Canada’s first ministers and climate change, no room for cynicism

Canada's first ministers and climate change
Canada’s first ministers and climate change, no room for cynicism. Dennis Gruending photo.

Prime Minister Trudeau called the first ministers together in Vancouver recently to begin mapping out a plan for Canada to meet commitments made at December’s Paris Climate Conference. The Paris meeting  was a last ditch attempt to prevent the most dramatic impacts of global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels whose emissions remain trapped in the atmosphere. At that gathering 195 nations reached an accord committing them to lowering greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) although they did not say by exactly how much. Continue reading Canada’s first ministers and climate change, no room for cynicism

UN climate conference in Paris, no magic fix but signs of hope

25,000 participated in the 100% Possible March in Ottawa on Nov. 29, 2015.
Participants in the 100% Possible March in Ottawa on Nov. 29.

The UN Climate Conference in Paris (COP21) will not produce a magic fix to curb the emission of greenhouse gases caused by burning fossil fuels.  Given the number of countries and competing interests involved, that is not a surprise. The world’s political leaders have been negotiating since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in 1992 yet carbon emissions have continued to rise.

Cooperating fully

On the other hand, the Paris talks have shown an improvement over previous negotiating sessions. The question is whether human societies can find ways to cooperate fully and quickly enough to stave off a disaster which is already being felt in droughts, wild fires, increasingly violent storms, melting ice caps and rising sea levels.  The world’s climate scientists have been telling us with growing urgency that we are on track for temperature increases of four or more degrees Celsius by the end of this century, and that would produce catastrophic results.

Leaders accept science

One promising sign is that most political leaders now accept climate science and know they have to act. For example, China was previously determined to grow its economy on the basis of carbon consumption no matter what the environmental costs. However, choking smog caused by emissions and the startling rise of coastal sea levels have sobered the Chinese. In just a few years they have become the world’s leader in a various green energy technologies, including wind and solar.

Barack Obama also understands climate change and wants to do something about it. For years, the Americans were stuck with leaders such as George W. Bush who showed little or no interest in the issue. For the most part, Republicans said either that climate change did not exist, or if it did that it was not caused by human activity. The subsidies to big coal and big oil continued unabated in the U.S. Unfortunately, the Republicans are now warning that Congress may negate any promises that Obama makes in Paris. The American people must not allow that to happen.

Canada’s record

Canada has been a leader both in pledging to lower greenhouse gas emissions and in breaking those promises. This began with Jean Chretien’s government blithely promising at Kyoto in 1997 that it would reduce emissions but then putting no plan in place to do so. The Liberals were replaced by Stephen Harper who was at first a climate change denier. Later he switched to promising environmental regulations that never materialized.

Canada’s new federal government says that has all changed now. Rhetorically, that is promising but a vigilant citizenry must hold political leaders to their word. Tens of thousands of Canadians did just that by marching on Sunday, November 29 to call for a carbon free future.

Deniers discredited

Another hopeful sign is that the cadre of climate change deniers has been discredited and is shrinking.  Be vigilant, however. The state of New York is investigating Exxon Mobil for allegedly funding groups that deny climate change even as the company’s in house scientists warn executives about the consequences of those changes.

Moral and ethical sphere

A final sign of hope has the debate moving beyond the technical to the moral and ethical sphere. Much of the credit must go to Pope Francis who produced a climate change encyclical called Laudato Si in June 2015 in which he accepts climate science and thus further inhibits the deniers.

The pop says that climate change affects the world’s poor disproportionately and much of the problem rests with the consumerism of the affluent. He says also that changes can and must occur at both personal and political levels.  There is at least a chance that religious faith may influence behaviour in a way that cold, hard facts have failed to do.

A shorter version of this piece appeared as a United Church Observer blog on December 9, 2015.

Naomi Klein on climate change

Naomi Klein on climate change, Ed Kashi photo
Naomi Klein on climate change, Ed Kashi photo

Naomi Klein has done it again with her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. She challenges the existing ignorance and denial on climate change and administers her own form of shock doctrine on that all-consuming issue. I do find, however, that her complete reliance on the power of social movements to bring about needed and urgent change is flawed and incomplete.

By way of background, there is by now widespread scientific consensus that climate change is occurring as a result of human activity.  Carbon emissions are being trapped in the atmosphere and warming the planet. If we do not reduce fossil fuel consumption, scientists say, the results will be catastrophic.  In fact, the collapse of ice sheets and the ensuing rapid rise in sea levels has already begun.

