Addressing Sensitive Climate Contradictions is Still the Biggest Challenge of the Climate Movement
What happens now? It feels like climate-conscious Canadians have been asking that question for years now. That’s what we asked when Canada became the Wild West of resource extraction; when mammoth omnibus “budget” bills scraped out the guts of protection policies and axed over $160m from environmental programs, leaving a tokenistic shell of an approval process in the place of real regulations. That’s what we asked when our nation became the first and only country to turn its back on the Kyoto protocol and when Environment Canada itself predicted an equally egregious negligence towards our own weakened Copenhagen targets with an ever-widening 30% chasm between current and proposed reductions.
At all of these painful moments in our recent history, we asked, ‘what now?’ When we saw pieces of our future potential – perhaps the potential of our very survival – chipped away, smudged out, extinguished, we waited with baited breath for a resurgence of anger, a passion for change, a new alternative, a political breakthrough. A climate movement that never came. This January, I gave up waiting.
I knew I had to go to Ottawa, the epicentre of political apathy and complacency in the face of this grave danger. I knew I had to do so in a method that would, at the very least, expressing the extent of my utter frustration with the status quo. The idea was not to trigger a movement from scratch, nor to assume representation of my peers, nor to single-handedly shift the political discussion. It was not a public ambition so much as a personal resolution; if I took my relative powerlessness as a reason for inaction, I was no better than the elected leaders who failed to represent my desire for change. At the same time, I hoped to experience a new level of connectedness and solidarity with like-minded Canadians. To be empowered by their conviction and to aid in their attempts to bring awareness of the climate. I wanted reassurance that I was not alone.
Oddly enough, it was in that vein that I committed to making the journey to Parliament Hill on one of the most oddball methods of transportation known to man. Riding a unicycle might not bring me any closer to environmentalists, but it was a guaranteed conversation-starter for everyone else. I also hoped it would give the journey more visibility to help me expand my reach, and indeed, it has. Riding 1,100km over 37 days from one end of BC to other has brought me in contact with thousands of incredible people with whom I would normally never converse, let alone on the sensitive topic of climate change.
The journey thus far has fortified my belief that most of us believe deeply in the reality of human-caused climate change. And we’re concerned – albeit to widely varying levels, ranging from ‘it might shorten our tourist season one day,’ to ‘I fear for the lives of my grandchildren.’ We are, by and large, frustrated at the federal government’s inaction, surprised by the ineffectiveness of our limited backlash, and impatient to learn, ‘what happens now?’ And yet many British Columbians seem arrested in a timid discomfort, an uneasiness, as if some invisible force is restraining them from demonstrating the exuberant support for action we should all feel for our planet.
There isn’t an invisible force; there’s two. The first, which seems to infect and contagiously spread among environmentalists, is plain old exhaustion. They have already tried, they insist, to advocate for change; it didn’t work. They wouldn’t have the time or the ability to, for example, spend 6 months trekking to Ottawa to call for climate action, and they doubt it would do any good. Instead, they’re focusing on making their own lives more green while they wait to see ‘what happens now?’ Then there are people beholden to ‘the system’ in which they – through their employment, friends, families, loved ones, investments and communities – are implicated directly in industries that are causing climate change. They are unwittingly enabling Canada to be a leading per-capita contributor to the climate crisis. Their concern for the future shouldn’t be underestimated, but nonetheless they are unable or unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to divest. To trivialize such sacrifices would be equally unfair, for they are very real and substantial.
These are the faces of inaction: She was worried about her son’s financial future; he was getting involved in illegal activity until he found ‘good work’ as a popular contractor in the tar sands. They inherited their wealth from oil executives. He works for the town, and wants to help with my campaign, but doesn’t want me to disclose his identity because questioning the coal mining that forms the backbone of the community’s economy is quietly forbidden and he could lose his job.
I stopped being surprised a couple days in, discovering that more than half the honks of support, the thumbs up and waves, came from drivers of roaring 4X4s, often towing trailers weighed down with excavators, ATVs, snowmobiles, motor boats or motorbikes. Whether in livelihood, lifestyle or both, too many British Columbians are caught in a fatal contradiction. We justify our lack of faith, our lack of action, in changing our economies and societies, in a thousand different ways for a hundred different reasons.
