22 Jul 2015

Weak tactics, stupidity and lies cloud seriousness of climate change for Canadians

In addition to the staging of the PanAm Games, Toronto was the location of some unusually high profile activities in recent days that were supposed to increase the efforts to tackle climate change.

The events raised some important questions: How effective are efforts to slow the increase of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, do Canadians agree on the extent of damage to our environment, and what do scientists say in their most recent reports about the degree of the threat?

Celebrities lead ‘the big protest: First, Toronto had the spectacle of actor/activist Jane Fonda, environmentalist David Suzuki and author-activist Naomi Klein leading a march of some 12,000 protesters belonging to a new coalition through downtown streets. From all accounts, they were a cheerful bunch.

“I think that the coalition that is represented in today’s march and rally ... will make a difference.” said Jane Fonda. But isn’t the year 2015 a little late to form a new coalition? Climate change has been a growing problem over 30 years, and Canada still does not have an effective, coordinated environmental effort to fight the biggest crisis in history.

Radicals have their say: Later in the week, a much angrier group of some 200 protesters  succeeded for a short time in blocking a lot of high profile delegates to the Climate Summit of the Americas from entering the Fairmont Royal York Hotel.

The aggressive small group chanted “Shut down the summit.” After their initial success, they were blocked by dozens of police. This scene has been repeated across the country hundreds of times in recent years and, unfortunately, instead of rallying “ordinary” people to their cause, it instead tends of turn them off.

Delegates from 20 countries make an appearance: Inside the Fairmont Royal York, more than 300 delegates from 20 countries were claiming to be urging jurisdictions around the world to come forward with meaningful commitments for carbon reductions to present at the long-anticipated UN Climate Summit in Paris in December. This UN Summit is “the biggie” of 20 years of efforts to come to agreement on how to slow climate change.

A news op for politicians: Politicians  at the Toronto Summit turned into a news op for political opportunism, with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Environment Minister Glen Murray, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, and even California Governor Jerry Brown taking turns tearing strips off Stephen Harper, whose government was not represented at the meetings.

Big corporations help set agenda: Interestingly, powerful corporations lurked in the background. While politicians take the heat for failing to act effectively on climate change, giant corporations, including Shell's CEO and the head of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, had already steered the pre-Summit discussions enough to make sure non-renewables would not be unduly targeted in a closing statement.

Non-renewable energy corporations have spent many millions-of-dollars during their evil campaign of deception and lies, producing and circulating disinformation about the dangers of their carbon-producing products for more than 25 years. The independent Union of Concerned Scientists earlier this month released a 56-page dossier detailing the lies of the industry.

Delegates sign meaningless statement: At the close of the Toronto Climate Summit, hundreds of delegates signed a non-binding, motherhood statement urging jurisdictions around the world to make carbon-reduction commitments and present them in Paris.

In short, while athletes from the Pan American region were delighting crowds with some wonderful performances, the Climate Summit was, well, a fraud. It was a massive, hugely expensive and cynical public relations stunt – a nice travel perk – for participating politicians. We all would be better off if the wasted money had been spent on a practical carbon-reduction program, perhaps in Africa, the continent that has the fewest resources and that will suffer the most.

Mainstream media ‘misinforms’: Unfortunately, mainstream media coverage of the Summit failed to go beyond the speeches. The papers, TV and radio news dutifully reported the politicians’ rants. But a Google search failed to find any mainstream news report that provided any analysis of the event or that explained the extremely serious threat that climate change presents.

Mainstream media must be held largely responsible for the fact that only 50 per cent of Canadians are "extremely" or "definitely" concerned about the climate threat.  Corporate news coverage and media analysis of the seriousness of climate change is too often wrong, misleading or incomplete.

If bad reporting on climate change issues confuses the public, so do incorrect statements by poorly informed politicians.

Premier Couillard was an offender at the Toronto Climate Summit. He said Quebec is committing itself “to a very ambitious set of targets with only one objective: to keep warming below or at the maximum 2 degrees Celsius by 2050."  This says, as Bob Marley’s famous song goes, Everything gonna be alright.

But sorry Philippe, according to a lot of scientists, keeping the average temperature to 2 degrees Celsius – which has been the goal pulled out of a hat several years ago, is pretty much impossible.

