David Mowat: Gored


I’m sitting in the executive reception at Vancity’s corporate headquarters on the corner of Main and First, waiting for CEO Dave Mowat. On the streets below, commuters shuffle along sloppy sidewalks after a surprise late-February-morning snowfall. On the coffee table in front of me, a fresh copy of the National Post bears a front-page image of a rather corpulent Al Gore at the 79th annual Academy Awards. The photo of the beaming Gore was taken after the runaway hit exposé of his global warming politics, An Inconvenient Truth, picked up an Oscar for best documentary of the year. The photo accompanies an embarrassing, somewhat inconvenient story about the ecological footprint of Gore’s eight-bathroom mansion in an affluent Nashville neighbourhood. According to the article, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a conservative think tank, found that the mansion consumes roughly 221,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year – more than 20 times the national average. The unmistakable message: Gore has an easier time talking the talk on fighting climate change than he does walking the walk. The timing of the article is ironic, considering that I’ve been waiting around Vancity’s head office all day to hear the credit union’s soon-to-be former CEO Dave Mowat rehearse a presentation dubbed, Can You Handle The Truth About Climate Change? He may be preparing to step down after seven years at Vancity and take up a new job as president and CEO of Edmonton’s full-service financial institution ATB Financial – a 70-year-old provincial crown corporation with $18.8 billion in assets – but right now, Mowat is also brushing up on climate-change science. Last January, he was officially “Gored,” anointed by the former veep himself as a climate-change warrior when he was selected to take part in a global-warming boot camp, which took place in Gore’s home state of Tennessee early in 2007. The goal of Gore’s boot camps is to train societal leaders from across North America before dispatching them to spread the gospel of global warming with their own “core Gore” versions of the presentation featured in An Inconvenient Truth. Among the Gore disciples who accompanied Mowat to Nashville were fellow British Columbians Andrea Reimer, executive director of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee; Robert Safrata, CEO of Novex Couriers and Enterra Development Corp.; and Jim Stephenson, a retired UBC economist. Getting on the team was no mean feat. Of an estimated 1,000 Canadian applicants, only 18 have made the cut so far. Gore’s selection criteria are straightforward: you need an ability to draw an audience whether you’re an environmentalist, scientist, businessman or mechanic, and a demonstrated commitment to addressing climate change. Gore personally walked the trainees through the 286 slides used in An Inconvenient Truth, explaining the significance of each in demystifying the complexities of climate-change science. Participants also have to promise to give at least 10 presentations. Mowat fit the bill. At 3:30 p.m., Mowat emerges from his office carrying an armload of files and papers. We enter the elevator and ride up to the spacious 12th-floor boardroom, which boasts sweeping views spanning from False Creek to the snow-dusted North Shore mountains. For this dry run, Mowat is joined by Ted Lau, an IT wizard and co-owner of Ballistic Arts Media Studios, who will manage a modified and edited-down version of the dazzling graphics characteristic of the Inconvenient Truth slideshow. Amanda Pitre-Hayes, senior sustainability programs manager for Vancity, is also on hand, along with Sara Holland, the credit union’s director of communications. Including myself, Mowat has an audience of four. That Mowat decided to head to Nashville is fitting. Sustainability is one of the three pillars of Vancity’s business focus. Over the past few years, Pitre-Hayes has helped Mowat reduce his personal carbon footprint to the point where he could confidently announce last year that he is a “carbon-neutral” CEO. Executives have notoriously high carbon footprints, since they spend so much time flying to and from meetings and other professional obligations. Mowat reduced his air travel by 10 per cent, traded his Audi for a Smart car and carpools regularly. The balance of his carbon emissions is neutralized by buying carbon offsets, which Mowat is the first to acknowledge are somewhat controversial. As one caller on CBC Radio’s B.C. Almanac program recently cynically remarked, carbon offsets are akin to donating money to the church as a way of atoning for your sins. But “carbon neutral” is a sexy new catchphrase that’s appearing with increasing frequency in business literature. Gore’s boot camp gave participants access to An Inconvenient Truth’s considerable intellectual resources, but encouraged them to localize the message for their particular audience. Instead of presenting a slide of a melting glacier on, say, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, they could insert a photo of a shrinking ice cap in Garibaldi Provincial Park; instead of gridlock on the New Jersey Turnpike, they could show afternoon rush hour on the Port Mann Bridge. Mowat settles into his chair at the head of the boardroom and shuffles his papers. “I guess I should wait until the thunderous applause subsides,” he says wryly, gazing around an empty conference table. He launches into the rehearsal by articulating his personal evolution to environmental warrior: he went from being a skeptic to a reluctant but curious observer to a full-blown convert. He says the “penny dropped” after he saw An Inconvenient Truth. He keeps saying “climate neutral,” instead of “carbon neutral.” It’s only the second rehearsal. Presenting complex material to the average Joe requires an ability to spin facts into an entertaining package with colourful graphics and images that crank up the wow factor. An Inconvenient Truth achieved this to astounding effect, but, in the hands of Mowat, it’s a work in progress. He pauses after forgivably stumbling over a segment that links the death of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef with greenhouse-gas emissions. (Some of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere falls back to earth as acid rain, hence increasing the acidity of sea water and making it uninhabitable for sensitive corals.) Turning to Holland, he asks, “Have you ever seen Jesus Christ Superstar? Can I get one of those white buckskins with fringes? No, just kidding.” Holland smirks at Mowat’s sly reference to the near-messianic status Gore has achieved over the past year since his emergence as a climate-change cult figure. I glance at my watch. We’re already half an hour into a presentation that’s supposed to be an hour max. As Mowat pauses to discuss with his team how to whittle the material down into a manageable hour – what statistics and graphics they can cut without compromising the message – I wonder if he will continue his climate-change crusade in Alberta, a jurisdiction far less amenable to tough talk on the environment and also home to the greenhouse-gas-belching oil-sands sector. “You know, I don’t think it matters whether you’re in B.C., Ontario or Alberta; people are interested in this issue. I’ve got a huge job and learning curve ahead of me, so I won’t prejudge what kind of role I’ll play at this point,” Mowat tells me later. “But if you look at Suncor, one of the largest CO2 producers in Alberta, they’ve even committed to reducing their emissions per barrel.” By the time he leaves Vancity, Mowat will have presented the global-warming sermon to credit-union employees and members, the Vancouver Board of Trade, the World Council of Credit Unions, a Health Sciences Association of B.C. conference and a gathering of parliamentarians in Ottawa, as well as the Terrace School Board. If there is one criticism that Mowat says he’s heard being consistently levelled at An Inconvenient Truth, it’s the lack of concrete solutions. In other words, people want to know what they can do personally. At 5:20 p.m., Mowat and his cohorts are still debating how to conclude the talk, based around a call to action that will give audience members the tools to immediately reduce their own greenhouse-gas emissions. I can’t help but admire the commitment required to take on this extra work, on top of the daily regime of running Canada’s largest credit union with $12.3 billion in assets, 354,000 members and 50 branches. I gaze out the window as snowy clouds gather above the North Shore, obscuring Grouse Mountain and Cypress Bowl, the kind of bracing weather that seems oddly juxtaposed with a discussion about global warming. It ain’t easy to make personal choices to address a global issue like climate change; just ask Al Gore.