Climate is changing quickly, and it’s up to us to act

(June 22, 2018)

In the same week that Doug Ford won the provincial election in Ontario, scientists announced that the Antarctic ice shelf is melting three times faster than they thought.

While it is true that Ford’s election victory has generated more heat than light, it is his opposition to Ontario’s carbon tax that will speed up such melting in the future. Yet a year ago, neither event would have been predicted by the experts.

In other words, whether we like it or not, things change.

On top of the recent heat wave in the Arctic (during which Churchill hit 30 C) — and record temperatures across Canada for this time of year — the news from Antarctica is particularly disturbing.

Global warming, leading to extreme weather around the planet, is disrupting predictions as well as the lives of millions of people. In situations where political rhetoric (instead of science) drives decision making about the environment, however, facts don’t seem to matter.

So we spend billions more than it is worth to buy an old, leaky pipeline, and billions more to build the Pipeline to Nowhere to ship bitumen that should be left safely in the Alberta oilsands. We sign agreements with Argentina to “study” whether fossil fuel subsidies are a good idea, when smart money has already divested and reinvested in alternatives.

If our scientific predictions are not keeping up with the accelerating effects of global warming, our political performances are 50 years behind reality — and slipping further.

We need to see these decisions for what they are: cynical investments in business as usual, betting against a sustainable future for everyone in order to make money for a few people today. You can make a lot of money predicting the decline of stocks; in fact, you could probably calculate it is easier (and faster) to make a pile on the stock market by shorting stocks rather than by waiting for them to gain in value.

In a volatile world market, in which a presidential tweet can send stocks crashing in an hour, there is money to be made in disaster.

In comparison, however, Mother Nature can change market trends just as quickly — and in a time of global warming, those changes could be catastrophic and irreversible.

Predictions about what happens when the Antarctic ice sheet breaks away or melts vary wildly. Some of the worst forecast a rise in sea level (with continued high greenhouse gas emissions) of up to 2.4 metres by 2100.

Think about it: 2.4 metres. For the metrically challenged, that is more than 71/2 feet.

If the models are not keeping up with the data, and if we continue to build and use pipelines, that end date will be a lot sooner than 2100.

Most people, especially younger ones, are not sure what they will be doing in 2050. At the rate things are going, billions of people around the world could be swimming by then.

I’ve been fortunate to be part of a small group of people that is providing a technical review of the global version of GEO 6, the latest Global Environmental Outlook prepared by the United Nations Environment Program, which is due to be released in March.

Watching colleagues around the world wrestling with the data — finding it, interpreting it, putting the pieces together — reminds me how difficult it is to know exactly where we are or where we will be even in 10 years.

But trends are clear. It is also clear that we do not have to do anything to ensure a high-carbon future, one where the dangerous effects of global warming change the conditions of life for many people on the planet.

Some will be floating; others will suffer from extreme heat (of more than 50 C) in which nothing can grow or live.

The politicians in office now, including the Doug Fords, are the ones who have the power to make decisions on our behalf to change that grimly inevitable future. Mother Nature does not attend campaign rallies, nor does she have a Twitter account.

What we say doesn’t matter; if we don’t change how we live together, the planet will simply do it for us — more rapidly, it seems, than even the scientists think.

Yet our political systems, even in a democracy, are failing us faster than the Antarctic ice is melting. Far more people in Ontario stayed in bed on election day than those who gave Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives their majority government.

Refusing to vote because you don’t like the choices is not a morally superior position. At such a critical point in the history of our civilization, it could be disastrous.

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What defines our ‘national interest”?

(April 12, 2018)

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr again took the microphone this past week as “Minister of Pipelines,” promoting Kinder Morgan on behalf of his boss, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

We were told, emphatically, that against all common sense, ecological wisdom, economic prudence and foresight, the Trans Mountain pipeline “is in the national interest.”

Given that the protests in British Columbia against the pipeline will only become louder and more sustained after such an inflammatory statement — and that Carr has said all options remain open to the federal government — we now have to wonder whether the Canadian military might even be deployed against Canadian citizens on behalf of a foreign multinational corporation to ensure “the pipeline will be built.”

After all, the prime minister has tweeted it:

“Canada is a country of the rule of law, and the federal government will act in the national interest. Access to world markets for Canadian resources is a core national interest. The Trans Mountain expansion will be built.”

There was grim irony in the timing of Carr’s announcement. His news conference took place 101 years to the hour that Canadian troops were preparing in the darkness for their assault on Vimy Ridge in 1917. They did not choose that hill to die on — the government of the day decided that it was in the national interest to attack a stronghold no one else had been able to capture — but we would like to think they died believing they were fighting for freedom.

Afterward, we created the mythology that their sacrifice helped define our nation and have since proudly proclaimed, “The world needs more Canada.”

Not this kind of Canada, it doesn’t. “The true North strong and free” should not be for sale to oil companies, whatever their apparent influence on our politicians. The credibility of the federal government is on the line, but for entirely other reasons than Carr, Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley might claim.

When such dubious claims about the national interest are able to trump ecological concerns, the land rights of First Nations people, negotiated commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the safety of local communities — all while threatening environmental defenders — Canada hardly looks like a country others should emulate.

If, as Manitoba’s senior minister, Carr wants to do something useful, there are a few things closer to home he should consider: the port of Churchill continues to languish, rail lines unrepaired; meanwhile, Russia seeks to take control of an undefended and inaccessible North even as China buys into the Arctic Council because it sees cross-Arctic shipping as part of its global “belt and road” initiative.

Canada needs a fully functional deep-water port in Churchill, connected to a continent-wide rail system, but Carr and the federal government have done nothing about that for two years.

