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.

Read more

Environmentalism is for everyone: #RiseforClimate September 8

(September 6, 2018)

It’s back-to-school time again. Many parents of first graders have sent their kids off to school for the first time, with all the excitement that surrounds that milestone. Whether it is figuring out the complexities of school-supply lists, packing lunches or dealing with early morning wake-up, parents have a lot to handle.

In other words, I don’t think they have done the math. This year’s Grade 1 cohort will finish high school, all things being equal, in the year 2030. Should we want a sustainable future for life after graduation for these kids, that’s the year by which the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals need to be achieved.

Many readers will not know much, if anything, about these goals. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is not something most families discuss at the dinner table.

Yet a lot of people around the world were involved in the largest and most complicated consultation process ever attempted, leading by a kind of consensus to 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the 169 targets that go with them, which were approved by member states of the United Nations (including Canada) in 2015.

It is a long list, obviously, a list on which many of the targets — even some goals — seem irrelevant to the perspective most Canadians have on their own lives. We live in a wealthy country that is part of “the North” for many more reasons than its geography, so it is too easy to skip past such goals as goal No. 2 (“End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”) without realizing how many Canadians worry about these things every day.

Drilling down to the targets that lead to these goals, we are not working very hard on target 2.4 (“By 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality”).

That would require leadership at provincial or federal levels of government in Canada, which has been missing so far.

Looking at target 2.1 (“By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round”), it’s much worse. We are not doing anything to achieve this target for ourselves, let alone working on it for people in developing countries in the global south.

And 2030 is also the year that the climate change curves (the ones that used to predict catastrophe by 2050) now come together. Given the extreme weather and the fires, heat and drought of this past summer, if nothing changes, by 2030 we will have run out of forests to burn.

So, for the sake of those ankle-biters heading off to Grade 1 this week, I am an ­environmentalist. So should be anyone who really cares what kind of world these kids will face when they graduate.

Environmentalists catch a lot of flak they don’t deserve. We want everyone — even the internet trolls — to have clean air, clean water, enough good food to eat and the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of being alive on the Earth.

If you think the same, that makes you one of us. If you tell someone else they need to change how they live, or if other people have noticed how you have changed your own lifestyle first, that makes you an activist, too.

Environmental activists want the best for every person, regardless of who they are, where they live, the colour of their skin, their religion or how much money they have — not just today, but tomorrow, too, all the way out to the seventh generation.

Sept. 8 is #RiseforClimate Day around the world. Sponsored by 350.org — an organization that has no real leaders, just ordinary people who care — we are mobilizing a planet full of people who care but don’t know what to do next, creating a political force that will shape the mess around us into the world — and future — we want.

What you choose to do matters. When you change how you live, even in small ways, it makes a difference for you, your family and your community.

Join us. Do something on Sept. 8 and support #RiseforClimate.

Ultimately, we will change the world — and if the politicians can’t lead or won’t follow, they had better get out of the way.

Read more

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.

Read More