The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: climate change

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.

Public Good Without the Facts

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WHEN ALLAN GREGG DELIVERED THE Knowles-Woodsworth lecture at the University of Winnipeg 18 months ago, his speech created much introspection on where Canada is going. Yet the well-known pollster, television interviewer, and political pundit, began with who were are as a people before launching into his concerns of who we might become.

He spoke of how we were a nation of facts, data, progressive thought, and directed by research for public policy decisions. Such dependence on evidence-based data and relevant statistics had served us well for decades, helping Canada to stand somewhat apart from other countries through its unique balancing of social justice and economic health.

But no sooner had he said that than he got to nitty-gritty: “It seems as though our government’s use of evidence and facts as the bases of policy was declining, and in their place, dogma, whim and political expediency was on the rise.”

Using the termination of the Statistics Canada long-form census by the Harper government, he asked a practical question: “How could you determine how many units of affordable housing were needed unless the change in the number of people who qualified for affordable housing? How could you assess the appropriate costs of affordable housing unless you knew the change in the amount of disposable income available to eligible recipients?” These were vital questions every community across the country required answers for, but the feds had removed the main resource whereby we could acquire the information required to respond with effective public policy. The termination of the census, he reasoned, “amounted to an attempt to eliminate anyone who might use science, facts, and evidence to challenge government policies.”

Then Gregg took a deliberate turn into history, reflecting on how civilization would inevitably take steps backward the moment ruling elites suppressed knowledge from getting to citizens. “The subversive power of the flow of information and people has never been lost on political and religious tyrants. This is why they suppress speech, writing and associations and why democracies protect these channels in their bills of rights.”

The list of key public servants fired by the present government is now lengthy and acknowledged. The suppression of scientific voices, and the requirement of such voices to first have their facts and speeches vetted by the government public relations office has now become so glaring that even voices from around the globe have wondered why Canada, of all places, has chosen to emasculate its own conscience and intelligence in such a fashion. It takes all of 30 seconds on Google to verify that there is a huge body of evidence on this political suppression.

I especially appreciated Gregg’s observation on how this has affected our political life together, wondering whether government’s forcing a false division between reason and morality, “might be responsible for the shrill, callow and uninspirational public discourse that takes place today.” Just sixty seconds in Question Period would seem to answer that question with some sense of clarity.

Allan Gregg quoted Mahatma Gandhi strategically in the middle of his speech by reminding his audience that such false divisions were what often pulled houses of faith into decades of ineffectiveness: “A religion that takes no account of practical affairs and does not help to solve them is no religion.” We understand his implication: any government that refuses enlightened research and information from its citizens in order to maintain power is no government.

Yes, government panhandlers will argue vociferously against this, and opposition parties will concur outright with Gregg. But these parties aren’t the ultimate arbitrator or judge on such matters. And as vital as the voices of science and information are, they are not what will fully convince us that something is amiss in Canada. For that, we only have to live a little while in our own minds to understand the implications of all this. We know politics is in decline. We are aware that citizens feel left out of their own collective fate. We live with the effects of climate change every season and marvel that no imagination or sense of urgency emanates from Ottawa. We feel angst because we are aware that poverty is growing and that small businesses keep getting passed over for the big firms with clout and influence.

We know all this already – more scientific voices or data will only confirm what we already sense. If Gandhi was correct when he said that,” we are the change we have been seeking,” then fewer things can drive change as effectively as a people who know in their heart of hearts that we have lost our way as a nation due, in part, to manipulation by government. We don’t require more data to know we must alter our path; we need citizens who will bring their own lights of conscience to overpower the shadows cast by partisan urges of the political order. To create change, it’s not more science that we need, but average citizens willing enough to put already established facts over the political establishment’s fictions.

 

 

 

Can Technology Save Us?

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SO MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN ON THIS SUBJECT for 30 years that it’s become something of a preoccupation for many. But let’s just answer the question directly: no, technology can’t save the world – at least not alone.

But there is potential, lots of it. Everything is in the process of being “connected” to everything else, people too. Almost 90% of the data in the world today has been created only in the past two years. In only five more years, 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet. The advances in DNA mapping and bioinformatics will turn humans into living data fields to be researched, monitored, and perhaps made healthier. Data in general will grow ten-fold in the next five years, to 44 trillion gigabytes.

And there’s an even deeper pool to draw from in the near future. Almost 99% of the data in the world today is what is termed “dark matter” – information that hasn’t been processed in a way that allows the knowledge and insights within that data to benefit us. That’s likely to change soon, however.

Just this bit of information alone would definitely lend credibility to the claim that technology has powerful potential to affect our future, just as it’s increasingly shaping our present. Yet the deeper we get into the digital domain the greater our challenges seem to become – advances in technology haven’t translated into mitigating climate change, reducing poverty, minimizing conflicts, or winning the battle for human rights.

Queen Noor of Jordan recently wrote about how this disconnect between technological advancement and our progress toward our highest aspirations will eventually stall civilization unless we link moral progress to the other advancements. She rightfully notes that technological progress without moral progress is merely an illusion of progress. She then lists a string of issues going on in our world where we seem unable to create change for the better.

“To go forward, to write a narrative of real and lasting progress, we must go back,” Noor says. She doesn’t mean turn back the clock, but to re-embrace the values we seem to have laid aside in our collective pursuit of wealth and comfort. “We must return to the roots of our common humanity and to the universal values that connect us to each other,” she adds. It’s an odd situation that just as the world is more connected digitally than it ever has been, we are in danger of growing too far apart from one another.

Marc Benioff echoes her sentiments. He’s the chairman and CEO of Salesforce and a pioneer in cloud computing. For all his accomplishments, he’s worried that, “Technology alone isn’t enough to improve the state of the world.” He understands that technology and public policy are two different things and that without proper progressive legislation all the digital advances won’t help us over our steepest obstacles. He singles out how governments have cut back drastically enough in research that we are falling behind in our efforts to solve our deepest woes. In both the United States and Canada, public funding for basic research and to universities  has dropped dramatically and we’ll pay the price for it at some point.

Benioff wonders how such advanced societies that develop and take advantage of the great strides in technology could possibly accept growing poverty at the same time, or how, given the clear damage caused by climate change, governments and citizens seem so enamoured by their technical devices to the detriment of the natural order. He’s a business leader who refuses to see the bottom line as his sole purpose. He writes like a pioneer in business with a broader awareness, as when he says,

“An environment in peril – oceans rising an average of 3.2 millimetres per year – is not good for business. Millions of people lacking in educational opportunity is not good for business. More than 200 million unemployed people worldwide is not good for business.”

Benioff’s solution? “Technology innovation, married with a more compassionate capitalism and civic engagement, has the potential to address these problems in the next decade and make the world a better place for us all.”

No, technology cannot save our world unless it is partnered with conscientious leadership and citizenship commitment. Thanks to modern technical advancements we have the tools; now all we need is the will to use them for the service of the human race and the planet.

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