For politics watchers, the big event of 2019 is clearly the federal election. But for me, the central focus of every month is heeding the clear warnings of scientists that we must meet the climate crisis.
I am keenly aware that the best electoral chances in 2019 for the 338 Green Party federal candidates are attached to the ongoing Liberal failure to address the climate threat with the level of political leadership and fortitude required. I am equally aware that it is far more important that we address the climate emergency than that Greens get elected. In other words, I would far rather the government act, improve its record before the 2019 election, protect our children, and close off a wide-open path to electing more Greens. I am blessed to lead a party whose candidates agree.
We will never put the electoral advantage of the Green Party ahead of our children’s future. It continues to be a tragedy that the NDP of 2005 put partisanship ahead of planet, opening the door to the loss of Kyoto, the Kelowna Accord and universal child care.
We knew in 2005 that we had to pursue climate action with urgency. The 2005 climate plan under Paul Martin’s minority government was the first, and last, plan to get us close to our Kyoto target through federal action. When the Conservatives, NDP and Bloc brought down the government on the opening day of the Montreal COP11 negotiations on November 28, 2005, I am sure those in the Bloc and NDP who understood the need for climate action consoled themselves with “the ends justify the means.”
Fast-forward 13 years, and I write this from COP24 in Poland where Canada is still anywhere near our Kyoto pledges, nor the weaker ones Stephen Harper agreed to in Copenhagen. Even the Liberals have forgotten they ever brought forward a strong plan. Partisan politics in 2005 gave the country Harper’s brand of conservatism for nine years. Three years after his departure, we have not recovered. We still have the weakest climate results of any OECD country.
Meanwhile, partisanship continues to thwart progress. Carbon pricing has become the proxy for climate action. It is an indispensable first step, but clearly does not get us to the last of Harper’s continuously weaker targets.
The final weakening of the target under Harper was in May 2015: reducing emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. This remains Canada’s target, wrongly labeled the “Paris target.” It is inconsistent with the Paris goal of 1.5 degrees. It was not developed to support the Paris agreement, which did not exist in May 2015 when Canada forwarded it to the UNFCCC as our NDC, “Nationally Determined Contribution.”
So carbon taxes are set to be a wedge issue for the 2019 campaign. Using carbon taxes as a ballot box issue by both Liberals and Conservatives through deliberate political manipulation is a distraction from the key question: can we act in time to preserve a livable world? We—media and politicians—are talking about climate without addressing the threat. And time is running out.
We can no longer measure the threat of irreversible, self-accelerating climate catastrophe in decades. It is no longer hypothetical. It can be measured in months. And we literally have no time to lose.
That fact was made abundantly clear by the October 2018 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Back in Paris in 2015, the COP21 decision document requested that the IPCC provide world policy makers with clear advice by 2018. The Paris Agreement commits us all to ensure a global average temperature rise no more than 1.5 degrees C above what it was before the Industrial Revolution—with some wiggle room—and as far below 2 degrees as possible.
The IPCC report on the pathway to 1.5 degrees communicated some new information:
1) A 1.5-degrees world is much worse than we thought. It is our best possible outcome, will preserve life on earth, but it will involve significant climate disruption;
2) Two degrees is even worse and could put all of humanity on a trajectory to massive catastrophe; and
3) We still have a chance to hold to 1.5 degrees with immediate and urgent action.
To avoid global catastrophe on a level beyond contemplation, we must—collectively—reduce global GHG by 45 per cent below 2010 levels by 2030 and be virtually carbon neutral by 2050. We must also protect and re-establish forests everywhere.
I am convinced Canadians are aware of the threat. More than a decade ago, former Senator Lowell Murray recounted to me a conversation with a grocer in Cape Breton. “Nice weather we’re having,” he recalled the shopkeeper saying. “Not sure whose weather it is. It’s not our weather.” That comment was provoked by a long spell of hot, sunny weather. But now Canadians know it’s also not our weather as snow falls on the Prairie crops before farmers can get to the fields to harvest. Or when the St. John River floods to levels unheard of in living memory. Or the lack of rain in British Columbia provokes fires summer after summer, each one breaking the wildfire records of the year before. Tornadoes ripped through Ottawa, glaciers are in rapid retreat, and the loss of polar ice no longer seems unusual. We hardly even report on it any more.
There are deep social costs associated with climate anxiety. The impact of a diffuse, existential threat provokes a widespread sense of depression, alienation and despair. I am hearing more and more people say they are losing sleep over the climate threat. Yet, we proceed in Parliament—and in governments around the world—as though we have time.
Most recently, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna has simultaneously claimed she is taking action while avoiding taking action. She announced Canada will improve our climate target, not now, but in 2020. This is a shockingly weak response, but even those demanding climate action are forgiving. The Liberals are clearly struggling to get carbon taxes in place. How can we demand that they do more?
We have to demand more because the threat is not political and it is not forgiving. We must ensure globally that we hold to no more than a 1.5 degree C global average temperature increase. A recent review of Canada’s target determined it would, if replicated by other countries, take us to 5.1 degrees C.
That is a fast-track to extinction.
The attacks on carbon pricing are only made possible because the Liberals have not put forward a plan for a healthy, thriving future. Carbon taxes are not enough. It is as though we are watching a fire in a four-story building, with people stranded on the roof and in response, a step ladder is brought forward. No one concerned about getting people off the roof to safety will stand back to cheer for the step ladder.
A complete plan to reach our goals while ensuring healthy, strong economies and good meaningful work will engage people. Those who feel depressed, even despairing, can pick up tools and help put solar panels on every roof, plant trees in abandoned fields, grow local food in rooftop gardens. We can get busy. In so doing, we will be empowered, emboldened and be made happier.
Enhancing our social capital and resilience is essential. It is only possible if we simultaneously eliminate poverty and shrink the social inequities growing in Canada. We can still lead the world to a safe future. That is the Greens’ goal.
This article was originally published in the January-February edition of Policy Magazine.