The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: climate change

Canada-U.S. Relations: Rising Tides

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CANADA VISITS THE WHITE HOUSE this week and behind all the glitz and glamour naturally produced by two leaders who effectively know how to work a crowd are issues that will take a lot more than popularity to address. We’ll consider some of these in the next few posts, starting with perhaps our greatest challenge.

Both Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama got lots of press at the Paris climate change summit last November. They got along well and agreed the time had come to raise the game between the two nations regarding climate change. The buzz from the agreement still moved through the streets of the great French city when I was there in January.

But while all this is going on, environmental decline is picking up pace whether or not some kind of effective global response can be worked out. World leaders were reminded of this in Paris when they got a quick briefing on sea-level rise. In a little over a century (1901 – 2010), the level of our oceans climbed roughly seven inches. Things have changed so dramatically that it has become difficult to predict what the next 100 years will look like.

The last time our planet reached the levels of warming it has today – roughly 300,000 years ago – sea levels rose 20-30 feet. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the planet is now reaching similar temperatures by 2100. The Panel concludes that within the next 100 years sea levels will rise 3-4 feet. Unknown is what will transpire when the West Antarctic ice sheet melts. The best guess is that water levels will rise 11 feet if and when that happens.

That’s a small portion of the data, but the real issue will become the human cost. Columbia University professor Maureen Raymo put it bluntly: “I don’t think 10 years ago scientists realized just how quickly the potential for rapid sea level rise was.” The effects on places like the Florida Keys or Chesapeake Bay will be devastating, but the ultimate tragedy will play out in the developing regions of Asia, Africa, Central and South America. The United Nations estimates that some tens of millions of climate change refugees will be the ultimate result of people who can no longer live in their historic coastal homes and who, with precious little resources, will begin to move across borders in search of security and survival.

Every day we have witnessed the pressure placed upon European nations of refugee numbers out of control. Serious as it is, the appearance of millions of Syrian refugees on the world scene is only a harbinger of what will arise once the environmental refugees begin to make their migrations.

In perhaps a sad bit of irony, Trudeau and Obama will enjoy a state dinner and numerous other formal venues at the same time that a significant citizen revolt is underway in both the Democratic and the Republican parties – people have had enough. Canada, while hardly pushed to the political extremes experienced at present by their southern neighbour, nevertheless voted for their own desire for change only a few months ago. But unless the two administrations can move quickly into emergency mode, everything runs the danger of image without substance.

Both political leaders are overseeing a political estate in various levels of turbulence and must confront the economic devastation of global capitalism that is about to be matched by environmental devastation. This is not the time for mere policy discussion between two neighbouring friendly nations who just happen to share the largest unprotected border in the world. If we can’t get it together, all the silverware, photo ops, and political bargaining will come to mean little.

We are facing the greatest challenge of this or any other time, with climate change threatening our very survival. As both capitalism and the environment create such massive fallout, it is time for friends to become compatriots in the task of saving democracy and the planet in these most precious of moments.

No doubt the Obama-Trudeau gatherings will be a photographer’s dream, but something serious, really serious, must go on behind the glitter. Best to follow W. Somerset Maugham’s advice: “When you choose your friends, don’t be short-changed by choosing personality over character.” The time for serious work is upon us.  That’s what friends do in times of seismic challenge.

Christmas and the Art of Making Goodness Attractive

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WE AREN’T FORCED INTO DOING GOOD. Nor are we legislated or coerced into performing a kind act for others. Rather, we are inspired into it. It might be a holiday song wafting through a favourite store, a Salvation Army kettle attended by a citizen, seeing our kids start decorating the tree, watching a favourite holiday movie, or standing silent as a family looking over a manger scene in our local park – all of these moments, and so many more, arc us towards kindness, generosity, to be more accepting, even committed to being a more compassionate people. But somewhere along the journey we encounter others who call out the best in us and we end up being better as a result.

And whether we can explain it or not, we receive more impulses in this direction during the Christmas holidays than at any other time of year. Images and music abound – presents, family, singing, neighbours expressing their best wishes, lights, shopping, giving, and receiving. But back of even all that comes a simple challenge that prompts us to get outside of ourselves and, for a brief time at least, move in a more aspirational direction – “Peace on earth towards those of goodwill.”

Let’s be honest: our world isn’t as we would wish it to be at the moment. All the death, terrorism, flooding, poverty, political division and economic dysfunction have created within us the sense that whatever isn’t right in our world isn’t improving either. None of this do we feel we can control.

We continue to put up with practices that we now believe aren’t helping us – dysfunctional politics, capitalism without jobs, devouring the natural order, the underperformance of institutions. We have kept rationalizing lesser evils, hoping they’ll somehow add up to the greater good. But in the end it’s all just bad math and we know it.  At some point we have to say “no” to all the compromising and just live for the good of others.

Yet into this world comes this irrepressible attractiveness towards that which is good. It remains within us despite a darkened sky and it comes to shine during the holiday season. For reasons not fully known to us we prove willing to see the world through a child’s eyes, and in such moments the potential to see the world as we wish it to be gets easier. Families grow closer, neighbours get friendlier, and communities embrace an extended sense of compassion. Yes, there are the hurts and difficult memories, depression and misgiving, but overall we as a people trend more effectively towards the hopeful.

