limited research which means that we could then put out some research to contribute to this field. It also meant that there was a huge potential. With the intact centre and Dr. Blair Feltmate, they often get a wide range of media attention. So I was very excited to do a project that could have some global reach and kind of shake up the sector a bit and say to people “there is a problem here and we should be looking more into it”.
NDG: Why would this topic be of interest to other people?
DD: For me personally, everyone cares about their health. If you hear the words “climate change”, for a lot of people, its too big for them to handle. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know how it is going to affect their life. But if you say, “Well, climate change will increase the precipitation events in your own city and that will increase the likelihood of flooding that you will experience” because in the last decades, we’ve also increasingly paved over wetlands, we’ve paved over permeable surfaces, and now you add on this extra precipitation, we are going to be seeing more flood events. That has been proven to lead to lead to mental health impacts even years after a flood event. That is a very tangible impact. You might not even have to talk about climate change. You can just say to people that “flooding is an event that will cause mental health impacts” and that’s a way for people to take action. For me it’s really about making the impacts of climate change tangible and real.
NDG: From what I just heard, I feel this probably has some kind of relationship with what you have highlighted in your work, “eco-anxiety”. Can you tell me what this is and how this affects us?
DD: For me, I differentiate on the mental health impacts between a trauma induced mental health impact and more existential mental health impact. For instance, a flood event. The average cost of a flood in Ontario is about $40,000. Most people don’t have insurance that goes up to that. Suddenly, you might be out say about $20,000 of your savings. There is a lot of stress associated with that and not to mention losing your personal items and having to leave your home. There is the stress from any trauma related event say, wildfires, floods or hurricanes that could lead to a wild variety of different mental health impacts whether that’s anxiety, PTSD or depression. To your point about eco-anxiety, I think there are greater existential questions that humans are asking themselves. Whether we might have an uninhabitable earth at the end of the century and what does that mean for survival. We currently have a world that is highly unequal. Even if climate change is taken out of the equation, there are many other tipping points and stressors. For many other people this is not a great world to live in. So, I think we are at a point where it is very existential and it’s really about “What kind of society do we want to continue?” , “Do we want to keep going down this road of a very unequal society?” I’d say many of us would feel “no”. I think for some, eco-anxiety is confronting your own mortality and realising that the life we have right now is probably not the one we would have moving forward. For a lot of people that’s very frightening, but when you get past it can actually be very empowering.
NDG: Everything you have just said sounds familiar to a course that I once took in school. In relation to that, do you think that the work you do would supplement work in disaster management?
DD: When I left the Intact Centre, I had opportunities to work in disaster management and I purposely chose not to. For my own mental health, I wanted to do work that was broader than climate change because I think that it is one of the tipping points. It’s one of our most serious challenges right now but if we solve climate change tomorrow, if someone actually was able to scale up (carbon) sequestration, and we could suck carbon dioxide out of the air, there are still many other challenges. It could be a lack of clean water and using water at a rate that is far faster than we will need in the future or loss of biodiversity. And one of the key ways we can work on all those is recognizing that all these issues are interconnected. That is why I am now working on partnerships with a very holistic view on sustainability at a national network organization. We do a variety of projects on a wide range of different sustainability topics. For me, I think it is connected and part of it. There is a clear link with disaster management. But the problem with disaster management is that its reactive. You’re reacting to a disaster, you’re not trying to prevent it in the first place. And even if you are preventing it in the first place, you have to ask yourself, “Who are you protecting?”. There are many climate adaptation methods right now. Whether you look at protecting coastlines, some people have suggested putting large rock walls along beaches. But then, even though you are protecting that beach, the waves may go to another community that does not have the power to fight for itself down the beach. You have to ask yourself a lot of questions about what communities you’re actually protecting.
NDG: Let’s take it back to when you were a master’s student at the University of Waterloo, How were you able to find a balance with school and working full time at the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation?
