What would Gandhi do?

By Leslie Campbell, June 2014

What would Gandhi do if the politically powerful ignored reality?

Lately, for me, every issue that comes up seems like a distant second to the climate change challenge. If we don’t have a habitable planet, if we can’t feed ourselves, well, that’s it. End of the human story.

The severe weather events that scientists have been predicting for years are now regularly in the news. The devastation in terms of lives, infrastructure, farmland, and economies is heart-breaking. The Philippines’ typhoon, unprecedented California droughts and wildfires, the Serbian floods, Hurricane Sandy…and on it goes. We are told by scientists to expect more of the same given the unprecedented warming of the planet caused by fossil fuel emissions. We are told of the “tipping point” represented by the Antarctic ice sheet melting, that it means unprecedented (there’s that word again) sea level rise. The sea itself is becoming so acidic that shellfish have difficulty producing shells. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is sobering. For urban areas it predicts heat stress, extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, air pollution, drought, and water scarcity. It also cites increased risk of violent strife—not surprising given the food insecurity that accompanies a hotter world.

Yet here in BC our governments are preparing for the rapid liquidation of multi-million-year-old fossil carbon deposits, the very fuels whose burning is wreaking havoc world-wide. 

I don’t understand how intelligent people—Premier Christy Clark and Prime Minister Stephen Harper among them—can be so deeply in denial. Or should I say, so immoral? For it has become an ethical issue. Do we sacrifice the habitat of citizens the world over—and the lives of future generations—so we can maintain our glorious lifestyle for a few more decades?

People everywhere are realizing that climate change—which scientists are 95 percent certain is being caused by a combination of fossil fuel emissions and deforestation—is the challenge our species must rise to, and soon. Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary General, wrote in a May 2014 Guardian editorial: “Climate change is affecting agriculture, water resources, human health, and ecosystems on land and in the oceans. It poses sweeping risks for economic stability and the security of nations.”

We are playing with fire. The scientists know it. Ban Ki-moon knows it. Canadians know it: 88 percent of Canadians, according to Canada 2020, want the federal government to take the lead on climate change; and 78 percent of British Columbians agree that BC should transition away from using fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy to prevent climate change from getting worse.

But Prime Minister Harper? Not so much. He’s expected to approve the Northern Gateway pipeline by the end of June so tar sands oil can get to the coast for shipping to Asia. Christy Clark seems hellbent on developing an LNG industry here, something scientists and even her own government bureaucrats have noted will make it impossible for BC to meet its legislated targets for emission reductions. Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain pipeline will mean even more tankers carrying tar sands bitumen to Asia. David Black’s proposed oil refinery might reduce the amount of bitumen being shipped along the coast, or it might simply mean more bitumen being transported through pipelines to the coast, and even higher CO2 emissions. 

It’s full-speed ahead on the fossil fuel front—including development of the dirtiest oil on the planet. 

Still, unconventional oil extraction, which includes the tar sands, accounts for only two percent of Canada’s GDP. Meanwhile, BC’s LNG dreams are a long way from guaranteeing any real jobs any time soon. So the one defence politicians have for their denial and disconnect around climate change—jobs and prosperity—is highly questionable. Some, like Ban Ki-moon and Green MLA Andrew Weaver, argue convincingly that the real prosperity lies in nurturing a healthy clean tech industry.

Canada’s continued reliance on fossil fuel extraction is prolonging the adjustment we’re all going to have to make as the costs of climate change become more apparent. Unfortunately, some will need to adjust sooner as their homelands are flooded or drought-stricken or destroyed by hurricanes. But we will all pay. Calgary’s flood has cost $5 billion; Hurricane Sandy’s costs have been estimated at $65 billion. The California drought is predicted to result in 14,500 people losing their jobs.

Certainly many citizens, in recognition of the dangers posed by a warming planet and accepting some responsibility, are changing their consumption patterns so they burn less fossil fuels. Some are embracing a plant-based diet because of its much lower carbon footprint. Many are replacing auto travel with public transport and bicycles. Everyone’s thinking energy efficiency. And some are “divesting” from fossil fuel stocks.

But what we also need is government action in the right direction instead of the wrong. Ban Ki-moon states: “We can avert these risks if we take bold, decisive action now.”

First, and surely the most logical and obviously fair step is: Turn off the subsidies. The International Monetary Fund calculated Canada’s subsidies to petroleum, gas and coal producers in 2011 amounted to 1.52 percent of our GDP or roughly $26 billion each year.

Instead, we should be using tax policy to discourage fossil fuels and help pay for their damage. Let’s transfer the savings and revenues to those creating emission-free ways of being.

Ban Ki-moon seems optimistic: “Change is in the air—I can sense it at all levels of society. Solutions exist. The race is on. My challenge to all political and business leaders, all concerned citizens and voters is simple: be at the head of the race. Don’t get left behind. Don’t be on the losing side of history.”

That seems like a direct message to Premier Clark and Prime Minister Harper. However, if Harper does as expected and gives Enbridge’s pipeline his blessing, what then? With its implications of increased development of the tar sands, increased fossil fuel burning, and bitumen-laden tankers risking our coast, what would Gandhi do?

Well, Gandhi said: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” He studied and practiced non-violent resistance to fight injustices. He argued, “One needs to be slow to form convictions, but once formed they must be defended against the heaviest odds.”

BC has a noble history of non-violent protection of the ecosystems that sustain us. For example, the 1993 Clayoquot Peace Camp saw over 10,000 people from all walks of life participate, with 900 arrested, leading to the largest mass trial in Canadian history. It drew international condemnation of the BC government for allowing old growth forests to be logged—and resulted in the establishment of a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

First Nations’ leaders are promising to physically block oil and gas pipeline projects crossing their land without adequate consultation. At Unis’tot’en, an indigenous re-occupation of Wet’suwet’en land in northern BC, a protest camp sits squarely in the middle of two proposed gas pipelines and the proposed Northern Gate-way pipeline. Over the last few years, Victoria- based Forest Action Network (FAN) has organized three caravans of volunteers and supplies to Unis’tot’en Camp to support the indigenous blockade (see www.WildCoast.ca).

Forest Action Network is teaching non-violent protest strategies to everyone on the coast who’s willing to learn. This spring, over 800 people attended civil disobedience workshops and solidarity trainings in Victoria and Vancouver to stop the pipelines. (Email zoe@wildcoast.ca to request a training session.) They are also raising funds to defend anyone who risks arrest to stop the pipelines.

“We are driven by our love for the land and the coast. We won’t stop, and we are determined to win,” says Zoe Blunt of FAN.

Two years ago, a dozen protesters, including Mark Jaccard, a professor of sustainable energy at Simon Fraser University, were arrested after setting up a blockade on train tracks in White Rock, an action aimed at stopping US coal trains from reaching local ports. Admitting it was his first time participating in civil disobedience, Jaccard stated: “The current willingness of especially our federal government to brazenly take actions that ensure we cannot meet scientifically and economically sound greenhouse gas reduction targets for Canada and the planet leaves me with no alternative. I now ask myself how our children, when they look back decades from now, will have expected us to have acted today. When I think about that, I conclude that every sensible and sincere person, who cares about this planet and can see through lies and delusion motivated by money, should be doing what I and others are now prepared to do.”

With enough bold, decisive action, there is still hope.

Editor Leslie Campbell just heard of these related events: June 26, This Art Show Stops Pipelines, Norway House, 1110 Hillside. June 28, 1-4pm, Tar Sands Healing Walk, a multi-faith initiative; water’s edge, Delta Ocean Pointe Hotel.