How will the tides turn? Like so many civil rights campaigns of the past, the majority of citizens must recognize that they are not alone in this conflict. We must learn to band together, to find the courage to confront our own contradictions and break ties with the systems that perpetuate the behaviour at the root of the problem. These ties are why the climate crisis – although so morally, ethically, clear-cut for many – will not be any easier to overcome than any human rights struggle of the past.
Is it any easier to condemn the fossil fuel industry when a loved one works for an oil company than it is to come out of the closet to homophobic parents? Is it any easier to stand up to your buddies when they prolifically pollute than to call out their racist remarks? Is arriving at the school dance as the only guy on a bicycle any easier when everyone else arrives in an F250 than being the only girl without makeup or a dress on? Is it any easier for a politician to cross partisan lines to vote against ‘economic action’ legislation that will warm the climate than to stand against their colleagues on issues of religion freedom or the definition of marriage? These are long-fought battles. And like my journey, in ways, they are deceivingly personal and not societal. They take time to manifest, perhaps more time than we can afford, but we know they can be won, and they usually, eventually, are. That’s what happens next.
But before these widespread shifts can occur – the shifts that enable politicians to take ‘drastic’ action and make ‘radical’ policy changes – people need to accept there’s a real problem. That includes overcoming illogical beliefs motivated by prejudice and personal implications buried deep in our psyche.
Before activists could eradicate slavery, they had to convince people who enjoyed the service of slaves that they were inflicting real pain and suffering on their fellow human beings. Similarly, we now have the obligation to persuade our fellow Canadians that their daily dependence on fossil fuels puts the whole world in jeopardy.
To fight climate change, we need to convince people that not only are we inflicting great suffering overseas, but we are also putting our own future in peril. Not only are we irreversibly destroying our environment, but we are also subjecting our own healthcare, our economy, our jobs and our quality of life to the most strenuous series of tests imaginable. We need to convince people that not only are these dire predictions based on unequivocal science, but that the solutions are no more ‘environmental’ in nature than they are societal, political and personal.
Add to that the fact that the entire climate crisis, as it stands, is only decades old, and it may seem impossible for such a complex movement to take root in the next decade (which it must to steer clear of more devastating feedback loops). That’s where the empowerment fades from the informed, motivated, supporters of climate action who can’t bring themselves to make the leap to activism, or who have left that arena after years of frustration. But to say the climate movement is doomed by its infancy and the glacial progress of breaking down age-old mentalities is to act as if climate change is an isolated issue.
Instead, it is fundamentally tied to environmentalism, and to a battle against the blindness of industrial and technological progress that has been evolving and maturing for generations. A massive movement to rally against our disparate dialogue with mother earth and our broken relationship with our land is long overdue.
Now, it’s people like me, the privileged advocates who aren’t sapped of energy for action, who are willing to stand up at any chance, who aren’t yet tired of the cause, who must find a way to reengage our peers. We need to be creative, we need to take chances, and we need to be relentless. We need to rephrase the climate conundrum to highlight its relevance across all other forms of social justice.
Emboldened by new reports from the IPCC, the US Climate Assessment, NASA and other leading researchers, we need to find new ways to share heavy-hitting facts about climate impacts on our health care, social life and economic security. We need to reach people where they are, and urge them to reflect on their beliefs and actions without passing judgement or fostering new assumptions. We need to invite people from all walks of life and of all political stripes to join us in demanding justice, accountability, and climate action in the 2015 federal election. We need to build unity for the climate, in our society and among our leaders. Come September – as new war rooms quietly prepare for political battle and as diplomats meet in New York for the next UN climate summit – we need to stop asking ‘what now?’ and start asking ‘what next?’. That’s when the real work can begin.
Joseph Boutilier is unicycling 5,000km from Victoria BC to Ottawa to call for action on climate change, respect for First Nations treaty and inherent land rights and an end to the muzzling of publicly-funded scientists. He’s currently passing through south-central Saskatchewan. You can learn more about the campaign at www.unityfortheclimate.ca
Other columns by Joseph Boutilier
When it comes to climate change, we must all be leaders
Seen and not heard – how ageism and discrimination are perpetuating a youth exodus from democracy
Why People aren’t in the streets protesting the Fair Elections Act… and why they should be
New Critic title is fitting for MP Hyer’s fee and dividend ambitions
Canada Post: A Contrived Controversy
Follow Joseph Boutilier on twitter: @josephboutilier