Let’s call it what it is: a climate emergency

(May 29, 2019)

World Environment Day is June 5. This year, we should mark it not with speeches or extra composting, but by calling the situation we are in a climate emergency.

This is one of the points Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg (recently on the cover of Time magazine) has been hammering in her speeches at the European Parliament, in the British Parliament, at Davos in Switzerland and elsewhere.

Stop talking about climate change and ways to respond to it. This dodges the urgency of the problem, and reduces it to one among the many problems that we all must deal with daily. It also thus allows politicians to stack “climate change” in a pile with all the problems they are urged to confront someday, when they have time and budget.

Call it what it is — a climate emergency — and mobilize everything to deal with it as we would when we deal with a political, economic or military crisis. All hands on deck, and all sailors to the braces — we must either struggle through this crisis by working together or we are all, quite literally, sunk.

As the seas rise and the storms become more violent and frequent, such nautical images and analogies are inevitable. Small island developing states are already contemplating evacuation to new locations that will remain above water. More ominously, if one of the ice sheets underneath Antarctica continues to disintegrate, detach and then melt, the resulting five-metre rise in global sea levels will wipe out coastal cities and communities all around the world.

This kind of talk about a climate emergency will no doubt motivate the fossil fuel companies and their minions to once again send in the internet trolls to deny this reality, or at least to distract or deflect the readers’ attention from the crisis we face in our generation.

It is time for our governments — municipal, provincial and federal — to follow the lead of other jurisdictions around the world and call what we are facing a “climate emergency.” It is not enough to pull on our chin hairs and talk about climate change, or to debate (as the waters rise and our forests burn) whether it is real. Still more absurd, in a world of 7.5-billion-plus people, is the discussion about whether humans have actually contributed to the problem.

Documents are being discovered now that demonstrate fossil fuel companies not only knew about global warming back in the 1980s, they also accurately predicted its current levels and effects. And yet, they hid the information, engaging in a 40-year campaign to deny, distract and deflect public attention and political reaction, all the while racking up trillions in subsidies from governments everywhere to further pad their collective pockets with cash from the very people whose futures they knew they were ruining.

The United Kingdom and Ireland were the first two member states of the United Nations to declare our situation a climate emergency. They have been followed by more than 500 regional governments so far, ranging from Catalonia to Kingston, Ont.

Winnipeg should be on that global list. The city’s Climate Action Plan at least has the potential to do something that would make a difference. Declaring a climate emergency would underline the importance of making the real and immediate changes to how we live together that this emergency situation requires.

The Metropolitan Capital Region, which comprises of 18 municipalities that include and surround Winnipeg, could do the same, if the neighbouring municipalities could hold each other to account — or perhaps they could push Winnipeg into taking the lead.

As for the province, declaring a climate emergency would be a good campaign issue, something that would help voters decide which party and which candidates really have the best interests of future generations of Manitobans in mind. Forget the rhetoric of climate pillars and green reports — with Manitoba’s emissions actually going up, clearly other things are more important to this current crop of provincial politicians.

For the sake of our children and grandchildren, this situation has to change — right now. If the Pallister government thinks our climate emergency is unimportant, or just one of a long list of issues on their “someday” list — somewhere far behind reducing the provincial sales tax — then perhaps we need someone else to lead the province into its uncertain future.

Either way, whether or not the province should declare a climate emergency makes for crucial campaign fodder.

No party yet has a lock on how to respond to this emergency — we need more evidence of their good ideas and their commitment to really make a difference — but honestly recognizing the urgency of the problem, and the need to take serious steps to respond to it, would be a good place for any new government (or successful candidate) to start.

Read more