The Covid-19 virus is an emergency. What can the Canadian climate justice movement learn from the ways in which our governments are responding to it?
In response to the economic contraction triggered by the covid-19 pandemic, the EI fund was boosted last week (among other measures). Today (March 13), a $10 billion credit facility was announced by the federal government to hold over Canadian businesses affected by lost sales. (This amount could be doubled.) The Bank of Canada is cutting its lending rate again and creating a new lending facility for businesses in trouble. The domestic stability buffer for Canadian banks is being lowered to 1 per cent, freeing $300 billion in additional lending capacity by the banks. A stabilization program is in the works for Alberta (and Saskatchewan?). Today’s announcements constitute, apparently, the second stage of a longer series of steps to be taken to respond to the pandemic.
Economist Jim Stafford points out (on CBC Radio’s emergency coverage of the emergency measures, this afternoon) that the $10 billion announced by Minister Morneau compares to the $200 billion that was made available by the Harper Govt to help businesses weather the 2008 financial crisis. Stafford joined calls from the labour movement for the immediate increase and extension of workers’ benefits.
Political ecologists and ecological economists, drawing on climate science and trends in fossil fuel extraction, have been saying for almost two decades that we could either plan economic degrowth or have it imposed upon us by the effects of global warming. Calls for “Green New Deals,” “Just Transition,” or “rapid transition to a post-carbon economy” (all different labels for the same thing) have been dismissed as unrealistic. They couldn’t be financed, it was said. “Fiscally responsible” governments are all about eliminating deficits and small government, neoliberals continue to say. Incremental market adjustments would do the trick, claimed the liberals. Yet, with a few cabinet meetings it can be decided that we are in the throes of a national emergency and credit can be generated for low-cost lending to businesses. Laid-off workers can be provided with more income. Purported neoliberals are now calling for “fiscal stimulus” for their oil-price-depressed local economies.
When a government can create, within days, financing on the scale of $200 billion to maintain the status quo, but cannot do the same to help build a new, more resilient and egalitarian economy–one that provides greater income stability for all–we must conclude that the problem is not the means, but the will, to act on the evidence of climate science.
As for the employment/income crisis in Alberta, I hope, personally, that the federal government will not give the UCP government control over a stabilisation fund that it would very likely use to further subsidize the fossil fuel corporations operating in the province. Any such fund should be administered by an independent agency that includes experts on the impacts of climate science as well as civil society representatives in its governance body, and that has a green transition mandate.
At this juncture the Liberals have an opportunity to turn a crisis into solutions. They should not miss another opportunity to explain to Canadians that the capitalist-growth-driven economy is driving us right past the point of no-return (return, that is, to a global warming threshold below 2 degrees). The existing economy is hurtling us toward a world with 200 million climate refugees by mid-century, and we are already struggling to resettle 6 million refugees from the Middle East and African conflicts.
The covid-19 virus is a small test-run for what is coming, if we don’t make radical changes now. Remember that, in addition to climate science’s predictions of collapses in food production and marine environments (the latter already well advanced), there is a whole field of research related to the effects of global warming on disease vectors and other determinants of pubic health. We can mobilize the public financing now for a planned transition, or, we can react spasmodically to crisis after crisis in the years ahead, at the cost of immense suffering and—very likely—growing political authoritarianism.
Laurie Adkin, Professor of Political Science, University of Alberta, March 13, 2020
by Kevin van Tighem, naturalist and writer, resident of southwest Alberta
In a confidential meeting with the Calgary Chamber of Commerce during the last Alberta provincial election campaign, Jason Kenney described his strategy for implementing a far-right exploitation agenda. He said the plan was to overwhelm any opposition by bringing in massive policy changes as fast as possible. And that is exactly what he has done.
The power of that approach is that it both confuses people and makes them feel overwhelmed and helpless. So they retreat into despair, and those who profit from extracting value from the public purse, the work of others and the environment win. But it’s a tactic based on overwhelming our senses, not on real power. In a democracy like ours, real power is distributed across many levels of government and many groups of people. And we can still tap into it to defend our province from those who would suck it dry and then discard it.
