Human-rights museum should document climate justice

(April 16, 2019)

Visiting a museum is supposed to make you think. It provides new information, new things to see or hear or touch. Museum displays, done well, provide a context within which those experiences are interpreted.

Visiting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) obviously makes you think about human rights, who has them, and what happens to individuals and to societies when those rights are not respected.

While there are bits and pieces on this theme throughout, what is missing right now is a significant, ongoing CMHR display on climate justice.

In Canada, environmental defenders are humiliated, abused, arrested or sued by developers to shut them up. Elsewhere, in places where the rule of law is either an inconvenient option or is a sham orchestrated to the benefit of the elite, those same kinds of people are simply shot.

The year 2017 was lethal for environmental defenders — more than three were murdered every week — and 2018 looks to have been just as bad. What is often left out of that story (only briefly and reluctantly reported in mainstream media) is that most of those murdered environmental defenders were Indigenous people, women and local community activists. They were protesting and working against large multinational forces from elsewhere (such as mining companies registered for convenience in Canada) whose actions are ruining the livelihoods of ordinary people and the places that these defenders call home.

In a climate-changing world where we are attempting to fulfil global goals for sustainable development, this is unconscionable. Deliberately ignoring the human consequences of ecological destruction is just as genocidal as the other historical examples CMHR displays. What is worse, it is happening right now.

Humans don’t knowingly or willingly destroy the places where they live. Even U.S. President Donald Trump won’t spray Agent Orange on his Mar-a-Lago golf course or turn it into a toxic waste dump. In the modern world, however, it seems we have no problem destroying the places where other people live.

Ecocide leads to genocide. Human rights abuses are often the result of environmental abuse. Justice for all therefore includes ecological justice, just as human rights include ecological rights.

Looking at the forced migration of millions today, numbers that will only increase as the effects of climate change worsen, ecological justice not only means changing the way we live but also changing our attitudes toward climate refugees.

Our ethical response as Canadians needs to be more than “Sucks to be you!” as we pride ourselves on having won the lottery of birth and geography, especially here in Manitoba.

Why should we expect people to stay where they are and starve, die of thirst or drown?

We wouldn’t. Consider those of many of our ancestors who emigrated to Canada to escape conditions in which they could not live — they certainly didn’t.

Compare the devastating effects of cyclone Idai on Mozambique and Zimbabwe with the threat of a similar storm on the coast of Australia. The developing African countries were slammed, with many people losing their lives during the storm and millions more at risk afterward, whereas the Australians were airlifted to safety ahead of time. Money is available in Australia to rebuild, while the African countries wait, hope and pray for promised aid that (too often) is late or never arrives at all.

We seem afraid to do more.

Fear is one way to shift public opinion, but in this situation, that fear has been misdirected at the victims. Racist and elitist elements have hijacked the narrative, promoting a fear of the Other, a fear of difference, instead of a fear of the people and institutions responsible for climate change and the political instability that fuels forced migration.

What would you do for your children and grandchildren if their survival were threatened? Why should you expect people who live somewhere else to do less for their families? And why should their survival be somehow pitted against our own, making us both into victims of the forces that profit from the misery of others? Those who golf, because they can, while the world around them burns?

These are the kind of questions that a display on environmental defenders and ecological justice would provoke in CMHR visitors.

They are also the kinds of questions we should be asking of those people who want to become — or continue to be — our political leaders. We have two election campaigns almost upon us. Climate activist Greta Thunberg reminds us that no government these days can run on its good record when it comes to combating climate change and creating a sustainable future for the next generation.

Some governments are bigger failures than others, just as their opposition parties may offer worse alternatives.

But without major shifts in policy and actions, they will all be complicit in the ecological genocide to come.

And so will we.

Read more

Follow the children’s lead

(March 27, 2019)

As the school strikes spread around the world on March 15, inspired by Greta Thunberg’s example, I watched what the global mainstream media chose to report.

Granted, that black Friday also brought other things into our newsfeed from New Zealand, but according to most sources, you wouldn’t know anything much had happened. Some kids, some places, walked out of school. CBC focused on the hundred or so who gathered in front of the Manitoba legislature.

Yet, as the numbers were counted by the organizers, estimates were on the order of 1.4 million people, mostly students, at over 2,000 sites in more than 125 countries.

It was an extraordinary achievement for a movement without a leader, a movement that will continue to gather strength and momentum despite the dismissals of those adults who mistakenly believe they hold all the power in our global society.

Greta rang the bell when, confronting world leaders, she bluntly told them — and us — that “you are not mature enough” to respond to climate change. Clearly, our society and its adult leaders need an attitude adjustment in order to deal with the world as it is.

I reached that same conclusion when I read the online comments posted on my last op-ed piece in this paper. I received a torrent of abuse for daring to say that the Pallister government (and others) had not done enough to confront the issues around climate change that Manitobans, present and future, will face.

There were the predictable posts from the usual trolls, wanting “more information” (as though that would change their minds!) or complaining that in 800 words or fewer, I had not sufficiently fleshed out my arguments to prove there was any problem with global warming.

Nor had I offered detailed and realistic solutions to the issues I had identified, demonstrating (once again) I had no clue about any of these issues.

Interestingly, this time, the trolls did not go unchallenged or unanswered — which is why the number of comments spiralled upward.

So, for those who actually want information, type “Global Environmental Outlook 6 report” (or GEO 6) into your search bar. You will find the final version, approved earlier this month by the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 4) in Nairobi. If you want the shorter version, select the “Summary for Policy Makers.”

I was fortunate to be involved in GEO 6 from the very beginning, offering interventions at UNEA 1 and 2 in support of its process, which included more voices than ever before. Setting a new precedent for civil society engagement, as MGS regional representative to UNEP for North America (accredited through the United Church of Canada), I was elected rapporteur for the intergovernmental, multi-stakeholder meetings in Berlin in 2014 that established the parameters of GEO 6, making me responsible for compiling and presenting the final report. I participated as an author in the North American regional assessment, and was an expert reviewer of successive drafts right through to the end of the global GEO 6 report.

In such a large undertaking, of course my part was only a small one — but it was an honour to be one of the few Canadians who had any role at all.

How are we doing? Briefly, we are nowhere near the benchmarks to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, or the greenhouse gas emission reductions required in the Paris agreement to keep global temperature rise close to 2 C. Other, more comprehensive goals for 2050 are far out of reach at the moment.

Climate change understood only in terms of greenhouse gas emissions is incomplete, however. We urgently need to talk about ecological justice.

Developing countries will bear the brunt of climate change they did not create. When a storm like typhoon Idai wipes out 90 per cent of Beira, the main port city of Mozambique, and affects 2.6 million people in the region, it is much worse than a similar storm hitting the sea coast of a developed country like the United States. There is infrastructure elsewhere in a developed country to deliver aid, money to pay for it and people to help.

Not in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Cyclone Idai is perhaps the most devastating weather event ever to hit the southern hemisphere, but it has received minimal news coverage, with no cross-references to climate change, and — so far — the devastated region has been promised little help.

But Greta and her colleagues remind us that we also must consider generational justice.

Refusing to listen to our children’s concerns about their future, closing our minds to the impending disaster literally sweeping in from the sea, is evidence of real sickness in the leadership of our society and the adult elites who arrogantly persist in business as usual.

As the school strikes spread, that attitude will change.

It must.

Read more

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.)

Read More