Letter to Canadian MPs

The letter I’m sending to MPs aims to remind them that 1) climate change is an existential threat; 2) they have the power to act while the people they are charged with representing do not and 3) Canada’s current policy on this issue is an abysmal failure.

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Dear [MP name goes here],

In the fall of 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report on the differences between 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming.  They found that declines in crop yields would nearly double at 2 degrees and that coral reefs would be 98% wiped out.  But we are not on pace for 2 degrees of warming.  We are on pace for greater than 3 degrees of warming.  That much warming will collapse nations, our global food system and perhaps civilization itself.  How resilient will our international trade system be to a massive rise in famine and war?

What happens in Canada and around the world in the coming years will impact human history for thousands of years to come and you are in a position to determine what that impact will be.  You have the power to save or abandon future generations in a way that I do not.  I have no interest in hearing about the weak policies you or your party are peddling.  This is not like other political problems which can be covered over with pleasant window dressing – you can’t fool physics with slick communications.  Emissions must come down rapidly.

The UN now says emissions must fall by 7.6% EVERY YEAR to keep us close to 1.5 degrees.  And that is every country, not just Canada.  If countries like the US and Australia fall behind, we must cut faster or pressure them to do better.  In Canada, this means getting conventional vehicles off the roads, it means increasing fuel standards, it means changing building codes and retrofitting buildings, it means changing what we eat and reducing the number of flights we take.  We must do all of those things and more.  According to our own government data, Canadian emissions have basically held steady since 1999 when the science and our own promises to the international community say they should be declining.  We say they will come down, but we have no policies to ensure that.  We have a carbon tax, but MunichRE (one of the world’s largest reinsurance firms, not an environmental NGO) is calling for a carbon tax of 8X our current level.  The United Nations Emissions Gap report finds a terrifying gap between countries stated emissions goals and their sum total plans for fossil fuel production.  We are part of this problem.  There is no way our Paris pledges and the National Energy Board’s projections can both be fulfilled.  As our elected representative, it is your job to at least tell us the truth.  If you support the National Energy Board’s plans, then be honest and tell Canadians that we cannot meet our international obligations on emissions reductions.  A report by the group Climate Transparency says Canada is among those countries least likely to meet our own weak Paris targets.  Keep in mind that even if we do meet our Paris targets we are looking at greater than 3 degrees of warming.  I am not citing sources in this letter, because you should already know all this.  This is publicly available information about the most important issue of our time and it is your job to guide us safely into the future.

I have sent this same letter to members of parliament in every political party because this issue should transcend party affiliation.  It also transcends nations and ideologies.  It is a historical fact on a scale that makes most of our present cultural institutions irrelevant.  Either we overcome this challenge and build new institutions or we do not and all our present institutions will either collapse or cling to power with increasing desperation in a dangerous and hostile world.

The changes we need are immense.  And they will be shocking to some people.  But in many cases they will make things better.  Reducing air pollution and increasing walking and cycling will make Canadians happier and healthier and bring down health care costs.  Shifting our diets towards plant-based proteins will do the same.  Protecting our environment will be a meaningful step towards reconciliation with the Indigenous people whose land we have seized control of.  Reducing travel abroad will benefit local hospitality industries.

The first thing you can and should do is tell the truth about our climate crisis.  For the most part, the general public does not know how much danger we are in or how little success we have had in reducing emissions.  Being honest with them will help build support for policies which might seem extreme otherwise.  During World War 2, Canadians pulled together to meet a seemingly insurmountable challenge – we grew victory gardens and invested our savings in war bonds.  We could do that again, but we won’t if our government doesn’t tell us the truth.  News and government announcements about the war dominated all media streams.  We will need a communications effort on that level if we are to meet this challenge.  I beg of you, if you do nothing else, please stop crowing about trivial successes on the environment and tell us the truth about our collective failure to act.

Sincerely,

Matthew Lie-Paehlke

A frightened father and despondent Phd Candidate

P.S.  I assume that letters like these are read by staffers not MPs.  In that case, you do not have as much power to make things right as your boss does – but you have more power than I do.  Your responsibility to future generations is greater than your responsibility to your boss or your political party.  Research this issue for yourself.  Be careful to avoid fossil fuel industry propaganda.  Then do whatever you think is right.  I for one would have a long emotional talk with my Member of Parliament about the climate crisis and what we can do about it.