Similarly, moving last year’s bumper crop of Canadian grain to market would also be in the national interest, but the Canadian rail system continues to deteriorate and decline and (again) nothing has been done about it.

We hear excuse after excuse about the lack of funds, in order to justify not doing these and many other things that are in the national interest, but when it comes to jamming a pipeline through to the B.C. coast for Kinder Morgan, there is money and energy and commitment, well, to burn.

And burning is the issue. The Alberta oilsands are a made-in-Canada carbon time bomb. We can effectively render futile the rest of the planet’s efforts to avoid catastrophic temperature rise if we dig up that dirty Alberta crude and ship it out.

What is more, the government refuses to admit that we do not need this pipeline for the transportation to market of current fossil-fuel supplies. The whole project is predicated on an expanded future global demand for oil, at high prices, with markets willing to take this low-quality crude and spend the extra money required to refine it into something usable.

This Liberal pipeline policy is dangerously delusional at every level. We need to consume fewer fossil fuels, not more, if we want to have a chance to limit global warming. Smart money for years now has been aimed at alternative energy development instead.

If the pipeline is built regardless of opposition, as the prime minister has threatened to do, the Liberals will lose every seat in British Columbia, forever — and so they should.

When the ocean levels rise, it won’t be Alberta that floods.

Besides, will today’s Canadian Armed Forces, related by profession and self-sacrifice to those who went over the top at Vimy Ridge, follow orders to do to their fellow citizens whatever it takes to get that pipeline built?

Somehow, I doubt it. I don’t believe that’s their idea of Canada, either.

Peter Denton is a Winnipeg-based writer, environmental activist and scholar.

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Today’s crises call for leaders like Churchill

(February 20, 2018)

There are few times you can point to a pivotal period in world history and say, unequivocally, that the leadership of one person tipped the balance in a positive direction.

Winston Churchill’s appointment as prime minister of Great Britain in 1940 was such a moment. As Gary Oldman so brilliantly portrays him in Darkest Hour (and he has my vote for a Best Actor Oscar this year, to match his Golden Globe), Churchill’s stubborn refusal to surrender to either the backrooms of the Conservative party or to the Nazi war machine set an example for political leadership that is, unfortunately, all too rare.

Though it was their darkest hour, it was his brightest, taking a job he would never have been offered in less desperate circumstances because he did not fit the mould that the institutions of his time expected of a leader in his party or in British society.

He drank too much, smoked pungent cigars and was saddled with a record of disastrous choices in the previous war (such as the invasion of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli) as First Sea Lord. He had inherited little money, made most of his income from writing and generated (or cultivated) a reputation for blunt conversation that meant perpetual damage control for his long-suffering spouse or for his hosts.

In defence of the British Empire, he had been a thug, wielding imperial authority to suppress colonial independence movements that would require more decades of struggle to succeed.

He was, literally, the political embodiment of the iconic British bulldog, having set his teeth in a problem and refusing to let go, no matter how good or persuasive the opposing argument.

Those very qualities turned the tide of the Second World War and, with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, Churchill shaped the postwar world we inherited, for good or ill.

Tossed out of office almost the moment the war ended, he returned in 1951 for Great Britain’s next war in Korea, and then suffered a serious stroke in 1953 — the same year he received the Nobel Prize for literature.

The bulldog refused to let go, of course, so he recovered and continued his work for another decade. The earliest memory I have of television is not Bugs Bunny, but watching his extraordinary state funeral in 1965, when he was given a send-off normally reserved for a king.

For Churchill, words mattered.

He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle, when there was nothing else left that could be done. For his political foes, in Britain and abroad, his combination of words, delivery and public image were devastating — Churchillian, in fact.

But for the rest of the world, his words could be as inspirational as his analysis was incisive. Seventy-two years ago, his speech at Westminster College in 1946 framed the Cold War in a similar fashion, calling out the Soviet Union for “the iron curtain” that had fallen across Europe.

Today, there are no literary prizes given for politicians’ speeches, written by others and read poorly from a TelePrompTer. Analysts are left with nothing to say afterward, because the politicians have offered so little. Audience response is dutiful or added in studio. Image, not substance, is all that matters in the obligatory 15-second sound bite.

Political leadership has become an oxymoron, a poor joke on democratic institutions that seem to have a death wish instead of a vision for a better future. Competence is feared, honesty avoided and real answers to current problems — such as the questions dodged in parliamentary sessions — are best left to someone else, tomorrow.

The same things happened just before Churchill finally got the job. The other politicians focused on aspiration, what they wanted to happen, instead of focusing on inspiration, bringing the country together in ways that would make something happen.

His most important speeches were never recorded, just reported. Yet the tides of war changed in that moment, because of who he was, what he said and how he said it.

Today, we have lost our way.

Trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid the problems of patriarchy, we look for facilitators instead of leaders, focusing on process instead of outcome, ensuring all voices are heard, whether or not they have something useful to say. Everyone gets a ribbon.

Leadership at any level is a perilous choice for someone to make. To make things worse, the ones who seek it out these days seem the least likely to be the leaders we need.

Yet we are at war, with the planet and with ourselves, for a future in which all the defenceless children of Earth will have to live.

We need more leaders like Winston Churchill. For all his flaws, he identified the real enemy, what needed to be done to stop it, and how. Words, by themselves, were not enough — but that was the right place to start.

We must hold those in leadership accountable for their words as well as for their actions, expecting inspiration instead of aspiration, demanding a vision for what we all can do together that goes beyond winning the next election.

If they have a dream, we need to hear it and be inspired to share it. Otherwise, like Neville Chamberlain, they need to step aside before it is too late.

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