Moving mountains, one stone at a time

(January 18, 2019)

On Sept. 8, 2018, #RiseforClimate encouraged people around the world to demonstrate their concern over inaction on climate change. The demonstrators urged governments and others to do what needs to be done if we are to avoid a catastrophic climate future.

The response was mostly a shrug from anyone who noticed. A 15-year-old girl in Sweden started her own strike on Fridays against the inaction of the Swedish government. Yawn — though she got some media coverage because of the novelty.

Protests against the Trans Mountain pipeline, Line 3 and Keystone XL continued to pop up, with small numbers and little money. It was nothing that a few slick (taxpayer-funded) ad campaigns from Alberta or executive orders from U.S. President Donald Trump could not counter. Double yawn — though there was some brief consternation when Elizabeth May, leader of the federal Green party, was arrested and charged.

When the Wet’suwet’en checkpoint in British Columbia was overrun by RCMP — more considerately, it seems, than how Indigenous land protectors are treated in other countries — Winnipeg was on the list of cities across Canada in which protests were staged afterward in support.

Portage and Main, and during rush hour, no less. That made some people notice. Fewer noticed the kids who joined the global student climate strike the next day and took their protests to the steps of the legislature.

If you are still shrugging or yawning, you might want to rethink your attitude. You can move a mountain by carrying away small stones.

When the fossil-fuel divestment protest movement began, it was ignored, too. Yet the campaign is now global and growing by leaps and bounds. The Irish government just followed through on its promise to sell off its investments in fossil-fuel companies. Churches, municipalities and universities have done the same.

Shamefully, this has not happened here. We should not fund our educational institutions, our communities or our pensions by investing in the very industries that make a livable future impossible.

But as the climate heats up, if our institutions really represent the Canadian public, when will their voices be heard?

As Canadians, we believe in the rule of law, what Abraham Lincoln described as “government of the people, by the people, for the people” in his Gettysburg Address. Setting aside the irony that these words were said by a Republican president who demonstrated eloquence, wisdom and strong moral character, I am afraid that the small things happening today could also add up to big trouble down the road.

Canada has a mostly peaceful history, in comparison to the violence, upheaval and deprivation that led so many people from other places to settle here over the past 400 years.

If we were not so peaceful, and if we did not agree to that “rule of law,” however, there would be no good alternative. In fact, there are not enough armed combat troops in the whole of the Canadian Armed Forces to control or suppress an active insurgency just in the city of Winnipeg.

We agree to the rule of law because we believe it is for our collective good, whether we agree with that law all the time or not. But as protests spread, as the idea of government for the people is undermined or overturned by riot squads, it starts to look as if we are being governed by and for elite groups in our society instead.

There are dangerous currents in our lives together these days, currents that we ignore at our peril. A few years ago, the #Occupy movement waxed and waned. It gave us the language of “the one per cent,” the elites who have most of the wealth, and the 99 per cent, who have hope, democracy and the rule of law on their side, at least in places like Canada, but nothing much else.

Over the next two years, provincial and federal political campaigns will appeal not to our better nature, but to our worst. They will play on our fears and anxieties. They will not deal with the mountains that need to be moved.

So when the government talks peace and reconciliation, but then sends in the police; when we are told to obey the law, but the government refuses; when the government buys and builds pipelines instead of finding another, more sustainable way, there is trouble ahead.

When real steps toward a sustainable future are dismissed as impractical or inconvenient, all we can do is carry away one small stone at a time. Each of us.

One way or other, we will move that mountain. Someday, we will have a just and sustainable society.

Whether it resembles the Canada we know today depends on whether our government really is for the people, or not.

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Teen’s words signal change coming

(December 20, 2018)

When 15-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden stepped up to the podium at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, the room was virtually empty of delegates, at the end of a long day of negotiations.

This is what usually happens when civil society representatives try to speak at UN conferences. Time slots for them are only available when member states have nothing more to say, long after delegates have stopped paying attention or have gone home.

Social media, however, gives public attention to these speakers that governments choose to ignore. Those few minutes of global airtime are worth waiting in line for, arguing for a place at the microphone.

So more and more people are hearing Greta’s words, just as they learned later about her boycott of school on Fridays to protest her own government’s inaction on climate change.

“You are not mature enough to tell it like it is,” she informed adults everywhere. “You say you love your children above all else. And yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”

Certainly it is future generations that will suffer most for the cowardice, greed and indecision of this one. For Greta, it is about equity: “It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.”

As she said, “You have run out of excuses and we are running out of time.”

These are tough words to hear, if you choose to listen. Truth-telling is rarely popular, but we cannot begin to respond to the crisis hanging over our heads without preferring truth to popularity.

This is why, of course, governments would rather avoid such a conversation. The COP24 negotiations were (literally) undermined by coal miners beneath the ground around them in Katowice, whose work is promoted by governments that rely on fossil fuels to fund their delusions.

Back home, we have been treated recently to a series of television ads from the Alberta government and the Trans Mountain Pipeline — more taxpayer dollars at work. The ads are trying to persuade us of the economic importance of pipelines like the ones our Liberal federal government has bought with more of our money.

Promoting pipelines as the way to create a prosperous, green future is like promoting drunk driving because it will generate much-needed jobs in the funeral and automobile repair industries.

