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.

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Canada can kick carbon addiction

(May 25, 2018)

We need to use plain language to explain why the federal government approves, supports and (apparently) is prepared to help fund oil pipelines, such as Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain, for which they appear to have money to blow.

Intending the drug reference, we should instead say, bluntly, they are just doing more lines of pipe.

The government’s willingness to spend money on pipe instead of on clean water for First Nations communities, food and shelter for homeless people, proper supports for injured veterans and a long list of other national necessities seems like an addiction.

Add the irrational frenzy reflected in their defence of the Trans Mountain project — vilifying opponents, desperate to do whatever it takes to get their pipe (military options against protesters have still not been taken off the table) — and it’s clear they need some professional help to kick the habit.

We continue to be told, in increasingly frantic tones, that Canada must get its oil to the world markets. (This conveniently ignores last year’s pipeline frenzy around Keystone XL and the fact, at the moment, we are apparently getting oil to market in other ways.)

Forget the logic the Afromax tankers that can navigate the British Columbia waterways into the proposed pipeline terminus are one-quarter the size of the supertankers that can fill up, in much less time, in Texas. Forget the price of oil is lower now than it needs to be (by at least $30 a barrel) to make working the oil sands profitable.

Forget the global shift toward alternative energy, which means (even with real growth) there will be less global demand for oil in the future, not more. Forget the equally obvious point that oil sands product is lower quality than other supplies available, requiring extra refining (and higher costs) to make it usable and therefore less desirable to anyone who has an option. Forget that the country most likely in our sights as a future customer — China — is also becoming the global leader in producing alternative energy, such as solar.

All this is set aside because we need more pipe. Another line, as soon as possible — and there will be trouble if you try to get in the way of me doing my next line.

Granted, you could say as a country we are all addicted to oil, so the Liberal government is no worse than the rest of us. But that only means we all could use some professional help.

Bizarre as this might sound, perhaps Premier Brian Pallister can lead the way to a pipe-free, alternative energy, decarbonized future for all of Canada.

All he needs to do, the next time he visits his cottage in Costa Rica, is to check out what the locals are doing to kick the habit and bring back some of their ideas for rehab in his luggage, along with the usual packages of Costa Rican coffee.

Newly elected President Carlos Alvarado Quesada announced at his inauguration this month that Costa Rica is going to lead the world in decarbonizing its society. Last year, deriving most of its electricity from hydro power, Costa Rica went 300 consecutive days using a mix of renewable energy sources to power the country, breaking its record from a year earlier.

Of course, that leaves transportation — but the new president intends to tackle that head-on, too, campaigning on a platform to eliminate fossil-fuel transportation in the near future with electric vehicles and better public transportation (he arrived at the inauguration in a hydrogen-powered bus).

Using what are called “foresight scenarios” to plan toward a future everyone wants, not the one that just arrives uninvited, the agricultural sector in Costa Rica is working co-operatively toward decarbonizing everything from livestock to crop production, as soon as it can.

Manitoba could be a carbon-negative province. We could generate all our power from renewables, heat our homes and businesses the same way and slash emissions from agriculture and transportation by promoting the technology and infrastructure that already exist to do it. We could use foresight scenarios to make the province resilient in the face of climate change, instead of sitting, paralyzed, in the middle of the road, waiting to get run over.

As for the naysaying internet trolls and pipe-addicted politicians who will sneer at these ideas, I received an email recently from Manitoba’s airship visionary, Barry Prentice, that closed with a Chinese proverb I had forgotten:

“The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.”

Next time you turn on your lights at your vacation home in Costa Rica, Premier Pallister, consider what it might mean for Manitoba if you followed that country’s lead.

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NAFTA arbitration can hurt communities

Local residents on Digby Neck used simple messaging to tell the story. Photo by Ruth Denton

(May 11, 2018)

It is a costly and unnecessary lesson, but the federal government’s unsuccessful challenge of a North American Free Trade Agreement arbitration ruling could not have come at a better time.

As we renegotiate — or just scrap — NAFTA, perhaps the government will accept what environmentalists have said all along: the current language allows Canada to be sued by companies for protecting our environment and preserving the communities where we live.

Bilcon, a Delaware company, may be awarded up to $500 million for failing, in the end, to explode a significant part of Nova Scotia and crush it into gravel, providing cheap roadbed material for New Jersey highways. The gravel would have been shipped across the right whale breeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy, also destroying lucrative lobster and herring fisheries in the process and effectively rendering Digby Neck uninhabitable.

However the company tried to spin things, this was the project. Local politicians were “persuaded” this was a good idea; local people had visits from folks genially offering to buy land — and only after the fact did people realized these were actually agents for Bilcon, which (by the way) still owns much of the land in question.

You might wonder why Bilcon would bother to seek environmental approval for such a destructive project. I did, when I first heard about it — how could it ever be approved? — but this one strikes close to home. The quarry marine terminal would have been built on land my grandfather once owned and the communities slated for devastation included those where the descendants of my European ancestors have lived since the 1780s — and where relatives still do.

So, without support from either federal or provincial representatives, the local people protested when the implications of the project sank in. They had to fight hard to get a hearing, or to have their concerns heard. Some, such as my aunt — who was one of the leaders — were either threatened with lawsuits or were sued by Bilcon for amounts guaranteed to scare people into silence.

It didn’t work. Finally, with the support of large environmental NGOs such as the Sierra Club and with public exposure from an article by Noah Richler in The Walrus, the rest of Canada realized that what was going to happen to Digby Neck could just as easily happen to them and to their own communities.

I fumed from a distance, watching events unfold — I still think a great slogan would have been “It’s Your Neck, Too,” superimposed on a picture of Digby Neck.

The locals were more prosaic, as signs reading “Stop the Quarry” proliferated from Digby to Briar Island.

Belatedly, and despite a feeble environmental-assessment process, the two levels of government (arguably after one election and faced with another) realized that continued support for the project would admit Canada’s resources — and its leaders — were for sale to the highest bidder.

Officially, the reason given was that an environmental review panel concluded the project was “not in keeping with community values.”

So, what were these “community values” that surprised everyone later in the process? What “community values” are now potentially going to cost all Canadians as much as $500 million?

Simply, to have a community at all. To preserve the country we have on loan from our children, the resources of land, water and air that are our heritage, resources that we have a responsibility to protect if we want to preserve a decent quality of life for ourselves and others into an environmentally-uncertain future.

This project should have been dismissed out of hand, right from the start. The fact it went far enough to result in a NAFTA arbitration hearing shows our environmental-assessment rules were (and still are) laughably weak.

When Canadians are confronted with the kind of corporate greed that allows others elsewhere to profit from the misery of the people who live where the damage is done, we need to demonstrate that while this might work in other places, it does not work here.

Or, at least, not at the moment. I am concerned that the blatant disregard for similar “community values” reflected in pipeline decisions shows the federal government still has moral lessons to learn.

I worry that it will trade away Digby Neck, after all, to dodge the NAFTA ruling.

But those communities whose values were finally respected were originally created by people who knew that loyalty and respect come at a price. They were United Empire Loyalists, who lost everything because of the American revolution.

Faced with the same thing happening 200 years later, their descendants were not going to let it happen again. Nor should we.

Peter Denton is a descendant of United Empire Loyalists who settled in the communities of Little River, White Cove and Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia.

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