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Hello from the CAW Environment Conference

I was honoured when Nick De Carlo, National Representative with the Canadian Auto Workers Health and Safety Department, invited me to speak on behalf of the Council of Canadians at their bi-annual environment conference.

The conference, held at the beautiful CAW family education centre on the shores of Lake Huron, is attended by workers represented by CAW locals. As one would expect, this includes autoworkers, but also includes people from many other workplaces ranging from city employees and to folks like me (Council staff are represented by a CAW local).

As I quickly learned  upon arriving, the CAW education programmes are diverse and compelling. To learn more about their environment programme, you can read their statement of principles and check out their website.

I was asked to attend and speak on last night’s opening panel alongside Clayton Thomas Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network, as well as contribute to a workshop on climate change this morning.

I was asked to speak about climate justice – what does it mean as a demand, and the growing global movement calling for justice and system change, not climate change.

I began my presentation by framing the context within which this growing demand is emerging – the reality of the climate crisis we face, the profound changes it requires to both our economy and society and the political context of a government more concerned with becoming an export-oriented energy super power than the health of generations to come.  I raised recent evidence of climate change and some examples of impacts we it is already having and will have.

If you haven’t read Brent’s blog yet, check out the recent cbc news story about a study outlining that the snowpack in the northern rockies has shrunk more in the last 50 years than the previous 800. The melt from this snowpack feeds the water sources of over 70 million people.

With this context in mind, I provided an overview of three key themes that the Council of Canadians identifies with the demand for climate justice, these themes are representative in our Climate Justice: for People and the Planet campaign work, and in our statement on climate justice.

These themes are the repayment of climate debt, the intersection of climate change with the recognition and defence of rights, and the call for system change not climate change.

Climate debt repayment is about deeper emission reduction targets in Global North countries such as ours and helping to pay the bill for adapting and addressing the climate crisis in the Global South. It is a cruel irony that the Global South is being hit first and hardest by the impacts of climate change while Global North countries are responsible for two thirds of the historic greenhouse gas emissions causing this crisis.

In approaching how we address the climate crisis, it is fundamental that we consider rights – indigenous rights, human rights, labour rights and the rights of nature. Not only are the impacts of climate change violating fundamental human rights like access to water and food, we can also see the violation of rights in the causes of climate change.

Rights must also be a consideration in how we transition off of fossil fuel dependency. This includes considering the rights of workers in industries that will need to be changed or phased out. The right to decent work and the ability to maintain a decent standard of living.

These rights inform what is now being called just transition – the need for planning to ensure that supports are available for worker and that good jobs are created for people and communities being impacted by the shift off of fossil fuels.

The defence of existing rights such as worker rights and human rights and promotion of rights yet to be fully recognized, such as the rights of nature, are critical to advancing climate justice.

I also talked about the growing demand for system change not climate change.  About how, when we think of the climate crisis, we need to move beyond thinking primarily about reducing emisssions to thinking about what are underlying causes of this crisis.

Here I raised questions about the fundamental problems of a growth oriented economy and global trade system with rules that allow the interests of growth and profit to supersede the interests of people and the environment. I referred to Annie Leonard’s video the story of stuff to talk about how overproduction and overconsumption are tied to this model and is a driving force of the environmental crisis we face.

While there is clearly no one perfect solution or answer, using this understanding of what is contributing to the current crises we face to evaluate and choose how best to address it, will help us lay the groundwork, one action at a time,  to build a more equitable just economy and society.  Here I referred to examples of both false and real solutions to the climate crisis, drawing on our experiences at the influential Cochabamba World People’s Conference on Climate Change and Rights of Mother Earth.

Clayton, who you can see in the above picture, gave a rousing speech. He spoke about the IEN’s tar sands campaign, you can learn more about their campaign here. He talked about how Canada has become a petrostate and the impacts this is having on our economy, particularly the manufacturing sector here in Ontario.

He talked about his own experiences as an indigenous person in Canada, relating this to broader experieces in Canada regarding the relationship of governments with First Nations. Environmental injustice was a large focus of his presentaiton. One example of this injustice being the frequent location of energy and mining projects that have serious local (and international) negative environmental and social impacts, near indigenous communities.

The panel was followed by a series of thoughtful questions. One of the most interesting questions, in my opinion, regarded how we can discuss the need to limit consumption when this is what sustains jobs.

This stimulated a good discussion. Some of the points raised were opportunities for just transition programmes that can retrain those workers whose industries are phased out and, in some cases, how jobs can be changed to have less of an impact on the environment.  Also raised were some points about how we must slow our economy by design (not disaster) and that there are measures that can be taken to allow this while still providing good jobs. Both no growth economics and steady state economics were raised alongside measures such as reduced work hours and the possibilities around improved efficiency and productivity, under a sustainability framework, for providing decent work.

I am looking forward to the rest of this evening. Some of the best highlights of the weekend so far have been the thoughtful discussions I’ve been able to have with a number of delegates. There is certainly a willingness to discuss what we can do and a passion in recognizing that we have to act, for our generation and generations to come.