Jill Pelto’s Landscape of Change uses data about sea level rise, glacier volume

Jill Pelto’s Landscape of Change uses data about sea level rise, glacier volume decline, increasing global temperatures and the increasing use of fossil fuels. These data lines compose a landscape shaped by the changing climate, a world in which we are now living. Image provided by Jill Pelto. jillpelto.com

A\J readers understand that it is time for action on climate change, but we should also appreciate that there is still time to succeed. Both senses of the phrase “time for a change” are valid. Effective campaigns require both a sense of urgency and belief in the possibility of success.

Recently, the municipal governments of Vancouver, Kingston and Halifax declared a state of climate emergency and local action plans. Other Canadian cities, including Toronto, are being pressed to do the same. Many British and Australian cities have done so already. Recently as well Cincinnati, Ohio, became the 100th US city to declare a target of 100 per cent renewable energy production. These assertions communicate determination without panic – action both now and ongoing.

The Canadian government has been less forthcoming about the urgency of climate action. Some provincial governments are giving Trump a run for his money as the worst on the planet on climate. Municipalities throughout the English-speaking democracies are acting on climate in response to inaction on other levels.

Municipal and regional governments influence or control many important climate policy realms: transit and transportation, zoning, building codes, water management, education and regional food systems.

“[We need] to appreciate that investing billions in pipelines only makes sense if there is a very long time to recover that investment.”

Thinking about the long list of realms where change must take place brings the focus back to time. Creating a low carbon economy might take decades. Action now is an emergency precisely because the necessary transformation is so comprehensive and unavoidably gradual.

We must redesign, modify or replace virtually all the energy-consuming devices we use, all the buildings we occupy, the very shape of our cities, as well as our eating and other everyday habits. It is not “just” a matter of changing dominant energy sources (and historically doing “just” that – from wood to coal and coal to oil and gas – has taken about 50 years). And, we only have about 30 years to be well on the way to getting the job done. If Canadians had accepted Stephan Dion’s advocacy of a gas tax back in 2008, we’d be well underway by now.

Why are the necessary changes so slow? To get public consciousness around the notion of a slow emergency we need to explain that climate action is an emergency precisely because sufficient change is inevitably slow. We also need to appreciate that investing billions in pipelines only makes sense if there is a very long time to recover that investment.

To put it in everyday terms, new motor vehicles will last a decade, new appliances and furnaces longer. We now need to replace all of these things with post-carbon options virtually every time a replacement is necessary. Replacing an almost-new anything before it wears out wastes the energy that went into making it. Large capital investments, then, lock us into the past on a larger scale.

Most important perhaps in what has been called our “long emergency,” most nations must avoid climate backsliding à la Trump and Ford. One way to do this is to build programs like the Green New Deal that make sure the transition is more than fair to those on the bottom and the two efforts are combined into one political and policy program.

If we have learned anything from the environmental disaster that is the Trump government (or Harper before him), it is that climate denial can win politically when clothed in lies about the cause of economic challenges. In a long effort, we need to move forward even when and where such governments take power. Climate activism is more resilient and enduring if it also takes hold within public institutions, as well as local governments, forward-looking businesses, farmers, neighborhoods and individuals. Action can continue even when national governments are not on side.

*****

My grandson’s first birthday was last week. He will only be in his early 30s when fossil fuels need to be very near to gone. Failing this, when he is my age the world will not be easy to live in. Why, then, are my tax dollars being used to expand the increased production and delivery of oil sands output? Why are we still building sprawling residential suburbs far from every day necessities?

Rapid, continuous fossil energy reduction is especially crucial in the two highest per capita emitting nations on the planet – the USA and Canada. Given this particular responsibility, we North Americans no longer have billions to invest in yesterday’s technologies. We need to invest our public and private wealth in innovations that make low carbon lives comfortable, convenient, joyful, healthy and affordable to all. Doing that will take whatever money and time we can muster.

Robert Paehlke is a professor emeritus at Trent University where he taught environmental policy and politics for 35 years. About 40 years ago, he envisioned a magazine that was both scientifically sound and journalistically interesting, and Alternatives was born. “Bob P,” as we call him, sits on the magazine’s editorial board and he contributes articles and blog posts as often as we can trick him into it.

He is the author of Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics (1989), Democracy's Dilemma: Environment, Social Equity and the Global Economy (2004), Some Like It Cold: The Politics of Climate Change in Canada (2008) and Hegemony and Global Citizenship (2014).  

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