A room, bursting with 250 Inconvenient Truth trainees gathered in Montreal Friday afternoon for the opening of the first Canadian (and the first bilingual) Al Gore Bootcamp.
And if they weren’t already excited by the prospect – and convinced of the necessity – of learning how to engage Canadians in a climate change conversation (and plainly there were), David Suzuki would have made all the difference.
Suzuki could fairly be characterized as the Al Gore of Canada, where climate change is concerned. His organization, the David Suzuki Foundation, has been actively engaged in lobbying for action for more than a decade. (Full disclosure: I was hired by Suzuki in 1996 to write the first public education package on the topic.) He’s also been captivating Canadians by talking about the Nature of Things for decades.
But as soon as the standing ovation died down when he was introduced, he set about crediting Al Gore as one of his big influences.
Suzuki said that he met ten-Senator Gore in Halifax in 1988 and, “he sent shivers up my back.”
“I had never met a politicians, nor have I since, who understood so clearly the issues of the environment, and who had a plan to do something about it.”
When Suzuki asked Gore what journalists could do to get other politicians to take the environment seriously, Gore said, “Don’t look to politicians like me. If you want to have an impact, you have to convince Canadians, show there is a problem and get THEM to push the politicians in the direction we need to go.”
That, Suzuki said, is now job one for every trainee in the room, to create in Canadians that sense of urgency, to create a national conviction that there is an urgent need for heroic action, at the level of commitment we need when we’re at war.
That would be a change of pace in Canada, where our political reaction to climate change is to create “committee after committee after committee,” Suzuki said.
And after decades of relative inaction, in the last two years, we have actually gone backwards. While the majority of Canadian Parliamentarians support strong action, the minority Conservative government has instead dismantled some of the few projects that the previous Liberal governments had put into place.
Yet Canada has as much to risk as any nation. As a northern country, our territory will warm more quickly than land closer to the Equator. And having the longest coastline of any country in the world puts us seriously at risk from sea level rise.
Suzuki listed some of the things that have happened already:
· Average temperatures in southwestern Quebec have risen one degree since 1960.
· Average temperatures in northern Quebec have gone up two degrees since 1993
· Ice cover in the Great Lakes breaks up one to two months sooner than it did 100 years ago.
· The mountain pine beetle has destroyed $65 billion worth of lodgepole pine, affecting an area covering 9.2 million hectares.
· From 1995 to 200 glacial ice in the Arctic shrank by five cubic kilometres.
· The Nortwest Passage was ice free for the first time in history last summer.
So, we have a situation in which Canada, one of the wealthiest nations on earth, won’t take action. We have a situation in which Alberta, the wealthiest province in Canada, is the most resistant to change.
Why, asked Suzuki, would we expect the people in China or India to take action when we, in this privileged country, refuse?
To paraphrase “the Doc”: We have, apparently, given up the single advantage that enabled the human species – the naked ape – to so dominate the world. As Suzuki said, looking at humans 150,000 years ago, you might not have bet much on our ability to outperform the huge, often well-armed competition.
But humans have memory, curiosity and creativity. We created the concept of a future that we could affect by what we do today. We learned to deliberately avoid the dangers and exploit the opportunities of that imagined future – to arm ourselves for battles, to clothe ourselves for winters, to grow and save food.
And now, we are particularly well-equipped to look ahead. We have the greatest scientific advantages of any time in history – and for the last 40 years, the leading scientists in the world have been telling us we’re heading down a dangerous path.
And yet we have stopped listening. We make excuses for why we shouldn’t act. We say we can’t afford it. It will cost too much. It will leave us globally uncompetitive. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has finally become convinced that climate change is an issue, still says that we can’t do anything about it that will “jeopardize the economy.”
But Suzuki questioned the Harper’s confusion about which “eco” should be held as most important. The root word, eco, refers to home. Ecology is the study of home – a consideration of the underlying principles and conditions that allow life to survive and thrive – and economics is the management of home. And yet, somehow, the government has elevated economics above ecology.
Suzuki quoted a former Alberta Environment Minister who once told him, “We can’t afford to protect environment if we don’t have a strong economy.” Yet how can we have an economy at all without a healthy environment?
Looking back, we have had sufficient warning that action was overdue. We suffered through the 1973 oil crisis and the best brains of the day said that we should protect ourselves from future economic shocks by weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, by creating a conserving society and by developing renewable energy. Denmark and Germany acted on that advice and now lead the world in the use and production of windmills, for example.
But North American governments stuck their head in the sand. George H.W. Bush got elected in 1988 by promising that he would be “an environmental president,” Suzuki said, adding, “He was the worst environmental president in history – until his son was elected and then he became the second worst.”
In Canada in 1988, then Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard told Suzuki that global warming “threatens the survival of our species.” And yet in the next 20 years, Canada has resisted action at every stage.
Canadians fought against greenhouse gas limits in Kyoto in 1997 and then – when Al Gore brokered a deal that all parties agreed to sign – Canada immediately began to repudiate its own commitment. Alberta said we shouldn’t be “dictated to” by foreign governments, as if the Canadian government had not been front and centre in negotiating Kyoto limits.
The Chretien government finally signed the Kyoto Accord, even if it had done little to make reaching our goals possible, and then the Conservatives took over and have declared Canada’s commitment irrelevant.
We have lost the sense of caution that kept our ancestors alive. While the IPCC tells us that climate change is a 90 per cent certainty, our politicians cling to the 10 per cent doubt, even though they don’t hesitate to spend billions on defence in preparation for wars that may never happen or though Canadians individually spend a fortune on house and car insurance to indemnify against potential catastrophes that have a likelihood of occurring of less than five per cent.
Here, we are facing a certainty calculation of 90 per cent and we don’t seem to be doing a lot to defend the only home we’ve got.
The cost of action according to Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, would be one per cent of GDP – “which is a lot of money.”
If the U.S. GDP is $3 trillion, one per cent would be $30 billion a year.
But the alternative – the do-nothing scenario – could present the world with a bill that would be bigger than the expenses from WW1, WW2 and the Korean War combined.
Suzuki ended by talking fondly of the science race that began in 1957, with the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik. In response – in response to being beaten into space with a satellite, a dog, a human – a whole team of humans – the U.S. launched the biggest science push in history, a push that Suzuki said was a gift to him personally.
“In those days, all you had to say was ‘I like science,’ and they would throw money at you.”
The U.S. won the space race, and created an economic miracle at the same time, spinning off hundreds of spinoff technologies that enriched the economy and changed ouworld.
But now, facing another scientific challenge, the Bush administration is throwing up its hands – saying that doing anything about it would “hurt the economy.”
“That,” Suzuki said, “is un-American. The American way is to accept the challenge.”
Back on their feet for another standing ovation, the Al Gore acolytes in THIS room clearly agree.