The atmosphere outside of the (Elgin and) Winter Garden Theatre last night was similar — not quite the same, but similar — to that of a rock concert. Various people stood in the cold, holding signs that said “Need One Ticket, PLEASE,” while the large crowd jostled around three or four groups handing out flyers and pimping petitions. “Mary,” yelled one woman, excitedly. “There’s a petition to ban Styrofoam!”
Inside, there was a much calmer atmosphere, inspired by a mix of anticipation and the soothing influence of the Winter Garden’s decor, which includes fake tress and a mural of mountains and the sky. (It also didn’t hurt that the new Raffi song “Cool It” was playing on a continuous loop. Nothing controls a crowd like Raffi.) It was an appropriate atmosphere to hear from two of Canada’s most respected voices on the environment and social justice. (The decoration also allowed for an amusing moment in the question and answer period, when the moderator called upon “the woman standing in the back beside the tree.”)
The guests of honour were, of course, David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis, in conversation facilitated by the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel. They should need no introduction (though they were each given lengthy ones). In brief, Dr. David Suzuki is a geneticist, educator, and broadcaster, who has written approximately forty books, received nineteen honorary doctorate degrees, and is a Companion to the Order of Canada. Stephen Lewis, a former leader of the Ontario NDP, was Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1984-1988, Deputy Director of UNICEF from 1995-1999, and the UN’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa until last December.
Together, they can leap over tall buildings, walk on water, and deactivate an explosive device using only a paper clip and their combined sense of moral outrage.
Getting To Crisis
A crisis is a problem that’s been ignored for too long. Therefore, it was particularly painful to listen to a detailed account of how long we’ve been ignoring the environmental crisis that’s now gotten so bad it may be threatening our survival. It must be even more painful for Suzuki and Lewis, who lived it.
Suzuki remembers hearing about global warming in the 80’s, but admits that at the time, they (the scientific and environmental communities) thought of it as a “slow motion catastrophe” that would have effects in 100 years, but not sooner. Instead, Suzuki focused on other issues, such as deforestation. He was never so pessimistic or alarmist to believe things would get so bad so soon. (The Globe and Mail now reports that 4 out of 5 Canadians report personally witnessing the effects of climate change.)
Lewis was even more involved with climate change in the 80’s, charing the previously mentioned 1988 Toronto Conference, which was quoted last night as concluding that, “humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment, whose ultimate consequence could be second only to a global nuclear war.”
That year, says Suzuki, was the last peak of environmental awareness before our current one. It was in 1988 that George Bush Sr. campaigned on a promise to be “an environmental president.” Public demand for action led to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, but by then the pressure was off, and Bush was able to “blackmail the summit into watering down the agreement.” Lewis adds that the activists who were in Rio never understood the degree to which back-room pressure by politicians and corporate (so-called) leaders co-opted the whole event.
The result of the Rio conference was Agenda 21, where the poor nations of the developing world agreed to pay more than the rich nations, only to have those rich nations (in a move that’s simultaneously tragic and offensive) turn around and say “we can’t afford to do this.”
That takes us to the 1997 negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol, Canada’s ratification in 2002, and the protocol’s coming into force as international law in 2005.
So, Here We Are Then
“There was a time when we counted for something internationally. Nothing would resuscitate Canada’s relevance more quickly than decisive leadership on climate change.” – Stephen Lewis
After decades of inaction, it’s hard for Lewis to contain his concern and impatience. “What is the matter with governments,” he asks. “They go from inertia to paralysis!” Pointing to a story in the Globe And Mail last weekend that exposed a new deadly, airborne fungus that’s appeared on the west coast, Lewis emphasized how “unsettling” and “unpredictable” the future is.
During the Q&A time, someone asked Suzuki why he doesn’t run for federal office. (Actually, what they said was, “why don’t you run for president?” But let’s overlook that.) He dismissed the question, saying “well, there are lots of reasons,” then became drowned out by thunderous applause and Lewis’ observation that “I think it’s a great idea!” He did, however, say what his three priorities would be if he were made prime minister through some magical act against his will:
1. End subsidies to the auto and fossil fuel sectors. These are often called “perverse subsidies,” because they represent public money going towards public harm. Also, ExxonMobil’s recent $40 billion-with-a-B first quarter profit announcement makes the subsidies insane, and, according to Lewis, “gives new definition to obscenity,” especially when one considers the fact that ExxonMobil is still using some of that money to pay the same people who used to tell us that smoking doesn’t cause cancer to deny climate change is happening.
2. Create a carbon tax. Speak the language business will understand by sending the right price signals to the market. Suzuki also shared that in a recent conversation with him, Preston Manning (former leader of the REFOOOOOOORRRM party) essentially endorsed a carbon tax by saying that currently externalized costs in the tar sands (water, pollution) need to be internalized.
3. Set targets and timelines for greenhouse gas reduction. Enshrine them in legislation so that the next government is forced to meet them too.
Refuting the Opponents
Even though most of the public “gets it,” there are still a few individuals (mostly in government or business) who continue to make the same, tired arguments against action. Various devil’s advocates set these arguments up throughout the night, only to have them soundly knocked down.
The most common of these frames the environment against the economy, and comes in various forms (it costs too much, the economy will crash, the economy’s more important, etc). For this, Suzuki went to etymology, pointing out that the “eco” in both economy and ecology comes from a Greek word meaning house, or home. Ecology is the study of home, while economy is the management of home. And since you can’t manage something you don’t understand, it doesn’t make any sense to put economy before ecology, as our current minister of the environment still does. “Let’s put the eco back in economics,” proclaimed Suzuki, to more applause.
They also pointed out that
the Stern Report pegged the cost of not fighting climate change at greater than both World Wars combined, and would result in the collapse of 20% of the economy.
Evoking some more war imagery, Suzuki drew another analogy. “After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, can you imagine if the US government had said, ‘oh well, it’s too expensive to go after them so I guess we’ve got to let them take Asia?'” If a foreign country were polluting our air, water, and food, killing thousands and threatening even greater destruction, would we say, “oh well, it costs too much to defend ourselves?”
In the end, the message was that all of us need to put pressure on politicians to make the change, because, according to Suzuki and Lewis, they’re not going to change on their own. Suzuki pointed out that Al Gore, despite being the politician who understands both the treat and the solutions more than any other, still campaigned for president without making environmental concerns an issue. The reason he didn’t (and the reason George Bush Sr. did) is because of the degree to which the public spoke up and said, “this matters to us.”
Lewis is very excited about the next election, because it will give us all another chance to go to all candidates meetings and use our votes to get action. Suzuki’s excited and hopeful too, because many of the solutions are already there, just waiting to be implemented.
“And what happens,” asked one audience member,” when we elect a government that says they’re going to take action but then doesn’t?”
“Just keep fighting,” replied Lewis. “The pendulum always swings, you can’t give up. Keep at it, endlessly, tenaciously, and people start to move. Hammer them into submission. There’s no time to equivocate anymore.”
Photo by Carrie Musgrave for Torontoist.