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Headwinds for the Energy Transition

Laura Stewart travelled from Regina to Winnipeg to build support for just transition legislation.

After her local MP, Conservative member Michael Kram (Regina – Wescana), refused to table and speak about our petition calling for just transition legislation, Laura decided to not take no for an answer. She travelled by bike and train across the Prairies, looking for more supportive MPs and connecting with grassroots activists along the way.

Here is her account of that journey.

Never assume that the weather is out to get you personally.

Just after Thanksgiving this year, I harvested tomatoes in my Regina garden, and marvelled at the lack of frost. A full month beyond the usual tomato season, and still the long-range forecast promised lovely fall days for the next two weeks. Alarmingly lovely.

Still, I hoped the weather would hold, because I was hatching a scheme for a low-carbon trek to Winnipeg, carrying a parliamentary petition to address all this ominous warming. I predicted—correctly, as it would turn out—that local Conservative MPs would not support the Council of Canadians’ petition sounding a “Climate Code Red.” In our recent election, Saskatchewan residents’ votes for urgent climate action didn’t count. Their signatures could count, though, if I could convince another MP to champion the petition. And if other people noticed how far I had to go to do that, so much the better.

Asking myself how to travel without hypocrisy, I saw that my trip could make another point. Among other measures, the petition calls for “affordable and accessible public transit countrywide.” At this time, there is zero public transit available along the TransCanada Highway between Regina and Winnipeg. My nearest intercity transit station is Via Rail in Melville, 150 km away. I had a new e-bike that might just get me there—weather permitting.

The motor boosts my pedalling range by about half, but my longest bike trip ever before was 60 km, and that was decades ago, on a long bright day in mid-summer. I searched for hotels to break up the trip. I called friends along the route. With plans coming together, I booked my train ticket.

All at once, the forecast changed. Watching my target travel dates turn wetter and colder, I wondered if the universe was telling me I should not go.

A scene from my Saskatchewan childhood came back to me. With puffy summer clouds drifting overhead, I would sometimes take their passing shadows as signs meant just for me, to steer me away from wrong thoughts.

And I chuckled at myself, imagining that some wise guiding power would use vast weather systems, driven by even bigger circulation systems of atmosphere and ocean, to tell one small human what to do.

Wisdom can speak much more clearly than that.

For instance, I think of the folks in the drive-through line at Broadway United Church’s fall supper, who, instead of rushing home with their turkey and fixings, paused to sign the petition and thank me for leading discussion and action on climate in our congregation.

I think of Mac Findlay, a youth leader with Fridays for Future, who connected me with the Curtain Razors and their theatre production, “The Last Children.” Nearly 200 attendees at the play would choose to sign the petition.

I think of the staff at my MP’s office in Regina, who told Mr. Findlay and me they would “ensure that the petition is read in Parliament,” but not by our MP—and likely not by any Conservative. With that clear “no,” I could proceed with my plan.

I think of my friend Sue Bland, immediately offering to put me up at her farm home a few miles off Highway 10, and suggesting other folks who might want to help. Of our mutual friend Sheena Koops, who wouldn’t be home, but volunteered her mother, who had never met me but gladly took me in. Of the cousin who sent her husband over to let me into the mother’s house, because she wasn’t home yet when I biked into Fort Qu’Appelle.

When I told my part of the universe what I wanted to do, all these people and more helped me hear a big, “Yes!”

That “yes” is encouraging, but behind it is a sobering lesson. We all have a great responsibility, as messengers whose choices help guide those around us. Our votes might not count, but our words and actions do.

We can’t rely solely on direct guidance from those with power and expertise. Politicians and business leaders try to make the most winning statements they can get away with, to meet their aims for their current four-year term or their next quarterly report. Scientists, trained to always question their own findings, try to make clear all the ways they could be wrong. So, you have politicians and executives saying it’s all going to be fine, and scientists saying, well, it might not be so bad as I’ve just said.

The universe may need help from the rest of us, to amplify the voice of wisdom for our future.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t ask questions, but don’t let your questions sound like doubts about the urgency. I hear some argue for caution about making too big a change, too fast, suggesting, for instance, that electrification could be as harmful in the long run as the internal combustion engine. My first reaction is frustration: don’t they realize that environmentalists, of all people, understand the need to resist changes with unknown effects? And then comes the sadness, that people worry about proposed changes more than the actual, staggering change all that combustion has already made, and continues to make, faster and faster, to our atmosphere and oceans. The IPCC estimates our emissions to date have already committed us to at least 1.5 degrees of warming. For a two-in-three chance to stop the warming there, we can only emit 400 Gt more. At current rates, we would burn through that budget in 10 years. Cautious, gradual change could have been great, if we had acted back in the Kyoto days, but we are out of time.

A call for delay is a denial of the danger overtaking us and the distance to safety.

While the years go by and the temperatures creep up and the disasters come thicker and faster, our leaders have barely begun to talk about zeroing emissions rather than merely reducing them (adding to the danger more slowly). And still, they insist that we expand fossil fuel output and grow our consumption.

It feels like we’re constantly pedalling against growing headwinds. In all my trip planning, I never imagined days of wind from the east, but that’s what I got. On a side trip from the Rivers, Manitoba rail station to Brandon, with my bike heavily loaded, my battery left behind in Melville because it wasn’t allowed on the train, and my tires chewing gravel on the highway shoulder, the wind kept growing in my face, even when I turned from eastward to southward. No matter how hard I pedalled, hoping to arrive in time for a climate rally, the time remaining shrank faster than the distance.

Finally, I remembered to check my alignment on the saddle, and drop my shoulder blades. It felt like I took 10 km off the headwind all at once.

Sometimes, the headwinds are in our own heads. According to a U.S. survey from Yale’s Program on Climate Communication, people underestimate others’ support for climate policy, and overestimate the opposition from their neighbours.

Be careful when you voice your doubts. Too often, we hear about technical problems with the energy transition, long after effective solutions have been found. These zombie problems stagger around in our conversations, wasting our time, or worse, keeping people from trusting that we can act.

Again and again, analyses conclude that we don’t need more technology. We need political will. We need public determination to move ahead with what we’ve got.

So, if you’re tempted ­­to play the devil’s advocate, please ask yourself: Does the universe really need my help to tell people solar doesn’t work in the dark?

Or does it need my voice to swell a resounding “Yes!” to climate action?

A little bit louder now: Let’s do this!

Laura Stewart is a writer, climate organizer, and former oilfield environmental worker from Regina, Saskatchewan. She left Regina by bicycle on October 23rd and arrived in Melville on October 26th, in Brandon on October 29th, and in Winnipeg on November 3rd, 2021. She got around Winnipeg by bicycle and bus, but on November 15th, after her return train was cancelled due to flooding in B.C., she rented a car and drove home just hours before the first winter storm arrived.