Climate Message Challenge

We need to talk more about climate change.  I am consistently surprised by how little people know about the topic.  Even people who recognize the problem are surprised to hear how dangerous our situation is.  They know about sea-level rise, but not about food system collapse.  Others know about the danger, but think our international treaties have things under control.  And those who DO know how big the problem is are often despondent because they don’t know about the solutions that already exist.  They don’t know that we can build houses without furnaces (!) or absorb some of our emissions through rewilding.

With politicians, I’m honestly not sure if they don’t understand the severity of the problem or if they’re lying to us because they think that’s what we want to hear.  Either way, they need to hear from us about this issue much more often.

Climate Challenge

We need to talk to politicians, but also with friends, neighbours, family members and coworkers.  Unfortunately, it’s awkward.  Some people don’t feel informed enough to call their representatives.  I know I have not communicated with my representatives as often as I should have — and I’m a climate activist!  Others don’t like bringing up such an emotional topic with people they have to interact with every day.  I definitely talk more freely with people I have identified as friendly audiences.  We’re launching the #climateconversation challenge to help people get over the hump!  And because we know some people communicate better in writing we are letting you choose if you want to take on a #climatecallchallenge or a #climateletterchallenge.

  1. Write a message or take a picture of yourself with either the #climatecallchallenge or #climateletter challenge hashtag;
  2. Post it on social media with a brief explanation of the challenge;
  3. Commit to making one call or sending one letter for every share you get!;
  4. Challenge a few friends to do the same.

If you’re worried about the time commitment, you can set a cap (max twenty letters or whatever).

Write your letters or make your calls anytime in December.  Or January, we’re not the police.

Of course we recommend you approach the challenge a little differently if you’re contacting politicians or acquaintances.

For politicians, we recommend you communicate

1) the severity of the crisis and

2) Canada’s failure to live up to our own international pledges (https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/canada-climate-action-1.5355517).

And don’t be afraid to let your feelings show through.

With friends, neighbours and coworkers, we recommend you engage with questions and emotions.  Tell them how you feel about climate change, tell them what you’re doing in your own life, ask them what they know about the issue.  Start with a lot of listening and build the conversation with sensitivity, as though you were talking about a death or an illness.  Don’t hide from the emotions that will inevitably emerge — bringing them out in the open will make them feel more manageable.

If you’re sending letters to politicians, print them and mail them instead of emailing.  You can send the same or similar letters to different politicians.  Postage to Members of Parliament is free.  If you’re writing letters to people you know, try writing them by hand — these days it’s so unusual to receive a hand-written letter that you will surely get their attention.  You can also write up a letter to neighbours and drop it in all the mailboxes on your block.

If you want to sign-up click here: SIGN UP.  Or you can go rogue and post it without even registering (you rebel)!

Now get out there and talk climate!  The future depends on it!

 

Who’s to blame for Climate Change?

There is a simmering debate in the climate community about who’s to blame for climate change.  Is it the people burning fossil fuels or the people pumping them out?  There isn’t really a good answer to this question because our individualistic concept of ‘blame’ can’t cope with a society-wide problem like fossil fuel consumption.

Luckily, Iris Marion Young’s Social Connection Model of Justice provides a better framework for analyzing the issue — and it also provides us with ideas about how to move forward.  Iris Marion Young wasn’t writing about climate change — the example she used in her essay was sweatshop labour — but the theory is useful in any complex system where ‘agency’ is murky.  If you like reading political and moral theory you should read the original article — Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model (2006) — if not, stick with me and I’ll hit you with the highlights and show you how it applies to the climate crisis.

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A 2017 Guardian article about a report by the Climate Accountability Institute has become something of a meme in the climate community.  We often see tweets saying things like “100 companie are responsible for 71% of emissions, but I’m supposed to give up plastic straws.”  The problem here is neither the article, nor the report — both of which highlight important data — the problem lies in our culture’s binary idea of ‘responsibility.’

