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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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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