WE ARE SPENDING THIS WEEK UP in northern Ontario, volunteering at an autism camp for kids, once again learning of our own limitations and the remarkable young lives, with the support of family, that battle autism every day.
Yesterday we celebrated Canada Day ensconced in natural wonders – lakes, trees, fish, a riveting lightning storm, and beautiful sunsets. We spent the afternoon at a small town fair, celebrating the holiday. It’s the Canada we envision at its best.
But something’s not quite right. Water levels are off. Wildlife is growing confused as it adapts to new patterns. Climate change is not only altering the landscape but also challenging its inhabitants. We all sense it, yet as citizens we can’t just adapt; we must overcome, refining our lives to tackle the deeper problems of climate change – ourselves. We are content with saying it’s government’s responsibility. They take our tax money; why can’t they fix it?
Well, that’s precisely the point: they aren’t, at least federally. Neither would it be a simple fix even if the political structure took it seriously. Ultimately, the sense among the political elite is that it would be suicide to attempt anything serious because it would require legislation to teach how to consume and deal with our waste differently, and it would require a new taxation scheme of some kind to reflect our seriousness about the planet. We can appreciate Justin Trudeau’s recent announcements regarding tackling climate change. Other political parties talk about it as well. But the proof will be in whether they challenge us to sacrifice for a better world and whether they are prepared to live with the consequences of perhaps alienating a generation if voters remain trapped in a world of inaction.
But that’s politics; what about citizenship? People in the Netherlands could have used political inaction as an excuse, but they instead did something remarkable – they sued their own government. Yes, you heard that right. Scientific consensus by researchers in developed countries concluded that emissions would have to be cut by 40% by 2020 if the world was to contain its temperature increases. The Dutch government responded by announcing it would implement a 14% to 17% cut relative to 1990 levels. Then the unthinkable happened.
A group of 900 citizens brought a lawsuit against the Dutch state, saying it was time to get real, and that the government reductions still endangered the planet and violated their human rights in the process. They based their case on science, not merely political pressure. And they won, with the court concluding that the government would have to cut 25% of emissions. What had been a two-year effort by citizens ended up having the judge in the case conclude:
“The state must do more to avert the imminent danger caused by climate change, also in view of its duty to care to protect and improve the living environment.”
As one lawyer said: “This is the first time a court has determined that states have an independent legal obligation towards their citizens.” As some surmise, this might be the beginning of a chain reaction, where citizens, taking heart from their counterparts in the Netherlands, come together for the sake of the future of their own children to take their respective governments to court.
Canada is one nation especially vulnerable to such a challenge. A consistent laggard at global environmental conventions, Canada is also a significant contributor regarding fossil fuels. One would expect the federal government to be more sensitive to all the criticism, but it isn’t, likely because it believes citizens will never come forward in enough numbers to create the context for change. In the Netherlands, however, it just took 900 concerned citizens to make that shift. As they discovered, while they might not have support in government, they discovered validation in the courts.
Perhaps a dedicated effort on our part, showing that harm is being done and that the feds aren’t reacting sufficiently could be a way of opening the door to a more enhanced democracy and a more empowered environmental community at the same time. Many Canadian groups are advocating for more action. Perhaps the time has come to back them in the courts and save our future in the process. Jonathan Campbell wrote, “When the north wind blew across the tar ponds, voices were carried away.” It’s time to summon them back.