Tzeporah Berman has been working on environmental campaigns, policy and solutions for over 20 years. She is the author of This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge published by Knopf Canada.
As I prepare to attend the largest climate march in history this weekend, I open a drawer that contains, among other mementos, a Canadian flag. I stare down at it – wondering if I can bear to bring it with me, unfurl it, and walk under it through the streets of New York.
I am reminded of a conversation I had with an elderly European diplomat at the UN climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa. This was after it became clear that Canada planned to pull out of the Kyoto agreement. He said: "I remember when we signed the Montreal Protocol to ban CFC's and heal the hole in the ozone layer. It happened because of Canada's determination and leadership. What has happened to Canada?"
This is a question we all should ask. … I have had many conversations with people from government and industry about the oil sands. The conversations usually go something like this: "Yes, we need to address the growing threat of climate change and yes, oil sands expansion is driving greenhouse gas emissions growth in Canada. But the fact is, we need a strong economy, and the world needs oil. Besides, Canada's emissions are small potatoes against coal from China."
What bothers me most about these conversations is the lack of ambition and leadership inherent in this view of our role as a nation in addressing what the majority of the worlds scientists, governments and banks now call "the greatest threat humanity has ever faced."
Blinded by our own frustrations we have created a national conversation that is limited, black and white – and that it is simply far less than we are capable of as a nation.
Yes, we need a strong economy, but numerous reports from our own National Roundtable on Environment and Economy, and more recently by the Global Commission on Environment and Climate, have shown us that we can build a strong economy while reducing climate pollution. Inaction will actually be more expensive as we deal with impacts like extreme weather down the road.
It's true, while Canada's emissions are growing, they are still small compared to other places. However, protests around the world are not taking place because of Canada's current emissions but because, if the majority of the oil sands were developed, the emissions from that oil would be so voluminous that they would destabilize the climate. At a point in our history when the majority of the world's international institutions are calling for 2/3 of the remaining carbon reserves to remain in the ground, Canada is increasingly being seen as sitting on a carbon bomb.
We need a plan. We need a government willing to seriously address the issue of oil sands development in the context of a stable climate. We need leaders who put their minds to transitioning to a renewable and more efficient industrial model while maintaining a strong economy.
A plan just doesn't seem like to much to ask for.
Instead we have seen our government shut down climate research, put in place policies that preclude our own scientists from communicating their findings, remove environmental laws designed to protect our air and water and attack environmental charities and even create an 'enemy list' of those who ministers must not meet with because they do not 'share the goals of this government'.
Canada's carbon emissions will soar 38 per cent by 2030, mainly due to expanding tar sands projects, according to the government's own projections – even though Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick would all see declines in emissions.
Refusing to allow members of the public to mention climate change in the National Energy Board pipeline hearings doesn't make the issue go away. Spying on First Nations leaders and taking them to court will not help us reconcile and plan for the future.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's mismanagement of the oil sands and climate issue is hurting us and making us a villan internationally. The only silver lining is that his belligerence and obsession with oil sands expansion at all costs, is fuelling a growing, powerful and diverse citizens movement.
Canadians need a break. We need to stop having pipelines pushed down our throats. We need to heed the scientists call for a moratorium in oil sands development, take a breath and make a plan of how we can support our economy and all of the workers currently dependent on oil sands development while ensuring a safe climate. We need to plan for how we can capture more of the burgeoning hi tech and clean tech markets and scale up vehicle and building efficiency so that as prices rise in a carbon constrained world we are helping families spend less on energy. It will not be easy for us to ensure a just transition to a clean economy but it is possible.
This weekend I am going to New York to the People's Climate March with thousands of other Canadians. And yes, in the end, I'll be bringing my flag. Because I'm proud of our history of leadership – even if we are in a dark time now.
A country is more than its government or its industry. A country is its people.
On the streets of New York I'll be walking with Canadians who have hope. Who believe Canada can be, again, a real global leader. People who belong to new citizens' movements. First Nations people standing up for their land. People who won't be silenced.
Look for us.
We'll be waving our flags daring to hope for a country that makes us proud again.