There are vast proven fossil fuel reserves in the world, a good deal of it trapped in the sticky bitumen of the Canadian tar sands. According to Bill McKibben, the climate change activist behind a group called, 80 per cent of the oil, coal and gas on our planet must stay in the ground if we are to limit the future rise in global temperature to two degrees Celsius. Klein says that this is more of a political than a scientific target. Increasingly, scientists tell us that even a temperature increase of two degrees could be disastrous. Yet governments have found it impossible to take action that would attempt to limit the increase to that goal.

Endless negotiations

Negotiators from 196 countries finished a round of talks in Lima, Peru in December 2014, in contemplation of yet another round of talks in Paris in 2015. Climate change negotiations to curtail the emission of greenhouse gases began with the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and have been going on ever since — but in the intervening 22 years emissions have continued to rise.

“What is wrong with us?” Klein asks, and that is the central question in her book.  There are personal shortcomings to be sure (our own greed and denial) but Klein says the problems are systemic. “Our economic system and our planetary system are at war,” she says.

We have been pouring carbon into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution and the rapaciousness of capitalism has only grown more destructive with the development of ever more powerful technology. Communism was environmentally ruinous as well but it no longer reigns anywhere and has been replaced by oligarchic capitalism in Russia and authoritarian capitalism in China.

Tinkering won’t do

Klein rightly dismisses those who claim that the challenges posed by climate change can be met without major changes to the reigning economic system. She says that we have driven past that point on the planet’s freeway and that the only hope we have is to create massive economic and political change. We not only have to replace our sources of energy but we have to consume less of it.

Klein is pessimistic, even dismissive, about what she calls “fossilized democracies” and their ability to deliver the required change. She cites a Venezuelan political scientist as saying that we live in a post-democratic society where the interests of financial capital prevail over the democratic will of the people.

She believes that the best hope in curbing the destructive excesses of “extractivism” lies with the global popular movements.  A good portion of her book is devoted to visiting and describing various grassroots actions which she calls “Blockadia”. These include First Nations in Alberta opposing tar sands extraction and others opposing natural gas fracking in New Brunswick, while student and faith groups are organizing campaigns of divestment from oil companies.

“None of this is a replacement for major policy changes that would regulate carbon reduction across the board,” she says. But she adds that the emergence of a networked, global movement means that when climate campaigners meet with politicians and polluters to negotiate there will be thousands of militants in the street to ramp up the pressure – “and that is very significant indeed.”

Writing the laws

Significant yes, but someone must actually write the new laws and enforce them just as they did during the New Deal in the U.S., a legislative example which Klein points to admiringly. For such a new deal to happen today, we need more than pressure exerted by the social movements; we also must have a renewed politics controlled by citizens and not special interests such as the carbon industry.

The new politics must be informed and prodded by diverse social movements.  As important as they are, however, the sum of groups involved in Blockadia cannot, on their own, deliver the legislative and regulatory changes needed to avoid the calamitous future that unchecked climate change is already beginning to deliver.


Light for Lima

Faith groups hold climate change vigil in Ottawa
Faith groups hold climate change vigil in Ottawa

Faith groups continue to call for an international agreement that addresses climate change.  On Dec. 7, groups in nine Canadian cities held vigils that coincided with the latest round of UN climate change talks in Lima, Peru. The Ottawa vigil took place in a downtown Lutheran church, where participates heard from representatives of Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i and Unitarian faith groups. Following a brief program of prayers and song, the group marched in the dark and cold over to Parliament Hill — their way lit by the solar lamps they carried.

The situation is growing increasingly urgent. In April 2014, scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued their fourth report, which said more clearly than ever that climate change is occurring as a result of human activity. Less than a month later, scientists reported that a large section of the West Antarctica ice sheet had begun to disintegrate and its continued melting has likely passed a point of no return. The IPCC earlier warned that global warming could, in turn, cause sea levels to rise by as much as a metre by the end of this century, inundating many of the world’s coastal cities.