When the problem’s of the world’s life, huge in their reach and complex in their workings, weigh upon our collective conscience, we nevertheless possess the ability to move out from under such shadows towards hope. Repeatedly, we encounter Canadians who inspire us to sacrifice, to accept something new, to give back, to forgive, and during the Christmas season we see such actions more than any other time of year. It’s not merely magical but motivational, and we become better, even if only for a season.

Across Canada there are people who are upping their game, living lives that extend beyond their normal carefulness.

Faced with her final Christmas, Holocaust victim Anne Frank witnessed evil unlike anything the world had ever endured. Despite that, she looked around her at the remarkable acts of courage and kindness by average people under great strain and wrote in her diary: “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” Her hope didn’t reside in her freedom but in her values and she elevated the world by holding on to her values until the end.

All that is asked of us is that we live for what we believe in and seek to extend it beyond Christmas to the entire year, and beyond our immediate lives to the entire world. Such is the remarkable allure of goodness. Such is the genius of Christmas.

It All Comes Down to Cities

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FOLLOWING EXTENSIVE NEGOTIATIONS a deal emerged among 190 countries regarding climate change and the very future of the planet. Almost immediately opinions pro and con erupted in every venue imaginable. The average citizen can be forgiven for experiencing difficulty as to the truth of the summit’s success in Paris this past week.

Nevertheless, there are some aspects of the climate change response that have been clearly successful, with progressive track records that still spell hope on the file. I speak especially of cities. While the accomplishments on carbon emissions of a number of nations have been mixed, cities around the world opted to act long before the Paris summit. Following the dismal failure of the 2009 Copenhagen summit, municipal leaders took the initiative when others dropped the ball.

All this is important, since as much as a third of carbon budgets will be determined by decisions that municipalities themselves will make. That is no small thing and while sovereign nations now begin the process of deciphering how to meet the loose targets they committed to, many of their key cities have been moving along that path for years, and decades for some.

Increasingly it appears as though cities will be the staging areas for any great global response to climate change. Think of most great challenges before us – immigration, refugees, the renewal of capitalism, citizen engagement, political reform, and many more – and their chief field of operations will be in our civic centres. It makes sense, not only because of their population density but since they provide the majority of the on the ground services required by citizens.

But there’s more. Research from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate reveals that a group comprised of fewer than 500 cities will be responsible for some 60% of global economic growth and 50% of greenhouse gas emission increases in the next 15 years. Cities are already forming the front line in humanity’s struggle with climate change.

It’s now clear what is happening: for nations to develop an effective environmental response, they must undertake the process of following their cities. Again, that makes sense since city mayors have already undertaken over 10,000 climate change actions in recent years.

Yet there is another reason for civic action that is rarely mentioned. Between 2005 and 2013, cities have absorbed the vast majority of refugees. Recent research enforces this reality.

  • Manila (Philippines) presently houses 70,000 refugees.
  • New York city is attempting to support 60,000 – 22,000 of which are children.
  • Mexico City holds 20,000.
  • The cities of India are attempting to resettle some 23 million.
  • San Francisco hosts 10,000 refugees.
  • Rome is challenged by the 70,000 living within its boundaries.

At present, over 100 million people are homeless in our world, the majority of them in our cities. The United Nations estimates that 1.6 billion exist without adequate housing. These are huge numbers and they are increasing, mostly in our municipalities.

In other words, cities have a vested interest in taking the lead in climate change action for the simple reason that they will be absorbing the terrible consequences of failure. “Cities are the greatest creations of humanity,” says author Daniel Libeskind. They could also be the beach upon which we ultimately perish. More than the Paris summit, our hundreds of cities will determine whether we can submit ourselves to the natural order that sustains us.

Election 2015: Is There a Climate for Change?

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I WROTE A COLUMN FOR THE London Free Press last weekend about the current refugee situation and its implications. There were a number who wrote in afterwards expressing interest in the following observation from that piece and asked for some additional information on environmental refugees:

“How will we handle the rise of climate-change refugees in the coming years? Cutting the UN number projections in half would still see some 100 million refugees a year migrating around the globe over the next decades.  Added to those fleeing their homelands due to conflict and we begin to grasp the seriousness of the task ahead of us.”

Many asked why this hasn’t taken higher priority in the federal election campaign, especially in light of the recent crisis. That’s likely because political parties are aware that the investments required to battling climate change would dwarf whatever actions were taken on helping those forced to flee their homelands due to environmental degradation.

The International Red Cross has claimed that there are easily more environmental refugees than political refugees. The last year a detailed report was taken on this issue, some 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009. An increasing body of evidence is leading to the conclusion that by 2050 we could see that number climb as high as 200 million. And that will be a catastrophe for the entire planet. The implications on politics will be huge, and yet here we are in 2015, and it barely raises a ripple.