The people making those tweets are rightfully angry because they are feeling ‘blamed’ for their modest personal emissions.  They prefer to blame the big companies — which is fair — those companies had much more capacity to prevent this crisis.  But, as we dig deeper, contradictions begin to emerge.  People want companies to take all the blame.  They want corporations — or perhaps executives — to be punished.  And I have certainly had my vengeant moods and moments as well.  I often dream of designing a climate criminals playing card deck so that, when society collapses, we will all know exactly what the traitors look like.  But does punishment get us out of this mess?  This is the real value of Iris Marion Young’s model — it is forward-looking, instead of backward-looking, and it focusses on healing rather than punishment.  Let’s take a moment to examine how many distinct components are packed into a seemingly simple concept like ‘blame.’

MAYBE THE PROBLEM HERE IS OUR IDEA OF ‘RESPONSIBILITY’

Our judicial system — based as it is on the dichotomy of 100% guilty and 100% innocent — gives us a distorted notion of blame.  In the case of climate change, there is clearly a spectrum of responsibility.  When we see that responsibility is shared, we also see that a fossil fuel executive’s culpability doesn’t absolve others.  But responsibility is also different from guilt — just because you are ‘responsible’ doesn’t mean you are guilty and need to feel ashamed.  It only means that you have to work to make things better.

Young offers us a new model of responsibility and highlights five differences between her model and what she calls the ‘liability’ model.  We will dig into each of these distinctions a little bit — but it is the first one that is most relevant to the debate within the climate community.

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1 – ISOLATING vs. Not Isolating

“The liability model of responsibility seeks to mark out and isolate those responsible, thereby distinguishing them from others, who by implication are not responsible.” (Young, 2006, p.116)

This aspect of the liability model is at the root of debates about who is responsible for climate change.  When people are asked to take responsibility for their consumption — they react defensively because they are used to thinking that if they take responsibility, the oil companies will be let off the hook.  And they are not entirely wrong here, the focus on individual consumption and consumer choices is often used to deflect blame and distract us from the need for systemic change.  But a more nuanced notion of responsibility allows us to see that there is room for both individuals and corporations to share the burden of remaking our entire world.

2 – ASSUMES A BACKGROUND OF JUSTICE vs. Judging Background Conditions

“The liability model considers the process that brought about the harm as a discrete, bounded event that breaks away from the normal flow.  Punishment, redress, or compensation aims to restore normality…” (Young, 2006, p.120)

Putting Exxon executives on trial might provide emotional resolution for some, but it will not solve the climate crisis.  Nor does it address the fact that those executives were under pressure to expand their companies at any cost and would have been replaced if they had slowed their company’s growth for environmental reasons.  Looking at the full system and considering how individuals are limited in their choices by structural pressures allows us to see a deeper, more widespread, injustice in our system.  Judging background conditions lets us see that there is a systemic pressure pushing executives to do the wrong thing.  Although they bear some responsibility, they were pushed into making bad choices by the structure of society as a whole.

3 – BACKWARD-LOOKING vs. Forward-looking

Saying #exxonknew feels good.  But it doesn’t solve our crisis.  The liability model of justice is focussed on the past, it wants to know exactly who did the wrong thing and when — but a social connection model justice is more interested in the question ‘what should we do now?’  Any trial of Exxon should focus less on executives who made bad choices forty years ago and more on what Exxon can do right now and in the future to make things right.  Stopping the ongoing misinformation that fossil fuel companies are pumping out is important than naming and shaming those who did it first.

4. INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY vs. Shared Responsibility

When a shopping mall collapses, the liability model seeks to determine which individual failed to do their job.  Did the owner hire an engineer to do safey checks as required by the law?  If so, did the engineer do their job with sufficient care?  In all likelihood, the owner followed the letter of the law, but subtly pressured the engineer to find the building sound.  And perhaps the engineer’s medical debt made it difficult for them to step away from the contract even though they were aware of an inappropriate pressure.  An injustice as large as climate change is a tangled web of injustices — environmental racism, colonialism, toxic masculinity, ratings pressure on journalists, marketing, consumer culture, our own addiction to comfort — the list goes on and on… arguing about which factor is the ‘most important’ is counter-productive.

