Fifty years ago Sierra Club BC was formed by a handful of people determined to defend old-growth forests. As we look forward – still defending the remaining big old trees! – it’s a time for deep reflection on where our organization, and our planet, is at.
There is so much work to be done, so many losses already suffered. There’s no hope at this point of stopping climate change—it’s already here—and there’s no hope of reaching our goals without an abrupt transition of our entire economy. Maybe it could have been smooth if we started decades earlier, but no longer.
And at the same time, there is definitely still hope that we can reduce emissions rapidly and do what the IPCC says is needed to stay below 1.5 degrees warming.
In reflecting on climate change, we experience a difficult tension between hope and hopelessness. Somehow we need to hold both at the same time. How do we honour important emotions like grief, while staying motivated to take critical actions that will make a difference?
In December, Sierra Club BC’s Campaigns Director Caitlyn Vernon spoke at an event hosted by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). It was the launch of a book by Donald Gutstein called The Big Stall. The book reveals how Canada’s energy sector and think tanks connected to Big Oil have systematically blocked action on climate change.
We’ve been told Caitlyn’s stories inspired hope and action. So we’ve adapted her words into a blog post to share her thoughts here with you.
On hope, hopelessness and winning the world we need
By Caitlyn Vernon
These days, we are faced with many examples of how policy is being heavily influenced by Big Oil.
For example, just Google Bill C-69, which is the new federal environmental assessment legislation that is intended to overhaul the National Energy Board. Even though from our perspective it’s far from perfect, it’s stuck in the Senate and there is intense pushback on the bill from big business. From April to December last year, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) met with federal officials 139 times—an average of once every working day!
The Oil Tanker Moratorium Act for BC’s north coast is also stuck in the Senate and undergoing major pushback from CAPP and others. However, it has now passed second reading, which means the committee studying the bill can look at amendments but cannot kill it.
Here in BC, we have new environmental assessment legislation, but the government didn’t include a climate test in it. Despite announcing a climate plan with legislated targets, the environmental assessment process only requires climate impacts to be “considered.” This leaves open the possibility that projects that don’t fit within our climate targets are still eligible to be built.
And of course, our federal government bought a leaky tarsands oil pipeline that could set taxpayers back by over $15 billion.
Given all this, what do we do?
We have governments doing nothing or actively getting in the way. We have governments making only incremental efforts. We have governments with an actual plan to cut carbon emissions—like BC—but yet still nowhere near far enough.
The CleanBC plan announced in December by the BC government is both a really good step to reduce emissions, and woefully insufficient to meet the scale of the challenge. They essentially announced a plan to meet former Premier Christy Clark’s targets.
It’s a detailed plan, which is definitely a step in the right direction. Having a plan to meet weak targets is definitely better than having targets with no plan, but the targets are still far too weak. It would be an excellent plan if we had all the time in the world. But we don’t.
What is needed is much more transformative, like the kind of measures we saw during the two world wars.
People and organizations are responding to the threat of climate change in a variety of ways.
Some are convinced we need to applaud and celebrate even the tiniest step forward by governments, in recognition that the broader public is scared of change and needs to be met where they are at so that we can move forward together, albeit very slowly.
This gets us climate policies like what we’re seeing both nationally and in BC, where there are some good policies to cut carbon emissions alongside contradictory commitments to expand fossil fuel infrastructure. This is like digging a hole and trying to fill it at same time.
Then there are others who think we just need to talk about the scary stuff: show everyone the science and the facts and suddenly policy will change, because people will recognize the level of emergency and be motivated to act. While the urgency is real, psychology suggests that knowing the fearful facts doesn’t move people to get involved. And we live in a fake news reality where, unfortunately, evidence may be necessary but certainly isn’t sufficient.
Some say we need to avoid the doom and gloom, and instead focus on hope and make everything sound possible, as if we were living twenty years in the past and weren’t already dealing with the impacts of a changing climate. Yet that approach tends to lead to more incremental solutions.
And then there is real grief. Personally, I think it is important to tap into that, as it’s connected to our love for this place. And from that sense of grounding, we can be even more effective. And yet even if we start focusing more on building the community resilience that we’re going to need to face what is coming, we still need to harness enough hope to keep working on reducing the emissions.
So how do we find hope, in order to keep ourselves going and get more people involved, when at times hope seems hard to come by?
I get the sense that people are scared, and wanting to look after their own. We are seeing the rise of eco-apartheid. For example, in the recent California fires, the Kardashians hired private firefighters to protect their house while everyone else lost their homes and were living in tents in parking lots, dealing with virus outbreaks.
And of course, there is the rise of populism and eco-fascism. Walls are going up, and it’s no coincidence that it’s happening when so many people around the world are on the move.
The question of how we get real climate action in this current political context is the question that will define our future.
I certainly don’t pretend to have the answers.
Instead I’ll share some thoughts, in the context of five stories that have inspired me lately.
The Haida Gwaii energy transition
This past September, I attended a renewable energy symposium on Haida Gwaii, where the community is aiming to transition off burning diesel and move to renewable energy. They’ve set a very clear goal of energy sovereignty on the island by 2023.