Rising sea levels, already a reality around the globe, are due to increase significantly, endangering people on coastlines and forcing them to move. Bangladesh will lose 17% of its land by 2050 due to flooding by climate change. Some 20 million refugees could be created in that nation alone.

Louisiana loses 65 square kilometers of land to the sea each year, endangering populations along the coastline.  Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, rises only 2.4 metres above sea level at its highest point. It is possible that in the next few years all 1200 islands in the Maldives will be underwater, forcing scores of refugees to take ship and do their best to make it to other nations.

And then there is drought – a reality that is increasingly creating inland environmental refugees. China’s Gobi Desert now expands more than 3600 kilometers every year. Residents in the Horn of Africa region have only a few years left before they must begin moving their families to other nations just in order to survive.

So, this is likely what’s coming. If the Syrian refugee situation is presently taxing the globe’s ability to respond, how will we handle the millions more about ready to emerge? Environmental refugees aren’t protected by international laws, and therefore have fewer protections than their political refugee counterparts. Many of these will move to other places within their own countries if they are able, but an ever-increasing number will begin pouring across borders and inevitably onto the front page of world attention.

Without question, the greatest issue involving this, or any other, election around the world are the implications of climate change and their inevitable economic, social, ethical, and political effects. Why, then, in the midst of what many regard as an election that could signal a public desire for change, does the issue of climate change itself capture so little of the campaign rhetoric or the public attention?

Victor Hugo made a revealing claim way back in 1840: “How sad to think that nature speaks and mankind doesn’t listen.” With the current refugee crisis we have demonstrated the collective ability to take note of catastrophic effects. We must now lift our sights even higher and press our political candidates to give us something better than mere bromides on the climate change challenges that are coming. Should we fail in this task as citizens, we can’t solely shift the blame onto past political failures. Much of that indictment will land closer to home.  The waves are coming and we must get our candidates to absorb and respond to the implications.

“Election 2015: The World is Watching”

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“WHAT WOULD BE THE POINT,” Jesus asked his generation, “if you gained the whole world but lost your soul in the process?” It was a timely reminder, but there are increasing numbers of Canadians who wonder if their country might be in the process of losing both.

There’s no better time than an election to focus on what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost. While it seems like everyone is focused on jobs, the middle class, debt, and taxes at present, we need to remember that a world is watching and that the stakes are higher that just the domestic arena.

Former Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark has provided a timely reminder of just what our nation has lost in the past few years. His new book, How We Lead, comes with a certain sense of urgency. “There is a clear disjuncture between Canadians and this government on foreign policy,” he writes, reminding his readers that Stephen Harper “aggressively narrowed” our foreign policy to two issues: trade and military action. He goes to considerable pain to remind us that our history of adroit diplomacy, peacekeeping, and the hearty support of international institutions has been largely swept away in favor of narrow-mindedness, rigorous ideology, belligerence.

“Canada possesses a palpable identity … Our characteristics as a country – diverse, respectful, constructive, modern – are significant assets abroad,” Clark notes. But those days are ending as the Harper government uses diplomacy, development, and defense as wedge issues that serve to divide constituencies at home and abroad.

Clark’s observations found support on the weekend from an article in the New York Times titled, “The Closing of the Canadian Mind” – an article we’ll return to in a later post. Written by Stephen Marche, a novelist and writer for Esquire Magazine, who happens to live in Toronto, the article opens up with a frank declaration:

“The nine and half years of Mr. Harper’s tenure have seen the slow-motion erosion of that reputation for open, responsible government, cloaking himself and his Conservative Party in an entitled secrecy, and the country in ignorance.”

Ouch, and yet it’s true. We might choose to ignore it, but leaders and parliaments around the world know that Canada has changed, and narrowed in its interests. Contacts that this author has nurtured over the years in the international cooperation and development field confirm this repeatedly, with leaders both in the diplomatic and development communities expressing their desire for the day when Canada returns in respect to the family of nations.

Yet that might not prove as easy as we think. Joseph Hall noted that, “A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack is.” Our nation’s present reputation as a more mean-spirited and narrow version of its former self has already had debilitating consequences, as when we were turned down for a spot on the UN Security Council, or the global shaming we repeatedly face for how we avoid effective action on climate change. Whether one agrees with such actions or not, the effect on the global community has, and continues to be, chilling. Harper’s recent decision to close down the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), through which most of our international aid and development dollars were channeled, has only made things worse.

Now that the government’s commitment to military exploits is in decline, it was perhaps inevitable that the Harper government would be called out repeatedly for how it treats its returning veterans. With military actions now sidelined, all that is left for this present government is its voice in the economic arena, and even there it is losing its reputation for prosperity mixed with social responsibility.

It is likely that most citizens around the world are hardly aware of this country’s decline in stature. Yet for those individuals and organizations Canada must partner with in numerous fields around the world, the wish for this nation to return to its previous exploits in diplomacy, foreign service, international development, and, yes, an economic policy that takes into account our global responsibilities, is more poignant than ever. They are waiting for us to show up again on the world stage, but first we Canadians will have to show up in the ballot box.

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