Today I had the honour of speaking with the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s Social Justice Fund board about climate justice.
You can read more about the PSAC Fund here.
The Council of Canadians was part of a Canadian delegation at both the Cochabamba conference and Cancun UN climate talks alongside PSAC delegates with the support of this fund and other Canadian allies.
I was invited to speak to the board about these two events and the growing global movement for climate justice we are part of.
Here are some highlights from my presentation.
I’d like to speak with you today about two key international events the Council participated in alongside PSAC delegates, what we’ve learned from these experiences, how we have taken action in Canada and next steps for advancing climate justice.
But first, I’d like to begin by recognizing the context in which the demand for climate justice is emerging.
There is no doubt that we are living at a time requiring great change. We are facing a climate crisis, driven by human actions that requires profound changes to our economy and society.
Since 2001, 32 national science academies have come together to issue joint declarations confirming human caused global warming, and urging countries to rapidly reduce GHG emissions.
The Inter-government Panal on Climate Change’s 2007 report recommended countries like ours plan for 25-40% emission cuts below 1990 levels by 2020 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. More recent climate science affirms the upper end and beyond is needed.
While climate science continues to evolve our understanding of climate change, what is crystal clear is that climate change is unfolding quicker than anticipated.
Impacts of Climate Change
2010 was the warmest year on record in Canada and the world. And while it is difficult to attribute any individual severe weather occurrence to climate change, the pattern seen in 2010 and 2011 so far, of increasingly severe and more frequent extreme weather, is consistent with what we’ve been warned of.
Just this month a new report confirmed that arctic ice is melting faster than predicted with sea level rises of up to 1.6 metres by the end of the century. This stands to have devastating impacts on coastal communities and island nations.
In Canada, some of the profound impacts will be associated with accessing drinking water and maintaining healthy watersheds, extreme weather events and Prairie droughts affecting agriculture.
All have serious social and economic impacts.
According the UN Environment Programme, because of climate change, it is estimated that up to 600 million more people in Africa could face malnutrition as agricultural systems break down; an additional 1.8 billion people could face water shortage, especially in Asia.
Despite contributing less to the crisis, the Global South is being hit first and hardest by the climate change.
Further setting the context of the crisis we face, is the challenge presented by the current Canadian government which has fallen far behind. Our climate inaction is a growing source of international criticism.
In the 2011 Climate Change Index, Canada is ranked 57th out of 60 countries surveyed on actions addressing climate change. We were trailed only by Australia, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia.
Under the Harper government, we have seen:
• Cutting funding to university based climate science and muzzling federal climate scientists
• Cutting funding to an important programme that funds renewable energy and being outspent by many other countries on key investments towards building a green economy such as energy efficiency, public transit and renewable energy
• Setting an emission reduction target that actually amounts to an increase in emissions above 1990 levels by 2020 and not having a sufficient plan to meet this target
This is the context in which we can understand the urgency to act.
The Council of Canadians alongside the PSAC and other union, environmental and social justice partners have also been active not only in demanding climate action, but also, demanding climate justice.
Understood simply, climate justice is about seeking solutions to climate change that both help reduce emissions and advance equity.
The World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in Cochabamba Bolivia in April, 2010 was a critical turning point for the climate justice movement.
The Council of Canadians was part of a Canadian delegation that participated in this influential conference hosted by the Bolivian government. This delegation included a team of PSAC staff and delegates, and representatives of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and Common Frontiers.
We met daily, coordinated our participation in key meetings and presentations and reporting back to Canadian members.
The conference was hosted by the Bolivian government shortly after the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks to produce a fair and effective climate deal. Bolivia is on the frontlines of climate change, already experiencing water shortages as a result of melting Andean glaciers.
The conference had an astounding 34, 000 participants. It was an open and participatory space with academics, community activists and government representatives present. There was a strong indigenous presence. All in attendance to discuss what can be done to equitably address the climate crisis.
Working groups were the focus of the conference. The conclusions of these working groups directly informed the final document containing the conclusions of the conference – the people’s agreement.
In arriving in Bolivia, the Canadian delegation quickly learned that, while the primary stated goal of the UN climate talks in Copenhagen was reducing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing the climate crisis, the Cochabamba conference began with a different starting point. It was approached with an emphasis on protecting, loving and respecting Pachamama – Mother Earth.
While this was a new term for many of us, but central to indigenous peoples worldwide, it speaks to the relationship and needed balance between humans and the Earth. There was a strong indigenous presence at the conference. Indigenous knowledge as it applies to both ways to adapt to and address the climate crisis was weaved throughout the conference.