Canada an outlier
Responding to the IPCC’s April report, Canadian Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq claimed that Canada is a world leader in addressing climate change. The Canadian government even says it is committed to cutting emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. But that simply isn’t true. In fact, a recent Environment Canada report indicates that we won’t even come close.So Canada is an outlier when it comes to climate change — a kind of North Korea, known increasingly for bizarre behaviour. In Lima, Aglukkaq insisted that Canada will not move to regulate emissions from the oil sands, which is this country’s main emitter of greenhouse gases.
Early in December, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon singled out Canada for criticism. He said that other countries are making efforts to curb climate change and that Canada should do more.  “Canada is an advanced country, you have many ways to make some transformative changes,” he told the CBC.Writer Naomi Klein says in her new book, This Changes Everything, that when it comes to combating climate change, the impetus will have to come from people and the social movements that they create.A recent Environics poll conducted for the David Suzuki foundation indicates that an increasing majority of Canadians accept that climate change is happening and is caused by human activity. They’re looking to government for leadership, but Environics also says that climate change is not yet a top-of -mind issue and that few people are prepared to pay more for action on the environment.
Time is, indeed, short. Still, faith groups tend to take a longer, deeper view than most politicians and could begin to play a key role in the very social movements that Naomi Klein describes.

This piece also appeared on my blog with the United Church Observer on December 11, 2014.

Global cry of the people

Jennifer Henry, KAIROS, says partners asking about Canadian mining
Jennifer Henry, KAIROS, says partners asking about Canadian mining

Recently, I attended a Saint Paul University symposium dealing with environmental and human rights abuses committed by Canadian mining companies — with the knowledge and complicity of the federal government. The Ottawa symposium was called the Global Cry of the People: Mining Extraction and Justice, and the presenters included a range of church-based and other civil society advocates from Canada, Latin America and Asia.

Jennifer Henry, the executive director of the Canadian inter-church justice group, KAIROS, told the audience that there is a discrepancy between the rhetoric and action of Canadian mining companies. “Our partners and neighbours are pleading with us to respond to this, and they wonder why nothing in changing,” she said. “Surely, we can take concrete steps to change the way in which Canadian mining companies do business.”

Meanwhile, Development and Peace, a Canadian Catholic aid organization, distributed  literature about the deleterious effects of mining on various communities. In it were comments from bishops in Latin America, Asia and the Philippines. Said the Philippines’ Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo: “Mining is not helping our people, and it is destroying our environment.”

Canada’s investment and activity in foreign mining has increased exponentially in recent decades — in tandem with mounting abuses. Many groups at the Ottawa symposium belong to a 29-member coalition called the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA). They want the government to take measures compelling the industry to act more responsibly. They have even taken their concerns to the Organization of American States, of which Canada is a member.

In October 2014, the CNCA submitted a brief to the organization’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington D.C. The CNCA says that there are more large mining companies domiciled in Canada than any other country. In fact, 41 percent of the large companies present in Latin America and the Caribbean are Canadian. As of December 2013, Canada had 1,500 mining projects in the region.

The CNCA says this concentration of mining companies in Canada is partly the result of Canada’s low rate of corporate taxation, a securities industry designed to promote mining, and enthusiastic support from the Canadian government. Export Development Canada, for example, provided financing and insurance worth $25 billion to the extractive sector in 2013, which represented 29% of the corporation’s exposure.

The CNCA brief also referred to a systematic pattern of Indigenous and human rights abuses that have accompanied increased Canadian mining activity. It cited a report presented to the IACHR Commission last year by the Working Group on Mining and Human Rights in Latin America. In ten of the 22 Canadian mining projects reviewed by the group, 23 violent deaths and 25 cases of injury were found.

So what does the CNCA and others want done? For starters, it wants the government to appoint an independent extractive sector ombudsperson to provide redress whenever Canadian companies are involved in abuses. Secondly, it wants the government to provide access to Canadian courts for people who have been seriously harmed by the international operations of Canadian companies.

The Conservative government has responded with a project for Corporate Social Responsibility, a purely voluntary endeavour in which Canadian extractive companies agree to abide by certain guidelines. But the government has shown no enthusiasm for the proposals by civil society, and any attempts to introduce regulation have been met with opposition by the mining industry lobby.

Still, despite the lack of response from the government or industry, attendees at the November symposium agreed that the campaign must — and will — continue.This piece appeared in slightly different form recently in my blog for the United Church Observer.   


2014 Climate Summit    

80% of reserves should stay in the ground
80% of carbon reserves should stay in the ground

In April 2014, scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued their fourth report, which said more clearly than ever that climate change is occurring as a result of human activity.  Carbon emissions are being trapped in the atmosphere and warming the planet. The scientists said that if we do not reduce fossil fuel consumption the results will be potentially catastrophic. They predicted, for example, that we might see the collapse of ice sheets with an ensuing rapid rise in sea levels in coming years.

