Hope is the missing ingredient in fostering the political willpower for climate action
I pull up outside a gas station. It’s closed for renovations, turns out, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be staying for a minute. The contractors take an interest in my method of transportation and we get to talking. “Climate change, huh?” A middle-aged contractor is adamant: there’s no such thing. Another the same age is skeptical: “You gonna make as much as Al Gore?”. A younger voice rings through the empty building. “It’s hopeless,” he says. “We’re doomed.”
I’m riding a unicycle 5,000km from Victoria BC to Ottawa. My goal is to raise attention to the shameful state of Canadian inaction on climate change. Amid predictions that we’ll fail to meet our modest Copenhagen targets with the same blasé disregard that marked our unceremonious exit from the Kyoto Accord in 2011, we are still waiting for regulations and an end to billion-dollar tax breaks for the most polluting oil extraction projects in the world. If we believe our own scientists (who, let’s face it, we rely on every day for our basic health and safety), the catastrophic ‘tipping point’ of 2-degrees Celsius could be tripled by the end of the century, and Canadians can expect to spend upwards of $40-billion every year from climate impacts alone by the year 2050. Antarctic ice melt alone is gradually (or not-so-gradually) sinking coastal communities. And every year, nearly 1000 children are dying from fatal diseases that are spreading with the changing weather patterns of climate change.
And Canadians – especially young ones – don’t seem optimistic about domestic policy changes coming anytime soon, despite the fact we have a federal election coming up. If recent party conventions and by-elections are to go by, 2015 will reveal more about which sprawling pipelines each party supports than how they might hope to mitigate climate impacts that such pipelines might ostensibly facilitate.
I’m striving to shift the context of this political discussion before the 2015 federal election; to encourage cooperation between political parties and a general acknowledgement that much more can be done – and must. But I set my personal goals for the journey at a more modest level. If I could generate just one extra headline for the global warming crises amid the blissfully ignorant exclusion of the issue in a typical paper or Breakfast Television broadcast, I decided, the entire trip would be worth it. More than 50 headlines later, I’m happy to say it’s Mission Accomplished. Granted, I’m not going home just yet. But I puzzle when people repeatedly tell me I’m ‘naïve’ for believing I can have an impact.
The same people seem to imply that I’m naïve because generating a level of political engagement that trumps corporate interests is an impossible task, without recognizing that their cynicism is the self-fulfilling prophecy that perpetuates that same shortage of willpower. Unfortunately such cynics are often the only ones who seem to believe that climate change is a genuine concern. They’re also reliably younger than most climate deniers. And while evidently frustrated by their attitude, I can’t blame them for feeling that, indeed, “we’re doomed.”
Although they aren’t much for voting, folks of my generation are deceivingly well-informed about current affairs and contribute prolifically to the national discourse on things that really matter. Contrary to popular belief, many of us are just as eager to share our opinions about possible homophobia in the Rob Ford campaign, the conflict in Gaza or even the senate expense scandal as we are to oogle about the latest spat between Justin Bieber and Orlando Bloom. What’s more, community engagement and volunteerism are alive and well among young Canadians despite prevalent ageism in the political sphere.
Yet I still occasionally still feel like I’m not part of ‘Generation Y’ so much as ‘Generation Why Bother’. What would possess the better half of an entire age group to participate in society and yet exclude itself from influencing the leadership of that same society? Many folks seem to be under the impression we’re simply too privileged and comfortable in our personal lives to bother, or too infatuated with ourselves at the hands of self-aggrandizing technology and social media to know what to do with ‘real’ news, let alone a paper ballot and a stub of lead. Instead, I fear, the reason for our absence at the polls – justified or otherwise – is quite the opposite of flippant apathy and sheltered naivety. Instead, it’s hopelessness, exacerbated by the growing cynicism of past generations, the overly corporatized and bureaucratic nature of today’s governments and a bumper crop of global crises that make the original 60s’ apocalyptic predictions look like a cakewalk. Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction seems to be making a comeback.
It’s been said a billion times that Obama’s offering of ‘hope’ was what rang above the usual rhetoric and hollow promises to inspire the higher turnout that won him the election. Our politicians could awake the dormant masses of disenfranchised youth north of the border, too. One could argue, that’s precisely what it will take to break a 3-way draw and avoid 4 years of struggling minority rule. Inviting youth back into the fray wouldn’t take a social scientist, let alone a rocket scientist. But it will take a bit of inspiration. And in the face of a horrific threat like global warming, turning down one pipeline for another just doesn’t cut it. Lamenting about the environmental dangers of the Northern Gateway while brushing off the climate impacts of the Kinder Morgan isn’t exactly dreaming big. Making vague promises of a ‘price on carbon’ while downplaying concerns about the Keystone XL isn’t going to win any awards for bravery or vision.
So I challenge our leaders to take the risk of bucking the status quo and rekindling hope for a liveable future. Begin with climate change. You don’t have to shut down the oil sands – how about start with a moratorium on expansion? You don’t have to endanger the economy, and there’s plenty of reputable voices to back you up on that. You would have to give us more than a GHG-reduction target, because whatever it is, we’re obviously lacking a way to achieve it. And you certainly don’t have to commit to a coalition government to do a better job of promoting political unity for a cause that deserves, as others have articulated, a WWII-level cooperative campaign.
And to my fellow youth who won’t vote until that kind of political vision arrives, what do you stand to lose by embracing hope in the face of justifiable pessimism and give our politicians a chance to prove their worth despite an uninspiring pre-election performance? If it takes naiveté to envision a future in which we survive, then cancel my subscription to Optimists Anonymous: I don’t want to change.
Joseph Boutilier is riding 5,000km on one wheel across Canada to call a heightened political response to the global warming crisis. He hopes others will join him to demonstrate their support for climate action when he arrives at Parliament Hill at noon on September 15, 2014. More info is at www.unityfortheclimate.ca and Joseph is on Twitter as @josephboutilier.