Here’s what scientists who I trust have to say:

Because of the melting of the icecaps, we’re already on our way to surpassing 2 degrees, says the highly regarded and independent Union of Concerned Scientists. The melting of the icecaps cannot be reversed.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in June that, if governments do not strengthen policies dramatically, the world would be on a path to an average temperature increase of 2.6C by 2100 and 3.5C after 2200.

The IEA says this translates into an average temperature rise of 4.3C over land in the northern hemisphere where most of the world's population lives, and even more in urban areas.

Yes, this would be catastrophic.

And here we are, poorly informed Canadians, going on with our lives pretty much as usual because -- as I have shown here -- our environmental groups, politicians, media, and our corporations, will not tell us a) how serious a problem we face, and b) what can an ordinary person do to make a meaningful difference?

It’s impossible to say how massive an effort would be required to keep temperature increases to levels that will allow us to continue living pretty much as we do now. We can only guess.

Dr. Matania Ginosar, a prominent California environmental scientist, says that “only a global effort larger than WWII may be able to save the Earth's environment from destruction. . . .”

In Paris in December, enormous pressure will be put on many of the 196 countries taking part in the much-anticipated United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21). They will try to come up with some sort of agreement or understanding that will allow an orchestrated attack on greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2020.

But the UN process has been under way for 20 years now and, because of its repeated failure to advance the climate agenda, cannot be considered an overall success.

One serious problem with the UN meetings has been that powerful corporations have used their influence and money to move into a powerful position in the process. So far they have helped prevent the kind of progress required.

In one major way, the Paris Summit is already a failure even before it begins. UN officials involved with the talks are already saying that whatever is accomplished in Paris alone, it will not hold global warming to less than 2 Celsius.

Embarrassed when the crucial Copenhagen talks ended in chaos and vicious attacks, leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama and the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao won’t attend the Paris Summit. Only high level ministers will be there.

Reflecting back, given the seriousness of the crisis as it is now being described internationally, it is difficult to understand how Toronto’s protests and climate talks were allowed to be so meaningless. These weaknesses, plus deplorable reporting by mainstream media, are responsible for millions of Canadians being poorly informed and not taking the threat of potentially disastrous climate change seriously.
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  1. Wonderful reporting. Thank you, Nick Fillmore.

    1. Thanks. It might help if you could encourage other folks to subscribe . . .

  2. I just wrote a long response and it appears to have disappeared when I tried to post it.

  3. I'll try again more briefly: You have lots of good analysis here. The continued role of fossil fuel corporate lobbyists must be challenged as well as the poor media coverage. But you fail to recognize the real and significant progress made in places like Ontario and NS (1st & 2nd in GHG reductions in Canada) and to criticize Naomi Klein's new coalition fails to recognize that environmental groups have been working nationally on this issue for several years and seems to be saying since it's 30 years late, it's worthless. So what are you saying it's too late to do anything?

    1. Dear Brian and Lee - Pleased to hear from you. I think it's a problem that elements of "the left" and "progressive" community are not critiqued or held to any standards, so when I make a few critical comments some people are surprised.

      I worked on campaigning and protest in free expression in developing countries for 12 years, and please believe me when I say that folks in Africa and Southeast Africa are far more creative and determined than the folks who run groups in Canada. Concerned about climate change, I was surprised and disappointed when I came home about how laid back the community is here. Three or four groups, like Greenpeace, have their act together. I once took the Greenpeace campaign strategy course. Many groups here still think they are doing something worthwhile with a march of 10,000 people or sending as petition to Parliament.

      Unfortunately, we don't have an environmental "movement." The only coordinating body the groups had they let fall apart after Harper cancelled government funding. We have dozens and dozens of groups with resources of, believe it or not, about $3-billion. But there is no consensus on what should be done. The community is also divided into groups that take corporate and corporate foundation money -- which to me makes them pretty well ineffective. The WWF works closely with corporations that destroy the world's water and break human rights laws.

      Environmental groups should be doing a lot more to give Canadians accurate information about the causes of climate change and the degree of the threat. The public is all over the place when it comes to understanding -- make that not understanding -- climate change. If 100 environmental groups were telling us the same things, we would not have as much successful work by climate change deniers in the country.