Less than a month after the IPCC report, a part of that prediction came to pass. Two scientific groups, one of them the North American Space Agency (NASA), reported that a large section of the West Antarctica ice sheet has begun to disintegrate and its continued melting has likely passed a point of no return. The IPCC had earlier warned that the global sea levels could rise by as much as a metre by the end of this century and by more in subsequent years. American researchers say that, in turn, would inundate land in cities such as Miami, New Orleans, New York and Boston.

There is a growing sense of urgency among scientists but it is difficult for most individuals, and certainly for politicians driven by four year cycles, to be concerned about what will happen a century or two from now.  However, Ban Ki Moon, the United Nations secretary general, fears for the future and has called upon world leaders to attend a Climate Summit in New York City on September 21-22. By inviting heads of state to attend, Ban Ki Moon wants to break an enduring cycle of stalled international negotiations on climate change.

There are vast proven reserves fossil fuel reserves in the world, a good deal of it trapped in the sticky bitumen of the Canadian tar sands. According to Bill McKibben, the climate change activist behind a group called, 80 % of the oil, coal and gas on our planet must stay in the ground if we are to limit the future rise in temperature to 2 degrees Celsius.

McKibben’s and 850 other groups are planning a giant march and rally to accompany the climate change summit in New York City. “We think that organizing, mobilizing, and building social movements are ultimately what change the course of history,” says the website.

The 25-member Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) wants to get Canadian churches and other faith-based organizations active on the issue as well. To that end, the ecumenical group Citizens for Public Justice has prepared worship aid materials, including prayers and sermon notes, for use on Sunday, September 21.

Joe Gunn, CPJ’s executive director, says, “We will be asking faith communities to make this day the largest demonstration of action on climate sensitivity on record, by walking, biking or taking public transit to work on that day. We also hope that faith-based organizations will make free use of the materials that we have prepared for them.”

Peoples’ Social Forum

Drumming ceremony at 2014 Peoples' Social Forum. Dennis Gruending photo.
Drumming ceremony at 2014 Peoples’ Social Forum. Dennis Gruending photo.

Thousands of Canadians converged upon Ottawa earlier in August for a Peoples’ Social Forum that attracted a diverse group of individuals from the Indigenous, labour and student movements, as well as churches and human rights organizations. Over four days, the forum featured about 500 workshops and assemblies — an overwhelming variety that made for difficult choices. Ultimately, I decided to focus on those that featured Indigenous people. The experience was intense while the emotions, at times, were raw.

An Indigenous Solidarity Movement Assembly at the forum packed roughly 200 people into a University of Ottawa classroom. The event was billed as an opportunity to build relationships and share ideas about how to become an effective solidarity activist for Indigenous people. The session was  blessed by an elder and introduced by drummers.

Dr. Lynn Gehl, an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley, told her audience that “settlers” need to speak out in support of Indigenous people who are trying to protect their lands and improve their own lives. “Follow the turtle and put the most oppressed at the front of the line,” she said. “We want you to stand behind us, and you can do that because you have privilege.”  Gehl added that “settlers need to decolonize, not just their minds but also their hearts.” She said that people could begin by reading Volume I of the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. The commission was established in 1991, and its encyclopedic report containing many recommendations was published in 1996. But it has received little official attention to date.

Still, the Indigenous Solidarity Movement Assembly was largely overtaken by the crises of the moment. There were two people present from the Unist’ot’en Camp, a resistance community on the land in northern British Columbia. The campers here want to protect unceded Indigenous territory from proposed pipelines from the tar sands and from shale gas hydraulic fracturing projects in the Peace River region.

Also on hand was a representative, named Shannon, from the Algonquin Nation of the Ottawa River Watershed. They are opposing logging that is happening near the La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue area of Quebec, which is several hours from Ottawa. Shannon told the assembly that a group comprised mostly of grandmothers is on the land to prevent clear-cut logging on unceded territory. Shannon even wept during her presentation and was comforted by an elder and several other women.

One of the young organizers of the Indigenous Solidarity Assembly said later that it was the first time that attendees were confronted so directly by the reality on the ground. “Many people were challenged to the core, and they want to do something,” she said. “The time is now.”

At the very least, the Peoples’ Social Forum provided an important venue allowing for Indigenous-settler solidarity to be strengthened.

