The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: climate change

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.

After the Voices Are Gone

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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.

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