      If environmental groups had the kind of power they should have, they would be able to force the media to report more accurately on climate change -- examples of which are The Guardian and Los Angeles Times.

      One reason that some groups don't cooperate with others is because they compete for the same funding, and they have identified their own little niche. -- On another level, there is considerable duplication of effort.

      People who run the groups also don't want to take any risks, or threaten their own survival or their own salaries. The whole bunch of them play it too safe.

      Groups don't "fight" for change. Most of them target the Harper government, even though anyone can tell them this will accomplish very little -- unless we get folks like Anonymous to shut down some departments. But, even though climate change is likely going to damage our globe beyond recognition, the environmentalists don't like tough tactics. They lack political awareness and are almost all the product of small-l liberalism. -- Be nice to people -- but even your enemies? I don't think so.

      I believe in Canada the enemy that can be damaged is the energy industry. -- And, as I learned from Greenpeace, you have to damage a corporation or industry in some way to force them to change. The environmentalists rightly attack some pipelines (and court challenges are great), but I think they might be able to have success if they picked one of the worst companies - one that is vulnerable in some ways -- and threaten and attack it in many ways. But first ask them to switch their investments to renewables. If that doesn't work, blockade it, shut their phones down, get rid of their shares, etc.

      In closing, I'll say that Naomi Klein hit the nail on the head in her book about corporations. I doubt that many working environmentalists actually read the book. The whole community praised Naomi but then quietly put her book on the shelf.

      Well this is a little longer than planned. You may disagree with my comments and dislike others. This has been a good exercise for me -- if I soften it a little, I'll have another blog! Best, Nick

    2. I quite agree with what you say about Canadian environmentalism. I would like to suggest that the lack of solidarity, as well as the desire to avoid confrontational tactics, is not exclusive to Canadian environmentalism, but is in fact a hallmark oour "progressivism" in general. The fact is that self-interest has been the dominating philosophy for the past generation of Canadians, on the left as well as the right. That's the reason for the failure of labour to take any sort of serious lead in challenging the hegemony of the neoliberal agenda and all that comes with it: because they are part of it. So it's no surprise that those who are willing to put their liberty on the line on important issues are those who are already marginalized from the mainstream economy and who are therefore able to comprehend the looming environmental disaster most clearly: youth and First Nations. So many progressive organizations receive government funding that activism is now equated with advocacy—and even advocacy is too risky for most.
      Some of today's problems in fact stem from the degree to which "the left" has been successful in creating better remuneration and working conditions in the private as well as the public sector, and in providing public support to level the economic playing field, in part by entrenching a professional "social policy" class. While enormous good can be and has been achieved, the very people who are in the best position to understand the suffering that austerity measures bring are also in no position to challenge the dominant ideology. We can see what has happened to our conscientious scientists under the Harper regime: they get fired. We Canadians have little experience of solidarity; and it is no accident that a major part of the Harper agenda has been to destroy the CBC, our sole real opportunity for any kind of national dialogue.
      I didn't mean this to sound so depressing -- these are simply my thoughts as a result of several years as an activist, during which I have tried to work in collaboration with other individuals and groups. There have been some small successes in terms of engaging a wider public, but the fact that support for the current federal government remains so high, despite its success in dismantling so much most of us hold dear about this nation, and despite its insistence on staying the neoliberal course and denying the reality of the threat of climate change, is an indicator that we on the left need to change our tactics.
      The big question for me is this: to what? I am a long-time admirer of Greenpeace, but I also wonder whether they have more adherents in Canada now, in 2015, than they did in 2006, for instance. I look at the hard work of such groups as Rising Tide in fighting Enbridge’s Line 9, and in bringing (mostly young) activists together at People’s Social Forums. While media coverage of direct actions and solidarity events is better than it was in 2010, the discussion does not seem to filter down to the Canadian public in any meaningful way. The great danger is that we continue to talk to ourselves. we seem to be unable to broaden the dialogue.
      I know I’m not alone when I say that I derive my inspiration from the extraordinary courage and tenacity of our First Nations in their fight for the acknowledgement of aboriginal title. They are the true environmentalists. Where they lead, may I find the courage to follow.