This piece appeared on my United Church Observer blog on August 28, 2014.

2014 Peoples’ Social Forum comes to Ottawa

2014 Peoples' Social Forum, Ottawa
2014 Peoples’ Social Forum, Ottawa

A Peoples’ Social Forum (PSF) which has been several years in the planning will occur at the University of Ottawa on August 21-24 and organizers are expecting thousands of people to attend. There will be more than 500 workshops and presentations, as well as assemblies and cultural activities. In a statement of purpose, which introduces the four-day program, organizers say this: “We will weave our collective movements together to face the crises of our times head-on, and counter the government’s attacks on our rights, our jobs, our environment, our services, and our future. We will honour the unceded Algonquin territory on which we will stand, and honour each other’s struggles for dignity and justice.”

The forum is incredibly diverse and as such its planned activities are difficult to summarize and describe. I talked to Gustavo Frederico, one of the Ottawa-based volunteers, to better understand why the PSF is occurring, what it will involve and what it hopes to accomplish.

Where did the PSF come from, can you provide some context?

The first World Social Forum (WSF) was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001 and there have been a number of others since, the last one in Tunis in 2013. These events present a citizens and grassroots alternative to the World Economic Forum held each year in Davos, Switzerland. Unlike the WSF, Davos promotes a neo-liberal agenda, including privatization, free trade, open markets, deregulation, and government cutbacks in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy.

Most national social forums adhere to the charter of principles drawn up initially by the WSF. The goal is to allow for a large number of people to engage in an open forum atmosphere. The WSF has led to the organizing of other regional social forums in the U.S., Europe Asia, Southern Africa and elsewhere.

The PSF in Ottawa is the first pan-Canadian forum and it comes with the same motivation as those in Porto Alegre and elsewhere – to propose and envision an alternative social and political agenda. It is diverse, non-governmental and non-partisan, aimed at stimulating debate and exchange, proposing alternatives to the existing economic order and building alliances to effect change.

Who is organizing this and how?

There are a number of streams or organizing bodies. One of them is labour and the list of acknowledged PSF supporters and sponsors includes a good representation from unions, from Quebec and the rest of Canada. Another key group arises from Indigenous organizations from the grassroots to the national level. A third grouping which appears well organized is social movements from Quebec, particularly the student movement.

What will be talked about?

The three main organizing groups and their concerns are foundational but the Ottawa event will be diverse. There are more than 500 workshops on a wide variety of themes: the environment and related issues about resource extraction and Indigenous rights are important, as are issues related to labour and the government’s austerity agenda. Others deal with youth, solidarity and LGBT issues and much more. Many of the workshops are related in one way or another to media and communications and there is a strong cultural component including the presentation of films and documentaries.

Will there be much of a presence from religious groups?

There are a number of religiously-based groups involved although they aren’t there to talk about religion per se. Ecumenical groups such as Citizens for Public Justice and Kairos are involved with the PSF but mainly through their work on issues related to the environment, poverty or human rights. Some of the workshops could be described as primarily spiritual in their orientation and there is one workshop on Christ as a revolutionary. However, there is not much apparent involvement from local Ottawa churches or from large religious denominations. Unfortunately, the outreach to religious organizations has not generated much response.

Is there a concern about infiltration and possibly provocation by the state security apparatus?

Organizers are aware that there is always the possibility of infiltration by state security actors but there has been no discussion about this at the level of volunteers. The PSF has adopted a non-violent approach within its charter. It is diverse, offers much cultural content and is also child friendly.

The primary concern is that people within the forum act in a respectful way toward one another because among those who will attend there are conflicting points of view. There is also the possibility that individuals from the community who are contrary to what the PSF is doing will attend and cause problems at the assemblies and workshops. Organizers of the PSF have had discussions with the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) about how to maintain a peaceful assembly. CPT is involved in promoting non-violence in many of the world’s trouble spots and has valuable advice to offer in this area.

Will all of this go anywhere or is it just meant to equip those attending with more information?

On the last days (Saturday and Sunday) there will be a number of movement assemblies where key facilitators will assist people in a process of how they might best address the issues raised. The record of the federal government is a concern. The Conservatives’ policies don’t resonate with many people so this is a chance to talk in strategic terms about what to do together. The focus will be partly about how to change the current government but it is wider and deeper than this. It is meant to energize and build community among the movements involved.