Talking About Climate Change in the Wake of Disaster

Canada is on fire. Fort McMurray is not the only place, but certainly the highest profile. The Manitoba-Ontario border is also burning, and there are hundreds of smaller fires across the country. My heart goes out to those who have been displaced by this; I can only imagine how difficult it must be, and I’m so glad that so far nobody has been killed (that I know of). For those who have lost everything, or who are living in a state of suspense and uncertainty, hang in there; help is coming from across the country, and while it can’t replace everything you’ve lost, I hope it will help you get through the day to day until you’re in a place where you can find a path forward. Right now your safety and basic needs are your highest priority, and deeper conversations can wait.

For the rest of us, we’ve already waited too long to have frank discussions about the way that anthropogenic climate change contributes to disasters like this. Drought and temperature fluctuations and wildfires are all natural, but these are unlike anything we’ve seen – except in the climate change literature, which suggests that we should have been expecting this sort of thing. Why didn’t we?

We’ve moved beyond the debates of the last decade, about whether or not climate change is even real or whether or not humanity has contributed to it through burning fossil fuels. Sadly, once that debate died down it appears that our attention on that issue died down too. Despite the big deal of the Paris climate conference, climate change was almost entirely absent from the 2015 federal election campaign; without controversy, it apparently isn’t worth talking about. Rather than agreeing that it’s real and doing nothing about it, we should have seen party leaders comparing plans to address it, including plans for disaster relief. We did not, and now governments are scrambling.

Now the issue is thrust back under our noses, but talking about climate change during this time of crisis is deemed insensitive. When Elizabeth May brought it up in Parliament – the one place in the country that should absolutely be taking a systematic approach to the issue rather than merely offering platitudes and prayers for those affected – she was attacked for her insensitivity and lack of tact. CBC’s The 180 asked “How soon is too soon to talk about climate change?” The only way that talking about climate change in the middle of a disaster that clearly has climate as a contributing factor can be construed as insensitive, I would argue, is if we see it as a blame game – that is, Canada has a nasty energy politics that pits Alberta against the rest of the country, and it has distorted our ability to have necessary conversations.

Imagine if a fire in a garment factory that killed hundreds of sweatshop labourers didn’t come with a discussion about workers’ rights. Or if the explosion of a chemical factory in Bhopal that resulted in severe poisoning of the local population for generations didn’t make anyone ask questions about the safety of those chemicals. Or if we didn’t talk about the safety of deepwater drilling during the BP oil spill. Or if we didn’t talk about climate change in the aftermath of a tsunami or hurricane. That would seem crazy, wouldn’t it?

There are some key misunderstandings or perceptions that drive this crazy situation.

First, the idea that oil extraction – and those who make a living from it – in Alberta is somehow more responsible for climate change than the rest of us driving our cars and heating our homes. Yes, they have higher emissions than us because of the energy it takes to extract the oil, but we’re the ones buying it. We are all complicit in climate change, and we will all face its consequences at some point. Some people have expressed a sense of irony or even satisfaction at the idea that climate-change fuelled forest fires might wipe out Canada’s oil industry; that’s grossly inappropriate, and it fuels the false conflict between Alberta and the rest of the country because it makes Albertans defensive.

Second, the idea that Albertans have to defend themselves from the rest of the country. They do not: Canada stands together. This false conflict is fuelled from both sides, and it needs to stop. But what some Albertans have wrong is that they feel that defending themselves and defending their employment is the same thing. It is not. It is possible for all of us to be critical of an oil economy, even if we work within it and profit from it. Albertans may profit from it directly, but we all profit from it indirectly, even as we are the ones burning oil. We who are critical of the oil economy do not stand outside of it to throw stones; rather, we are trying to work within our system to make it more sustainable. We are not anti-jobs, we are working to promote solutions that offer more jobs and less environmental impact. We do not want you to lose your jobs, we want you to have long-term jobs that don’t depend on the global oil price set by other oil producing nations.

Third, the idea that the current wildfires are a single and personal disaster afflicting Alberta. They are not. Instead, they are another symptom of climate change, one part of an ongoing disaster. When we say that it is insensitive to talk about climate change as the cause of the fires because there are still people displaced by them, we neglect the fact that there are people displaced by climate-change fuelled disasters around the world. This is not at all an isolated incident. People around the world suffering from floods and droughts and hurricanes that are escalating in severity and frequency are not afraid to say that this is climate change in action, so why are we holding this particular instance apart? By doing so, we are being insensitive to all who suffer from climate change – that we are somehow separate from the world, and that we do not suffer with them. There is incredible strength in solidarity, and we’re missing out on it by keeping ourselves out of that conversation.

So while the people of Fort McMurray can focus on making sure their day-to-day needs are met, knowing that they have the support of their country, the rest of us should absolutely be having the conversation about climate change. Aside from how we can directly help the victims of current wildfires, we should be talking about how to prevent the next ones – which means taking a hard look at our own consumption, economy, and policies. A lot of Albertans will be starting over after this; let’s start over with them.