    3. Fiona - thank you so much for your insightful comments. I hope all of my blog followers read your comments. What you say also makes me feel like I'm not totally alone in my views of our so-called progressive community. I hope you are writing widely, sharing your views with people. What you're saying is important. Thanks, Nick.

  4. Take a look at these reports for some facts and figures about what has been done and could be done in Canada and around the world: http://cleanenergycanada.org/resources/reports/ And in particular the 1st one, Tracking the Energy Revolution. Things are changing rapidly these days in spite of the resistance of the deniers and corporate fossil fuel lobby.

    1. From the information we are consuming produced by media it does seem like things are changing rapidly these days. When the Premier of B.C. tells people the fires are partly caused by climate change, and when the Pope does the wonderful things he has done, PEOPLE do change. Whether the powerful corporations that control non-renewables and India and China are going to change . . . . . only time will tell.

    2. Take a look at the Tracking the Energy Revolution report which includes data re China. I'll respond to your other comments in the next day or 2. It's certainly fair enough to critique any social movement, including the environmental one. But I think you're missing some important elements of what's happening. By the way, Ontario and NS (the top 2 Cdn jurisdictions in terms of actual % GHG reductions) have made significant, real progress by closing coal plants, reducing the role of coal plants, increasing renewables and increasing efficiency. It's all in the Tracking reports - though NS gets short shrift because it's small - it is only profiled later in the report not in the high level statements in the first few pages. Brian (Gifford)

  5. Global warming, ocean acidification and climate change are only a part (albeit a major part) of humanity's war against the biosphere that has been growing exponentially since the Industrial Revolution. Loss of natural habitat, toxic pollution of land, sea and air and mass extinction of species are also part of the deadly equation.

    Immediate, intensive, widespread education aimed at a global change of consciousness might be our only hope. But Nick is absolutely correct in pointing out the abject failure of the news media in this regard, whether out of cowardice or ideology. We bury our heads in the sand, and pray for technological advances or the intercession of some supernatural being to save us.

    As long as ignorance and greed remain the dominant forces in our collective consciousness, I don't anticipate any meaningful attempt to solve these problems before the onset of a catastrophic event of global proportions. And then it will be too late.

  6. I was at the recent protest in Toronto. I have been going to protests for close to 40 years, mostly here in Canada. While many of your criticisms are correct, there were some hopeful signs.

    The numbers were there on a hot summer Sunday in July, about 10-12K. I have never seen that before. Normally Canadians are at the lake or on vacation but like me, significant numbers interrupted their vacation to show up.

    Also the breadth was significant. There were good numbers of First Nations, labour, environmentalist, civil society and church organizations in attendance ... and of course many concerned others without formal affiliation.

    As they go, this was well organized. Clearly they had a lot of volunteers helping it all happen. I can't comment on the Talks themselves but if reversing climate change is going to happen, the politicians and industrialists will have to be pushed from the bottom; by us in other words.

    I found the demonstration lively and I think there is the will to do more. As Naomi Klein's book points out, and it's not just gathering dust on many of our shelves, most environmental groups sold out during the NAFTA negotiations but there were some notable exceptions, Greenpeace and the Council of Canadians to name two.

    Finally, it is important to get rid of Stephen Harper. Part of the reason that members of the media are pulling their punches is that they are afraid of him and know that he doesn't want to talk about climate change. The CBC's board of directors is now made up of Harper appointees. Heck, they even changed the composition of the board of the National Capital Commission when it looked like the NCC wasn't going to rubber-stamp their victims of communism monument. Harper is also slowly replacing supreme court judges, which is very worrisome.

    We have to get rid of him. One part of the reason that Canadians have been slow to act is that they've been kept in the dark. The other is that most haven't felt the effects of climate change. All this is changing and it can't come a moment too soon.

  7. Is it ethical to use firefighters as props while a forest burns in the background?

    BURNED! Media mocks Harper appearance at BC wildfire

    Clark and Harper know forest fires linked to climate change. Why won't they do anything about it?

    EDITORIAL: Harper right to visit Kelowna fires

    Michaels: Fires should take climate change off the back burner

  8. big corporate are the only issue

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