Discussions about the rights of nature featured prominently at the conference. Rather than seeing nature left out of key decisions or as a commodity to be bought and sold for profit, we must recognize nature’s innate rights and consider these as a factor in all levels of decision making. This will help us ensure generations to come have a healthy and safe environment in which to live.
This led to many discussions and conclusions that affirm that when we think of the climate crisis, we should not only of the release of greenhouse gas emissions and the need to reduce this, but also, think about what is causing the situation we are in.
This includes recognizing patterns of over production and consumption and an export-oriented global economic model that puts the profits of corporations ahead of the interests of people and the environment.
Using the common climate justice slogan – it is about system change, not climate change.
The conference ended with a public reciting of the people’s agreement drawn from the conclusions of the working group. From these discussions the agreement outlined a number of real and false solutions to the climate crisis.
An example of a false solution highlighted in Cochabamba is carbon trading and carbon offsets. Real solutions include examples like recognizing the rights of nature, direct government regulations to reduce pollution and create the appropriate support for critical solutions such as public transit, local sustainable agriculture and renewable energy. It also includes Global North countries like ours taking the lead on reducing emissions and helping the Global South adapt to climate change.
From Cochabamba to Canada:
I have many happy and inspiring memories of sitting with the rest of the Canadian delegation over breakfast and at the end of the day, sharing our experiences participating in these working group and discussing how what we were learning could apply to our context in Canada.
While the Canadian delegation’s experiences inspired a number of actions taken in Canada, I’d like to highlight three.
PSAC delegate Barbara Paul who attended the conference was inspired by the focus on the rights of nature and indigenous knowledge. She brought this inspiration to her community of Burnt Church, New Brunswick and is helping develop a community garden where elders teach youth traditional ways of gardening. Local sustainable agriculture and food security was a key message in Cochabamba.
Inspired by our experiences in Cochabamba, the Council of Canadians helped to produce this book with well known authors from around the world discussing how we can political, legally and culturally recognize the rights of nature.
Finally, the Council of Canadians, alongside the PSAC and other unions and organizations present in Cochabamba commissioned a poll.
We wanted a better understanding of Canadian public opinion of key themes that emerged from the conference. The results continue to inspire us.
Canadians are deeply concerned about the climate crisis and, in tune with the conclusions of the Cochabamba conference, understand that the climate crisis requires a change in economic, social, and environmental priorities.
87% of Canadians agree “Industrialized countries which have historically produced the most greenhouse gas emissions, should be the most responsible for reducing current emissions.”
85% of Canadians agree that “The root cause of climate change is too much focus on economic growth and consumerism. We need to have an economy that is in harmony with nature, which recognizes and respects the planet.”
These results were widely covered in the media and helped to frame our Canadian delegations participation in the Cancun climate talks.
From Cochabamba to Cancun
I was also part of a Canadian delegation that included PSAC staff and delegates and other Canadian allies that participated in civil society events in the lead up to and during the UN climate talks in Cancun – another pivotal moment for the climate justice movement.
Caravans for Environmental and Social Justice
The Council of Canadians, alongside PSAC delegates and other Canadian allies participated in international caravans for environmental and social justice.
The caravans were headed to the UN climate talks held last December in Cancun. The stops along the way gave participants an opportunity to meet and hear from people resisting environmental and social impacts and aimed to connect these struggles with both causes and solutions to the collective challenge we face – the climate crisis.
While there were so many meaningful moments I could highlight on this caravan, like the important moment of solidarity when Albert, a PSAC delegate, a linesman, met with Mexican electrical workers facing persecution defending their jobs from privatization and job cuts, I’d like to focus on our experiences in Cerro de San Pedro.
Cerro de San Pedro
We went to San Pedro to meet with local populations who have been deeply affected by a gold and silver mine, a subsidiary of New Gold that is head quartered in Vancouver.
We were welcomed in the town square by members of the community who told us about how New Gold removed the top of their mountain to get at the gold and silver—a mountain which is tied intimately to their history and cultural identity.
In the extraction process, New Gold uses cyanide to separate the minerals from the rock. We were told that this has polluted local water sources.
Community members believe water contamination is the source of illnesses in the community.
The concerns around the impacts on water also involve the depletion of water. Cerro San Pedro is an arid region. The water used by the mine is from the same aquifer that supplies nearby agriculture and the city of San Luis Potosi with over 1 million residents.
Community members also described the mine as illegal. They explained that there is a long history of legal battle against the mine in which the mine has been found illegal. The mine continues to operate today as a result of continuous legal appeals and corruption.
The Canadian delegation, so moved by what they heard and saw, presented to a community leader an open letter signed by 36 Canadian organizations noting our regret that Bill C-300 was defeated, and stating our commitment to “redoubling our efforts to mobilize Canadian public opinion and challenge the abuses of Canada’s extractive industries whether operating at home or abroad”.