5. DISCHARGED THROUGH PUNISHMENT OR COMPENSATION  vs. Discharged only through Collective Action

This, for me, is the most profound difference between the liability model and the social connection model.  Whereas the liability model seeks to balance out a discrete injustice in the past through a trick of moral accounting, the social connection model simply seeks to make things better and asks everyone to lend a hand.  If Exxon executives knew, how can they work to reduce the impact of their poor choices?  On their own, they can’t do much — but the corporation which employed them and profitted from their immoral decisions still exists and is still damaging our environment. A social responsibility model of justice would look to redirect Exxon’s resources towards reducing the impacts of climate change.  And if doing so would put them out of business, a social responsibility model would examine how we might change laws and economic systems.

SO WHO IS TO BLAME FOR CLIMATE CHANGE?

“All persons who participate by their actions in the ongoing schemes of cooperation that constitute these structures are responsible for them, in the sense that they are part of the process that causes them.  They are not responsible, however, in the sense of having directed the process or intended its outcomes” (Young, 2006, p.114).  But Young is also careful to point out that her model does not necessarily mean that all who share responsibility have an equal responsibility.  The power to influence the processes that produce unjust outcomes is an important factor that distinguishes degrees of responsibility” (p.125).  For Young, our responsibility is directly proportionate to our capacity to make things right.  So people are right to laugh off accusations that their straws are killing the planet and executives are right to point out that they would merely have been replaced if they tried to reduce oil production.  But an executive like Rex Tillerson clearly has more power than I do — he could have — and should have — gone to congress and asked for the whole industry to be better regulated.  Indeed, he should still do so today because his influence is still quite large.  As Young says, “the difference of kind and degree correlate with an agent’s position within the structural process.” (Young, p.126)

If you remember only one thing from this discussion of responsibility, remember this: searching for someone to blame is a waste of our time when we have such a difficult task ahead of us.  Instead, we should be asking who has the power to make things right, who is impeding progress on these problems and how can we engage those most responsible for this crisis in the work of building a better world.

Iris Marion Young’s essay was focussed on sweatshop labour — she examined the defensiveness with which people buying clothes reacted to protesters highlighting the inhumane working conditions in sweatshops.   Those “ addressed hear themselves being blamed for harms. More often than not, agents who believe themselves to be targets of blame react defensively: they look for agents to blame instead of themselves… in situations of structural injustice it is easy to engage in such blame-shifting or excusing discourse because in fact others are also responsible and there are in fact structural constraints…” (Young, 2006, p. 124).  Shifting blame around in circles will get us nowhere.  Your diet or transportation choices don’t mean you are to blame for climate change, but yelling at corporations while you continue to consume doesn’t make things better either.  Young takes the complexity of this problem very seriously, she recognizes that each of us is in a unique structural position, we have certain freedoms and certain limits — and her conclusion is that we must each make ourselves aware of injustices, work to fix them and justify our own behaviour to ourselves.  Only you can know if eating meat allows you to remain healthy enough to do important organizing work.  Only you can determine if the benefits of attending a conference outweigh the harm of the flying — but we all have to accept some responsibility for this crisis and decide what actions we can take to make things better.  The moment we all accept our shared (but not equal) responsibility for this crisis and stop trying to shift the blame is also the moment we will start to make real progress.

The path to climate justice starts with each of us examining our participation in the system, studying what structural factors make it hard to change, and getting to work organizing new structures — perhaps virtual conferences or community gardens — that make it easier for you and those around you to make better choices.  And yes, sometimes protesting outside big banks will be part of that systemic change — because banks, governments and fossil fuel companies have more capacity to fix these problems than we do as individuals — but we should protest in a way that highlights our shared path forward rather than simply heaping blame upon them and then wiping our hands.

The Return of Climate Picnic

Our third climate picnic will be the MOST RELAXING yet!  You are not emotionally prepared for this level of RELAXATION!

We will have the same crystal juggler who wowed kids at the first event and some of the same musicians — plus new friends!

The focus will be on making crafts and plans for the global climate strike on September 27th, but we will have representatives of lots of other climate groups there to chat as well.  Please BRING YOUR OWN CARDBOARD for sign-making!