DD: I was very lucky. It was a work project that I then used for my masters. We were working closely at looking at the mental health impacts associated with flooding, three years after a major flood event in Burlington, Ontario. I was able to do my studies part time at the University of Waterloo. So really, what came into play were, me just being realistic with my goals and using my excellent time management skills. For the parts of my time that were work related, I could use my work hours, for parts that were classes I had to take, I could use my own time. It was really about me just being realistic with myself. I cut back on all the non-necessary things in my life. I was very particular about my social life and who I saw really did not really do extras there. I really tried to focus on writing. When I was actually trying to write a thesis, I would just keep going at it as much as I could.
NDG: What motivated you to study sustainability?
DD: I think at the heart of it is wanting to make the world a better place. The University of Waterloo, particularly, in North America, is the only post secondary school to offer environment and business and that really attracted me. I was looking at other universities to do say, economics and a minor in geography or try to combine it in some way. I think it was because I recognized you need a mix of skills and you need to understand different sectors and perspectives. I was really interested in the environment and then I recognized I also love numbers and I love finance. I wanted to also try and understand that world as well and see if there was a way to bring both to solve complex issues of today.
NDG: What are your other interests in the area of climate change and what new things have you learnt in your work experience?
DD: My other interest in climate change I would say, right now I am working a little bit more on supporting the roots of the problem and trying to broker relationships whenever I can. Today, I was chatting with The Intact Centre in some of the ways I can move things forward with my new networks here in Toronto. I also started volunteering in Toronto. A friend of mine started a group called “Carbon Conversations” where they host workshops with people to walk them through climate anxiety and eco-anxiety and what they can do about it. When people come in, they are not really sure what they can do. Over 6 weeks, this workshop will walk them through that in a supportive and non-judgemental way. I am writing blogs for them and supporting a bit on the tech and website work. More in general, I am always trying to grow and challenge myself professionally. Working at the Community Foundations of Canada, their whole purpose is to relentlessly pursue a future where everyone belongs. That resonates very deeply with me and it is something I would like to strive for.
NDG: Wow, there are a lot of interesting things you are working on right now. What do you love most about your work?
DD: I’d say purpose. That purpose is really inspirational. It really drives a lot of what we do. They challenge us to some of the pillars of shifting power or strengthening communities. For me, shifting power is a big one. I’m already coming from a traditionally marginalized group of women and we still live in a very patriarchal society. I am a woman and I am also queer, I have experienced discrimination on those fronts. I am also interested in knowing that as I am also white, how can I, for the power I have, shift or share some of that power to other people. That is one of the most interesting pieces I am working on right now and really enjoy thinking about. As well, at the Community Foundations of Canada, we do try and work with a wide variety of partners who are all trying to make the world a better place and I really enjoy that piece of it. Finally, I’d day the team. The team is just fantastic. There are just 20 people here and everyone of them is just a wonderful human being and that just makes work all the better.
NDG: My final question to you is, what advice would you give to people starting out work in the environmental community?
DD: Ask yourself why you want to do this work, what parts most interest you and why. Do that reflection first because climate change touches all areas of our lives. There are so many different ways that you can contribute and work on climate change. If you find that you are really drawn to numbers, there is the growing area of climate risk and calculating climate risk for institutional managers. If you find that you love talking to people then there is a range of organizations that do climate change workshops. If you are interested in behavioural science, increasingly behavioural science companies are looking at climate change and other organizations and governments are hiring behavioural scientist to look at climate change. We need writers to be writing about this, we need people to teach meteorologists more about this. If you are already interested in climate change then you are already a believer, so we need more people who can talk across partisan lines. We need people who know different sectors, have a diverse skill set, and who aren’t afraid to talk to people who are unlike them. For someone starting out, think about all the unlikely players that are going to be affected by climate change and then think about how you can add value to them.
The 2020 Clean50 nominations closed this July and announcements of the 50 award recipients will be made in September.
Dana Decent worked as Manager of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, where she led operations and research on the mental health impacts of climate change. Dana has also worked as a Sustainability Analyst at Sun Life Financial and as Operations Coordinator at Green Economy Canada. She has an M.E.S. in Sustainability Management and a B.E.S in Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. She is the recipient of the Clean50 Emerging Leader (2018), Ontario Sustainable Energy Association Leader of the Year (2017), St. Paul’s Young Alumni Award (2016), and Corporate Knights’ Top 30 Under 30 (2016). In her spare time she can be found volunteering on climate action as well as swimming, biking and hiking.