Despite Ford’s reckless and self-serving attacks on intelligent climate policy, signs of hope remain.
Next Monday is Earth Day, an occasion that for me evokes bittersweet emotions. As a teacher, I was involved in organizing numerous Earth Day events to inspire students to learn and care more about the environment. In the 1980s and 90s, Earth Day reflected a true sense of excitement that a much greener future was within reach. At Edmison Heights Public School, we had set up a school-wide recycling and a litterless lunch program; we carried out classroom waste audits; we raised money for everything from the Lakefield Marsh to the Costa Rican rainforest; and we even naturalized a corner of the schoolyard. Earth Day assemblies were a celebration of all these initiatives. Every year we would sing “Signs of Hope”, an environmental anthem composed and song by Ontario elementary students. And, yes, many of us believed the song’s lyrics that “signs of hope are coming, they’re beginning to appear, signs of hope are everywhere, the time to act is here.” Over the years, however, Earth Day has become little more than an occasion to pick up litter or at best plant a tree. Optimism has given way to the reality that real change is not at hand, even though environmental threats and degradation have become infinitely worse – the biggest case in point being climate breakdown, which threatens the very future of civilization as we know it.
You don’t have to look any further than the Ford government for the most current example of why so many of us feel despondent. It’s hard to think of anything more laughable, albeit deeply depressing, than Progressive Conservative politicians being photographed filling up their tanks at gas stations as part of a well orchestrated campaign to fight Trudeau’s 4.4-cent-litre levy on fuel. The hubris of these reality-denying politicians is beyond the pale. On the same day there was a chilling report from Environment and Climate Change Canada showing that our country is warming at double the global average and that the Arctic is warming even faster. This warming goes a long way to explaining why severe weather cost Canada $1.9 billion in insured damages last year. I guess the Ontario government feels that none of this matters when “The People” can save a few bucks when filling up.
If all of this was not distressing enough, we must now stomach Ontario’s legal challenge to the fuel levy and brace ourselves for the outrageous sight of the coming anti-carbon tax stickers on gas pumps. Being a strictly political ploy, the stickers make no mention of the fact that the money paid for the fuel tax will be returned to Ontario households in their tax refunds. I agree with stickers, but they should be reminding us of how our use of fossil fuels contributes to the climate crisis we are facing! As Dr. Diane Saxe, Ontario’s recently fired environmental commissioner, said in a news conference, Ontario’s climate response is “very inadequate, very frightening.” If ever there was an example of a government being on the wrong side of history and science, this is it.
What remains of hope?
It’s little wonder that so many Canadians feel paralyzed in the face of climate breakdown. I don’t blame people for thinking “there’s nothing I can do” and carrying on as if everything is fine. For many, it’s the only way to maintain sanity and enjoy life in the present.
Where do you find signs of hope today? Are there any, or are we just grasping at straws and deluding ourselves? A growing number of environmentalists believe the latter. Call it delusional, but I’m not ready quite yet to join their ranks. How can I with six grandchildren?
I believe there is more hope out there than meets the eye. Jeremy Lent, author of “The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning” argues for a non-linear way of looking at things. Small changes at one level can have indirect, amplified, and unpredictable effects on a larger scale. There’s an inherent mystery in how change comes about, and it rarely happens in a linear way. He argues that it’s helpful to think about change through the metaphor of the Butterfly Effect, which links a hurricane in China to a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the planet. It may take a very long time, but had the butterfly not flapped its wings at just the right point in space and time, the hurricane would not have happened. This effect is especially true in 2019, thanks to the hyper-connected society in which we live.
This means that the actions we take as citizens – be it on climate change or anything else – can have unforeseen, unknowable impacts. We can’t know, for example, to what extent they are noticed and copied by other people. We’re all embedded in a network, and the way we behave and relate to each other is part of the future we’re creating. Recognizing this fact provides a reason for hope. Not hope based on statistics or scientific reports, but on the recognition that there’s nothing inevitable about the way that this complex system of interconnected human beings and their actions will unfold. We are rarely able to predict tipping points, but history is replete with miraculously rapid changes. And the more we envision them, and work toward them, the more likely they become.
Knowing this, we should feel more positive about those climate actions we can take, be it minimizing our red meat consumption, buying carbon offsets when we fly, making climate change a regular topic of conversation with friends and family, or supporting aggressive climate policies on the part of government, including Trudeau’s carbon tax. Trudeau’s missteps in recent months are regrettable, but they pale in comparison to the damage on climate progress that would occur if ever Andrew Scheer was to become prime minister. If you believe the science, climate change policies are what matter most to the future of civilization.
Trudeau is often portrayed as a climate sellout by activists, especially given his support of the TransMountain pipeline. However, according to Mark Jaccard, professor of sustainable energy at Simon Fraser University, there is actually a consensus among foreign climate experts that Canada has become a global climate policy leader. As Jaccard wrote in the Globe and Mail earlier this week, global experts are not only impressed by Trudeau’s national carbon tax but also by several other of his climate policies. These include his government’s phased closure of Canada’s coal plants by 2030. Their closure will remove the equivalent in emissions of 1.3 million cars from roads. With Britain, the Canadian government has co-founded the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a growing force of jurisdictions committed to phasing out coal. Jaccard says that his counterparts in India and China are already noticing the influence on their own countries’ policies.
In addition, the Trudeau government’s clean fuel standard, which comes fully into force in two years (should he be re-elected) will greatly accelerate the switch in transportation from gasoline and diesel to electricity and sustainably-produced biofuels. Several U.S. states are already considering a version of this policy. Jaccard also writes that the Trudeau government’s pending regulation on methane emissions is another policy of global significance.
“In just for years, these and other policies have transformed Canada from a global pariah to a model of climate action under Trudeau,” says Jaccard. He sees these globally influential policies as extremely important, even if a new TransMountain oil pipeline goes ahead. Jaccard even speculates that the pipeline could shift in the future to transporting hydrogen produced from the oil sands or biofuels from the prairies.
Role of radical action
Humanity’s efforts to minimize the extent of climate breakdown must be fought on multiple fronts. In addition to personal action and supporting the Trudeau government’s initiatives, there is also a role for more radical interventions. Most notable is the Extinction Rebellion (XR). This worldwide movement believes that government can be forced to address climate change by using long term, non-violent civil disobedience. XR demands that our governments tell the truth about the climate breakdown, commit to a timeline for net zero carbon emissions, and create a citizen-led panel to evaluate progress. Variations of this tactic can be seen in Swedish teen, Greta Thunberg’s Global Climate Strike, which brought out 40,000 students in Montreal and 1.5 million protesters around the world in March, including here in Peterborough. Under the leadership of Peter Morgan, the Peterborough Alliance for Climate Action has organized various events to challenge the slow pace of change in Ottawa and Toronto. More disruptive action should be expected if our leaders fail to act.
In addition to the arguments I’ve laid out above, I am greatly encouraged by how much more attention mainstream media are giving to the climate crisis. This is evident to anyone reading the Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, the Peterborough Examiner, or watching or listening to CBC. So, yes, I believe that “signs of hope” are real, just like the Earth Day anthem suggests. Knowing so should strengthen our commitment to making changes in our personal lives, to talking more about climate change, to letting MPP Dave Smith know how damaging his party’s policies are, and to supporting Trudeau’s initiatives – or equally strong or stronger policies from another party. Who knows? Maybe more of us will even surprise our friends and families by taking part in upcoming climate change protests. The future has yet to be written, and we can find inspiration in the knowledge that we can influence how it might unfold.