The coal mining assault on the Eastern Slopes is a case in point. We are meant to feel that there is nothing we can do to stop strip mines from opening, one after another, from Crowsnest Pass to Grande Cache, in the scenic headwaters of our prairie rivers. We’re supposed to go down without a fight as the habitats of native trout and the homes of bighorn sheep, alpine forget-me-nots and golden eagles get reduced to rubble in order to send coal to be burnt in foreign steel mills. But we have the power to keep our mountains free of coal strip-mines.
I and others have been encouraging concerned Albertans to write to the Premier and our so-called Minister of Environment and Parks with their objections. That’s still a good idea, because it does ensure that they know that their voters actually care about our home place enough to protest bad policy. But we need to be realistic: this is a government with a far-right ideology. They truly believe in what they are doing. We are not going to convince them to change course.
On the other hand, they have done almost everything they can to alienate the federal government and to let the ruling Liberals know that there’s little hope of winning seats in Alberta. Ironically, this could help Albertans who care deeply about our Eastern Slopes to persuade Ottawa to stand on guard for us and the places we love.
Provincial and federal governments alike have a duty, under our Constitution, to consult with First Nations whose rights are affected by major changes to land use policy. When Alberta arbitrarily revoked its Coal Policy — one that was originally put in place by Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative government after extensive consultation — they consulted only with the coal industry. They are in breach of their Constitutional duty to respectfully consult Indigenous people. The federal government has a direct interest in that.
Almost all the current coal mining proposals affect the breeding habitat of species protected by law under the federal Species At Risk Act. These include Westslope Cutthroat Trout, Limber and Whitebark Pines, and Grizzly Bear. The province has submitted draft recovery plans for cutthroat trout and grizzly that are clearly substandard and they expect the federal government to rubber stamp those plans — even while instituting a policy that is intended to facilitate strip-mining of critical habitats. The federal government has a duty to protect those species.
The Government of Canada and Alberta are subject to international agreements to reduce greenhouse gases. This is an urgent priority in the face of our ongoing climate crisis. Burning coal releases stored carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Coal mined in Alberta might be burned in China, Japan or India, but there is only one atmosphere: we don’t get to play Pontius Pilate on this. The federal government has a duty to consider the impact of major new initiatives on our ability to meet our greenhouse gas reduction targets.
The Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains provide more than 80% of all the river water in the arable regions of prairie Canada. Water security is a critical strategic issue for this country, given the importance of irrigation agriculture and prairie towns and cities, and the costs of flood-relief and drought-relief programs. Coal strip mining destroys the surface hydrology of headwater basins and releases soluble toxins like selenium into ground and surface water. Existing coal mines in BC and near Hinton have failed to find a way to keep those toxins out of rivers and in fact more than 90% of the threatened west slope cutthroat trout population recently died in the Fording River because of coal mine pollution. Water security is a federal concern.
So the Federal government has jurisdictional responsibilities that are affected both by individual coal mine proposals and by the Alberta government’s decision to open up formerly protected Coal Policy zone 2 lands to new strip mining. The Federal government has both the responsibility and the power to intervene — and no political reason to avoid intervening.
We need to tell them this.
And we need to ask them to impose a solution. The simplest solution? Federal legislation dictating that ANY new coal mine proposals in Canada, including expansion proposals for existing coal mines, will henceforth be subject to a formal review under the federal Impact Assessment Act. With no exceptions.
This would ensure full scrutiny of all environmental impacts, including greenhouse gas emissions, and full consideration of government duty to consult with affected Indigenous communities. It would mean that species at risk don’t get swept under the rug. And it would guarantee all Canadians an open, transparent and accessible process for citizens to intervene against bad decisions.
No less important: it would scare away a lot of investors, because they would be dealing with the kind of investment risks — i.e. full-cost accounting — that the Kenney government is trying to help them avoid. Mining investors prefer to deal with desperate third-world governments than with ones that hold investors fully accountable, because they don’t want to pay to clean up their messes or live with the damage they cause.
We CAN save our Eastern Slopes. This is one fight we can win, but citizens need to convince our federal Cabinet to step up to the plate. If you have visited the places that are now at risk, or even if you just think water security and endangered species matter, it should be pretty clear that this is one fight we have to win.
So here are some key Cabinet Ministers to whom you should send your thoughts and suggestions. Please feel free to borrow from any of the points raised above:
Prime Minister. Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau – email@example.com
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Hon. Chrystia Freeland – firstname.lastname@example.org
Environment and Climate Change Minister. Hon. Jonathan Wilkinson – email@example.com