And there’s a public ping pong table there!  How cool is that.

Sunday, September 22 – Stanley Park (890 King St. West) – 11am-2pm

This event is B.Y.O.Picnic

 

Low-Carbon Luxury – 5 – Be Where You Are

If you’re new to the Low Carbon Luxury Series, start here.

Would you rather be somewhere else right now?  Does simply reading that question make you enjoy being where you are a little bit less?

In a previous installment of this series, I wrote about finding the intrinsic value of experiences rather than ceaselessly comparing them to other possibilities.  But our modern economy thrives on comparison.  Deleuze and Guattari (1987) argue that the rise of money as a “general equivalent” allowed wealth and work, which once had qualitative meanings, to be tallied numerically.  The more things are on the market, the greater the field of profit.  If we find someone who will raise our children for less per hour than someone else is willing to pay us for our skills, we can increase our savings.  Quantitative comparison means that anything could just as easily become something else and this tendency pushes our society towards meaninglessness.  If we are always looking elsewhere we do not see what is right before our eyes.  That is why the final tenet of low-carbon luxury is to simply be where you are.

Investors don’t want us to stay put.  They want a “flexible” labour market.  They want to trade one thing for another as smoothly as possible.  Economic geographers (E.g. Coe, Kelly & Young, 2013) write about the ‘friction of distance’ impeding this ideal of instant exchange.  They highlight the difference between absolute distance and relative distance in cost and time.  Air travel reduces relative distance.  Computer technologies reduce relative distance.  They work to make everywhere the same place at the same time.  Capital strives to conquer time and space in order to make ‘frictionless’ exchanges — but time and space are where we live. 

Living means being where you are.  The ‘friction of distance’ is actually the specificity in which meaning is forged.  Being where you are means appreciating your neighbourhood, your city and your local environment.  It means delighting in seasonality.  It means never pretending that the world and the weather do not exist.

Shipping things across the world over night; building highways to rush us through a once-great city in a matter of minutes; designing franchises that can be replicated anywhere; flattening hills for residential developments; flying to the tropics in the winter — these all reduce ‘friction,’ but they also obliterate reality.

Think for a moment about the joy of a snow day — a very particular day, encapsulated in cold.  Why do we invest so much money and fuel into clearing our roads as fast as possible?  Why can’t we just stay home once or twice a year?  Especially when so many of us dread the repetitiveness of our careers, the endless sameness that swallows up years of our life and leaves nothing but an RRSP in exchange.  Working less and living more is also a climate solution, because a slower economy burns less energy.  And if we measure value in terms of meaningful moments, a slower economy will also likely produce more value as well.  So let’s take a snow day when nature asks us too.  Make hot chocolate.  Read a book.  You can go to work again on Wednesday.

Insisting on travelling the same route at the same time of day in the same vehicle for an entire year is crazy.  Think of all the time and effort and municipal taxes we pour into clearing snow for our cars.  Indigenous people just put on snowshoes and walked on top of it.

Being where you are means delighting in the seasons instead of denying them.  In general, this will also save us energy.  In the summer – make a salad with local tomatoes for dinner and give your oven a rest.  In the winter, bake root vegetables, knowing that your oven is doing double-duty and taking a little strain of your gas furnace.  Respecting seasonality also means you will pass on the flavourless imported tomatoes that clutter up our grocery stores all winter – saving yourself for the rare joy of a local heirloom tomato.  Respecting the seasonality of the harvest intensifies the pleasure of eating because waiting an entire year for certain delicacies makes them that much more glorious when they finally arrive.

Perhaps the most insidious and absurd denial of seasonality is our contemporary insistence that indoor temperatures should be 22 degrees all year round – such that many people are too hot indoors in the winter and bring sweaters to the movies in the summer.  Use your furnace, use your air conditioner – but let the temperatures fluctuate with the seasons.  Enjoy the coziness of sweaters in the winter.  Wipe your brow with a damp cloth in the summer.  This will also allow your body to actually get used to the season and make going outside less startling in both summer and winter.