Encouraging fossil fuel consumption instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions literally means that people paying into the pension plans used to fund these pipelines won’t live long enough to collect on their investment — that is, if climate change doesn’t cause a global economic collapse first.

I wonder what will happen to the economy, for example, when younger generations realize it makes no sense to work and save for a retirement life that a warming world will make impossible?

So the thousands of small victories applauded in the COP24 negotiations need to be set against the large victories that were required. Hope is in short supply, because (as Greta said), we are relying for answers on the same system that got us into this mess in the first place. If the system won’t work, then we need to change it — and soon.

Climate change is the defining problem of our generation. It is a crisis, one that can be faced and met, but only if we act like it is a crisis and not just some political football to punt around the field. As we enjoy a warm and dry December, for example, I worry what this will mean for Manitoba forests and rural communities next summer.

A year ago, I said that the Pallister government’s failure to do anything substantive about the environment would be the defining issue in the 2020 provincial election. I stand by that.

A vote for a party that does nothing for the planet (as Greta would say bluntly) is a vote against your own children’s future.

Staying in bed (like the 40 per cent of Manitobans who did not vote last time) is even worse, because it clearly shows that you don’t care about those children. Or anyone else, either.

My opinion will not be popular, but that doesn’t matter to me. We need a coalition for the planet, and political parties mature enough to find a way to work together because that is the only way for a democracy to manage this crisis in time. It’s still possible, but only if wisdom and humility replace ignorance and arrogance.

Or else.

As Greta concluded her short speech, “We did not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again… We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”

(Mic drop.)

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Speaking of pirates…

(September 24, 2018)
The G7 environment ministers conference opened in Halifax on Wednesday, on International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

These international conferences always need a theme. While plastic pollution in the ocean might seem like a good theme to the public, it is very hard to organize fun side events on something so ghastly. (Besides, plastic-filled sushi for lunch is hard to digest.)

So, (pirate) hats off to Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna for her sense of timing and clever choice of locale. Instead of focusing on boring speeches that go nowhere and proposing actions that are always too little, too late, the visiting ministers could have opted to wear eye patches and go on the sailing ship Pirate Tour of Halifax Harbour.

Afterward, they could have followed up with a solemn inspection of the Titanic artifacts in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, and perhaps some gawking at the devastation depicted in the exhibits of the Halifax Explosion that wiped out much of the city in 1917. The day could have been rounded out by stepping across the street into the Alexander Keith’s brewery for something local.

Pirates, the Titanic and giant explosions, with beer as a chaser to escape the reality of the G7-led buccaneering, plundering, arrogant miscalculations and mistakes that have brought the whole planet to the brink of disaster — what a perfectly themed first day to their conference!

Aaarr, mateys…

Now, I am too much the nice Canadian to suggest these G7 ministers should all have been made to walk the plank in the Halifax Harbour, but there would have been some justice in doing that.

After all, given the pathetic efforts being made internationally to address global warming and stop rising sea levels that threaten to swamp small island developing states, the G7 is effectively telling the people in these countries to tread water.

McKenna has been having a grand time lately, touring about Canada and showcasing cool stuff to take everyone’s minds off pipelines, but her tone would be more sombre if, like the government of Kiribati, she was trying to figure out where in the world Canadians could move after the water levels rise and wipe out the whole country.

Thankfully, the island of Fiji has agreed to let the Kiribatians come aboard, but as the planet warms, moving to another small island is only a temporary solution.

At the same time the G7 environment ministers might have been adjusting their eye patches and getting to know their parrots, United Nations secretary general António Guterres was giving an impassioned speech saying we have less than two years to dramatically change course if we are to have any hope of avoiding runaway climate change.

Paris was not enough, he said. We have to do more, and much faster, if we want to have anything more than a nightmare future after 2020.

Manitoba might be one of the few places where people can mostly avoid the effects of rising sea levels and, to a lesser extent, extreme weather. We just watched a Category 4 hurricane hit the U.S. East Coast, at the very same time as a Category 5 super typhoon hit the Philippines and spun off toward China. As the planet warms, we could see several such storms hit, one after the other, in the same season.

Droughts, wildfires, floods, heat and tornadoes — we’ve seen them all this year. The cost in economic and human twerms has been enormous… and will get worse, rapidly, if we do not do something definitive about changing how we live together.

That sense of urgency is clearly not felt by our three levels of government. The mayoral candidates could not even all agree on getting rid of single-use plastic bags. Nor would everyone agree that our transportation systems need to be reworked to eliminate the fossil fuel consumption that (literally) drives climate change.

At the provincial level, Premier Brian Pallister has to stop congratulating himself for not being as bad as Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and Ontario’s Doug Ford. His government has an appalling record of inaction, dithering and poor decisions on those crucial environmental issues that threaten not just our children’s future, but our own.

No doubt he will swap out the sustainable development minister again before the next election, so the new one can shrug helplessly in response to the inevitable critique and say, “I just got the file,” when Pallister himself has been the roadblock to green opportunities all along.

There isn’t enough space left here to say much about our pirate-in-chief, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It seems naive to complain you were cheated or misled by a pirate, after all — that is what they do, whether it is about promises of gold aplenty or oil pipelines.

As the world continues to burn, we are all walking the plank together.

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