How will they do this? By working together in a place-based way, setting clear intentions for drastic change, and finding solutions that work locally. And they are grounding the transition in Haida language and worldview.
Haida Gwaii has some undeniable secret sauce. It’s a stunningly beautiful place, where Haida title over the lands is recognized by all who live there. Haida people and non-Indigenous residents are committed to working together. People are connected to the land and willing to do the hard work required. They have shared pride in the knowledge that what happens on Haida Gwaii tends to be precedent setting. They know people are watching.
We need to build community resilience—as we work to lower emissions, we also need to prepare our communities for what’s coming and encourage cooperation rather than partisan divisiveness. For example, I’m convinced that ensuring our communities are welcoming to refugees and newcomers needs to be a crucial part of our response to climate change.
The Haida Gwaii story reminds me of the quote by popular educator dian marino: “Be passionately aware that you might be completely wrong.” And it reminds me of the importance of talking with people who disagree with you. The science is on our side but how we get there needs to work for everyone.
And we need to make alternatives real. Many people don’t believe that alternatives are possible and they need to see to believe. We need to show, not tell. On Haida Gwaii, local entrepreneurs are designing and building tidal power systems, showing what’s possible.
Solutions are known. All that’s lacking is political will.
Our Sierra Club BC podcast Mission Transition has attempted to make these alternatives more tangible. Our second season will be released this spring, and will feature the transition that is underway on Haida Gwaii. Please help us share it—Mission Transition is available wherever you get your podcasts, and at sierraclub.bc.ca/podcast.
I’m just starting to learn about Indigenous law and I’m finding it very inspiring. The new Indigenous law program at the University of Victoria is something that makes me feel very hopeful. We can all learn from the different ways of knowing, and of relating to each other and to the non-human world that are honoured in Indigenous law.
As a non-Indigenous person, this work reminds me of the importance of reconnecting with the non-human world in a way that fosters an understanding that our survival and well-being depends on the health of the world around us. We need to get outside, and to approach our place in this world, with humility.
As non-Indigenous people, we can uplift Indigenous laws and governance, and help ensure that Indigenous peoples are leading the way in the transition to a post-carbon economy. The rest of us have so much to learn.
Sometimes we just need to go to court.
I’m inspired by the youth in Quebec and the US who are suing governments for climate inaction. And I’m excited by West Coast Environmental Law’s “Climate Law in Our Hands” program that aims to get corporations paying for the costs of climate impacts.
And Sierra Club BC has a case, represented by Ecojustice. It’s about some very large seven-story tall dams that were built in northeastern BC to provide water for fracking. Progress Energy, a subsidiary of Petronas, built the dams illegally without environmental assessments. After they were found out, by the CCPA, they applied for a retroactive exemption, which the BC government granted. This sets a very dangerous precedent, because it signals to other companies that they can break the law and get away with it.
And then there were the Indigenous-led court cases that overturned first the Enbridge and then the Kinder Morgan pipeline approvals. And through our Pull Together campaign, a partnership with RAVEN Trust and Force of Nature to raise funds for these Indigenous legal challenges, we raised over 1.2 million dollars for these cases, not a penny of which went to SCBC. One of the learnings here is that people are eager for actions they can take that address climate change while at the same time taking steps towards reconciliation.
Another learning was that while what we are up against is really daunting and incredibly serious, how we come together to respond can build community along the way – many of the events organized in support of Pull Together were fun and lively, and I would argue that our communities are stronger and more resilient as a result.
Delivering Community Power
Delivering Community Power is an initiative of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. The idea is to revitalize Canada Post. The postal service would be reimagined with the use of electric vehicles and new services like checking in on seniors, delivering medications and groceries, postal banking, and post offices as electric vehicle charging stations and community hubs.
This is the kind of creative big picture thinking we need. It would stimulate good, green jobs in communities across the country. You can hear an interview about this initiative with the president of CUPW, Mike Palecek, on the most recent episode of our podcast.
Green New Deal for Canada
The idea of a Green New Deal is one of the most exciting things I’ve heard in a while. It’s coming out of the US, and it’s starting to gain traction on our side of the border.
The idea is to tie the phaseout of fossil fuels to a job security guarantee, within a lens of addressing historical injustices.
It provides solutions that are at scale with the climate emergency, while also having the potential to appeal to a much broader sector of society, because of the focus on jobs.
It takes the concept of a just transition to a whole new level. I think it’s brilliant, and we will be finding ways to promote this idea, particularly leading up to the federal election.
It’s crucial that politicians hear from voters—even if they don’t worry about their own survival as humans, we need to convince them that their political survival depends on climate action. That means more grassroots mobilizing, holding events, talking to neighbours, finding ways to get more people involved and doing it in areas that politicians care about.
And we need to speak up and have our voices heard—to push back against the oil industry at every chance we get.
The situation we’re in is daunting and there is no easy way forward. In the courts, in our communities, getting organized and speaking out—rather than debating which strategies are the most effective, what’s clear to me is that it’s all needed and we need all hands on deck, in whatever way each of us have energy for.
Please find what inspires you and do more this year. Because we are in this together. To change everything, we need everyone.