Being where you are will also strengthen your connection to your neighbourhood.  Walking will let you see all the little gardens and shops and unusual trees just around the corner.  If you go for regular strolls, your relationships with the people in your neighbourhood will evolve from glances to nods to waves to full blown conversations and maybe even friendships.  Cultivating things takes time and cultivating the place where you live is no different.  If you drive off in the morning and roll into the garage each night you will have a home, but not a neighbourhood.

If you’re not in a hurry, take a moment to appreciate this dance performance by BBOY CLOUD, a businessman misses his bus – and realizes how much beauty he was rushing past.

 

 

Driving in and out of your neighbourhood for every single errand can also impact other people’s friendships.  Take a look at this fascinating chart of friendship between neighbours compared to volume of vehicles.  If you feel like you never have time to go visit friends – perhaps it is because they are all so far away.

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Donald, A., Gerson, M. S., & Lintell, M. (1981). Livable streets. Berkely/Los Angeles/London.

Donald, A., Gerson, M. S., & Lintell, M. (1981). Livable streets. Berkely/Los Angeles/London.

BEING WHERE YOU ARE draws together many of the other tenets of low-carbon luxury.  Certainly, working less and living more is a good way to give yourself time to get to know your neighbourhood.  Being mindful helps you to appreciate the little things.  And simply appreciating what your neighbourhood has to offer instead of comparing it to Vienna or Tokyo will help you develop your attachment – and all the interwoven layers of meaning that grow out of nurturing a sense of place.

Staycations can help you to love where you live.  Last winter, my wife and I spend a few days downtown at the Royal York; we ate out and pampered ourselves and swam in their pool and forgot it was winter.  And now, whenever I’m at Union Station, I see the hotel and recall that vacation fondly, those memories are nestled into downtown Toronto in a way that a tropical vacation never could be.  Even a space as dull and utilitarian as the PATH now has a certain luxurious resonance that it didn’t have before.

Staycations save money and reduce our carbon footprint, but they also colour our understanding of our hometown or province.  They help us to be where we are.  If you discover a perfect new restaurant during your staycation – you can go back again in a couple of weeks for a Friday night excursion that carries you a million miles away.

And as more of us choose to turn inwards for inspiration, instead of always looking abroad, the more residents of our city will get a chance to shine.  Think for a moment about what would happen if we spent as much energy and money supporting local sports as international leagues.  Imagine, instead of the Raptors, we had ten teams from different neighbourhods competing throughout the year.  Instead of supporting a couple hundred millionaires across North American – professional sports could pay a couple hundred people a generous, but not outrageous, salary in every single city.  Ten times as many athletes could live the dream of going pro – and we would see these men and women in our local coffee shops and restaurants or taking their family to the park.  And the cross-town rivalries would be even more delicious than national rivalries.  This same increase in equity could be achieved in the arts and other fields – instead of creating global superstars, we could nourish a deep field of local heroes.

Instead of Drake’s scorching sun circling the CN tower, blotting out all the other stars, a hundred local rappers would also get their time to shine.

 

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We Did it!!

Thanks to your ridiculously generous support, we’ve signed a contract with Pattison Media and we will have one 100 climate crisis posters on the TTC! When we launched, raising $10,000 in 17 days seemed absurdly ambitious — but we’re in the ‘try everything’ camp when it comes to climate action, so we tried.

AND YOU RESPONDED!  Keep an eye out for your ads starting on AUGUST 5th.

You can read more about the thinking behind the ads here: https://climatepledgecollective.org/climate-crisis-ads/

Help us put Climate Crisis ads on the subway!

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We have a plan to put ads on the TTC that tell the truth about our climate crisis.

We have a graphic designer willing to do the design for free!

We have a loose concept — simply sharing hard-hitting climate facts that are being under-reported, such as the water crisis in Chennai.

We have consulted with lawyers to make sure we won’t get caught up in election finance laws.

We have consulted with Pattison Media about pricing.

We just need you to kick in a few bucks or share it with your friends.

So please donate now!

We are aiming for $10,000, which will get us one ad on almost every train for a month. At $5000 we could run the campaign, but with considerably fewer ads. It seems like a lot, but we already raised over $2000 almost without trying — because everyone seems to love the idea and people have been very generous!