Bill C-300, the Corporate Accountability of Mining, Oil and Gas in Developing Countries Act was defeated by a very narrow margin, it would have increased accountability on the part of mining corporations operating international.
Meaning of caravans: importance of solidarity
The stories and experiences of the caravans helped inform the alternatives spaces during the Cancun talks and were representative of the reasons for why people were present, pressuring governments for change.
I know I don’t stand alone in being inspired by what I heard and saw on the caravan, and this inspiration compels action.
Because of the experiences in Cerro de San Pedro and connections made to groups there, New Gold shareholders heard about the stories of people in Cerro San Pedro, outside of New Gold’s Annual General, I even had the opportunity to speak directly to the Director of Operations.
In other words, there is value and strength in listening and acting alongside people in the Global South. The telling and sharing of stories helps to situate the need for Canadians to take action, be it in calling their mining companies to account, or need for our government to take climate action.
Building a climate justice and labour alliance
Another insightful experience was a panel, held on a rooftop in Cancun on building a climate justice and labour alliance. In attendance were the Canadian delegation I mentioned as well as other Canadian labour and environmental groups involved in monitoring the officials talks alongside U.S. environmental and labour delegates.
The panel featured prominent U.S. climate leader Bill McKibben, Maude Barlow, well known water and trade activist and National Chairsperson of the Council of Canadians and two well-known trade union leaders Joaquim Turco from an Argetinan union and Roger Toussaint, Vice-President of the Transport Workers Union based in the U.S.
The central theme of the event was the need to move beyond our ‘silo’s’ as Maude Barlow often refers to them. By silo’s I mean how we can often be divided by focuses which on the surface seem separate – be it the defence of workers rights, human rights or the environment – but when you dig deeper are connected.
An example brought forward at the panel was an effective campaign in New York that united people defending workers rights and pushing for affordable and accessible public transit – a critical solution to the climate crisis.
Certainly, the topic of green jobs and just transition for workers and communities that stand to suffer in the shift off of fossil fuel dependence, was an important point identified that brought all ‘silo’s’ together.
According to the same polling I highlighted earlier, green jobs and just transition programmes is also a priority that the Canadian public shares:
Highlight polling result: 83% of Canadians strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement that: “The Canadian government should invest in green jobs and have transition programmes for workers and communities negatively affected by a shift away from reliance on fossil fuels.”
And green jobs are not just “pie in the sky” thinking, they provide real job opportunities and lead to reduced environmental degradation.
Some job examples include
– Organic farming or people working at farmers markets
– Research and development, manufacturing and service sectors associated with renewable energy, public transit and energy efficiency
– Urban forestation, recycling and water infrastructure improvements
One of the areas the Council of Canadians is involved in regarding green jobs, is the push for renewable energy that is under public or community ownership.
Conclusion: next steps
Looking forward, there are a number of opportunities to continue to building the climate justice movement national and internationally.
This includes the next major round of UN climate talks in Durban South Africa this December where we will need to mobilize in Durban and across Canada for climate justice.
We will need to hold our government accountable by exposing the obstructionist role it is playing and report this back to Canadians, and work with the climate justice movement to outline real solutions to the climate crisis grounded in principles of equity and social justice.
The Council of Canadians is launching an exciting new project this fall: System Change not Climate Change.
It is a climate justice multimedia project with a website that houses videos of academics, activists and workers speaking to areas for needed system change, and examples of actions. Topics covered include the economy, rights of nature, climate debt, the sectors of energy transportation and agriculture, and transition and vision. Speakers include the likes of Maude Barlow on rights of nature, Peter Victor on low or no growth economics and Pablo Solon, UN Ambassador of Bolivia on climate debt.
The Council of Canadians will also be organizing community- based teach-in’s across the country using the videos and other provided tools.
We are inviting all organizations, unions and others to use these videos and organize teach-in’s, to help begin discussions and support actions for climate justice across Canada.
I hope I have shared with you today both the urgency of the situation we face and some of the inspiring examples of a growing and vibrant movement for climate justice demanding transformational change towards an economy and society that is in harmony with nature.
I know that this type of transformational change can seem daunting, particularly in the face of the government we currently have. But let’s not forget the power of people coming together and that change is possible.
Let us not forget the example of Rosevelt’s “New Deal” which saw government spending during the Great Depression through central economic planning and stimulus programmes help create the needed transformation – giving work relief to unemployed, reforming business and financial practices and initiating an economic recovery.
There are real tangible solutions to the climate crisis and we can approach these solutions guided by principles of social justice.