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Agreeing or Being Agreeable? Partisanship vs. Opposition

It’s been a while since I’ve responded to Ted Falk; there hasn’t been much to say about his recent posts, except that they’re more or less exactly what an MP should be writing about. He’s telling us what the government is up to, and how it affects us here in the riding. He’s recognizing volunteers and veterans, announcing new services, and even putting out calls for proposals for new programs and events. Well done, Ted! I love to agree with what Ted is doing, though I often find it difficult to agree with what the Conservative government is doing. If I seem critical here, it’s because I’m supposed to. Allow me to explain.

A coworker recently told me that he really doesn’t like Elizabeth May. I was surprised; she’s always struck me as being the most positive, gracious, cooperative politician around. But my coworker pointed out that she disagrees with whatever the Conservatives say or do, and his perception of her is that she is a negative person who can’t bring herself to agree with anything. Ted Falk, on the other hand, has a very high opinion of Elizabeth May: he knows her both personally and professionally, and both likes her and is impressed by her work ethic and collegiality. But he admitted to me that he thought it would be nice if she agreed with the government more often.

My coworker is reacting to negativity and perceived partisanship in politics, and that’s good – our political system has become far too partisan and combative. Some people react to attack ads, for example, by becoming cynical about the whole political process and refusing to participate. (That’s actually quite deliberate: the Conservative campaign strategy is to alienate and suppress non-Conservative voters, using the same strategy the Republicans used in George W. Bush’s elections). Other people respond to negativity by just wanting everyone to cooperate and get along for a change. That’s more admirable than tuning out and refusing to vote, but it’s not a recipe for good legislation or an accountable government.

Agreeing vs. Being Agreeable

Ted and my coworker would both like Elizabeth May (and undoubtedly the rest of the MPs in the opposition) to agree with government legislation and policies rather than always arguing so passionately against them and pointing out their flaws. If she were to do so, she would be utterly failing in her job as an MP in the opposition. This is because our government is an adversarial system: one party (or a coalition) writes legislation and attempts to pass it, while the other parties, who have less power, pick it apart to ensure that it’s actually good for Canadians. The role of the opposition is to find the problems with a bill (and no bill is perfect) and point them out, and hold the government to account when it begins to overreach. The Senate has the same function. The reason we have this system is because we want to ensure that no individual person, party, region, or class has absolute power to act in their own interests at the expense of all Canadians.

So when Elizabeth May argues passionately against a government bill, she’s doing her job. She’s still friendly with MPs from other parties, and still supports them as people even when she doesn’t like their bills; and she still tries to work together with others whenever possible. She’s agreeable. And when I pick apart Conservative policies and Ted’s columns here, I’m doing mine. I want to represent you in Parliament, but until I’m elected the best I can do is try to keep Ted sharp and on his toes to ensure that he’s doing what’s best for you. This doesn’t mean that I dislike Ted, or that I don’t agree with anything he says on principle. That would be partisanship.

Partisanship is when a representative from one party opposes representatives from other parties simply because of their party affiliation. It’s a refusal to cooperate, putting the interests of the party ahead of the interests of Canadians. The role of disagreement in Parliament is supposed to be a refining process, altering legislation bit by bit before it is passed in order to make it better. Partisanship undermines that role, because it causes MPs to refuse to hear each other’s suggestions and ideas regardless of how good or bad they are. Partisanship takes an oppositional process of refining legislation for the good of all and turns it into a power struggle, or as a “team sport.” The trouble with this view is that politics is not a game: it’s our lives, our society, our ability to create a better world by working together.

Refusal to work together is being downright disagreeable. I would rather work with someone I generally disagree with, than refuse to acknowledge someone I might agree with because of who they are or who they represent. And I have no problem saying that Ted’s political communications lately have been good, even though I think some of the things he’s been communicating aren’t as good (lapel pins and certificates for veterans, after the dog’s breakfast this government has made of actual services for veterans? I don’t know if lip service is better, or worse, than nothing – if you want to help veterans, restore the services that were cut!). If Ted were in a position to actually represent his constituents rather than being a back-bencher in a party that controls his vote, and if he were using his position to argue for long-term sustainable policies and programs that benefit Provencher, then I’d be working with him. There are many places where Ted and I could see eye to eye, and I’d love to hear him say that his party is willing to compromise, to work with others, or even to allow for proper debate and amendments to the legislation they ram through Parliament. We’re willing, but cooperation is a two-way street.

Who’s agreeable?

The Green Party has consistently invited the other parties to work together toward shared goals. In regard to democratic reform, we invited the other parties to work with us toward instituting proportional representation in Canada; they refused, not because they don’t want proportional representation, but because they don’t want to cooperate to get there. There was even a leaked NDP memo telling NDP MPs that they could not even read the letter on this subject that Elizabeth May sent to them. There have been calls to cooperate on many other issues, always with similar results.

We’ll continue to try to work with the other parties to create a better Canada, even if on the surface that looks like we’re opposing them. What we won’t do is refuse to hear an idea because of who’s saying it, or band together as a “team” in order to try and “win.” We’re all Canadians, and we’re all in this together – but agreement has to start with being agreeable.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

Jeff Wheeldon

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